Donna Glee Williams is a writer, seminar leader, and creative coach. A sort of Swiss Army knife of the page, Donna Glee has seen her work published in anthologies, newsstand glossies, literary magazines, academic journals, reference books, big-city dailies, online venues, and spoken-word podcasts, as well as on stage and CD recordings. These days, her focus is on speculative fiction, aka fantasy and science fiction.
Her novel, THE BRAIDED PATH, came out in March, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about it, and more!
Kristin Centorcelli: Will you tell us a little about THE BRAIDED PATH and what inspired you to write it?
Donna Glee Williams: Sure, Kristin. I was at this fabulous creative retreat called The Hambidge Center, in the hills of north Georgia. At Hambidge, each writer, artist, or musician has their own “studio”—a little cabin off in the woods where you live in total solitude except for coming down to the main lodge for stellar vegetarian dinners in the evenings. (And, lemme tell you, people start to look really good to you after the isolation of the long work days. People are beautiful. Witty. Charming.) I was on the long, uphill slog back to my cabin when a “what-if” started nibbling at my brain: What if this slope went on forever?
I’d recently been through a Wilderness First Responder Course, so I knew some of the answers to that question. Temperature would change, for one thing, by about 4 degrees per thousand feet. Atmospheric pressure would change. Humidity would change. And because these basic things would change, the plants and animals would be different. And because the plants and animals would be different, the human society basing itself on these resources would be different, too, depending how high or low you were. Hmmm… This began to interest me. What would it be like to live where you could easily walk right out of your own ecological community?
So, when I got back to the cabin, I started to write and, out of that one “what-if” came my short story “Limits.” Jed Hartman, then at Strange Horizons, helped me put a nice polish on that tale of Cam, a young man who longed to climb high, toward the top of the world, and Fox, a young woman who longed to climb low, down toward the mythical sea at the bottom of all things. “Limits” got some positive attention, showing up on several “Best of the Year” lists and getting an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois’s anthology that year. But best of all, the story kept going, as young Cam and Fox followed where their heart’s led them. (And led me on the merry hunt for the story.
KC: You have a varied background, but have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself?
DGW: I can’t say that I always wanted to be a writer. I just always wrote. There’s a difference. One is about the role you take on, the other is more related to what you actually do.)
Even though I produced my first poem in second grade, I’d have to say that my first real momentum in writing happened in junior high school. There was a group of us misfit-types that were so crazy bored with school that we used our time in class to write elaborate “notes” to each other, assuming alternate, fantasy personalities, flavored heavily by Tolkien, Poe, and Bradbury. We got in trouble regularly for sharing these notes back and forth in class, but nothing stopped us. Plots developed in the notes, adventures, even fantasy landscapes that we’d draw out in elaborate maps. (Think Tolkien’s geography of Middle Earth.) Fantasy caught fire for me then. Later, after years of being “grown-up” (always a bad idea, btw) and learning my craft doing introspective contemporary realism, I got bored with writing–bored with myself, I guess–went back to the wellspring, and took up fantasy writing again.
KC: Will you tell us more about Cam and Fox? Why do you think readers will connect with them?
DGW: I think readers who sit at, or remember, that boundary between childhood and adulthood may feel for these two young people who feel driven by impulses inside themselves, restlessness that they haven’t quite understood but that they know are strong and important. Not knowing what to do with your life just aches sometimes. Most, maybe all, readers will share Cam’s and Fox’s experience of being pulled apart when faced by the choice either to be with someone you want to be with or to be faithful to the calling of your own heart. This conflict comes to everyone who is at least half awake, sooner or later. How you negotiate the decision, sacrificing either your inner leading or the relationship with the outer beloved, is a huge determiner of who you get to be. I guess the novel pretty much reveals which side I come down on.
KC: You have experience as a registered nurse, and as a teacher? How do you think those experiences have influenced your writing?
DGW: That’s a really great question. I think that, for a writer, I’m not very well read. I remember the first class I walked into on the first day of my MFA program at LSU. It was Andrei Codrescu’s workshop and I was star-struck and nervous, so I got there early. There was some writing on the board, and I puzzled out the crampy chalk-handwriting, asking the person next to me who or what a Derrida might be. Andrei heard me and stalked across the circle of chairs to loom over me and ask in that gravelly Vlad-the-Impaler voice of his, “You don’t know who Jacques Derrida is?” I allowed as how this was the case. “How happy you must be!” he said, turning back to the board.
So, not well-read. But what I got from those years in the hospital and then later as the nursing coordinator of a hospice was an apprenticeship in observing the most intense moments of life. Every day, I was with people where the rubber hit the road, where you either get or don’t get the big lessons of life. And I learned to pay attention. I think that’s the most important thing for a writer: Pay attention to your life.
