Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Lynda Williams

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Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams, author of the much-loved Okal Rel Saga, talks to Open Book about her newest book, Avim's Oath (Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing), which is sixth in the planned ten-book series. Read on for her advice about creating and sustaining an alternative world filled with characters who take on lives of their own.

Open Book:

Your new book, Avim's Oath, is the sixth book in your Okal Rel Saga. Tell us about this series.

Lynda Williams:

Okal Rel is a legal and religious system for limiting violence to the personal level rather than destroying irreplaceable habitat. Of course people try to cheat, but that gives me a stage to wrestle with the demon of my youth: the threat of total mass destruction over politics. Reality-skimming ships are the potential weapons involved as well as an essential means of transport and the only way to communicate between worlds separated by vast distances. This gives a race of bioengineered super-pilots, known as Sevolites, power.

Sevolites all possess extreme traits of character. Amel is very kind and beautiful which gets him into lots of trouble. Horth is a spatial genius and matchless warrior with a verbal disability. Vretla, on the cover of Avim’s Oath, epitomizes the Vrellish people who are unisex in most of their lusty, restless behaviors, while Luthan of the Demish is a neo-Victorian type of princess. Every subgroup depends on others for something and nobody is invulnerable. The series chronicles how the Sevolite empire, a stable neo-feudal hegemony for a thousand years, changes after running into non-Sevolite humans called Reetions in Part 1: The Courtesan Prince. Reetions rely on advanced AI technology to solve the problem of not blowing up creation just because it’s possible.

Unfortunately, the personalized violence Sevolites depend on for survival is mere barbarism to the Reetions, while Sevolites have a dark history that makes them hate and distrust Reetion bioscience, in particular. Colliding worldviews is a theme, played out in personal dramas and moral dilemmas. But most of all, what people love is the characters. They’ve been with me for decades and they have proved just as capable of becoming the imaginary friends of readers who get “into” them, as well.

For example, a friend of my daughter’s named Catherine Vogt informed me she was taking Amel into protective custody after reading the first book, to protect him from me. Amel turns a corner on the self-assertion front in Avim’s Oath, however, so perhaps he’ll need less rescuing in the future. He is Demish after all, and the Demish mature more slowly than the Vrellish. Horth, who is very Vrellish, is a man at 11. Amel starts fighting back more effectively at 34. He starts the series as an abused 16-year-old.


When you wrote the first book in the Okal Rel Saga, did you know that it would be part of an extended series? If so, how much were you thinking of the other books while working on the first one? If not, when did you realize that there was more to tell?


It was a complete arc from the beginning. I’d been playing around it with it in my head, on paper, and with other people since I was in high school. I was in my forties when the books began coming out. I think that’s why the characters step out of the pages. They’ve lived lives that make what appears in the printed series the tip of the iceberg.

I’m slowly losing the magic as I get older, but I’ve already got the first nine complete in draft and I am working my way through book ten with the help of my family and special friend Krysia Anderson. We gather on Saturdays to eat crepes and listen to me read the next installment. Krysia is now writing a series of novellas for the Okal Rel Legacies series and shares her new work with us, too.

One of the challenges in such a long arc is that people can be impatient for answers they don’t get until the end. Like why didn’t the Sevolites bust out of their stable rut centuries before Amel’s brother, Erien, is raised by Reetions and comes home to cause trouble. But everything is there, set up like dominos, from book one. And there is history, too. I show only bits and pieces because it would bog the story down too much, but I’ve got gobs of stuff written about various periods prior to the time of the saga. Some anthology authors have run with ideas from that hoard.

Of course, people do read just one book without the others, and report enjoying it. But the dedicated readers who finish the latest book and go back to re-read the series from the beginning reap the harvest of a richer experience because they spot all the familiar things and hints that they glanced at or didn’t really notice the first time through. My daughter Angie did this recently and was exclaiming things like, “Nesaks! I know about Nesaks!” or “Marin Manor!” or reacting entirely differently to mentions of Ameron in Book 1 after reading Book 3. For me, that’s just delightful.

