Interview: Graduate & Odyssey Online Instructor Donna Glee Williams
2011 Odyssey graduate and Odyssey Online instructor Donna Glee Williams was born in Mexico, the daughter of a Kentucky farm-girl and a Texas Aggie large-animal veterinarian. She’s been a lot of places; now she makes her home in the mountains of western North Carolina, but the place she lived the longest and still calls home is New Orleans. These days, she earns her daily bread by writing and helping other writers bring their creative visions to light, but in the past she’s done the dance as turnabout crew (aka, “maid”) on a schooner, as a librarian, as an environmental activist, as a registered nurse, as a teacher and seminar leader, and for a long stint as a professional student. The craft societies in her novels The Braided Path (Edge, 2014) and Dreamers (Edge, 2016) owe a lot to the time she’s spent hanging out in villages in Mexico, Spain, Iceland, Norway, Croatia, Italy, Israel, Turkey, India, and Pakistan. As a finalist in the 2015 Roswell Short Science Fiction Awards, her short story “Saving Seeds” was performed onstage in Hollywood by Jasika Nicole. Her speculative fiction has been recognized by Honorable Mentions from both the Writers of the Future competition and Gardner Dozois’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction collection. She earned an MFA and PhD from Louisiana State University, knows how to brain-tan a deer hide, drives a stick-shift, and has eaten roadkill more than once.
You attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop in 2011. How do you feel your writing and writing process changed as a result of having attended Odyssey?
Odyssey is like the Big Bang: it’s hard to imagine a state before it. But imagination is what we are all about, so here goes. I’d been writing all my life—my first poem in second grade—in a sort of scattershot way: introspective contemporary realist fiction, poetry, journalism, scholarship, song lyrics, and random acts of drama. Odyssey focused my energies like a gigantic magnifying glass in the sun. It was an intensive professional induction to the specific genre that had first wooed me to words. I treasured the personal conversations, conferences, and small-group lunches with Odyssey Director Jeanne Cavelos. That summer I was in the middle of selling my first novel, The Braided Path, over the transom to Edge, and Jeanne coached me in how to use the offer on the table to get an agent. Richard Curtis not only represented me for the arrangements on The Braided Path, but also applied his fine editorial eye to getting Dreamers ready to sell.
What insights did you gain into your own work?
I’d never read much horror. Sure, the occasional Stephen King audiobook when I needed to stay awake on a really long drive, but I’d never really had that much respect for the genre before Odyssey. That changed after hearing our writer-in-residence, Gary A. Braunbeck, read us his horror “manifesto.” His understanding of the functions of horror in storytelling gave the form new meaning and dignity in my eyes. And then, at our last private conference of the workshop, Jeanne pointed out very gently that the majority of what I’d written over the summer was, in fact, horror. She was right, and I’ve enthusiastically embraced my Inner Creepo since then. While I still don’t actually think of myself as a denominational “horror writer,” my second novel, Dreamers, has some ugly sadism in it. (And someone gets buried alive. That’s pretty diagnostic, right?) My short story “Dancing,” which I actually drafted during Odyssey and then sold to Pseudopod,involves an age-obsessed bug-lady who gets imprisoned inside an eternal exercise machine. “Come and Get It,” which I read at the Odyssey slam and sold to Psychological Perspectives, involves the classic woman-chained-to-the-rock-and-eaten-yum-yum-by-a-monster. “Absence Makes the Heart,” which—thanks to Jeanne—I just sold to Judith K. Dial and Tom Easton for their forthcoming Fantasy for the Throne anthology, involves a depressed amphibian trying to commit suicide. So, yeah—Horror ‘R’ Us.
A critical part of Odyssey, both during the summer residential program and in the online classes, is critiquing the work of your colleagues. Through the intensive critiquing of that summer, I learned that my fifty years of writing, MFA in fiction, PhD in linguistics, skills as a poet, and sprawling life experience all added up to being able to help other authors bring their visions to life. Eventually I wound up joining my sister Odfellow Karen Lacey in her remarkable editing/coaching/ghostwriting boutique, The Uncommon Octopus, and I’ve been happily earning my daily crumb by polishing other writers’ silver ever since.
What made you decide to attend the Odyssey Writing Workshop?
It wasn’t really a decision—on the plotter-pantser gradient, I’m El Pantser Supreme. I learned about Odyssey; I applied, never thinking I’d be accepted. I got the letter; I made it happen. One step at a time: Apply. Get accepted. Find the money. Make the time.
