Creativity with a Kick
An interview with fourth-degree black belt Walter Jon Williams (who happens to be an author, too)
By Sun Beh Nim Dalness
True martial arts mastery isn't dependent on how many opponents are destroyed by your pinky finger or whether your round kick can break the sound barrier. Both are essential qualities if your intent is to reach godhood (see next month's feature story, " Becoming Thor in 10 Easy Steps") but neither are required to harness artistic essence—the bridge between body and mind. Look to yourself for signs of this connection. Are you in touch with your creative side after training? No? Then work harder, grasshopper.
Take Walter Jon Williams as a prime example. He has been studying the Okinawan martial art Kenpo in Albuquerque for 22 years. Over the course of that time, Williams achieved the rank of fourth-degree black belt and wrote more than 20 science-fiction novels, including Hardwired and Rock of Ages. His study of martial arts has directly influenced his creative process, helping him be a professional sci-fi writer for 30 years. In honor of the Alibi's newly created Martial Arts section, Williams agreed to discuss his training and creative process for the betterment of fellow practitioners and our readers.
What got you involved in Kenpo?
Well, I had a friend who was doing it and seemed to be learning a lot. I was looking for an exercise form that wasn't boring, and I discovered that dancing around the deck trying to avoid someone who's trying to kick you in the head was not boring.
What aspects other than the exercise kept you interested for all these years?
It's a hard-soft style, which means when you go in you learn hard, direct self-defense techniques that are very useful and can be applied right away. As you progress, it becomes more of an inner style somewhat closer to Tai Chi. The style itself expands as your abilities expand.
How has martial arts influenced your writing?
The more obvious, direct way is that I can write really convincing action scenes having been both on the pounding and pounded end of the martial spectrum. On the more esoteric end, I think one of the things martial arts does is program the mind through movement of the body. The people who created these arts were awfully smart and they had points of view and they expressed them through movement. Those who study these arts are inheriting those points of view simply through practice and constant repetition.
How do you apply that idea or consciousness into your work with words?
OK, well that's the tough question. (Laughs) I think because it gives me insight into certain kinds of human psychology and how certain psychological problems and difficulties can be overcome through this kind of application. For instance, I don't know any field outside of martial arts that is designed to make adolescent Americans feel good about themselves through actual accomplishment. We're supposed to be encouraging and telling them how wonderful they are, but if they haven't accomplished anything, they know they haven't accomplished anything. In the martial arts, you have a progression of accomplishment that starts from the very first day. Anyone going into a martial arts school will be frightened if they haven't had any experience. The very first thing you do in taking martial arts is to overcome your fear, and then you're presented with a lot more things to be afraid of that you have to overcome as the years go on. I think it really does make one good at handling some things.
In an interview with SFSite.com, you mentioned your novel Aristoi was directly influenced by martial arts. How is that?
Aristoi took place in a far future society in which essentially the entire culture had been programmed in certain ways through movement. Not necessarily martial arts; a lot of the movement was based on martial arts but it was significantly abstracted in the way that Tai Chi is, where all the applications aren't immediately apparent. What this did was give everyone in the society a common point of reference so that you could, for instance, be talking to someone, and if you wanted to emphasize a particular point you could make a physical movement or gesture—a Jedi mind trick, if you will—which would reinforce your point. I call them "mudra," which is a term from Buddhism. ... You could affect someone subconsciously by being able to manipulate these built-in receptors. That's who the Aritoi were, they were highly accomplished at manipulating other people.
Are you working on any new books?
I have one about to come out on April 1: Implied Spaces. It's fairly accessible for the non-science fiction reader. It starts with a small-frame story—not a little, personal story but an adventure story—then I pull the camera back to reveal all of the scenery surrounding the story which you've been watching, suddenly making the story much bigger. Once the characters fill that frame, I pull the camera back again. It starts with a small adventure story then ends up with the most cosmic story possible.
Are there any ninjas in the book?
There is something very close to a ninja. The protagonist is a guy who's been studying martial arts for 800 years—a rather Olympian perspective. The protagonist is a philosopher king—retired with a magic sword and a talking cat—but he's not just that. The story is not about martial arts, but it's written from that perspective. However, there is plenty of action.
Implied Spaces (Night Shade Books) releases in book stores nationwide on Tuesday, April 1. For more information on Walter Jon Williams' additional novels and martial arts lifestyle, visit www.walterjonwilliams.net.
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