Interview with Kay Williams

Can you tell us about Eileen’s and your journeys to becoming published authors?
My co-author Eileen Wyman and I knew each other in high school but became real friends when we worked at a radio-tv station in Columbus, Ohio. We both wanted the same things--to escape the stultifying roles for women that existed at that time, and to develop our talents, she as a writer, me as an actress, in a nurturing environment. Our quest made us gypsies for the first 20 years. We went from our first adventure in New York City, a dismal, ego-shattering failure, to the San Francisco-Bay Area (where we developed our talents and gained self-confidence), then back East to Pittsburgh, finally returning to New York (with a stopover for Kay in Jackson, Mississippi for a year of regional repertory). We earned money from our art, but most years not enough to live on, so we worked day jobs too.

When we started writing, we still had our day jobs so we wrote at 4:00am weekdays before work and on the week-ends. (It took forever to finish a book, but we persevered.) Through the Mystery Writers of America, we found a writers’ group who provided invaluable feedback for our first thriller, Butcher of Dreams, and three more titles beyond, including The Matryoshka Murders.

(This group helped my journalist Dad revise his first book, a biography/memoir, about his mother Maude, and my sister Jerri and me to revise his second book, One Last Dance, a comic romance that we finished after his death at age 95.) The Writers’ Groups still meets. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
What impact have your acting and filmmaking skills had on your writing?
Kay: I have performed in so many plays (and a few films) and done so many audition scenes, I understand (by osmosis, I think) the arc of a satisfying scene --with a beginning, middle and end--and I recognize good dialogue (not too clunky or expository). Also I visualize scenes as if I were seeing a film: a wide shot here, a close up there, a pan, an establishing shot, a cutaway.

Finding a character’s through-line carried over to my writing. Also knowing how to search for a play’s spine steadied our focus as the number of chapters grew.

Eileen was a enthusiastic student of improvisational comedy; as an actor I improvised scenes not in the play to enrich my role and my relationship with the other characters. When Eileen or I had writer’s block, we improvised, doing speed writing, not playing safe, letting everything out. Sometimes it produced a small crack so could move forward. Other times it gave us huge breakthroughs, as when we had to re-think our path to the conclusion of the book.

Even with a leg up, writing is hard, hard work. All you authors out there, if you can find a good group of writers whose talent and judgment you respect, that’s a real plus. The writers’ group helped us shape our work, and we learned to critique theirs, giving us a critical skill we hadn’t had when we started writing.

As an actor, I read between the lines, searching for subtext in the dialogue. Often I would understand what was happening in a dialogue-heavy scene read by another writer, while my colleagues were confused, and said they needed a narrative guide in addition to the dialogue. To have that pointed out, that most people didn’t read the way I did, that I represented a small percentage of readers who might “get” that scene, was eye-opening (and helped my writing).
Where did you get the inspiration for The Matryoshka Murders?
Kay: In January 1991, my filmmaker friend Jack and I were in Leningrad because his documentary film Revolution (about the 60’s hippies in San Francisco) had been invited to the Film Festival. Shortly before we arrived in Russia, all 50- and 100-ruble notes had been ordered turned in to the banks as part of the government's crackdown on the black market manipulation of the ruble. This was really an attack on free enterprise. The real crooks dealt in hard currency. The KGB "mafia" were encouraging the black market, we discovered, hoping to throw a monkey wrench in the country's attempts to move from communism to capitalism. Little food was on the shelves, there were long lines for a loaf of bread or a bottle of vodka. “I’ll do anything for a dollar,” said one apple-cheeked young man volunteering at the festival. (A U.S. dollar was worth 40-50 rubles on the black market.) “Anything?” I asked. He looked me in the eye and said, “Yes.”

Grim-looking soldiers (demobilized from East Germany after the Berlin Wall fell) patrolled the streets and the hotel. At the festival’s opening ceremonies, the General Director read an appeal to all people of the earth: a protest against the turn to dictatorship in the USSR, and a return to the cold war.

What a great setting, I thought, for a thriller: A rising crime wave, desperate citizens who were broke and willing to do anything for U.S dollars, who had tasted Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, and now feared a return to totalitarianism. KGB, soldiers, illegal meetings not approved by the government, husbands who’d lost their jobs sending wives out to work as prostitutes. Huge snowfalls and temperatures 30 and 40 degrees below zero, then dramatic thaws, the Neva River, fat and oily, outside our hotel windows coiled like a snake.

Jack and I made friends with a wonderful festival translator, Olga, who loved her country, feared for it, and answered our many questions. When she told me, “It’s like the third world here for women,” a plot idea began to bubble in my brain. It was 1991. 25 years ago. Women’s issues were big in the U.S. too.

We wanted to help the many lovely people we met who were hurting economically. People in power were fleeing the country with suitcases full of hard currency, but it was illegal for the average citizen to accept more fifty U.S. dollars. Almost every Russian we met on the streets, in the metro, their eyes lit up when they realized we were Americans. They wanted to talk to us, exchange information. But if they saw a soldier nearby, they grew afraid and turned away. They didn’t know who would win the fight between the old guard and the new entrepreneurs.

When I returned to NYC, Eileen and I created a detailed outline from my photos and notes. Olga, translator at the festival, and her mother, a retired pediatrician, visited us. We had prepared questions which they answered on videotape, Olga translating her mother’s replies.

