Tuesday, August 16, 2011

the tuesday interview: naomi williams

My friend Naomi Williams writes stories that you can get lost in. Stories about men and women on the edge of continents. On the edge of storms. She writes the kind of stories that you look up and realize that it's grown dark outside and you've forgotten to feed the dog and in a certain way you've forgotten the 21st century.

RQD: What are you working on? What's interesting to you about these characters?
NW: For several years now I've been working on a collection of linked short stories about an 18th-century voyage of exploration. The expedition was supposed to circumnavigate the world and discover all kinds of wonderful things for France, but ended up shipwrecked in the Solomon Islands & never came home. I love disaster stories.

The story I'm working on right now is set in Monterey, California, where these explorers stopped for 10 days in 1786. One character is the wife of the then-governor of California. The year before she met the Frenchmen, she'd created a huge stir by suing her husband for divorce and publicly accusing him of infidelity with an Indian girl who worked in their home. Sound familiar? This is part of what I love about this project: the constant reminder that plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

RQD: What other artwork or artists influence you?
NW: Does cartography count as a visual art? This project was inspired by an old map that my husband gave me years ago. I love the way map-making tries to make sense of the world by inscribing it on paper, but of course there's no "true" map of anything -- it's an act of interpretation, just like writing historical fiction. Or fiction of any kind. Or any writing at all.

RQD: What book or story or poem do you return to over and over?
NW: As for a piece of writing I return to, I'm going to be terribly unoriginal and disappointing and admit that the authors whose work I've reread the most are Jane Austen and Tolkien. I don't know that either has directly influenced my writing, but when I just need a fix of wonderful, that's where I go.

RQD: What are you reading now?
NW: I've been reading through Shakespeare's sonnets, two every night, like aspirin, before I go to bed. Then in the morning I always read some contemporary poetry over my first cup of tea; right now it's Terrance Hayes' Lighthead. I'm also working my way through Sarah Bakewell's wonderful How to Live, or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. As for fiction, I managed to score an advance copy of Sabina Murray's Tales of the New World, a collection of short stories that are just up my alley: it's all historical stuff about intrepid explorers and the like. Lots of fun.

RQD: What were you reading as a kid?
NW: I had a very odd, anachronistic, and contradictory childhood. I was raised on the King James Bible and Pilgrim's Progress, but my parents' house was filled with old books of all sorts, and there was no censorship of what I read. So while I read "proper" books like the Narnia Chronicles and Little Women, I also had access to Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which I first read when I was 12, and the complete short stories of Guy de Maupassant. Quite an education available on those bookshelves. (Of course the Bible itself had more graphic sex and violence than anything I could find in the family library.) The steeping in old classics certainly affected my writing (and probably explains everything I've said above): I'm a 21st-century writer who's more comfortable writing -- and reading -- about the distant past.

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