Interview with Christy Award Winner Jill Williamson

Jill Williamson is the author of the Christy-Award-winning fantasy novel By Darkness Hid, as well as its newly released sequel, To Darkness Fled. The CSFF bloggers toured By Darkness Hid back in May (my review is here), and Jill was kind enough to grant me a late interview. Below, we talk about Jill’s amazing world-building process, Marcher Lord Press, paths to publication, and more. Enjoy!

Rachel: First off, your book has been nominated and recognized in several exciting ways lately. [Note: Since I wrote these interview questions, Jill became the winner of the 2010 Christy Award in the Visionary Category! She’s now gone beyond “nominated” to “award-winning.”] Can you tell us about that? How are you feeling about all this recognition?

Jill: I’m proud and humbled at the same time. It’s very exciting and slightly intimidating. I sometimes feel like I’m on the sidelines watching my life and wondering what God is up to. I’m so honored to be blessed by these recognitions. I pray that I can finish the trilogy in a satisfying way for my readers.

Rachel: You said in an earlier interview that some of your motivation to write By Darkness Hid came from the reaction to Harry Potter within Christian circles—that you wanted to write a fantasy novel “everyone would like.” How’s that turning out?

Jill: LOL. Not so well. I was very naive to think any book could meet the expectations of Christians everywhere. I’ve since learned that you can’t please everyone. And I’ve discovered that Christians can be the biggest critics. Some people feel that fantasy novels are not safe for their children to read. And some Christians actively seek new clean fantasy books for their kids. For the most part, teen readers like my books, which was my goal. Their parents might not, though. ?

Rachel: It struck me as I read By Darkness Hid that its world felt very real. You didn’t give an overload of details, but I got the feeling there was a lot of depth and texture to these places and cultures and people. Can you describe your process of world building?
Jill: The first thing I did was draw my map. And it was way too big and looked a bit like Africa, but I went with it. I noticed I had about 50 dots on it that were meant to become cities. It overwhelmed me to think of naming them all, so I erased a few. But I still had a bunch to name, so I used Hebrew words to name most of them. For example, “allown” is Hebrew for “oak” or “tree” so Allowntown in the center of the map is where my half dead-half living tree is.

Jill: Once I’d named all the places, I created a character sheet for each. I used a set of encyclopedias to look up similar places. For example, Barth Duchy is supposed to be desert, similar to northern Africa. So I looked up some countries in northern Africa and jotted down climate, crops, animals, plants, industry, that sort of thing. I also brainstormed a culture for each town. I did all this for every town in my land.

Then I needed character names. I’d been using Hebrew for many of them, but I wanted some variety. So I came up with some tricks. Allowntown, for example, is an orchard town. So I wrote a list of types of apples. Gala, Pippin, Cortland, Concord, Crab, Ginger, Fuji, etc. And when I needed a new character from Allowntown, I’d pick a name from the list. Each town had a theme. Carmine is a vineyard town, so I brainstormed a list of things having to do with wine: Rioja, Flint, Terra, Keuper, Pinot, Concord, Malbec, etc. For Berland I used Inupiat names. For Magos I used Gaelic names. For Cherem, I used names of stars. It was fun. I also sketched out the castles in cities where major parts of the story took place. I sketched characters. I wrote a history of my land with a timeline of who was king when, what major events took place, wars, births, deaths, etc. I wrote family trees so that I knew who married who. I kept everything in a 3-ring binder. At one point my husband said, “Jill, I thought you were going to write a book.” So I finally set the world building aside and started to write.

Rachel: Achan is a classic hero, an underdog who rises from the ashes to take his rightful place. During the CSFF blog tour, a few of us discussed whether someone in Achan’s position could really develop the character he did. We talked about the influence of “good genes,” God’s protection, and Achan’s own choices. How do you see this character’s development? What makes him a good guy instead of a resentful, scarred individual who’s only in it for himself?

Jill: His friendship with Gren Fenny. She rescued him from being alone. She taught him to swim and was kind to him. Told him that he should be treated that way. That he was worth more. That inspired him. He wanted to be to others what she had been to him. Plus, he saw her parents interact and how they loved each other and hoped that he might have such a family someday.

Rachel: Your handling of “love” in the book intrigued me. More than one character thinks he or she is “in love,” but rather than giving them the classic fantasy/fairy tale “true love,” you’ve made their feelings much more—shall we say adolescent? They’re a bit fickle and not so deep as the characters believe. Was this intentional? What are your thoughts on love in fiction?

Jill: I think many times, love in fiction is not realistic. I’ve worked with teens for twelve years. Most of their “true love” relationships don’t turn out to be true love. Break ups. Heartbreak. Lies. Cheating. But teens are confused. Hollywood paints this magical, unrealistic view of love and sex. And since I wrote for teens, I wanted to show things teens struggle with. I also wanted to show that love is a choice. So many people today give up on love when the “feelings” go away. They jump from one relationship to another, wondering what’s wrong with them. Why can’t they find that magical love? But love is more than “feelings.” Love is a choice to give another person kindness and affection and patience and forgiveness. So that’s what I try to show…eventually. *wink*

Plus I need to keep the tension going. If my characters were already living happily ever after, I loose all that. That’s why the people you want to get together on your favorite TV show never do. Think of Clark and Lana or later, Clark and Lois on Smallville. The writers drag this out for as many seasons as they can. And if they do let the characters get together, their love is quickly thwarted. It’s a trick to keep the tension up. ?

