I’m delighted to be hosting Edward Willett today who is chatting to us about his science fiction novel, The Cityborn (his 8th novel to be published by Daw).
Find out about his inspiration for The Cityborn, which authors have influenced his writing, the best part of his writing journey and more.
Welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.
Please summarise THE CITYBORN in 20 words or less.
The shocking truths two young people discover about their origins determine both their fates and that of their futuristic, class-divided city.
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?
There were a couple. One was my enjoyment of the fantastic cities of science fiction and fantasy—think Ankh-Morpork in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—and my desire to create my own fantastical city. Another was reading news items about people scavenging for survival in the garbage dumps outside major world cities. I pictured a city that had been dumping garbage into the canyon beneath it so long the canyon was full to the brim. All I needed then were characters. One had to be a scavenger. The other, I thought, should come from the highest social status in the City. What could bring them together—and why? That was the seed from which the rest of the book grew.
Please tell us about the characters.
There are two main characters. Both have just turned twenty years old (for the main action of the book—we meet them as children in the first couple of chapters), although since the book doesn’t take place on Earth, exactly how old that is in Earth years isn’t specified (and I’m not telling).
Alania has been raised by one of the Officers who rule the giant, hierarchical City. She know nothing about her true parents. She lives a life of ease and privilege—except she’s a virtual prisoner, not allowed to leave the Twelfth Tier (the highest in the City except for the Thirteenth, home of the semi-mythical Captain). She has a rebellious streak, but little opportunity to exercise it.
The second main character is Danyl. He has grown up in the Middens, the garbage heap that fills the Canyon beneath the towering City, raised by a mysterious older scavenger, Erl, who claims to have found him as an infant in the garbage. His sole goal—besides survival in a place ruled by vicious gangs—is to salvage something so valuable he can trade it for a pass into the City. Even the lowest, crime-ridden, crowded, poverty-stricken Tiers of the City would be better than the Middens.
The story kicks off when Alania, fleeing an unexpected ambush that she seems to be the target of, though she has no idea why, takes shelter in an elevator that is being used to transport trash to the Middens. She literally drops out of the City with the garbage. Danyl rescues her, and the next thing they know, the City’s Provosts are after both of them in force, for reasons they can’t comprehend—but have to discover if they are to survive.
What inspired you to write Edward?
Reading inspired me to write. I began writing my own stories because I loved the stories I read so much that I wanted to tell my own stories that readers would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’d read.
I wrote my first complete short story, “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” when I was 11 years old. My English teacher at the Weyburn Junior High in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Tony Tunbridge, to whom I showed it, did me the honor of taking it seriously and properly critiquing it (even though it wasn’t a school assignment at all)—not just patting me on the head, but pointing out weaknesses in the story and offering suggestions as to how it could be improved. Far from discouraging me, that made me want to write more, but to make each thing I wrote better. (And in fact, THE CITYBORN is dedicated to him—a long overdue dedication.)
I wrote longer and longer things. When I was 13, I wrote a short novel/long novella called “The Pirate Dilemma,” qcfar-future space opera about (what else?) space pirates. Then in high school I wrote three novels, one in Grade 10, when I was 14 (I’d skipped a grade and had a summer birthday so I was always the youngest one in my class), one in Grade 11 at age 15, and one in Grade 12 at age 16. I typed them up and shared them with my classmates, and discovered I was telling stories people actually enjoyed reading. It was that experience that convinced me I wanted to be a writer.
Knowing, even then, that making a living writing fiction was a longshot, I decided to study journalism in university (Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas), reasoning at least I’d be writing if I worked for a newspaper—which I did, spending eight years as a reporter/photographer/columnist and eventually news editor of my hometown newspaper, the weekly Weyburn Review. I wrote tens of thousands of words of news stories, features, and columns during that time, but I was also always writing fiction on the side. I moved to Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1988 as communications officer for the then-fledgling Saskatchewan Science Centre, then in 1993 took the plunge into fulltime freelance writing. I’ve been a fulltime writer now for 24 years. I continue to split my time between nonfiction and fiction, but fiction continues to be my first love, and I still get a kick out of telling stories that readers love…the reason I started writing in the first place.
Do you have a theme for your book covers? Who designs them?
