The Big Idea: Liz Williams
Posted on August 27, 2020 Posted by Athena Scalzi 15 Comments
Author Liz Williams has spent more than a little amount of time pouring herself into her contemporary fairytale, Comet Weather — more time, in fact, than she ever imagined she might. In today’s Big Idea, join her as she describes what went into crafting this female-led, Somerset-based series, and why it was worth the wait.
I wrote Comet Weather over the course of a decade – embarrassingly, since I usually write a novel in a year, and sometimes two novels. It was my ‘fun’ project: my publishing career had slowed significantly, so I decided to just write for fun. I made a bucket list of everything I’d like to see in a novel (comets, rocking horses, church bells, pirates, old houses, weathercocks) and put them into it. I was aiming to create the atmosphere of the books I loved when I was a young reader: Garner, Boston, Masefield, Cooper, Goudge. But I wanted to write that sort of book for adults: a novel that had the same dream-like quality, a touch of time travel, but also a feeling of reassurance, and one which drew heavily on British folklore. There were a few factors, however, which were consciously a little different.
Firstly, I think a lot of British Celtic mythology has been done to death. This kills me, since I am of Welsh and Scots extraction and I identify as a Celt. Also, the mythology around Arthur and Glastonbury – where I actually live – has been mined to the point of literary exhaustion, too. I wanted to move away from well trodden territory, so although I set most of the novel in Somerset, there’s no mention of Avalon or Merlin. I tried to draw on aspects of the folkloric culture that have not been so heavily explored, such as the Behenian stars.
Mooncote, the house in the novel, is haunted by the spirits of the fixed stars, the celestial bodies that were most influential in Arabic and later in English astrology – Spica, Arcturus, Aldebaran and their sisters. I drew on the stories around the white chalk figures of neighbouring Wiltshire and Dorset, and the lych paths, the old ways on which corpses are borne to the churchyard, and the spectral lore of Dartmoor. In the sequel, Blackthorn Winter, I’ll also be visiting Elizabethan demonology, grimoire magic, and late nineteenth century occultism.
It became clear as I was writing the book, and thinking about the rest of the quartet, that I wanted to set these novels specifically in southern England. This is a fascinating part of the country, and not hugely explored in fantasy. I wanted to do for the south of England – white horse country, the Jurassic coast, Cornwall and the great city at the heart of the south east, which is of course London – what writers like Alan Garner have done for Cheshire. Although I don’t have Garner’s intimate ancestral understanding of dialect, I come from Gloucester and most of my life has been lived in the southern counties: Sussex for many years, and now the West Country. My own ancestors are named in the Civil War (the English one) and I know exactly where, and from whom, my ancestry comes. This is a privilege, but it is one of which I intend to make full use.
And I also wanted to make this a very female-centric novel – by no means my first endeavour in these waters, since I’ve written a number of books which barely feature men at all. The men in this novel are supporting characters: the stories belong to the four sisters who are the book’s protagonists, and the men are along for the ride. Their role is to support the women, and romance, while present, is not a central theme.
I wanted to write a book in which women were unapologetic about being in the world, which all four sisters are in different ways, and in which they weren’t traumatised. I’ve written a lot of novels in which women have suffered some awful things, but this isn’t one of them. Bad things might happen, but the Fallows bounce back. They take the magic of their world for granted, but they’re not particularly ‘feisty’: the super-tough weapons-carrying urban fantasy heroine doesn’t make much of an appearance here, because I think she’s become a stereotype. I don’t walk down the street carrying a crossbow or a sword myself, though I might have a whack at a home-invading entity with a random golf club, as Stella does in the novel.
Some years ago a dinner guest remarked to my (male) partner: “You’re not much troubled by self doubt, are you?” Without making the characters too full of themselves, I wanted them to have a degree of self confidence, too. They’re OK with who they are; Luna, the youngest, is still gaining that confidence but learning from older women. Over the past couple of decades we’ve been getting into genre territory in which female characters are only respected if their behaviour follows enculturated expectations of male behaviour….yeah, no. There are lots of ways of being.
Writing the book was, as I mention above, a slow process: this was my escape pod from a number of factors, including the financial crash, trying to save a business, and my father’s final illness and death. Thus there were long gaps in between writing chunks of the book: I saved them up, rather as readers save up books that they love and try not to finish them too quickly (readers have reported doing this with Comet Weather, a huge compliment to its author). So this was a writing process which I actively enjoyed, and although I roughed out an outline, it changed over the decade and the plot was primarily pantsed.
And on a final technical writing point, in writing four protagonists, I had to key in to their voices: Stella’s is the closest to my own voice, although she’s a lot younger, and people who know me have picked up on that, probably because we both swear so much. Their voices are English, and contemporary: if you like the deeply organic growth of the language as it is spoken by modern Brits, you might like this. But the house, Mooncote, is also a character: my long term love of books about houses (Green Knowe, or Moonacre Manor, which Mooncote is named after) comes to the fore here, too.
COMET WEATHER: Amazon|Newcon Press
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This sounds like *exactly* the kind of book I need right now. I’ll definitely be checking it out.
