An amateur geek and professional daydreamer, Ben Williams discovered that writing middle grade fiction came easily to someone who never quite grew up. He studied English Literature at Queen Mary University and has since gone on to work in publishing and the arts sector. His work won second place in the FAB Prize, has been shortlisted for the 2021 WriteMentor Novel-in-Development Award and the PRH WriteNow 2021 editorial programme, and he hopes one day that young readers will be able to enjoy his daft adventures.
Where did the inspiration for Grace Weaver and the Other Kingdom come from?
It started with a very small idea of an exiled prince from another world living in London and
exploded from there, feeding on my interests at the time. I’ve always loved fairy tales and children’s fantasy. Those stories are so often preoccupied with tyranny and authoritarianism, especially books like His Dark Materials, which confronts fascism and religious orthodoxy much more directly. With Grace Weaver, I wanted to confront a certain creeping strain of British authoritarianism head-on, but also write a story that was fun and full of heart.
When did you first realise that you were a writer? What has your journey to this point
My earliest memory of writing was some sort of Banjo-Kazooie fan fiction that I wrote when I was probably eight, and seems more like a fever dream than an actual thing that happened. So like, forever? I think I’ve always wanted to be an author, but it’s only recently that it’s felt real to me, like something I’m supposed to do. Before I started Grace Weaver in 2019, I had been writing all kinds of other stories in a serious way. I started writing these around 2012 but I never knew who the stories were for. It was only with this book that I realised children’s fiction were the sort of stories I was supposed to be writing. Grace Weaver features a young protagonist and a talking cat so it really had to be middle grade! It gave me the freedom to be silly and whimsical and everything just clicked.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind since then. I only started sharing my work beyond family and friends at the beginning of last year. I got involved with the wonderful community of people at WriteMentor and made my first shortlist with their Novel-in-Development Award in July. I got to chat with someone at Penguin Random House through being shortlisted for their WriteNow programme and then I won the FAB Prize! It feels like I’ve been strapped to a rocket ship, which is exhilarating, but also a bit terrifying.
Is there any advice you would give to your younger self?
Don’t be afraid to put your work out there! It can be scary to lose control over your creation by having it seen and judged by others, but it’s worth it.
What was the first book that made you feel seen?
This is a really interesting question because I would say that growing up as a closeted, mixed-race gay kid who was obsessed with science fiction and fantasy I didn’t really ‘see’ myself in any of those stories, and still don’t to this day. Most often the heroes were straight, white and masculine, which didn’t really resonate with me! Instead, I often found myself drawn to the deviance of the (usually queer-coded) villains. In fact, growing up I was obsessed with Cruella de Vil! I would dress up in a black and white polka-dot dress and everything. At the time I just thought I was odd, why am I rooting for the puppy-killer instead of the idyllic straight couple seeking domestic bliss? I realise now that it was because the puppy-killer was far better dressed.
In Grace Weaver, there is a character called Leo who is not a villain, but a hero. I wrote a lot of myself into him. I think, in part, he is the sort of character I would have liked to have seen in books growing up.
Are you reading anything at the moment?
I just started reading B. B. Alston’s Amari and the Night Brothers, which is naughty because I’ve used that book in comparison titles for Grace Weaver a lot! I put off reading it for so long, partly because I was worried about being unduly influenced, but also for losing confidence because his writing is unbelievably good.
Are there any writers that inspire you?
I always find it difficult to articulate who my inspirations are because for me the words just fall out, I don’t know where they come from! But I recently just finished a book called Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Phillip Reeve, who was one of my favourite authors growing up. And I saw a lot of myself in the way he writes. I think I always enjoyed how generous he was with his words and his world building, it doesn’t feel like it’s been ‘dumbed-down’ for a younger audience, but he is really putting all his skill onto the page. That’s really what I try to do with my own writing, I want it to be my very best, but still accessible to kids. Beyond that I am a big fan of Philip Pullman as I mentioned.
What’s next for you?
I have a sequel in mind for Grace Weaver set in a Roman-themed kingdom called Lyrica which I would love to have the opportunity to write. But I’m also developing a post-apocalyptic Indiana Jones-style adventure filled with magic and killer robots, it exists only in my head at the moment but I can’t wait to get it out on the page.