Please welcome David Williams to The Qwillery as part of the of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. When the English Fall was published on July 11th by Algonquin Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
David: I think I first started writing fiction when I was in sixth grade. I'd always been a reader...voracious, bordering on pathological...but had up until that point been perfectly happy to just daydream my own stories. I wrote throughout high school, and in college, but with kids and life and the like, it just faded.
Which was not a good thing.
I restarted it for my own sanity, and after some fits and starts, really got going again by getting engaged with National Novel Writing Month. When the English Fall was my first NaNo effort, from back in November of 2013. Having the productivity tools and a supportive community of folks going through the same struggle to create has been great for me.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
David: A hybrid. I do a very small amount of planning...character names and sketches of their personae, and a vague plot arc, plus a working title that gives me a hazy view of the Platonic Form of the project...and then go right on into it. I discover the characters as I write them. Getting too deep into backstory and culture-mapping would just drain me, and impede the central task of just freakin' telling the story already. And anyhoo, "just making [stuff] up as you go along" is one of the most entertaining parts of spinning a yarn. Must be my Irish blood.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
David: Finding that perfect balance between discipline and the vagaries of my muse. Maintaining focus on a single concept long enough to complete a novel-length work ain't easy. Coffee seems to help. As does NaNoWriMo. That month set aside to fling oneself at an idea really makes a difference for me.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
David: I have always been an avid reader of sci-fi and fantasy, and as a little boy must have read through my parents copy of Ray Bradbury's R IS FOR ROCKET about a dozen times. As a pup, I read the usual stuff...C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, with a smattering of Moorcock in my teen years, and a few more Piers Anthony books than I'd like to admit. I loved Steven King, from that first picking up of the Dead Zone as a bookish sixth grader. Heck, I still do, because he's such a brilliant natural teller of stories. In high school, there was also Dostoevsky and Camus and Sartre, because damn, was I moody.
My tastes shifted a little in early adulthood, when I tended much more towards hard and/or speculative science fiction. Ursula K. Leguin, Vernor Vinge, Neal Stephenson, and...particularly...the late lamented Ian M. Banks. His Culture novels, and his evocation of alien and AI mindstates? Amazing. Banks sublimed too soon.
Mostly, I read as much as I can, and as widely. You never know through what agency the strange stirrings of inspiration will be planted. That, and I take walks. Nothing sets the mind a-wandering like a good ramble.
TQ: Describe When the English Fall in 140 characters or less.
David: It's #literary #postapocalyptic #Amish #fiction, with a wee touch of magical realism. #likeatweet
TQ: Tell us something about When the English Fall that is not found in the book description.
David: A significant and recurring theme in the book is the relationship between writing and memory. It touches on how the act of writing either helps us process and overcome trauma or...alternately...simply becomes another way to ruminate and generate anxiety. This isn't particularly Amish, nor is it post apocalyptic. But it's a theme in the book.
TQ: What inspired you to write When the English Fall? What appealed to you about writing a post-apocalyptic novel?
David: I'd always found the Amish fascinating, ever since I studied their culture for my senior seminar in Religious Studies at UVA. I found myself out for a walk one lunchtime many years later, right after reading an online essay about the Carrington Event, the largest solar storm to hit the earth in modern history. As I contemplated the impact of such a storm and how it would devastate our tech-addicted culture, I suddenly thought, huh, how would that impact the Amish? And wouldn't that be a fun story to write? Then the title just popped into my head, and I knew I'd have to try to put it to paper someday. I sat on it for years...per above, the kids were young, and life was crazy...but it always seemed like a story I'd need to tell.
And apocalypses are, well, as a genre they are about the stripping away of pretense, and about how crisis obliterates the norms we create. That form of storytelling is a great way of cutting to what matters.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for When the English Fall?
David: I'd visited Lancaster County and Lancaster itself, so I had a general feel for the place. Because living amongst the Amish wasn't an option...what with a job, a working wife, and kids...I read a whole bunch of stuff written either by the Amish or by sociologists/ethnographers who gave deeper insights into the dynamics of their culture. I also spent time studying the science of solar storms, particularly histories of the Carrington Event and the potential impact of coronal mass ejections. It's not perfect ethnography, nor is it the definitive scientific treatise on the subject. My goal, primarily, was to tell a tale.
