Lori Aurelia Williams is a first-time YA novelist with WHEN KAMBIA ELAINE FLEW IN FROM NEPTUNE (Simon & Schuster, 2000). This interview was conducted via email in December 2000.
What role did books play in your childhood? What were your favorites?
When I was young books played a very big role in my life. I had asthma pretty bad as a child, and I would often spend weeks lying in bed with only a few good books for entertainment. I adored just about any tale by Judy Blume, but when I was really down I would read a book that one of my mother’s friends had given me, called MR. PUDGINS, by Ruth Christoffer Carlsen. In the book Mr. Pudgins was a kindly old fellow who sometimes babysat for three young neighbor children. When he sat for the kids he usually brought along his favorite pipe, and each time he lit that pipe something fun and magical would happen, like grape and orange soda pop pouring from water faucets. I cherished every moment that I spent in Mr. Pudgins’ world. It was a great way for me to forget about the illness that I was suffering in mine.
Who are some of your favorite authors today?
I enjoy reading some of the great YA writers today, like Christopher Paul Curtis, and Chris Crutcher. They are both really wonderful novelists who write books that children, and adults can enjoy.
When did you first decide to become a writer? Were you a child who scribbled your own short stories, or was it something that came to you later in life?
Although I loved writing as a child I actually chose my writing career later on in life. I was finishing up my bachelors degree in English, at the University of Texas, when I started to become bored with my regular English courses. They were great classes, but I just wasn’t finding them very fulfilling. I decided that it was time for a change. I enrolled in a creative writing class and rediscovered my love for storytelling.
Toward the end of the course the professor told me that I had a gift for writing, and suggested that I apply for a graduate creative writing program. I filled out the application for the program, turned in a couple of stories, and I was soon on my way to becoming a writer.
What inspired you to write professionally?
I’ve often heard people say that they chose a profession because they wanted to make a difference. I feel that way about writing. As a child I saw many children being physically and mentally abused by the adults who were supposed to be taking care of them.
In a society where the phrase “children are to be seen and not heard” was the general rule, these children learned to trap their emotions on the inside, and never speak of their pain. I was one of these children, and I became a writer so that I could help us all let the pain out.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path to publication?
I have to admit that my road to publication was fairly easy. When I finally decided that I would send Kambia Elaine out I chose to send her to a publisher and two literary agencies that friends had suggested to me.
At all three places someone was kind enough to read her and give me great feedback, but only Barbara Ryan, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic in New York, was willing to take her (me) on as a client. With Barbara’s helpful suggestions I made a few minor changes to Kambia Elaine. When the changes were completed Barbara shipped Kambia out to five major publishers. A month later four of the publishers responded.
They all wanted Kambia, so they ended up bidding on her. When all the bids were in Barbara chose Simon & Schuster Publishing, because their editor, David Gale, provided her with the best detailed letter of how he would market the book.
What are the greatest challenges to you as an author?
I like to write about pretty deep topics, subjects that shake people up.
My challenge as an author is to somehow find a way to create humor and beauty in a world that may be filled with ugliness. I did this in Kambia Elaine by creating humorous characters like Frog, and by having Shayla express herself through very poetic journal entries. By using this technique I was able to soften the blow of what was happening to Kambia.
What do you love about it?
What I love about being an author is being able to use my talent to tell other people’s stories. My stories are generally about teens who have struggled to overcome some pretty big obstacles in their lives. Being able to bring those stories to the world makes me feel very fortunate and immensely blessed.
What is it like, being a first-time YA novelist in 2000?
Being a first-time YA writer in the year 2000 has been a blast. My book got some really fabulous reviews, and I was fortunate enough to attend several great book festivals and conferences. At the conferences and festivals I was able to meet many Kambia fans. Everyone I met was kind and said wonderful things about the book. It was a great way for me to start out the new century.
What kinds of reactions to your work have you gotten from young readers?
Since Kambia Elaine was released I’ve been told by several teachers and parents that their children have read and really enjoyed it. Last month I was able to see a little of this for myself. I attended a festival at a local library in Dallas. At the festival I gave a reading in front of a group of girls and boys ranging in ages from ten to thirteen. When the reading was over the children all purchased the book and brought it for me to sign. Later that day, as I headed out of the library, I saw the children huddled together in groups, reading parts of the books aloud.
What’s up next for your fans?
Up next is my new book SHAYLA’S DOUBLE BROWN BABY BLUE’S. In the book readers will follow Shayla as she struggles with the birth of her new little sister, find out where Kambia actually came from, and be introduced to Lemm, a thirteen-year-old alcoholic that is dealing with some pretty heavy demons.
It’s a whole new story, with a lot going on, and I hope old and new fans will enjoy reading it.