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An Interview with Edward Willett

Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 9:12am

Regina author Edward Willett's latest novel, Terra Insegura is the sequel to his Aurora Award nominated Marseguro. He will be reading and signing at McNally Robinson's Saskatoon store on Wednesday, June 3rd. Ed was kind enough to answer my questions via email.

CG: You've written a wide variety of works: SF, YA, Fantasy, as well as non-fiction for adults and children. Where did you get your start as a writer?

EW: Like most writers, I began as a reader. I was the kid who always had his nose in a book, who won the prize for reading the most books in the course of the year, who prefaced every answer I gave to every question in class, "I read somewhere that..." So it was pretty natural for me, one day when I was about 11 and it was raining, to suggest to a friend that we while the time away writing a short story. He never finished whatever he started, but I completed Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot over the next little while. My mother typed it for me, and I showed it to my junior high English teacher, Tony Tunbridge. He did me the honor of taking it seriously, critiquing it properly instead of just patting me on the head and saying it was good. I realized that not only could I write, I could always write better...and I never looked back.

In high school, at Western Christian College (now Western Christian High School and located in Regina, but then located at Weyburn, Saskatchewan) my best friend (John Smith--no, really!) and I used to get together in an empty classroom after school and write. We'd each write a page or two, then we'd read what we'd written, alternating sentences. Since he was writing a historical novel Of Scarlet, Silver and Steel, (if I remember the title right) and I was writing science fiction (The Pirate Dilemma), the results were often humorous and always surreal. Our friends thought we were just a little odd, but we could live with that.

The Pirate Dilemma came in at probably novella length, and I went from that to my first novel, The Golden Sword, written in Grade 10. In Grade 11 I wrote a second novel, Ship from the Unknown, and in Grade 12 a third, my magnum opus, The Slavers of Thok, complete with the map that proved it was a Real Fantasy Novel. I typed them up, bound them in red file folders, and shared them with my classmates--and discovered that I could actually tell stories people enjoyed reading. Somewhere along in there I made the decision that whatever else I might do, I would be a writer. But I was practical enough to realize that one didn't simply become a writer and, you know, eat, so I studied journalism at university (Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas), and returned to Weyburn with my B.A. as a reporter for the local paper, the Weyburn Review, at the ripe old age of 20.

Four years later I was promoted to news editor, four years after that I came to Regina as communications officer for the Saskatchewan Science Centre, and five years after that I gave up on real work and became a fulltime freelancer. I turned out several novels in those years, all young adult books, a couple of which-Soulworm and The Dark Unicorn-were my first published ones later in the 1990s. But my very first published book was actually the gripping tale of Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, and for several years I was primarily a computer book writer. Then I branched out into other nonfiction, and I still write non-fiction--my most recent adult nonfiction book is Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw, published by Red Deer Press, and just this month my newest children's nonfiction book, Disease-Hunting Scientist, came out from Enslow Publishers. But my first love has always been, and always will be, science fiction and fantasy.

Lost in Translation was my first adult science fiction novel to sell, and I like to tell the story of how that happened because it's a perfect example of how there isn't any one route to publication. Lost in Translation began as a short story for the Canadian SF magazine TransVersions, appearing in its first issue. A reviewer made a comment to the effect that it created a more believable space opera universe in 18 pages than some entire novels had achieved, which I apparently took as a challenge, since I promptly set about turning it into a novel.

I had an agent briefly in the late 1990s who circulated it amongst the big publishing houses--including DAW--and, when she couldn't place it, dropped both the book and me. But I kept sending it out when I saw an opportunity, and eventually it ended up with Five Star, which publishes hardcovers pretty much strictly for the library market. The science fiction line is packaged by Martin H. Greenberg's Tekno Books, with John Helfers as the editor. One morning, out of the blue, I got a call from John telling me that Greenberg wanted to talk to me. He came on and let me know that DAW, for whom he has edited a number of anthologies over the years, had had a "hole" in its publishing schedule and had had him send over some of the books he'd put out in the Five Star line to see if any would be suitable for them...and they'd picked Lost in Translation. Which is how a suddenly found myself a DAW author with a mass-market paperback version of a novel that I'm pretty sure DAW had already rejected once!

I used that contract to find my current agent, Ethan Ellenberg, and now here we are with Terra Insegura as my third book for DAW.

CG: In genre writing, and SF&F in particular, mentorship among authors--that notion of paying it forward--seems to be important. Were there any authors who greatly impacted your development as a writer?