I’m very fortunate: DAW Books, my New York publisher, uses the best artists in the business. The cover for THE CITYBORN was created by Stephan Martiniere, a Hugo Award-winning artist who excels at buildings and spaceships and imbues them with a real sense of scale, mystery, and menace (I was also lucky enough to have him as the cover artist for an earlier DAW novel of mine, TERRA INSEGURA.) The City, as he drew it, has a malevolent presence—it almost looks like the face of a zombie, though it’s clearly inanimate—that perfectly fits the ultimate revelation of what it is and how it is run. It’s not how I personally pictured the City, but I like it just the same. Book covers should draw in readers, and I hope this cover does exactly that.
Pantser or plotter?
I’m a bit of both. I do a detailed synopsis—I’m fortunate, at this point in my career, to be able to sell novels to DAW on the basis of a synopsis, rather than writing them “on spec” and then trying to place them. But I only rarely look at that synopsis as I write. The plot takes on its own life, and occasionally wanders quite a bit from my original concept. The aforementioned TERRA INSEGURA was a good example: I got to within about 20,000 words of the expected end, and realized the climax I’d sketched out in my synopsis simply couldn’t happen anymore, partly because a minor character had become a major character along the way. I had to replot from there—but the end result was a better book than the synopsis laid out.
“Pantsing” can cause unexpected troubles, though. It’s easy to make a throwaway comment early on about how, say, a particular bit of magic (in a fantasy) or technology (in science fiction) works, then find much later in the book—or worse, in the sequel—that by making that offhand comment, you’ve closed the door on something you’d really, really like that magic or technology to be able to do to further the plot. But, on the other hand, that’s kind of an enjoyable writing challenge when it happens. I like writing my way out of problems, even if I created them myself.
What are you currently working on Edward?
THE CITYBORN is a stand-alone science fiction novel (something of a rarity, these days). I’ve already written the first draft of my next novel for DAW, WORLDSHAPER, which will begin a new series called Worldshapers (DAW has committed to the first two books). It’s a fantasy novel that begins in what appears to be our world—but which we soon find out isn’t. (I had fun dropping some early hints that Things Are Not What You Think They Are: for example, the big professional sport is lacrosse.) The main character, Shawna Keys, thinks she’s just an ordinary young woman who has just opened a pottery shop in a small Montana city. But she seems to have a strange stalker staring at her apartment at night…and then one morning, while she’s getting coffee with her best friend, masked attackers swarm the shop and kill several people, including her friend. Stunned, horrified, she can’t believe it’s happening, and as she herself is threatened, she screams, “This isn’t happening!”…and just like that, it never did. Everything looks the same…except no one remembers her friend, or any of the other people who were killed. It’s like they never existed.
Then her mysterious stalker shows up and explains that far from being an ordinary young woman, she’s a Worldshaper, that she created this world to be the way it is, and that now an Adversary has entered it and will take it away from her, reshaping it the way he wants it to be. She can’t save it, the stranger tells her, but she can save other worlds from the same fate, if she’ll come with him…and if they can open a portal into the next Shaped world before the Adversary and his followers, who will soon include all the world’s police and military, can stop them.
As the series continues, Shawna will enter world after world, trying to preserve it from the attacks of the Adversary. The fun thing from my point of view? Every world will be different, Shaped by a different Worldshaper. I envision Gothic worlds, steampunk worlds, film noir worlds, musical theatre worlds…it’s an endless playground of possibility for me, and I really hope it takes off and readers enjoy it as much as I will. Especially since Shawna’s world so closely mirrors the real world that I can throw in all the pop-culture references and jokes I want. The adventure is serious, but there’ll be laughs along the way.
Which authors have influenced your writing?
In science fiction, Robert A. Heinlein above all. (Interestingly enough, my mother was born in the same town as him, Butler, Missouri.) Also Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, A.E. Van Vogt, Robert Silverberg, Andre Norton, etc.—the great writers of early years of science fiction were the ones who hooked me on the genre and made me want to write it. (my favourites as a teen!) In fantasy, C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien above all.
Are there any tips you could share with new writers that have worked well for you or was there something difficult you overcame?
First tip: read, read, read, especially in the genre in which you write. Second tip: write, write, write, and strive to make each thing you write better than the one before. Practice doesn’t make perfect, because no piece of writing is ever perfect, but it’ll get you a lot closer than not practicing! Third tip: don’t give up. I had a dozen unpublished novels before I managed to sell one. I went through fifteen years of rejection. But I couldn’t NOT write, and so I plugged away at it. Now I’m on my eighth novel for a major publisher, with two more contracted, and have also published with several smaller publishers. Counting both nonfiction and fiction, I’ve got more than 60 published books. I could easily have given up after, say, ten years of rejection. It was beginning to feel like beating my head against a wall (those were in the years before self-publishing was any kind of viable option). But I kept beating my head against the wall anyway, and eventually, the wall gave way.
