Author Interview: Carol Lynch Williams on The Chosen One

Carol Lynch Williams is the author of several books for young readers, most recently including The Chosen One (St. Martin’s, 2009). From the promotional copy:

Thirteen-year-old Kyra has grown up in an isolated community without questioning the fact that her father has three wives and she has twenty brothers and sisters, with two more on the way. That is, without questioning them much—if you don’t count her secret visits to the Mobile Library on Wheels to read forbidden books, or her meetings with Joshua, the boy she hopes to choose for herself instead of having a man chosen for her.

But when the Prophet decrees that she must marry her sixty-year-old uncle—who already has six wives—Kyra must make a desperate choice in the face of violence and her own fears of losing her family forever.

What were you like as a young reader?

I was an avid reader. I loved books, and still do. I read several novels at a time.

I can remember, as a child, going to the library with my grandmother. Nana would take me to the library in New Smyrna, and I would check out the limit of books. I loved stacking the novels next to my bed, propping up on the pillows and reading.

I can remember Nana would come in when the sun had nearly set and say, “Girl, you are going to go blind reading in the dark.”

And I would read until I couldn’t see by the sun anymore, then I’d switch on the lamp.

Why do you write for kids and young adults today?

I guess because my true voice is that of a 12-year-old.

Could you fill us in on your back-list titles, highlighting as you see fit?

My first novel came out in 1993. It’s called Kelly and Me (Delacorte, 1993), and it had some nice reviews. I worked on that book for so many years . . .

(then sent it to the Delacorte Young Adult Novel Contest, knowing it was a middle grade but hoping for a read. I was pulled out of that contest and worked with my first wonderful editor, Mary Cash, for several years and books.)

. . . that I felt it needed a sequel because the ending so surprised me.

Adeline Street (Delacorte, 1995) was next. Then The True Colors of Caitlynne Jackson (Delacorte, 1997). After that came If I Forget, You Remember (Delacorte 1998) and then My Angelica (Delacorte, 1999)—My Angelica is my first real, true, lovey-dovey, extra special, romance novel. What a fun book to write!

That’s when you and I met, Cynthia. I think you were twelve. Gosh, I was probably way, way younger. After that came Christmas in Heaven (Penguin, 2001) and Carolina Autumn (Delacorte, 2001). I remember thinking when I got your book Rain is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) how strange it was that you and I had written such similar stories. I was like, “This is so cool! I’m thinking like Cynthia Leitich Smith!”

In between these books, I was writing for the Latter-day Saint marketplace, too. I have about ten or so titles there. Then I had a long dry spell.

I sold some non-fiction (I mention this later), and then I went to school at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I sold Pretty Like Us (Peachtree Press, 2008) at the start of school.

Before I graduated, I had sold what is now known as The Chosen One (St Martin’s Press, 2009), and a book that is tentatively titled Lost in Peace (SMP, TBA).

About a month ago, I sold A Glimpse is All I Can Stand to Paula Wiseman books. That book is due out next year.

Looking back on your apprenticeship as a writer, is there anything you wish you’d done differently? If so, what and why?

I think the timing I experienced as a writer was exactly right for me, even including the long dry spell I had (though I couldn’t know that at the time).

At the beginning of my career, I published consistently. Then, in 2002, I couldn’t sell anything. Nothing.

For a moment, I had a slight change in the dry spell. I sold a non-fiction book called 24 Games You Can Play on a Checkerboard (2007).

But nothing fiction was selling. And fiction is my true love. I have to admit, though—I really do like the non-fiction book. It’s published by Gibbs-Smith, and they did a terrific job on the book itself. Also my editor, Jennifer Grillone, was a delight to work with.

On the flip side, what was most helpful to you in terms of developing your craft?

All the reading I did helped me to be a writer, I think. One of the best things for a writer to do is read. Read everything you can get your hands on.

My first teachers were Faulkner, Twain, Steinbeck, Welty, O’Connor.

When I realized that I was going to be a children’s writer I started reading everything else. I am usually reading several books at a time (right now I’m reading four titles).

Also, I’d like to mention my agent Steve Fraser. He has been a truly supportive agent through some pretty dark times. He has a keen eye. He’s known the houses my books should go to. It was Steve who truly believed St Martin’s Press and my wonderful editor, Hope Dellon, would be a good place for me to land. And he was so right. This is an important part of writing, I think. Hooking up with the person that can represent you well and that you can work with well.

Congratulations on The Chosen One (St. Martin’s, May 2009)! The early buzz has been deafening! Could you tell us about the novel?

I am all about relationships. And I write what tends to be emotion-packed for me. This book was no different. It’s about 13-year-old Kyra Leigh Carlson, who lives in a polygamist community where everything the prophet says is law. She has a secret boyfriend, and she’s found books (any kind of reading material has been banned from the community).

When Kyra gets the news that she will be chosen to marry someone else, she decides to do something few in her sect have the courage to do: she stands up for herself.

What was your initial inspiration for writing the book?

Long ago, I heard about a girl who had run from her home because she didn’t want to marry a much-older family member. The moment I heard that story, I was like, I’ll write a book about that some day. But the story stayed just a kernel of an idea for many, many years.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?