EW: Well, he never knew it, but there's no doubt the number one influence on my SF writing was Robert A. Heinlein. I devoured all of his young adult books, and many of his adult books, and I'm sure the evidence of that influence could easily be found in my books. Andre Norton would have to figure into that as well. She also influenced me on the fantasy side, along with (of course) J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg played a role in my development as a writer quite early on. A friend of mine had some contact with her, and she agreed to look at a short story of mine, and made some very cogent comments on it that helped me improve, and also encouraged me at a crucial point in my writing attempts. I finally had the chance to meet her in person at a convention a while ago and got to tell her that, too, which was nice.

A bit later on, I was lucky enough to make contact, through the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop run by Kathleen Woodbury, with two of the best critiquers you could imagine. None of us were published in the field at the time, but we've all been published since. Kathy Tyers wrote several books for Bantam, plus Star Wars fiction and Christian science fiction for Bethany House, and Karen Hancock is an award-winning writer of Christian fantasy. Their input--and friendship--was invaluable.

Finally, of course, I have to mention Robert J. Sawyer, who is not only Canada's best-known SF writer and one of the best writers in the field, period, but a tremendous teacher and booster of other writers' works. I took his excellent class in writing science fiction at the Banff Centre twice (twice, because the first time I was up against a deadline for a children's biography of the Ayatollah Khomeini, of all things, and couldn't devote myself to SF like I wanted to), and it was the second time, in 2005, that a writing exercise he gave us one morning, to write, cold, in about five minutes, the opening of a story, gave birth to what eventually became Marseguro. Which is why a geological formation that plays an important role in Marseguro is called Sawyer's Point, as is a shuttle craft in Terra Insegura!

CG: What advice would you give to writers who are starting their careers?

EW: Read, read, read, write, write, write. I do quite a bit of teaching and mentoring of young writers myself, and I'm astonished and horrified sometimes to find that they want to write science fiction or fantasy, but they've only read, say, Star Wars novels or Harry Potter. My advice is always, first, read widely in the field in which you wish to write so you know the level you must achieve (you may not be able to write fantasy as well as, say, Scott Lynch or Patrick Rothfuss, or science fiction as well as Robert J. Sawyer or Karl Schroeder, but you should at least aim for it) and, second, write constantly. And don't get stuck writing and rewriting the same thing. Young writers in particular get stuck on a single Great Idea (which usually isn't as original as they think--another reason to read widely so you don't try to tell a story that's already been told, and better) and may spend years polishing and re-polishing it, when they'd be better served by writing it the best they can, sending it out or putting it aside, and moving on to something else. I've heard it said most writers turn out half a million words before they even get close to being publishable, and that sounds about right to me.

CG: Marseguro was shortlisted for the Prix Aurora Award for Best Long Form Work in English. Why do you feel it is important to celebrate Canadian science fiction and fantasy?

If we don't, who will? When I was growing up, I thought all science fiction writers were American except for Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Stanislaw Lem. The Aurora Awards, and the Sunburst Award, remind Canadians that there are some of their own writing this stuff, too. And while there's no reason Canadians can't (and do) win Hugos and Nebulas, the Auroras are often an opportunity for books from smaller publishers--and Francophone publishers--to be recognized.

Besides, the Aurora trophy is really cool.

CG: You also write a regular science column. How important is it for you to get the science right in your works?

EW: Well, reasonably important, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story I want to tell. I'm perfectly aware that I'm relying on misdirection and hand-waving to get my characters to planets in other solar systems, for example. (Hyperspace is old hat; I used "branespace.") But I like the idea of interstellar spaceships and (in the case of Lost in Translation) scientifically iffy things like empaths, and for me the most important thing is telling a story I enjoy and I hope others will, too.

CG: You posit human clones & genetically modified humans in your works, what's your opinion on the current industry of genetic engineering?

EW: I suppose I'd say, "You ain't seen nothing yet." I like to joke that I'm not worried about my daughter (who's about to turn eight) getting a tattoo when she's a teenager, I'm worried about her getting scales or gills or something because all the cool kids are being genetically modified and it's not fair and I just don't understand...

Realistically, the kind of enormous modifications I posit in Marseguro and Terra Insegura are probably far more difficult than I make them out to be. But I'm quite sure that genetic modification is coming. And human cloning is, I suspect, just around the corner--if it hasn't already happened.

I don't particularly have a problem with either as a technology. There are all kinds of ethical questions surrounding the reasons for making use of that technology, though, and I think it'll be a rich field for science fiction to plough for some time to come.

CG: If you had to choose one technology presented in science fiction to become obtainable in your lifetime, what would you choose?

EW: Immortality, obviously! Or at least life-extension. Heck, I'll settle for being uploaded into a robot body.

But if you take that off the table, then it would have to be commercial spaceflight to other planets. I want to walk on the Moon and Mars, skim the surface of Europa, see the rings of Saturn filling the sky out of my cabin window, snap photos of Jupiter's Red Spot, eat ice cream on Pluto. And after that, Alpha Centauri beckons...

