Ghost Frogs & Imagined Worlds: An Interview with Author Katie Williams

This interview first appeared on popcorntheblog on June 11, 2013.

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Absent, the latest young adult novel by Katie Williams, imagines the world of seventeen-year-old Paige Wheeler, who has died in a freak accident at her high school. Trapped in the school, she keeps the company of Brooke and Evan, two other teens who died there. When Paige hears a rumor about her death that she believes to be untrue, she tries assiduously to right it, learning along the way that she can possess the living when they think of her.

katie author photoKatie Williams is also the author of The Space Between Trees (2010). Her short stories have been in The Atlantic, American Short Fiction, and Best American Fantasy, among other publications. I caught up with Katie over a cocktail and an email.

Q: How long did it take you to write Absent?

All told about three years. That seems like a long time for such a slim book, but my editor and I were committed to getting it right.

Q: You and your agent Judy Heiblum had to decide whether to market The Space Between Trees as young adult (YA) or adult fiction. With Absent, you clearly wrote from a YA perspective from the beginning. What challenges does writing YA present? What do you enjoy about writing for that audience?

Young-adult readers are smart readers, and the worst thing an author can do is condescend to them. But it’s also true that YA readers are newer readers, which means more immediacy, an even balance of plot and character, and sleek prose. Honestly, I think adult literature could take a note or two from YA.

I love writing YA because this is the age where most people become readers, where you reach for a book not just because it’s required for a class, but because you realize that you love to read. It’s an honor to be part of that.

Q: In Absent you create a world of the dead, a world with its own set of rules. Paige can “hover” by putting her mind to it; she can’t step off school property or she winds up where she died; and she can’t touch anyone, feel anything, or taste anything, at least not at first. How did you decide what that world would look like? Was it great fun to create, or did the logistical challenges feel overwhelming?

One of the powers of fantastical writing is the ability to literalize the abstract, to take an emotion, a concept, or a wish and make it real in the story. For example, before her death, Paige felt very much trapped in her life in high school, so the rules of the ghost world make this feeling literal: She is physically trapped in the school. When she tries to leave, she is brought back to her most terrible moment. If you’ve experienced a terrible moment, you might identify with the idea that a small part of you always lives in that place. While many of the fantastical elements came from this concept of literalizing the emotional, other rules came from the simple need to apply logic to the world. How can a ghost both stand on the floor and also be incorporeal? I felt there should be a reason for this. One of the challenges of fantastical writing is applying logic to the illogical, sense to the nonsensical. As you might imagine, this is sometimes great fun and other times headache-inducing.

Q: It’s funny, because another thing you do in the book is create the world of the living, specifically, the world of a modern-day high school, with all the requisite groups (the stoners, the popular kids, the nerds). How heavily did you draw on your own high school experience when you created this world?

Sure, my high school had these sorts of social groups. It’s interesting to me that high school is so very codified. I think it’s because young people are putting together their sense of self, and so there’s a lot of false sorting that happens as a way of negotiating identity: If she is like this, then I must be like that. Part of what the story tries to do is see the use and limitations of this idea and to ultimately move past it.

Q: One thing I notice—and admire—about your writing is how remarkably visual it is. For example, in the novel there’s a scene where Paige and a boy named Lucas Hayes meet in a circle of trees. He leaves before she does, and she says, “It struck me that someone later, seeing them, would imagine two people walking side by side.” When I read that line what struck me was that I might never have thought of that. Do you consciously write with a very visual eye or does this just come naturally to you?

Aw shucks. Thanks. I’ve always considered storytelling a visual art, that language is a code to communicate images. One of my first writing teachers, Charlie Baxter, encouraged me to begin a story by closing my eyes and calling up an image. It could be anything—let’s use your example from the book, two sets of footprints next to each other in the snow—but whatever the image is, it’ll have dramatic potential because your subconscious mind has given it to you for a reason.

absentcoverQ: Another thing I really loved about the book was the subtle and not-so-subtle animal symbolism. The basement of the school overflows with croaking frogs killed in biology class, and there is a great presence of flying creatures, in particular, a moth. In fact, that moth graces the cover of the book. What is the moth supposed to symbolize?

Thanks! The ghost frogs are my favorite.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t decode the moth here; I want to leave that for the reader. I will say that the moth is introduced because one of the characters, Evan, used to put his lamp to the window at night to draw moths to the light. Paige thinks that the moths’ batting is senseless and pathetic, but Evan finds it beautiful.

Q: Can you say anything about your writing process?

Hmmm…I write four days a week, six when I’m on school break. I find it best to write in the morning before my mind is full of the day’s detritus. I’m good for about three hours when I’m writing new material, longer when I’m editing. I usually write first drafts in chronological order, and I only kind of, sort of use an outline.

Q: Do you read reviews of your work?

My editor sends me the reviews from the professional outlets—Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and such—and I read those. I don’t look at Amazon or Goodreads reviews, though this is to take nothing away from my readers’ opinions, which I’m sure are often observant and smart. To paraphrase (the most excellent) YA author Melina Marchetta, I’m not the intended audience for those reviews; other readers are.

Q: What’s next for Katie Williams?

