This summer, I had the great pleasure to speak online with writer Annie Williams to discuss her Issue 41 story “Pillow Practice”. We covered poetry, fiction, and playwriting, everything from themes of vulnerability to advice for students interested in graduate school.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
Annie Williams is a British writer currently hiding in Canada. In 2020, she graduated with an M.A. in English Literature from the University of British Columbia, and she has forthcoming criticism in Critical Inquiries into Irish Studies, the Critical Journal of the Katherine Mansfield Society, and The Modernist. She is also a poet and playwright, and has recently penned work for Yolk Literary Journal in Montréal, Canada, and Bitter Pill Theatre in London, England. She tends to write about dating, drinking, and regret—but she insists that this is nothing to worry about.
Berkeley Fiction Review: I think perhaps the first thing that readers will notice about this piece is its very distinctive and poetic writing style. Everything from line breaks and dialogue in italics to the occasional spot of alliteration helps to maintain this throughout the piece. Why did you choose to tell this particular story in this way?
Annie Williams: I’ve been thinking carefully about this because sometimes I think things happen organically without you really interrogating why you write something in a particular style, and the more I’ve thought about it, I think maybe because my narrator is so self-consciously stylized it makes sense that her narrative would be so heavily stylized too. Like you remember that she’s so hyper aware of how she looks and how she appears to others, and she definitely romanticizes those things too—you know she’s sitting in her little coffee shops, writing, wearing a little hat.
So, I think perhaps in the same way that she’s trying to take control over what she looks like, over how others perceive her, over her love life, I guess she’s trying to take control of that narrative as well. That’s another way that she avoids being vulnerable.
I was also wondering if maybe the poetic elements—just because, in poetry, when we have a really stylized piece of poetry and it feels like there are so many layers of language and irony, it almost becomes harder to read into it, and I wonder if that’s another way that she’s hiding behind the words a little bit. Maybe that’s too romantic for me, but I like to think about that.
We’re also going to talk about this later, but I think it’s also just partly about linguistics. I’m fascinated by the way that stories sound—might be more to do with the fact that my favorite thing to write is theater. But I think the fact that she sounds out the lines in the coffee shop for herself, that she rehearses sentences out loud that she’s going to say to men later… I think the story, naturally then, is also quite invested in how things sound out loud. I think that’s my answer.
BFR: Yes, yes, that’s—so many different and very interesting ideas played a part there. So, besides the stylistic elements, poetry plays a big role in the content of this story, and we talked about this a little bit—the narrator uses poetry as a big part of how she manages relationships. How did you choose poetry to have such a charged role in this narrator’s relationships?
Annie Williams: A lot to unpack here again. I think it’s obvious that the narrator loves poetry, I mean I think she is a poet in her own way, and the story is kind of her love letter to poetry in a lot of ways. Yet, at the same time, poetry—maybe especially bad poetry—has definitely become synonymous with these arrogant, faux-intellectual men that she usually finds herself dating.
So she loves to talk about poetry, not even because she wants to talk with these men about poetry—far from it. I think it’s because she wants to come across in a way that we all do as smart and as serious. Also, there’s that irony that poetry then becomes part of this game, where it’s her way of saying: “I know the little games that you are playing, but I am playing them better.”
BFR: That’s a very interesting way of looking at it! I think perhaps one of the most relatable themes of this piece is the narrator’s struggle with vulnerability—she longs for a relationship in which she can be vulnerable, but as she perfects her “pillow talk” she actually learns that being less vulnerable, and, ultimately, less talkative, makes her more desirable. This is so key to showing the narrator’s dissatisfaction with her relationships at the beginning—how did you work to develop this and why was this such an important part of her character?
Annie Williams: This is such a question, I thought about this one the longest. It’s funny, but I do think that in our romantic relationships (and maybe many of us can identify with this) we want to be desired so much by people that we don’t want at all, we don’t desire at all. And I wonder … especially with this character I think it stems from that constant fear of being considered a bit too much, you know, she talks so much and she feels so much, and I think she is worried that she is too much or too difficult to love.
To protect herself from that she’s tapped into the fact—and I’m going to generalize about men here, but that’s my favorite thing to do—that men often do project themselves onto women and thus I think the quieter, or the more amenable we are and the more closed off especially about how we might really feel, I think the more likely we are to be wanted. That’s not a good thing, you know, it’s very sad. It’s a very sad thing.
