7 Questions With Author Liz Gilmore Williams
Author Liz Gilmore Williams writes stories about people with a front-row seat to history. Her book, No Ordinary Soldier: My Father’s Two Wars, placed as one of two Finalists in the 2018 International Book Awards contest in the military history genre. In fact, the book combines history, memoir, and creative nonfiction and enjoys a five-star rating on Amazon.
Liz worked as a writer and editor for more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., for two offices of the U.S. Congress and other organizations. As a speaker for South Carolina’s Humanities Out Loud Program, she travels statewide to speak at meetings of nonprofit organizations that promote discussion about human values, traditions, and cultures. Liz earned an MA in American studies from the University of Maryland and belongs to the South Carolina Writers Association.
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What were some major setbacks of this profession?
As someone who had a successful career as a writer and editor in the federal government, the biggest setback I faced was not obtaining an agent or publisher. I allowed myself 18 months of diligent querying for one or the other, after which I decided to self-publish. I had several requests for parts of the book and at least two for the manuscript, one of which was from the publisher of Laura Hillenbrand’s books.
This gave me great hope because my book is on a topic similar to that of her book, Unbroken. But in the end, I had no takers. Several agents informed me, “You don’t have 20,000 followers on social media.” So they weren’t willing to take a chance on an “unknown.”
I get that, but it begs the questions: Are celebrities the only ones with anything important to say? Are those with connections the only ones getting representation? It boils down to who you know, not what you know, unfortunately. In fact, my book won an award and has been rated highly by readers who’ve reviewed it on Amazon and GoodReads.
What’s your definition of the first draft?
I tackle a first draft almost as if it’s a stream-of-consciousness piece. In other words, just get out what you want to say without judging or editing yourself. Of course, this is hard to do. But it is effective. There’s always time for editing, rewriting, and reorganizing. It’s important just to start something.
Otherwise, you may never start at all. My book began as straight nonfiction but evolved into creative nonfiction mainly, but, as I mentioned, it blends genres. I enjoy editing and rewriting because you can always improve your writing. I find that exercise exhilarating.
What are some of the myths around self-publishing / traditional publishing?
When I was writing query letters to find an agent or publisher, I talked to several authors who had found publishers. And guess what? Those publishers did little to help promote those authors’ books. They were mainly left to their own devices for promoting their book. So, unless you have representation that’s going to seriously promote your book, you’re going to be doing it yourself.
Furthermore, they didn’t receive the kind of profit I now get when I sell a book. When I sell my books, mainly at events and speaking engagements, I make 50 percent of the book’s price, not pennies on the dollar. And I enjoy going to street fairs and the like to sell my book as well as my speaking engagements. It doesn’t really bother me anymore that my book isn’t widely known but it would be nice.
How do you imagine your target reader?
My book is a war story, a love story, and the story of my getting to know my father, who died when I was eighteen. Anyone who enjoys those types of stories will enjoy my book. It’s a true story of a young man from a gritty Pennsylvania mill town who enlists in the Army Air Corps and heads for Hawaii, the “Paradise of the Pacific.” There, he and his buddies defend Oahu while it explodes and burns in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
As the war surges, his bomber squadron ships out to primitive Pacific outposts. Amid air raids, stifling heat, and outbreaks of tropical disease, he clings to sanity through the letters he and his wife share, letters found years later saved in an attic. Haunted by his terrifying rages decades after his death, his daughter delves into the letters for clues to his turmoil. The letters lead her to discover a shocking family secret, not only fulfilling her quest but also revealing a story of war, love, and forgiveness.
Though it’s obvious that a history or World War II buff is my target audience, one colleague noted, “You’ve written a WWII book for women.” Her insight was keen as I don’t go on about this battalion or that regiment, which is tedious. Anyone interested in World War II on the home front would also gain an understanding of this subject. Furthermore, the discovery I made about my dad during my research will appeal to anyone who has or had a difficult parent.
We all know this industry is full of surprises. Can you share an unexpected experience?
An unexpected surprise, as well as my greatest satisfaction, came from two men who connected with me through Twitter. The first event occurred when I posted a photo of several marines climbing Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima with the first flag that would fly there. The post was retweeted by a woman who was followed by a man named Frank who contacted me and told me one of the marines in the photo was his father. He hadn’t known before this posting that his dad had helped take the flag up the hill.
He was thrilled to see the photo, and we started exchanging emails. Though the photo I posted was not taken by Joe Rosenthal, who shot the very famous photo of the second flag planting on Iwo Jima, Frank had known Joe before he died. The photographer had given Frank signed copies of the famous photo, and Frank sent one to me. What a treasured gift this is.
The second such event was when a man named Travis in Texas contacted me through Twitter and told me his grandfather and my father were in the same Army Air Corps Signal Company. In addition, he had an original group photo of the company taken at Hickam Field on Oahu. I had seen such a photo before, but only in a book and in the shot, the men had their hats on, which made it hard to identify them.
He made a copy of the original one he had, in which the men’s hats were off, and sent it to me in a huge box with lots of protective fill, along with a duplicate. On the back of the photo, each man was identified, allowing me to see which one was my dad and figure out which of the men were friends of his, whom he’d mentioned in his letters. Travis’s gesture touched me deeply and added significantly to the collection of WW II memorabilia I have from my dad.
How do you deal with negative feedback or negative reviews?
My book has a 5-star rating on Amazon, with mostly 5- and 4-star reviews. I did receive a 3-star review on GoodReads and only one 1-star review on that site. So, I really only had one bad review.
Given that, I consider it an outlier, and even more than that, it was most likely reviewed by someone for whom the subject matter or genre was not his cup of tea. I can’t imagine that his viewpoint prevails with so many other good reviews. So I just ignored it.
What’s your favorite genre as a reader?
My favorite genre is creative nonfiction. I believe that truth really is stranger than fiction. In addition, I find most fiction contrived. I seem to end up saying to myself while reading a novel, “Oh, that character wouldn’t do that” or “That would never happen.” I usually feel let down by fictional works. I like writers, such as Erik Larson, for example, who deal with real historic events.
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She just wanted to mope over her breakup but the universe had other plans for Zoey Mills.
Read the full blurb here.