Making fairy tales realistic, with Fables creator Bill Willingham

To celebrate the publication of his new anthology Happily Ever After (Night Shade Books), editor John Klima sat down with Bill Willingham, who wrote the introduction to the book and is the creator of legendary comic book Fables. Together they explore what happens when you smack fairy tale characters down in the so-called real world.

Fairy tales with a hard edge of reality are becoming a staple of fantasy stories, and Willingham has some interesting thoughts on why - as well as what's fantastic about turning myths into flesh-and-blood characters.

Happily Ever After is in bookstores now (or you can order it online), and Bill Willingham wrote the introduction. John Klima also edits the SF/F magazine Electric Velocipede.

Night Shade Books will be giving away copies of Happily Ever After, on Twitter. If you follow Night Shade on Twitter, and retweet the special message about Happily Ever After, you could win a free book!

John Klima: Have you always been a fan of fairy tales?

Bill Willingham: I think so. I've certainly liked them as far back as I can remember, and that affection has only grown stronger as I've grown.

K: Do you have a favorite fairy tale?

W: Sometimes. The Pied Piper is one of my all time favorites.

K: It seems like you relish in taking very familiar fairy tale characters and throwing them into unexpected situations. Have you ever worried if you've taken things too far?

W: All the time. As one who dislikes many of the changes made, seemingly arbitrarily, to modernize wonderful and personally beloved old legends – such as Beowulf was never really as heroic or accomplished as the original story, or some of the truly horrible recent reworkings of Robin Hood – I'm in danger of being quite the hypocrite, what with the changes I make to these characters, every one of whom is likely someone's favorite character. So I try at least to follow the self-imposed rule: The original tale of each character I use happened just the way the old tale states it. Then I work on what's happened since then, and how I can justify the changes I make in the character, in reasonable story terms. Now there is some wiggle room there, since many of these old stories have multiple versions, and so I can pick the version that works best for my plans, and still remain true to the governing rule.

K: When writing a comic book script, do you work with the artist at all on ideas, or do you write entirely on your own?

W: I like to work with the artist(s) to the extent that they want to be part of the ideas part of story construction. This has paid off with Fables, since the main artist, Mark Buckingham, has contributed some truly glorious ideas to the saga.

K: You recently published your first Fables novel, how was that compared to writing the comic?

W: Well, structurally, writing prose fiction is vastly different from writing comic books. In comic books there's no room for wasted words, so writing with fanatical brevity is the crowning virtue. There's really no room for an extended conversation, for example. Also, there's no exposition in comics – no describing the setting, or the weather, or any of a number of things. In comics, all of that description is accomplished by literally showing, not telling. The artist provides all of that. So, when I signed up for a full Fables novel, I had to learn to do exposition in addition to dialogue, and to intersperse them in such a way as not to horribly bog down the story. Readers will disagree on the extent to which I succeeded at that.

Making fairy tales realistic, with Fables creator Bill Willingham

K: Did you start out writing with the thought that you would publish novels, or did you always want to work in comics?

W: I've wanted to write any sort of stories, prose, comics, plays, movies, or what have you, for as long as I can remember. To my regret, I started late though, assuming I could never make it as a real writer. I only finally started writing the comics I was drawing, because I quickly grew tired of some of the less than stellar scripts I was getting. Drawing a page of comics is so difficult, even more so when one has to do it day in and day out, that the effort should never be wasted on a bad script, so I became a writer as a kind of self-preservation. Later, as my confidence grew, along with my ambitions, I wanted to try ever more writing, and more types of writing, and here we are.

K: Why do you feel that fairy tales continue to be popular through the years?

W: One, because they belong to everyone, and not just everyone in terms of group or national ownership, which is a silly notion, but every single individual who wants to do something with them, or simply read along, or watch along, as someone else does something new and wonderful with the material.
Two, because fairytales are powerful. With my Elementals series, I was one of the lesser known pioneers (at the same time as Frank Miller with Daredevil and then Dark Knight, and Alan Moore with Marvelman and then Watchmen) of serious, realistic takes on superheroes. As much as I like some of what I did back then, I've come to a complete turnaround on my philosophy of what makes a good superhero story. The more we tried to explain how this seemingly impossible thing works, to ground it more in reality, the more power we leached out of the concept. I now feel that superheroes should be treated more like fairytales and less like science fiction. In fairytales, someone can do an amazing thing, because the storyteller just said so. In superhero comics Superman can pull a planet through space because the writer and artist just said he could and showed him doing it. Period. Once you try to explain how that's possible, you rob the storyteller of his authority. So, that was just a long-winded way of illustrating that fairytales are strong and compelling by the simple fact that they state things as so and expect the reader (or listener) to go along with it.

