From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Author Spotlight: Nathaniel Williams

Nathaniel Williams lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he volunteers for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. From 2007 to 2010, he was Program Coordinator for AboutSF, a joint project of SFRA, SFWA and the University of Kansas that provides resources for SF education. He helped organize “Teaching Science Fiction: A Portable Workshop” at the 2008 Worldcon and at the 2008 Joint SFRA/Campbell Conference. He’s finishing a dissertation on technology in nineteenth-century American popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in Jay Lake and Eric Reynolds’s Footprints anthology, 10 Flash Quarterly, and elsewhere.

Your story, “Tenientes,” has a Castilian feel and setting. Do you have personal connections to Madrid or Spain and if you do, how did they affect your writing?

My wife’s cousin lives in Madrid, and we spent a relatively ghost-free vacation staying at her apartment near the Puerta de Europa skyscrapers mentioned in the story.

Visiting Madrid’s Prado Museum was a big deal for me, but I probably wasn’t 100% prepared to stare closely at Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and all those “black period” Goya paintings in one day. One’s mind starts going in pretty strange directions when faced with images like that. The story fed off them, at least partly.

The story takes place over the course of a night that, in some sense, has been repeated “five thousand, two hundred and seven times.” Aside from its size, is that number significant?

I tried to pick a completely random-sounding number. I guess the significant thing is that it’s insignificant. If the story took place, say, on the two hundredth anniversary of her death, then her circumstances would have a symmetry that seems artificial to me. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays—nothing big ever happens on those days. The really important stuff happens unexpectedly. That’s my experience at least, and what happens to the character reflects that.

And, yeah, there’s some irony in worrying about portraying a vengeful spirit’s life realistically.

There is an interesting contrast in the story between the fact that the routine of the night repeats itself very mechanically, but the “fate” that befalls each man is completely different. When the man in the story receives “the same fate” as the first “teniente”, does that suggest some closure or is it more like the beginning of a new cycle?

Well, I wanted to play with the idea of limiting the supernatural, or of something supernatural limiting itself. Even ghosts need rules, right? Her rules are particularly strict, and at the end of the story she’s really bumping against the limits of them.

I want it to be a little vague about whether they are all “her” rules or if they’re somehow beyond her control, because that’s often a little fuzzy for the rules we living/breathing humans give ourselves as well. So, closure might be stretching it.

Out of the “five thousand, two hundred and seven” tenientes, why did you choose to write about an encounter with an American tourist?

Any American who’s traveled abroad has been told that he or she may encounter some hostility because of whatever the U.S.’s foreign policy is at that time. I’ve never experienced that when I’ve traveled, but I’ve heard the warning many times. I’m sure it happens, and I’m equally sure it’s often exaggerated.

Without giving away the farm, however, that warning ties to other elements in the story. I’m fascinated by the idea of someone holding one person accountable for some other person’s or group’s actions–how that’s innately unfair yet very recognizably human, how we cope with it when it’s done to us or when we realize we’re doing it to someone else.

Do you have anything else you’d like to say about “Tenientes?”

I actually wrote a first draft where the American guy was the viewpoint character. . . and it flat-out didn’t work. I got great feedback from my local writing group, most of whom are fellow grads from the Center for the Study of Science Fiction’s Writers Workshop. Lane Robins and Barbara Webb asked particularly good questions about character motivations—both the American guy and the ghost. As soon as I realized it was her story instead of his, it came together.

Bill Sullivan picWilliam Sullivan is a writer, computer programmer, and musician living in Austin, Texas. You can find his website at