Rachel: Your publisher is Marcher Lord Press, a very nontraditional small press that specializes in Christian fantasy. Did you find them, or did they find you? How did your relationship with Marcher Lord come about?

Jill: I met Jeff at the 2007 Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s conference. He told me he freelance edited for a few famous spec fiction authors. I’d been frustrated with all the rejections and lack of interest in teen YA and had been looking for someone to read my book and tell me if I knew what I was doing. But I wanted the right person. So when I heard that, I started saving my dollars because I knew that Jeff would get my “weird” YA book. Almost a year later I paid him to freelance edit my first book—a teen spy story. His feedback was fabulous and encouraging. So when I attended the Oregon Christian Summer Coaching Conference in the fall of 2008, and saw that NO ONE wanted to see YA books, I gave Jeff the first chapter of my medieval teen novel to see what he though of it. He wanted to meet with me to talk about it, asked why it had to be YA, asked if it was really, truly 100% done, asked if I’d send him the full. And I did. And he wanted to publish it. I figured this could be the opportunity to get a book out there and promote it and start my writing career. So I accepted his offer.

Rachel: MLP’s Web site says its titles “titles are not expected to find their way to bookstore shelves. The primary sales channel will be the Internet. A Marcher Lord Press author may never see his or her novel at the local bookstore or Wal-Mart . . . Marcher Lord Press will do very little in terms of marketing the novels we publish. There will be no multi-city book tours or TV appearances or advertisements in Publisher’s Weekly.” These days, it seems writers have to be salespeople as well as writers. How do you market By Darkness Hid? In what ways has MLP benefited you more than, say, self-publishing could have done?

Jill:As soon as I signed the contract I started marketing. I’ve learned a lot over the years. I knew that it was all me. Even if Zondervan had picked up my book, it still would have depended on me to promote. I had already made my own website. I signed up for a blog tour. I sought out a list of influencers. I asked Jeff if I could print my own ARCs and mail them to Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal. He got excited and offered to make real ones. I wrote my own press releases and sent them to newspapers. I submitted to any contest I could. I solicited endorsements. I gave at least 100 books away to reviewers and friends and contests and libraries. I set up my own book signing. I volunteered and still volunteer to speak at schools and libraries and to teach writing workshops.

Marcher Lord Press benefited me more than self-publishing because I didn’t have to pay anything to get my books produced. Jeff paid me. My book earned out in the first three months and I started to receive royalties. Also, Jeff is an amazing editor. He gets what makes a great story. He’s sharp about when things aren’t working. He has a reputation in the industry already and I knew that I would benefit from that. Jeff also designs great books, inside and out. I have a gorgeous, award-winning cover thanks to Kirk DouPonce. Jeff designed the interior layout. Also, Publisher’s Weekly and Library Journal would not have reviewed my book had I self-published it.

Rachel: I’ve not yet had a chance to read To Darkness Fled, though I look forward to it! Can you whet our appetites for it?

Jill: Achan and Vrell and the knights have fled into Darkness to escape Esek’s wrath. Their destination is Ice Island where they hope to free an Old Kingsguard army that has been falsely imprisoned. Achan struggles with a new host of pressures due to his new identity. And Vrell continues to hide, but her secret won’t be safe for long.

Rachel: Finally, what are you reading these days? What writers have had the heaviest influence on your own writing and sense of story?

Jill:I’ve been reading Christian fiction. I recently read Eric Wilson’s Valley of Bones, Tosca Lee’s Demon: a Memoir, and Stephanie Morrill’s So Over It. I also read what’s popular in general market YA. I’m reading The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan and I recently finished Inside Out by Maria V. Snyder.

The Harry Potter books totally inspired me. The storyworld most of all but also the complex plot and the way Rowling balanced all her characters. I love how deep the layers go. How she knows so much about every minor character. I’m also inspired by Frank Peretti’s premises. I love adding some kind of spiritual warfare to my stories. And I love the epic style of Tolkien.






5 responses to “Interview with Christy Award Winner Jill Williamson”

  1. Jill Williamson Avatar

    Thanks for the interview, Rachel!

  2. Elisabeth Avatar

    I enjoyed reading the marketing tips – thank you for sharing!

  3. Katherine Sophia Avatar

    ok, that makes sense. Thanks! 😀

  4. Rachel Starr Thomson Avatar

    Glad you like the interviews! As for Twitter, my verdict is that it is NOT a waste of time, because I know a lot of people who use it very successfully. But I am not one of them. I’ve been concentrating my energies on other aspects of my online presence. But Twitter is definitely a good thing if you learn to use it.

  5. Katherine Sophia Avatar

    Cool… interesting interview. I enjoyed By Darkness Hid – and I always like your reviews, because I get a pretty good feel as to whether or not I will like the book, without a bunch of spoilers. 🙂

    I had a question… I remember you posted something about joining Twitter, and I was wondering what you thought of it now. Is it a waste of time or is it actually useful? 🙂

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