Lori Aurelia Williams, a 1996 graduate of The University of Texas at Austin’s masters program in Creative Writing/English and one of the first distinguished Michener fellows on campus, has just published her fourth novel, “Maxine Banks is Getting Married,” with Macmillian’s Roaring Brook Press.
Since the 2001 release of her debut novel from Simon and Schuster, “When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune,” Williams has been recognized as one of the freshest and most powerful voices in young adult literature. Her books, all set in the Houston’s 5th Ward where Williams grew up, tell the stories of young people caught up in circumstances that propel them too early into adulthood. “Kambia” is narrated by 12-year-old Shayla, an aspiring writer whose sharp-eyed account of her runaway sister Tia and their tragically abused neighbor Kambia captivated readers. Its first printing sold out immediately, and it was voted #1 Young Adult Book by Amazon.com and received the Best Book Award of the American Library Association. “Shayla’s Double Brown Baby Blues,” a continuation of Shayla’s story, followed in 2003. “Broken China,“ whose protagonist gives birth to and loses a child by age 14, came out in 2005, supported by a PEN/Phyllis Naylor Working Writer Fellowship. Alan Cheuse selected it that year for his NPR summer reading list.
“Maxine Banks” picks up threads from her first two novels: Maxine is Tia’s best friend and follows her example of marrying at 17 to escape the parade of sorry men her mother brings into their lives, only to have her plan backfire. But as troubled and difficult as the lives of all Williams’ characters are, their stories are told with lyricism and verve. A sense of family and community is always strong, and even their most desperate situations are graced with humor.
Williams continues to call Austin home. When she is not writing, she supervises an after school program at a local high school. She answered a few questions for ShelfLife @Texas recently about the new book and her work.
Did you set out to write Young Adult fiction as a deliberate career choice, or was it more a case that the stories you were drawn to tell found their natural expression in books for young readers?
I don’t sit down to write books that specifically target a group. YA fiction is actually fiction written for younger adults and teens, and because my characters are youthful they just naturally fit into that category. To be honest when I write I consider only one thing, will my work make a real difference to anyone, young or old? If I think I have a story worth telling, I tell it, and let the publishers decide how to market it.
To be clear with readers who don’t know your work: you address very mature themes of sexual abuse and exploitation, violence, unplanned pregnancy, infidelity. Have you ever faced any censure from your editors or publishers?
I have definitely been censured. My first book, “When Kambia Elaine Flew In From Neptune,” was on a list of the most banned books in Texas a few years back, and I’ve shown up to readings only to have school personnel ask me not to read, but simply talk about the book. I have to admit, I get upset when this happens, because I write about things that many young girls have gone through, and I don’t believe we can stop our children from experiencing the ugliness of the world by simply forbidding them to read about it.
You’ve used the neighborhood of your own childhood, Houston’s tough 5th Ward, as the setting of all of your novels so far. How did growing up there shape your fiction?
I loved the neighborhood that I lived in, and was really unaware of how other people saw it until I grew up and settled into another town miles away. To me the poverty and the violence was a normal way of life, and it was offset by the strong sense of kinship that I felt with the other families who lived around me. Today those families have also moved on, and the shacks that most of us lived in have been torn down. When I write I incorporate bits and pieces of my childhood neighborhood into my work, and try my best to make it something that readers in my old and new life can be proud of.
Nearly all your reviews praise your wonderful talent for dialogue, for capturing the rhythms and speech of your characters. How do you feel you developed that particular gift?
Even as a little girl I loved to hear people talk, and you have to have that love of the spoken word in order to create good dialogue. If you can hear the beauty in Southern drawls, mispronounced words, broken speech, urban slang, and just about anything that can come out of a person’s mouth you can write good dialog. After I’ve written a very talk heavy scene, I read it aloud for clarity and sound. This helps me create characters that sound like people you might meet shopping at a grocery store or walking down a busy street.
What are you working on now?
I just finished the first draft of my fifth book and shipped it off to my agent, so right now I’m just enjoying a little free time to catch up on my reading. It’s a new book, set in a new place.