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Jennifer Williams Interview

Today 2014 MAR Jennifer Williamswe have the pleasure of speaking with Jennifer Williams, author of the debut novel The Copper Promise. Jennifer originally self-published the first part of her story as a novella and then had the full length novel picked up by Headline. If you missed it, you can read Fantasy-Faction’s review of The Copper Promise here, but for now, on with the interview!

Hi Jen! Ok, to get started, in about 100 words can you quickly tell us about your new fantasy novel, The Copper Promise?

The Copper Promise is a fantasy adventure about a pair of sellswords, Wydrin Threefellows and Sir Sebastian Carverson, hired to explore an infamous forbidden citadel by the arrogant and vengeful Lord Frith. They blithely ignore some of the wilder tales about the place, only to find they’ve unleashed a terrible force on the world, and they probably won’t even get paid to sort it out.

The Copper Promise was originally self-published before being picked up by Headline. Can you tell us what that experience was like? What have you learnt about both approaches to publishing a book?

The Copper Promise - Ghosts of the Citadel (cover)Well, actually only the very first section of The Copper Promise was ever self-published – I originally wrote a short novella called The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel and popped it up on Amazon to see what would happen. That then became the opening section of the book. To put it in perspective, that part is about 20,000 words long, while the book is roughly 150,000 words, so that’s about 13% of the whole thing.

I did it originally because I had a few short stories out in the world, but nothing much longer than that, and I thought it would be fun to do a series of self published novellas; they would be fast paced and fun, written purely for the joy of it. I didn’t do an awful lot of planning or spend much time thinking about how it was going to work (typically disorganised of me) but two things happened when I put the novella up on Amazon – firstly, a number of people seemed to really enjoy it, so much so that I had a couple of queries from people interested in reading the complete thing, and secondly I fell very seriously in love with the characters. I realised that rather than being a quick, just-for-fun project, this was something really important to me, and with the full manuscript I was lucky enough to sign with my amazing agent Juliet Mushens, which led to the book being sold to Headline. It was all rather unexpected.

So really my experience with self-publishing is quite short, although I would say that the self-publishing community were incredibly helpful and supportive – I received lots of advice, which was invaluable to an author who didn’t really know the first thing about marketing a book.

The Copper Promise was originally serialised in shorter novellas. What made you take that approach? What are some of the positives and negatives you found with it?

Originally the plan was to write a series of novellas, and when it came to writing the whole book it just seemed natural to keep that structure. For one thing, it kept the pace zipping along nicely, and it allowed me to drop in more than one cheeky cliff hanger. Headline also chose to serialise the release of the ebook, so I still got to hear from people who read the book in its original form, which was really fun.

The main difficulty with structuring the book this way was that each part had to have its own story resolved, whilst also moving the main story forward. The structure of a big fat fantasy book can be tricky enough without also splitting it into four parts, and I will admit that at times I would have cheerfully flung the entire thing into the sun, but in the end I think it was worth the trouble.

The characters in your book are fantastic (particularly Wydrin) – they’re a lot of fun, and their interactions feel so natural, whether it’s the good guys or the bad guys. Do you tend to approach a story with the characters first? Do you have a favourite character/who is the most enjoyable to write?

The Copper Promise - Children of the Fog (cover)They were all fun to write in their own way: Frith because he’s the sort of character who can cause a great deal of trouble for everyone else in the book and doesn’t care about the consequences and Sebastian because he was easily the most challenging. Wydrin though seemed to step fully formed onto the page, and I knew who she was immediately. I keep finding myself having this conversation with people where I shake my head in a slightly stunned fashion and say, “Wydrin just happened.”

I think there must have been a need, deep down inside me, to see a female character in a fantasy book that I would really like to go for a drink with, and that’s where she came from. I really wanted to have a female character who did not exist as a love interest for the male character, or as a reward or a catalyst, but as her own unique person, with her own desires and problems. I never have to worry too much about her dialogue, as her voice is so clear, and she gets all the best lines. She is undoubtedly a joy to write.

In this case, the characters definitely came before the story. It’s the sort of cheesy thing writers say that I would normally roll my eyes at, but much of The Copper Promise was me shutting up and listening to what they had to say. It’s definitely their story.

The Copper Promise has a kind of old-school sword and sorcery, D&D adventure feel to it. Do you read/play a lot of those kinds of stories? What are some of your favourite aspects of those tales?

The Copper Promise - Prince of Wounds (cover)My deepest, darkest secret as a fantasy author is that I’ve never played Dungeons and Dragons (I did once attend a LARPing weekend, but I suspect that my drinking half a bottle of white wine and running around the woods all night doesn’t count). When I was a kid I was just too incredibly shy to do something that involved actually speaking to other people, although I have always loved that sort of gaming from afar; I would steal my brother’s Fighting Fantasy books to look at the scary pictures, for example, and I have spent a lot of time painting miniature models of dwarves and then not playing with them.

