An exclusive Authorlink Interview with Evan Williams
Place is essential to storytelling. This is a concept author Evan Williams is quick to embrace. “‘You can’t outrun your raising,’ is a phrase common to my childhood. While I can’t speak to other areas of the United States, it’s impossible to grow up in the South without being keenly aware of it,” said Williams.
He brings a southern sensibility and a particularity of place to his novel “Ripples,” published by Southern Fried Karma, an independent publisher based in Newnan, Georgia. The novel tells the story of Ben Bramley, a young man who struggles with the promises of faith and the weight of family secrets.
William is also the author “One Apple at a Time,” a historical narrative about his grandfather and the life-lessons he taught Williams through work on the family apple orchard, which won the Willie Parker Peace Award for North Carolina historical book given by the North Carolina Society of Historians.
“One Apple at a Time” reflects the shiny side of the coin of small, closely-knit community, “where positive peer pressure brings out the best in everyday folks and consecutive generations of families thrive given the security of stable, deep roots.”
“”Ripples” is a product of the grimy side of the same coin,” said Williams. “Not a single positive element is gained without the expense of privacy, personal freedom of expression, and to wander too far from the status quo is certain invitation for trouble.”
Like most of his work, the novel began as concept. “I’m fascinated by human behavior, particularly misbehavior. The illogical paradigms in which people persist is an unlimited source of storyline potential for me,” said Williams.
”Employing that concept of over-familiarity with what I knew to be true of the relationships within a family apple-growing business, and the broader characteristics of farm families, I had the basis for my novel. Throw in the penchant for small-town gossip, not-so-private secrets, and the phenomenon of wholesale denial regarding the darkest behaviors in a sanctimonious community, and the plot scenes are innumerable.” Said Williams.
“…that question set in motion what became a novel-length answer.”
The novel grew out of a story that was workshopped while Willams attended the low residency MFA program at Queens University-Charlotte. “Given a rather open ending to the story—a boy, accompanied by his beloved grandmother, setting off for home to face his mother’s wrath while also being asked to lie for the grandmother—led my groupmates to ask, ‘What happened when the two got home?’ Not having considered the broad consequences of that question set in motion what became a novel-length answer.”
Williams keeps an ongoing file of story ideas, dilemmas, even character names. “Should I live to be 100, the ideas will never all reach print.”
The book was also influenced by several southern writers. “Ruin Creek,” by David Payne tops the list, chronicling the relationship between a grandson and grandfather, set in the context of a thriving family business. I find David Payne’s writing to be cerebral, investigative of the human condition and our motivators. His studious observations are compelling, with a depth of understanding seldom found elsewhere,” said Williams.
Payne served as Williams’ thesis advisor at Queens University-Charlotte. “Another influence would be, “Gap Creek,” by Robert Morgan, native if my hometown. His treatment of struggle set in the mountains I adore was a game-changer for me. And Barbara Kingsolver’s, “The Poisonwood Bible” is my archetypal novel for religious zealotry run amuck.”
The book took just under five years to complete. For the two years of his MFA, Williams incorporated excerpts into his monthly submission requirements. His complete manuscript became his master’s thesis, submitted as a graduation requirement. Two and a half years later, following a major rewrite and several revisions, the book was published.
He sent the book to Southern Fried Karma because of their “emphasis on a new generation of Southern writers addressing gritty issues relevant to the New South.”
The book’s title came easily and resonated with images in the book related to fishing and the Unolama River. “Ben Bramley’s secret fishing trip with his Granny became the first incident to break the water’s surface, literally. And like a stone cast in a body of water, that action precipitates reaction in the form of ever-expanding ripples,” explained Williams. “Boyhood Ben latched onto the principle, condemning himself for the tragedies that came about following his misbehavior, blaming himself for the ripple effect that included more and more family and community in the growing circles of pain.”
“Often I feared that information overload might cause my mental structure of the story to collapse.”
Williams said, “aside from swallowing the giant pill of a 90,000-word endeavor” the greatest challenge came from keeping a running narrative with details like eye color and the make of character’s cars, chronology and revealed information, in his head. “At one point I drew a sketch of the small town to keep my story straight, as it were. Often I feared that information overload might cause my mental structure of the story to collapse. Other times I had to postpone the introduction of new material until I had older work put to bed.”
“Many of the most successful authors dealt with multiple rejections.”
Williams advises new writers that persistence is key to success. “Many of the most successful authors dealt with multiple rejections. That’s the nature of writing and its subjectivity. Now it’s often an economic game more than a matter of creative talent,” said Williams. “Still, the right home awaits those who want it badly enough to see their story in bookstores around the country. The downtime during the search is a gift for honing their craft. Write. Write. Write.”
For now, he is hard at work on his next novel, which will also be set in the south. The storyline involves the arrival of a prophet to a small town and the handful of locals brash enough to defy public opinion by attending his weekly forest gatherings.
Evan Williams earned an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Queens University-Charlotte. His first book, a memoir entitled One Apple at a Time, received the Willie Parker Peace Award for state history, given by the North Carolina Historical society. His short stories appear in anthologies, including, Hemingway Shorts: A collection of new and engaged writing from new and engaged writers in the best tradition of Ernest Hemingway, also, The Cricket and Other Stories: Finalists from the Second Annual Grateful Steps Short Stories Contest. His book reviews appear in The Main Street Rag. Ripples is his first novel.