Author, Social Worker and Advocate for the Marginalized
I write to give a voice to those without: The homeless, scared combat veterans, abused women, the mentally ill—basically the poor, disenfranchised and those wounded by poverty, violence and by the darker forces of our times.
Ken Williams has worked for over thirty years for the homeless of Santa Barbara. He has a wealth of experience working with the mentally ill, alcoholics/drug addicts, war veterans, the infirmed, neglected, and survivors of sexual violence. He can be counted among those who have reached out to help the new lepers of our time. Ken uses these experiences as sources and inspirations for his novels, screenplays and articles. Ken Williams also served in combat with the 9th Marines—better known as The Walking Dead in Vietnam.
Ken is a columnist with noozhawk.com. In addition to Fractured Angel, he has published two novels, China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets. His nonfiction book: There Must Be Honor is a collection of Ken’s own articles interwoven with his autobiography.
What process do you follow when you write?
I usually check my emails for any messages that I need to respond to. Next I clear my head of distractions. Then, if it involves a rewrite I simply try and read the novel slowly looking for inconsistencies, too much descriptions or repetitions—anything that distracts from the flow of the story. However, if it is a novel in progress I will read notes that I previously written on the characters, plot points and scenes that I wish to include. As the new novel progresses I do this less and less as the internal logic of the novel takes over. Characters must act, as they must, given their established behavioral patterns, personalities and situations that they become involved in. The alternative reality of fiction that an author establishes must follow the logic of this new universe. The novel takes on a life of its own with the middle and ending following naturally from the its beginning. Writing feature articles for an online news services that I write for is different. Here, I must know what I am trying to say, how I am going to say it knowing that I have nine-hundred word limit.
Is there a writer you’re most influenced by and why?
John Steinbeck. He used fiction to tell the emotional truth of the outcast of his day. Until Grapes of Wrath came out the displaced poor from Oklahoma had mostly been demonized, criminalized, ran from one town to the next, shot, killed or imprisoned. His work became part of a broader movement arising from the Great Depression that transformed our country.
What famous work by another author do you wish you’d written?
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Much like John Steinbeck’s book, the Jungle by Sinclair portrays a time in our country’s history crying out for reform. Once again, using the emotional truth of the working class conditions in the slaughterhouses he painted a devastating picture of them and their times. This book not only brought sympathy to workers but also led to the first reforms in our food industry by exposing the unsanitary practices and conditions in the meatpacking plants during the early Twentieth Century.
What is one thing that aspiring writers should know but probably don’t?
You are going to find a hundred reasons why not to continue down a very trying path. Almost every writer that I know has had manuscripts rejected scores if not hundreds of times by agents and publishers. And once published criticism of your work is guaranteed. The tricky part is boiling all that down in order to accept what you must change in your work and maintaining the belief in your work. Steve Lopez, chief columnist for the L.A. Times told me he reads all emails and letters addressed to him even the hateful ones. He is smart enough and lacking of ego to at least read them hoping to weed out the vindictive ones from those that may have a legitimate point of view. Writing is not for the feint of heart nor is it for those who refuse to accept helpful and insightful criticism that only makes you a better writer if you are open to it. Finally you write because you must. In the end you have no choice. You are driven to write. Daily. Weekly. Monthly. Yearly. It is who you are. It is not a choice but a drive.
Why write if it is so hard?
There are probably as many answers to this question as there are writers. For me my writing career began when my letters to the editors to the local papers began to be highlighted. Then I was asked to write feature articles. I was finally given ongoing columns. Then, once at a presentation I was giving a Hollywood scriptwriter came up to me and encouraged me to write screenplays based on my experiences. Novels were a natural extension.
I write to give a voice to those without: The homeless, scared combat veterans, abused women, the mentally ill—basically the poor, disenfranchised and those wounded by poverty, violence and by the darker forces of our times. I worked with these people as a social worker for over thirty years. I have witnessed and lived alongside them as they were demonized, ran out of town and in many instances died on the harsh and unforgiving streets in one of the wealthiest cities in America—Santa Barbara. I have found that most Americans are compassionate and caring and once the mythology of the dispossessed is strep away they become moved and then engaged.
But why fiction?
Fiction is one of the few medias that talks beyond our preconceived notions and beliefs. You can reach people on both sides of an argument if you can write about the human condition that we all find ourselves in. When I was a social worker time after time wealthy individuals or very conservative business people would come to me for help in finding a runaway mentally ill daughter, son, wife or parent. At those times class, social and even racial divisions faded before the broken heart of a parent desperately searching for a loved child.
At a book signing once a woman came up to me, bought my book, China White, which has as an element the protagonist’s Vietnam War background. She quietly told me that her husband had been killed in the war. When I was leaving I saw her sitting on a bench with the book open and tears running down her cheeks. Another time a former homeless client of mine wrote me telling me how she had cried her way through Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.
Fiction has the power to reach deep within us. To sooth, confront or resonate with our soul. Fiction is the power of our fears, and the hope of our future. Fiction is the deepest truth of our lives.
How would you go about trying to help your daughter who, suffering her first psychotic break at fifteen, is chased by her wounded mind to the streets of Santa Barbara? That is the dilemma that Lynne Swanson faces. Out of her element, and definitely out of her comfort zone for this professional woman, she is forced to seek the help of Kerry Wilson, a social worker for the homeless. Unfortunately for her, Kerry is a rough-necked loner that has no inclination to hold the hand of a woman who he feels is out for a lark at the expense of his homeless clients. The harsh and deadly realities of the streets in one of the wealthiest cities in the world and an attempt to close a homeless shelter just as winter sets in produces a dramatic race against time with the life of Lynne’s daughter in the balance.
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