Sean Williams is one of the smartest people I’ve met. He’s as comfortable and as knowledgeable talking about cocktails and crap TV as he is about philosophy, science, and history. And he can write about anything, make you feel anything. Disgust, surprise, heartbreak. He can see into the future and remember a past he didn’t live.
He’s a puppet master.
He’s also my daughter’s favourite author.
“What sparked the story? The question has been vexing me for weeks. Which story, and which spark? I often say that my best ideas come from dreams (Metal Fatigue, The Stone Mage & the Sea, “A Map of the Mines of Barnath”), but they just as often come from real life (The Fixers), challenges from other writers (“The Jackie Onassis Swamp-Buggy Concerto”, “Passing the Bone”), or even simple mistakes (“Reluctant Misty and the House on Burden Street”). For all my thinking about these origin stories or stories, I was unable to settle on just one story, one spark. I loved them all equally. In the end I decided that it’s what happens after the spark that really matters, in this particular case as in all others.
(This, btw, was the spark for my novella “The Spark: A Romance in Four Acts” . . . but I digress.)
I can’t give exact dates as I could for some stories. What I can say is that sometime before 2002 a thought came to me: What if all this new age/psychic warrior mumbo jumbo worked in a way that no one entirely expected? What if instead of helping us through this life, it gave practitioners a powerful means of self-defense when they entered the next life–sort of like the Book of the Dead as written by Chuck Norris? The arrival of all these ghostly ninjas would really shake up the creatures that normally preyed on human souls–whatever they were.
The “whatever they were” part of that thought led me to wonder what indeed they might be, and the possibility I almost immediately hit on was: What if they’re not demons and devils? What if it’s actually God that’s preying on those that normally pray to Him? Specifically: what if God is a huge predator growing fat and bloated on the overpopulated souls departing the twentieth century?
This led to all sorts of pondering. “Eating” implies some kind of afterlife version of biology. Biology implies an ecosystem. An ecosystem implies evolution. Evolution isn’t always gradual; it can be punctuated by natural or unnatural cataclysms. So what kind of cataclysms could the afterlife experience?
By this point, the questions were rolling thick and fast. Why should only the afterlife experience such cataclysms? Why not our world as well? And why should there be only two worlds, life and afterlife? Why couldn’t there be many, like in the various multiverse hypotheses of physics? Could there even be parallel worlds? And while we’re talking physics, might there be something in the symmetry-breaking phase transitions our own universe might have experienced while cooling down from the big bang? Might there be aliens in there as well . . . ?
All my life I’ve been interested in religion, but I’d never known what to do with all the information in my head. Suddenly I had this crazy idea taking shape that would require all of them and more, funneling every faith I had ever read about into a giant blender in the hope of producing something that had a bit of all of them. Like the three blind men and the elephant, I now hoped to produce the elephant, the thing that existing religions only glimpse and report back on, incompletely.
This elephant was one of the sparks for my most ambitious novel, The Crooked Letter. (The other concerned real-life Mirror Twins and what happens when one of them dies.) It posits a three-staged life-cycle for the ordinary human being that from some angles looks like reincarnation but from others looks like heaven-and-earth. It explains magic; it explains destiny; it even explains the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. It was far too big for one short story, or even one novel.
The Crooked Letter became my Silmarillion, the odd-shaped missing piece that sits between the Books of the Change and the Books of the Cataclysm, and my Broken Land books for kids as well. I think it’s my least successful book, but that hasn’t stopped people liking it (and I’m very grateful for that). It has won some awards and is in the process of being turned into a TV series (fingers crossed). For me, ultimately, it was great fun, whipping up that spark into a crazy wild-fire of ideas.
And if I ever get sick of the writing game, I guess I can always use it to start my own religion . . . .”