Based in Canada’s Regina, Saskatchewan, Edward Willett is a writer and performer. In addition to having an amazing career writing non-fiction about topics such as engineering in Saskatchewan to the Iran-Iraq War to even Jimi Hendrix, Willett is also an incredible fiction author. Wanting to learn more about his latest book, Worldshaper, and his career in general, I was able to interview Willett for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what stories did you love experiencing? Are there any that you still enjoy revisiting?
Edward Willett: I loved all kinds of things: the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley; every one of Robert A. Heinlein’s juveniles; Isaac Asimov’s robot stories; Jack London’s dog stories; Andre Norton’s science fiction; and, of course, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. But the one series I read more than any other had nothing to do with science fiction or fantasy at all: it was the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome—English kids messing around in boats. I bought them with my allowance when I was 12 or 13 and must have read them all a dozen times. One of the fun things about Worldshaper is that I was able to reference them—there’s a sailboat that plays a pivotal role in the plot named Amazon, because her captain is also a fan of the books.
Yanes: When did you decide to pursue a career as a professional writer? Was there a single moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Willett: I decided I wanted to be a writer in high school. One reason was that I wrote three novels in high school, loved doing it, and discovered in the process (because I shared them with my classmates) that I could tell stories other people enjoyed reading. I can’t say there was a single moment that made me decide to be a professional writer, but I do know there was a single moment that made me want to be a writer, whatever else I might be doing. That was when I was 11 years old and in Grade 8.
A friend and I, just for something to do on a rainy day, decided to write short stories. I wrote one called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” My mom typed it up for me, and I took it to school to show to my English teacher, Tony Tunbridge. He did me the honor of taking it seriously—he didn’t just pat me on the head for writing a short story, he critiqued it, and suggested things that might make it better. That triggered something in me: everything I wrote after that, I tried to make better than the thing I wrote before. It took a while, but I finally thanked Mr. Tunbridge (it’s hard to call your Grade 8 teacher Tony even decades later!) by dedicating my novel The Cityborn to him in 2017.
Yanes: You currently live in Saskatchewan and Worldshaper is set in Montana. Given that both of these areas are known for having a lot of untamed wilderness and few large cities, how important has geography been to shaping you as a writer?
Willett: It depends on the book. It’s true that a lot of my stories take place in wide-open spaces. Maybe that’s not too surprising for a prairie boy.
The one it informed the most was Magebane, the fantasy, published by DAW, I wrote under the pseudonym Lee Arthur Chane. The landscape of the Kingdom of Ehrenfels in that book is Saskatchewan (well, except for the mountains and the lake of lava in the far north). The capital city is a version of Regina, right down to the marble palace on the south side of a lake (in the book the King lives there, in reality, it’s the Saskatchewan Legislative Building on the shore of Wascana Lake), there’s another city to the north where the main university is located (Saskatoon, in real life), and the villain lives in the equivalent of the Qu’Appelle Valley.
The other thing that living in Saskatchewan has made me try to do is to make sure that whenever there’s cold weather in my books, it’s real—the kind of weather we experience here, when it may be -40 (F. or C., take your pick) with a wind blowing, when exposed flesh freezes in minutes. Too often in fantasy (especially in movies and TV—I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones), people who are supposed to be experiencing bitterly cold weather do things like leaving their ears and faces exposed or not wearing anything on their hands. That’s not just stupid, it can be fatal.
And then, of course, there’s my Shards of Excalibur YA fantasy series (all five books of which have just been released in audiobook format). It’s actually set, to a large extent, in Saskatchewan, and is full of real places. The Lady of the Lake from King Arthur shows up in the aforementioned Wascana Lake to kick things off—because, why not?
Yanes: Given that I know little about Canada’s book industries, could you take a moment to share your thoughts on Saskatchewan’s and Canada’s writing community?
Willett: Saskatchewan has, and has always had, a vibrant writing community. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild is one of the largest and most active of its type of organization in the country, offering all kinds of workshops, a writers-in-the-schools program, a terrific members’ magazine (for which I write a column) called Freelance, a magazine that publishes the work of new writers, called Spring (which I’ve edited), another that publishes teen writing, called Windscript (which I’ve also edited), and one of Canada’s longest-running and most-respected literary magazines, Grain (which I’ve also edited). There are also writer-in-residence programs in both Regina and Saskatoon (I was writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library a few years ago).
Oddly enough, I’m not that plugged in to Canada’s literary community as a whole, because of my focus on science fiction and fantasy. I’m a past president of SF Canada, the organization of professional SF/fantasy writers. There are many literary festivals in Canada, but the only one I go to regularly is When Words Collide (www.whenwordscollide.org), a cross-genre writing conference that attracts hundreds of writers and readers to Calgary every summer.
Yanes: In addition to novels, you also write plays. How do you feel writing and performing plays has made you a better novel writer?