I don’t think our narrator enjoys that feeling, but she does enjoy in some sort of dark little twisted way how easy it is to play that game now that she’s tapped into it, especially when people are trying to assert themselves intellectually over her and she feels that she can protect herself from that with this. But then of course this all dissolves when she realizes why she is so minimally invested in these men and it is because she wants a woman all along. Yeah, I think that’s where that stems from.
BFR: I loved that theme, that is my favorite theme. I loved tracking it in the editorial process, and in the finished story. Yeah, it’s very relatable. So, the narrator of this story goes through her own self-editorial process as she writes up scripts of her encounters with different men. Why did you choose this pursuit of perfection as the narrator’s strategy to make herself appear desirable?
Annie Williams: This character, she treats dating and writing very similarly. (Maybe I do too.) But, you know, as something to be practiced, something to be honed, it’s like a fine art for her. She’s actually not—I think she thinks she is—but she’s actually not a very spontaneous person. I think everything is very carefully planned, carefully crafted, and it’s just her way of staying in control.
Something that I didn’t realize from writing the story that you helped bring out in the editorial process is actually how repetitive parts of it were just because her dates are so similar. The narrative becomes quite repetitive, which hopefully makes it a little bit sweeter when her strategies fall apart in the end, because she had this rhythm and she had her routines and she was safe, but she wasn’t happy. So when it all kind of falls apart we are kind of happy for her, that it falls apart.
BFR: Yes, okay. Above all, the story is very humorous—there are so many hilarious moments as the narrator attempts to systematically navigate her love life. Nevertheless, there are definitely serious themes behind this story—why did you choose such a humorous lens and how did you work to develop it as the story moved forward?
Annie Williams: It’s funny, I feel like every time I’ve written something that I’ve thought is really funny, whether it’s a story or a bit of a play or something, I’ll get a friend to read it and they’ll say: “Annie, this is so, desperately sad.” I’m like: “What do you mean? It’s hilarious.”
So maybe I’m just British … but I feel like comedy and tragedy are so intertwined, and I think it’s almost impossible to identify which is going on here. I think it’s true that her love life is so sad and so funny at the same time. Maybe that’s how it always has to feel. Again, maybe that’s England. Much to think about.
BFR: Yeah, I don’t know, maybe it’s because my parents are British that I decided to take the funny bit and not the sad bit. That’s a very suspicious link. But yeah, thinking about it again it is very sad behind all of that. I definitely see how you could get beta-readers, saying both or saying that it’s sad.
So, now we’re gonna move on to talk about writing in general. Just to start off with a very stereotypical question, What does your day-to-day writing process look like? Do you have any writing rituals or tricks that help you find inspiration?
Annie Williams: Yeah, I am absolutely terrible at writing at home, this pandemic has been very unideal. I mean unideal in a lot of ways for a lot of people. But, uh, yeah, Café Lokal in the story is actually the name of a real cafe where I do a lot of my writing. I find that I have to take myself out of my house—I have to walk, I have to drink 12 coffees, I have to read a poem on Twitter, and then I find that something just comes out. I don’t know how people would sit and write a piece without having read something that kind of kickstarts it. I feel that it’s always like a little nugget of an idea or something I’ve read online that starts a whole sort of school of ideas unfurling. So I think just honestly, it’s a cliche answer, but reading, walking, leaving my home.
BFR: Yeah, it’s a cliche question but I think it’s always nice to ask. As fellow starting writers I feel like we collate all of these little processes and try to figure out which one works best for us so it’s always good to hear. Yeah.
So, you’re an accomplished writer, poet and playwright—we’ve talked about this a little. What is it like juggling these three different genres? Do you have to work to get into a different mindset for each one?
Annie Williams: Thank you. It’s funny because I feel like sometimes the genre chooses me instead of me choosing the genre, in that I can have an idea and I don’t necessarily know what I’m going to do with it until I have a Word doc open. Sometimes, something that I thought was going to be a play ends up as a poem or vice versa, which is strange, but also I think as we’ve touched on already I use the term genre so loosely all the time. Even “Pillow Practice” sometimes felt more like poetry than fiction and I think I definitely experiment on those fronts. I’m sometimes even not sure at the end whether what I’ve written is a play or a story because it’s both. So yeah, I think I’m letting myself treat genres loosely lately.
BFR: Wow, that’s great. I’ve thought a lot about how genres are just sort of created by the publishing people and they’re kind of artificial so we should probably not think too much about trying to fit pieces into them.
So, I just wanted to talk a little bit more about playwriting because I think that might be a little more unfamiliar to our readers, especially like the world of live performance. Do you tend to write your plays with live actors in mind? What is that like?
