Sunday, April 12, 2009

Interview with MaryElizabeth Williams, author of GIMME SHELTER

Here's an interview I did with Mary Beth Williams, author of Gimme Shelter, a memoir about Williams' quest to buy a house in New York City. I love this book--it's got a compelling narrative, a strong voice, humor and clear, clean prose. I kept thinking of how I could use this book in a Form and Technique course; in a Creative Non-Fiction course; in a literature course on Working Class Narratives or the American Dream.

Her publisher describes it this way:

"Of course I want a home," writes Mary Elizabeth Williams, "I'm American." Gimme Shelter is the first book to reveal how this primal desire, "encoded into our cultural DNA," drove our nation to extremes, from the heights of an unprecedented housing boom to the depths of an unparalleled crash.

As a writer and parent in New York City, Williams is careful to ground her real-estate dreams in the reality of her middle-class bank account. Yet as a person who knows no other way to fall in love than at first sight, her relationship with the nation's most daunting housing market is a passionate one. Williams's house-hunting fantasy quickly morphs into a test of endurance, as her search for a place to live and a mortgage she can afford stretches into a three-year odyssey that takes her to the farthest reaches of the boroughs and the limits of her own patience.

"Welcome to the tracks," she declares at the outset of yet another weekend tour of blindingly bad, wildly overpriced properties. "Let's go to the wrong side of them, shall we?" As her own quest unfolds, Williams simultaneously reports on the housing markets nationwide. Friends and family members grapple with real estate agents and lenders, neighborhood and quality-of-life issues, all the while voicing common concerns, as expressed by this Maryland working parent of three: "The market was so hot, there were no houses. We looked for years at places the owners wouldn't even clean, let alone fix up."How frustrating is the process? Williams likens it to hearing "the opening bars of a song you think is 'Super Freak.' And then it turns out to be 'U Can't Touch This.'" Told in an engaging blend of factfinding and memoir, Gimme Shelter charts the course of the real estate bubble as it floated ever upward, not with faceless numbers and documents but with the details of countless personal stories -- about the undeniable urge to put down roots and the lengths to which we'll go to find our way home.

Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio International's morning news show, The Takeaway, and a regular contributor to She has written for many publications including The New York Times, The New York Observer, and Parents. She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University. She lives in New York City.

Visit her website.


Diana Joseph
: Unlike a lot of writers, you don't make your living teaching. You've been a restaurant critic, a film critic, and a writer for, The New York Times, TV Guide, The Nation and others. You've supported yourself and your family by writing professionally for a long time. What's your background?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I became a writer by failing out of everything else. I didn't go to journalism school (my degree is in film) and I was on the corporate track the first few years of my career. And I was a terrible office worker!

When I got laid off from a studio, I chucked it all and moved to San Francisco and decided, rather whimsically, to become a writer. I interned at a bunch of places, I wrote for no money for neighborhood papers and zines, and I temped everywhere. I used to have the idea that eventually I'd wind up somewhere with my own desk and a phone and a real job title. Instead, I got to know pretty much everybody in the Bay Area, making contacts and picking up freelance assignments and continuing to work in my pajamas. Eventually a lot of those people migrated to New York and I did too. Now I can't imagine any other career path that would have fit me.

Joseph: What advice do you have for someone who'd like a writing career like yours?

Williams: Be reliable. Seriously.

Very few of us are geniuses, and having been an editor, I can tell you that geniuses can be a real pain to work with.

Editors want people who meet their deadlines, who turn in clean, proofread and fact-checked copy. Because you would be AMAZED at how many writers expend far more energy in begging you for work than they will put into actually producing it.

Be nice. Not in a butt kissy, doormatty way, but just in a knowing how to act in a socially acceptable way way. Be real and honest and genuine in your curiosity and your enthusiasm. The people you interview and the sources you rely on need to feel comfortable with you and trust you. The editorial assistant who's going through the slush pile needs to know you regard him or her as a human being.

Most of us don't go into the world with a lot of great connections and contacts. But if you're willing to put yourself out there, build your clips, and keep at it, you will cultivate them. And years from now, the people who were starting out with you will be running the show, and they'll remember you.

One of the first people I met in California, when he was starting a zine and getting people to contribute for free, was Dave Eggers. So you never know.

And write. Write a lot. Write every day. Write your bad first drafts and your underdeveloped ideas and try them out. The only way you will ever, ever get to the good stuff is by having something to work with. Very little in life springs forth flawlessly from the imagination. Bill Buford has a great phrase about "the pedagogy of repetition" and I remember that every day, when I'm faced with a blank screen and my terror of it.

Joseph: Your book Gimme Shelter is a memoir about your quest to buy a house in New York City. How did you decide this was a story you wanted to tell?

Williams: I knew it almost immediately. I came back from the first open house I attended and wrote about the experience, on my laptop, just as an exercise. I was dying to talk about what I saw out there. Eventually I turned my early house hunting into a story for the New York Observer. And I just kept going with it. I'm relentless that way.

