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Meeting Tad

October 21, 2011

I refer to most authors by their surnames, whether I talk about them or think about them. I know lots of Harry Potter fans refer to J. K. Rowling as “Jo”, but I’ve never done that, or ever will.

There is one exception: Tad Williams. He’s always been “Tad” to me – interestingly, even long before I found out he much prefers to be called Tad, rather than “Mr Williams”.

Tad was the first Fantasy author I read, the one who made me realize that Fantasy wasn’t really as as stupid as I thought as a kid, which is just one of the reasons why it’s so appropriate that his was the first reading I ever attended.

When I read that he was coming to Europe for a reading tour, I knew I had to see him. Conveniently, he also had a reading in Vienna – less conveniently, it was on a Thursday night, But even if it meant taking a day off during a rather busy season at work, even if it meant taking a night train home, arriving after midnight, even if it meant dragging myself through the next day half asleep – I had to be there.

The day before, I found out that the friend I had expected to go with was ill, so I would be by myself – cue a major fit of nerves. While I find it easy to talk to and joke with people when I’m at work, in other, less familiar situations, I’m often still struggling with my shyness, and meeting an author I’ve admired for years certainly qualifies as an unfamiliar situation.

But all nervousness was forgotten once Tad arrived. While an employee of the bookstore was still reading out some introduction in unnecessarily flowery language, I had already spotted Tad, standing off to the side, and was silently “squeeing” on the inside.

And once Tad actually got on stage and started talking, my nervousness was definitely a thing of the past – it’s hard to be nervous while you’re laughing, and Tad had us in stitches for the entire question and answer session that preceded the actual reading.

I tried to take notes, because I know I’d I just forget most of what he said otherwise, and I’d kick myself for it – but it’s hard to do write while laughing, and after a while, I was just so busy laughing that I gave up on the notes.

The first question, I think, was about how he comes up with his stories – do they begin with a small detail, or a big concept?

I only remember Tad’s answer in bits and pieces, most of which I have to paraphrase.

“I’m a writer – I have ideas every day, but I don’t have the time to write them all, so I have to decide which of them are worth writing.”

“A good idea finds other ideas” and attaches to them, and “if enough ideas stick together, it becomes a big story” (these two are actually direct quotes, which I managed to scribble into my notebook – there was other stuff in between that I can’t remember in detail) “You know I like big stories” – and the audience is laughing again – too true he does! Tad is, after all, famous for his “trilogies” that all end up having four books.

For “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” (his first Fantasy “trilogy” (frequently published in four volumes), and my all-time favourite), that initial idea was, “what happens after the death of a great king?” since this is a question most stories tend to ignore.

When asked if his stories or characters ever show up in his dreams, Tad said no – he thinks dreaming and writing are rather similar processes in that both are ways of working out things from your subconscious. Because he deals with these things in his writing, he doesn’t “need to” dream about them. “If you’ve read my books,” he said, “you know there are themes that come up again and again. Like underground journeys – there always are underground journeys. I don’t know why.”

He also mentioned that he has recurring dreams about big sprawling houses (certainly another thing that repeatedly appears in his stories), and then I missed a bit because I was either scribbling, taking a picture or laughing too hard to listen, and the next bit I heard was something along the lines of, “it means, let me out, it’s scary in here in Tad’s imagination!”

Tad (and bookshop guy), making us laugh

I don’t remember how exactly we ended up at the topic of cats and dogs… Tad’s complete bafflement when he first lived with cats… he mentions this in the introduction of his first book, “Tailchaser’s Song” (at least, the edition I have), and every time I read it, his summary of the bargains between dogs and humans and cats and humans made me laugh. But it’s nothing compared to hearing him tell it.

Until he moved in with his ex-wife (who was not yet his wife then, nor yet his ex-wife, as he made sure to point out), he’d always lived with dogs. Understanding dogs’ bargain with humans was simple – humans feed dogs, dogs worship humans. “What are we doing today? Go in the other room? Yaaay! I love going in the other room!”

Cats, on the other hand, will just stare at human who feeds them in a “hm, yeah, maybe I’ve seen you before” sort of way. “But you’re standing in my sunlight – move.”

To read that is one thing – but to see and hear him act it out is hilarious.

So why, he wondered, would anyone want to live with creatures that regard you with contempt? “… then I had children,” he concluded, and we cracked up again.

When asked why none of his books have been turned into movies yet (for which I, personally, am profoundly grateful – movie adaptations of books are a nightmare for me), Tad held up a copy of “Shadowheart” to remind us all of its gigantic size. “The people in Hollywood don’t like to read,” is the one line I wrote down – then he went on to say that his hope lies in the people who grew up reading his books – the ones who read them before they came to Hollywood, so they don’t have to read them again.

There is a online role playing game version of “Otherland” in the works, though, (supposed to come out next year) and an animated film of “Tailchaser’s Song” – I can’t say I’m particularly excited about either, because I’m not a gamer and have no intention of becoming one, and because I’m usually deeply disappointed by movies… but “Tailchaser’s Song” is short, at least, so maybe they won’t mutilate it too much.

There are also a couple of other things being discussed, but as nothing is signed yet, Tad chose not to talk about it – apparently, Tad and I share superstitions, because I also believe that by talking about things too early, you’ll ensure they won’t happen.

Tad’s author bios always list the ridiculous number of jobs he’s had before he became a writer (due, he explained, to the fact that he chose not to go to college, which limited his opportunities somewhat), so one of the questions was, “Which job was the worst?”

“All of them,” he said.

