Guest Post: Jen Williams – How Witches Taught Me to Write

Jen Williams is the author of the Copper Cat trilogy, which I absolutely loved to bits. So I was excited to learn that she had a new trilogy coming out called The Winnowing Fire, starting today with the publication of The Ninth Rain. I’ve already read it — look for a review tomorrow — and it is just as amazing as Williams’ previous novels. One thing all of Jen’s books have in common is the fact they all contain an abundance of fabulous women–from Wydrin,  Ephemeral, and Devinia in the Copper Cat books to Vintage and Noon in The Ninth Rain. I asked Jen about what influenced her writing of her heroines as she does and the following piece is her response. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and do check out The Ninth Rain available from all reputable booksellers as of today!

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How Witches Taught Me to Write

When I was a kid most of my favourite characters were men. This might be partly down to what an enthusiastic devourer of cartoons I was – my favourite characters included Panthro, Skeletor, Eric the Cavalier, Mandrake… all names that will be very familiar to fans of 1980s cartoons – and partly down to the Smurfette principle. Any female characters that popped up in my cartoons were usually there to be the token woman – they existed to be girls, not people. And they didn’t interest me at all.

The women I did find interesting were to be found in fairy tales, and they were usually pushing children into ovens, poisoning apples or dancing themselves to death in a pair of hot iron boots (I mean, it’s pretty obvious straight away that these characters are more interesting than Smurfette, am I right?). Witches were the only women I saw in stories who had any power. Okay, so they were usually evil, or portrayed as evil, but they did have their own magic, and it was an independent kind of magic. Their power was specifically a power that men in these stories did not have; it was a secret knowledge, and an understanding of the wild wood that was theirs alone. When grubby-faced little oiks started munching on a gingerbread house, I rooted for the witch.

When I was a little older, I discovered a new bunch of witches who were to have an enormous impact on me, and they lived in Lancre, in a place called the Discworld. Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat were witches, but they were also very recognisable human beings (I suspect everyone has a relative who bears an uncanny resemblance to at least one of them). They still had power, but it was real this time: it was still the power of secret knowledge, but this was more familiar – it was the power of psychology and emotional intelligence, things I certainly recognised as belonging to female members of my own family.

In my early 20s I wrote my first book. It was called Bad Apple Bone and it was a hot mess, not least because I couldn’t figure out who the main character was supposed to be. I thought it was William, the bumbling librarian (think Arthur Dent with a dash of Giles from Buffy) because somewhere, deep inside, I still thought all the real characters had to be male. Another character kept turning up. She was a young witch; confident, funny and chaotic. Her name was Noon.

It took me the whole book to realise that she was the main character, or that she should have been. The next few books I wrote all featured chaotic, funny leading ladies, and eventually the DNA of Noon popped up in Wydrin of Crosshaven, the confident and sarcastic female mercenary at the heart of the Copper Cat trilogy. The name, which I liked a lot, is now bestowed on the young witch in The Ninth Rain – although the new Noon is a million miles from the dreamy side-character of Bad Apple Bone.

The truth was, I had eaten up all the lies about how women were only ever Smurfettes; accessories to men, easy reminders that yes, women existed but they weren’t that important. It had seeped into my subconscious via the cartoons and films and even the books that I read, and so my first attempts to write reflected that nonsense. The actual truth, taught to me under the steely gaze of Granny Weatherwax, is that every character is a real person. Everyone is the lead actor in their own lives, and no one is an accessory to anyone else. This idea is now at the heart of all my writing, and inevitably it leads to characters like Wydrin, and to characters like Lady Vincenza ‘Vintage’ de Grazon from The Ninth Rain. Vintage is an older woman in her 40s (something I felt I hadn’t seen much of in fantasy books) and she has spent much of her life running the family estate. She’s clever, confident and doesn’t have time for any bullshit. She is also kind, has a ruthless streak, and none of what she is depends on the existence of another character – she is not a love interest or a reward, or a catalyst for a man’s revenge quest. Vintage is her own real person, with her own, very real powers, and although Vintage may not be an actual witch, she certainly has witchery running through her bones.

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jenwilliamsBio: Jen Williams lives in London with her partner and their cat. A fan of pirates and dragons from an early age, these days she writes character-driven sword and sorcery novels with plenty of banter and magic, and in 2015 she was nominated for Best Newcomer in the British Fantasy Awards. The Copper Cat trilogy consists of The Copper Promise, The Iron Ghost and The Silver Tide – all published by Headline in the UK – and the first two books in the trilogy are now available in the US and Canada, published by Angry Robot. The Iron Ghost was nominated for Best Fantasy Novel in the 2016 British Fantasy Awards, and she is also partially responsible for Super Relaxed Fantasy Club. The Ninth Rain, the first book in the Winnowing Flame trilogy, is due to be published by Headline in February 2017, and she is partial to mead, if you’re buying.

You can find Jen online at her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

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