RAISING MOTHERS: What inspired you to tell this story?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: I was largely inspired by my obsession with music, specifically Black music. I also feel like there’s this tightrope that Black Americans walk. On one side, there’s fighting for the cause and uplifting the Black community at large. On the other side, there’s living a soft life and building generational wealth for your nuclear family. What happens if you’re pulled too far in one direction? Either way, you lose yourself. At least, that’s sort of what happened to Zahra and Derrick. Also, of course, my experience working with high school seniors on their college essays had a profound impact on the novel and the two central teenage characters, Sammie and Sophia.
RAISING MOTHERS: What did you edit out of this book?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: I added more to the book than I took out during the editing process. I added sections in the beginning of the novel to deepen the bond between Sammie and Zahra and to help readers understand the magic of the moths. I also added an additional chapter further into the second half of the novel to develop Derrick’s character. However, I did cut paragraphs here and there for concerns around pacing.
RAISING MOTHERS: How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: I think endings are one of my strengths. It’s hard to land the plane, but once I’m on the ground, I can feel it! With Gone Like Yesterday, ending the novel was cathartic, like a long, deep sigh. I’d worked through things that I had very complex feelings about. In certain ways, the ending is ambiguous, and I was okay with that in the story, which allowed me to be okay with the gray in my life as well. It doesn’t have to be black and white, and frankly, it rarely ever is.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was your agenting process like?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: I finished a book before this one, and I sent it out to around 15 agents. Some agents said no, but a good number asked me to revise and resubmit. Then I had one agent who basically said no to that book, but if I had another book, she’d be interested in reading it. Obviously I didn’t have another book lying around lol. I tried to revise that initial novel, but I also kept wondering if I had enough agency over it. Ultimately, I shelved it and started working on Gone Like Yesterday. Three or four years later, I emailed some of the same agents I’d reached out to for the first novel. The agent who said she’d be interested in reading another book if I had one, passed my manuscript on to a new agent who had just started taking her own clients, and she loved it. Cora Markowitz and I debuted together, and she’s been such a joy to work with.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: Investing! As a writer, you never know when your next paycheck is coming, so investing is important if you want the space to remain creative. I also recognize how hard it is to invest if you don’t get a good deal, but I was blessed to receive a nice advance, and I work a full-time job.
RAISING MOTHERS: How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.
JANELLE WILLIAMS: I don’t have a typical writing day. I wish I did though! My writing comes in spurts. There are months when I find myself deep in the zone, and I can write anywhere from one to five hours a day. That’s sort of how it went for me while writing Gone Like Yesterday during the pandemic. Since then, I struggled to write until recently. I’m back in the zone now. I like to write in the mornings/early afternoons, but whenever I can find the time, I try to make it happen.
RAISING MOTHERS: What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: Believe in yourself (I know that’s a hard one, but it’s also very necessary), listen to the language around you (friends and family especially), study the things that aren’t traditionally studied (right now, for me, that’s reality TV)
RAISING MOTHERS: What does literary success look like to you?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: Writing books I’m proud of, and that Black folks can relate to. (Money is nice, too.)
RAISING MOTHERS: What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: I have a lot of writer friends! I’ll name the few who have novels coming out soon–John Manuel Arias, Rita Feinstein, and Maria Alejandra Barrios Velez. Being around other writers is inspiring, and they’re often thoughtful, insightful people (not to brag or anything lol).
RAISING MOTHERS: Who are you writing for?
JANELLE WILLIAMS: Black women, always! But also, for myself, my family, and anyone who needs to hear what I have to say.
Janelle M. Williams (she/her) received her BA from Howard University and her MFA in creative writing from Manhattanville College. She is the recipient of Prairie Schooner’s Lawrence Foundation Award for her story, “From the Closest Waffle House.” She was a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and her flash fiction story, “Harlem Thunder,” was longlisted for the Wigleaf Top 50 in 2020. Her work has appeared in The Normal School, Shenandoah, Passages North, Split Lip Magazine, and Lunch Ticket, among others. She is currently the Director of Programs and Outreach at Writopia Lab. Gone Like Yesterday is her debut novel.
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