So many things these days are whipped up and tried out with no clear idea of where the story is going because everything is just a trial balloon to see what will sell, and all the "bang" has to be expended in a big explosion up front. I think the solid feeling of being in the Okal Rel Universe that readers tell me about is the reward we gain from giving a setting a little time to grow on us, and harvesting a lot more "bang" in the end as a result.


In addition to writing a series, you've also completed a series of post-secondary degrees. What are these degrees in, and how does your extensive education influence your writing?


I have swung back and forth between the arts and the sciences all my life. In high school I was a physics and chemistry nut. I studied special relativity in Bellingham, WA, in the summer for fun. The wonderful Dr. Quigley, who taught us, gave me access to a room with a typewriter where I first worked out my (fictional, of course) faster-than-light method of travel — reality skimming.

I did three years of chemistry at the University of Victoria which was overkill in the science department for my Liberal Arts degree. Then I did a 90 degree turn into creative writing which took up most of my fourth year. I graduated with a B.A.

After that I worked for a while as a newspaper reporter but got restless and went back to school to study librarianship at the University of Toronto, to honor my lifelong love affair with books and the knowledge found in them. I fell in love with computers instead. After tutoring computer labs while a library student, I enrolled in a Master's of computing science at McMaster University.

On graduation, I worked for a Toronto software company called HCR that used to do subcontract work for IBM when they needed unix gurus. I was a junior guru. I did customer support for compilers and operating systems. I moved to Prince George, B.C. for the lifestyle after my husband and I had our first child, because my parents lived there. In 1994 I was fortunate enough to put my Master's of computing to work as an instructor and later as an e-learning leader at the brand-new University of Northern B.C., where I was the computer lady for many years.

But I never stopped loving books or writing through it all. I believe story is as firmly rooted in language as it is in pictures and that narrative is intrinsic to our being, however it is ultimately expressed. I’d be thrilled to see the Okal Rel Universe emerge into the world in as many forms as people were inspired to generate it.


Are any of the characters in the world of Okal Rel based on real people?


Yes. Slices of real people, that is. I work out the things that trouble me about the world through my fiction. I have never projected a whole, real person into a book. But I have taken aspects of a person and consciously portrayed them through a character, sometimes as a way to purge some pain I’ve been harboring or celebrate something wonderful in my own life.

Creativity, for me, is a process of taking real life apart and reassembling it to make better sense. In Avim’s Oath, for example, while I am working with established characters too much themselves to tolerate a personality graft from a real person, I have Amel and Luthan engage in a high-stakes competition over which of them is the "nicer" person. Since the tactics required to win aren’t necessarily compatible with being nice, it was a satisfying commentary for me on the “gaming the system” phenomenon that has robbed many of the things I used to have faith in of their meaning.

Some of my characters began as thought experiments rather than real people. Amel, for example. Was it possible to be so nice you almost couldn’t survive? He probably wouldn’t have, if he wasn’t a regenerative Sevolite. And as he evolved, he took on quirks and an individuality that transcended the thought experiment, including a bent for avoiding things he’d rather not think about when possible. Certainly there have been days when Amel felt more like a real person to me than some real people. So I guess I could say he is now based on himself.


Describe an average writing day for you.


It depends on what stage of the process I’m in. I tend to write draft scenes at night. Although for about a year, I wrote them on weekends at my favorite bookstore, Books & Company, in Prince George. I draft in one of two modes: on a disciplined schedule at fixed times, or in a marathon session when a scene grabs me. It varies from year to year. Working on the next pass through the draft is more of a regular affair. I can do a few hours at a time, usually starting a few pages back and combing my way forward. I think of it as combing the knots out of the story, in fact. And copyediting is different again. I can do that for hours at a stretch. When I have a book ready for copyediting, after my editor Richard Jenzen has been over it, I want to get it all fixed up and fired back to the publisher as fast as possible — as if it were a hot potato, and something might miscarry if I hang onto it for too long.


Who are your favourite authors?


