Monday, May 11, 2020

Author Interview: B. A. Williamson, Author of the Gwendolyn Gray Adventures

Today I chat with Brent Williamson, author of the marvelous Gwendolyn Gray books. I reviewed the first one, The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray here, and the hot-off-the-presses sequel, The Fantastical Exploits of Gwendolyn Gray here.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself.  How did you come to be a writer?

Brent Williamson: Uh, boredom. I was on a charter bus taking a group of 5th graders to Washington DC. It was 2 AM, and some kid kept kicking my seat in his sleep. I had no wi-fi and no cell signal. So I got to thinking. I suddenly got that creative itch you get in those surreal moments in the wee hours in unfamiliar surroundings. My wife was pregnant with our first child, so I decided to write a bedtime story. That was the first time I ever thought of myself as a writer. Of course, later on, I looked back on the comics and musicals I had written in college, and the notebooks of songs and poems from high school, and realized that I had been writing all along. I hadn't thought of myself as a "writer," but I wasn't afraid of writing either. I had just enough experience that when I thought, "I should write a book!" I wasn't too intimidated to instantly rule it out. Also, stupid ideas seem much less stupid at 2 AM on a bus.

DJR: And in the shower!

DJR: What led you to write MG and how is it different from YA or adult fantasy?

BW: I never really thought about it. My favorite books are all mostly sci-fi and fantasy, and mostly for kids, so that's what I gravitated to. I had an idea and a character, and it wasn't until the book was done and ready for pitching that I found out that it was what was called "middle grade." From what I can tell, the big difference between YA and MG is intensity--violence, language... *ahem* relationships. You can go farther in YA. MG typically focuses on 4th-6th grade age characters, and YA focuses on older kids. You end up dealing with whole different sets of issues, because of the different challenges faced at those times of life. I picture this series as being an MG/YA crossover. Gwendolyn grows so much over the course of these stories. If you finish book two and take a glance back to the first few pages of book one, you realize just how far she's come. And in future books, I plan to follow her into the YA territory of her teen years.  

DJR: That will make me, and many readers, very happy! I love watching characters mature from one story to the next. 

DJR: What inspired your books, The Marvelous Adventures of Gwendolyn Gray and   The Fantasical Exploits of Gwendolyn Gray? How do you see it in relation to current MG?

BW: I wanted a story about somehow who stood out. I wanted a strong female role model. And I drew on my own experience of being a misfit daydreamer with a big mouth who was always getting into trouble. The idea of making your imaginary creations come to life was just wish fulfillment from my own pre-teen years.  And soon this story became a sort of love letter to the stories themselves, particularly all my favorites. Gwendolyn hops from world to world letting me play with whatever genre I like. To me, this story is really at the upper end of MG, just beyond A Series of Unfortunate Events. I see it as digging deeper, dealing with more serious themes, and having much more complex undercurrents. There's a lot that only adults are going to pick up on, but is still a fantastic pirate/fairy/monster adventure story to dive into.

DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing?  What about them do you find inspiring?

BW: You'll see plenty of them reflected in this book. It's full of Easter eggs. I wear my influences on my sleeve: Lewis, Tolkein, Gaiman, L'Engle, Lowry, Applegate, Rowling, Snicket. Plenty of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. I admire their wit, their prose, and their ability to put characters you truly care about into worlds you can lose yourself in and come out the other side with a completely new way of looking at life. So when I sit down to write, I try not so much to emulate their work itself, but to conjure the feeling I had of reading their books as a kid. That sense of wonder and excitement. You know, looking at that list, it explains why so many of the characters in my head have British accents...

DJR: I caught some, but not all, of the Easter eggs. I loved how the story didn't rely on recognizing them, but they definitely added a shared understanding of language and magic.

DJR: Why do you write what you do, and how does your work differ from others in your genre?

BW: I want to tell stories with meaningful characters that people can see themselves in, with struggles people can relate to. Hopefully I can give kids a place to escape to for a while, and leave with something meaningful. This series is a bit more complex than other MG books you'll find on the shelves. There's a lot more depth to it. For example, I was fascinated to see Gwendolyn develop a severe bout of depression at the start of book two. I hadn't planned that, but it was the direction she took, and I didn't fight it. I felt like the book could say a lot to a population of middle-grade kids who struggle with anxiety and depression as much as anyone, but are often overlooked. And after all, fighting wars with pirates and monsters is the sort of life-threatening trauma you don't just walk away from. And then, to my surprise, she ends up in fairy world and has a manic episode, and I discovered that Gwendolyn is, in fact, bipolar. (Like myself.) And that struggle with mental illness felt like a very important story to tell, and I loved seeing how I could work in clinically accurate information and coping strategies in a larger-than-life fantasy adventure. The best fantasy stories are all about real life, in their own way, and this was a really unique space to explore. 

I agree that it's important to portray mentally ill characters as having agency and validity.

DJR: How does your writing process work?

BW: I'll let you know when I figure it out! I try to focus on creating characters that sound real, feel real, and then I'm as mean to them as possible. But I'm always cripplingly insecure about the whole thing until I find the heart of the book. You should be able to say what the book is about in one quick sentence, and it has nothing to do with pirates or monsters. Marvelous Adventures is about learning that your differences are your strengths, not your weaknesses. Fantastical Exploits takes that one step further, into embracing your flaws and using what makes you special to make the world around you a better place. Once I have the heart and the character, that informs everything else that happens, and makes sure that each scene has a purpose that somehow relates to that character's journey of realizing that particular truth. And hopefully the reader comes along for the ride.

DJR: What have you written recently? What lies ahead?

BW: I'm working on book three, which I'm currently calling The Withering Trials of Gwendolyn Gray. She's older, and dealing with the fallout from the end of book 2. Without giving too many spoilers, she's been on her own for quite a while, and it's a lot of fun to play with what sort of conflicts that can create. I'm also in editing on a paranormal mystery about a twenty-something witch who lives as an innkeeper in a bed-and-breakfast for monsters in small town Indiana. There's a murder, and she has to solve it to clear the name of her favorite vampire client. You know, that old chestnut.

DJR: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?

BW: Big picture? Keep writing. You'll need to get a lot of crap out of the pipes before the good stuff starts flowing.  Successful writing can be more about who quits last, rather than who writes best. You can always learn and improve, so find those mentors, partners, workshops that will help you level up. My first book was a six-year process of writing, figuring out what was wrong, and finding someone/something that could teach me how to do it right. Rinse, revise, repeat.

Nuts and bolts? You story needs something to say. Then you need a character who wants something, and then you need to throw obstacles in their way. They have to want it so badly that the audience can't help but want it too, and obstacles so daunting that we can't help but root for them. Desire+Obstacle=story, and make sure your story has a purpose.

B. A. Williamson describes himself as the overly caffeinated writer of The Chronicles of Gwendolyn Gray. When not mining the unfathomable depths of consciousness for new words to sling, he can be found wandering Indianapolis, directing plays, child taming, and probably singing entirely to loudly. Please direct all complaints and your darkest secrets to, @BAWrites on social media, or visit

Deborah's note: Check out the cool video on Gwendolyn's site.

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