He didn’t stay in any of the jobs for very long, because he’s not good at putting up with stupidity, or at not telling people they’re stupid. He had us all laughing again at the things he told one of his bosses, like, “I don’t know how you even manage to feed yourself”, on his last day at that particular job – “I didn’t know it would be my last day, until I said that.”

But really, the worst jobs to him were the ones that other people would have considered the best, the moderately successful ones (my words, not his, I can’t remember how he said it) – for him, they were still jobs he had while “waiting for his life to start”, but talking to the people he worked with was scary – they were no longer waiting for something else, something more – “for them, life was already over.”

So how did he become a writer?

He was always doing other things besides his jobs, Tad told us. Theater, playing in a band and… uh… something else I forgot. “What these things had in common was, they were all creative, and they all earned no money.”

Then, the day before his band’s most important gig, their drummer broke his arm. Playing football. On the street. “And that was American Football. Not run, run, kick – that’s run, run, twenty other guys jump on you. On the street.” Which is kind of, you know, hard.

So they had no drummer – “It’s always the drummer,” he said – and no time to replace him, so they had to cancel. “Maybe,” he decided, “I need to practise an art form that has no drummer.”

And that’s when he began writing. (And we’re all grateful to that drummer.)

He also told us a little about the new series he’s working on, the Bobby Dollar books.

Bobby Dollar, or Doloriel, is an angel, working as an advocate for Heaven, arguing with the prosecutors from Hell about where a dead person deserves to go. But then, one day, a soul simply vanishes from its dead body – something that’s never happened before – and someone sets a demon on Doloriel, which is trying to rip him to pieces. Oh, and speaking of demons, Doloriel has an affair with one. That last piece was news to me, as was the title of the second book book. They’re supposed to be called, “The Dirty Streets of Heaven”, “Happy Hour in Hell” and “Sleeping Late on Judgment Day”.

The Bobby Dollar books will not only be shorter than his other books (well, we’ll see if that turns out to be true… this whole, “there’ll be three books” thing is sounding awfully familiar…), but can also be read out of order – there will be an overarching story, but you’re supposed to be able to pick up any of them and read it as a standalone.

Knowing Tad’s books, and having heard his rather long answers, it didn’t come as a surprise that even the “x or y” questions at the end of the Q&A didn’t get the quick, short answers they were supposed to get.

“Books or e-books?”: “Books (because it’s just great to walk into a bookshop or library and know you’re surrounded by the thoughts of so many people)”

“Beer or wine”: “red wine (if I really have to choose, but I don’t drink much. My wife does, though, because she’s from England, and they take drinking seriously over there.)”

“Tofu or schnitzel?” – “schnitzel (because I’m not that kind of Californian. Actually, when I moved to England, a lot of people were surprised, because I eat red meat, and I smoked, and I didn’t jog – still don’t – and that wasn’t how they’d imagined a Californian. Actually, I didn’t realize how much America has influenced me until I lived in England, because in England, you just don’t talk to strangers. They get really scared if you do. After a while, I got into the habit of getting into an elevator with one other person, and then leaning against the closed door and saying, “Hi! How are you? I’m Tad! I’m from America!” – they looked like they’d tear out their lungs if it would help them get away from me. If you ever go to England, try it out. Or sit next to someone on the train and say, “Hi! What socks are you wearing today?)”

“Apple or Microsoft?” – “Apple. (I actually worked at Apple for a while, and I got an employee discount.)

“Apple or Orange?” – “Orange. (I’m a citrus guy. I’m Californian, we’ve got little citrus fruits inside our skin.”

I think the only question that got a short answer was, “What’s the meaning of life?” There was actually a moment of silence while he thought about that, then, “Book sales.” Silence again, and then more quietly, “at least that’s the meaning of my life.” Because a two-word answer would just not be right for Tad.

I think this was the last question before the actual reading. For which Tad chose the prologue of “Shadowheart”. “I always choose depressing scenes for readings,” he told us, “because I wouldn’t want people to walk away with the idea that I’m a funny guy. I’m really very depressing.”

Tad reading

Tad’s reading was rather short – but then, he had been talking for nearly an hour before he even started, so we’ll forgive that. After him, the bookshop guy who had asked the questions earlier read a longer passage in German. Maybe it’s a silly thing to notice, but I didn’t like his voice, and unlike Tad, he occasionally tripped over a word. But I was giggling quietly because of the way he read the Erivor prayer – he sounded exactly like an old priest during a Catholic mass (which is the only kind of church I’m even vaguely familiar with). Which would be amusing in and of itself, but becomes even funnier when you remember it’s a prayer to the sea god.

After the reading, it took me a long time to stuff my camera and notebook back into my bag, so I was near the end of the line for the signing. Luckily, I was a little tired, and so busy thinking longingly of fresh air and a drink of cold water that my nervousness didn’t surface again, and I could talk in coherent sentences when I got to the front of the line.

Not that we did talk that much – I did get my beloved copy of “The Dragonbone Chair” signed, though, and told him he needs to come back to Austria soon, without (I hope) making a complete fool out of myself.

(not going to share my name here)

I would pray for another Tad reading soon, and join in bookshop guy’s prayer of thanks for drummers and American football, but as soon as I think “pray”, I think of the Erivor prayer, and I start giggling again, and then I remember everything else, and laughing even more, and then I start imitating Tad imitating a dog to anyone who will listen, so, yeah… no praying.


Edited to add:

There’s a video of the reading up here. In case anyone wants to compare how much/how well I remembered.

I haven’t watched all of it yet, but I’m amazed at how much I remembered from the few words I wrote down. And how well I understood Tad – I’m not usually as good at understanding spoken English (lacking practise there – I read and write almost exclusively in English, but get little opportunity for talking and listening.)


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