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A Passion for Writing

An Interview with Theresa Williams

by Pam Kingsbury

 
 

Theresa Williams combined her passions for reading, writing, Bobby Kennedy, and the spirit of adolescence to create her first novel The Secret Of Hurricanes.  She received the Devine Award for fiction in 1989 and is the winner of the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Award.  Williams teaches writing and literature at Bowling Green State University.

Where did you get the idea for The Secret of Hurricanes?

The book came to me over a period of many years and in pieces.  It was the product of remaking myself as a writer.  After I finished the MFA program in 1989, I slogged through five years of demoralizing part-time teaching positions.  I had little time to write, but this experience convinced me I had to reassess what kind of writer I wanted to be.  

Initially, writing was a mysterious process for me.  I had some small successes, but little insight about what my sources of inspiration were.  In addition, on the whole my writing had never "worked" the way I wanted it to.  It didn't connect with people.  I knew it didn't connect because editors of literary journals to whom I sent my work told me they liked my stories but that something essential was missing.  I had no idea what that essential ingredient was--or even how to look for it.

After I read Brenda Ueland's IF YOU WANT TO WRITE in 1994 or so, I had an epiphany.  In the book she describes a pianist playing a beautiful song and striking all the right notes.  But the song didn't "go anywhere."  It didn't connect with anyone.  Ueland went on to explain that the writer must somehow "infect" the reader.  After reading Ueland's book I thought less about style and technique and instead imagined who might read my fiction and what I needed to pass on to that audience.  It's so basic, really.  It's one of the first things we teach
our freshmen composition students--that audience awareness is the most important aspect of writing. After reading Ueland's book, I began to write bits and pieces of thoughts and events.  Eventually, Pearl emerged on the page.  Through Pearl, I wanted to explore the boundary between loneliness and solitude.  I wanted to create a character who was almost obliterated by life and then see if I could write her out of her desperation.  Or maybe I would come to the conclusion that she was too broken to fix.  Either way it was a project that excited me.  And because I was excited, I thought I might infect a reader with that excitement.  Interestingly enough, the end of the novel actually came first as a story that was published in THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW called "Rewriting the Last Supper."  After "Supper" was published I then went about imagining a life for Pearl beyond that story.


Did you set out to write a collection of short stories or did you always intend for the book to be a novel?

I was so busy with my teaching--sometimes I taught eight or nine composition courses per semester--that I didn't have time to dedicate to a long piece.  I had to be happy with fragments.  Eventually the fragments added up to a book.  But we're talking about almost eight years.  "Supper" was written shortly after I finished Ueland's IF YOU WANT TO WRITE.  Then, when I was almost halfway through HURRICANES--or what I thought of then as
halfway--I sent two excerpts to James Michael Robbins at Sulphur River Literary Review.  When he accepted them I knew I was on the right track. I really can't over-emphasize the importance of the literary and little magazines.  They offer much needed consolation in the dark hours of the writer's need.


Do you want to talk about how the book landed at MacAdam/Cage and your experience there?

I wasted a year trying to find an agent.  I sent out more than twenty queries, partial manuscripts, and full manuscripts.  Although I had two or three positive responses, I could find no one who wanted to represent me.  The agents always pointed to the novel's length (or should I say shortness) as a problem.  They said it was more of a novella and for that reason my work would be hard to place.  After a year, I decided I would have to send the manuscript out myself.  I went through NOVEL AND SHORT STORY WRITER'S MARKET and that's how I found MacAdam/CAge.  I sent a query and partial manuscript to MacAdam/Cage in the summer of 2001.  Somehow it landed on the desk of Anika Streitfeld, and she requested the full manuscript in January of 2002.  Within two weeks of receiving the full manuscript she called me and said they wanted to publish it.  And, by the way, that they thought the length was "perfect."

Is there any chance you'll write a sequel?

I always love it when people ask this question.  It suggests the characters are interesting enough that readers want to know more.  Will Pearl and Zeke find love?  What kind of mother will Pearl be?  And so on.  I would like to write a sequel, yes.  But in writing you take the projects as they suggest themselves, and Pearl is on the back burner just now.


What are you working on?

I'm working on a collection of short stories.  This past January I wrote two.  They came to me easily, and that almost never happens.  I wrote one story during a weekend and the next story the following weekend.  One of them is under consideration at a very good magazine now.  I won't say which one because the decision isn't final yet.  I have ideas for at least three more stories.  The stories are based partly on my experience of having surgery last summer.  I also have part of a novel written, but I have put it on the back burner with Pearl.  The stories have to be written first.

Tell us about your background. Do you want to talk about the schools you attended and/or your teaching life?

I double majored in art and English at East Carolina University.  Then I came to Bowling Green State University in Ohio to get the MFA.  I was accepted at BGSU and UNC-Greensboro.  However, BGSU was my first choice because my professor at ECU had gone here and I was drunk on his stories.  

