E.M. Willliams was certain her lifelong dream of writing a book had ended, but the kernel of a story she’d been teasing out in her head would not be denied.
Spending the better part of a decade on “a previous project” (spoken like a true marketer), she said she could not see a way forward with it. “I had a real moment of grief. I thought it was the end of my creative writing, that I was a fraud, that the thing you told people from the time you were small that you wanted to do, I was never going to do. It took a while to…[realize] that there was another project waiting in the wings.”
That project is Chaos Calling, the first in the proposed five-book Xenthian Cycle series, and which Kirkus Reviews praises as “an action-packed tale of valiant heroes and vibrant, unforgettable monsters.”
Chaos Calling introduces Anna Lin, a Chinese Canadian real estate agent who summons up her long-dormant “xhen” energy to dispatch a tentacled beast she encounters on her property. When more of these “skyworms” bear down on Toronto for another attack, she reunites with her estranged twin brother and their best friend. The Xenthian trio is guided by their xhen mentor, Kalos (whom Anna hasn’t thought about in a decade), who is something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi, his nonvoice whispering in their thoughts.
Kirkus praises the book’s “wealth of exhilarating action scenes brimming with bright energy pulses as well as powers like teleportation and telepathy.” For example, Anna’s training comes back to her in her first encounter with a monster:
Anna…reaches for her only other conceivable line of defense, long dormant inside her. Please, she begs. Please work. Xhen energy floods her mind in answer, as familiar and comforting as a childhood blanket. But this time, it also rises through her skin to surround her body. Anna gasps as the oceanic light fills the garage, spilling from her outstretched hands to coil around the snapping creature. Instinct prompts her to shape the pulsing energy into cords, which she wraps around the creature’s neck…An incredulous smile breaks over her frightened face.
Growing up in Canada, Williams wrote stories throughout her childhood. Her mother was a schoolteacher, and hers was “a reading household, for sure,” she says. Her father was an engineer, which necessitated frequent moves across southern Ontario. When she around 4 years old, she recalls, she copied the book that accompanied the record album The Dark Crystal into a notebook.
She was a fan of the Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Highseries, but she was more drawn to fantasy, she says, because of its use of a “heightened sense of reality to talk about emotions in a deep and real way.” Her “speculative fiction education,” as she calls it, began with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pernwhen she was around 10.
Williams’ earliest stories were what she calls My Little Ponyfan fiction. “My dad brought home computers when I was in grade school, and I wrote little stories on them,” she says. “He didn’t mind if I borrowed them, which was pretty novel at the time for a computing dad.”
Her parents supported her aspirations to be a writer, but when it came time to declare a major in college, “they sensibly said that I needed to bet on something that would [provide more reliable] economic support.”
But that detour was not a dead end. Two incidents helped Williams realize her writing dream was still alive. At one point, she, her husband, and their two children moved in with her parents, doubling her commute time (“Toronto traffic is legendarily horrific,” she jokes). During her travels, a story started speaking to her—a sibling story. This would become Chaos Calling. “It took me six months to realize it was a book,” she says.
In 2012, she gave a Tedx Talk, “Why We Need Stories About Female Superheroes.” She had earned her master’s in English literature and had considered pursuing a PhD in science fiction. The Tedx program experience, she says, made her want to write creatively. She began work on the book in 2014.
A formative series in the shaping of Chaos Calling was The Fionavar Tapestry by celebrated Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay; the books’ opening scenes are set in downtown Toronto. A fantasy story set in the real Toronto? Who knew?
Though a marketer (“I work with companies when they don’t have in-house teams or [when they want] want a specialty project done”), she did not conduct extensive market research before writing her first book. Making her lead character Chinese Canadian was an “intuitive” inspiration. “The story was an answer to my Tedx Talk,” in which she reflected on how the fantasy stories she grew up with didn’t have diverse characters. “I couldn’t call it out myself and then not attempt to write something more inclusive,” she says.
She also addresses using superhero stories as a way to work out what it means to be a woman. Anna, the lead character, is a parent with a working life. “I wanted my story to be grounded,” Williams says. “I don’t have a Tony Stark in this book. They are very real people leading real lives.”
Over the course of writing Chaos Calling, Williams came to the “daunting but also very exciting” realization that her story could be a springboard for a series. “I had not prepared myself for this,” she says with a laugh. One of her beta reviewers (there were 26 in all), whose family had experience with publishing in Canada, suggested she had the makings of a trilogy. She advised Williams to “slow down, break the story up, and write from other character perspectives,” Williams recalls. “She told me to trust the story and not to rush it.”
Her decision to self-publish was an easy one. As a marketer, “I’ve done enough entrepreneurial work that investing in myself made sense,” she says.
She was also conscious of her personal timeline. A traditional publisher might take years to publish one book, she figured. “I started this [series] in my midthirties,” she says. “There are people who don’t have a sense of their mortality. I’ve never been one of those people. The clock is always ticking. I relate to that line in [the musical] Hamilton where he says, ‘running like you’re running out of time.’ That urgency drives a lot of my creative energy. People are baffled when I tell them I wrote the first three drafts of the book on my phone while commuting on the subway. That was the only time I had.”
Williams hopes that her fellow Torontonians especially will be excited to read about their city in a way that gives it star billing equal to other major metropolises, such as New York, Los Angeles, and London. “In the 1950s, when my parents were kids, Toronto didn’t have much of a footprint,” she says. “Margaret Atwood helped change that.”
Williams has another fantasy series in the works. As for that long-since abandoned project, does Williams foresee ever returning to it? “It was not meant to see the light of day,” she says. “But it was a 100 percent learning experience.”
Donald Liebenson is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has been published in The Washington Post and on Vanity Fair.com.