I missed out on the opportunity to interview Tad Williams a few years back. So when I heard he and his business partner/collaborator/wife Deborah Beale were starting a new young adult book series with the launch of the first volume, The Dragons of Ordinary Farm, I reached out to them to see if they were open to an email interview. Luckily for me, they were.
Here’s some details about the book: “Tyler and Lucinda have to spend summer vacation with their ancient uncle Gideon, a farmer. They think they’re in for six weeks of cows, sheep, horses, and pigs. But when they arrive in deserted Standard Valley, California, they discover that Ordinary Farm is, well, no ordinary farm.
The bellowing in the barn comes not from a cow but from a dragon. The thundering herd in the valley? Unicorns. Uncle Gideon’s sprawling farmhouse never looks the same twice. Plus, there’s a flying monkey, a demon squirrel, and a barnload of unlikely farmhands with strange accents and even stranger powers.
At first, the whole place seems like a crazy adventure. But when darker secrets begin to surface and Uncle Gideon and his fabulous creatures are threatened, Lucinda and Tyler have to pull together to take action. Will two ordinary kids be able to save the dragons, the farm — and themselves?”
And here’s some background on Williams:
“Tad Williams has held more jobs than any sane person should admit to—singing in a band, selling shoes, managing a financial institution, throwing newspapers, and designing military manuals, to name just a few. He also hosted a syndicated radio show for ten years, worked in theater and television production, taught both grade-school and college classes, and worked in multimedia for a major computer firm. He is cofounder of an interactive television company, and is currently writing comic books and film and television scripts as well as novels.”
Finally, some background on Beale:
“Deborah Beale is a mother, businesswoman and writer. She collaborates with Tad Williams as well as managing the business arising from his books and their joint enterprise. For many years before this, Deborah was a book publisher in the UK, publishing across all fields of fiction and non-fiction, and specializing in SF and fantasy. Deborah was a founder member of the Orion Publishing Group.”
Did I mention you can read the first eight chapters here for free? My thanks to Williams and Beale for the interview.
Tim O’Shea: Am I correct in thinking the key to your collaboration is flexibility and revision. Deborah you write the first draft and then turn it over to Tad a turn–correct?
Deborah Beale: Yes, although the entire process is evolving and one of the fun things is playing with what comes along.
O’Shea: In this collaboration, what do you view are the assets that you believe the other brings to Ordinary Farm?
Tad Williams: An outsider’s fascinated eye for California and a certain gothic darkness.
Beale: All the experience of a world-class writer and a certain steadying calm.
O’Shea: This first book in the Ordinary Farm series is set in the summer –in young adult literature would you say summers are an archetype of sorts? In setting the story in summer (while admittedly you dodge the “why aren’t they in school” question), but do you also appeal to the children’s perception of a summer break being rife with unlimited potential?
Beale: An archetype? – ooh, yeah. There’s a lot in what drives me that comes from a younger age, and yearning for what were basically big American ideas. The summer, for instance – that’s a big American idea, or at least it was to me when I was 8 or 9.
Williams: All of those things are true. Plus summer is a traditional time of remaking oneself, of learning and changing.
Beale: It’s a bridge from a younger self to another self.
O’Shea: Was Ordinary Farm always conceived as a series of books, or did it initially grow out of an idea for a standalone novel?
Williams & Beale: It was always meant to be a series, but how many, we didn’t quite know. We offered two to Klett Cotta, Tad’s German publishers, first of all, because they’d loved the idea from the start. They came back and said, No, not two, but we’d like to commission five. We smiled a lot that day.
O’Shea: Deborah, as a veteran editor of many books (as well as a founder member of the Orion Publishing Group), what is the key to hooking a reader with your story?
Beale: A list:
Suspense, withholding of information, good characterization, good balance of spookiness and fear. Living vicariously in the story – making it fun, so you wish it was happening to you. But also, a good shot of oo-err reality – you might wish it was you, but if it was, you might not be that happy!
O’Shea: I was struck by your use of italics in your writing–for emphasis. How hard is it to pace something like using italics–if used too often in a page or in a chapter it dilutes the device of emphasis. Do you debate on aspects of the novel like that, or is just one of you in charge of what gets italicized?
Williams: All of that stuff goes with word usage, grammar, syntax. That’s final assessment at polished draft stage. But you have to see it in proofs so you can get things and catch all mistakes — like the last person in the room looks around, checks under the bed and turns the light off.
Beale: That’s like the material handling of the language. Ideally when you’re paying attention to the surface of the text, it’s late in the process.