Finally Edward, what has been the best part of your writing journey so far?
Having people I’ve never met email me, write me, or come up to me in person at conventions to tell me how much they loved one of my books. That’s when I know I’ve done something right—that I’m doing what I set out to do when I first began writing, all those years ago.
Thank you for being my guest.
Wishing you success with all your writing projects Edward.
Publisher: Daw Books (4 July 2017)
The metal City towers at the center of the mountain-ringed Heartland, standing astride the deep chasm of the Canyon like a malevolent giant, ruled with an iron fist by the First Officer and his Provosts in the name of the semi-mythical Captain. Within its corroding walls lies a stratified society, where the Officers dwell in luxury on the Twelfth Tier while the poor struggle to survive on the First and Second, and outcasts scrabble and fight for whatever they can find in the Middens, the City’s rubbish heap, filling the Canyon beneath its dripping underbelly.
Alania, ward of an Officer, lives on Twelfth. Raised among the privileged class, Alania feels as though she is some sort of pampered prisoner, never permitted to explore the many levels of the City. And certainly not allowed to leave the confines of the City for any reason. She has everything a young woman could want except a loving family and personal freedom.
Danyl, raised by a scavenger, knows no home but the Middens. His day-to-day responsibility is to stay alive. His sole ambition is to escape from this subsistence existence and gain entrance to the City–so near and yet so far out of reach–in hopes of a better life.
Their two very different worlds collide when Alania, fleeing from an unexpected ambush, plunges from the heights of the City down to the Middens, and into Danyl’s life.
Almost immediately, both of them find themselves pursued by the First Officer’s Provosts, for reasons they cannot fathom–but which they must uncover if they are to survive. The secrets they unlock, as they flee the Canyon and crisscross the Heartland from the City’s farmlands to the mountains of the north and back again, will determine not only their fate, but the fate of the City…and everyone who lives there.
The Cityborn is available to purchase from:
Edward Willett is the author of more than 50 books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for adults, young adults, and children. Marseguro (DAW Books) won the Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English in 2009, and the second book in The Double Helix duology, Terra Insegura, was short-listed the following year. His young adult fantasy Spirit Singer (Tyche Books) won the Regina Book Award at the 2002 Saskatchewan Book Awards, and several other of his novels have been shortlisted for Saskatchewan Book Awards.
Ed’s eighth novel for DAW, The Cityborn, came out in July, and he’s currently working on a new fantasy series for DAW, entitled Worldshapers. Other recent titles include the Masks of Aygrima trilogy for DAW (written as E.C. Blake), Flames of Nevyana, a YA fantasy from Rebelight Books, and the five-book Shards of Excalibur YA fantasy series for Coteau Books, of which Door into Faerie, the concluding volume, like the second book in the series, Twist of the Blade, has been short-listed for an Aurora Award. His non-fiction runs the gamut from science books to biographies to history: his most recent is Government House, Regina, Saskatchewan: An Illustrated History.
Born in Silver City, New Mexico, Ed moved to Saskatchewan with his parents from Texas when he was eight years old, and grew up in Weyburn, where his father taught at Western Christian College. He earned a B.A. in journalism from Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, and returned to Weyburn to being his career at the weekly Weyburn Review, first as a reporter/photographer (and columnist and cartoonist), and eventually as news editor. He moved to Regina in 1988 to become communications officer for the then-fledgling Saskatchewan Science Centre, and became a fulltime freelance writer in 1993.
For two decades Ed wrote a weekly science column that appeared in the Regina Leader Post and assorted other newspapers; an audio version also ran weekly on CBC Radio’s Afternoon Edition in Regina for 17 of those years. He hosted his own arts-oriented radio program on community radio in Regina for several years, and for ten years hosted a local weekly phone-in television show focused on computers. He has also appeared on CBC TV nationally to talk about science topics. In addition to writing, Ed is a professional actor and singer (he’s a member of Canadian Actors’ Equity), who has performed in numerous plays, musicals, and operas in Saskatchewan, as well as singing with various choirs, including the nationally auditioned Canadian Chamber Choir. He continues to live in Regina with his wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, P. Eng., a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, and their teenaged daughter, Alice.
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