I also thought that to effectively write about the South, I would need to live someplace other than the South.  I needed some point of contrast.  My college years, all of them, were very important to me and critical in shaping my philosophy of life.  I value several of my former teachers highly and mention them on the acknowledgment page of HURRICANES.  But there are also others who shaped me--like the algebra teacher who tutored me during her lunch break so I would pass the course.  She was one of those undervalued, underpaid teachers, a
part-timer, yet she saw value in what she was doing and in what I was doing.  The memory of her dedication is strong within me.  I've tried to also be dedicated.  I've been teaching since 1985, first as a graduate assistant, then as a part-timer at several colleges.  In 1994 I started teaching at BGSU full-time.  I teach composition courses, both developmental and honors, and occasionally a literature or creative writing class.

What did you learn as a first time novelist that would be useful for other beginning or not yet published writers?

To be persistent.  To keep writing.  And to read, even when you don't think you have time. For many years I have bought myself a poetry collection once a month.  For that month I live with that book.  It generally doesn't take long to read a poem or a stanza of a poem.  The vision of that writer stays with you.  Reading every day keeps you focused on writing and the writing life.  When you read you are in communion with another human being who believes writing is important.  That belief rubs off on you.  My other advice would be to keep a journal
and write in it often.  Keeping the journal helps you to keep looking at the world like a writer, in terms of imagery, symbolism, and also reverence.

Do you want to talk about influences or writers you admire?

There are many.  My earliest influences, dating back to my pre-university days, were Anne Frank, Shakespeare, and Guy de Maupassant.  The first work of fiction I read in college that moved and shook me was Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard To Find."

After college I discovered Sandra Cisneros whose HOUSE ON MANGO STREET was a major influence on me.  I also read stories by Tobias Wolff.  I got up my courage, by the way, and e-mailed Tobias Wolff recently.  I wanted to tell him how much his work had inspired me.  My creative writing class was reading and discussing his latest NEW YORKER story, "Class Picture" and I wanted to tell him about our discussion of that story.  Wolff responded to my e-mail immediately.  He was generous and gracious in his response.  His response was meaningful to me because, as I explained to him, I almost used a quote from THIS BOY'S LIFE as an epigraph for HURRICANES.  The quote--and I'm paraphrasing--was:  Because I did not know myself, any image I had of myself was grotesque and had power over me.  I thought about that observation by Wolff many times as I was writing HURRICANES.  

What's the best day of your life?

The day I was born.  I don't want to forget--ever--how fortunate I am to be able to live, breathe, and make something of life.  Just prior to my conception, my father was in a near-fatal automobile accident.  He was in the hospital for several weeks.  Then my mother had trouble carrying me.  She had to sit for months with her feet propped up on pillows.  Many of her relatives told her, Just go about your business; you're going to lose the baby anyway.  But she stayed firm.  I know everyone's conception and birth is the result of a unique set of circumstances.  That everyone's existence is a miracle, whether one believes it came about by accident or design.  But I've always felt especially lucky to be here, given the complications both parents went through. Other important events in my life are rebirths.  The ones that stand out are the day I got my first period, the day my brother returned home from Vietnam, the day I met the man I would marry, the birth of my children,
the death of my parents, and my recent surgery.

Would you like to elaborate on how you came to use the Kennedy references?  

I have a deep respect for the Kennedys.  Bobby Kennedy was a hero of mine when I was an adolescent.  Like Pearl, I kept a scrapbook of Bobby's life, though I never took scrapbooking to the extreme that Pearl does.  I still cry whenever I see an image of Bobby on television; his assassination created a kind of death in me--a death of hope.  I never recovered from it.  Bobby's death taught me that there is evil in the world.  

Months after I had finished HURRICANES I discovered several websites dedicated to the Kennedys.  These sites attest to the power of the Kennedys to inspire.  I'm saddened when I think that most of my students don't know what it is to love a leader.  Students are cynical about politics now.  In a sense, in HURRICANES, I hoped to show how a leader might inspire awe.  Some of the men in my novel are "god-like," and Pearl is in awe of them. Bobby could be compared to a Christ figure; he inspired a similar awe in Pearl.  But the most important aspect of the Kennedys for me, and for many of my peers, has always been their humanity.  Their fallibilities deepen their character and make me love them even more.  I think a large part of HURRICANES is about human fallibility and how much we can forgive.

Talk about Pearl Starling .... Did you read about adolescents to create her past?

I did draw from the spirit of other novels about adolescents--THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, HOUSE ON MANGO STREET.  I also drew on a lot of memories of my own adolescence.  I watched and my sons go through adolescence.  I listened to my husband's stories about growing up.  I also sat in my teacher's chair and listened to my students tell their stories and I have read the stories they have written about growing up.  After years of listening, you start to pick up on patterns of life experience.  You get wise.  Pearl came out of all of that.  

What are your writing habits?

When I'm working on a project, I tend to retreat into my own world.  I will generally write all night long and crawl in bed at eight or nine in the morning.  I will sleep until mid-afternoon, eat, and then start writing again.  I have to have complete quiet.  "Maximum quiet," my family jokes.  Of course, I am speaking of summers when I'm not teaching.  When I'm teaching, unfortunately, I write a lot less than I would like.  But I do read and journal and think and plan.


The Secret Life of Hurricanes
By Theresa Williams
MacAdam/Cage, 2002
$17.50 (209 pages)
ISBN: 1-93156110-9

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2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved