A Life of Books: Janelle M. Williams, author of Gone Like Yesterday

Janelle M. Williams is the recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Award for her story, “From the Closest Waffle House.” She also wa was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her flash fiction story “Harlem Thunder” was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2020.

Her debut novel, Gone Like Yesterday, is tinged with magical realism and follows two women who try to track down one’s missing brother. What follows is a haunting exploration of family, friendship, and love.

We asked the author to answer our recurring A Life of Books Questionnaire so readers can get to know her better.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?

Sure! As a young child, Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters and The People Could Fly. Both of those books felt magical and powerful. In my preteen years, I sort of lost my love for reading, and I can’t really remember what books defined that time for me. I do remember reading the Left Behind series and believing that earned me brownie points with God. Now, I think those books only traumatized me lol.

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

I believe children should read what sounds interesting to them in order to form a positive relationship with the act of reading. Once they’ve really established that, you can encourage them to branch out and diversify their interests. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I don’t generally go back to books that I didn’t enjoy reading, and there are a number of books on that list from high school–The Old Man and the Sea, The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies. I could go on. Maybe I could read those books now and enjoy them, but I’d need an incentive to give them a second chance. There are so many books to read, and I don’t believe reading or loving or understanding any singular book is so imperative to bettering me as a writer or a thinker. There’s just so much amazing material out in the world!

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

I rarely reread books, unless I’m teaching or writing about a book. But as a teen I loved Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Awakening. Those were my favorite books that we read in school, and I can only imagine that they’re still nearly perfect gems. Outside of school, I liked reading my dad’s John Grisham and James Patterson novels. I doubt I’d like those books as much now, but who knows?

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?

This is a good question! I truly can’t remember what I was reading while working on Gone Like Yesterday, but I can recall some of the books that impacted my ideas for the novel. Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Ng grew up in Shaker Heights, which is coincidentally where my dad is from, and I really enjoyed reading some of the history of the city in her novel. In terms of structure, characterization, or plot, a few books like Swing Time, Such a Fun Age, Song of Solomon, Sula, and The God of Small Things come to mind. 

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book and wished I’d written it. Feels a little like wishing for someone else’s nose. It might be a great nose, but I don’t know that it would fit on my face. I can say that I really admire the way Jesmyn Ward writes–her stories feel so full, lush. 

What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?

There are so many great books out! My TBR list is super ambitious lol. But, I just finished If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery–that was good! At the top of my TBR stack, I have Ghost Season by Fatin Abbas, Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow, The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb. I can’t wait for Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s debut, When Trying To Return Home, to come out one week before mine. John Manuel Arias’ When There Was Fire comes out in September. Oh, and I can’t wait to read Black Women Writers at Work!

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.

More mystery & magic 

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