Lori Williams admits she has more in common with Shayla, the 12-year-old narrator of When Kambia Elaine Flew in from Neptune (S&S), than just being raised in an impoverished Houston neighborhood. "I saw a lot of abused children while I was growing up," says Williams, who was physically abused by her father. "[But] when things happened in your house, you didn't talk about it." She wrote her novel, she says, to bring attention to child-abuse victims: "I wanted to give the children a voice."
Children have always been prominent in Williams's stories, who started honing her skills in creative-writing courses as a college student at the University of Texas, Austin. "When I write through one of my teenage characters, I get to become that teenager," she says. "I get to live my life through them the way I wanted to live it." Her characters might experience tragedies, but they end up in a better place than where they started.
It was in a fiction workshop in 1996 that Williams, then an English master's student at UT, began her novel about the smart but naive Shayla and her friendship with Kambia, a neglected and sexually abused child who increasingly lives in her own fantasy world. Williams had intended to write a short story about Tia, Shayla's 15-year-old sister, and her longing for understanding from her mother. But as she was writing, she says, "all of the sudden Kambia shows up," and Williams knew it was going to take much more than a short story to write down all she had to say. Tia's story ultimately became the first chapter of the novel.
Williams graduated in 1996, and received a fellowship from the James Michener Center for Writers to finish the novel. "I just wrote it straight through," she says. "Once it was in my head, I knew exactly what the story was going to be about and what the ending was going to be."
She sent her manuscript to two agencies and an editor, including the Sterling Lord Literistic agency's Barbara Ryan. It was Ryan who suggested it might work best as a children's book ("I hadn't intended the book to be for children," Williams admits, "I was just writing."). Everything happened very quickly from that point. When Ryan told her that four major publishers had bid on her book, Williams thought she was kidding.
The book ultimately went to Simon & Schuster, and Williams began working with editor David Gale on the revisions. "I don't think we had a disagreement about anything," she says. While his edits were fairly light, she says "everything he suggested I liked." She is paired with Gale again on her next book, an idea that S&S bought at the same time as Kambia, called Shayla's Double Brown Baby Blues. Told again through Shayla's eyes, this book centers on an alcoholic boy. But, she promises, "You will find out more about Kambia." Williams is currently working on the second draft, and the novel is tentatively scheduled for fall 2001.
Even with the success of her first novel, Williams says, "I still feel very much myself." She still lives in Austin, and gets up at 5:30 every morning for a power walk. She is looking for full-time work, and manages to squeeze in two to three hours of writing each day, preferably on the computer, but sometimes scribbling on the back of grocery receipts or on napkins. Although she admits to liking the attention she has received as an author--being written up in magazines, doing phone interviews--she's been even more thrilled by the warm response of friends and family. "A lot of my church people have bought tons of copies of the book, and I think that's just wonderful," she says. "To them, I'm something very special. They've all known me as just Lori for years, and now I am a writer."