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Edward Willett Interview

Edward WillettEdward Willett is the author of over fifty books, including the Aurora-Award winning science fiction novel Marseguro, the sequel, Terra Insegura (now together in an omnibus edition called The Helix War), the steampunk Magebane (as Lee Arthur Chane) and the upcoming fantasy Masks (as E.C. Blake) which is out November 5th.

How would you describe Masks and its trilogy?

The Masks of Aygrima (that’s what we’re calling the whole trilogy) is the story of a girl born into a society that is strictly controlled through the use of magical Masks that every citizen over the age of 15 must wear at all times when in public. The main character, Mara, is torn from her privileged life when she turns 15 and her Masking fails and, thanks to her unique magical gifts, becomes the key to overthrowing the ruling tyrant, the Autarch…but only if she can avoid falling prey to the corrupting, destructive influence of the magic she wields, which could make her a worse monster than he is.

Your protagonist, Mara, is an adolescent girl, which makes it seem like it should be aimed at the YA market, but much of the plot is definitely not for the young. How hard was it to strike this balance, and why did you write the story in such a way?

I certainly hope YA readers won’t be put off by the fact Masks isn’t being published as a YA book. I actually disagree with you about the plot definitely not being for the young: maybe not the very young, but anyone who is reading The Hunger Games or Divergent or some of the other many gritty YA books out there won’t be uncomfortable with what’s in this trilogy.

But at the same time, I wrote Masks as I would write one of my adult science fiction or fantasy novels, without making any attempt to make it more accessible to young readers by changing the language or plot, so I hope adult readers will also be engrossed in the tale I tell.

As to why I wrote the story this way…Masks was originally conceived as a single YA book, not necessarily intended for DAW. When DAW decided it wanted to take it on, it became longer and more complex, but the very nature of the central idea dictated that the main character would be a young person.

My hope is it will be a crossover book, one both teens and adults will enjoy equally.

Masks (cover)Where did the idea of doing a magical variation on the Orwellian surveillance state come from?

Well, the idea of magical masks came from a decorative mask I picked up at some costume ball or other that’s hanging in my bedroom. As for the Orwellian aspect of it…there’s a theme I find running through a lot of my fiction about individuals fighting back against tyranny. Governments of every stripe are all about control, and all governments, unless checked (at the ballot box, in our system; with bullets in less fortunate places), drift toward seizing more and more control over the lives of their citizen, always for the very best of reasons, of course: security, safety, etc., etc. In Aygrima, the government, in the person of the Autarch, has found the perfect control system…or almost perfect: because individuals have a way of undermining even the most controlling states. All governments drift toward tyranny, but there are always those who fight back: and sometimes, they succeed.

How much of the supporting characters’ histories do you have mapped out?

I don’t do detailed character histories up front; I tend to figure out their histories as I go. But by the time the book is finished, I know a great deal about them!

What can we expect to see from Shadows when it comes out?

In Shadows, the plot is set in motion by the arrival of an unexpected visitor from beyond the sea. Mara learns more about her power, but at an awful personal cost. Many things are destroyed. And a new, powerful force takes the stage.

Is that sufficiently vague, yet satisfying? 🙂

Many of your books—Spirit Singer and Right to Know are the most recent—come out of small presses. What differences have you noticed between working with small presses and DAW, one of the major ones?

Right To Know (cover)Small presses move faster. Right to Know went from Hayden Trenholm, editor at Bundoran Press, emailing me to say, “Have you got any manuscripts you could send me?” in December to an edited, rewritten, published book in August. DAW takes many more months. Tyche was similarly quick (but of course that’s a reprint, so there was no rewriting to speak of).

On the other hand, with a major publisher you can go into just about any bookstore and find your book actually on the shelves for browsers to discover. Small presses don’t have that level of distribution (although online distribution has bridged that gap somewhat).

Magebane takes place in a secondary world, but the setting is explicitly modeled after our home province of Saskatchewan, right down to the description of the Legislature and the lake around it. How did Saskatchewan work as a fantasy world?

I got a real kick out of doing that, and I’d say Saskatchewan worked out really well. One of my pet peeves in fantasy fiction for a long time has been descriptions of cold places that just don’t seem cold enough, where they stumble through a howling blizzard without proper hats and gloves and although they’re really cold they don’t suffer any ill-effects. Well, in Saskatchewan we know that on a really cold day you couldn’t stumble very far at all without proper attire before risking frostbite and hypothermia. So I wanted to use a cold place and make it properly cold.

Wascana Lake and the Legislative Building made a great model for the Palace and its decorative lake and bridge, and the Qu’Appelle Valley was the logical place for Lord Falk to have his estate. There was probably a bit of wish-fulfillment involved in the Palace/lake setting, since in Magebane it’s all enclosed in a magical dome that keeps it always springtime inside, even when winter rages outside. That dome, if it really existed, would enclose my house. Which would be very nice indeed. 🙂

Of course, I only used Saskatchewan as the basis for the fantasy world. We don’t have an enormous lake in the middle of the province (that would be Manitoba) and we also don’t have towering mountains and a lake of lava in the north…more’s the pity.

