lives in Glasgow, Scotland, where he works as a technical
writer, hangs out with the Glasgow SF Writers Circle and plays
loud music with his band, Murnie. In 2005, Neil edited Nova
Scotia: New Scottish Speculative Fiction
with Andrew J Wilson to wide acclaim. His first collection
of bittersweet tales, The
features fourteen stories of impermanence: from the ends of
love affairs and the brief sanity of wartime convalescence,
to the fading away of old languages and the dying of humanity
itself. Charles Packer caught up with him as The
was released by Elastic Press...
What made you want to be a writer apart from the obvious attractions
of social isolation, poverty, hard work and little reward?
Williamson: Those were certainly temptations, but I think
I started writing simply because it looked like fun.
course, having a bash at putting together a story isn't the
same as deciding to become "a writer". That step came after
attending Duncan Lunan's SF writing evening class at Glasgow
University, which in turn led to being introduced to the incredible
people of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle [gsfwc.co.uk], whose
encouragement and critique helped me realise I should probably
take the whole thing a bit more seriously.
What would be your two best pieces of advice for the millions
of budding authors who have read your book and felt befouled
and hopeless by just how good it is?
Firstly, that feeling of befoulment goes away the more copies
you buy of the book. Try it!
be hopeful, not hopeless. If you read something that you admire,
try and find inspiration in it. Jonathan Carroll's collection
The Panic Hand contains a story called Learning
To Leave which is the epitome of everything I want my
stories to be, so I reread it every six months or so for inspiration.
Don't worry that someone else has achieved the same thing
what you were attempting. Keep on writing your own stories
- they'll be unique.
Your short story collection seems to draw on many diverse
influences. What was the first story that you read that made
you think, not only do I want to do that but I could do it
just as well?
I've got wide tastes and have always read many different kinds
of stories - which was why editing last year's Nova Scotia:
New Scottish Speculative Fiction with Andrew J Wilson
was such a blast.
school I read a lot of the Pan and Fontana ghost story anthologies,
as well as collections by the likes of Bradbury and Saki.
But it wasn't until I discovered Interzone in the late
1980's that the bug really bit me. There was one particular
story by Ian R MacLeod called Well Loved that was so
beautifully written it had me retyping it and breaking it
down to analyse how it was done. I was like Jack Skellington
in The Nightmare Before Christmas trying to understand
how Christmas is made. I'm not sure there was a notion of
"I could do it just as well" as such though, but certainly:
"I want to try to do this just as well."
You chose the short story as your initial medium, one of the
most difficult to get right, was this informed choice or a
form of personal masochism?
It was a semi-informed choice I suppose, and there were two
reasons for it. The first relates to the last question. I
was hooked on Interzone at the time. They were publishing
some incredible stuff then, and it was almost exclusively
short fiction. So that was what I wanted to write.
second reason is that I was conned by an old writing adage
that it's easier to learn to write by starting short and working
up to longer works when you've got the hang of it. Which is
total rubbish. Getting a short story right is an infinite
process. It's never completely and utterly finished to your
satisfaction. A novel, though, does require more commitment
over a longer period of time. And, I guess, a supplementary
answer to that question is that until relatively recently,
I wasn't prepared to make that commitment.
Okay, admit it, how many times did you really dance around
the room when your first story was published?
My first publication came very early, in Territories magazine,
and since I didn't know any better I have to admit I was fairly
laid back about it. Pleased, but laid back. I knew better,
though, some years later when I first sold to Interzone
(after many years of trying). That was a thirty-laps-of-the-living-room
night, that was.
Do you think that it's more important that writing should
make the audience think or just entertain?
Both. The vast majority of fiction readers do so for entertainment.
It's what I read fiction for too. People love a good yarn.
But at the same time, one of the things that science fiction
has always done is get people thinking about the world and
the times we live in; and really good science fiction manages
to do both absolutely seamlessly.
Do you think that the recent glut of sci-fi and fantasy films
has belittled the art of this genre and further deteriorated
reader's idea of its potential importance as an art form?
Not really. The main reason for the glut I suppose is that
it's the in vogue way to give the audience the action-adventure
extravaganzas that have always been the biggest box office.
back, I guess it was Westerns that filled that niche, or Gangster
movies or what have you. There were gluts of all of those
too, but each of those genres spawned a The Searchers
or The Godfather, for example. Same with the current
SF crop - in amongst all the (highly entertaining) high action
fodder you get an Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind,
movies, I think people are able to distinguish that Blockbuster
is a super-genre of its own, that doesn't really impinge on
what else is possible within the recognised genres. Unfortunately,
I don't think too many of those non-SF fans who cram into
the multiplexes even consider the possibility of reading a
thought-provoking SF book, but we can but hope.
Why do you think that science fiction and fantasy writing
gets less respect than a novel about an aged wino contemplating
his existential navel, with a monkey on his knee?
There are long-standing reasons for why realist fiction is
currently seen as more worthy than generic, but one take on
it relates to that earlier question about entertainment vs
thought provoking. There seems to be this really odd - and
masochistic - academic idea that something that entertains
must be worthless. Which is just ludicrous.
knock monkeys, though. Very fine creatures, monkeys. There
are monkeys in my novel, you know.
It seems that in the last ten years a lot of the new vitality
in science fiction and fantasy writing seems to be coming
from the independent sector. Do
you think that the larger publishers have lost track of this
The interest and expertise is still there in the major SF
imprints to publish the very best SF they can find, but the
business of publishing has become so competitive at that level
that the large houses can no longer carry what used to be
called "the midlist" - writers whose books sell in okay, but
not huge, quantities. People still want to read these writers,
and it seems to me that the role of the independent presses
have taken up is to provide those books, as well as other
sorts of books that the majors find themselves unable to publish
- like short story collections.
couple of the things have happened in recent years that have
made the upsurge of the independents possible. Firstly digital
printing has made small print runs affordable, reducing the
risk and cost of production, and secondly the Internet means
that small publishers can now market all over the world. And
they are doing so with gusto. Go and look up some of the independent
presses - for example, Elastic Press, PS Publishing, Pendragon
Press or Mercat Press in the UK, or NightShade Books, Small
Beer Press, Prime Books or Pyr in the USA - they're publishing
some incredible work right now and presenting it in the form
of beautiful books.
Your about to finish writing your first novel, what made you
commit to such a large project?
I think I finally had an idea that was big enough to explore
in four or five hundred pages instead of fifteen. The Moon
King is about life in a city that has trapped the moon
within its own horizon, about the madness of the king that
rules it and about how things change when the ancient machinery
that holds it there starts to degrade - with monkeys - so
there's been lots to write about, and a short story just wouldn't
have done it justice. And there was peer pressure too - many
of the Glasgow
SF Writers Circle guys were starting to
work on novels, so it seemed like the right time to give it
a bash myself.
be honest, it's been brilliant fun. Frustrating at times,
and occasionally seemingly never-ending, but a great experience.
I'm pretty sure I'll do another one once this is out of the
way, but I won't give up the short fiction. That's where my
Thank you for your time.
Ephemera is released through Elastic Press from 01 May
this book for £4.79 (RRP: £5.99) by clicking here