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When I read a book, I wonder which books the author was reading while writing. For example, I imagined for a long time that Alice Walker thought fondly of Zora Neale Hurston while writing The Color Purple or that Nicole Dennis-Benn approached Toni Morrison while she was making Here Comes the Sun. Those brooding led to this series in which I ask authors of recent novels, biographies, and non-fiction which books they were reading while writing and which books they think their book is in conversation with.
In the fifth part of this column, I spoke to Tia Williams, the writer of The Perfect Find, a future Netflix film starring Gabrielle Union. Seven Days in June, published in June, is her fifth novel. The book is about two long-lost lovers, Eva and Shane, who were separated by time, distance and an unspoken betrayal, only to meet again 15 years later at a book board in the Brooklyn Museum. You are both writers. Eva writes vampire erotica and Shane is a Colson Whitehead guy. In other words, a writer with a capital A. The thing about their meeting is, no one knows they have any connection with teenagers, so the two of them spend a large part of the novel pretending no one can see how things are brewing between them.
Williams creates a whole world around the new black writers and as a book obsessed I was excited to be a fly on the wall for a few hundred pages. It’s black with no apology, qualification, or racial tragedy, and I’m very grateful for that. It’s less common than you think. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that I loved – a book that made me smile for no reason because it’s so touching or cute. I wondered what would happen to Shane and Eva after reading the last page. Below are the books Williams read while she was writing her own – from an As Harry Met Sally-style love story, which she describes as “one of the most romantic books she has ever read,” to a vampire erotic – Series from one of the most important voices of the genre.
Williams read David Nicholls’ One Day in college and it inspired her to write Seven Days in June. The book begins on July 15, 1988 and then checks in with the same couple on the same day for 20 years. Of course things are changing. Sometimes they are together, sometimes they see other people. “You see the full scope of a 20-year relationship,” says Williams. “It was so dramatic and a fun, interesting way to deal with a love story. It’s always stayed with me. ”Williams’ novel doesn’t exactly borrow from the structure of One Day, but it follows the same couple past and present, weaving a similarly lush, decades-long love story.
Williams says Stephen King’s IT taught her to write. “I think Stephen King should be canonized as one of our great American writers,” says Williams. “He really has a knack for realistic dialogue and backstory for each of the characters, no matter how small the role.” This was important to Williams as she filled the characters in her world. “Everyone thinks they’re the star of their own story, so you should treat supporting characters with so much awe. Give them a reason, a scent, everything. ”IT also affected the flashback structure in Seven Days in June. King’s book alternates between two timelines – the 50s and 80s – with the past heavily influencing characters as adults. “It gives him a lot of narrative tension.” says Williams. “Since Easter eggs are revealed in the past, they also come to light in the present, which I did with the stories of Eva and Shane.”
“That was on my laptop while I was writing,” says Williams of Third Girl From the Left, who she thought was ahead of his time. “When this book came out in 2006, I didn’t think the publishing world was ready to take it up. If it came out today, it would be a New York Times bestseller. ”The novel is divided into three stories and focuses on three generations of women from the same family. There is grandmother Mildred, who saw her mother’s murder during the Tulsa Race massacre; Angela, her daughter who runs away from Tulsa to become a movie star and falls in love with her roommate Sheila; and her daughter Tamara, who is raised by both Angela and Sheila. Tamara wants to be Spike Lee and goes to film school. “I loved the entire matriarchal ancestry story,” says Williams. “It informed Eva and her mother and grandmother more than I can tell.”
Girlhood came out while Williams was doing rework. She describes the book, which explores the forces that shape girls into women through a mixture of reporting, memoir, and criticism, as “anecdotal yet academic exploration of the treacherous path from girl to woman”. It was helpful, she says, in navigating mother-daughter relationships in Seven Days in June. “You can be tense, but at the end of the day, it’s still your mother or daughter. Sometimes you have to fight for these relationships. And sometimes you have to learn to let go of them. “
To familiarize himself with the world of vampire eroticism, Williams dived headfirst into the LA Banks Minion series. She came across the series through research for her book. “She’s massive in this genre,” she explains. “It helped me build Eva’s cursed world. I wouldn’t really have known how to write the vampire-witch love story if I hadn’t read LA Banks. “
“Carrie Fisher is one of my writing heroines,” says Williams. “She’s like a modern day Dorothy Parker – famous joke and so snappy.” Postcards From the Edge is a fictional retelling by Fisher, who came out of rehab in the 1980s. The book was particularly helpful to Williams in defining the relationship between Eva and her mother, Lizette. Much like Fisher’s Suzanne Vale, she is a fleeting film star. “Many of the conversations in [Postcards From the Edge] Let Eva and Lizette know about the relationship. It is as if they are talking to each other from different planets. “
“I grew up visiting the Cane River and there’s nothing the Canterbury Elders love to do but sit around and tell stories.” These stories inspired Eva’s background and gave Williams the inspiration for the fictional town of Belle Fleur. The book The Forgotten People helped her fill in the details. “I had all the stories in my head, but I wanted hard facts about Creole history and where free blacks are in American history.”
Barracoon was released in 2018 and is based on Zora Neale Hurston’s interviews with Cudjo, the last alleged survivor of the Middle Passage. He lives in the small town of Plateau, Alabama, a town inhabited by formerly enslaved people. She brings his world and history to life through interviews. “It’s so colorful and atmospheric and oozing in details and colors. It reads like fiction, ”she says. Williams also loved that although the book was written in the middle of Jim Crow in 1927, it managed to divide Cudjo’s story without centering the white. “These people live and work and love to see them get married, have children and bury their elders in a place where white people were on the outskirts was really nice.” Though Hurston’s work and Seven Days in June have no thematic similarities Williams was inspired by Hurston’s focus on the mundane black life and incorporated that into her work. “It’s about black creatives in Brooklyn writing the way they want to write, raising their children how they want them to be, and being the way they want to be. This city produced them. “
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