Jen Williams Talks Testing Her Writing Mettle in The Copper Promise

copperJen Williams is a British fantasy author whose Copper Cat series, already a buzz-generator in its native UK, is finally coming to America from Angry Robot. Book one, The Copper Promise, arrived this week, with sequel The Iron Ghost slated for early next year. We took the opportunity of her books’ trip across the pond to talk to Jen about writing her first epic fantasy trilogy.

Please introduce yourself to our audience.
I’m a British writer living in London with my partner and small, pessimistic cat. I’ve written a series of sword and sorcery novels called the Copper Cat trilogy, originally published by Headline in the UK, now coming to the US and Canada via Angry Robot. My books are heavy on adventure, snark and outlandish monsters, and I also run an accidental social group thing called Super Relaxed Fantasy Club with fellow writer Den Patrick. Both The Copper Promise and The Iron Ghost have been nominated for British Fantasy Awards. Oh, and I like mead, if anyone is buying.

The Copper Promise was a set of stories tied together into a longer narrative. What drew you to write it in that way? What was the seed that started the Copper Promise universe?
The story of how The Copper Promise came to be is almost as twisty as the book itself, but here is the short version: I had been writing drafts of books for a few years, and I decided to come up with a “breather” project that would be just for fun—essentially, I intended to write and self-publish a series of sword and sorcery novellas. They would have cliffhanger endings, and I would write each one as I went. The first one, called The Copper Promise: Ghosts of the Citadel, made its way out into the world, and I got some very pleasant feedback—including an email from an editor who asked me if she could read the entire thing.

Well, this was a slight problem, as I hadn’t actually written it yet. So I put aside the idea of publishing novellas on a whim, and wrote the whole story, eventually producing a book about 150K words long (the idea of a novella had vanished into the distance somewhere). Because I really liked the subtitle “Ghosts of the Citadel,” I split the whole thing into four sections [at points where] the story naturally took a break, and added three more subtitles—sword and sorcery, with its roots in golden age pulp, allows you to get away with this sort of thing. So the truth is, The Copper Promise was never written as a series of stories at all; I just wanted to be able to use a cool subtitle like “Upon the Ashen Blade.” It’s the small things, really.

So why sword and sorcery? What appeals to you writing in that genre space? What other genres do you want to try dipping your pen into?
I’ve always been a fan of fantasy, but I hadn’t written anything in the traditional fantasy vein for a long time. Then, we bought an X-BOX360 and randomly picked up a videogame with a dragon on the front… And lo, Dragon Age: Origins changed my life. Aside from consuming my soul and giving me a slightly obsessive interest in sexy elves, [it] reminded me that it’s utterly possible to write funny, dark, modern fantasy that also includes all the old school stuff I was fond of: dragons, dungeons, swords with ominous names, wild magic, etc. More specifically, I was also a fan of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, and the Copper Cat books are more or less a love-letter to that pair of dubious old souls.

As for other genres, I think my heart will always be with fantasy, but luckily, fantasy has so many subgenres, [it] allows you to write almost anything. I would like to write an urban fantasy book set in London (I’ve already written it once, but didn’t get it quite right) and one day I would like to write a “rogues in space” novel—a sort of pulp Farscape with knobs on.

Sequel The Iron Ghost, a British Fantasy Society award nominee, and is also coming out in the U.S. early in 2017. How did it feel to write a sequel? What did you take away from writing The Copper Promise that you applied to The Iron Ghost?
Writing a sequel is generally more or less horrendous. I exaggerate slightly of course, but The Iron Ghost was certainly the hardest book I’ve ever written. It was the first one I’d written while in contract to a publisher (the pressure!), the first I’d written while people were reading the first book (the terror!), and the first time I’d written a sequel, full stop. I had to start again twice, and chucked away roughly 60,000 words, and all in all, it felt like I wrote that book by sweating each word directly from my forehead on a bead of blood. But, in the end, it was a good book. It was worth the pain, and now it is all the more precious to me because I suffered for it. Although occasionally I will shake my fists at it and silently mouth, “60,000 words!”

I think every book is a big learning experience, and certainly The Copper Promise taught me more in six months than anything else ever has. It’s impossible to see all the fine details of that process now, but going into The Iron Ghost, I definitely knew to keep a close eye on how many injuries the characters sustained over the course of the story—sorting that stuff out is a continuity nightmare…

The third novel, The Silver Tide, is now out in the U.K. How did it feel to “commit trilogy?” What’s surprised you about the evolution of their stories?
It was quite overwhelming. The end seemed to come a lot faster than I was expecting, while at the same time, there was this sense that an enormous and complex journey was over. Mostly it felt surreal. How had these three books happened? Did I really write all of those words? I cried a lot writing the last few chapters, because I’ve had so much fun with Wydrin, Sebastian, and Lord Frith, and it was hard to say goodbye. I think when a set of characters are really up and running, they often surprise you, and they really have surprised me at every stage—changing and growing in unexpected ways, being capable of things I hadn’t even imagined at the start of the trilogy.

What’s next for you?
Now that the Copper Cat books are complete, I am working on a new trilogy, the first book of which is called The Ninth Rain. If the Copper Cat series was on the sword and sorcery end of the fantasy spectrum, then this one is much further down the epic fantasy end—however, it still contains all the stuff I most enjoy writing, i.e. outlandish creatures, snarky dialogue, monstrous human beings, and so on. All things being well, it’ll be out early next year.

What kind of fantasy do you read? What can you recommend to our readers after they finish reading you?
I read all-sorts—anything that’s strongly character driven, essentially, and I like books that have a touch of humour about them, too. I loved Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, and Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books are incredible, of course. I also have a great weakness for historical fiction, and I’m a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles. As for what to read after The Copper Promise, I would recommend something completely different: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. It’s fabulous and beautiful.

Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
I have your usual writer’s website at www.sennydreadful.com that is erratically updated with posts about writing, videogames, and peanut butter Kit-Kats. I am on twitter a lot (by which I mean, constantly) so that’s usually the quickest way to find out what I’m up to—my username, predictably, is @sennydreadful.

The Copper Promise is available now.

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