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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

Spotlight on Arleen Williams

Arleen Williams is a Seattle novelist, memoirist, and co-author of a dozen short books in easy English for adults. She teaches English as a Second Language at South Seattle College and has worked with immigrants and refugees for close to three decades. 

To learn more, please visit www.arleenwilliams.com and www.notalkingdogspress.com.

The Interview of Author Arleen Williams -- Part II

Scroll Down for Part I

Your memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, is about the tragic death of your younger sister at the hands of the Green River Killer. Writing about those events must have been incredibly difficult, though perhaps also cathartic. Tell us about what drew you to write the memoir and what the experience was like for you to relive such a horrific event.
Unfortunately "event" isn't quite the right word. It sounds too quick, too brief. I was an ex-pat, married to a Mexican national, and living in Mexico in 1983 when my sister disappeared. I returned to Seattle to be with my family. My sister's remains were not found until 1986. My marriage fell apart. I remarried. Gave birth. Raised my daughter. Life went on, but with an enormous dark shadow over me. I didn't have the full story of what happened to my sister and I was haunted by my ignorance for 20 years.
On my father's 80th birthday, November 31, 2001, Gary Ridgway was arrested. My father died two months later. And I was falling apart. My husband encouraged me to try writing. He knew I'd been keeping journals for years, knew counseling wasn't helping, and knew I needed a creative release. Together we found a description for a year-long program through the University of Washington Extension that said something about turning journal into memoir. My two professors, Robert Ray and Jack Remick, encouraged me to dig deep and find the truth. I wrote and cried and wrote some more. I visited the Green River Task Force offices, read the evidence, talked with detectives and slowly began to understand. Ray and Remick continued their encouragement and I completed the manuscript. The decision to publish was more difficult than the writing, but I knew I'd been silent for too long, I knew I needed to find voice, not as a writer per se, but as a human being.
The Thirty-Ninth Victim was released in 2008. It will be re-released by Booktrope next year along with a companion memoir titled Moving Mom.

You have been published by Booktrope, CreateSpace, and Blue Feather Books LTD. What has been the best and the most difficult aspects of your different roads to publication? 

I have been very fortunate. I decided early on - about 80 rejections into the search - I didn't want to go the agent route. I figured I just plain didn't have a chance, so I started searching small presses. In 2004 I was offered a contract for The Thirty-Ninth Victim from an indie press with a focus on books by women for women. Things got a little shaky when they were bought out by Blue Feather Books. Fortunately, despite BFB's lesbian fiction niche, they honored the contract and published my memoir. More than that, they were kind and supportive to a newbie writer with a difficult story to tell. I will always be grateful for the opportunity they gifted me.

When I switched to fiction and wrote The Alki Trilogy, I was more convinced than ever I wanted to work with a small press, but Blue Feather Books was not a good fit. I began a new search, found Booktrope, and got lucky again. I'd say the one-on-one communication, team support, and on-line community all reinforced my choice.

As I mentioned earlier, when Pamela Hobart Carter and I wrote our Short Books in Easy English for Adults and created No Talking Dogs Press, we opted for CreateSpace because it was the quickest and easiest way to reach our target audience at a price point they could afford. So far it seems to have been the right decision.

Difficulties? For me the most difficult aspect of publication is marketing and selling the books. My family, friends, and colleagues have been extremely supportive. They've read and reviewed my work, congratulated and encouraged me, but then ... every new author has to find the way to break through, to find an audience beyond that narrow personal circle. In today's world that means learning to be your own marketing/social media pro, and frankly my learning curve is a tad slow.

What are you working on now?

I'm pleased Booktrope will be re-releasing The Thirty-Ninth Victim in 2016 along with a companion memoir titled Moving Mom, which explores the years following my father's death as I dealt with my mother's downward spiral into the world of dementia while mothering my teenage daughter and dealing with the family consequences of writing memoir. I'm sure I'll be swamped with rewriting, editing, polishing and the like.

I'm also currently working on a third memoir, sort of a precursor to The Thirty-Ninth Victim, that tells the ex-pat story of a naive young woman living in Mexico City in the pre earthquakes, pre War on Drugs, pre 9/11 glory years. I'm calling this work-in-progress The Ex-Mexican Wives Club.

As I return to the past through journals, letters and photographs, I marvel at how short periods of time in our younger years have profound lasting effects. In some ways, I suppose, I am still that silly young woman on her own, making lasting friendships and foolish mistakes in Mexico City. But I was the lucky sister. I survived my younger self.

