Carol Lynch Williams
Why did you decide to be a full-time writer?
I’m not a full-time writer. I do many things. But it all has to do with writing. I teach creative writing classes. I run a writing conference. I critique novels for others. And I write middle grade and young adult novels. Oh, that I could just be a full-time writer. Hmmm. I’m not sure if I would only write, but it would be nice if I made enough that I could only write.
You write primarily for the young adult set—what made you choose that age range to focus on?
The age chose me. I have a natural twelve-year-old voice but I tend to write dark titles that move the age up to young YA. These last years writing, the stories have been much more YA in theme and feeling and situation. That said, I am writing a young middle grade series with Cheri Pray Earl. This is an age that she and I feel neither of us could do on our own. We need the other to make that voice work.
As well, I finished a terrific nonfiction book with my daughter, Laura. It’s called Sister, Sister. It’s a collection of fun things sisters can do together. The publisher has asked us to do a mother/daughter book next. I will tell you what! Laura and I had so much fun writing that together. We laughed so hard.
Many of your books, including recent works like Glimpse and Miles from Ordinary, deal with some very difficult subjects. Do you find it hard as a Mormon author to write books with rough subject matter?
No, not at all. I never think before I write, “Hey, you’re a Mormon.” I just write. I also never think, “This is a difficult non-Mormony subject I’m tackling here.” Latter-day Saints have as many troubles as other religious people do. We feel the same, hurt the same, cry the same. Maybe torture ourselves a bit more. Our religion doesn’t save us from pain. And anyone who thinks Happy Valley (Provo, Utah) doesn’t have its dark side is wrong. We’re here on earth to gain experience, use these bodies to become the best people we can be. There are terrible troubles here—and those terrible troubles can be important parts of our writing.
By the way, I once received a very long letter from a fellow Latter-day Saint. She was worried about my salvation. She felt I had sold my soul to Satan because of the dark stories I write. If that was the case, I sure didn’t get a very good price.
There are all kinds of readers. All kinds of books. We can pick and choose what to write and read. To ignore the harder stuff is to deny readers the very thing that may help them get through a tough spot.
Your newest book The Haven (your lovingly called Dang Dystopian or DD) is finally out in March. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Sure. It’s the the story of a girl who lives at a school for the terminally ill. Everyone who lives there will die. Or worse. Our main character, Shiloh, must figure out what’s going on. Will she get out with her life? Will her friends? You must read the book and see. (Hint: every book I write has someone dead or nekkid in it. And sometimes there’s someone who’s both dead and nekkid.)
How does it feel to see the publication of a book that you’ve worked on for so long and had a rougher time completing?
I am both thrilled and terrified. What if everyone hates it? It’s very different than my other work. Ha! But I’m almost always excited when a book comes out. There have been a couple of times when I wasn’t thrilled. Twice, publishers gave me horrendous covers. Hideous covers. Those were embarrassing. And once, an editor completely rewrote my book—without my permission. I refused to do a signing for that middle grade novel. It was no longer my book—it was the editor’s. It had a great cover, though!
How often do you have a book that’s harder to write?
Mostly, my books sort of come to me. And they are all hard to write. Writing is work. People ask me if I love the process and I have to admit some days are better than others. Like any other job, I think. But the end result is something else. I love getting my books. Holding them. Shelving them.
When do you know that a tougher book is worth finishing? Have you ever just put an unfinished work down and walked away?
When I was getting my MFA from Vermont College, I began a few books that I never finished, but that was because of time. I started two projects with friends at school, and those were set aside. But I will go back to my own bits and pieces when the time is right. I rarely abandon anything. I usually fall in love with the people I create and I want their lives to be filled out and finished.
You tend to shy away from the fantasy/sci-fi genre that many Mormon authors are well known in. Is there a reason you stick to general fiction?
I love fantasy when it is well-told and beautifully written. But that doesn’t happen a lot in modern-day fantasy. Yup, people are gonna be mad about that. But for me, it’s true. I read for story and for voice and for language. If two out of three are missing for me, it’s time for me to move on. And because I don’t read a lot of fantasy, I’m not so sure I could write it.
Switching gears a bit, you also teach part time at BYU as a YA creative writing instructor—what do you like most about teaching others to write?
I love it! I love being with people who are like me. Getting to teach means sitting in a classroom with people who are like me, and we are all so happy with books and reading and writing that we just have fun together. I love watching people create their own work and I love to see them improve and publish.
What lessons do you think are most important to convey to writers who want to publish for young adult audiences?
Know the audience you write for. Know they don’t want a preachy story. Read a lot. Tell the truth. Write an honest voice. Don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
Tell us how WIFYR started. What did you want to bring to a writing conference that was different?
Here’s a bit from the wifyr.com letter I’ve written:
Many years ago, Dr. Chris Crowe came to me and asked, “If you could go to any kind of conference—the conference of your dreams—what would it be?”
“The conference of my dreams?”
I was giddy with excitement. Chris and I listed everything we wanted. Why not small classes for manuscript critique? Or editors and agents who would visit classes and tell us the “publishing secrets”? Could we get faculty—who had published in specific genres—to teach the classes? What about plenaries, keynotes, afternoon and morning sessions? Anything that might make us better writers.
That was almost fifteen years ago. Since then we have continued to work hard to make Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers a conference that people would love to attend.
When you are looking for authors and editors to help out at WIFYR, how do you decide whom to choose?
We want anyone who will help us help others become better. Stronger writers. Good writers. Good storytellers sell books, right? That’s our goal.
Sandy, Utah, is maybe not the fiction epicenter most would think of, but do you find it an advantage to hold a writing conference in Utah?
Back in the old days, yes. When Rick Walton and I put on our first writing conference in Utah about fifteen (or more?) years ago, along with Cheri Pray Earl, there were no writing conferences in Utah. Now there are lots. But Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers is a different kind of conference. It lasts a week, it’s intense, hard-work writing, and people walk away from that conference changed. Lots of success coming out of it. Why? The work put in demands a certain type of writer. We consider this conference to be something like a mini-MFA—without the cost.
As an author with a variety of work, including some LDS novels, how has the gospel influenced your work?
I believe in truth. There are gospel truths, things I believe in, and I always write to those. Even when I’m writing about something dark, there is a truth to that darkness. I think, as writers, we have to tell Truths. We have our own, our stories have theirs, and then there is the gospel that encompasses it all. I never set out to teach a truth, just to tell a story. Right now most of the work I’ve done has been a little lighter. Funnier. (I know! Who’da thunk it?) But I’m headed back to some darker stuff—including a novel I recently sold to Zondervan. Yes! Zondervan the amazing Christian publisher. And this is a tough subject for their new YA line. My truths—the story’s truths—will come out, I hope. That’s the best I can do.
How do you see your writing and your work at BYU and WIFYR helping others come unto Christ?
I’ve never really thought about that. I always put gospel principles in my books, and I know when Mormons read my books they probably see those. I always talk about family—I think families can make or break you. And I never let the idea that someone might hate my book influence my truth-telling. I just write my heart. Corny as it sounds, it’s true. ❧