You came full circle when you became a lecturer for one of Odyssey’s online classes this year on subtext. Can you briefly explain what subtext is and offer a way for writers to start incorporating subtext into their stories?
Me? Brief? About subtext? I love your dry sense of humor.
Subtext is everything you communicate without explicitly stating it. When humans are face to face, some of this below-the-surface communication comes through non-verbal cues and some of it comes through actual words that invite or insist that the listener fill in the blanks with information the speaker never said. In writing, we can manipulate those verbal cues in the same way that speakers do, forcing our readers to know things we never state. The non-verbals are a little more complex for writers, because our medium doesn’t let people see our gestures or facial expressions. But, as the Bad Guy Captor always says, ve haf vays . . .
(Ways that can be taught!)
What are some books or short stories you’ve read recently that offer good examples of subtext?
The absolute classic example is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in which the main trouble of the book (that the love-struck protagonist is impotent because of a war wound) is never, ever explicitly stated. More recently, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried also buries its real story like a truffle in the deep dark woods and leaves the reader to sniff it out. While I was pulling examples for my Odyssey Online subtext class, I also found myself turning a lot to mysteries like Elizabeth Brundage’s All Things Cease to Appear—mystery writers, of course, often need to make sure their readers know things that don’t, technically, appear on the page.
Both of your novels, The Braided Path and Dreamers, are young adult fantasy. What drew you to write for a young audience? What were some of the challenges you encountered while writing your novels?
Ever since Wilder Penfield’s experiments with electrodes on the brain, we’ve known that all of us contain every single age we’ve ever been, and it seems that a lot of my passion for Story lives in the Me that’s about 12-13 years old. Whatcha gonna do?
One of the challenges for me has been discerning what, exactly, comprises YA literature these days. It’s not, as I was told by some, the age of the protagonists—Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See features youngsters, but the book is pretty clearly not YA. It’s not subject matter or how graphic the sex and/or violence is—YA rule-breakers like John Green shatter these boundaries with every book they publish. And it turns out the membranes that separate YA from Adult are even more permeable in fantasy than in other types of fiction. Adults happily read Harry Potter and kids devour Game of Thrones. This is fortunate for me, because I am a great fence-straddler when it comes to categories. The Braided Path had three main characters, two teens and one woman in early middle age. I call it a “three-way coming of age story,” and I really do think it’s valuable for my young readers to know that middle-aged people have to deal with growing up, too. The Night Field, the novel I’m working on now, which has a teen protagonist, isn’t YA at all. I’m coming down to a “feel” test for YA; like Justice Stewart, “I know it when I see it.”
You have published numerous poems in addition to novels and short stories. What can writers of prose learn from poets? What are some poetic devices that fiction writers can use in their prose?
On the craft side, a fiction writer with any ambition at all is going to want to provoke strong emotions in readers. Ipso facto—and how often do you get to work an ipso into a blog post?—that writer is going to need ways to communicate to the other-than-rational parts of the mind: the gut, the heart, the subconscious, however you name it. The technology for doing that exists in three places I know of: poetry, clinical hypnosis, and advertising. (I include political propaganda in advertising.) I’ve studied clinical hypnosis, neuro-linguistic programming, and therapeutic storytelling and learned a lot, especially about pacing and the power of metaphor. Studying advertising makes me feel like I need a bath. Reading and studying poetry immerses you in the power of super-refined language-craft—the tricks of our trade—while opening your heart to a deeper experience of life and its sensations.
What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Ouch. My bugaboo these days is my work habits. I’ve got a big ole discovery draft of my next novel, tentatively called The Night Field, which I dutifully put away for a while to grow some fresh eyes before starting my revisions. But the trouble with putting something away for a while is that it’s hard to get back into the butt-in-chair routine. Any excuse, right?
What I’ve done to defeat my inertia is to plan some time at writers’ residencies this year, one month at Jentel in Wyoming and one at Messen in Norway. This is essentially like locking yourself in a room with nothing to do but write or go crazy. It really works; I started The Braided Path at The Hambidge Center in North Georgia and finished it on my Fulbright to India.
Another thing I’ve done is to get a developmental edit from Karen Lacey. Sometimes you just need some dynamite to blast you out of your stuck place.
And then there is always patience. I try not to be too harsh with myself, and to make sure I’m filling the time with other productive work (like submitting things and pulling together my first book-length poetry manuscript.) I’ve been here before often enough to know that what feels like procrastination is often just the Chaos Cave where we are doomed to flail until we are truly ready to take the next step.