by Pawl Schwartz
Michael Williams is a person who has been many things to me. He has been a teacher, a friend, a counselor in times of mental duress, and an author that I have turned to since before I ever met the man, for escape and adventure when I needed it most. He knows how to write a page turner. How to build the hell out of worlds. The kind of author who is freed of constraints, as his treatment of the Dragonlance world in the acclaimed Weasel’s Luck proves. And he's one who can easily be expansive without losing the reader along the way. When living in Louisville, I thought of him as our own local Neil Gaiman (who, yes, will be mentioned in this interview). Michael William’s newest novel Vine: An Urban Myth, finds him about as far out as he has gone in terms of ideas, execution, and experimentation. The novel is set up with a Greek Chorus taking over like ethereal muses watching from afar, sometimes furthering the narrative, sometimes adding depth that has already been laid out. The basic tale reads like Monty Python and Tristram Shandy author Lawrence Sterne got in a fight over the mysterious rites of Bacchanalia in a time machine. An amateur theater director believes that these rites and Euripides' Bacchanalia will re-charge the city of Louisville, Kentucky and bring a new life to it. Well, it’s worth a try I suppose.
Michael Williams will be appearing at the 70th World Science Fiction Convention to sign his newest book and spread his infectious laughter from the Blackwyrm press booth from Aug 30-Sept 3rd. The event takes place at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 East Wacker Drive, Chicago, IL 60601.
UR Chicago: What do you see the importance of myth being in modern times?
Michael Williams: For me, myth is still the best way to embrace meaning, or to create it if it isn’t there on its own. Myths are the stories about large things, about issues human and humane, about the big, unmanageable forces that shape our lives and sweep through our experience. I think meaning always emerges in story, but in myth particularly. Myth doesn’t hold with consensus, empirical reality: it finds its way through other truths; it is extended metaphor and calls attention to itself as metaphorical, not literal. Ours is too often a literalist time: we are a culture of fundamentalisms. We don’t listen to each other politically, culturally, or spiritually, because there’s only one way of looking at things, and by god, it’s ours. Myth may well be good medicine for that.
UR: Do you think that common cultural myths in the public mind are typically controlled by outside forces, or do they find their own path and power to hold on? A combination?
MW: It’s both. I’m especially drawn to the urban legend because it largely emerges from everyday people and gathers “path and power” (to use your phrase) on its own legs. Unfortunately, the outside forces that have a say in common cultural myths are usually media and corporate redirection of the initial mythic impulse. Their idea is to tame the myth for lucre, to profit from it in a direct, material way, rather than to let it take its own course, to engage the public and the individual simultaneously, to allow us to grow and deepen, as individuals and as neighbors. Most good myths place us both personally and in community. That doesn’t mean it will be a self-help program. It’s usually much more demanding and violent than that.
UR: Speaking of myth, I'm sure you've heard that Neil Gaiman will be visiting the Sandman world again. How do you feel about this and the idea of 'returning' to a world you have previously written in?
MW: Like any return, it depends on why you go back. For some reason, I trust Gaiman’s integrity and vision, and I think he’ll head back there to discover more of the country he made. Too often, though, people go back because a publisher or producer demands a sequel. I imagine it’s hard to resist when someone says something like “We’ll give you big bucks to go back to Narnia, Mr. Lewis,” but if you’ve had your say in that setting, that venue, it’s a matter of principle not to go back. I think Gaiman has scruples, and will do just fine.
UR: How have you seen writing/the book world change since your days working with the Dragonlance series?
MW: Profoundly. There’s an abundance of small presses and self-publishing now rivaling the Big Six. Getting the word out is much easier, and as a result, more good books see print. The percentage of books that are good, however, may be another matter. Smaller establishments don’t generally have as strong an editorial staff, if they have one at all. The result is that there’s a lot more junk to root through before you find the gems, or so it seems to me. It’s not the same as it was in the 1980s, and for the life of me I can’t say whether it’s changed for the better or the worse.
UR: D&D player growing up?
MW: Yes, but not in a major way. Played some, enjoyed it, but I came to the whole fantasy phenomenon through Tolkien rather than through gaming.
UR: Do you feel as though you have shed most of your genre's trappings and tropes at this point and are forging your own way, or do you think you just use those tropes more effectively?
MW: I wouldn’t call it “shedding,” but my work stopped being orthodox heroic fantasy about 15 years ago, if in fact it ever really was at all. I think there will always be a call and need for high fantasy, and I respect it as I respect Epic and Romance, the two ancient genres to which it is the heir. It’s like moving house: you keep some stuff, and set other things aside lovingly, because they don’t quite fit in the new place.
UR: Do cities need to have a sort of bacchanalian ritual every once in a while to revitalize and recharge, or is this more of a metaphor?
MW: I wish that I had the optimism to believe that some bacchanalian ritual could revitalize a city. But Dionysus lurks in the background of the bacchanal, and when he surfaces, it ain’t gonna end pretty. It’s kind of an unbearable thing — Dionysian excess and madness and violence. I can imagine it as cleansing, but I suspect it usually ends up as it does in Vine — getting out of hand completely before being re-absorbed and swallowed by a powerful, deadening order.
