If the subject is emotionally challenging, Utah writer Carol Lynch Williams goes there.
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Carol Lynch Williams read only one Nancy Drew mystery novel growing up in central Florida. She hated it.
The fearless, outspoken, self-possessed and self-styled teen girl detective who always solved the riddle was too perfect a character for Williams. Life, she knew, just wasn't like that.
So when the now-51-year-old mother of five began writing years ago, she launched her career with a salvo of teen characters living life not just on the edge of despair, but at the very heart and center of pain, trauma and hopelessness. Williams worked to place her characters there in the most believable way possible, and then found ways to bring them back to the center once more. Not too much, but just enough to give the reader renewed faith in human endurance.
Williams' 2009 novel, The Chosen One, ends with a 13-year-old girl pushing pedal-to-the-metal of a bookmobile to escape an arranged polygamous marriage and a cultlike fundamentalist faith. Her 2010 novel, Glimpse, revolves around two sisters raised by a prostitute mother. One, Lizzie, is at wits' end trying to save the other from suicide. Her next work in progress is the story of a girl whose brother has just died, with her family falling apart all around her.
And Miles From Ordinary, the latest book of her more than two dozen titles, takes readers inside the guilt-ridden head of a teenage girl struggling through life with a mentally ill mother.
Bleak, done well • "I have a couple of funny books, but mostly I'm dark and tragic. I can't help it," Williams said in a phone interview from her home in Springville. "Kids live in tough times. They read for lots of reasons, but one is that they want to experience something they wouldn't normally experience."
"Bleak" is the word Chris Crowe, a Brigham Young University professor of English specializing in young-adult literature, uses to describe Williams' trademark subjects.
It's the way Williams blurs the line between bleak and hopeful realism that sets apart her work. "There's no doubt that Carol's characters endure a good deal of suffering, but they emerge from their suffering as stronger, better people," Crowe said. "Even in the darkest of her stories, she always leaves on a light of hope, and that hope is what elevates Carol's bleak stories from any of the rest out there."
The irony is that Williams, apart from her writing, wields a sly sense of humor. "Someone said to me in an email that they were worried I might one day sell my soul to the devil," Williams said. "I wrote back to say, 'At the moment, he's not offered me enough.' "
The daughter of an English teacher and an U.S. Air Force officer, Williams grew up in central Florida. Even today, more than 25 years after making the move to Utah, the Southeastern state of her childhood figures prominently in her work. Lacey, the teen heroine of Miles From Ordinary, resides in a nameless Florida town where she helps her mother hold a job at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store.
Williams' parents divorced when she was young. After converting to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 17, she served a mission for the deaf in North Carolina, then moved to Ogden at age 25. "The first thing I did was search high and low for some ChapStick, it was so dry," Williams said. "The mountains made me claustrophobic, at first."
The urge to write, instilled in Williams by her book-loving mother, carried well across state lines. Her first book, Kelly and Me, published when Williams was 30, was crafted from strands of plot she'd been collecting and refining since age 16. Over the years, nine of her novels were published nationally, with another 10 books published for the LDS market.
An author reborn • Then, with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 followed by the decade's first recession, Williams hit a dry spell. Using that interim to her best advantage, she graduated from Vermont College's MFA program in writing for children and young adults.
Even before then, tales of abuse at the hand of Utah's polygamist communities began to surface, capturing Williams' literary interest. Most notable for her was the 1998 beating of then-15-year-old Mary Ann Kingston at the hand of her father for refusing an arranged marriage to an older man.
Williams researched polygamy and polygamists for 18 months before settling in to write The Chosen One. The day after she inked a publication deal for the book with St. Martin's press in 2008, Texas police seized some 400 children from Warren Jeffs' Yearning For Zion ranch near Eldorado.
The book marked a resurgence of Williams' writing career and featured what some consider the most riveting opening sentence in contemporary young adult literature, "If I was going to kill the prophet. …"
The novel garnered an Editor's Choice selection by The New York Times Book Review, plus positive blurbs from Utah's own sizable community of young-adult writers, including 2007 National Book Award Finalist Sara Zarr, who called it "unsettling and courageous" but also "beautiful."
"I want all my writing to be gorgeous," Williams said. "But I also want it to move along at a good, strong pace. Every writer has as natural voice. Mine is definitely settled in the 12-year-old territory, but I can push it up a little."
Reading: Carol Lynch Williams
The young-adult writer, who lives in Springville, reads from her latest book, Miles From Ordinary.
When • Saturday, April 23, 2 p.m.
Where • King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City
Info• Free. Call 801-484-9100 of visit www.kingsenglish.com for more information