Out of Cape Cod Tonight: An Interview with Khaliah Williams
Posted June 19, 2012on:
Last week, we published Khaliah Williams’ What the Bay Broke, a somber short story about summer spouse swapping in Cape Cod. After its publication, we chatted with Williams via email about the inspiration for the story, her literary life, adultery, Vampire Weekend, and what her graduate work at Iowa Writers Workshop taught her about writing and whiskey.
Where did you get the idea for “What the Bay Broke” and where did the title come from?
I pulled that story from a lot of different places, including my own struggles with learning to love someone besides myself, unrequited love, and standing up for myself. I also like the idea of someone who is slightly terrified of the beach owning a beach house. But the real inspiration for this story came from a trip to Cape Cod in September of 2009. I was there with a group of friends for a wedding and sometime around midnight (fueled by wine) we decided to go down to the beach. I lost one of my sandals in the water and one of my friends found it two days later. That’s always stuck with me, that sometimes the water will take something away and it just might come back to you. This will sound silly, but I have no idea where the title came from. I’m terrible with titles, and I often run with suggestions from other people. T. Geronimo Johnson (whose book Hold it ‘Til it Hurts comes out in September) re-titled what eventually became my graduate thesis in workshop one day. The title story was “The Heart Stops Beating When You Least Expect It” and he suggested a more manageable “Until the Heart Stops Beating.” He probably doesn’t remember that. But the new title had so much elegance to it that I kept it and than began writing a lot of stories around that idea. Besides, I like titles that start with the word ‘what’.
What was the most difficult aspect of writing this story?
I describe myself as a “kitchen sink writer” in that I put everything in all at once. I have the very narcissistic habit of liking some of my own sentences way too much. It makes editing terrible and I often don’t know what to take out or what to keep. I think I’d be a better writer I had my own personal editor all the time. But then again, it’s good to not have that little voice in your head questioning everything you’re doing with a story. This story is probably the longest one I’ve ever written and when I got to the last few pages, I had a hard time dealing with my story choices. I felt bad for the characters, I had put them in this beautiful place and then ruined their lives. I think I re-wrote the scene with Olivia waking up five different ways because I couldn’t get it right.
Why is the story set in Wellfleet? Do you know the Vampire Weekend song “Walcott? I believe it’s the only pop song to mention Wellfleet.
I love that Vampire Weekend song. It’s actually in the CD player in my car right now! Two of my best friends Kate and Amanda got married there and they vacation there with their family every year. Usually let a few friends get to tag along for a couple of days. It’s the most glorious part of my year when I have the chance to go. All we do is sit in the sun, read trashy romance novels, eat lobster rolls from PJ’s, have song night and Tea Time. I think of Wellfleet and I think of the people that I get to be with when I go there. More songs should mention Wellfleet, it’s a pretty amazing place.
You did your graduate work at Iowa Writers Workshop. What did you learn there?
I learned a lot of about editing. I learned how to think about my work and how to talk about it. Before I went, I wasn’t very good at reading my work and understanding what was flawed about it. I think I am much better about that now. More importantly I learned discipline, the need to write with regularity. It’s also wonderful to know that I have a strong community of writers who believe in what I’m doing and who encourage me to keep at it. I have several friends from Iowa City that I know will read my work when I need a pair of fresh eyes on something. I also learned how to drink bourbon. I probably learned that last lesson better than I needed to.
Many stories are about adultery. Why did this theme appeal to you for this story?
I’m fascinated by the idea that you can have the best, most loving partner in the world and still want to search outside of that relationship for fulfillment. It’s so hurtful and so destructive you wonder how people can go around committing it, sometimes repeatedly. I think it’s because it’s kind of easy. Sex can always be had. I don’t care who you are, if you really want to, you can get laid. The internet makes it far more simpler. No need to even leave your house to find someone. But I also think it’s a natural human desire to not be monogamous, to want to sleep around. When I was in my twenties I was in a relationship that seemed to thrive on the fact that neither of us could remain faithful. I think we were stupidly proud of the way that relationship worked and eventually it just fell apart because I grew up and he did not. With this story, I wanted to explore the little things you lose in a relationship when your partner betrays you, the peace of mind that disappears when that happens. I’m curious about what runs through the minds of cheaters. Maybe for fun I’ll write the scene where Clay decides to sleep with Lisa just to see what he was thinking.
