Wilcox Editing Services

The Structure of Success: An Interview with Andria Williams

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Andria Williams, Wilcox Editing client and author of The Longest Night, a historical fiction novel and book club book now available in paperback. A transcript and mp3 are posted here. Please enjoy!

Erin Wilcox: I am Erin Wilcox of Wilcox Editing Services, and I am here with my client Andria Williams. Hi, Andria!

Andria Williams: Hello!

EW: Andria, can you tell us a little about your book, which is coming out in paperback very soon with the hardcover released this last year. What’s it called, and who is the main character of the novel?

AW: The novel is called The Longest Night, and it opens in 1959. It’s about a young army family who moved to Idaho Falls, Idaho, to work at what’s now the Idaho National Lab, and at the time it was this sort of testing ground for all the major nuclear projects and development in the United States. So their story dovetails with the nation’s first and only fatal nuclear reactor accident, which actually happened on January 3, 1961. So it’s sort of a family drama that bumps up against and incorporates this historical event.

EW: Okay, very cool. Who stars in this drama? Who is the protagonist?

AW: So the main character is Nat, who is an army wife, Natalie Collier, and she is a relatively new army wife. She grew up in Southern California and had a very different lifestyle, but she met her husband there. And her husband Paul who also narrates sections of the novel, he has been in the army about ten years at this point. He joined the army to escape a bad home life and to gain some structure in his life, so he is a sort of a very by-the-book person who really believes that having changed his life hinged on the structure that he found in the army by sort of controlling himself and his actions.

And then there is a third narrator of a few very brief sections, and her name is Jeanie, and she is an army wife who Nat meets early on and their fates sort of become intertwined. She is an almost twenty-year army wife who has become very jaded. Her husband is Paul’s boss. So these two couples meet early in their time in Idaho and will end up having their actions that they take and the way they observe each other and sort of dance around each other has major reverberations for the outcome at the end of the novel.

EW: Okay, and what would you say Nat’s main problem is that she is working out through the text?

AW: Oh, that’s a good question! She has the more basic problem of fearing that her husband is in danger and then she has sort of this more nebulous problem that she might not always consciously realize is bothering her, but I think she is a person who longs for what probably seems to us nowadays a very sort of modest form of freedom. And the way I think about that is that it’s almost that she and Paul seem to be almost from different eras even though they are the same age. Their childhoods and their backgrounds were so different. So Nat grew up being able to go swimming and rock diving and have more freedom and drive cars and all this stuff, and Paul grew up in a house with no music, no radio, his parents were alcoholics, he had a terrible time. So when they joined together, his expectations of her behavior are so different than what she’s used to—even though she knows the basic sort of societal norms of the 1950s—that his desire for control bumps up against her desire for freedom, and so there is this tension in the novel as to whether or not they will be able to reconcile that as a newly married couple or what’s going to happen with them. So I would say that her main tensions are this basic fear for her husband and desire for love and for freedom that she may or may not find.

EW: Cool, great. Well of course having edited your novel, I know about the plot and the tensions and all the great suspense aspects and all I can say is that it’s extremely … well, it’s masterly, and I highly encourage everyone to pick up a copy. Who is the publisher and can you just tell briefly what’s available now and what’s coming in terms of the editions that are out there?

AW: Sure, so Random House is the publisher, and it came out in hardcover on January 12, 2016, and now it’s going to be out like you said on October 4 in paperback. There are a Dutch and a French edition that have come out, and in France they renamed it Idaho, which I found kind of interesting, and then some rights have been sold to China and Russia for publication there in book form. So those are the places that it’s published.

EW: Oooh!

AW: Yeah, I cannot wait to see the Chinese cover. It’s going to be so different, and the concept of what Idaho is? I mean, even when I was in France, I was at a book festival and this one sweet man came up, and he was like, “Where is ee-daho?” So I drew this really fast map of the United States, and I was trying to draw the surrounding states, and I was like, “Well, here’s Wyoming,” and he lit up, he knew Wyoming. He was like, “Oh, Wyoming!” And I was like, “Yeah! Right by there!” So I can imagine there are people in China who—well obviously, there are American kids who don’t really exactly know where Idaho is—so their concept of what Idaho is, you know, is going to be different, so that’s kind of funny. It’s fun because you get a different cover for every country that it’s published in, so that’s kind of like, just a little side delight.