As a writer, one of the things I think makes for a good story is when the author feels emotionally connected to what she’s writing about. And, boy, I did feel attached to what I worked on. The research was depressing, and I have to admit, the topic is strange. “Yes, we want to share our husband.”

Of course there are groups where pedophilia is not part of their beliefs. But the research I did uncovered some ugly truths about some communities. And, at it times, it was heartbreaking. I can still remember watching a documentary on TV and feeling so sad about what the reporters spoke about.

Then there was the problem of telling an interesting story that most don’t understand. I had to unfold plenty of back story, and how was I going to do that and not lose the reader?

Most authors feel there are troubles in the unfolding of their books. We are, after all, creating something from nothing. And there certainly were stumbling blocks for me in the researching and writing of this novel.

Am I right that St. Martin’s is just now moving into publishing young adult novels? Could you tell us a little about that?

I know that SMP does do some YA, but not a lot. At the end of last year, they published Courtney Summers‘s debut novel, Cracked Up to Be (December 2008). I really like that book, thought the voice was dead-on. I’m still thinking about the ending. Wow!

I noticed that Jenna Lamia is the narrator for the audio production (MacMillan, May). What did you think of the audio adaptation?

SMP sent out a 12-minute CD with some of the ARCs, so I heard that. Jenna’s reading actually gave me chills. She has such a sweet voice. I just got the CD of the book, and I can’t wait to hear it.

You know, Cynthia, this has never happened to any of my books before, and I feel so overwhelmed with it all. What a privilege. What a blessing. A book of mine is on tape.

And I just feel so humbled at the reaction to the novel itself. It’s just crazy. But cool. Don’t get me wrong! I’m so pleased.

You’re a writer who also teaches. Could you fill us in on that?

I teach creative writing part time at Brigham Young University. I’ve done this only a few semesters, but I hope to teach at least one class a semester as the students are quite talented writers. In fact, I have a few students who have such strong voices and know so much about writing the novel that I only need to point them in the correct direction.

How does teaching inform your own work?

I get to see what’s out there in the world of writing and see how other writers are exploring what they want to present. Also, I might know how to do something with a book—I wrote for many, many years before I ever got a degree—but not how to explain it. So I get to figure out what it is that I do as a writer to grab a reader or reveal a character and then pass it on.

What about it appeals to you? Challenges you?

The challenges are first, I always forget that many of my students are beginners. I have to remind myself to teach basics. I want the best for my students, and I work them hard. That means I work hard. Not a bad thing, but that gives me less time to write my own material.

However, I really want to see these writers succeed. Our goal in class is always publishing. I want them to walk out of class with enough material that they can have something solid to work on. And I want them to know about good, strong writing so their stories have power.

If you could go back in time and talk to your beginning-writer self, what would you tell her?

Don’t be so afraid, be more adventurous. I was so shy when I first started publishing, I almost didn’t go to my first critique group. I had a hard time speaking in front of people. Also, I’d learn how to be more public about my own writing, which is hard for me to do. I just want to write and then spend the rest of the day with my kids!

What do you do outside the world of books?

There’s a world outside of books? Hm…most of my world is books. I home-school my girls, and books are a big part of that. And I have a great critique group (but that’s books).

Okay, I can do this. I love to watch movies, I love to eat, and if I had someone to go shopping for ingredients and then someone to clean up my mess, I’d love to cook. I like to make bread.

I love my children—all of them. I love to spend time with them, just driving around or watching them play ball, or listening to them talk about books (we do that a lot at my place).

In fact, we were just re-re-re-discussing Ann Dee Ellis‘s novel, Everything is Fine (Little, Brown, 2009) for the millionth time.

I cross-stitch when I have time. And talk to my friends (I actually have a group of friends where we do not talk writing or reading. Can you imagine?).

I love going to church, but I am glad that I only do it once a week.

Oh! I remembered something. I love to go to garage sales. I will not tell you what I shop for. But I did get a first edition of Animal Farm [by George Orwell (1945)] for a dime once. A dime!

What can your fans look forward to next?

I have another book coming out with St. Martin’s that I’m working on right now, the one I spoke of earlier. It’s tentatively called Lost in Peace. This is the story of Lacey, her mother who is ill, and a dead grandfather who keeps peeking into the family and stirring things up.

And there’s A Glimpse is All I Can Stand. Like I said, I always write about relationships, and this book is no different. It’s the story of sister who tries to uncover the reasons why her older sister has attempted to kill herself.

Cynsational Notes

This year’s PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship goes to Carol Lynch Williams, author of the forthcoming A Glimpse Is All I Can Stand, for which she is receiving the award.

“The PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship responds to the need for a measure of financial sustenance that can make possible an extended period of time to complete a book-length work in progress. The fellow will receive $5,000 in assistance at a crucial moment in his or her career when monetary support is particularly needed. The fellowship is made possible by a substantial contribution from PEN member Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.

“The judges for this year’s award were Lucy Frank, Patricia Reilly Giff, and Ann Martin.”