An undercurrent in your story is the power of social class in American society. Why did this theme appeal to you?
Class makes for great conflict in a way that doesn’t have to be melodramatic. I think that Olivia and Clay needed something else to separate them, old money vs. new money and emerging talent vs fading talent didn’t seem to be enough. It also shows the reader that there are some irreconcilable differences between them, that even though they are sharing a world, they come from different places and they might not be able to get past that. Even though I wrote the story a few years ago, the divide between the social classes is greater than ever and I think being in an election year just enhances that. It’s something most people can identify with.
Your story reminded me of the short stories of John Cheever and Alice Munro. Who are your literary heroes?
That’s very generous of you! I really love Andrea Lee. Her collection Interesting Women is the book that made me start writing in a serious way. I got a copy of it when I graduated from college and I read it at least once a year. I usually carry a copy of it with me so that I can get inspired if I get stuck with my own work. I also love the work of ZZ Packer, Scott Spencer, Lydia Davis, and James Alan McPherson. Many of my friends have published books in the last year and I’m in awe of them. I really loved Justin Torres’ novel We the Animals [one of FP’s Top 10 Fiction Books of 2012] and I’m looking forward to sitting down with Jenifer DuBois’ novel A Partial History of Lost Causes.
What was the composition process for this story?
I wrote this story back in 2009 after I graduated from Iowa. I have a tendency to hold on to my stories for a really long time before I send them out into the world. I edit things for years sometimes. All I remember about writing this story was that I did it mostly sitting at my beautiful, old, wooden desk and that I smoked a lot of cigarette while I wrote it. Which is a strange thing to remember because I rarely ever smoke.
You work as a teacher and guidance counselor in Baltimore. Now that school is out what are your summer writing plans?
This summer I’m hoping to finish a draft of my novel, What We Have Lost What We Have Found. The story centers on an Upper Middle class African-American family from the Philadelphia Mainline after the death of their twelve year old daughter. Each family member comes to terms with the loss in his or her own self-destructive way. I’m very close to the end and I’m excited to see what happens. I have a few co-workers that I’ll meet with at local coffee shops for writing dates. During the school year I wake up between 5 and 6 in the morning, I’ll keep that schedule so i can write in the mornings on my own. Baltimore has some of the best coffee shops and the one in my neighborhood, ‘Spro, makes a really good latte. It’s my favorite place to write in town, there’s no internet and they don’t play distracting music.
What was the last great book you read and why? What was the last great album you listened to and why?
Because I work so much I don’t get a ton of reading done. I think the last great book I read was Gary Shytengart’s A Super Sad True Love Story. I liked the combination of journal entries and email as an effective way to tell a story. To be honest I don’t listen to a ton of music. One of my friends described my car as a time machine because every mix CD I make usually has some Lisa Loeb (I’m talking the Stay years) on it. I listen to a lot of Death Cab for Cutie, Delta Spirit, Dar Williams, and Italian pop music from 2001. My boyfriend has introduced me to 1960’s French pop music and Serge Gainsbourg, who fascinates me to no end. Red Brick Tide, Summer in the Woodshed and Pink White Blue Green from Starnes & Shah are three of my favorite albums and what I listen to when I write.
What advice would you offer to aspiring writers?
I still consider myself to be an aspiring writer so I’m not sure that I have any advice to offer anyone other than be disciplined. It took me a long time to realize that writing is as much my job as being a teacher and guidance counselor. When I came to understand that, I began to write more often and produce work that made me proud.
Keith Meatto is editor in chief of Frontier Psychiatrist. This spring, he published an interview with David Goodwillie, author of the novel American Subversive and the memoir Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time. He has never been to Wellfleet.