I’m happy to welcome Andria Williams, who just sold her debut novel, The Longest Night, to Random House. The sale of her novel (originally called The Falls) and the sale of my novel, A Remarkable Kindness (originally called The Women’s Burial Circle) were announced in Publisher’s Marketplace on the same day. Andria then contacted me and we agreed to interview each other. Andria hosts the Military Spouse Book Review, a polished, literary blog which not only features reviews of books, interviews, and poems but also insights into running a house when a spouse has been deployed. Without further ado:
Diana Bletter: You just sold your debut novel, The Longest Night, to Random House. Congratulations! That is wonderful! Can you tell us about the book and how you got the idea for it?
Andria Williams: The Longest Night is set in Idaho Falls, Idaho, in 1959. A young Army nuclear specialist named Paul has just come into town with his wife Nat and their two daughters. Paul’s hoping to lay low and just take things day by day, working on a small training reactor out in the desert, but he and Nat soon become entangled with his no-good boss and the boss’s scheming wife. Pressures only build as Paul realizes that the reactor is failing and his boss has no plans to do anything about it. He’s also begun to fear that his true-blue Nat might be falling for another man. Something’s got to give for him, but whether it’s his marriage, his career, or his safety, I’m not gonna tell. The story culminates with the only fatal nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history, on January 3rd, 1961.
I guess if anyone asked me what the novel’s about I’d say it’s about a marriage, Paul’s and Nat’s, and the effect that distance and jealousy can have on two people who started out quite in love.
As for where I got the idea: I first read about the fatal nuclear reactor accident in Idaho Falls years ago, while doing research for another, now-abandoned novel. The story always stuck with me. I was intrigued by the setting, the cast of characters, the time period. It was far enough in the past that I felt comfortable maneuvering it as fiction, but near enough that I could imagine it.
Diana Bletter: When and why did you start writing?
Andria Williams: I started writing The Longest Night about three and a half years ago. I’d written all my life, but after having children, I stopped writing for the first time. I almost didn’t feel justified in carving out the time for myself, partly because I’d never made a penny off of writing. It took me a while to find my way back into it. When I started allowing myself to imagine these characters, Nat and Paul and the rest, it was so much fun, it was such a relief, like finding out I was still in there somehow.
I had two little kids and not much free time; my husband’s military career means that we have a pretty traditional division of labor. I wake up early with the kids and I put them to bed at night, and by that time I’m pretty zonked. Writing after the kids went to bed wasn’t going to work. So, like a lot of writers who have kids, I just started setting my alarm clock a little earlier each morning. First fifteen minutes, then thirty, until I worked myself up to waking about two hours before my original six-thirty. At times, I thought: I’ll never write a novel this way; some people make a career out of it — how can I accomplish this in a handful of minutes a day? But it was like compound interest. It grew and grew almost on its own. At the end of the year I somehow had a big fat stack of 400 pages: I had a novel. I sat there and stared at it and thought, Well, damn!
It was worth the effort even if no one ever saw it but me. Every part of my life felt even happier and better and illuminated by the little imaginary world I’d carved out in my mind.
Diana Bletter: How did you find your literary agent? What are some suggestions you would give to beginning writers?
Andria Williams: I found my agent the old-fashioned way: I just sent out a bunch of “cold” queries to agencies that represented literary fiction, fiction set in the American West, and so forth. A lot of agencies responded with a quick “no, thanks” but others said, “Sure, I’ll take a look at this thing, whatever it is, you strangely enthusiastic woman.” So that was exhilarating, to get past that first barrier. I’d been holed up in my house with little kids for years – even getting a rejection letter made me feel like I was participating in the world of letters.
Eventually, one agent stood out to me as being the most interested in what I was writing, and just “getting” what I was trying to do. The only catch was that she was the newest hire at her agency and hadn’t been made a full agent yet. But her responses to my novel were so genuine and smart that I decided I was going to hang in there for a year or so and see if my luck panned out with her. I pulled my manuscript from the couple of contests I’d entered it in and just waited, and all the while she was sending me revision suggestions and I was just hustlin’ like crazy to get them back to her and make the novel as good as it could be. By the time she was made an agent, my novel was much improved from its initial state, and so when she showed it to some other agents they agreed that she should take me on, and that’s how I nosed my way in there.
My suggestions for finding an agent would be: Write a strong query letter and get your first 30 pages as good as they can be; don’t worry if you don’t have “connections” in the industry, because if someone sees and likes what you’re writing they’ll make sure they get in touch with you; and don’t start out by querying the top agent at the industry. The agents who’ve been there longest have full client lists, but the newer agents might still have some wiggle room.
Diana Bletter: You run the Military Spouse Book Review Blog. Why did you start this? How do you think your involvement in the military impacts your writing?
Andria Williams: All those first years I was a military spouse, I didn’t know of any other military spouses who wrote. I hadn’t even met many who liked to read the same stuff I did, but that’s probably my own fault for not asking enough people.
Then I met another mil spouse who was as crazy about books as I was, and we started a two-woman book club. We were very dedicated. We read a book a month and even though she usually steamrolled me and chose Latin-American literary-history-romance-type stuff because she was from Mexico, I was more than happy to go along with this. We met for Mexican food and drank margaritas and talked about a lot of Isabel Allende.
Long story short: I thought it would be fun to start a blog for the military spouses out there who love books, a place where they can write about what they’ve read, see what other mil spouses are reading, and explore some of the recent literature that might be of particular interest to us as members of military families. And then I thought, This should be a spot for all women connected to the military, including veterans. It turns out that female veterans are reading and writing a lot, and I get contacted by veterans at least as often as I do by military spouses. I love it.
So much of our daily life is taking care of kids or supporting our spouses – it’s all worthwhile, but maybe not too intellectual, and I wanted a place where we could come and think. Just read and write and think.
Diana Bletter: Finally. My blog talks about making this the best chapter of our lives. What are the things you do on a daily basis to make this your best chapter?
Andria Williams: I try to not ever take anything for granted, I try to stop and enjoy the little moments in the day that make me feel good – and even if it kills me, I never, ever miss a day of writing.
Thanks so much, Andria. Now the only problem is that I have to wait until Spring 2016 for the book to be published. It’s one huge fat baby but I bet it will be worth the wait. I’ll have more information on Andria down the road.
Meanwhile, for those who are curious, Andria’s agent is Sylvie Greenberg at Fletcher & Company LLC. Ms. Greenberg is looking for “strong writing and powerful stories; her taste in fiction leans toward the literary, and she is interested in a wide range of non-fiction topics, including business, sports, humor, science, memoir and history.” More information here.