Today we welcome Arleen Williams.
Book ‘Em: Tell us about you and your life outside of writing.
Arleen Williams: I’ve spent a thirty-year career teaching English as a Second Language to refugees and immigrants at a large urban college in Seattle. This work has brought the world into my life in a unique and special way. I have learned as much as I have taught.
Twenty-eight years ago, my husband and I moved into a 1943 war box the real estate agent called a “starter home.” We’re still here and happy our daughter and her new husband have chosen to make their home in the same neighborhood. When not writing or teaching, I cycle and hike, garden and read as much as my busy schedule allows.
Book ‘Em: Which books have you written? What are they about and why did you choose to write them? Do your books have a message? Are they fiction or nonfiction?
Arleen Williams: Lots of questions wrapped into one! I have written three novels and two memoirs. Unfortunately, my publisher went out of business. I re-released the novels last summer. The memoirs will be available in 2018. I’ve also co-written a dozen short books in easy English for new readers.
Running Secrets, Biking Uphill, Walking Home create The Alki Trilogy. They are uplifting stories of cross-cultural, multi-generational friendships – and redemption. The novels are linked by character and setting, but can be read in any order. I wrote these books to honor my students by offering a glimpse into their world.
The Thirty-Ninth Victim (re-release 2018) tells the story of my family’s journey before and after the Green River killer murdered my sister and offers a window into the family dynamics behind this life-altering tragedy. The redemptive power of finding and facing truth are at the heart of this memoir.
Moving Mom (pub 2018) is a story of motherhood and memory loss that takes the reader to that special place between mother and daughter, between family expectations and creative expression, between survival and defeat.
Book ‘Em: Do you have a work in progress?
Arleen Williams: Yes, I’m currently working on a third memoir. Through the process of writing, two stories have emerged – a coming of age story of a young expat in Mexico City in the early 1980s and the story of reconnecting thirty years later with the women who shared that experience. It’s turned into a monster of a project – and a total blast!
Book ‘Em: What was the most difficult section/piece you ever wrote? What made it difficult?
Arleen Williams: When I first began writing, I took a yearlong course at the University of Washington. As my first memoir began to take shape, one of my professors insisted that to truly understand my characters, I needed to write a scene from the perspective of my sister’s killer. Of course he was right, but I was furious. This paragraph ended up in the final version of the memoir:
My writing mentor insists that to write Maureen’s story, I must understand Ridgway. I must see, feel, express this story from all points of view. I must be Gary Ridgway. But I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. I can’t write about Ridgway, or Ridgway’s motives, or Ridgway’s point of view about murder, because to do that, to be Ridgway, I have to try to understand why a man kills, what motivates a man to pay for sex, to promise to pay for sex, knowing he’ll never pay.
He won’t have to pay. The girl will be dead.
Book ‘Em: What sort of research do you do for your work?
Arleen Williams: For memoir, I am fortunate to have a treasure trove of journals, photographs, and letters that serve as reality checks when memory falters. Because I began writing as a memoirist, I find that when I write fiction, I’m still very accurate about place and time. I do extensive on-line fact checking. And, of course, when I’m writing about the immigrant experience, I ask my students.
Book ‘Em: Which books and authors do you read for pleasure? Is there an author that inspires you?
Arleen Williams: I’m constantly reading – fiction and memoir. I don’t know that I have a favorite author, but a glance at my wall of books reveals that when I find a writer I enjoy, I read as many of their books as I can. I have substantial collections of Isabelle Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Fredrick Backman, Ann Patchett, Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates.
Book ‘Em: Was there a person who encouraged you to write?
Arleen Williams: My husband is an artist who knows the value of creative expression. As I struggled with the horror of my sister’s unsolved murder year after year, he encouraged me to write. Writing saved my life.
Book ‘Em: What would you say are your strengths as an author?
Arleen Williams: I suppose you’d best ask my readers that!
Book ‘Em: How often do you write, and do you write using a strict routine?
Arleen Williams: As a college instructor my schedule changes regularly. During quarter breaks and summertime, I’m a fulltime writer putting in multiple hours daily. While I’m teaching, I usually get good chunks of writing time on Fridays and Sundays. The other days I squeeze in an hour here and there. A strict routine? No.
Book ‘Em: Five years from now, where do you see yourself as a writer?
Arleen Williams: I will likely be retired from teaching and writing fulltime five years from now. I have no idea what my next project will be, but I have every intention of continuing to write and, through writing, to explore and make sense of the world around me.
Book ‘Em: If you could offer one piece of advice to a novice writer, what would it be?
Arleen Williams: Write your heart and soul until it bleeds and then write some more. Put in the seat time and don’t rush to publication.
Book ‘Em: What would you consider the best compliment a reader could give your book?
Arleen Williams: I love when readers post reviews commenting that a book kept them up all night!
Book ‘Em: Provide an excerpt of your writing that you would like to share with our members.
Arleen Williams: Here’s the opening scene from Walking Home:
His feet pounded the hard dry earth, his heart hammered in his chest, his breath came in gasps. The blasts of gunfire rang at his heels and over his head, the angry shouts demanding he stop. Haile ran at his side, their strides matched, challenging each other to go faster, still faster, as though they were playing a championship match. But this was no soccer game.
They ran for their lives. In one split second Haile was no longer at his side. He slid to a stop, pivoted, and dropped to his knees beside his friend, his brother in spirit. He saw the blood. The shot had entered through the back, exited through the heart. He rolled Haile to his side and looked into his dark pleading eyes. “Run,” his friend gasped. “Run.” And he was dead.
He lowered Haile’s eyelids and kissed him on both cheeks. He glanced up at the approaching soldiers, the gunshots lifting puffs of dirt around him and his friend’s lifeless body.
“No,” he screamed, shaking his fists in the air as though threatening the sun itself.
He screamed and screamed until her gentle hands and smooth voice pulled him back to the cool, dark bedroom, the tangle of sheets and blankets.
“Haile?” Talisha asked.
“Yes,” Kidane said.
“I’ve told you so many times, you could tell me.”
“Tell me again.” She spooned her body around his. Her arm circled his chest, her hand rested on his heart. “Tell me,” she urged, her words sweet on the back of his neck.
“Sleep now,” he whispered. “You have to be up early for work.”
He had seen Haile’s soft black eyes in the smooth dark face of this beautiful American woman the day they met and had known he was home. Since that day, each time the nightmares had returned, she coaxed the story from him, piece by horrific piece. It was a story he knew she couldn’t fully comprehend, not because of lack of empathy or world knowledge, but because their life histories, their ancestral journeys were simply too distinct.
He lay in bed, Talisha’s arm anchoring him to the present, his soul far away. He hardly remembered the violence of his early childhood in Eritrea, the long years of the war for independence from Ethiopia. But when he studied his country’s history, he knew he’d been lucky. The 1990s, his school years, had been a time of peace, prosperity, growth. Schools, libraries, and theaters had reopened. Roads and bridges had been repaired. But his father was gone and his mother struggled for work and food. Yet there had been peace and that was all that mattered, all that he knew, until the day of the special assembly.
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