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Zach Williams' collection of short stories explore the mundane and the bizarre

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Zach Williams started his career as a high-school and middle-school English teacher. But when he became a new parent, all the anxieties and joys of having a kid renewed his urgency to do something else.

ZACH WILLIAMS: I always wanted to write stories. The quickness and musicality of short stories was always attractive to me. And so when I started to write in my mid-30s, I wanted to have a number of stories that would function as a kind of a record of a kind of time and place in my life, I suppose. I wanted to approach the collection that way.

PFEIFFER: That debut collection is called "Beautiful Days." In it, Williams writes about characters who lead lives that are mundane and bizarre, often at the same time. His characters feel overwhelmed by forces familiar to many of us, like parenting or conspiracy theories or just modern-day society. When I spoke with Williams, I asked him whether his fictional tales are inspired by how he feels about the real world.

WILLIAMS: Oh, I think they're entirely inspired by that. The first story in the collection, you know, I started in 2016, and then I was kind of drafting them between 2016 and maybe 2021, you know, so it was the Trump administration and the pandemic. And I think another kind of key thing for me, too, was that I had just gotten my first smartphone in 2015, so it was this entry into a different kind of life on the internet.

PFEIFFER: You lasted that long, by the way? Didn't it come out in, like, 2008 or so? Yeah?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I was a holdout. I held out for as long as I sort of felt that I could. I didn't feel that it was sort of necessary for a long time. I wanted to try to avoid it, I guess. But then, you know, I got one eventually. And then, you know, I definitely feel addicted to it now in the way that I think a lot of us do. And so I think that was happening for me, too, at the same time our son had been born. So I think there was a lot that was happening that I was feeling very anxious about and a lot that was happening that was very hopeful and joyful and beautiful. And so the confluence of those things, I think, is at the heart of the inception of a lot of the stories.

PFEIFFER: You've mentioned your son, and there are several stories that deal with parenting. There's one involving a couple in a strange place who start aging rapidly while their toddler doesn't. There's another about a little kid who suddenly has an extra toe and how the dad reacts. There's another one about a father looking somewhat disapprovingly on how his adolescent son has turned out. That made me wonder how much parenting is affecting your life now in a way that ended up infiltrating your stories.

WILLIAMS: Parenting was, I think, one of the things that made me feel that I had something to write about. The story that you mentioned, "Wood Sorrel House," about the couple that is kind of trapped in this vacation home aging while their son remains ageless, I was very much in the kind of fog of early parenthood as I was writing it. You know, I just reread that story yesterday. I don't think I would write that story the same way now.

It was like - that was really capturing a way that I was feeling about being the parent of a very young child, the combination of joy and monotony and then also the very intense - what was, for me, a very intense emotional experience of it in which everything felt there was this sense of renewed wonder about the world, a sense of, like, deep joy and beauty. And also, the world felt scarier, too. It felt scary to walk around with this kid in the stroller and have to look at oncoming cars differently and things like that.

PFEIFFER: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: I think that in a number of the stories, like, that early parenthood thing is there.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. A lot of the stories about parenting seem to be channeling fear and anxiety. Is that how you feel about parenting, or at least as you've touched on that stage of parenting, when they're really little?

WILLIAMS: I very much felt that way at the time, yeah. I think that I've kind of passed out of that phase. But I was in my mid-30s when we had kids, and so I did - I experienced it as almost kind of a rupture in reality. It was a whole new world, a whole new reality. And so I think that's how I was inclined to write about parenthood, as sometimes, in the stories, a literal rupture in reality.

PFEIFFER: Some of the endings of your stories are quite strange and don't always have a definitive conclusion. And truthfully, some of the endings left me unsure what message to take away or if there was a message at all. For the ones that do end without a clear conclusion, what do you want your readers to think or feel?

WILLIAMS: I think that the ideal thing in that situation would be for the reader to keep thinking or to keep wondering, which is often the position that I'm in as the writer. Yeah, there are stories in which there are these mysteries that go unsolved. And I think that that, to me, as a writer, is very appealing because for one, I think that that just speaks to the nature of reality and of life. I think that's - a lot of life's mysteries go unsolved, so it feels, actually, like a certain kind of realism to me.

But then secondly, to write that way puts me on a kind of equal footing with the characters in the stories, which is something that I really enjoyed. I like writing about characters who are trying to figure something out that I, myself, as the writer, also don't know. It's like - I think it makes it easier for me to sympathize with the characters, to be there on the page with the characters when we both don't know, if that makes sense.

PFEIFFER: You said earlier that you like the quickness and musicality of short stories. Why have you been drawn to those more than a novel?

WILLIAMS: When I started out, I just didn't think that I had a novel in me. I - whether rightly or wrongly, I viewed a novel as a kind of project that one might have to approach a certain way - a certain amount of planning, a certain amount of sense of what you were hoping to achieve, what you were hoping to write about even on a basic level. And I didn't have that.

But I felt that I had something else, which was this ability to write these shorter-form pieces that had - what I came to feel was that short stories have this kind of beautiful back-and-forth relationship, an easy back-and-forth between the subconscious and the page. What I loved about writing stories, what I continue to love about it, is that I think that one really great idea can power a whole entire story, an image or a sound or just the kind of the barest sense of character or trajectory or anything. It can just be so formless at the start. But just one little flash of inspiration can, you know, power a short story, you know, a short story that you work on then for months or for years.

So what I was able to do, I found, was to write in a kind of improvisatory mode in which I would start one story and then, you know, want to write something kind of different. So I would start the next story in response to the previous one and then the next one in response to that one. And I felt that I was going to be able to put a book of these things together, you know, and that as long as I kind of kept in that process, that it would come out in a way that was satisfactory to me.

PFEIFFER: You said that you didn't really start writing in earnest until your 30s. I think you said you felt a renewed urgency to write. I read something recently that said if you haven't written a book in your mind by your 50s, it's not going to happen. As someone who got a later start to writing than you thought you would, do you feel like there's a certain age at which it's just not going to happen? If the books not out yet, it's not coming out?

WILLIAMS: No, I don't think so at all. I don't think so at all. I think that anybody that wants to write a book should try to do it. And I think that it's a practice. You know, it's something that you need to devote time to. And I think that that's one of the big questions for a lot of people, is how to find and make the time. It's not a thing that's possible for a lot of people. But I think it's really just a question of the process and the practice, like sitting down in the chair every day and trying to get something done. I think that process can be started at any time.

PFEIFFER: Congratulations on publishing your first book.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: That's writer Zach Williams. His collection of short stories, called "Beautiful Days," is out now. Zach, thanks again.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, Sacha.

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Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.