'You have to want the story': A.R. Williams on writing (pt. 2)

Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 9.34.45 AM In part one of my interview with A.R. Williams here at Call of the Siren, she discussed the background of her splendid dystopian novel "The Camellia Resistance."

But something else happened in the process. She provided two interviews: one about her novel and one about the craft of writing. As all of you consider your own projects, you may find Williams' perspectives in(con)structive, too. What is her best insight on the craft of writing? For me, it's this line:

You have to want the story itself, not the outcomes.

That's a point that's so easy, in the frenetic publishing marketplace, to forget.

There's no better inspiration than the perspectives of a writer newly-emerged from a successful project. (Case in point: The letters of Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.)  That's what you'll find in the Q & A below, and I hope it helps you, my friends!


Is this your first novel? 

This is my first completed novel. There have been other attempts at novel-writing, but this is the one that insisted I stick with it all the way through to publication. I have a couple of other things out – a novella and a collection of short stories, but those are both decidedly adult in nature.

Non-writers don't realize how labor intensive a story - whether it's a short story or full novel - can be. How long did 'The Camellia Resistance' take to write? 

I started planning the book in the fall of 2009 and wrote the first draft in November of 2009. It took another three years (and the dedicated support of my editor and best friend) to get it ready for publication.

There was a lot of rewriting involved, and the story arc for the (planned) trilogy didn't really settle into place until early in 2012. Once that became clear to me, it was a lot easier to see the first book through to completion.

When did you find the time to complete it? 

For me, wanting to write a book wasn't enough. I needed two things: the first was a story that wouldn't let me go until I'd gotten it right. And by not letting me go, I mean that [the main character ] Willow and her world were always nudging me.

Even when you weren't writing, you were still thinking about the story, right?

Yes, I'd be commuting to work and visualizing some of the scenes that served as anchors to the story - like when Willow and Ianthe ride their bikes through an abandoned and crumbling Chicago. That scene demanded that I replay it over and over again until it felt as real to me as any of the trips I've ever made to the present-day Chicago.

The second thing that kept me motivated were my early readers. My editor and best friend read the first 50,000-word draft and insisted that I keep going. I had three more friends that looked over the first draft and were adamant about wanting to know what happened next. I'm not sure I could have finished it without their investment and interest.

For anyone struggling to write a book and facing a very hectic life, what words of encouragement would you give them?

As for encouragement, there's no way around it: writing is a lot of work. It's not glamorous like it is in the movies. You don't get to the end of a draft, tap in that last period and send it to an editor who promptly sends back an invitation to their house in the Hamptons and an advance check for millions. You have to want the story itself, not the outcomes. No matter how tightly your idea is hanging on to you, there are days when you are going to hate it. But if you've got that story that won't let you go, I  think you have to trust it.

And trust yourself, wouldn't you agree?

Absolutely. Be compassionate with yourself: it's going to take longer than you think to write and it's going to be terrible in its early drafts. Make sure you've got everything you need to write, whether its keeping your book notes on Evernote on your phone so you can always have your "next thing" to write with you or keeping a pen and paper with you at all times.

Be open to surprises and mistakes, they always bring you something you didn't know was there. Write because you have to, not because you think it's going to get you something. Most books are lucky to sell 2,000 copies, so if money or fame are the source of your motivation, you're probably going to be disappointed.

Let it be terrible in the first draft and just keep going. The rewrites will be just as hard as the first draft, but at least you'll have something to work with. You can't edit a book that doesn't exist, and it simply isn't possible to get it perfect the first time around. Show up for your characters (and yourself) with as much kindness as you've got... At the end of the day, if the story needs telling, you'll get there.


A tightly-controlled world: A.R. Williams on 'The Camellia Resistance' (pt. 1)

Screen Shot 2013-11-11 at 4.50.26 PM The novel The Camellia Resistance by A.R. Williams starts off in a comforting place, a warm bed, as the narrator watches her lover dress. But the world outside is far from a comfort — a future landscape, painted in apocalyptic tones and colors. It's become a familiar world in the past decade or so, thanks to writers like Suzanne Collins, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Justin Cronin and big- and small-screen entertainments like The Walking Dead and Elysium.

But Williams' story -- which is part of a trilogy -- manages to find its own niche in this crowded genre, drawing on aspects of today's politico-socio climate to project a plausible future -- a world in which intimacy and love are threatened at the national, and viral, levels ... where latex, body condoms, and SaniCheck have become the norm. Government muscle is flexed to a suffocating degree, ranging CAMELLIA RESISTANCEfrom government agents to the little tattoo that marks infected people, and Williams shows its full effect with compelling style.

She's also a thoughtful interviewee, and I asked her a few questions about her novel -- presented in this post -- and about what she learned about the craft of writing as she finished this novel (coming soon in Part II of the interview).

I’d recommend that you print out this post, pour yourself the beverage of your choice, and sit back and listen to what Williams has to say about her novel and her experiences: It just might provide unexpected insights for you as you push ahead with your own project. Enjoy, my friends.


The book opens with an intimate description of Willow’s lovemaking with Zacharias Vendelin—her beloved “Ven.” She savors their time together because such intimacy isn’t allowed in their society, isn’t that right? Why not?