Final Words of Wisdom

Know yourself. Be brutally honest with yourself - if only on the pages of a private journal. If you analyze what you do, what you've done, what you're afraid to do, perhaps you'll find some guiding lessons hidden in the recesses of your soul. Perhaps you'll be more honest and compassionate toward others. Perhaps the mistakes will be fewer, your life will be fuller, and you'll find the perseverance needed to reach your dreams. That's my hope anyway. That's why I'm out of whack, not right with myself, crazy when I don't put pen to paper each and every morning.

The Interview Part I

You write novels for Adults learning English as a new language. How did you get started in that genre and how is that different from writing traditional novels?
I've been teaching English as a Second Language since I was a resident assistant at a private language institute housed on the Seattle University campus back in the early 1970s. This fall quarter marks my third decade w­­orking with immigrants and refugees at South Seattle College. Through the years I've taught all levels and skill areas from low beginners to college prep.

For the past decade or so I taught the intermediate to upper levels. Not being a fan of most texts written for ESL instruction, I used Young Adult fiction. A few years back, I moved into the lower levels and YA was no longer an option. It was just too difficult. I needed books written at a first or second grade reading level that weren't picture books full of talking animals and the like. One day I was whining to my writing partner, Pamela Hobart Carter, about my struggles to find appropriate reading materials for my adult students. Her response: "I'll write one for you!" And, of course, I figured if she could do it, I could too!

Long story short, we co-wrote twelve easy novels. The first challenge was in expressing complex ideas in simple language. This is a skill required of any language teacher. The second challenge was in finding a publisher. In the end, we created No Talking Dogs Press and self-published in order to make the books available as soon as possible, at an affordable price.

I should also add that while the six books in the American Holidays Collection are targeted for immigrants and refugees, those in The Old House Series and The Good Friends Series may also be of interest to native speakers learning to read or to elderly readers struggling with memory loss or attention span.

You are often applauded for how exceptional the sensory details are in your novels. To what do you attribute your success in that aspect of your writing?
Thank you, Elena. When I write, I see the scene almost like an moving image in my mind's eye. I write to describe what I see, and I struggle to slow down enough to include those sensory details you mention. I suppose I'm naturally a hyper sensitive person - the kind who cuts tags from clothes and works in silence - but I also consciously think of sight, sound, smell, touch and even taste as I key in my first drafts and add what I find lacking.

Also, I write about places and people I love. As you know, Running Secrets, Biking Uphill, and Walking Home are all set in Seattle, particularly on Alki Beach and Capitol Hill. These are places I carry deep in my soul. Despite having lived in California, Hawaii, Venezuela and Mexico, I was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. It is my home. My characters are amalgamations of people I've known. Their stories are stories I cherish for the trust they have entrusted in me. Perhaps when a writer is emotionally close to her work, the sensory details flow more easily.  

You've written a trilogy about immigrants living in the United States. Do you draw solely on your experience teaching English as an additional language? Or do you do research? Tell us about the process of the trilogy.
The Alki Trilogy began with the story of Gemi Kemmal, an Ethiopian home healthcare nurse in Seattle, in Running Secrets. At South Seattle College and throughout the U.S. we see large numbers of African immigrants and refugees entering healthcare because the need exists and jobs are readily available, particularly in the care of our aging population. So I drew from my teaching experience, but I also needed to research and understand the issues around healthcare as well as suicide.

Antonia's story in Biking Uphill required even more research and plot development because I was determined to have an accurate timeline reflecting Salvadorian history that lined up correctly to Antonia's age and experiences as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. Given my years in Venezuela and Mexico in the 1980s, my personal experience and interest were a big help.

I'd heard about conflict between African immigrants and African-Americans from my immigrant students and from news. I'd seen the powerful documentary, Bound: Africans vs. African Americans. But to write Walking Home I needed the African-American perspective and I wanted it first-hand. Fortunately, I teach at a large urban college where one of my colleagues, an African-American sociology instructor, invited me to survey one of his classes. 

The conversation that followed reinforced my beliefs and my desire to write Kidane's story, but I still needed to fact-check the various heartbreaking versions of escape I'd heard from the multiple students who became Kidane. Sadly, the stories continue. As we know, according to current UNHCR statistics 8% of the refugees entering Europe in the current crisis are from Eritrea.