NEIL WILLIAMSON WALKS TWO PLANKS CAUSE HE'S TOUGH
"Subtle, evocative and compelling, The Ephemera is a collection that shines with reflection and intelligence" - Liz Williams
Neil Williamson is a dynamic new Scottish writer who co-edited Nova Scotia, a great anthology of Scottish fiction, in 2005. His stories have appeared in The Third Alternative, Interzone and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and anthologies such as The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, The Elastic Book Of Numbers, and the forthcoming Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories from Bantam Books.
In addition to being a member of the highly successful Glasgow SF Writers Circle, which includes Hal Duncan, Neil is a member of Storyville, a writing group that has resulted in some of my best experiences and most lasting friendships.
I consider Neil not just a great writer but one of the most stand-up guys I know. A lot of times I find myself thinking, "What would Neil do in this situation?" For awhile, I used to joke that Neil was my conscience, conveniently stored in another person. At any rate, everything he does has integrity, from Nova Scotia to The Ephemera to the novel he's just now finishing up.
The Ephemera is his first collection. Here's how I blurbed it:
"Emotionally complex and displaying a keen eye for detail, the stories in Neil Williamson's collection The Ephemera are a rich and rewarding read from a stylish new Scottish talent" – Jeff Vandermeer
He was kind enough to answer my silly and serious questions via email a few weeks ago.
WALKIN' THE SILLY PLANK
Why should readers pick up your new book as opposed to, say, just about anybody else's book?
Because it has a very, very pretty cover. It's by Gregor Scharff (http://www.3d-galaxie.com/index2.html), and it describes the contents perfectly - er, orange and floaty.
Does your book have any socially redeeming qualities? If so, what are they?
At the very least I should think it could be used as a punctuation primer (and Lord knows kids today need as much help with punctuation as they can get). Failing that, it could provide bedding for many hamsters.
Does your book have any medicinal or mental health value to readers?
Absolutely! We used a paper stock that was laced with mild quantities of lysergic acid. So if anyone finds that they are having difficulty following any of the stories, they should go have a good chew on page 127 and everything will become clear.
Assume your book has been filed under "Ages 8 to 12" in the children's section, perhaps by mistake, perhaps not. How horrified do you imagine a child would be after reading your book, and why? How many years of therapy would the child take to recover from the experience?
To be honest, The Ephemera is actually quite a gentle book - apart from the story about the evil, drug-taking, Great-Old-One-worshipping apes, and I blame my co-writer, Mark Roberts, for daring me to put in the eyeball scene in that one.
You have plucked many hamsters (vocation? hobby?) and yet have never written about this pastime in your fiction. Why?
I fear people just wouldn't understand. I did slip a verse into a sea shanty I once wrote, but it just got quizzical looks. I'm sure your readers would be equally bemused if you were to confess your knowledge of monkey-love, so I know you'll understand why I choose to keep the hamster plucking to myself and other aficionados on those special websites.
If no one buys your book and you are unable to continue publishing your fiction due to the intense vilification that occurs in the media, what line of work will you go into?
Well, I write (boring stuff) for a living anyway, so I'd probably continue doing that, all the while harbouring a burning resentment that one day, when I'm in my seventies probably, will erupt into an extremely damaging, and possibly wildly libelous, self-publishing venture. They'll probably exile me to Hamster Island for good after that.
Will you ever forgive me for jumping out at you during our perusal of the Dracula museum in Whitby?
No. Never. There are many slights that can be overcome in the course of a friendship, but a gentleman simply does not jump out from the darkness making a noise like The Very Legions of Hell just for the purpose of his own amusement, especially when it necessitates recourse to the Emergency Underwear. That sorry day will always be a shadow on our relationship. Alas.
WALKIN' THE SERIOUS PLANK
Do you think of yourself as a Scottish writer? And even if not, to what extent does Scotland influence your writing?