CG: Your novel Lost in Translation contained truly alien creatures and cultures, while in Marseguro and Terra Insegura, there are "modified" humans--the Selkies and Kemonomimi--was one harder to realize than the other?

EW: I think trying to create real aliens is a harder exercise than genetically modified humans, since, after all, one of my points is that, even if they've been modified to breathe underwater or are covered with fur from head to foot, humans are humans. With aliens, you're trying to convince your readers that they're not at all human...although, honestly, it's all just costumes and props in the end, since they have to be human enough for us to understand them. If we ever meet REAL real aliens I suspect they'll be far stranger than anything any SF writer has managed to imagine.

CG: You created a totalitarian religion, The Body Purified, to serve as the principle antagonist in your novels Marseguro and Terra Insegura. Were you worried readers would interpret this as a statement against religion and faith in general?

EW: I don't think anyone with strong belief in one of the current Earth religions would have any trouble separating their beliefs from those of The Body Purified. I hope not, anyway.

But just to underscore that I wasn't attacking religion in general, I made a point in both books of mentioning that the old faiths of Earth still exist, though they are in hiding-and there are some very sympathetic Christian characters in Terra Insegura that I put there deliberately to emphasize that.

CG: Readers of your blog know your next novel is a fantasy. Is it too soon for you to tell our readers a little about Magebane?

EW: Well, the first thing they should know is that it won't be appearing under the byline Edward Willett; instead, I'll be writing it as Lee Arthur Chane (the middle names of my oldest brother, Jim, my next-oldest brother, Dwight, and myself--needless to say, my mother thinks it's a great pseudonym).

Magebane is set in a fantasy kingdom that just happens to pretty much match, in geography and climate, the province of Saskatchewan. There's even a marble palace set on a lake that is a deliberate reference to the Legislative Building on Wascana Lake in Regina. And there's one other parallel to Saskatchewan: like the province, the kingdom of Ehrenfels (well, that's it's name a the moment, anyway) has completely artificial boundaries, though in the kingdom's case, it's both artificial and magical, a barrier cutting off the kingdom and its ruling mages from the outside world. Centuries ago they fled across oceans and continents into this wilderness, escaping a campaign against their tyrannical rule led by a mythical figure called the Magebane, who not only rendered their magic useless but turned it against them. And now?

Powerful mages want to strike down the barrier and pour out into the outside world, retaking the lands their ancestors ruled. The non-magical commoners within Ehrenfels are chafing under the increasingly heavy hand of the mages' rule, to the point where there are rumblings of revolution. Unknown to both mages and commoners, explorers from the outside world are about to come knocking on the kingdom's door. And unknown to everyone, somewhere within the kingdom a new Magebane has been born...

That's the premise in a nutshell. Now all I have to do is write the darn thing...

See also:

Marseguro by Edward Willett

Prix Aurora Award Shortlist Announced

Categories: Interview, Authors, SciFi & Fantasy

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Lost in Translation

- Edward Willett

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A thrilling sci-fi novel of communication and learned trust between human and alien

Kathryn was a human empath whose world and life had been destroyed when, as a young child, she watched helplessly as the alien S'sinn slaughtered her parents before her very eyes. Only the Translators, an elite guild of empaths, were able to free her from the trauma and give her a new life.

Jarrikk was a young S'sinn, an unproven warrior who saw his flight mates slaughtered by the humans who sought to colonize his world. Crippled so that he could never fly again, he would have chosen death, but he wasn't allowed a choice. Instead, he too was trained to be a Translator.

As humans and S'sinn find themselves poised on the brink of a war that could not only destroy their own species, but also disrupt the delicate balance of the multiracial Commonwealth, these two Translators--who have every reason to hate one another--must work together to find a common ground and avert catastrophe. But whether their Translators' oath and training can overcome the enemies leagued against them remains to be seen.

Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw

- Edward Willett

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A century and a quarter ago, Regina was literally a Pile O' Bones" and Moose Jaw nothing but a fur traders' camp. Today Regina is Saskatchewan's thriving capital, and Moose Jaw is the province's fourth largest city. Now you can stroll through both cities' sometimes turbulent, sometimes triumphant histories with Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw. Edward Willett, a Regina writer with a keen interest in history and architecture, points out the buildings and historic sites that have played an important role in the development of these sister cities. You'll get a feel for the way the cities looked in the past, and learn how they've developed into what they are today. Brimming with historical and architectural information and fascinating anecdotes, and illustrated with dozens of photographs, Historic Walks of Regina and Moose Jaw is an indispensable guide to Saskatchewan's capital and its nearest urban neighbour. So lace up your walking shoes, and take ten historic walks into the rich history of Saskatchewan.