On indie press: Sean Williams

I’ve invited a number of people who have published in indie press and gone on to become professionals in the field to write about their experiences. Today Sean Williams, one Australia’s most prolific and best-known writers of speculative fiction, shares his love of small press with us.

“Small Press: An Ongoing Reminiscence”

It seems strange now that there was ever a time when small press was thin on the ground in Australia, but in the early nineties publishers big and small had pretty much abandoned the field. All that remained was a tiny handful of small, independent zines, and it was in these that my stories found their first homes – from the Esoteric Order of Dagon magazine, in which I saw print for the first time exactly twenty years ago, to the future powerhouse of Eidolon, where I found a space to experiment with different types of speculative fiction and different forms of fiction, too (such as the mammoth 25,000-word “The Perfect Gun”, my longest story in print at that time). Under the close editorship of Jeremy G Byrne and Jonathan Strahan, I learned to be a better writer all round, garnering several Ditmar and Aurealis Award nominations, and even the odd gong or two.

Those exciting early years ultimately brought me to the attention of HarperCollins, which published my first solo novel, but there were a couple of serious milestones to cross before then. Bill Congreve of MirrorDanse books published the very first book with my name on the spine – a collection of two unpublished stories and a novella under the title Doorway to Eternity, which sounds a bit New Age-y to me now but aptly captured my aspirations, none of which would have been achievable without this crucial nudge in the right direction. Bill’s confidence in my work and his close stewardship of the book and its contents were critical in keeping me moving onward and outward.

Around the time of Doorway’s publication, the now-legendary Peter McNamara got in touch to propose a joint project with Shane Dix. At this point, Aphelion Publications had become the only small press publisher of science fiction novels in Australia, and our discussions resulted in The Unknown Soldier, my first full-length work in print, beating HarperCollins and Metal Fatigue by a year or so. It garnered my first award nomination for a full-length work and gave me critical experience for what was to come.

So experimentation, exposure and experience – three things every writer needs to accumulate in order to succeed – all came from small press. That was my experience then, and it remains so today for writers new and old.

The important role small press played in my career didn’t end with my transition to traditional publishers. Russell B Farr of Ticonderoga Publications has published no less than three collections of my short work: A View Before Dying, themed reprints to accompany my second solo novel, The Resurrected Man; my first full-length collection, the Ditmar-winning New Adventures in Sci-Fi in 1999; and a retrospective collection, Magic Dirt: The Best of Sean Williams, which won the Aurealis Award in 2008. (Exposure – tick.) He also commissioned the strangest collaboration I’ve ever been part of: the intro to Stephen Dedman’s The Lady of Situations, consisting of a conversation between myself and a dead racehorse channelled by Simon Brown. (Experimentation – huge tick.)

In 2007 Rob Stevenson of Altair Australia Books published Light Bodies Falling, a collection of my rarer works, many of them unpublished or out of print, many connected to novels such as The Crooked Letter. This is Exposure on two counts: good work that might have been forgotten (even by me!) is given a new lease of life and my interest in the short story form remains vital.

I do write less short fiction than I used to, but the odd small-press commission does occasionally spike my interest. Such was the case when Chris Roberson invited me to write a standalone novella for his small press, Monkeybrain Books. Cenotaxis was the result – my first serious experiment in non-linear storytelling and a work that plugged an important gap between the first two Astropolis books. The same goes for Rob Hood’s Daikaiju series of anthologies (published by Agog! Press), which resulted in giant monster-themed haiku and limericks that would never have existed but for the invitation (some might not regard that as something to be thankful for).

I’m far too lazy and nowhere near crazy enough to do any of this small press stuff myself, although I did once self-publish a leather-bound edition of a book co-written with Simon Brown (without his knowledge, just for lolz). Only four copies of The Butler Codex exist, but bringing them into being gave me a much greater appreciation for those who take on tasks like this – from those who publish several books a year, to passionate individuals putting together a single fund-raiser anthology to raise money for victims of natural disasters (I’ve been in several of those, too, such as 100 Stories for Queensland, Tales for Canterbury and Hope). While some of these people go onto become Jonathan Strahan (TM), celebrated world-wide for the awesome forces for good that they are, all of them deserve to be celebrated and thanked for everything they’ve done to shape the field, by providing homes for niche or experimental work and by nurturing new writers. Their dedication, hard work, and serious financial investment do not go unnoticed.

I don’t think it’s outrageous to claim that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of these wonderful people. I think it’s the absolute truth. Small press is just about the purest expression of community in this mad and magnificent field of ours. Long may it thrive.

Sean Williams was born in the dry, flat lands of South Australia, where he still lives with his wife and family. He has been called many things in his time, including “the premier Australian speculative fiction writer of the age” (Aurealis), the “Emperor of Sci-Fi” (Adelaide Advertiser), and the “King of Chameleons” (Australian Book Review) for the diversity of his output.  That award-winning output includes thirty-five novels for readers all ages, seventy-five short stories across numerous genres, the odd published poem, and even a sci-fi musical. He is a multiple recipient of the Aurealis and Ditmar Awards in multiple categories and has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award, the Seiun Award, and the William Atheling Jr. Award for criticism. He received the “SA Great” Literature Award in 2000 and the Peter McNamara Award for contributions to Australian speculative fiction in 2008.

Tehani says: Sean has written far too many great books to list them here, but check out his new website for more on Sean and his extensive publications list, including his most recent book Troubletwisters (with Garth Nix).