TQ: Please tell us about the cover for When the English Fall.
David: That was really cool. The artist's name is David High. He's done a bunch of other great stuff, for authors like Joyce Carol Oates and the like. He also...totally at random...spent his summers growing up in Lancaster County, where his grandmother made scherenschnitte...a finely wrought German paper and scissor art that's common among Mennonite communities. From that personal history he created a traditional tree pattern...representing life and harvest...split asunder by a single bolt from above. It captures the theme and feel of the book perfectly. It's subtle and elegant, and I really, really like it, which I made a point of telling him.
TQ: In When the English Fall who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
David: Almost all of the characters fell into place, so it's hard to say which one was easiest. Far and away the hardest was Jacob, the narrator. As the whole book is single point of view, getting his voice to work was an immense challenge. I took my first stab at writing the book back in 2012, and it just fell flat. I'd read the writings of Amish folk, and in trying to write what I felt was an accurate voice, I found I had created a narrator who was too plain and laconic to be engaging. To my Englischer sensibility, at least. I had to bail, scrap about 10,000 hard fought words, and just start again. He took a while.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in When the English Fall?
David: Storytelling is one of the best ways to explore challenging issues. And yes, there's a bunch of that in When the English Fall, most particularly the role of violence in human culture. Here, an intentionally and determinedly nonviolent community deals with apocalypse, only without the usual array of firearms and indulgent savagery. There are guns, of course, because the Amish own them for hunting and farm use. But what is done with those guns reflects their values, in a way that's very much not Walking Dead material.
It's also a meditation on compassion, integrity, and "separateness." If we isolate ourselves from others...those we disagree with, those we consider dangerous to our sense of ourselves...can we be truly said to be compassionate? How do we set boundaries, without compromising our essential goodness as persons?
TQ: Which question about When the English Fall do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
David: In the opening journal entry, Sadie (the prescient, disturbed daughter of the Amish narrator who forsees the apocalyptic event) is crying out in what her father assumes is gibberish. It's not.
I want someone to say, hey, isn't that Korean? And I would answer, yes, yes it is. She's crying out, "Please help me, O God please help me." In Korean.
It's an Easter egg, meant to send a little shiver up the spine of any Koreans or Korean-Americans reading it. Because they suddenly are given secret knowledge that there's something very weird going on.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from When the English Fall.
David: I like this little snippet, as falling leaves speak of the dying English:
"The air filled with leaves, torn down from the trees by the thousands, and by the tens of thousands. Like rain, dancing down all around us, brown and brittle. They filled the air, hissing like dried cat bones through the sky."
TQ: What's next?
David: An excellent question. I mean, in the nearly four years since I finished WHEN THE ENGLISH FALL, I've drafted three full novel-length manuscripts, all of which I can re-read without too much retching. There's FROM THE WATER, a telling of the rise of AI, spun through the lenses of the Exodus story..think extraterrestrial AIs as Hebrew midwives, protecting one of their own. There's THE DESTROYER OF THE GODS, a post-post-apocalyptic tale, about an event that brings down the machine intelligences that conquered humanity. And there's THE EVANGELIST, a story of an earnest rural evangelical who inadvertently becomes the point person in our first contact with pandimensional beings (think a beneficent spin on Lovecraft's Elder Things.)
Which one comes next? I've got no clue. Depends who's interested.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
David: You're most welcome! It was a pleasure. Thanks for having me!
When the English Fall
Algonquin Books, July 11, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 256 pages
A riveting and unexpected novel that questions whether a peaceful and nonviolent community can survive when civilization falls apart.
When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community in Pennsylvania is caught up in the devastating aftermath. Once-bright skies are now dark. Planes have plummeted to the ground. The systems of modern life have crumbled. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) become more and more desperate, they begin to invade Amish farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the peaceable community.
Seen through the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob as he tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos: Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they don’t, can they survive?
David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of “civilization” and what remains if the center cannot hold.
David Williams is a theologian and pastor in the Presbyterian Church and the author of The Believer’s Guide to the Multiverse, a theological exploration of Christian faith and the cosmos. His writing has appeared in Wired magazine, The Christian Century, and OMNI. A lifelong D.C. resident, he now lives in Annandale, Va., with his wife and children. David blogs at www.belovedspear.org.