Smoke & Mirrors: An Interview with Janelle M. Williams

by Christopher Gonzalez Read the Story September 17, 2018

The connection between character and geography is so tight throughout “The Way to Reach You.” How did you decide when to lean into that connection (“the West Side is so different than the East Side, and you were never as compact as a character”) and when to zoom in on Tony himself (“The last time she saw you your braids, straight backs that barely reached your neck, had weeks-old fuzz”)? It feels like a delicate dance.

Tony is forgotten throughout most of the piece. He is simultaneously the center of the story and an afterthought as life moves forward. But even when it’s not realized, he is synonymous with Atlanta. He’s a means of contextualizing the city, and in many ways, it’s impossible to forget that. She (the I voice) knows she loves the city, even if she can’t say why. But the why is Tony. So by the end, there’s that realization, and also there he is up close, nothing of what she remembers him, of course. Really, the story just came out that way. This was one of those (rare) pieces that wasn’t a struggle. It flew onto the page. I think it wanted to be told. I’d written short story versions of this before, and they never quite worked. I guess brevity did the story justice.

Would you identify yourself as a Southern writer? Or, more specifically, an Atlanta writer? And has living in New York changed what that means to you or your writing?

I haven’t lived in Atlanta since I was 18, but I still consider myself a Southern writer (and an ATLien) because I see the world (write the world) through the lens in which my adult self was created. I write about New York, particularly Harlem, a lot. In fact, the novel I’ve been working on is set in Harlem. But Atlanta is always a reference point, and my characters tend to be from there. I have a short story that I’ve been reworking (and reworking!) about going to a high school similar to the one I went to in DeKalb County. Eventually, it will be one of the pieces that I’m most proud to have written.

In the story, Donald Glover serves as another access point to both Tony and Atlanta. And I have to ask—were you listening to Childish Gambino while working on this story? And does music play any role in your writing process?

Music plays a huge role in my writing. Childish Gambino is cool, but his music doesn’t make me feel Atlanta, at least not in the way that Outkast does. When I’m writing about Atlanta, I listen to Big Boi and Andre, their earlier stuff, particularly songs from Aquemini and ATLiens. I love “85 South” by Youngbloodz. It’s a classic. Also, I spent my high school years leaning and rocking, so trap has a place in my heart, too.

What are you listening to now?

I’m always listening to oldies, R&B and some hip hop. Anything from the Delfonics to Rufus and Chaka Khan to DeBarge to the Spinners to Janet Jackson (huge Janet fan) to Xscape to Anita Baker. As far as more current artists, I like Chance the Rapper and Noname Gypsy and GoldLink a lot. Right now I have “If” by Davido on repeat. In combination with an oldie, “Sending My Love” by Zhane, it helped me write my latest story. A different flash piece was inspired by a Kaytranada song. Really, music is my thing. I just don’t have an ear for it in the way of musicians and singers.

Finally, what draws you to write flash?

The feeling of completion, having told a story in just one breath. And I write for my friends and family, some of whom are more willing to read short fiction. I’m getting them ready for the novel. But also, I think the story calls for the length, so I write in all lengths, even that awkward length that doesn’t quite meet the standards of flash fiction or your typical short story.

About the Author:

Janelle M. Williams received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College. She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Kweli, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Lunch Ticket, Auburn Avenue, The Feminist Wire, and elsewhere.

About the Interviewer:

Christopher Gonzalez is writer and a fiction editor at Barrelhouse. His short stories have recently appeared in jmwwSpelkSplit Lip MagazinePithead Chapel, and The Acentos Review, among others. He currently works in the digital production department of a publishing house in New York, and at night he self-medicates by bingeing on video content from the Bon Appétit test kitchen. You can follow him on Twitter @livesinpages.

About the Artist:

Find more photography by Mohamed Nohassi at Unsplash.