Philip Lee Williams is a name many of you will recognize as the Georgia Author of the Year, as he has already received the honor four times. Williams is the author of nineteen books, including twelve novels, four works of non-fiction, and three volumes of poetry. His books have been published by such presses as W. W. Norton, Random House, Grove Press, Ballantine, Dell, Viking/Penguin, and Mercer University Press, as well a number of smaller presses.
His latest novel, Emerson’s Brother, was published in 2012 by Mercer University Press. His most recent book of poetry, The Color of All Things: 99 Love Poems, is also from Mercer, published this spring, and was named winner of the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. His memoir, It Is Written: My Life in Letters, was published in October 2014 and is a nominee in this year’s Memoir/Autobiography category. We took a few moments to ask Mr. Williams about his process and his success as a writer.
What brought you to writing and drew you to different genres?
I started writing as a child because I loved stories and storytelling—and performing my stories in front of others. Our home was also very arts-oriented so I knew about poetry and fiction from my earliest memories. My parents both loved literature and classical music, and they could both quote reams of poetry they had learned in high school and college. My father painted, composed, and wrote poetry in his youth, and my mother sometimes painted. So there was a strong component of the arts when I was growing up in Madison, Georgia. I began writing poetry in my early teens and was becoming serious at it by my college years. I didn’t start writing fiction seriously until my late 20s.
In terms of different genres, I always wanted to explore writing as an organic whole—not just from one single angle. The only form I haven’t really explored is the short story, though I have written and published some. But if my long form was the novel, my short form is poetry. But I also consider myself an experienced non-fiction writer, a playwright, and a documentary film maker.
Who were your earliest influences as a writer? Is there any author whose style you were intentional to avoid or not recreate?
I knew about and emulated avant-garde writing from childhood. I read e.e. cummings starting when I was about seven or eight, so even then I knew what poetry could do. But I was also heavily influenced by Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, and Byron, not to mention, of course Shakespeare, whom my mother adored. In fiction, the first two books that really hit me hard, in the summer when I was 15, were Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, a popular novel about Michelangelo. The former taught me the idea of the story arc, and the latter about the hard work of creating art (meaning Michelangelo, not Stone, who was a good but not great writer). I discovered Hemingway and Joyce about the time I was a senior in high school (1967-68) and was madly into them by my college years. I never made a conscious decision to avoid or recreate any author’s style, but I was heavily influenced by Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, which I bought when I was 26. After that, nothing was the same!
Are there any teachers or professors you distinctly remember who were supportive of your writing?
This is going to seem strange, but I had only one writing class in my entire life. I went to college in the days before most creative writing programs were around, and the idea of teaching fine writing simply didn’t exist. One was expected to write grammatically and as professionally as possible, but it was more about your ideas than your execution. I did have some extraordinary teachers when I was a student at UGA, including, in the English Department, George Marshall, Coleman Barks, James Kilgo, and Marion Montgomery, and all of them were supportive of me when I started publishing books, but that was 13 years after I graduated from college.
How do you make time for writing? Do you wake up early, or stay up late into the night?
For 40 years, I got up between 4 and 5 in the morning with the idea of writing three pages (1000 words) of uncorrected prose, almost always on a novel. Then I went to a full-time job, which I always had. I worked every day, including weekends and most holidays, including Christmas! But I promised my wife that my writing would never interfere with our family life, so my wife and then kids when they came along never saw me writing. I was always through before they got up. Now they DID see me working on the business of writing—letters and so forth, and then emailing when that came along. But I tell people all the time that if they don’t want to find the time, they don’t want to write enough to succeed at it.
Do you think your experiences as an author would be different if you weren’t brought up in the South? Can you point to anything specifically Southern in your works?
My works are set in the American South because that’s what I know. But other than that, no. There’s a romance in other parts of the country to the southern writer, but I don’t think any real distinction exists or ever did. It is true that before air conditioning, our life here was MUCH slower than other parts of the country because of the heat, and that did lead to long, languid summer-evening storytelling sessions. But the fact that it is the South didn’t affect me. I will say that growing up in the South made me acutely aware of racism and the South’s sad racial history. My response was to write a novel (A Distant Flame) about southerners who were against the South’s position in the Civil War. I was pleased when that novel won the Michael Shaara Prize as the Best Civil War novel published in the United States in 2004.
