Sean Williams

Change is in the Air

posted on 2 Feb 2018 at 11:20 am

This story is testimony to the power of dreams. It is all also the story of how the favourite of my novels came to be.

You can read “Prophet of the Change” in this collection (click for info).

In the winter of 1991, during an explosion of creativity that also produced my first pro sale (1), my most-optioned story (2), and a prize-winning entry in the Writers of the Future Contest (3), I wrote a novella called “The Prophet of the Change”. After a year and a half of experimenting with horror, erotica, science fiction, and humour, this was my first attempt at fantasy–a genre I’ve loved almost as long as I can read.

I had high hopes. But the story was terrible, and so was the opening chapter of a fantasy novel set in the same world.

Disappointed, I filed the stories in a drawer and got on with writing what I was good at.

The problem with these experiments was that I was trying to capture a world I had never directly experienced. That may sound strange, since no fantasy writer has ever directly experienced their equivalent of Middle Earth, Narnia, the Land, or Hogwarts. It’s all made up, right?

Middle Earth, particularly the Shire, was inspired by landscapes in the real world that J. R. R. Tolkien knew and loved. Take out the hobbits, the black riders, and the wizards, and it’s easy to recognize the English countryside. The snow-capped mountains, raging rivers, forests, barrows, etc, elsewhere in Middle Earth . . . these are all aspects of the real world that any wannabe fantasy writer can use as backdrops for their own magical worlds, if they want to.

But they have to experience these landscapes for themselves in order to authentically capture them, first. And I hadn’t. Back then, I was still twenty years away from seeing snow, and the notion of a forest like Mirkwood still feels utterly alien to me. The wildest river in my home town is little more than a creek that barely moves half the year.

Me trying to write Middle Earth is like someone scanning an image that has already been scanned several times. All I get is a flawed copy.

So for years I gave up fantasy as a lost cause. How was I going to write like my heroes–Tolkien, Garner, Le Guin, etc–if I couldn’t even get the landscape right?

Until the dream.

I remember it vividly.

Boy, travelling with some kind of caravanserai, follows a sandy track through a small village not far from the sea. No trees, just beachy scrub. The light is yellow and bright. An old man draws arcane signs in the sand and plays a tune on a wooden flute-like instrument to catch the boy’s attention. He’s a sorcerer, and this is his spell.

That’s it. A simple moment in time, and most importantly in place. It’s fantasy, but the setting is one I know well. Beach, summer, scrub–it could Port Gibbon, a place on Eyre Peninsula where my grandfather used to take me as a child to play in the sand dunes. It’s real, and yet it’s magic as well.

It’s everything I told myself I couldn’t do.

I remember waking up fizzing. Within hours I had a synopsis of a book, then two books, then three, and I had titles for two of them. I knocked out a first chapter about a boy and his father fleeing through the very landscape I had dreamed, which I called Fundelry, a nod to Alan Garner’s Fundindelve, but also to the idea of the creative foundry of the unconscious, where this idea had come from. I made my protagonists white-skinned outsiders in tribute to Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea. I modelled the town on Cowell, where my mother grew up. I gave the boy a loving relationship with the man he thought was his father, aping the most important relationship in my life at that time. The story evokes the death of my own father, eighteen months earlier. I knew, deep in my heart, that this was going to be something special, and possibly unique.

Some ideas are worth waiting for.

Original cover art and blurb for The Stone Mage & the Sea (HarperCollins, Shaun Tan)

The Stone Mage and the Sea and its sequels belong to a class of Australian novels that draw on the landscape of the interior to explore the fantastic. There aren’t many of them. I grew up reading Patricia Wrightson, and only later did I realise that she was pretty much in a category of her own, until Terry Dowling and Sean McMullen came along and weaved their own kind of magic on the land. I didn’t want to consciously portray or respond to indigenous Australian cultures the way these writers did, but I did want to capture the spirit of a land that felt older and stranger and more beautiful to me, as a third-generation child of that land, than anything else I was reading in Australian fantasy fiction at that time. Not the forests, mountains and snowfalls of the east. Not the rainforests of the north. The inland and the south, which most people would describe as “desolate” or “empty” but is so full of life and power that even now, writing these words, I can smell it in my blood.

Almost immediately, I found that writing these books would not be as simple as swapping the Shire for the Strand and getting on with pretty much the same plot. Desert settlements don’t work the same way as English villages. Horses aren’t as useful as camels in these landscapes, for instance–and if the hero rides a camel, he or she is probably not going to look much like Aragorn. If the heroes change, so do the villains, and the things they’ll fight about. (And speaking of “change”, that’s what I decided to call magic, in a nod to Crowley’s “Magick is the art of causing change by an act of will.”)

Original cover mock-up by Shaun Tan

Everything changed–and suddenly, everything worked. I received an Australian council grant to write a trilogy, the Books of the Change. HarperCollins bought it. Shaun Tan agreed to create the covers–and I dreamed that I saw the first book in a shop just days before Shaun delivered his principal sketch. They matched exactly. The first book came out, then the second, and then the third. The Sky Warden & the Sun was nominated for a Ditmar Award, as was The Storm Weaver & the Sand. The Storm Weaver & the Sand won an Aurealis Award and was recommended by Locus alongside Isabelle Allende and Neil Gaiman. The editor who bought Harry Potter made an offer for the series, but for reasons too embarrassing and stupid to go into now, my agent and I turned him down.

When I wrote the final scene of The Storm Weaver & the Sand, I knew there was more story tell. I pitched a prequel and three sequels to HarperCollins. With a little help from Arts SA, I fleshed out the world of the Change and my characters even further. The Crooked Letter was the first fantasy novel to win both the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards and was optioned to be developed into a TV series. Combined with The Blood Debt, The Hanging Mountains, and The Devoured Earth, the quartet now called The Books of the Cataclysm was published in the US and Germany and in 2009 voted the Best Australian Fantasy Series of all time.

And I still wasn’t done. Three more books set in the same world–The Changeling, The Dust Devils, The Scarecrow–were nominated for multiple Aurealis and Ditmar Awards. The Changeling in particular harks back to the darkest fears of my childhood and is the book I always name as my favourite, of those I’ve written.

It’s now 2017, almost twenty years since I had that first, momentous dream, and my passion for these books has not dimmed one bit. Amid thinking about another book set in the same work, The Bone Smith, I’m incredibly excited to see the first three being reissued by Xoum in such beautiful form. New times call for a new look, and hopefully for a new audience that maybe missed the Books of the Change the first time around.

If you haven’t read them, I truly hope you’ll give them a go. They contain characters I love like family, and worlds I know as well as my own. They speak the language of the landscape I grew up in . . . of time and power and wonder. They come directly from my heart to you.

The Books of the Change now available through Xoum as e-books or print editions. Click the covers for more information.

(1) “Signs of Death”
(2) “Light Bodies Falling”
(3) “Ghosts of the Fall”