Interview-Carol Lynch Williams

eptember 18, 2009

Krista Isom: What do you think is the greatest impact fiction can have on people? What is the power of literature?

Carol Lynch Williams: Fiction gives people the opportunity to explore, and to live in worlds where they would never normally go. It’s a great safe haven. For me, as a child growing up, reading was the most important part of my life. When I was working on my Master of Fine Arts, I wrote a paper on what kids get from reading books. Fiction gives some the safety to imagine experiences that they wouldn’t normally find themselves in, and, for kids who are in those types of experiences, fiction helps them see themselves getting out. Those are some of the things that fiction can do. Also, it’s fun to read!

Christian Gallagher: The main character in The Chosen One obviously finds that same security and connection with the outside world through reading.

CLW: In The Chosen One, books give her a brand new world, and the knowledge that life isn’t just like hers.

KI: What is writing to and for you, besides the obvious, that it’s what you do for a living?

CLW: Why do I write? I think that everything that I write is somehow connected to me emotionally. For The Chosen One, I heard a news release about some girl that had run away from her father because he was trying to make her marry his brother, in a polygamous community. And I was so affected by that. I was angry. I was heartbroken. Thinking about these children who were in these horrible situations, polygamous or not—that’s really why I write. The incident was two years ago so it took me a long time to finally write the novel. But any kind of emotional connection is going to be worth it.

KI: I think it is hard to be in that mindset for so long, because writing something it is different than reading it. When you read it, you are only in that mindset for however long it takes you to read the book, but when you are writing it, you live it.

CLW: Yes. And I think a good writer is going to feel what his or her characters are feeling, and somehow be able to relate to them. It can become very difficult.

CG: What do you think adults have to gain from reading young adult literature? Like you said, teenagers can find characters or situations within your books that they can relate to, but what do adults have to gain from reading stories about youth?

CLW: Probably the same things, but I think that most adults feel like kids still. I think good young adult literature doesn’t mess around. In adult fiction you can kind of mess around, you don’t have to get to the point, you can meander. You can have a 300-400 page story and every once in a while have some action or plot or development. I know that some adults think that reading children’s literature is reading down. I almost only, almost always, read young adult literature. If you think about YA literature now, it can be about anything. There can be sex, drugs, rock and roll: all the very things that you would talk about in an adult novel.

CG: Why, then, do you think it’s important to write young adult literature? What is its place within the larger scheme of things? Why is it important to have young adult voices expressed through these stories?

CLW: Again, one reason is that kids need to be able to have something that they can read and relate to. If we don’t have young adult literature or middle grade literature, who will be readers by the time they’re adults? We aren’t going to have readers at all unless we have books for kids. The reason that I write that age is because I feel like a 12 year old. So if I try to write for an 18 year old, she sounds like she is 12. And I tried to write this girl like she was 13, almost 14, and she sounded like she was 12. But that’s who I am and that’s where I read, that’s the emotion that I remember most. That’s why I do it. I’m always bothered by people who say to me, “So when are you going to write a real novel?” It is so annoying. It’s like saying only poetry matters, or only adult literature. Thank goodness that isn’t the way it is. Wouldn’t that be boring?

CG: Could you briefly explain your writing process?

CLW: Sure! So I get an idea—(actually I have no idea so I’m just going to make it up.) This is how I think it happens: I will usually have an idea or some kind of incident, like that incident about the little girl having to marry her uncle, and then I think about it. Sometimes I will think about it for years and years. Or it will sit in the back of my head like in a bank or storage. Sometimes I will have the beginning of a character and then I will just put her down and find out who she is. Then I explore. I rarely know what it going to happen in any of my books. For example, in The Chosen One I knew that someone was going to die, but I didn’t know much about it. And I kind of thought I knew what the idea of the end was going to be, but I wasn’t sure. I write towards a feeling or a goal, even if I’m not exactly sure what it is. After I have started working on a novel, I will write a chapter, which takes me about an hour, and I will feel like I have accomplished something and then I will be done. And the next day I will come back to that chapter, rewrite, and move on from there. Each day I do a little more.
The Chosen One was very different for me though because it is in past-present and there is so much more back-story. You can’t tell the story without the back-story. I remember lying in bed and thinking, “I have no idea what to do with this book.” I wrote the story in scenes, because I couldn’t figure out time-wise what I was going to do, and then I laid it all out on the floor and started picking it up in scenes and putting it together. That was the first time that I had ever done that for a book. Usually I can write from start to finish, but this time I couldn’t. And I think partially because it was so painful: this was a very hard book to write. It was depressing; it was sad. I really like girls—you know I have five daughters—and to have Kyra driving away at the end of the book, knowing that she will never see her sister again, it was sad for me.

CG: How do you connect with your characters? Some of them are in such crazy, horrible and hard situations: how do you get inside their heads? What is the research behind that?

CLW: Well I did research this book for 18 months. I really worked hard and right when I was about to start writing the book (it took me about two years to write), I started my MFA program at Vermont College. Once I got the first line, “If I was going to kill the prophet, I’d do it in Africa,” I knew that I could go. That is my process: if I get something, I can just start writing. I think that I can connect with my characters partially because I know them. I always ask myself and my students, “What’s this person feeling? What is her gut?”
During my research for The Chosen One, Warren Jeffs went to the list of top most wanted men. When that happened, I started to know about the situation and I stuck Kyra in there. And I knew that she was going to have to be a very strong girl, and I based a little of that off of one of my daughters who is very tough, like in your face. Her name is Kyra like in the book. Also the piano part is from her. The rest was just asking myself how I would feel in this situation, because hopefully by the end of writing or reading a novel, the reader is not going to be the same, the author is not going to be the same, and certainly your character can never ever be the same again.

CG: Sometimes when I am writing, I feel that in order to create characters that are different from me, I don’t want to ask the question, “What would I do in this situation.”

CLW: Well you have to be able to connect to it. My characters are never me. I would not have run away from this community; I would not have had the courage or the strength. That is some scary stuff that these people did.