As readers, as humans, we respond to the bold voice of authority, more than to the dissembling voice.
Anyway, that's one theory on why they stand the test of time.

Making fairy tales realistic, with Fables creator Bill Willingham

K: Any fairy tale characters that you haven't tackled yet in Fables that you'd like to write?

W: Sure. Some are in the cue and will be used someday, while others will probably never become available. The characters from the Narnia books are among those I'd love to get my hands on someday, but it isn't going to happen. And then other characters, like those from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novels, are even now entering the public domain, and become available for use, but don't really fit into the Fables fictional universe. Never say never though, so we'll see.

K: What about characters that were difficult to write?

W: You mean every character ever? Seriously, writing is an occupation I love, a calling more than a job, but it has never yet been easy. And that's fine, because something so glorious to be allowed to do should require effort. I'll be sure to let you know if that ever changes.

K: Are you ever concerned that you'll either run out of fairy tale characters or ways to reinvent them?

W: No. There are more ideas for future Fables stories in my notebooks, and in the echoy caverns of my melon, than I'll ever be able to get to, with a dozen lifetimes. One tale always spawns ideas for a dozen more.

K: Where would you tell someone new to Bill Willingham to start reading?

W: (Note to readers: I initially read this question wrong, as: Where would you tell a new (young) Bill Willingham to start reading? But since I like the answer, I'm keeping it.)

I'd want him to start reading where he did, with the books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, but I might advise him to consider that there might be other authors worth reading, in those long periods between finding every single book he ever wrote. I literally wouldn't read anyone but ERB until I'd run out of his books to read. That was a silly undertaking in my day, because there was nothing like the internet to help a young pup, with no transportation and little money, to track down those rare books.

Then I'd want to tell the young me to listen more to those (Hello Mrs. Mathewson) who encouraged me to write more, the wilder the yarn the better, and listen less to those who patiently explained that real writers are trained professionals who live in faraway places and aren't just stupid kids from the neighborhood.

K: Okay, now where would you tell someone new to Bill Willingham to start reading?

W: If Fables, then start at the beginning – assuming you want to preserve the surprises. And don't worry at all about being so far behind other readers. A good story is like a road. It doesn't at all matter if other travelers are at other points along it. Your journey is all that matters.

K: What writers inspire you?

W: Well, I'll bet you've already picked up on the ERB influence. The most inspirational writers are those who spin the wildest tales well. Zelazny is a perfect example. He wrote almost always of the practical man in the most miraculous of settings, and that appeals to me on many levels. G R R Martin and his Westeros world is lovely. Am I the only one who notices his first three initials are a wolf's growl? Grrrrrr Martin. No wonder wolves figure so importantly in his world. No one in the business constructs better sentences than Stephen King. I wish I liked his stories better, but he's never written a confusing sentence in any book – never once left the reader wondering what the hell was going on. Orson Scott Card comes the closest to King in that skill, and writes stories I love. I abhor just about any modern, artful, literary writer – pretentious naked emperors every one. Quit showing off and tell me a good tale.

K: Do you still have interest in drawing comics?

W: Yes, but I'm too slow to keep doing it on a regular basis. I can barely draw one issue a month, which is the minimum one must be able to do in this business and still make a career of it, but in so doing I couldn't do anything else but that one issue a month. I wouldn't be able to do that and, for instance, still write Fables, or the next novel, or anything else. I'll still do small projects here and there, with long and flexible deadlines.

K: What are you working on now? What future projects can you talk about?

W: More Fables of course. Always more Fables, which I'd love to do forever. The next novel is not a Fables novel, nor a children's story. It's an adult book that coincidentally enough is about a practical man in a miraculous world.