The Interview of Author Arleen Williams — Part II

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Your memoir, The Thirty-Ninth Victim, is about the tragic death of your younger sister at the hands of the Green River Killer. Writing about those events must have been incredibly difficult, though perhaps also cathartic. Tell us about what drew you to write the memoir and what the experience was like for you to relive such a horrific event.
Unfortunately “event” isn’t quite the right word. It sounds too quick, too brief. I was an ex-pat, married to a Mexican national, and living in Mexico in 1983 when my sister disappeared. I returned to Seattle to be with my family. My sister’s remains were not found until 1986. My marriage fell apart. I remarried. Gave birth. Raised my daughter. Life went on, but with an enormous dark shadow over me. I didn’t have the full story of what happened to my sister and I was haunted by my ignorance for 20 years.
On my father’s 80th birthday, November 31, 2001, Gary Ridgway was arrested. My father died two months later. And I was falling apart. My husband encouraged me to try writing. He knew I’d been keeping journals for years, knew counseling wasn’t helping, and knew I needed a creative release. Together we found a description for a year-long program through the University of Washington Extensionthat said something about turning journal into memoir. My two professors, Robert Ray and Jack Remick, encouraged me to dig deep and find the truth. I wrote and cried and wrote some more. I visited the Green River Task Force offices, read the evidence, talked with detectives and slowly began to understand. Ray and Remick continued their encouragement and I completed the manuscript. The decision to publish was more difficult than the writing, but I knew I’d been silent for too long, I knew I needed to find voice, not as a writer per se, but as a human being.
The Thirty-Ninth Victim was released in 2008. It will be re-released by Booktrope next year along with a companion memoir titled Moving Mom.

You have been published by Booktrope, CreateSpace, and Blue Feather Books LTD. What has been the best and the most difficult aspects of your different roads to publication? 
I have been very fortunate. I decided early on – about 80 rejections into the search – I didn’t want to go the agent route. I figured I just plain didn’t have a chance, so I started searching small presses. In 2004 I was offered a contract for The Thirty-Ninth Victimfrom an indie press with a focus on books by women for women. Things got a little shaky when they were bought out by Blue Feather Books. Fortunately, despite BFB’s lesbian fiction niche, they honored the contract and published my memoir. More than that, they were kind and supportive to a newbie writer with a difficult story to tell. I will always be grateful for the opportunity they gifted me.

When I switched to fiction and wrote The Alki Trilogy, I was more convinced than ever I wanted to work with a small press, but Blue Feather Books was not a good fit. I began a new search, found Booktrope, and got lucky again. I’d say the one-on-one communication, team support, and on-line community all reinforced my choice.

As I mentioned earlier, when Pamela Hobart Carter and I wrote our Short Books in Easy English for Adults and created No Talking Dogs Press, we opted for CreateSpace because it was the quickest and easiest way to reach our target audience at a price point they could afford. So far it seems to have been the right decision.

Difficulties? For me the most difficult aspect of publication is marketing and selling the books. My family, friends, and colleagues have been extremely supportive. They’ve read and reviewed my work, congratulated and encouraged me, but then … every new author has to find the way to break through, to find an audience beyond that narrow personal circle. In today’s world that means learning to be your own marketing/social media pro, and frankly my learning curve is a tad slow.
What are you working on now?

I’m pleased Booktrope will be re-releasing The Thirty-Ninth Victim in 2016 along with a companion memoir titled Moving Mom, which explores the years following my father’s death as I dealt with my mother’s downward spiral into the world of dementia while mothering my teenage daughter and dealing with the family consequences of writing memoir. I’m sure I’ll be swamped with rewriting, editing, polishing and the like.
I’m also currently working on a third memoir, sort of a precursor to The Thirty-Ninth Victim, that tells the ex-pat story of a naive young woman living in Mexico City in the pre earthquakes, pre War on Drugs, pre 9/11 glory years. I’m calling this work-in-progress The Ex-Mexican Wives Club.
As I return to the past through journals, letters and photographs, I marvel at how short periods of time in our younger years have profound lasting effects. In some ways, I suppose, I am still that silly young woman on her own, making lasting friendships and foolish mistakes in Mexico City. But I was the lucky sister. I survived my younger self.
Final Words of Wisdom
Know yourself. Be brutally honest with yourself – if only on the pages of a private journal. If you analyze what you do, what you’ve done, what you’re afraid to do, perhaps you’ll find some guiding lessons hidden in the recesses of your soul. Perhaps you’ll be more honest and compassionate toward others. Perhaps the mistakes will be fewer, your life will be fuller, and you’ll find the perseverance needed to reach your dreams. That’s my hope anyway. That’s why I’m out of whack, not right with myself, crazy when I don’t put pen to paper each and every morning.

Elena Hartwell

Author and developmental editor.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Jack

    Good questions, good answers. A fine interview. I find this most revealing: " Be brutally honest with yourself…perhaps you'll find some guiding lessons hidden in the recesses of your soul."

  2. arleen

    A lesson I learned from two excellent professors, Jack. Thank you,

    And many thanks to Elena Hartwell for her intelligent, thought-provoking questions.

  3. mary rowen

    Arleen, I can't imagine going through a trauma like you did, and have so much respect for you choice to write and then publish the story. As for the "brutally honest" part, yes, I think that's the key to good writing. It's hard sometimes for me, when the brutally honest thing I write isn't politically correct or when I think it'll make some readers angry, but I'm working hard to get past those internal editors. Best of luck with all your new projects!

  4. Bonnie

    Arleen, I'm so happy Booktrope is going to release The Thirty-Ninth Victim next year, and that you found your voice as a writer.

  5. Eleanor Parker

    Great interviews, Elena and Arleen. Sage advice about the necessity of brutal honesty in writing. Best wishes with your projects.

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