Sean Williams is an established Australian author with a range of works ranging from young adult fiction to TV scripts. The What'ya Reading? crew caught up with Sean to find out more about him.
What’ya reading, Sean?
I’m reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and loving it. Why? Well, it’s a classic, for starters, and books don’t become classics by accident; it’s been on my to-read list for longer than I can remember. A lot of my students have studied it, so I thought I’d better catch up with them.
I’ve actually been on a bit of a retro bender for a while now, juggling modern books with Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, Georgette Heyer, and so on. I think it’s important to go backwards sometimes in order to go forwards (picture a car that’s stuck in the mud). I’m also writing a book set in that kind of period, so it totally counts as research (the fun kind).
What was your favourite book as a young reader?
I have three books I loved as a young reader and which I still return to every now and again. They’re for slightly different ages and probably chart my maturation as a reader. A Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner is a book that starts off totally kid-friendly but goes into some very, very dark places along the way. The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper is the same: it looks like a book for younger readers, but it’s so grim and wonderful, full of magic and incredibly adult darkness. The third book is A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin, a story that really crosses the bridge from childhood to adulthood. Take the depth of mythology and dragons from Tolkien (minus the sword-waving) and add a school for magic, and you get one of the most moving tales about growing into power ever written.
These three books, for me, really defined what fantasy could do, and shepherded me unknowingly into writing stories of my own.
Do you like listening to music as you write? If so, what do you listen to?
I love listening to music as I write! Always and forever. But I can’t listen to music with lyrics or anything too boomy or I get distracted. My quest for the right kind of music to write to has been long and has morphed into writing my own. I have several albums now, under the name “theadelaidean”. You can find a playlist on Spotify if you’re curious. Think long, slow drones and very little in the way of melody. It’s also great to sleep to (but not while you’re working, of course).
What risks have you taken as an author that paid off?
Oh, there are so many. Writing short stories. Writing a novel with someone else. Writing poetry. Writing a novel in the Star Wars universe. Writing about something that really upset me. Writing romance. The list goes on.
Probably the biggest risk I took was to decide I was going to try writing in the first place. That was a huge leap, one I can’t now believe I had the courage to make!
Why do you think books are still as important as ever?
Books are important because they deliver stories. That probably sounds like I’m splitting hairs, but I do think it’s important to distinguish the two. Stories are universal: every culture has them; humans have always had them, even if they’ve changed shape and size, depending on what’s popular at the time (think of the difference between a haiku and an epic fantasy series). Stories are a way of passing down knowledge and understanding from person to person and down the generations.
The means of transmitting them, on the other hand, are always changing. Once upon a time, stories were spoken aloud. Then came writing, printing and then all the modern technologies we have today, like e-books and (full circle) audiobooks. All these technologies are at heart delivery systems for story, which is what really matters.
So stories will always be important, whether books are superseded by something or not. TV shows, movies and games are all candidates.
What inspired you to write about the experience of having a disability?
I’ve been interested in deafness and Deaf culture for almost twenty years, but not from any personal experience with hearing loss. I originally started researching with the thought of writing a big, fat, post-apocalyptic thriller where everyone loses their hearing. The more I dug into it, though, the more it seemed exploitative, and the more interested I became in just one of the characters: a young guitarist who struggles to maintain his relationship with music when he can’t experience sound. Eventually, I ditched the whole end-of-the-world scenario and decided to write about him and only him.
It wasn’t until later that I realised what it was that drew me so powerfully to this project. I suffer from chronic pain, and for a while there it looked as though I might have to give up writing, which was a deeply depressing scenario. So there I was, a writer facing the prospect of being unable to write . . . thinking about a musician who can’t hear . . . and when you factor in that writing music is my other creative pastime . . . well, it’s really a no-brainer how I ended up there.
My experience of disability is different to that of the protagonists of Impossible Music, but the novel comes from the same deep emotional well.
What are your thoughts on diversity becoming the 'norm’ in literature?
I am one thousand percent for it. Reading broadens the mind--so only reading about people just like me defeats the purpose. It’s also good for writers to stretch their creative muscles, along with their research abilities too. The saying “Write what you know” is often used as a reason not to write outside your own “type”, but I think that’s a cop-out. What does it mean to “know” something? It might mean you’ve lived it; it might also mean you’ve researched it exhaustively until you feel confident that you’re accurately representing a true facet of it.
Stepping out of your comfort zone is a very important part of becoming a good writer, and this is one way that can be achieved.
What are your favourite diverse books?
Oh, there are so many. Around the time I was reading A Wizard of Earthsea (a book full of dark-skinned islanders, btw) I tried to read Alex Haley’s Roots and got about halfway through before it overwhelmed me (I was eight years old). Even so, it had a huge impact on my developing mind, exposing me to African American histories and cultures I had never really heard of before. A favourite from later in life was Bob Shaw’s Night Walk, a sci-fi novel about a man who loses his sight. When I was researching Deafness for Impossible Music, I particularly loved Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World by Leah Hager Cohen and Rebuilt: My Journey Back to the Hearing World by Michael Chorost. YA novel Future Girl by Asphyxia is a recent favourite.
What was your mindset about how to approach the issue of ‘own voice’ when you started Impossible Music, and what did you learn about that by the time you'd finished and put it out to the world?
At every stage, I’ve approached the process respectfully and with great care--because that’s how I’d want someone to treat my story, if our positions were reversed. There are societies like Deaf Can Do and Sign Language Australia who are, in my experience, good places to start, very open to answering the questions of and providing resources to people wanting to know more. They also run Auslan classes, which I recommend for more than just research: it’s an astonishingly rich and subtle language that works very differently from those of the Hearing world. At every stage in my research, I had to accept when I was getting things wrong and work hard to correct those errors. When talking to people who are living the experience, their world always trumps mine. If any errors remain in the book, on the other hand, they are mine, not the people who were so generous with their time and insight.
The bottom line is that I had to get out there and engage with the people in the community I wanted to represent--which was hard for someone as shy as I am, but totally worth it.
What advice would you have for any writer planning a story of diversity which does not come from their own voice?
Don’t be afraid to give it a try but do so with an open mind. Be prepared for surprises and challenges that come from inside you as well as outside. That frustration you’re feeling when you’re trying to understand from outside your own experience? That’s nothing compared to the frustration coming the other way. Be humble, and kind, and patient. And please do accept if a story is off-limits. Sometimes, walking away shows the ultimate respect of all.