UR: Is the ritual more for the PEOPLE or, as a legitimate act, for the CITY?
MW: I think it’s for both. Like myth, ritual is a place where the individual meets the collective, which for me gives it legitimacy and value, but also doubles down on all the things that could possibly go wrong when individuals behave in unison.
UR: Do you need a basis in classical myth to really get into and 'get' Vine?
MW: I hope not. Vine has a lot to do with Euripides’ Bacchae, as you know, so familiarity with the play (and some classical myth) should deepen and season your appreciation of the novel. I make provision, though, to undergird the novel with enough background, so that “uninitiated” readers can read and appreciate the book without having to school themselves before they read.
UR: How do you see Vine as different from your previous work?
MW: The magical realist elements in some of my earlier books — Arcady, for example, and Trajan’s Arch — are still the way I operate and tell a story. All of this is different from the first books I did, which were more traditional heroic fantasy. But Vine offers even a more different fare, I’m thinking.
First of all, it’s formally more experimental. Parts of the book are choral: there are chapters of narration and action, and then a group of characters comment on what’s happened. I have two choruses — one composed of the Muses and another of vagrants — a kind of “midnight choir” to the festivities. In that way, Vine not only crosses genres, but crosses literary forms, being a hybrid of fiction and drama. It’s probably been done before, but I haven’t done it myself. Second, it’s tragicomedy of sorts. Though it imitates Greek tragedy in form, it’s kind of Jacobean in tone: funny and satiric in parts, but impelled by that tragic inevitability so that, 100 pages into a 200-page book, you realize that it won’t end well for the characters. I think that rising sense of dread is something that I’ve never let enter the arc of a narrative, even in my recent Trajan’s Arch, which is a book filled with sadness. I hope the next book is happier.
UR: What is an 'Urban Legend' to you? How does it differ from myth, or does it?
MW: It does differ to me. Probably not by so much, because I found the two kinds of stories sitting well together as the book unfolded. But I see urban legend as more our projection of anxiety or fear. Sometimes hope, but mostly a darker feeling or emotion. And I see myth as an attempt to set fear, anxiety, and hope in a context of larger meanings. When I put them together it made for cool fictional challenges: myth gives context and meaning to the anxiety of urban legend, but what’s left of the legend unsettles the myth to the point that you feel the context and meaning are very unstable.
UR: What is the intended legacy of the 'Modern Myth' depicted in Vine?
MW: In ways it’s a myth about revenge. Dionysus exacts revenge on the city of Thebes because they haven’t acknowledged his godhead. They don’t see his divinity. Stephen Thorne, the book’s principal protagonist, tries to exact revenge on his home town, which doesn’t see his talent, or so he believes. My own writing of the book started as a kind of backlash — my own cry that “they don’t appreciate me” — but I realized fairly early in the process that such a cry was adolescent and universal. I hope the book exposes that kind of urge with generosity and insight.
UR: Why The Bacchae?
MW: I always wanted to write a Greek tragedy. I was at a disadvantage by being born 2500 years too late and not in Athens. But The Bacchae is plotted simply and cleanly, and to me it is the most devastating of the Greek tragedies, even more so than Oedipus or Medea. The Bacchanalia is tied closely to the theatre, and it is an outpouring of that basic insanity that our cultures always seek to keep in check, mostly for good but sometimes for ill. It’s a wonderful ground for a short novel
UR: Is adventure/escape important to you? Relevant to the current world?
MW: Sure. We just do it different ways than our ancestors did, who set sail for new lands or blazed wilderness trails. Now we do it more internally — through imagination, reading, the cinema. We need respite from our surroundings and from ourselves. We’ll always need that.
UR: What subjects, interactions, or issues do you find yourself returning to as a writer?
MW: Family dynamics are always at the heart of my work. Especially mother/son relationships, I think. In a larger and more “big idea” sense, I’m always returning to the idea of recovering wonder. I think that’s one thing that the arts give us consistently, without which we’d be diminished creatures. Then there is the power of story. We’re shaped by the stories we know, which is a good way to self-promote as a fiction writer: the job I do is essential, even if I don’t do it well!
UR: What director would you point to as having a visual style that most matches what you try to evoke when writing?
MW: Terry Gilliam. His mixture of magical realism, excess, and dirty whimsy is kind of my terrain. More the Gilliam of Fisher King, though, than of Time Bandits.
UR: Why Louisville?
MW: It’s my home turf. Helps me anchor the “realism” side of the whole “magical realism” thing.
UR: What is the best novel ever written, in your opinion, right now?
MW: May I answer that chorally? Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was the first book I embraced, the first book to change me profoundly. It’s the book for which I am most thankful. But best? I’m selfish with that term. At this moment I’d attach it to Ulysses. That’s because I just finished Vine, which has a Joycean edge to it. When I was working on Trajan’s Arch it was Absalom, Absalom. But my pure favorite, aside from the selfish acquisitive reasons of liking a book because it speaks to what I’m doing at the time, is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Not sure it’s the best, but it’s the one I come back to liking most. I’m starting a new novel now, and when I do, I generally set fiction by the wayside except for books that feel in conversation with what I’m doing — books to which mine will be an ugly cousin. I think Steppenwolf is next.