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The Burning Skies: An Interview with David J. Williams

With The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams made a huge splash in the genre of hard science fiction action-adventure. Fast-paced intrigue, a space elevator, and the devious Autumn Rain organization all made for an auspicious debut. Now Williams is back with The Burning Skies, in which the Autumn Rain organization continues its plotting even as the superpowers try to keep their fragile alliance from falling apart in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event. Claire Haskell, a secret agent who can jack her brain into the nets of her enemies, must protect the president of the United States and buy time for other agents to try to thwart the efforts of Autumn Rain. Williams has gotten praise from the likes of Nancy Kress and Peter Watts, and The Burning Skies looks like another great effort from Williams.

I interviewed Williams about the novel recently via email...

Burningskies How was writing your second novel different from writing your first?

David J. Williams:
The toughest thing about it was that I had six years to do the first and only a year to do the second. To draw an analogy from the music world: there's a reason so many second albums underperform--you take a band that's had a lifetime to write the first album, and then you lock them in the studio and say, okay guys, the clock's ticking and we need forty more minutes of classic riffs!  Fortunately, I had the whole thing mapped out at a high level, so it was really just a matter of following the gameplan I'd already developed. And in The Burning Skies, we have the opportunity to see a lot more of the world of the early 22nd century. The bulk of the narrative is set in orbit; the book centers on the space station known as the Europa Platform, the site of the secret summit conference between the U.S. president and the leaders of the Eastern bloc. But the elite terrorist group Autumn Rain crashes the party, and things go out of control from there. . . How difficult is it to write about the President of the United States? Did you have any examples in fiction that you thought worked particularly well?

Williams: What I didn't want was one of those technothrillers that opens with the president and the director of the CIA sitting around a table looking at a situation report. The president is a shadowy, off-the-screen figure in The Mirrored Heavens, so by the time we get up close to Andrew Harrison in The Burning Skies, we've earned the right to do so, and--because we've been building up to him all this time--he really feels like the president. And I wanted Harrison to be a complex figure--all too often, when we see presidents in fiction, it's very obvious to the reader how the author feels about their president-character, and the author's politics are usually pretty transparent too. Which I gotta admit I find kinda tedious. There're a lot of action scenes in The Burning Skies. How do you keep a novel fast-paced without sacrificing depth?

Williams: I call it the "calibration of revelation"--make sure that the Larger Mystery is slowly unfolding from the start, regardless of what else is happening. We learn a great deal in The Burning Skies about the nature of Autumn Rain and the dilemma of Claire Haskell, an engineered superweapon on the run from everyone (including herself). I also think that it's essential the battles aren't just a matter of Good Guys vs. Bad, and that there's considerable subterfuge going on as to what the various schemes/angles are. What did you learn as a first-time novelist about the book business and the whole lifecycle of having a book published?

Williams: I'd done a lot of homework, and came to the industry with relatively few illusions, but I have to say that most of my surprises were positive ones. I'd heard editors have no time to edit anymore, but Juliet Ulman and David Pomerico at Bantam were fantastic. I'd also heard that you can get stuck with a cover you wouldn't be caught dead on the subway with, but I'm totally in love with the covers I've been getting. Overall, though, I think the biggest challenge for first-time novelists is that you have to be both an artist and a businessperson, and that can be a tough balance to strike. Did any of the reader reaction to The Mirrored Heavens surprise you? If so, how?

David J. Williams: I wasn't expecting people to connect so viscerally with Claire Haskell--there's something about the way she so desperately wants to be an ordinary person (but knows she never will) that really makes her resonate. I was also struck by how much of the reader response to the book splits right down the middle. People seem to either love it or hate it, and I'm into both reactions, as I think that kind of split-jury is what happens when you're onto something interesting. Present tense narrative, no chapters, secret-agent characters who don't want you inside their heads: I wanted this to be fiction that pushes the reader out of their comfort zone. In what way do you think The Burning Skies is different from the first novel?

Williams: Some of it gets to your question earlier regarding the president. The characters who survived The Mirrored Heavens are much higher up the food-chain now--much closer to the nation's leadership--whereas the stakes have gone off-the-charts. Some of it's also the fact that The Mirrored Heavens denies the reader the Big Character Meet-Up you usually get in such books; instead, all the characters cross paths early in The Burning Skies, which adds a lot of flavor to the initial build-up. And some of it's the combat, which is ten times more intense than the first book. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and publicly guarantee that The Burning Skies features the craziest space battle to ever appear in science fiction. Ain't no shame in swinging for the fence . . . Is there a particular scene in The Burning Skies you are most fond of?

Williams: The opening scene. I wanted to come up with a way to get new readers on board with all the information they needed to know about what happened in the first book while not boring people who did read The Mirrored Heavens with a "The Story So Far" section. The solution was a conversation/reunion between two key characters which carried its own drama and revelations--all the more so as it centers on a hack on an "uncrackable" U.S. orbital fortress. Are you taking a break, or working on something new?

Williams: A break is probably in order. As I write this, I am literally a few thousand words away from finishing the last book in the trilogy, The Machinery of Light--don't tell my editor I'm taking time out to answer these questions).  So you'll excuse me if I'm awash in surrealism right now, even as I frantically hammer away on the keyboard... 


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You totally hit the mark with the space battles. I can attest to being thrown out of my comfort zone by many of the unique structural elements in Mirrored Heavens, but the techniques grew on me, and by the time I'd gotten a bit into Burning Skies the whole series kinda clicked into place for me. I've read NO better novel spanning action sequence.

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