I think the story of home and need for one is one of the great stories of the human experience. And we live in such an interesting time -- more peripatetic than ever but also so romantically attached to the notion of home and ownership. I had tinkered with other book ideas before but I knew this was something I was passionate enough about to go the distance.

: What made you choose to tell this story in present tense?

Williams: Thank you so much for asking! That was a very conscious choice and something I felt very strongly about from the beginning. I wanted the book to feel immediate and suspenseful. There's a certain horror-like quality to the experience of house hunting, especially in New York, especially during the bubble, and I wanted the reader right there with me in it. I wanted to bring people with me in as active a way as possible. The comfort of distance and misty water colored memoires wasn't an option.

Joseph: While Gimme Shelter is a personal story, it's also a book that has to educate the reader along the way, explaining the complicated and sometimes confusing process of purchasing a house. How did you balance anecdote with background information?

Williams: That was by far the hardest part of the process. I really didn't want to go all Basil Exposition with the information: "This reminds me of a funny story about the Federal Reserve!" It had to be as natural and conversational as I could make it.

It helped that I'm not a business or economics person. I couldn't assume any complicated knowledge on the part of the reader because I didn't have any complicated knowledge myself. Any distilling down that I did came from my own hard-won experience. I had my own internal Denzel Washington on my shoulder the whole time, saying, "Explain it to me like I'm a four year old." Fortunately I already kind of am.

Joseph: In her short story "The Lesson," Toni Cade Bambara writes, "Where we are is who we are." The setting of Gimme Shelter--New York City--is as important as any of the people. In a way, New York becomes a character, one central to the story's themes of home and finding a place to belong and identity. Can you talk about the importance of place in your book?

Williams: Place is huge. My friend Cynthia, who survived Katrina, says in my book, "It's not even part of it, it's all of it." I think we like to fancy ourselves citizens of the world, but where we come from -- and where we settle ourselves -- are a huge statement.

If you look at "Not Quite What I Was Planning," the book of six word memoirs, you'll see how very many people choose to tell their life stories in terms of location and religion (Me too. Mine was "Catholic girl. Jersey. It's all true.") Think of how you define yourself, or how you describe others--the stoic midwesterner, the laid-back Californian.

I tried to present a variety of lifestyles and locations in the book, to show the home experience in St. Louis or Vermont or Miami. I wanted to make it clear why those places are attractive, and why they weren't an option for me. You can't put a fish in a tree, you know? And there shouldn't be anything wrong with being a fish.

I also believe very very strongly that cities, not just New York, have to be sustainable for normal, middle class people. It's not just my own attachment at stake, it's a particular social ecosystem that's threatened when school teachers and nurses and office workers are squeezed out. I wanted to make the case for our continued presence here.

Joseph: Describe the process of writing this book. Did you write it in real time--as you were living through the experiences? Or did you work from memory?

Williams: I wrote a lot as I was living it. I wrote the whole time, taking notes and trying to shape them into the book proposal. Then when I was working on the book itself, I interviewed my friends and family, and had them send me some of the emails we'd exchanged during the book's timeframe. I still had to pull a bunch from memory, and I still have people whose recollections are different, but I tried very hard to get it right.

If you're a nonfiction writer, take notes, all the time. Couldn't hurt.

Joseph: Describe your revision process.
Williams: Well it's endless. I tried to do the real writing of the MS in a big straight initial burst, not twiddling too much. Then when I had a draft, I did a week of nothing but revising it from start to finish. THEN I worked on the parts that needed the most help. And then I started collaborating with my editor, which took about two months. Because this was my first book, I quite deliberately overwrote it, and put in a lot of material I knew would eventually go. But coming from a journalistic and editorial background, I'm reasonably ruthless at cutting my own prose. It's not about saving a clever line or good scene, you have to be willing to constantly ask, what's best for the whole?

And yes, I look at it now and think of everything I wish I could fix.

Joseph: Who are some of the writers you most admire?

Williams: I knew I was in good hands with my editor when she said, "I love American stories." So do I. I have a lot of favorite writers, but I'm really drawn to that particular American sensibility. And you find it in authors as disparate as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and Richard Yates. I love how they write about class and aspiration and work in ways that are so almost painfully straightforward.

And when you look Twain's essays and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood or Barbara Erinreich's Nickel and Dimed, you see this particular form of nonfiction that's very novelistic. We take it for granted now, but it's very American and incredibly innovative.

The British author Fay Weldon was also one of my big early author crushes. She was the first woman I read who just scorched the earth. There's nothing cute or chick lit about Fay Weldon, she's funny in the most brutal way possible. I wish we had more of that.

Joseph: What are you working on next?

Williams: I'm in the early stages of a proposal for a book about public education. I want the structure to be similar to Gimme Shelter--using my experience and that of friends and family around the country to tell a bigger story about a social issue. I have two young children, and the pressure on kids right now, within this truly broken system, is completely dysfunctional.

And fortunately I've got that convenient amnesia about how difficult writing a book actually is, so that'll help move me forward.

Of course, with the economy being what it is, I may reconsider everything and get into air conditioning repair.

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