On September 13th 2012, Hodder and Stoughton released Tad Williams’ latest book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, which blends noir and urban fantasy in the first of a new trilogy about the ongoing war between heaven and hell. Tad Williams’ early fantasy series were famously an inspiration for George R R Martin when he was writing the Game of Thrones series. Starburst can confirm that The Dirty Streets of Heaven sees the author on top form, creating a believable world populated by compelling characters whose unique lives are all on a collision course.
We caught up with Tad Williams to talk about noir, religion and world-building.
Starburst: Before you started work on The Dirty Streets of Heaven, was it your intention to write something inspired by classic noir?
Tad Williams: The first inspiration was more like espionage fiction, the cold war between heaven and hell, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to tell the story, and all Bobby Dollar stories, in that first-person, mordant, wisecracking style that's so much what we think of as noir. Part of that is because, as my publisher said, "this is the most like your own voice I've ever seen you write.” So long before I started the book, at least a couple of years earlier, because it's an old idea of mine, I'd decided I wanted it to be short, swift, a bit of a standalone and only one character viewpoint.
Are there any stories or authors that you'd credit as being particular inspirations for the Bobby Dollar books?
Well, obviously Chandler and Hammett, both of whom I've long read and admired, but also those who have taken these kinds of crime fiction and mystery tropes and done other things with them, so I'd have to throw Eco, Pynchon, Douglas Adams, Ian Rankin and Michael Chabon into the mix as well. Pynchon's recent "detective" novel, Inherent Vice, is a hoot, and Chabon's Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a great crime novel.
Are all of the religious elements to the plot drawn from research or does some of your personal spirituality leak into the narrative?
I've been very careful with this book not to commit myself too literally to any religious philosophy. As a matter of fact, you could make a case that this could be ordinary science fiction or fantasy and not about the "truth" of religion at all. But whatever it is, it gives me plenty of chances to play with theology, something I enjoy very much.
I've heard this new book described as an 'urban fantasy' and a 'fantasy-fuelled thriller'. Do you take an active interest in the way that your novels are marketed or are you happy to leave the rest of us to decide for ourselves how to interpret your work and where to shelve it?
Labelling by genre is great if your audience are all genre-readers and that's all you're trying to reach, but my audiences, at least the audiences I want, are more diffuse. I always hope to draw people who just like good books regardless of the terminology of categorisation that gets used on them, but this is certainly closer to a couple of genres, crime and urban fantasy, than to any others.
My only complaint about The Dirty Streets of Heaven is that it's going to be part of a series. Clearly the story doesn't conclude and we're left with a lot of questions, which isn't a problem in itself, but my favourite kind of noir is one where the narrator seems completely doomed by fate, where everything that happens seems inescapable and inevitable. What prompted the decision to turn this story into a trilogy?
I don't think of it as a trilogy in my normal sense. My fantasy and science fiction multi-volumes tend to be single stories that have to be divided into volumes because of length. I honestly think you could pick up any one of these books by themselves and read them. Although you might wonder "what happens next?", you would also have a fairly satisfying ending for that book. Ultimately, if people like the character and the milieu, I'd like to keep it open to doing true single volumes, but I decided to do three to begin with, 1) to set the stage for future stories, 2) to not terrify my fantasy readers, who like to immerse themselves deeply, and 3) because I didn't want to write one really big book to fit everything in. I like this length and this pace, but if I get to keep writing them I think they'll be more like most crime/mystery novels, more single volumes than continued stories.
I want to talk more about your femme fatale, but fear that it would spoil the story to say more than that there is one. Did you have any difficulty coming up with believable backstories for these larger-than-life characters?
If that means you found the backstory for that character believable, then I'm pleased. One of the reasons I've never thought of myself as a pure example of a genre writer is that character is always the most important issue for me, just nosing out world-building/invention. So if I'm creating a character I hope to still be writing in ten or twenty years, as I have here both with Bobby and the femme fatale in question, then it's even more important to me to try to make that character real. Part of that is research, part of it is being an observer of people. I try to do well with both.
Given how much I loved The Dirty Streets of Heaven, where would you suggest I start with your other books?
Well, the second one, Happy Hour in Hell will be out before too long, but you might enjoy a true (but long) standalone, War of the Flowers. If you're ambitious, I think you'd enjoy the four Otherland volumes, which are also pretty ambitious in character and world-building. I actually invent more worlds and characters in the Otherland books that some writers do in an entire long career!
The Dirty Streets of Heaven is out now and can be purchased below...