An Interview with Andria Williams

Navy spouse Andria Williams’ novel and stories create communities of freedom and support, and life imitates art in the supportive communities she’s built into the Military Spouse Book Review and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. Williams also shares a sneak peek at her latest novel manuscript while being open about some of the sacrifices made when drafting.

You are the author of THE LONGEST NIGHT (Random House 2016), a novel centered around an historical event: the 1961 explosion of a small Army-operated nuclear reactor in Idaho Falls, Idaho. In a review of THE LONGEST NIGHT, the Los Angeles Review of Books writes:

“Although her descriptions of the reactor’s mechanics are absorbing, Williams’s novel is concerned less with technical failures than with human ones, particularly a conformist culture’s pernicious habit of mistaking that which endangers–military and marital discipline, masculine and nuclear power–for that which safeguards.” 

Los Angeles Review of Books

Why did you decide to take this particular view of a nuclear crisis? How has your experience as a military spouse influenced the writing of this book?

Thank you for quoting that review, which is one of my favorites. It’s by Catherine Steindler, herself a talented writer and Columbia University professor, and she’s one of those ideal readers an author dreams of, someone who just “got it”–totally got what I was trying to do and maybe even put it a little better sometimes than I could myself!

She’s absolutely right that the novel is supposed to interrogate notions of power and control and safety, and in some places, subvert them. A conformist culture puts forth certain givens about how a person should act so that the power structure in place can benefit and protect them. That protection and benefit is an enormous, possibly gross assumption, and when it is betrayed,  the loss can be breathtaking. In THE LONGEST NIGHT, institutions protect no one, and true connection, true meaning, can only be found in other people — as Steindler puts it, a kind of “quiet wonder at how a person can come to exist in another.”

As far as writing a novel set in the late 1950s, military spouse life has definitely provided a sort of substrate in which to imagine a more traditional, cloistered time. And though we now live in a different era, much has remained the same about being a military spouse. My characters deal with deployment and other destabilizing factors that are familiar to any of us! When my character Nat, for example, muses that “She couldn’t picture what [her husband] Paul was doing, what his world was like, but he knew everything of hers: He had made it,” well, that was easy to write, as a modern military wife sometimes left behind. It was a way in to my characters, having this in common with them.

You are the editor of the Military Spouse Book Review. Can you tell us a bit about how you started this venture and the importance of connecting with other writers in the military community?

With milspouse authors Siobhan Fallon (THE CONFUSION OF LANGUAGES)
and Rebekah Sanderlin.

I wanted a virtual “place” where military spouses, and all women connected to the military, could find one another, connect, learn about each other’s writing, share and promote each other’s work. That’s the more practical reason. 

I also wanted to create a place where we could, over the course of several years and in a kind of kaleidoscopic manner, look at what this all means, what it means to be a military spouse or mom or a female service member, operating within or alongside this vast but very specific machine. In a broad sense, you can look at the Mil Spouse Book Review and kind of scan the concerns and preoccupations of at least a small representation of women writers connected to the military, how we’ve made sense of our experience.

I’d invite any MilSpoFAN readers to drop on by the MSBR, which is edited by myself, as well as poet and Marine spouse Lisa Houlihan Stice , whom I believe you have featured here, and nonfiction-writer-and-Navy-spouse Alison Buckholtz. All women connected to the military are welcome to submit book reviews. In our sidebar, we also list military spouse writers, as well as female servicemember writers. My goal is to support the whole community, a thinking, caring, open-minded literary community.

Four of the editors of Wrath-Bearing Tree literary journal: L-R Drew Pham, Mary Doyle, Matthew Hefti, Andria Williams.

I’m also an editor for Wrath-Bearing Tree, a literary journal started by four combat veterans but which has expanded its masthead to include some female-servicemember and civilian editors as well. It’s a visually beautiful, incredibly thoughtful and smart journal that interrogates issues around cultural and institutional violence, power, resilience, resistance, humanity. 

Tell us a little about yourself, your journey as a military spouse, and where you are today.

Williams and family after her husband’s promotion ceremony.

My husband attended Officer Candidate School in Pensacola and then we were stationed in Virginia Beach, and then Norfolk, VA; Belleville, Illinois; Monterey, CA; San Diego, CA; and now Colorado Springs, CO. I found it much easier to move when my children were small, and much harder now that we have a high schooler. For the last few years, our lives have been almost embarrassingly comfortable; we have a small garden and the kids are happy in school. It’s been heaven.

Tell us about your writing journey and the path to publishing your first book.

I’d gotten my Master of Fine Arts at the University of Minnesota before my husband joined the Navy. My writing took a back seat when my first two children were small. They are just over two years apart and we lived thousands of miles from my family, so writing did not seem feasible at the time. 

Finally, though, I realized that I just didn’t feel like myself when I wasn’t writing. I’ve written my whole life. I wrote my first “novella,” which was thirty pages, when I was six. (My wonderful great-aunt typed the whole thing up for me on her typewriter, thoughtfully leaving blank half-pages so I could illustrate it.) So it’s just a constant compulsion with me, the only way I can really feel complete or like I am actually living and making sense of the world. So I began writing again in earnest just before I had my third child. I wrote the first draft of THE LONGEST NIGHT in about a year and a half, then revised it for two more years.

What is the most practical piece of advice that you would give to other artists?

Never, ever, ever give up.

You can give up on individual projects or storylines or paintings, sure. But on the overall lifestyle, the dream? You will know if you need it. And then the greatest thing you can do for yourself is to honor that need, that requirement. If it’s the only thing you consistently give yourself, fine, but make sure that you do.

What’s next for you?

Well, referring to what I said above — I did work on a draft of a novel for about six months; I had about a hundred pages. But I just wasn’t feeling it the way I knew I should, so I let that project go. Deleted the files and everything so I wouldn’t be tempted to go back to it.

But, later that year, I started another one! And now I am very, very close, I think, to being done. I sure hope to God that I am because it’s been over three years now. This book is a novel set in 1929. Two servant girls find an object they believe could be of immense value, but when others learn that they have it, those people also want it. Danger ensues. But I think my basic themes are the same — individual freedom, and people taking care of one another, and love, and “locating yourself in another person.” That’s what matters to me. It is probably what I will always write about.

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