What are three things you wish you knew when you were writing your first novel?
I wish I knew something about the business of literature, for one thing. Back in those pre-internet days, it was very hard to find out anything about it other than by going to the library and hoping to find a magazine explaining anything. There were only two other published writers in Athens when my first novel came out, and their experience wasn’t much of a help.
I wish there had been more tools for promoting books, but I also wish I was by nature a gregarious person who is also a salesman for myself and my books. I’m not. I’m quiet and solitary and love the country.
And third, I wish I had known more about novels before I wrote my first published one. My first book did so well that people assumed I was a finished and polished novelist, and I wasn’t. I had to work very, VERY hard to learn my art and craft after that.
What are three tools that you wish you knew when you were beginning your career as a writer?
This is going to sound bad, and I realize it, but I had all the tools when I started. They are:
- Read everything, fanatically. You must read all the classics and heavily from works of your own time if you are to be a writer. I am constantly amazed at people who want to be writers who have read almost nothing.
- Work hard. I was trained to this from childhood. I could work with focus and force for my two hours every day, and I did. If you think you are working hard on your writing now, work twice as hard and you will be just getting to where you should be.
- Keep all your senses open all the time as you walk through the world. This is not easy and requires practice, but I had been doing it since childhood.
There are others, of course, but having all of these is no small reason why I succeeded.
How has the Georgia Writers Association helped or impacted your work?
It didn’t come along until I was in my 40s and had already published several books and thousands of pieces of journalism. But winning the Author of the Year Award in Fiction in 1991 was maybe my third or fourth award as a writer, and it helped me a good deal. (This was in an earlier incarnation of the GWA.) Overall now, I have been named Author of the Year four times in three different categories (fiction, poetry, and essay), and this year I am a finalist in my fourth category (autobiography/memoir) and will accept the Lifetime Achievement Award. So I am very grateful for the notice the group has taken of my work.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
I would say these things:
- Work hard and write every day.
- Read, read, read, read. Especially the great works of the past. And read with intensity and understanding—one must become a great reader to be a great writer.
- Don’t fear failure. You will fail—over and over and over. But you have to accept it and move on.
- Walk through your life with all your senses open and try to see the world in a new way every day.
Do you have any regrets in how you have navigated your professional career as an author (regarding appearances, contracts and the like)?
I would probably be better known if I had done a great many more public appearances, but in truth, I did the amount I chose. I have done hundreds of readings and autographings from coast to coast, though largely in the Southeast. But really, honestly? No regrets at all.
What was the harshest critique you have ever received?
The one that sticks with me the most was a dark and personal review of my novel Final Heat that ran in a magazine in my hometown of Athens, GA. It made some personal accusations against me that I really resented. But all authors get bad reviews, and it’s just part of the territory. I tell people all the time that if they don’t have a really thick skin, don’t try to become a serious author. It can be brutal, but it’s mostly very nice.
If you weren’t an author, what career would you have chosen?
A composer of classical music. I started out that way, and I have managed to compose 18 symphonies, concerti, a Requiem Mass, an opera, and many other pieces, but I would have tried to do it professionally. Alas, there is almost no audience for this kind of thing anymore and certainly no money in it. I started out as a music major in college hoping to turn that way, but it was clear to me very soon that my only real options would be as a high school band director or a church choral director, and I wanted to work on a larger stage than that. I was a newspaper editor for 13 years, and I did love that. But it was only a way to get to serious literature.
What does receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from GWA mean to you?
Being named winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the GWA means the world to me. It is wonderful for one to be honored by peers, and I will cherish this.
To see Mr. Williams accept his lifetime achievement award, please come and support GWA at our 51st annual Georgia Author of the Year Awards. Please contact Administrator Katie Marvel for information about tickets and sponsorship opportunities.