I’m working on two new novels right now. One is a low-magic historical fantasy about a woman who arranges marriages for picture brides; the other is a near-future science fiction about a teenager cast in an empathetic reality TV show.

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Bay Area folks can hear Katie read from Absent twice this summer:

Reading and Signing at Books Inc. Berkeley, 1760 4th Street, Berkeley, CA, Wednesday, July 24, 7-8pm

Reading at Chronicle Books Anniversary Party, San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin Street, San Francisco, CA, Sunday, August 18, 11am-2pm (exact time TBD)

Also check her out at www.katiewilliamsbooks.com.

Plug: California Prose Directory

I got an advance copy of the California Prose Directory 2013: New Writing from the Golden State, edited by my pal Charles McLeod. It’s a solid red brick of a library of California’s finest essays and short stories. To quote the back of the book, here are some of the gems you’ll find within: “A Vacaville rodeo. Hollywood quid pro quo. A verbal altercation at a Buddhist retreat. Nearly starving to death in the farmlands of Clovis. The Santa Anas blowing fire through the SoCal foothills.” (There’s quite a bit more, too.)

California Prose Directory amidst California poppies

California Prose Directory amidst California poppies

I’m just starting to read it, and so far, it’s a nice slice of life in the Golden State. It reminds me how, whatever you feel about California, you can’t deny the diversity of experience in a body of land as large as this one. Vacaville and Hollywood, for example, are worlds apart, despite being in the same state. I enjoyed the first short story in the book, “You Are Not Here” by Andrew Foster Altschul, which is set in San Francisco, in neighborhoods and on bus routes with which I’m intimately familiar, because I used to live there.

The Directory features writing by well-known and emerging writers alike, including Stephen Elliott, Vanessa Hua, Jasmin Darznik, Tom Molanphy, Erica Olsen, and Anthony Seidman.

Locals, please note that several writers from the anthology will be reading this coming Sunday, May 19, at 5:00 p.m. at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco (on 24th street near Folsom).

I Knew You’d Be Lovely

Thank you, Google Images

Thank you, Google Images

I just finished Alethea Black’s sweet book of short stories I Knew You’d Be Lovely. Alethea Black was in my brother’s class in high school, and I knew her younger sister. Because I grew up in a small town, the Black family was sort of on my radar–and who can forget a name like Alethea?–so it was with great curiosity that I picked up the book at a yard sale wondering if it was the same woman I knew (of). I had no idea she was a writer; I always feel like writers from my hometown, from college, are on my radar somehow, but she was not.

In any event, the stories are colorful and fun to read. There are surprises and good characters. Like all collections, some stories are stronger than others, and I found as the book progressed that I began to care more about the characters and find more interest and likeability in their quirks. Many of the stories are set outside of Boston, where we grew up, and my tenth-grade Chemistry teacher even makes an appearance (which completely freaked me out). So for me there was this fun sense of connection with a place I know intimately–and thus, with the writer herself.

I’d happily read a novel, if Black publishes one.

Plug: Bookish

A friend turned me on to this new Website called Bookish, which works a bit like the Netflix algorithm that says to you, “You may also like…” after you’ve watched a movie and rated it highly. In other words, you plug in a book you like, and Bookish recommends five or ten others you might also like. There’s even a “more like this” button, so you can hone in more closely on a few gems.

I tried it out.

When I typed in Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Bookish recommended:

  • Learning to Fly, by Steph Davis;
  • Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson;
  • A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson; and
  • The Expats, by Chris Pavone.

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder yielded these suggestions:

  • In One Person, by John Irving;
  • Before I Go to Sleep, by SJ Watson;
  • Seven Types of Ambiguity, by Elliot Perlman; and
  • The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown.

I haven’t read any of the above books. I guess before I can really recommend Bookish I should read one or two and see how well they did, but I love the concept.

One catch: Bookish, so far anyway, is definitely geared towards new releases. I typed in two of my favorite Modernist classics, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. To the Lighthouse wasn’t even in the database. House of Mirth was, but no suggestions came up. They say they’re adding new books every day, so maybe they’ll get some classics on there, too. I hope so.

Hey, speaking of algorithms, Netflix keeps telling me to watch “The Queen of Versailles.” The cover photo completely turns me off, but Rotten Tomatoes gives it 95% and five stars. Anyone seen it?

Oh to be third…

Well, at last check my story is fifth in Medium’s Fiction Contest. To be read by an agent, and judged, and possibly win $2,012, it needs to be in the top three.

I’d say I’m disappointed, and I am–it’s doubtful I can jump two places in two days–but honestly, this is the story of my writing life (no pun intended!). My poetry manuscript was a finalist in two or three contests, but never got published. I’ve gotten great rejection notes from top places. I’ve had so many near misses I’ve come to expect my writing career to be like this.

Actually, it occurs to me, this is probably the story of most writers. Unless you’re just kissed by fairy dust, most of us struggle and come close and have disappointments and failures and some of them are because we aren’t, yet, good enough and some are because we’re unlucky, in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just plain not ready.

I hold onto this theory, because if I didn’t I might get very, very discouraged.

So! One last plea, readers: if you haven’t read it yet, please do. And if you feel inclined to share it, even better. Maybe with your help, I’ll be in the right place at the right time on this one.

#MediumFiction