And what I got from leading seminars was also a richness of experience in my own hands and body that nothing could compare with: Learning cordage and fire-making from Steve Watts, the guy who taught Tom Hanks his skills for the movie Castaway. Learning to make yarn on a drop-spindle and do kumihimo braiding from Susan Leveille, a traditional Appalachian fiber-artist. Learning to process flax and dye with natural materials from the remarkable Cassie Dixon. And learning to tie my first Turk’s head knot—the symbol you’ll see standing as a section break in my book—from Captain Rob Temple on Ocracoke Island. So many amazing people I’ve co-led seminars with, and they’ve each given me skills and experiences that have made me able to write about pre-industrial cultures from direct (sometimes painful, often messy) personal experience. I could never have written about Len harvesting the green creeper if I’d never waded into a kudzu patch for one of my seminars on basketry.
DGW: I suppose that one answer is that I don’t think writers have much conscious choice about what they write. You tell the stories you’re given and are grateful for the gift, whatever form it comes in. But if I did have a choice, I would stick with SF because of the issue of novelty. Our brains are wired to sit up and take notice of the strange and to relax and lie back in the presence of the familiar. It is literally true that you can go to sleep more easily in a familiar environment. Well, as a writer, I don’t want to go to sleep and I don’t want my readers to go to sleep either. Using the magic SF wand, I can make things new and strange, inviting the neurochemistry of alertness and curiosity. That’s where I want to live.
Also, I’m a Jung Junkie. (A Jungkie?) I believe in and respect the power of myth to shape human experience. Speculative fiction gives writers a great big canvas for working with myth without being jostled around by this thing we laughingly refer to as “reality.”
KC: What are a few authors that have influenced you the most?
DGW: Very early, it was Bradbury. I think The Martian Chronicles was the first book that ever gave me a taste of poetry in prose. I didn’t know you could do that, put lush language at the service of Story. Knocked me sockless. Then there was Poe, mostly the poetry, for teaching me about rhythm and atmosphere. Tolkien, of course, not just for language but for Story—maybe my first glimpse into the power of myth. His life overlapped with Jung’s pretty closely in time—Jung lived from 1875 to 1961, Tolkien from 1892 to 1973—and I think they were working with a lot of the same verities, each in his own way. Terry Pratchett, just for fun—except for Small Gods, which rises well beyond just-for-fun status, I think. Neil Gaiman. And the other one, Neal Stephenson, when I want to feel smart. Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake. Sheri S. Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country. But my dearest influence has to be LeGuin all the way. Ursula K. LeGuin is who I want to be when I grow up, and I want the whole package: the wisdom, the language, and the imagination.
KC: What are you currently reading?
DGW: I just finished re-reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. I feel really at home in it. For one thing, I’m from the part of the country where “See Rock City” signs are a basic fact of life. But even beyond that, his exploration of the landscape of myth and archetypes really connects with a lot of what I know about that. Also, I’m fascinated by the connection between his and Terry Pratchett’s notions about what happens to gods when humans stop rendering them worship, belief, attention, and memory. I would have really liked to hear the conversations that took them both in that direction. And how different each of their takes is, even though their ideas are really similar. I’m about to get launched on Midwinter Blood, because my mentor Patricia Lee Gauch just called me today to tell me it was similar in tone and style to my second book, Dreamers, which is looking for a home. So I need to be on the lookout for editors who might value my stuff.
KC: You’ve traveled to a variety of exotic places, but is there someone you’d like to go that you haven’t yet visited?
DGW: I’m very excited about going to Norway this summer for a writer’s residency in August. I really wanted to go and be in fjord country while I was revising The Braided Path—I take a lot of cues from nature and would have love polishing a story about a vertical land that drops to the sea in a vertical land that drops to the sea. The grant didn’t come through for me last year, though, so I’ll go finish a novel about a flat, tropical land in a vertical land that drops to the sea. And I will also be going back to Scotland to scout for a trail-based writer’s workshop for fantasy writers I’m hoping to organize with Sarah McGuire (author of the forthcoming Valiant) sometime in the near future. Folks who would be interested in working on creative writing while hiking the West Highland Way should get in touch with me through my website (www.donnagleewilliams.com) and I’ll add you to the list to send you the details once we’ve nailed them down.
Basically, I want to go anywhere I haven’t been, I think—it’s all interesting to me.
KC: What’s next for you?
DGW: Well, my second novel is in the hands of the wonderful literary agent Richard Curtis. It’s called Dreamers and happens in a much different landscape than The Braided Path, a desert land where everything revolves around rituals for bringing water up from the deep, both literal water to drink and the metaphorical waters of the unconscious. Unlike The Braided Path, Dreamers has a pretty serious bad guy in it and a dash of daring-do. I’m also working on the discovery draft of my third novel and trying to find a publisher for a little allegorical novella (think Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, or “Leaf by Niggle”) about the adventure of going into solitude.
Let me wish the best to all my fellow writers out there in the salt-mines of The Word and send out my thanks to all my fellow readers who are making the world safe for the weird, interesting, non-cookie-cutter writing by buying it. If you’d like to sample my writing for free first, you can get to my short story “Limits” (which basically became the first section of The Braided Path) through Strange Horizons or, if you prefer an audio version, PodCastle. I’d love to hear your responses on Good Reads or Amazon and I’ll be happy to connect with any book groups or classes reading the book by Skype, face, or text. Read on!