WBJ Williams on unicorns, religion and women in fantasy

“I wanted my daughter to have a story to grow into,” says fantasy author WBJ Williams

WBJ Williams, author of The Garden At The Roof Of The World
WBJ Williams, author of The Garden At The Roof Of The World

The Garden At The Roof Of The World, by WBJ Williams, is a very unusual fantasy novel. It’s an epic adventure set in 13th Century Europe but, instead of the usual predominantly male cast, the leads are all women. Dealing with issues of belief, faith and of course high adventure, it’s a subtle but thrilling story that’s just been released by Dragonwell Publishing.

Williams spoke to SciFiNow about the book, the challenges behind it and his influences…

17928971Who influences your writing style?

Probably the biggest influence of my style is Patricia McKillip. Her prose is lovely, her characters so alive and she is not afraid to confront powerful themes. I’m also heavily influenced by Tolkien, his brilliant world building, characters you care about deeply and remarkable poetry.

I was never so proud as when Publisher’s Weekly compared me to Tolkien in their review of the novel when the novel placed as a semi-finalist in the Amazon.com breakthrough novel contest.

Tell us a little about Garden At The Roof Of The World. What inspired the book?

The story started out as a bedtime story for my nine-year-old daughter. As I came up with new episodes for her, I realised that the story had some depth to it, depth that deserved to be explored as a story for adults. The myth of the unicorn was always the exploration of the tension between purity and life, and a story about women traveling across a third of the world with a unicorn must explore that tension or why bother having a unicorn? That is not a story for children.

Once I knew the story had to be recast for adults, it was a matter of when to place it. If I wrote a story of a woman encountering a unicorn in the 21st Century, she’d not go with it on a spiritual journey to find Eden and save the species, she’d likely place it into a zoo and start a breeding program to save the species the modern way.

Today we have a very different idea of what it means to save things than we did in the past, and since the unicorn is a creature of mythology, it makes sense to place it at a time when people took their mythology seriously. The medieval era was the last such time in the west.

I placed it in the mid-13th Century, at a time when romantic love was a new and dangerous idea. I’d always wanted to write a story set when young men and women strove with tradition to marry those who had captured their hearts.

It was a time when Heloise and Abelard were punished severely for daring to love each other, when Thomas Aquinas who would later become the strongest advocate for marriage for love was a student at the University of Paris, when the poet Rumi whose poems are some of the most powerful expressions of romantic love was still studying under Shams and Madhva was spreading his version of Bhakti yoga across India. The Crusader States and the Caliphate were both poised on the brink of self destruction and much of the world reeling from the Mongols.

The book has an interesting structure, laid out like a 13th Century manuscript. What led to that decision?

I thought it would help me place the reader into the 13th Century. Most people don’t understand how different life was 800 years ago, and I hoped to immerse the reader into the past, so that they’d understand the thoughts, dreams, hopes and fears of people who would have been more surprised to learn that unicorns do not walk in the wild woods of the world than to learn the world is round. You can’t understand the motivations of someone from 800 years ago unless you understand how they think.

Unicorns are one of those fantasy tropes that are perceived as being over used. How did you combat that?

Most stories about unicorns today are for young children. The unicorn of the medieval era was a dangerous and fierce creature. I’ve sought to portray unicorns the way that they were understood 800 years ago. I also tapped into non-western ideas of the unicorn myth.

The unicorn and the dragon are two myths shared across cultures, only the unicorn is always good. According to a Nepalese myth, a unicorn stopped Genghis Khan from crossing the Himalayas. In medieval Judaism, a unicorn is one of the four beasts associated with the tabernacle. In weaving together these myths with the myth of the unicorn so ferocious that only the some one pure could tame it, I tried to capture the mystery that has always surrounded unicorns in the past.

What led to the decision to have a predominantly female central cast?

This I kept from the core of the story I told my daughter. I wanted her to have a story to grow into, a story with strong women. Not just women strong enough to carry a sword, that is a cheap kind of strength, though Adelie in my story is very good with a sword. I wanted to write a story with women strong enough to set their own course in life in a time when men were expected to govern the lives of women. That is a challenge women face even today.

Did this change the tone and pace of the book at all?

No. However, since I’m a man, it presented other challenges. I am fortunate that so many of those who gave me feed back on early drafts of the novel are women. They made certain that my characters are as authentic as possible. The tone and pace of the book were both strongly influenced by trying to write the way people wrote 800 years ago.

Why do you think female characters traditionally get such short shrift in genre fiction especially?

I don’t know, sometimes I think too many authors have tried to write to a formula, rewriting other’s stories. I’ve read many Lord Of The Rings clones. So many of the stories I’ve enjoyed over the years from LeGuin’s Always Coming Home, McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld, Synge’s Swan’s Wing, to Donaldson’s Mirror Of Her Dreams have had women protagonists. Women’s stories are just as interesting as men’s stories, at least to me, and the genre has so many women authors who are writing amazing fiction.

The spiritual element of the book is fascinating, especially as it’s dealt with in a very pragmatic, grounded way. What led to your decision to approach it that way?

This is another attempt to portray how people lived accurately. 800 years ago, spirituality was very pragmatic. It was a central element to how people lived. I did a lot of research here, found that people were much more open minded about other people’s religions than our histories would suggest. Marco Polo wrote fondly of the Buddha, Boccaccio had a Jewish merchant as the hero in one of his hundred stories in the Decameron. Mahdva was warmly welcomed by the Sultan of Delhi in his attempts to spread Bhakti Yoga. This is something people should understand about their past, especially since too much of today’s strife is caused by religious and spiritual differences. It doesn’t have to be that way.

What advice would you give new authors?

Don’t stop. Don’t get discouraged. Judge your success by things such as do people understand your story, do they get why it was important to write it?

What’s next for you?

I’m finishing a near future novel about hackers and I’ve got a novel begging to be written set in the days just before World War 1.

The Garden At The Roof Of The World is available now from Dragonwell Press in both print and ebook formats. Walter will also be a guest at Readercon in Massachusetts, from July 10-13 later this year.