We wrote 6 chapters before we had to put the book aside because of family illnesses. We came back to it much later, but that delay turned out to be a blessing. After the Soviet Union broke apart in August 1991, hidden information came to light that gave us new insights and changed our story for the better.
Tell us about Kate’s character, and the significance of a female protagonist in your story.
Kay: Kate is 25, at a crossroads in her life. She has had a wrenching breakup with her lover Gilly; she isn’t sure how much longer she will have this job she loves with Titan Films, a company that’s going broke. She, Dom, and Steve have come to the Leningrad festival desperate to sell subsidiary rights of current properties and to pick up foreign investors for new film projects. Kate loves and respects her boss Dom, an award-winning independent filmmaker, for his talent and for giving her the chance to learn. She has a good “eye,” he’s told her, interesting and original, essential for film directors. She is loyal to Dom, and protective.

She’s brave, can think on her feet, and can take care of herself. When, right after college, she escaped to Manhattan from her overbearing Uncle Burt, she decided that as a woman living alone, she needed to know how to protect herself on the mean streets of New York City. She earned a green belt in Tae Kwon Do, and is going for black.

Kate also has a secret life that she hides from guardians Burt and Maureen, a life she isn’t sure she can continue.

Curious, compassionate, adventurous, she has brought the company video camera to Leningrad to gather interviews of real people for her film course back in NYC. She is appalled and angered by the oppression of the Russian women she meets, and records the tragic stories of those unafraid to speak, as well as their criticisms of current political leaders. Kate feels honor-bound to help a terrified young woman who is afraid she may be killed, and is swept up in a whirlwind that leads her on an interior journey as well as a literal one, the run for her life. With the help of new Russian friends, Masha, the film festival translator, and Olga, who works at the Olgino Motel, she escapes. Back in the U.S., inspired by the bravery of these women and the “moonlight” women at the Café Soul she finds the courage to face her own life and to fight for what she believes and who she loves.
What kind of reaction to your writing do you most seek from your audience?
Kay: That they will invest in the characters, and be drawn into an another world, one that will enlighten as well as entertain.
What is the best advice you have ever received, about your writing or life in general?
Kay: My grandmother Maude had this philosophy: Try not to worry about those things over which you have no control. She had a positive outlook and was able to change with the changes for most of her 110 years.

A successful life as an actor or writer depends as much on luck and who you know as talent. To survive, I decided not to worry over lost auditions, not to take rejection personally. I try to accept the changes (like theaters folding, or publishing companies going out of business) and move on, to see life as an improvisation. Go on the journey, I tell myself, see where it leads, and when something right comes along, grab it by the shoulders, and say, Yes. Muster the nerve to try. And keep trying.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
Kay: My sister Jerri Lawrence and I have just revised a second edition of our journalist dad’s book, Maude (1883-1993), a biography/memoir first published in 1996. It will be a paperback printing, with added historical content, twice as many photos, and revisions that Dad wanted to make if Maude ever went into another printing. (Jerri and I had collaborated earlier to finish our Dad’s novel, One Last Dance, winning us an Ohioana Library Award in 2009 for Writing and Editing Excellence.)
Also I discovered recently that my dad saved my letters (25 years’ worth) from those gypsy days when I was traveling around the country. I wrote very detailed ones--phone calls were too expensive and e-mails didn’t exist. Reading them has been a real trip. I’m transcribing them as a social history, a window on the times, and adding photos, newspaper clips, and playbills.
Another project is preserving Jack O’Connell’s legacy as an independent filmmaker. I worked on two films with him, but he made a total of five, each emblematic of its time. His partner Britta and I have digitized and transferred everything to hard drives.

Anthology Film Archives, in Manhattan, has collected his reels of celluloid film for future generations to know how movies were made before the digital world existed. We have built a website to honor Jack, an overlooked pioneer of independent cinema, who spent 10 years as a Mad Man (as in “Mad Men”) and traveled to Italy to learn filmmaking with Federico Fellini (on La Dolce Vita) and Michelangelo Antonioni (on L’Avventura). Revolution, his iconic counter-culture documentary shot among the hippies in 1967 San Francisco, features music by the Steve Miller Band, Mother Earth, and Quicksilver Messenger.
Published 2017-03-02.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

The Matryoshka Murders
Price: $9.99 USD. Words: 135,090. Language: English. Published: April 16, 2015 by Calliope Press. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Crime thriller
Gutsy Kate Hennessey is filming a documentary that targets the harsh choices faced by women in Russia. But killers soon target Kate, and each harrowing escape draws her deeper into the nested plots that threaten. Readers will cheer as she and her Russian friends struggle through the political chaos of Russia—and America—in 1991. "This is a beautifully written, soulful thriller." S. Elghanayan
Butcher of Dreams
Price: $5.99 USD. Words: 171,530. Language: English. Published: August 11, 2010 by Calliope Press. Categories: Fiction » Mystery & detective » Women Sleuths, Fiction » Mystery & detective » General
(5.00 from 1 review)
After a ritual Aztec mask is stolen during a cast party, actress Lee Fairchild finds her world ripped apart by the attentions of something invasive and elemental. An actor is stabbed; an actress is poisoned. Events culminate in ritual murder. Over all hovers the Mexican mask and the shadowy figure who controls it. Lee must fight a madman to save her theater and herself.
One Last Dance: It's Never Too Late to Fall in Love
Price: $9.99 USD. Words: 140,130. Language: English. Published: June 18, 2010 by Calliope Press. Categories: Fiction » Romance » Adult, Fiction » Romance » Contemporary
After a disastrous first meeting, Morgan, 89, moves in with Dixie, age 79, strictly a business arrangement, both maintain. But Morgan has more frivolous pursuits in mind. When a troubled grandson collides with the daring course set by the lovers, not only does he save their lives, but he brings Dixie and Morgan the love and pride they’d lost decades before with the loss of their children.