Philip Womack interviews bestselling duo Garth Nix and Sean Williams about their action-packed and hugely enjoyable new fantasy series.
The Covent Garden Hotel, in London, is abuzz with lunch time conversation, the clink of cutlery and the whoosh of coffee machines when I meet Garth Nix and Sean Williams to discuss their latest series, beginning with Have Sword, Will Travel. It’s a sparky, comical adventure in which Eleanor, who wants to be a knight, and Odo, who doesn’t, set off on a quest to find and slay a dragon, aided only by a magnificently grumpy, misguided and self aggrandising magical sword called Biter. It’s about friendship, fighting and standing up for the truth against tyranny, lies and evil. Plus, there are lots of eels. The next book, Let Sleeping Dragons Lie, is also published by Piccadilly in October 2018. In it, Odo, Eleanor and their trusty magic sword will face up to a darker evil.
Nix and Williams have collaborated on many books before, with the Troubletwisters and Spirit Animals series already under their belts. Both were born in Australia – Nix in Melbourne and Williams in South Australia – and read many of the same books growing up, including Alan Garner, Ursula Le Guin and Susan Cooper. Listening to them talk is like listening to two very old friends, affable and totally at ease with each other. They’re doing a tour for the book, which, Williams tells me, involves ‘sword play and witty banter’.
I ask if they’ve read Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, which features a quasi medieval world in which a dragon has caused a wasteland. ‘It’s a very interesting book,’ replies Williams. ‘I’m not sure entirely successful – in its treatment of legend it is very interesting, and the mythic and the mundane.’ These are aspects also found in Have Sword, Will Travel, which plays with the well-known machinery of fantasy, yet, I say to Nix, embedded in a classic ‘there and back again’ quest narrative. ‘This is an archetypal sort of story,’ he says. ‘In the course of the journey you discover the things you thought you wanted may not be what you want. But you may find other things that you want. I guess I could read those for ever, depending on the execution.’
How, I ask, do they manage to collaborate on so many books together without wanting to kill each other? They laugh. Their process hasn’t really changed – they work on a very detailed outline, then Nix writes the first chapter, and
Williams will do a swift first draft which is then kicked between the two of them ‘four or five times, and by the end of the process neither of us can tell who wrote what,’ adds Nix.
Indeed, I say, it reads very cleanly, the characters – such as the mighty female knight Sir Saskia – and diction being well-formed and smoothly executed. ‘We have complimented each other on particular sections,’ says Nix. ‘I’ve said, “That’s great, I really love those pages Sean.” And he said, “well you wrote it!” And I’ve said “No I’m sure you wrote it,” and vice versa.’ Collaborations, chimes in Williams, ‘Are a bit like marriages, in a way. Not as close, but they are very intimate and there’s a lot of trust.’ ‘And you have to keep working at it,’ drops in Nix.
The main difference in their techniques seems to be that Williams, with his science fiction background, needs a functioning ecosystem for a story – if he doesn’t know why something is how it is, it makes him feel ‘twitchy’; whereas Nix is more of a fantasy type – ‘if it feels right, then you don’t necessarily need to work out how everything works.’ So they ended up fusing the two together.
There’s a refashioning of the idea of chivalry in this new book. Was that a conscious thing? Nix says ‘There’s a whole lot of things we’re examining there. It’s not an overt thing we set out to do – telling a story is what we want to do – but of course you always infuse the story with philosophical things that are lurking in your mind. And I guess any story you wrote about knights and chivalry would have to address the whole concept of might is right. This comes up of course – the fact that if a knight is better at fighting, does that make him a better knight? The answer of course is no it doesn’t, because that’s not what it’s all about. And that’s something the main characters have to learn. It’s not all about winning, either.’
Lies, truth and self-deception are another major theme – the talking sword can’t remember why he was cursed, and there are many other characters who may or may not be telling the truth. A lot of it, continues Nix, is about what it means to be human. ‘Is a magic talking sword human?’
So what drove this new book? ‘Part of it,’ answers Nix, ‘is the want to drive a sort of low-fantasy adventure story, in the sense that neither Odo nor Eleanor are gifted themselves – they have the magic sword. I guess it’s an alternate early medieval period, though, as we always stress, it’s an equal opportunity history – women can be knights and kings, and everything else, so we’re not being slavish in our history, we adapt it to the sort of fantasy we would like. I guess as with our other books – it’s really we’re just trying to write a book that we would enjoy ourselves.’
My final question is about fantasy and its status within the literary world, and the continued snobbery that still clings to the genre. ‘Fantasy has conquered the mainstream,’ says Nix. ‘If someone says to me, when are you going to write a real book, I say, well, my existing books are New York Times bestsellers – why would I want to write other ones? And that normally puts a stop to it.’ I leave Nix and Williams on their way to Oxford for an event, no doubt with many an exciting new plot already bubbling up between them.
Philip Womack is an author and critic. His books include The Double Axe and the Darkening Path trilogy. He is crowdfunding his new novel The Arrow of Apollo with Unbound.
Have Sword Will Travel and Let Sleeping Dragons Lie are published by Piccadilly Press, at £6.99 each.