There are so many I love. Jane Austen. Shakespeare. Jared Diamond in non-fiction, and Barbara Ehrenreich. Marcus Aurelius. The works of Prince George poets Jackie Baldwin, Michael Armstrong and Rob Budde have meant something to me. Also things by Toronto poet Sandra Kasturi, and the Songs of a Sourdough by Robert Service. I have read a lot of narrative poetry from the days of Bryon and Shelley and loved stories of Greek myths as a teenager.

I have a fondness for certain works by Canadian SF authors Marie Jakober, Rebecca Bradley and Alison Sinclair and enjoyed Ursula Pflug's Green Magic, although I don’t usually like stories that feature a dream-like kind of consciousness. I am fond of certain books by Ursula Le Guin, Robert Sawyer, Fitz Lieber, Samuel Delany and Charles de Lint. I like most of the novels by Guy Gavriel Kay and Lois McMaster Bujold. I think The Raging Quiet by Sherryl Jordan is a masterpiece deserving greater fame, although I was lukewarm about the next one of hers I laid hands on.

I think I have favorite books, in fact, rather than favorite authors, but there are too many to list. Little gems like The Haunted Bookstore by Christopher Morley or classics like Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur. No matter which ones I mention, I always kick myself later for forgetting something really special. Like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series or Don Quixote by Cervantes. I also confess to devouring all of the Sookie Stackhouse books by Charlaine Harris.


Some writers (and readers) feel that spec fiction, sci fi and fantasy are not given the critical attention they deserve. What is your opinion about this?


I have mixed feelings about this. Certainly sci fi and fantasy are getting a lot more critical attention now than they used to, and I definitely believe the genre can sustain a harder look. On the other hand, I think it is harder and harder for literary professionals to take any kind of stand about anything to do with quality, given the wreckage of recent critical trends. Doubtless it is true that all words are deceiving and everything can be deconstructed, but what does that leave you with?

One of the best things about sci fi and fantasy, for me, is the sense that it damn well matters what happens. The story means something. If that’s too simplistic to be worth considering I really have to wonder about the point of art, because surely it is about finding meaning rather than destroying it. At least I think it should be. So I wouldn’t want to deprive the literary critic of the right to turn up his or her nose at anything. It might be healthy. Although, naturally, I believe there is plenty of meat and potatoes to analyze in my own work. I think the whole matter is fraught with subjectivity and questions of taste that are hard to navigate.


What one book — from any time period ¬— do you wish you had been the one to write, and why?


Maybe Euclid’s Elements. It wasn’t even original — or at least not all original — but a compilation of known mathematics, to date, in 300 B.C. But it proved mind-bogglingly useful for tens of centuries. Or Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, because it has moved so many people’s hearts for so long and transcended its era.


What advice do you have for a writer thinking of working on a fantasy series?


If you love it, do it. If the writing feels like work, try something shorter. It’s a big risk. I was very fortunate to have the support of Edge Science Fiction and Publishing for such an extended project. And sometimes I have wondered about my sanity. But I have loved spending time in the Okal Rel Universe and every reader who tells me he or she did as well makes it all worthwhile. But if you do write it, put your real fears, emotions, hopes and struggles into it. Don’t make it too easy on your characters to triumph over themselves.


Do you think you will embark on a different series once you've completed the Okal Rel Saga? What do you have mind?


At the moment, my goal is to complete the series and any outstanding work promised for the Okal Rel Legacies line. After that, I’ll see who I am. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that no one knows who she’ll be in the future. There are other things I’ve started, puttered at, and put aside. But nothing else planned in a serious way at this point.

Lynda Williams is the author of the ten-book Okal Rel Saga published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing. Avim's Oathis book six in the saga. Lynda always knew she wanted to write but postponed the inevitable with a series of careers in crisis intervention, journalism, software development and support, teaching applied computing at the post-secondary level, managing a web development lab for distance education and stints as a librarian in both public and academic settings. She now works as Instructional Designer for the Rural Acute Care Nursing Certification program at the University of Northern B.C. Find out more about the Okal Rel Universe at the official website.

For more information about Avim's Oath please visit the Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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