EW: Awesome, so is the paperback coming out internationally, or is the paperback release just here in the States?

AW: Just here in the States. It’s only in paperback in France, and I believe it’s just a paperback offering in the Netherlands as well.

EW: Well congratulations to you, I mean it has been a long road and you have just made it to an incredible height of getting a big-five publisher and all this kind of distribution, it’s just so fantastic. So I was hoping—on this blog there will be a video that actually shows the talk we gave at the Tucson Festival of Books, which gets into more of the editing process that you had with your agent and with your editor at Random House, and so today I thought we could just focus briefly on the steps that led up to that point as you had readers and all the various people helping, including myself as your editor, and how that evolved. What was it like, let’s start with our working together, working with a professional editor, I believe for the first time? What were your impressions of that process?

AW: Oh it was great, I can’t recommend working with a professional enough because when you are working on something big like a novel you get to points where you are just swimming around in it, and you feel like you can’t get your head above water, and so you find you want another perspective. But you don’t want just any perspective, because you know there are people in your life obviously who just like you, but maybe they’re not the most astute readers or whatever. So the professional perspective is worth gold. I actually sent the novel manuscript out to an agent who recommended—you know, this is an exciting manuscript, I am really interested in it, but you could benefit from seeing a book doctor and getting some professional help with just figuring out your core structure, your core dilemmas with the novel.

So, luckily, I knew of you as a professional editor and I knew you had been doing a lot of work with big novels and short stories and fiction and all of that. So I guess I should direct this to the listener, but I sent Erin my whole manuscript, which she read, and then she responded with ten solid pages plus an hour phone conversation homing in what she thought were the main things that I needed to work on with the novel. She gave advice on structure, which is something that I always need help on. I feel like I love my characters and can handle my characters but sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees with structure. And once you start writing a novel you can never duplicate the experience of reading it for the first time and what someone’s impression is, so she did that, and she also gave some fantastic feedback about the characters and their core dilemmas, which I thought I knew like the back of my hand, but . . .

EW: Yeah, what would you say the main takeaway was from that conversation about the core dilemmas of the characters? And you can address me however you want, but don’t feel like you have to say she.

AW: (Laughing) Sorry! I didn’t know. Okay, well so I think what was most helpful that you talked with me about the essential character of Nat. I started writing the book from Paul’s perspective actually, and by the end of it had cut something like three hundred pages’ worth of Paul narrative. And it was interesting because I felt like you were able to really home in and say, You know, not only do I respond to Nat more when I read her sections, but I feel like she is carrying this novel, she is sort of the soul of this novel! And that was feedback that I later got again and again from people who were saying Paul is interesting Paul is blah blah blah, but he struggles with himself and with the physical problem of the nuclear reactor, but Nat’s struggles are mainly more interesting and more complicated. And so you helped me see that. So I was able to cut back on some of the Paul sections and really bring Nat’s central dilemmas forward, and I think that it really enriched what the novel says in the larger scope just naturally like that came out of working with Nat. The themes of the novel grew more important.

EW: Yeah, I remember that, too … taking the structural cues and seeing how does this novel turn, and there’s a great turn that—I won’t spoil anything for any readers that you may gain from listening to this—but there is a point where Nat makes a key turn that takes the plot in a different direction, and I remember that being a big cue of, okay this isn’t really a true ensemble cast in the sense of different players taking the plot forward at different times. There is one character taking the plot forward at key points, and it is Nat.

So I am very proud to have been able to help you in that process of self-awareness, and I’m sure that there were others who also contributed, so would you like to speak to them? Because I know that there can be various myths out there about the writer kind of pulling herself up by her own bootstraps and just sitting down and writing the great American novel. Who else was involved at these earlier stages before you got to your agent? You don’t have to name names necessarily but what kinds of readers, beta, family, friends, that kind of thing?