Annie Williams: Ooh. So I think I definitely visualize a stage, sometimes because I think the stage is so much harder to visualize than the actors. Actors—I can picture people reading it and that comes naturally, but seeing it fit onto a stage, and knowing not to give too much away or give too little away, and see how everyone’s going to fit together and move together, that’s the bit I really, really have to consciously keep in mind when I’m writing. That’s the bit that if I forget it’s going to be an absolute nightmare to do anything.
I’ve only directed one of my own plays before, and I definitely… It was an amazing and enriching process especially because I learned that separating your own writing from dramaturgy is actually just incredibly difficult, especially when you are so personally invested. Maybe it’s a really personal piece (as that play was) that you’ve written, and it’s quite hard to separate yourself from the writing, but it is so worth it when an actor (and this happens in the story editing process too) sort of reveals something that was hidden in your work. They bring something to the surface, maybe that you hadn’t even identified in your own work, and they find a running theme that you didn’t know that you were invested in. That is the bit that is so rewarding and interesting, and I don’t know you almost feel like someone’s played it better than you ever knew it could be played because they found something completely different in it. That’s the coolest part.
BFR: Yeah, that is so cool that you can talk to us about that.
Annie Williams: Yeah. Like when they find… even just like a prop that comes up often, and you’re like: “I don’t even remember writing that down.” And they’re like: “Why, why this?” I’m like: “Oh my god I have no idea, it wasn’t deliberate, ahhhh!”
BFR: Yeah it is kind of like a heightened version of the reading process because sometimes readers find those same things but when you’re trying to act it out, it’s like even more concentration.
So I want to talk a bit about your studies. You have a masters in English Literature. How have your studies and critical work helped to inform your writing?
Annie Williams: When I was like, noting down ideas for this interview I wrote: “They haven’t! They’ve held me back. I’m trapped now into thinking critically about my own work. I’ll never know peace!” But more probably, it definitely helped and informed… if anything, the over-analytical methods of my protagonists are probably just completely mirrored by the grad school process. And now I’m going back to school in September, like an idiot. They can’t keep me away. I’m moving to Dublin to start my PhD.
BFR: Oh my gosh that’s so exciting!
Annie Williams: Yeah. So I just need to, you know, find a home and open a bank account, in another currency, and then I’ll be fine.
BFR: Yeah you’ve been to a lot of different countries for your schooling.
Annie Williams: Yeah, I can’t—no one can keep me still.
BFR: That’s very fun, honestly, to travel the globe and learn all the different ways people teach it.
Annie Williams: Honestly, the best way to travel right? I’m like, then they have to give me a visa.
BFR: Yes, that is the trick. [laughter]
So, I think as college students we are always very interested in hearing about people’s experiences in graduate school—many of us are definitely considering the pursuit of graduate studies in this same field. Since you just finished your degree last year at the University of British Columbia, what was the graduate experience like for you? Any advice for incoming graduate students or even undergraduate students studying English?
Annie Williams: I feel so lucky—I loved graduate studies, clearly, I can’t get enough of it. My main advice is learning what not to read, rather than what to read. I think I arrived and I immediately thought—you know, you’re given a few reading lists—and I thought: “okay, so I have to read everything on this list, twice, and then I have to read everything that this critic has ever written.” And no, no, no, you will be miserable and get nothing done.
Choosing to read closely rather than to read widely was a really important thing I learned. It’s better to read ten pages of a book and really understand them and have thoughtful questions about them than to read the whole book, which was counterintuitive. I had to really learn to try and read less because it definitely made for more productive classroom discussion and stuff like that. That’s my only advice other than just finding a community you can drink with after a class—that was completely essential.
BFR: Yeah that’s very useful and nice to hear, I’m sure. We’re always excited to hear about new works being produced even in these challenging times. Are there any new pieces or projects that you can tell us about?
Annie Williams: I have just finished a new play, which is exciting. It’s called Typo. I have also just published two critical articles- one on Edna O’Brien and one on Katherine Mansfield.
BFR: Yeah, we’re connected to a university so people definitely look for critical stuff as well. So, that concludes my questions, so, finally, where can our readers find you online?
Annie Williams: Wow. I’m on Twitter @annieakaannie, which is a username that was maybe funny when I was 14—I didn’t really understand anymore. But that is where I am. I’m on Instagram @annie_will_iams. It’s like I don’t even know my own surname now, but I think that’s it. I should probably be one of those people that gets a website but I’m just too frightened, you probably feel the same way, it’s too much.
BFR: Yeah. Not right now. Someday.
Annie Williams: Someday.