O’Shea: Deborah, on your Twitter account, you wrote: “The man is asleep and totally wiped: he’s working so hard at the moment that his brain won’t shut off at night.” When you see Tad working this hard are you worried for him on some level, or do you know he’s ultimately happy when he’s working this hard.
Beale: It’s really about doing whatever you need to do as a writer to make a business for yourself. So it comes with the territory – the up and down nature of things.
O’Shea: Tad–when you’re juggling multiple books and drafts like this, does it ever stop being enjoyable for you?
Williams: The only thing that’s ever not enjoyable is if I feel like I’m in too much of a hurry to do my best work – and when I feel like that, it’s a warning sign that something’s not working properly. But I don’t mind juggling lots of things if I can give them all the proper attention.
Beale: You thrive on that…
Williams: I do have multiple things going on all the time.
O’Shea: Greg Swearingen provided illustrations for the book–can you talk about how he was selected to contribute to the book? How do his illustrations serve to compliment the story?
Beale: Our former editor at Harper Collins, Brenda Bowen, is responsible for the production. I think it’s gorgeous, we were just so thrilled with illos after we’d seen them in rough form.
O’Shea: What’s the appeal to writing dragons?
Williams: It’s one of the great archetypes. It’s been done a great deal in the last 20 or 30 years so that makes it even more of a challenge to carve out new territory.
Beale: I wanted to create a ride on a dragon. And I saw it as something terrifying and transformative. So that became the seed of one of the book’s storylines.
O’Shea: Back in 2001, Deborah, you wrote “It is in fact a great problem for any writer, and it doesn’t lessen if a writer is blessed enough that it becomes his or her full-time work. You really need solitude, and there is never enough solitude.” You both are active parents, clearly involved in your children’s lives, compare 2001 to now–do you two both have a harder time finding the solitude to write, or is it easier now? What’s the trick to finding the time to write?
Williams: It’s definitely easier because the children don’t need the same day to day, hour to hour work of keeping their little bottoms clean.
Beale: But when they come home from school it’s like this total drama moves through the house, slamming doors and spreading whatever kind of day they’ve had, over as many people as possible. So it’s a new age, with a whole new set of demands!
The trick – well, the trick is to figure out what you want to do, work supremely hard, put it at the center of your life and pay the price for it all. Then you’ll have found the time to write, and by then you will be writing. It’s really best done earliest in life because it can be destructive.
O’Shea: You are aggressively marketing the book (surprisingly not something every successful author like you two are bothers to do)–on May 20 you released a sneak peak of the first eight chapters–what other marketing efforts are you doing to bring attention to the book?
Beale: There are videos on YouTube – there’s a set called “Being Creative” which we made for Harper Collins’ library & educational market, and then there’s another 4 or 5 which are interview bits, us on the sofa. We’re probably going to start adding to these on a regular basis. There’s a whole bunch of stuff due to go up on Harper Collins’ website. Our special Ordinary Farm webpage is here. Tad’s on Facebook – he’s killingly funny and gets to act out his comic alter-ago. I’m on facebook.com/boudicca, and on Twitter as MrsTad. Twitter’s closer-in to my daily consciousness, as it were.
O’Shea: In the course of writing the book, which characters became increasingly more enjoyable to write as the novel evolved?
Beale: Well, Tad’s not very connected to Ordinary Farm at this exact moment, because he’s heavily involved with finishing Shadowrise. But I’m deep into the first draft of A Witch At Ordinary Farm and I have to say, I’m loving writing Tyler now he’s a year older and I get to think about how he evolves. Basically I suspect he’s bi-polar, but we haven’t discussed that really, so we’ll see. Also, writing Colin in this book is very enjoyable. I get to deepen him, and work with his complexity, and he’s really opening up to me as a character.
O’Shea: Is there anything about Dragons of Ordinary Farm you’d like to discuss that I neglected to ask you about?
Williams: One of the fun things is you can read it as a straightforward adventure, but some of the ideas are going to be quite big. Like, what is the long-term meaning of the fault line… Because it isn’t going to stay static. There’s an idea about evolution at work, and an idea about parallel universes. There will be time-travel paradoxes too.
Beale: I just think it’s a gorgeous great jewel chest stuffed with ideas. Ideas are like jewels I think: they thrill me and sometimes they’re beautiful.
O’Shea: The Dragons of Ordinary Farm will be released later this year in Germany. How much are you two consulted when your work is translated into other languages?
Williams & Beale: It depends on the individual relationships concerned, but we’re good friends with our German translator, Hans Ulrich Mohring. HUM’s great. We have to answer his questions, and get it right for HUM. We think he’s got an astonishing feel for his work.