AW: Right, yeah. The myth of the author toiling alone and then just producing this gorgeous gem I think has never, ever been the case. I mean, Faulkner had dozens of involved readers—every author—the process is much more collaborative than the myth would make it seem. And so early on, I had a good friend from the master of fine arts program read the novel for me, and his role was really great because he was sending me chapters of his novel. I was sending him chapters of mine, and then we would chat on the phone. This is my friend Rob McGinley Meyers, who has a great radio podcast called Anxious Machine. So that was great for generating momentum. I feel there are different writers that are so important at different stages of the process, and at that point I was still thinking, Is this even worth writing, I don’t know, I’m so rusty. Then every time I would send him a section, not only would he give me really good feedback but he would say, “Yes! Keep writing, keep writing.” And he would tell me if something was dumb, too, so he was very honest. But there was that sort of early stage writing, and I think at that stage you need a reader who is going to give you that momentum. You don’t want someone who is going to shoot you down or nitpick and the sentence level, but you don’t want someone who is going to let you get away with some major plot point that’s not working, but you want a smart reader who also encourages you to keep going.

So then when that was a little more refined, then I got your assistance when I was in the process of trying to get an agent, and I thought I need to take this to the next level, get an agent. After implementing your advice and working on the novel really in a focused manner for about two months, I sent it back to her. And her response was—she was a young intern, actually, at a New York City agency that I really liked and I really really wanted to work with, Fletcher and Company in New York City, so I had got the book doctor, which was you, like she had suggested worked on that, sent it out to her and she said, “This is so much improved. If you will hang in there with me, when I hopefully get made a full agent at this agency, I’d like to try and bring you on as my first client. So that was a good six months into the future, so it was a little bit of a gamble, but in the lifespan of a novel, not terrible. So I worked with her some more on it. She was able to bring me on as her first client, and so that first tier was in the bag. I had the agent but I hadn’t sold the novel, so there was still the anxiety about selling the novel. So then the final major person, the major reader, was my editor, Andrea Walker at Random House, who bought the book. And those were the main people. Then there’s various publicists and interns and marketing people who help you, but they don’t really … and there are copyeditors who work on the novel before it goes to print and fact check every little thing to the best of their ability, you know, “Was this a real road, or are you okay with this road not actually existing?” all this kind of stuff.

EW: Yeah, sure. You had several copyeditors, right?

AW: Yes, there were. I know the names of two of them, and then I believe that there was at least one more. There were several people reading it at one time and sort of bouncing things off one another, and they did an excellent job. They don’t let you get away with anything [laughs], which is important to the integrity of a major publishing house and that sort of thing. So it was very helpful. I’m very grateful.

EW: Great, well that’s about all the time we have. Thank you for helping to debunk the myth of the author toiling in solitude in a cave somewhere. I think that that story is a tremendous success story and in many ways a Cinderella story, and yet at the same time, I can see all these really smart decisions that you made to make it happen. You did all the right things, and so I think there’s also that side of it. It’s possible to get a major publisher and have your breakout novel, and there’s not any right or wrong way to do it, but this more traditional approach is still a feasible one, and it can be done. So for anybody out there who wants to self-publish or traditionally publish, it’s just a good story to have and keep in mind. So Andria, let’s sign off saying where people can find you online and where they can buy the paperback, which is going to be released by the time this is online.

AW: Sure, they should be able to buy the book at any major bookstore. If it’s not at your local independent bookstore, you can ask them to order it very easily. It’s at Barnes and Noble, on Amazon, all those places.

EW: How about URLs? Do you have a website? Twitter, social media?

AW: Oh yes I do, thank you. It’s andriawilliams.com, that’s Andr-i-a, spelled with an i, or you can just Google The Longest Night. But my website for the book has recipes and music links and links to reviews and things like that. I also run a blog that promotes the writing of women connected to the military because I’m a military wife, and that’s militaryspousebookreview.com. I’m on Twitter, and my handle is @Andria816. I’m not the best tweeter but I try to get better at it, but those are the major places that people can find me.

Kumari (not verified) said:

Excellent interview! I loved The Longest Night, what a gem of a book.

Kudos

Erin Wilcox is a truly gifted literary copyeditor. Her reading of the text is both meticulous and informed, and her insights are luminous.”

Ronald Spatz,
executive founding editor,
Alaska Quarterly Review