New Voice: Ismée Williams on Water In May

By Gayleen Rabakukk

Ismée Williams is the debut author of Water In May (Amulet Books, 2017). From the promotional copy:

Fifteen-year-old Mari Pujols believes that the baby she’s carrying will finally mean she’ll have a family member who will love her deeply and won’t ever leave her—not like her mama, who took off when she was eight; or her papi, who’s in jail; or her abuela, who wants as little to do with her as possible. 

But when doctors discover a potentially fatal heart defect in the fetus, Mari faces choices she never could have imagined.

Surrounded by her loyal girl crew, her off-and-on boyfriend, and a dedicated doctor, Mari navigates a decision that could emotionally cripple the bravest of women. But both Mari and the broken-hearted baby inside her are fighters; and it doesn’t take long to discover that this sick baby has the strength to heal an entire family.

What first inspired you to write for young readers?

I love reading young adult literature. I love the fast pace and the fact that no matter what happens over the course of the story, there is hope at the end as the characters are young and change is possible.

In much the same way, I was drawn to pediatrics when I was in medical school. Kids are just so much more fun and interesting than grown ups! And kids are strong. Even when they are very sick, they have a higher chance of pulling through than us old(er) folks.

Also, I vividly remember what it was like to be a teen. I can still feel the excitement, the acute awareness of approaching potential. I spent so much time dreaming. There was so much I wanted to do with my life. The time that is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood is special and unique. I naturally believed it would be the most interesting time in my characters’ lives.

As a member of a community under-represented in youth literature, what did your diverse perspective bring to your story?

I didn’t set out to write about a Latina character. I set out to create a story that would move the reader.

It just so happened that I am a half-Cuban pediatric cardiologist who took care of a number of young Dominican/Dominican-American women pregnant with babies with heart defects. I was one of the only Spanish-speaking fetal cardiologists at my hospital, so these women tended to come to see me.

I remember the exact moment I thought of the premise for Water In May.

I was coming up out of the 168th Street subway, mulling over a scene in my first manuscript. My brain switched to my upcoming patients for the day. I stopped dead on the sidewalk outside the hospital front entrance. Throngs of people in scrubs passed me, headed for the glass doors.

What if there were a young Latina who wanted a baby desperately? Who wanted someone who would love her and not leave? What would she do if the baby had a heart defect and might not survive? That would make a great story.

Ambulance bay at hospital where Ismee worked.

I wasn’t ready to put my first manuscript aside. But when I got home that evening, I jotted down some notes. And I thought of that character, that strong Latina woman, over the next few years.

When I was ready, I sat down and wrote the novel in three months. This was fast for me and I think it was because I had such a strong grasp of my protagonist. Mari wasn’t based off any single patient. She was a mix of many of them, and of me as well.  Her contrary, feisty nature is me unfiltered.

But I do believe my Cuban abuelos, who took care of my brother and I growing up as both our parents worked, gave me stronger insight into my Latina patients that went beyond the common language. I understood how crazy they were about babies.

My abuelos, my mother and I were the same. And in Cuban and Dominican culture, family is muy importante. Which makes Mari’s wound of feeling abandoned by her parents and her grandmother even more acute.

Ismee’s mother, her Abuelo and teenage Ismee.

What was the funniest moment of your publishing journey?

Perhaps the funniest moment of my publishing journey was the day my agent, the illustrious Jim McCarthy, called to offer me representation.

I was working in the library, immersed in another manuscript, when my phone buzzed. I ran out to the hallway, murmuring, “Please hold on,” so I wouldn’t disturb my fellow library-mates.

The connection was so poor I could barely hear what Jim was saying. Perhaps only every third word came through. I was running up and down the stairs of the old building, trying to find a spot with good reception, my heart hammering.

Silent curses against my cell phone carrier and the very loud thunderstorm that was no doubt disrupting service streamed through my mind. After trying for a few minutes, Jim hung up!

But then he emailed me explaining that he normally likes to make the offer verbally but email would suffice. It all worked out in the end, but it was nerve-wracking while it was happening!

What advice do you have for beginning children’s-YA writers?

First of all, attend as many writers’ conferences as you can. I live in New York City and was able to attend the SCBWI Winter conferences five years in a row.

I attended breakout sessions with agents and editors where I learned the do’s and don’t’s of writing a query letter along with practical writing tips such as cutting extraneous scenes that do not move the plot forward.

The keynotes speeches from established authors were equally influential. Who knew that famous authors spent years trying to get published, working menial jobs or living off significant others or parents while fine-tuning their writing? That they, too, submitted to hundreds of agents and editors before finally breaking into the publishing world?

These conferences gave me the desire and hope to keep plugging away along with concrete tips on how to fine-tune my craft.

My second piece of advice is to join a writers’ critique group. I was starving for feedback for a very long time, not realizing I was surrounded by people who could help me. Find local authors/aspiring authors who write in the same genre as you do. Share your work. Offer up feedback and they will do the same. The experience is invaluable. I found my critique partners online through SCBWI.

Cynsations Notes

Kirkus Reviews gave Water in May a starred review. Peek: “Full of spot-on cultural texture and packing an emotional punch, this is an unusual take on the teen-pregnancy problem novel. Mari’s is a voice and path that are often dismissed or derided, but Williams presents her experience in a way that demands not pity but respect….”

Ismée Williams is a pediatric cardiologist who worked at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City for fifteen years.

As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant, partially raised by her abuelos, her background helped her understand the many Maris she met along the way. She lives in New York with her husband, three book-loving kids and a dog who looks like a muppet.