Willett: I think it helps in three ways. On the performance side, acting is all about pretending to be someone else—and making audiences believe you’re someone else. You have to get inside the head of the character to do that successfully, and that is, of course, exactly what you also have to do as a writer. As well, as both an actor and a director, you have to be aware at all times of where everyone is in relation to each other and to the props and set pieces, and how to shift the focus of the audience to wherever it is you want them to be looking. This is very helpful when it comes to visualizing scenes in books, I find.
And finally, as a writer, it’s a great way to work on dialogue, because although silence can be very effective on stage, ultimately, plays are all about characters talking to each other. What they say to each other has to sound natural and at the same time move the plot forward or make the audience laugh or cry or feel anger or some other emotion. That’s equally true of dialogue in stories.
Yanes: Your latest novel is Worldshaper. What was the inspiration for this story?
Willett: I’m fascinated by the creative process, by the way authors create worlds and the choices they make along the way. The Shaped Worlds that fill the Labyrinth of Worldshapers, the series Worldshaper launches, are like books in a library, each written by a different author. The big difference is that the authors of these “books” are living inside them. That concept was part of the inspiration. What author wouldn’t want to live inside the world he or she created…provided, of course, they made the right choices in crafting that world? The other seed from which the series grew was my desire to create the literary equivalent of Doctor Who or the original Star Trek, where each episode can take place in literally any kind of world I can imagine…and as Han Solo once said, “I can imagine quite a lot.”
Yanes: Shawna Keys is a fantastic protagonist. How did you build her? Was she based on any one you know?
Willett: Shawna isn’t based on anyone I know unless it’s me. There’s no question her sense of humor is mine! As for how I built her…I just let her start talking (all her scenes are in first person) and she built herself. I know that’s not really true, but that’s how it felt.
Yanes: A key element of Worldshaper is visiting other worlds/alternate Earths. Was there a specific world mentioned in Worldshaper that you would like to explore further?
Willett: Shawna doesn’t find out much about any of the other worlds, since the whole book takes place in hers, but Karl Yatsar, her companion, mentions a few, including the one he emerges from as the book starts, described as a Shakespearean world. I kind of regret making that the one he exits, because it’s been lost to the Adversary, which means now I can’t write a book set in a Shakespearean world. (On the other hand, trying to write all my dialogue in iambic pentameter would have been a challenge, so maybe it’s just as well.)
Yanes: What are your long term goals for Worldshaper? Given your theater background, would you like to one day turn this story into a play?
Willett: It’s the first book in a series, so the main goal is that it launches that series effectively, introducing a premise and a main character that captivate readers, who will then eagerly buy Book 2…and 3…and 4…etc., etc., etc.
It wouldn’t make a good play, although I can imagine a play set in the Labyrinth of Shaped Worlds—which isn’t too surprising, since literally any story can be told within the Labyrinth.
Yanes: When people finish reading Worldshaper, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Willett: I hope they had a wildly entertaining time, that they met a character they want to go on more adventures with, and that they’ll maybe have had an interesting thought or two about the creative process, the magic involved in shaping fictional worlds.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working that people can look forward to?
Willett: Right now I’m writing Master of the World, Book 2 of Worldshapers: it takes place in a Jules Verne-influenced steampunk world. I’ve sold a YA dark fantasy/horror novel about shapeshifters, called Changers, to ChiZine Publications. That’s due out in 2020, so I’ll be working on it in the new year. My agent is shopping around a middle-grade fantasy called Fire Boy—I’ve got my fingers crossed for that one. I’m writing a play with music, The Music Shoppe (which also has a fantastical element), which I’ll be directing for Regina Lyric Musical Theatre in April. I owe a short story to an upcoming anthology.
Earlier this year, I started my own micro-publishing house, Shadowpaw Press (named after our cat). I’ve already published two books, Paths to the Stars, a collection of twenty-two of my short stories, and One Lucky Devil: The First World War Memoirs of Sampson J. Goodfellow (my grandfather-in-law), just released to coincide with the centennial of the Armistice that ended the First World War. I’ll be bringing out more books in the new year: I think the first is likely to be From the Street to the Stars, a slightly revised and repackaged version of my YA science fiction novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star, whose publisher went out of business some time ago. The sequel, Double Trouble, will follow in short order.
Oh, and I will continue hosting my podcast, The Worldshapers: Conversations with Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors About the Creative Process. These are hour-long talks with authors about specific books or series. Guests so far have included Robert J. Sawyer, John Scalzi, Tanya Huff, Julie Czerneda, Arthur Slade, Gareth L. Powell, David B. Coe, and Seanan McGuire, and upcoming guests include David Weber, Joe Haldeman, David Brin, Lee Modesitt Jr., Tosca Lee, Margaret Killjoy, Thoraiya Dyer, Peter V. Brett…and many more. You can find it www.theworldshapers.com.
I’m sure other things will come along. So…keeping busy. J