This is a wonderful book, and I’m so happy to get something new from Liz Williams! It was well worth the wait
Comet Weather s one of those magical books that you regret ever finishing. I am so pleased to see a sequel is on the way.
I love Liz Williams’ writing (especially her Detective Chen novels) and Comet Weather has been on my TBR shelf for a while. It sounds really good, so time to bump it up a bit. Thanks for featuring her on The Big Idea
It’s an excellent book!
This sounds good. I kind of feel like the Arthurian mythos stuff is played out, too, but I bet she would have done a good job with it.
I was wondering what was up with you Ms. Williams so I’m very interested, even if this is not my normal flavor of fantasy.
Liz Williams! That’s an auto-buy for me. Glad to see another novel from you.
I literally finished reading this book just last night! I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I initially thought I would. I had never heard of the Behenian stars, so that was enlightening (heh). I kinda loved the matter of fact way the characters handled things like trees talking to them, or seeing a star appear on the stair landing.
+1, would definitely read another set in this world.
Read your Big Idea this morning, got it on Kindle, read quite a bit of it already and will probably finish it tonight. I feel like I should apologize, whipping through the thing in one sitting when it took you so long to write it! But I must say, it’s been a long time since I fell into a book that fast and deep; good stuff, please don’t take as long getting the next one out. I really like these people!
This looks intriguing, partly as I’m a fairly local fellow Somerset type; I lean more to SF normally but I have read, for instance, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. Anyway, I just ordered a copy.
I’m not Somerset-born myself, but my father was born down the road from you in Street. It was December 1917 and within four days of Arthur C. Clarke, who was also born in Somerset – Arthur of Minehead (I was born in Beirut).
Here’s a bit of a geographical aside with place names that will mean something to you even if no-one else. I live in Wedmore and though I like walking I never really walked in the immediate vicinity of the village until covid, since much of the countryside surrounding Wedmore is – being Levels with roads, droves and rhynes – too flat and straight for my taste. But lockdown’s restriction on driving before exercising pushed me to finally explore walking out in different directions from home, eventually getting me to the hillier bits, like the Mendips, further away. The Big Idea then developed of creating a large path-bubble centred on Wedmore, each long walk building a part of it – but the rule was I always had to start from from.
It was ten miles exactly from my front door to the top of Glastonbury Tor, via Meare (home of the Abbot’s Fish House), and a smidge longer back, via Godney (home of The Sheppey). I went a bit bonkers in June when this project gave me a case of obsessive targetitis, so I covered 515 miles that month (8x my normal monthly average) (I keep track) and got me to Wells, Mark, Cheddar Gorge, Brent Knoll, Winscombe, Burrington Combe, Burtle, Loxton Hill, Beacon Batch, Banwell, Charterhouse, Priddy, Crook Peak and Wookey Hole, as well as Glastonbury, in pretty short order.
This seems to have wiped me out – I’ve only done 50 miles in August. Exploring bits of Somerset and elsewhere by book should be a bit of a relief!
This led me to discovering that there are two different Inspector Chen series, by two different authors. Any comment on how the authors came to that result? Or how similar or different their worlds are?
Thanks so much for your comments, everyone – and a big thank you to John, of course, for featuring the novel. I’m very pleased those of you who have read the book have enjoyed it. I have finished the sequel, BLACKTHORN WINTER (a bit more quickly!) and have just come back from East Anglia, where I’ve been doing some research. When it’s published you’ll know where I went! I’m intending to start work on the third novel next month.
narmitaj, very interesting to read your comments! I’m usually over in Wedmore once or twice a week – we go to the George, and I use the village shop, too. The places in CW are left a bit vague but the church is based on Hornblotton.
Hank Roberts – I haven’t read the ‘other’ Chen but I’m hoping to read them. I hear good things about them!
I adored this book. Like Liz says, it has the atmosphere of the books I loved as a girl, but is written for adults. It’s achingly magical.
Aha, the George is my local too. I go there Saturday late afternoons for a couple of hours many but not all weeks. It used to be a pretty good time to go, though since reopening after covid the footfall has been rather thin so I might start reconsidering.
For everyone else, the George a former coaching inn; the oldest room, the downstairs bar, is a former cellar that’s about 550 years old according to their website. The village has a remarkable three pubs plus a bar at the sports/recreation ground, despite being a relatively small place of 1,400 peeps or so; the parish has a couple of other villages and 17 hamlets (and two more pubs) but that’s still under 4000 people.
You can see the George on the left of the banner pic here:
And Liz, you’ve probably been to The Sheppey in Godney but if you haven’t you could give it a go… it is Tardislike in being unpreposessing on the outside but big and spacious on the inside, plus it hosts a ramshackle collection of bits and pieces of clutter and art. I only discovered it a few years ago myself when someone suggested I would like it. It’s on the Levels in a bit of a mysterious Godney Triangle between Wells, Wedmore and Glastonbury, and seems further away, perhaps Mythago Wood-like, from any of those places than they are from each other.
BTW in my earlier comment “the rule was I always had to start from from” was supposed to read “from home” of course.