Did Jason Odell Williams inadvertently cause Superstorm Sandy? Not really, but the author of the recently released young adult novel "Personal Statement" shared an eerie coincidence when he spoke about his book at The Westport Library on Oct. 1.
When Williams began writing the novel, set in a fictional Fairfield County town, Superstorm Sandy was still months away, not yet a blip on meteorologists' screens. But a hurricane bearing down on Connecticut was the major plot point around which his book revolves. Three teens, each looking for a compelling topic about which to write their college admissions essays, see the impending hurricane as the perfect opportunity. When a hurricane actually did hit Connecticut a few months into his writing, a bit of backtracking and reworking became necessary, Williams shared.
The novel is a hilarious send-up of the high-octane college admission process in Fairfield County. And the teens in the audience—as well as an Ivy League admissions officer who also happened to be in attendance at the talk—attested to the veracity of the narrative.
"It's a documentary," the admissions officer, who declined to identify the school with which she is affiliated, noted wryly.
Williams, who lives in New York and is a native of Baltimore, drew some inspiration for the novel from his and his wife's experiences with the (equally competitive!) preschool admissions process in Manhattan. But the author and his publisher, In This Together Media, which was formerly based in Greenwich, also spoke extensively with teens about their experiences. The novel has been optioned for a three-picture movie deal.
Williams has also worked as an actor, is an award-winning playwright, and serves as writer and producer for the National Geographic Channel's "Brain Games" series, for which he earned a 2013 Emmy nomination. And, like most good writers, he is also a reader.
What is the first book you remember loving?
Shel Silverstein's "Where The Sidewalk Ends." I memorized a bunch of the poems in 2nd grade and used to recite them all the time -- mostly to make other kids laugh. That was, I think, the beginning of my love affair with words and especially the spoken word. I'm sure that's what lead me down the acting path - which eventually lead to playwriting, then TV writing and producing, then novels. And that book lead me to find another Silverstein classic, "The Giving Tree." That was the first time a book made me sad. I never knew books could do that.
What is a book that inspired you to be a writer?
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh. Technically it's a play not a book, but I never saw a production of it, so to me it lives as a book. And it's the piece of writing that definitely spurred me to veer off the acting path and go down the writing one. I had been toying around with the idea of turning from acting to writing for a few years and one day in 2007, I went to the bookstore and bought 10 plays that'd I had heard good things about to inspire me. I read a few but then came to The Pillowman, and it just knocked me out. It's so smart and funny and dark and complex and has so many layers yet it doesn't over-explain itself. It lets the reader to come to the text rather than the other way around. It draws you into this world and is so self-assured. I've read it at least a dozen times since, whenever I need inspiration. If I can write anything that brilliant someday, I can die a satisfied writer.
What was the first thing you remember writing?
In middle school, we had this thing called the "oratory contest." Everyone 5th through 8th grade had to recite a one - two minute piece in front of the class, and the best ones went to the finals for each grade and performed in front of the entire middle school. Usually it was a famous poem or Presidential speech or something. But in 7th grade, I decided to write my own. It was basically a SNL-type game show sketch called "Cliffhangers." It was all dialogue, and I played all three characters: the two contestants and the host. Totally silly and 7th grade humor. But it was the first time I saw the power of language. How you could captivate an audience with just words. And to make a couple hundred teenagers laugh? It was very empowering. And addictive. Like being a stand-up comic. It made me want to make people laugh and cry and feel with my words for the rest of my life.
What book did you read in school that you did not fully appreciate until later?
Everything. I appreciated nothing in high school. It was all such drudgery. I'd love to go back and read my AP English syllabus again with a teacher to guide me through it. "The Sound and The Fury," "The Great Gatsby," "A Farewell to Arms," "The Grapes of Wrath." I didn't get any of it when I was 16.
What book would you make required reading in school?
Kurt Vonnegut! "Cat's Cradle" and "Breakfast of Champions" were novels that knocked me out like The Pillowman did, though I came to them even later in life. It was just this idea that you could do anything in a book! The form was not set in stone. It was eye-opening.
What's the last great book you read?
"The Art of Fielding." I've read it twice already. It's nearly perfect.
What would you call a "great American novel"?
I think "The Art of Fielding" should be up there one day. And "The Corrections" by Jonathan Franzen. But I guess if you're talking like a classic "great American Novel," I'd say "The Catcher in the Rye." I could say "Gatsby" or something by Hemingway, but I think "Catcher" changed the way people write. That voice, Holden's voice, is so unique, so memorable, and I think every writer's first stories are imitative of that voice and style - it was that influential.