In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Cole W. Williams
I always like to start these interviews off by learning about the inspiration behind the writing. In “On Thelma & Louise”, your short essay published in Volume 25, you wrote about a woman who watches the 1991 film alone “to see if the screenplay actually mentions divorce.” How did this essay come to be?
Robyn, I appreciate you and your fantastic queries. During graduate school I wrote a series of essays revolving around divorce and separation as part of a full-length essay project titled On Leaving. The story of Thelma & Louise in pop culture is about two women who leave their quotidian patriarchies to seek freedom. How much freedom they could capture within the confines of the world as they know it, interests me. This story is a fantasy, Hollywoodized for effect (explosions, Brad, guns) but never scratching the realities of entanglement and duty. What would be the true rebellion of a single mother with children, co-parenting, working weekends and putting herself through school for example? There is none. That is what makes the movie so effective; it hits on a deep sonic chord for any of us who have a rebel heart.
You intentionally pause the reader to consider the film’s final scene. Like Thelma and Louise, the speaker also goes on a journey as her thinking shifts from the beginning of the essay to the end. I’m curious to know, how do you deal with roadblocks that might appear when the writing veers? What do you do to cull the floodgates of thoughts to help keep the essay on course?
To cull the floodgates! Best case scenario: I think about my writing for a long time before I write it. Usually. If I force myself to sit down when the sous chef hasn’t prepped up top then I will face a roadblock and the writing will veer off course; in which case I walk away and let it simmer longer. For example, another essay in the collection is written in dialogue which I know in my guts isn’t serving the piece, but I haven’t worked through a great alternative yet, so back to the subconscious it goes. I am willing to wait for the high-maintenance pieces to work themselves out. I’m not sure I’m a hold-back-the-cracking-dam type of a girl. More of a machete-wielding-anarchist: save the draft and then cut away the erroneous filler, extrapolations, and your revolving bridge words. For essays I try to stay strict to the thesis. It can get lyrical, but it has to answer to the crux at all times.
The essay has its own cinematic touches: the lyric “I”, the romanticized pining for Michael Madsen, and then there is a visual texture to the essay’s fragmented structure with its usage of all-caps and italics, slang. Do other creative mediums like film or theater often work their way into your writing?
I believe a writer comes into their true voice after writing many novels worth of material (maybe sooner for some?) and I believe we all must mimic and imitate until we get there. Plus these imitations create great writing when you can drop a line like this and like that and dedicate it to the well-deserved. For the longest time I thought to write essays I had to sound like Annie Dillard, which is great if you got that vibe, but I am actually funny in real life! Have you ever heard the advice to type out someone else’s entire novel? It makes sense if your dialogue is struggling. This statement may sound ridiculous but it’s true: Around the time of grad school, I decided to experiment with writing in my true voice instead of the preconceived elevation I thought some churring literary giant wanted out there in the Oz of my mind. (My true voice: swearing, hyperbole, making up words, abusing slang, impersonating, joking, and riffs.) And! On topics I gravitated to come hell or high water. One of those genres is pop culture, especially “bad” pop culture. T.V. and movies and pop songs—so I opened my hand and blew the geraniums goodbye…there was no wind that day and they blopped off my hand and landed on the ground right in front of me. The trick is, how to orchestrate a micro essay on Brit-Brit for the literary audience as opposed to sosh or a Post and I love that challenge.
Failure is the best.
Speaking of work that spans genres, you’ve published several picture and MG books. What is it like for you to work with an illustrator? How do you conceptualize your work creating the text in collaboration with images?
I love working with an illustrator. Ian Durneen (UK) and I have been making books together for some years now and the reason we keep going is because we have a true blast together. Laura Acosta (Buenos Aires, Argentina) was a wonder to work with. She illustrated Dr. Brainchild in 2018 which I shared annually, pre-Covid, at The Bakken Museum for children’s science and engineering events. Dr. Brainchild is entirely written in them/them pronouns, so my only request was for the character to be gender fluid with goggles, and she sent mock-ups of the character. The collaboration and vision building is the most exciting: feeling out how much independence the artist requires to hit that magic spot. Ian went nuts with the protists and scienced it up for Eukarya. Typically, I make vision boards and do light sketches and we work digitally together. I realize this is not the traditional mode of publishing picture books, but I truly love the processes of building a book, making those layers, and re-working to find a rhythm. Not everything works all the time, but I feel like it’s a misnomer to seek perfection. It’s a journey and how else does one learn other than doing?
You won the Under Review 2022 chapbook contest for The Pump, forthcoming this spring. What can you tell us about this book and your experience submitting it for publication?
The Pump is a prose piece inspired by the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno battling it out for glory at the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition in South Africa. I spent last summer going to bodybuilding competitions and writing about my gym. Being a fan of the Under Review with their sports slant—while always cool, always community-building events—I wanted to have something ready for them; also since reading their first chapbook release which I found to be a special piece; in writing and in execution as book art. After considering many different angles to this possibility I ended up landing on a type of ekphrastic take, very similar to “On Thelma & Louise” but attempting, in this case, a completely different narration, voice, and tone.
Who are some writers that inspire you? What are some books that you find yourself returning to and for what reasons?
I’ve been hitting that chapbook scene pretty hard lately; DIAGRAM and Red Hen Press. I like this form and the concision it begets. I also have been keeping up with American Chordata, Northwest Review, science journals, strange things from book sales, random news as well as my favorite online journals like The Night Heron Barks. For books, I have a “Read Now” pile, “Read Next For Real,” “Third Up” etc.
Here are some books and authors I return to (not including obscure science books on quarks and neutrinos): Jill Osier for brevity and holding back; Reginald Dwayne Betts for the study of Truth and biography; Eula Biss for perspective; Wendy S. Walters for hybrid essays; Marjorie Perloff to get schooled; Amit Majmudar for music and humor; Diane Seuss, Eduardo C. Corral, Claudia Rankine (schooled); Solmaz Sharif for perspective; C.D. Wright for investigations; Brian Doyle for humor in essays; Mark Bibbins for epic poetry; Michael Wasson; Jim Harrison; Bill Weigl; my mentors; Rose Metal Press; the dictionary; CMS; I’ve read Fugitive Atlas and Whereas a few times each now, John D’Agata, huge fan of Kaveh Akbar and Franny Choi. Does anyone want to send me fiction recs? Lol.
What projects are you working on now?
More essays on the world exploding, science, divorce, and hippos. I’m deep in the throes of a long, drawn-out conversation with the ghost of the previous owner of my house. We are not quite on a first name basis. This is more like a collection of aphorisms, think 300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso. When the house is left with all her stuff how can you not drink her rum and build a fire?
Cole W. Williams is a poet, essayist, and hybrid writer. Recent works are featured in North Dakota Quarterly, Ran Off with the Star Bassoon, FERAL, Eastern Iowa Review, Xinachtli Journal, and other journals. Williams read off site at AWP ‘22 with The Night Heron Barks. Her piece “The Godwin Essay” was recognized by the 2021 International Human Rights Arts Festival’s Creators of Justice Literary Award 2021. Williams attended the 2022 Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference within the poetry cohort.