Tony Williams – Q&A

Tony Williams
Tony Williams
Tony Williams is a poet and fiction writer based in rural Northumberland. His first novel Nutcase (2017) is a rewriting of a medieval saga set in Sheffield, while Cole the Magnificent (2023) dreams up the early life of Old King Cole. His most recent poetry collection is Hawthorn City (2019). He is Professor of Creative Writing at Northumbria University.

Tony can be found at:
Website (Salt): Cole the Magnificent
Twitter: @TonyWilliams9

Tell me what inspired you to write your novel?
Cole the Magnificent really came about because I had unfinished business after my first novel, Nutcase, was published. Nutcase is a very different book – it’s a retelling of the Saga of Grettir the Strong, set on a modern-day housing estate in Sheffield. I was trying to write in a medieval style but with modern subject matter. It’s very violent and bleak (although it’s also supposed to be a black comedy). But it also ended up being basically realist in approach. The sagas have trolls and ghosts and magic halberds and stuff like that, but that didn’t translate into contemporary Sheffield very well. So after I’d finished Nutcase, I wanted to write something that took on the more fantastical elements of medieval saga – something which wasn’t just trying to be realistic but which was a bit more playful and out-there.

What came first the characters or the world?
It was the world really. I knew I wanted to do a kind of quest or pilgrimage narrative, where the characters started in a basically realistic home setting, and as they travelled further, things would get more and more outrageous and weird. That’s how it is in the Icelandic sagas – once they leave Iceland and go to, say, northern Norway, you know something outlandish is on the way. And other medieval travelogues are the same. It’s that orientalist thing where the traveller goes off to terra incognita and then comes back with all sorts of tall tales. Only I also like the way that medieval stories always come in different variants, and I wanted my narrator to be always telling us these other versions and casting doubt on the story, and going off on preposterous digressions. So the whole thing would also be a kind of shaggy-dog story. All that pointed to the idea of a picaresque, where you’d have this feckless knave wandering the world having ludicrous adventures. And the figure of Old King Cole seemed perfect for that. I’ve always loved nursery rhymes, and if you look up Old King Cole the scholarship basically says, ‘nothing else is know about him,’ so I decided to werite the story of Cole’s life before he grew old.

Cole the Magnificent
Cole the Magnificent

How long did it take to write?
About six years! It was meant to be a novella. I was just amusing myself while I waited to see if anyone would publish the other novel. But then I got caught up in it, and tinkered away with it for years. Wrote loads. Deleted loads. Got distracted writing poems and so on and so forth. I sort of envy those writers who can reel off a novel in a year and then get on with the next one, but what seems to happen with me is that I write a big chunk, don’t know what the hell I’m doing, and then gradually work away at it until, very late, it starts to come into focus. It’s agony at times, but I think you need the agony. That’s what makes it worth doing, what makes it so satisfying when it falls into place.

Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
No, I write in complete silence, preferably with no one else in the room!

What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
I’ve been a bit nervous about how readers might respond, partly because the book sits between a few genres – is it literary fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, or all three? I’m also well aware that it’s kind of overflowing with stuff, and doesn’t quite play by all the traditional story rules. It’s early days, but it’s been brilliant to see how generously readers have approached it. They’ve embraced the world of the book and got pleasure out of it, and that’s all I can ask.

What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
Bernard Hughes reviewed Cole for The Arts Desk, and said it was ‘in its way, brilliant, but may not be for everyone’ – that seemed to me a thrilling summary because I think it won’t be for all readers and I’m OK with that, but I hope that it will really speak to some.

Do you take notice of online reviews?
I’m deeply grateful for any review, because what I want is for people to read my book, and a review shows that someone has done that and then taken the time to write about it. A review says, ‘Yes, this book exists’ – even if they hated it. As for taking any notice, I’ve been writing and publishing for long enough that I know you should not pay too much attention to either good reviews or bad ones, but I’m human and also an anxious parent, wanting my little book to bring pleasure to people. So looking at online reviews can be a way of gambling on your own vanity, as long as you never get too invested. Some reviewers might totally get what a book is doing, and then even if they give an ambivalent review, you don’t mind at all because at least they saw it clearly, it just wasn’t for them. Others might not seems to get it and those you just have to accept because there’s no guarantee a book will connect with any given reader. The dangerous reviews are the very positive ones – of course you want to believe they are perceptive and judicious!

Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
I don’t really think of myself as writing in specific genres at all. Maybe that comes from writing poetry, which is generally less commercial than fiction so it tends not to get parcelled up into marketable genres. In my prose fiction I’ve written flash fiction, a realist/comedy novel and then this (a mash-up of fantasy, picaresque, historical fiction, folklore, faux-scholarship, fairy tale, and so on and so forth). I suppose I did make a conscious decision to go beyond realism when I started Cole. In general I always want to do something that’s different in some way to what I’ve done before. That’s what makes it interesting. And I like to work across genres, taking a bit of this and a bit of that. But what you’re doing then is to try to put together a frankenbook, something never yet seen before that scares the townfolk a little. That’s maybe one thing that takes the time – you get some ingredients and fool about with them and try to create something which is alive, a vision, which you hope other people can see as well.