Willow is pretty isolated. She's bought into the protocols and assumptions of her culture, but she's lonely. There's a fundamental conflict between her early childhood experiences of affection with her biological mother and the life she's living now. She remembers being connected to another person, but it isn't really a part of her adult experience until she meets Ven. Her isolation makes her vulnerable, so when Ven shows up and touches her, her choices reflect her own ignored needs, not any well-placed trust in this virtual stranger.

Isolation's the norm, isn't it?

Intimacy is tightly controlled in the world she lives in. It's recognized as a necessary evil for the procreation of the species, but messy things happen with intimacy, and hers is a society that doesn't have much tolerance for messiness. This is a world where there's been a massive pandemic that's wiped out most of the population. What's left is a reactionary government built around the premise that if you can just control everything tightly enough - the biggest focus is on health and cleanliness - then you can prevent bad things from happening.

williams author photoHow did you come up with the idea for this novel, considering that there are so many end-of-the-world narratives out there already? 

The novel evolved considerably from inception to publication. I started writing it for National Novel Writing Month in November 2009 -- kind of before the whole dystopian thing was a thing.

It must have been daunting to come up with an idea that's "new."

The plan was never to write something "new": In the initial stages, I just wanted to get 50,000 words by the end of November. As it grew in size and scope, I realized there were things I definitely wanted to talk about and the dystopian future provided an uncluttered framework for the discussion.

It's all imaginary, if you're working in 2044 instead of 2006. If it is a literal world you're writing in, you've got to conform to the rules of the real world. Twisting the basic assumptions about the world, even just a little bit, gave me both the grounded nature of a recognizable environment and the freedom to question things that we take for granted.

That's an interesting position to occupy. It's so flexible.

I really just wanted to talk about what comes after the worst thing you can possibly imagine happens. I was raised in a super conservative Christian sub-culture where we were afraid of everything. The way I grew up, if you could just be good enough, if you just kept to the rules strictly enough, then everything would be okay. I didn't know I was writing about that experience at the time I was writing, but I found that I really wanted to talk about fear and where decisions made from fear lead, both for society and for the individual.

In the end, I don't think any of us get away from the things that scare us most. There's something liberating about getting to the other side of the worst possible outcome and coming to the realization that you're still there and you still have to figure out what's next.

The dystopian setting served as an allegory, not as a considered starting point for writing something new. I really wasn't thinking about what else was out there or the trends in contemporary commercial fiction. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it environment just provided enough distance that I could talk about this notion of fear and culture without being tied to an exacting account of reality.

Mark of the fallen: The tattoo worn by infected people in "The Camellia Resistance."

What inspired the ideas of the two opposing groups, the Ministry and the Brethren (science vs. faith)? It seems like there are many public figures today with Ministry-like solutions to massive problems.

Given the way I was raised, I have a fundamental mistrust of anyone who wants to offer a single, simple answer. Usually presented like this: "if you just do what I tell you to do in the way that I tell you to do it, then everything is going to be okay." The reality is that things are only simple when the variables are constrained. When it comes to people (and what of our massive problems aren't people problems?), there's never going to be a single big answer. It's always going to be a multiplicity of small, often contradictory answers.

So the Ministry, as well-intentioned as it might be, is a metaphor for what happens when a single idea or answer is allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all others. Huge elements of what it means to be human get repressed, to everyone's detriment.

I see there being three groups in a kind of triangle: the Ministry and the Brethren being rather closer to each other than they are to the outliers; the loosely associated groups of misfits, a vaguely criminal element; and people that (in the American tradition) simply don't want to be told what to do. So the conflict is between control, either through science or faith, and the pragmatists who are more agnostic in their assumptions about what the right answers might be.

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“Life before the Ministry” – Willow asks an old cabdriver to describe what life was like before the Ministry. What he describes, in a nutshell, sounds like U.S. society today, is that accurate?

Yes. There are a few people in 2044 who remember what it was like before the pandemic and they are rightly ambivalent. Not everything about how we live right now is beneficial. In fact, a lot is wrong with our inability to come to some sort of an agreement that some things just aren't good for us. The food industry is far more interested in keeping their shareholders happy than they are to the general health and well-being of the consumer. There is a lot that we've got going on, just health-wise, that is really not well-considered or beneficial to anyone.

Everything costs something.

That's a running theme in the book. It isn't that the trade-offs shouldn't be made, just that I think there is value in being aware of what those trade-offs are. We can have unfettered freedom of choice when it comes to our food consumption, but then the cost of that is skyrocketing medical costs and a massive problem with obesity.

We can give up some of those freedoms (like the NYC attempt to ban super-size sodas), but what do we lose with that choice? What do we gain? And does anyone really need 32 ounces of Coke in one shot?

Some of the issues that Willow faces could have taken place in a “regular, normal” world, but why did you want to set her plight in a futuristic situation instead?

A lot of what Willow faces happens to real people in the regular world all the time, but her experience is really only the catalyst into the bigger questions: Is fear a productive basis for making choices? Which is better - a messy life lived genuinely or a controlled life without authentic connections?

You don't have to live in an apocalyptic world to face those questions.

That's right. Sooner or later, we all come to an "end of my world" situation. For some of us it's a divorce; for others, it's a health crisis or a job loss or some other event that forces us to question who we are and how we've been functioning in the world. If I've done my job as a writer, this book will reach someone in the middle of that kind of a crisis and will hopefully give them an alternate perspective and a reason to have a little compassion for themselves.


Coming soon: What the writing process taught A.R. Williams.