I suppose I do, yes. If nothing else, there's a rhythm in the day-to-day spoken language here in the west of Scotland that I love, and that - I hope - is reflected in my prose, and in the dialogue, too. Some writers might aim for a transparent mid-Atlantic tenor to their prose, but that's not for me I'm afraid.
What were your earliest influences?
I suppose they're the stories that made me love stories. I remember loving the absolute adventure of Blyton not long after I started reading for myself, and my Gran had a set of my dad's old comic versions of classics like The Odyssey and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Those, I would say, were what got me hooked on storytelling.
In looking back over your short fiction, do you see any recurring themes or ideas?
Well, in my earliest stories there's a lot of post-teenage, melancholic relationship-gone-wrong stories. That comes directly from the lonely-bedsit-bitter-piano-ballad phase I went through when I was living in London in the early nineties. Not the happiest of times, but I got it out of my system eventually. Thankfully we only chose a couple of those sorts of pieces for the collection.
I hope I'm more varied with subject matter now, though I have a tendency to go through phases of fixation. Like the thing about primates (you know my novel has simply tons of monkeys in it, don't you?). My current riff is Scottish engineering backwaters and sidestreams. The first of those stories was the George Bennie railplane piece we used in Nova Scotia, it carries on with engineering meeting post-war spiritualism in The Apparatus, and I've just finished a new piece about consumerism called The Gubbins. Add to that that one of the central characters in my novel, The Moon King, is an engineer tasked with understanding and fixing an impossibly advanced device, and I think the case is made. Who knows what it'll be next, though?
Something that I do find in my work are recurring images. For example, a lot of my stories feature rain, or water, in some way. It sounds miserable, but if you lived in Glasgow rain would be on your mind a lot too (Eskimos and snow = Glaswegians and rain). So, yes, you'll see rain appear a lot in my work, but it's not always a bad thing. Honest.
Do you have a set writing schedule?
At the moment I try to write for an hour before going to work, and then fit in as much as possible at lunch, followed by whatever I can manage in the evening. It's not much of a schedule as such, but I find that if I don't make a habit of it, my output slips dramatically.
How does being in a band influence your fiction?
These days I'd say that question is the wrong way round. My approach to fiction influences my songwriting. For me, the ideas for songs and stories come from the same place, and I used to be rubbish at telling which ideas were suitable for one form or the other, and that led to songs with loads of words that didn't scan and were impossible to sing. Thankfully now I think I'm pretty good at knowing what works as a quick, iterative sketch, and what will bear extrapolation into a full story.
I've also been inspired musically by the writings of friends. In particular, ideas nicked from the novels of Glasgow SF Writers Circle comrades Hal Duncan and Harvey Raines have added a couple of songs each to our songbook. Which is great, music is a communal discipline, you rip and riff off other people's work all the time. Glasgow is a particularly inspiring place to be in terms of musical cross-fertilisation at the moment, and that sort of energy can't help but spill over into other creative disciplines too.
What do you most fear?
Losing my loved ones. And becoming bored with being creative, and frittering away my time watching SF on television or playing Tolkein-lite games on the interwebs.
What issues or ideas about writing are foremost in your mind right now? Why?
I'm literally inches away from finishing my first real attempt at a novel, so I guess that's been my main writing concern in recent months. Learning to write a novel has been like trying to draw a house - on a piece of paper the size of a house. It's all about scale, isn't it?
Getting the proportions right, not tearing the paper as you clamber across it, or forgetting the notes you made on the folded down corners. I've enjoyed the experience enormously. Getting into the real detail of things I could only hint at before when I was limited to my (now rather tired) metaphorical sketch pad has been marvellous fun.
What are you working on now?
The novel, the novel, the novel. My life will contain nowt but that mad old Moon King and his enduring city, and the maverick engineer and the ephemeral artist who live there, until it is all finished. Which will be very soon now. Unless the luck monkeys have got it in for me. Again.