Which author(s) inspire you?
For this book, the anonymous authors of Icelandic saga, which is a literature of the highest order and which I’ve learned so much from. The sagas are mind-expanding for a modern writer – they operate like novels but also completely differently. I can’t recommend them strongly enough. Also the Mabinogion and other medieval tales for their amazing elastic whimsical treatment of the world. Umberto Eco’s Baudolino and Grimmelshausen’s Simplicius Simplicissimus are both medieval picaresques I love. Italo Calvino for the variety of his work and the way he just gets us to accept whatever he’s telling us. Jane Smiley for her monumental masterpiece The Greenlanders. And weirdly George Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, which is about a Paris apartment building but was instrumental in showing me how richly you can stuff a novel and still not have it come apart at the seams. And then something like Martha Sanders’ Alexander and the Magic Mouse, a children’s book I vividly remember reading as a child (and then, a little bit older, going back to when I was off school ill). That book’s world is conjured so perfectly (partly by the illustrations) that it stayed alive somewhere inside me all these years. I read it again recently and it was still there, alive, waiting for me to find it again. It’s amazing that a book can do that. It’s what I aspire to with Cole – that someone should read it, and then find years afterwards that Cole has taken up residence in their imagination.

What is your biggest motivator?
Writing makes me happy. When I spend part of the day writing, and make some headway, I feel good. When I don’t write, I’m often glum. It’s a no-brainer, really, that I should write every day, although I don’t always.

What will always distract you?
Everything, and especially the internet. I think the important thing is to get started, because it’s easier to keep going than to start. And it’s easier if you’re in the habit. I know that things go much easier if I’m writing a bit every day. I aim for about 300 words, which you can reel off if 15 minutes, at a push, and if I can do more, great, but I don’t beat myself up about it. If I’ve hit that target every day for a week, I’m flying. It’s easy. Then I miss a day, which turns into a week. I can’t get going again.

Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes, I read a lot as a child and I think that was mainly because I loved it, but also perhaps because reading was a way of engaging with the world I felt confident in. I read Tolkein extensively and a lot of classics and Ed McBain and Commando and the Beano and Dandy, and War and Peace at an age when I could tell it was something else but didn’t get as much from it as when I read it again in me 20s. Also Emil and the Detectives – again, I have a very vivid memory of reading it when I was ill. Lying on a bed reading in the daytime – that’s paradise, isn’t it?

Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
I have conflicting feelings here because I grew up on the other side of the hill from Scarthin Books, a famous bookshop in Derbyshire that’s split over three or four floors and was always amazingly ramshackle and full of the most wonderful finds. But now I live just up the road from Barter Books, also famous and perhaps with a better café but a less esoteric selection. More and more I go to bookshops for the happy accidents, the books I didn’t know I wanted.

What books can you not resist buying?
I have conflicting feelings here because I The ones I don’t resist are the things I’ve never heard of, that someone recommends or that I suddenly read about, and I think, if I don’t buy this now, I’ll never remember it or hear about it again. So I order them then and there. With things I know I want, or the next book by a favourite author, I can be a bit more hesitant, because I know it’s there and I can always go back to it. Of course that means there are some authors whose work I love – Gwendoline Riley, Alice Munro, Russell Hoban – where I’ve not read everything they’ve written, because I’m complacently thinking, not yet, there’s still time.

Do you have any rituals when writing?
No, I’m reasonably flexible. I have to feel I’m alone, so I usually can’t write if a family member is in the same room, but I can write on a busy train if the people around me are strangers. (Most of my first novel was written on an ipad on the train to and from work.) I don’t usually write longhand, except brief notes when planning or editing. I need a computer on a tablet or sometimes just a phone, and I tap away, stopping often, and if I’m in the flow I’ll keep going to squeeze the last bit of juice out of the session. And then – try to write more the next day.


How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
At the moment, six: Robert Irwin’s Wonders Will Never Cease, poetry by Antony Rowland, Kris Johnson and Jacob Polley, a history of early Christianity, and Gormenghast, which I’ve never read despite loving Titus Groan. There are others that were in there very recently, but the other day I faced facts and put them back on the shelves for another time. It can get oppressive, feeling that your reading is stacked up for weeks or months to come, and I sometimes like it better if I suddenly find something tucked away on a bookshelf and start reading it, rather than planning things too much.

What is your current or latest read?
I’m reading Ibn Fadlan’s account of his travels in the north, and travel writing by other medieval Arab writers, in a brilliant Penguin Classics edition. It’s mind-expanding, seeing the Viking and Arab worlds connecting with each other (and the West being a faraway afterthought). Plus we hear about the Khazars, a Jewish empire of the steppe which dominated the region and then vanished, and which is also incidentally the subject of a bizarre novel by Milorad Pavic, The Dictionary of the Khazars, which tells the same story three times from three different perspectives, in alphabetical order.

Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I’m looking forward to reading M John Harrison’s ‘anti-memoir’ Wish I Was Here. I first got into Harrison by reading his novel Climbers, and then discovered his fantasy and science fiction work. The Kefahuchi Tract trilogy, starting with Light, is completely dazzling and showed me what’s possible in science fiction. Wish I Was Here has been out a little while but today I listened to a podcast of Harrison talking about it and looking back on his career, and it’s reminded me I need to read it. He’s a complete master.

Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
The next thing for me (well, the thing I’ve been working on for two years now) is a novel about magic rituals and war and trauma and family. I’m at the stage where you have a load of broken crockery and despair of ever fitting it together into a vase, let alone one that looks nice and has actual flowers in it. All you can do is keep going. Maybe you’ll end up with a half-decent ashtray.

Bottom Ko-Fi

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.