You have plenty of YA books, including Tyche Book’s Spirit Singer and Coteau Book’s upcoming Shards of Excalibur. Do you have a preference between YA and adult books?

Marseguro (cover)I always thought I’d be a YA writer, so it rather surprises me I’ve had more success with adult novels. I started writing when I was 11—my first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot”—and I wrote four novels in high school. One of those had an adult protagonist, but the others had teens as the heroes, since I was one myself (a teen, not a hero). As I grew older, my protagonists tended to stay the same age!

Even Lost in Translation, my first adult novel, has a pretty young protagonist, and Emily Wood in Marseguro and Terra Insegura is barely out of her teens. Magebane has young protagonists, too. So I guess in a sense I’ve always got a bit of a YA flavor in my stories, even when they’re published to the adult market, with Masks going the furthest down that road so far. And when I do get to write a purely YA book—as with the Shards of Excalbur series—I think I enjoy it even more.

Where did the idea of gene-bombs for The Helix War come from?

It seemed to me that if memories are, as they must be, physically encoded in our brain structures, you might be able to write new memories into someone’s brain—even change their personality–by modifying brain cells to produce the necessary proteins.

I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons that couldn’t work, but it seemed like a neat idea to me!

You finished the first draft of Shadows, the sequel to Masks, in approximately one month. How do you get so much work done in a day? What tips do you have?

Magebane (cover)I’ve always been a fairly fast writer: on first drafts, I can do better than 1,000 words an hour. On Shadows, I was averaging three or four hours a day of writing. The book came in at about 90,000 words. You do the math: one month, one novel.

I don’t have any tips beyond sit down and type. Every writer works differently. I like to bang out the first draft and then revise it. Some like to spend more time shaping the text as they go, which might mean it takes longer to write the book, but at the end of it, there’s less rewriting to be done.

You do such varied writing–in addition to novels, you’ve got musicals, plays, advertising, and plenty of non-fiction. Do you have any difficulty in moving between them, or is it more of a refreshing change of pace?

Put me at a keyboard and I can write (well, once I get past the initial inertia of looking at Facebook and tweeting and checking email and…). I have no difficulty moving between different types of writing; never have. I just enjoy some types more than others!

You were a writer-in-residence for the Regina Public Library, and a creative writing instructor for a teen workshop. How does teaching writing in such a way influence your own work?

I enjoy teaching in part because it forces me to analyze my own writing: how I do it, why I do it, what I think works and doesn’t work. And I enjoy working with young writers in particular because I know how much it would have meant to me when I was starting out to have the opportunity to learn from an established writer.

Also, in the process of finding writing resources for students, I find more writing resources for myself!

Besides the typical ‘read a lot and write a lot’ what is the best advice you can offer people interested in a writing career?

Terra Insegura (cover)Have another source of income. That sounds flip, but it’s true. Someone told me, when I became full-time freelancer, I might not actually have as much time to work on fiction as I imagined because I’d be too busy trying to find any old kind of writing-related work just to pay the bills, and that’s been the case too often. If you’re lucky, you might get to the point where you don’t need that other source of income, but most writers never do.

I guess you could boil that down to “be realistic.”

The other advice: be patient. I wrote at least ten novels before I sold one, and even then I wasn’t patient enough: that first novel was sold to a publisher offering a sub-standard contract that seized way more rights than I should have given up. Or to put it another way, I wrote novels (counting high school) for twenty years before one saw print, though I had a few short stories published sooner than that. But I never gave up: I just kept writing, and eventually, good things happened. If I’d thought, “I’ve tried this for a decade and haven’t gotten anywhere,” you wouldn’t be interviewing me now.

So patience is a virtue, and so is pigheaded stubbornness, I guess. As Stephen King (I believe) put it, “Anyone who can be discouraged from writing should be.” I did get discouraged, but never to the point of quitting. And I’m glad I didn’t. Hopefully some readers are, too!

What to date has been the highlight of your writing career?

That would have to be the winning of the Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English in 2009 in Montreal. (For Marseguro, the first half of The Helix War duology.) CanCon, the Canadian national convention, was held in conjunction with WorldCon that year, which meant that Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert of DAW were both on hand to see me win (and Sheila, who’s my editor, has never let me forget I was so shocked I failed to thank my wife and daughter in my speech!). Also, Robert J. Sawyer (whose SF writing class I took twice at the Banff Centre, and in one of whose classes Marseguro was born) kissed me after I won. How many authors can say that?

I really wish the award hadn’t been announced by Ed the Sock, but you can’t have everything.

We’d like to thank Mr. Willett for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us today. Masks, is due out November 5th. You can learn more about Mr. Willett’s work on his webpage or follow him on Twitter.



  1. […] Ryan Howse (Fantasy Faction) with Edward Willett Interview […]

  2. […] There’s a great interview with me (under my other name) at Fantasy Faction, which begins with a discussion of Masks, part of which I’ve excerpted below: […]

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