In the last few years I became unhealthily obsessed with the Bioware videogame Dragon Age: Origins. Dragon Age is amazing for many reasons (if you haven’t played it yet GO!) but I adored how it took stuff that was very familiar from old school fantasy, and gave it a fresh spin whilst also treating the genre with enormous affection.

I’ve always loved sword and sorcery though, with Fritz Leiber and Terry Pratchett being big influences. Leiber’s tales of Lankhmar are full of humour, suspicious characters, and wild, strange magic – your heroes don’t necessarily have heroic intentions, which was always an attractive counterpoint to Tolkien (who I loved but in a slightly different way, I think).

And are there any particular tropes or clichés that you deliberately tried to avoid or turn on their head?

I wanted to embrace the tropes and make them fun again. I get the impression sometimes that books with dragons and taverns and dungeons in are starting to be considered a bit cheesy, and I thought that was a shame because I still love all that stuff. So very deliberately I wanted to write a book that had all of those elements, but was also sharp and a bit more self-aware. There were a few tropes that I wanted to tackle head-on, particularly the depiction of female characters – there’s a scene very early on that contrasts Frith’s expectation of what a female adventurer would look like and the belching, leather-wearing reality of Wydrin – and the nature of the honourable knight, although that one is more spoiler-laden for various reasons.

It feels like in modern fantasy, nowadays, it’s unusual to find a book as fun as yours, and yet there is a lot of darkness in it too. Did you find it a challenge to balance those two aspects?

The Copper Promise - Upon the Ashen Blade (cover)As much as the book is concerned with magic and monsters and banter, it was always important that the dangers the characters faced were quite real ones, with the potential for long lasting damage. The book opens with Lord Frith being tortured just after his entire family have been murdered, and that experience drives him to some very dark places, all of which are essential for the book. I think it’s possible to have serious, life-changing events co-existing with lighter moments; after all, human beings are known for their tendency to make jokes in the face of disaster, and without that streak of humour characters become less real to me.

In your acknowledgements you thank quite a few other fantasy authors for their support. In what ways has talking to other authors helped, and how much do you feel there is a supportive community of writers out there for debut authors?

The SFF community has been hugely kind and supportive. People like Tom Pollock, Kim Curran and Den Patrick, who shared advice and gossip over the busy tables of the Royal Festival Hall, or Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gav Thorpe, who were fellow guests on my first proper panel at EdgeLit – both very gracious and kind to the newbie. Adam Christopher, who I have known for an alarmingly long time now, was there at the beginning to kick my bum into gear and even introduced me to my agent. The genre community has taken a lot of stick in recent weeks, and as a debut author it’s possible to worry that you will be unwelcome – you represent one more book to compete against, after all – but I have found it to be an enormous source of kindness and support. If I had a piece of advice for any writers just starting out, I would say get out there and start talking to your colleagues, be that at conventions, online, or just down the pub, because they will teach you so much.

If books were party guests, there would be the kind that discuss fine wines with each other on the balcony, the type that tell inappropriate jokes to the host’s mother, those who smoulder quietly from the bar, or who sit and babble to themselves in the corner. What kind of party guest would The Copper Promise be?

The Copper Promise (cover)Ha! The Copper Promise would be the guest who turns up late with only the most dubious of invites, immediately spikes the punch, and then proposes a 3am trip to the Fried Chicken Shop. That’s mainly Wydrin’s influence though.

And finally, can you give us any spoiler-free hints for what’s to come?

The Copper Promise dealt mainly with the type of magic used by the mages; in book 2, we get to see quite a bit more of the second type of magic, the magic that is inherent in the world itself. Our heroes travel to an entirely new part of the world, with all new dangers and secrets, and quickly discover that all is not what it seems. It’s still largely concerned with magic and monsters, bravado and banter, but it’s also a slightly darker book, and the nature of the evil that confronts them is a touch more personal. And that’s all I can really say about that.

Can’t wait! Thanks for stopping by, Jen. 🙂

You can learn more about The Copper Promise on Jennifer’s website, or you can follow her on Twitter.

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3 Comments

  1. […] things that have been happening this week; firstly the fab Vicky Hooper has interviewed me at Fantasy Faction, where I talk about a little more about the book, video games, and […]

  2. […] and if that’s not enough, here’s an interview with Jen with a focus on The Copper Promise and an article by Jen on keeping fantasy […]

  3. […] hasn’t yet picked up Jen’s books, you probably want to check out this review and this interview and skip this one for now (it contains a number of book two spoilers). For anyone who has, […]

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