National Library Week: Highlighting Alumni Authors

Posted on April 9, 2021

By Jenna Massey '24

From children’s stories to poetry collections to military history, the alumni authors of William and Mary have all of your book-loving needs covered.

Today is the final day of National Library Week, and to celebrate, we’d like to spotlight some of the W&M alumni whose works are available in the Swem collections. One such alumna is Laura Sims, ’95, poet and author of the critically acclaimed novel Looker, which the Wall Street Journal describes as a “sugarcoated poison pill of psychological terror.” Today, Laura works part-time as a Reference Librarian in South Orange, New Jersey.  

Laura was kind enough to engage in a text-based interview for this month’s blog. Her thoughts about her years at W&M, the writing process, and the importance of libraries are featured below.

What impact did your time at W&M have on your writing abilities? Do you remember finding any classes particularly interesting?

I found incredible support for my creative endeavors at William & Mary, support that was crucial to my development as a young writer. Professors Henry Hart and Nancy Schoenberger, accomplished creative writers themselves, have continued to be supportive and encouraging well beyond my college years.

My junior year, I did an independent study with Prof. Schoenberger, writing poems inspired by the work and life of Frida Kahlo. Prof. Hart’s Modern Poetry class was also influential, as were a host of literature courses I took, that I still remember fondly—and vividly: the Potkays’ Bible as Literature class, Prof. Lowry’s Early American Literature class, and Prof. Conlee’s Medieval Literature class, to name a few. Prof. Donaldson’s Honors Seminar on the Modernist Novel was one of the most challenging and inspiring classes I took at William & Mary; during that class, we intensively read, discussed, and wrote about works by Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, and others. Modernist fiction and poetry have been hugely important to my own work since then.

How would you describe the evolution of your career path?

From a very young age, I knew I wanted to be a writer; I wrote both fiction and poetry at first, but in high school, I became serious about being a poet. At William & Mary, I was able to study with professional-level poets and writers, and in my senior year, I wrote a creative Honors Thesis, a collection of poems and reflections on the works that had inspired them. This helped prepare me for graduate school; I attended the University of Washington for my MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) in 2000 and began publishing poetry books in 2005. I went on to publish four books of poetry in the next ten years, but when I reached my thirties, I wanted the formal challenge of a new genre: fiction. I wrote two (young adult) novels that were never published—though I tried!—and this eventually led me to writing and publishing Looker in 2017. As of now, I’m focused only on writing fiction; while I still appreciate poetry, it does not feel as urgent and interesting to me as it once did.

While pursuing what I think of as my “real” career—my writing career—I’ve held a number of fulfilling jobs, primarily in education. I love teaching and have greatly enjoyed life as an adjunct instructor of English and Creative Writing for over ten years, at numerous colleges, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Baruch College (CUNY), and New York University. In 2017, I decided to pursue another Master’s degree, this time in Library and Information Studies. I wanted more stability than either writing or part-time teaching could provide, and I’ve always loved and appreciated libraries; I spent a great part of my childhood visiting our local branch in Richmond, Virginia. I finished my MLIS in 2020, and now I work part-time as a Reference Librarian at my local library in South Orange, New Jersey. I enjoy it so much—being part of the community in this crucial way, providing resources and aid to people in need of them—and I’ve also appreciated having a schedule that gives me time to work on my next novel.

How does the process of writing poetry differ from the novel-writing process?

My poems tend to come from fleeting, momentary things: striking images, snatches of overheard conversation, feelings that overwhelm me in a certain place at a certain time. I usually draft lines quickly from there, then work on the poem in stages: getting all the first lines down, then revising multiple times, honing down to what is essential, paying attention to how the words connect and flow in a line, and from line to line.

In some ways, novel writing is similar; it’s just longer. Much, much longer. An idea might come to me from a simple incident or encounter. The idea for my novel, Looker, for instance, came to me when I passed a celebrity on the street and an embittered, envying voice—soon to be my narrator’s voice—popped into my head. As with poems, I draft quickly—though the process takes several months in the case of novels, instead of several days. And then I begin revising. And revising, and revising. It’s an agonizing but also intensely pleasurable task. Getting down to what’s essential, just as I do with poems. There are more things to consider in fiction, of course: character, plot, setting, and so on. All of this makes it far more challenging for me than writing poems. It’s not just about sound, or the rhythm of the lines, or the feeling or idea I hope to communicate. There are many more “nuts and bolts” to deal with when writing fiction—for better and for worse. 

What do you think is the role/importance of libraries in our modern culture?

There’s a stereotype people still have of libraries as silent, solemn book warehouses—that is simply not the case today. Libraries have become essential community centers, places where any and all can gather, peacefully, and access resources that may be unavailable to them elsewhere. This has become increasingly true during the pandemic. Patrons who visit my local branch – masked, socially distant, etc. – are so grateful to have the building open. To have a place to go, to use the computers, or to read or study quietly at one of the tables. A seemingly simple thing, but invaluable and rare these days. (Librarians, too, are essential workers, though no one really talks about it.) The library, as an institution, does incredibly important work in our world: promotes equity of access, fights censorship, and constantly reaches out to the surrounding community to provide it with what it needs. I’m honored to be a small part of it.

Finally, can you offer any book recommendations to our readers?

Right now, in preparation for an interview, I’m doing with Paul Auster for South Orange Public Library, I’m reading his novel 4 3 2 1. It’s about the main character’s childhood in northern New Jersey, where I now live, and it’s an utter and deep delight, reminiscent of Joyce’s Dubliners. I’ve had some trouble focusing on reading during the pandemic, but I’ve been able to immerse myself fully in this novel. Other books that have compelled and carried me during the past year are Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee; The Library Book, by Susan Orlean; Homegoing, by Yaa Gyaasi; Breasts and Eggs, by Mieko Kawakami; Binti, by Nnedi Okorafor; and Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. I also spent a lot of last years re-reading Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary: absolutely essential reading for any writer, at any stage in their development.

Looker is available at Swem. Visit http://www.laurasims.net/ for more information.

OTHER ALUMNI

Carter Higgins, ’00, is an Emmy-winning visual effect and motion graphics artist, and the author of the picture books This is Not a Valentine, Bikes for Sale, and Everything You Need for a Treehouse, as well as the middle-grade novel A Rambler Steals Home. Higgins’ writing has been described as “fantastical,” “vibrant,” and “heartwarmingly funny.” Her works are available in the Swem Library Juvenile Collection.

https://www.carterhiggins.com/

Steve Vogel, ’82, is a veteran Washington Post journalist, New York Times bestseller, and Pulitzer Prize nominee who has spent his career writing about American military affairs, government, and the treatment of veterans. 

His books The Pentagon: A History: The Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon – and to Restore It Sixty Years Later and Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks that Saved the Nation are available through Swem.

https://stevevogelsite.com/

Steve Kistulentz, ’89, serves as the director of the graduate creative writing program at Florida’s Saint Leo University and has published a novel and two award-winning poetry collections. His second book of poems, Little Black Daydream, is described on his website as “a chronicle of postcapitalist America.”  Little Black Daydream is available through Swem.

http://kistulentz.com/

Katharine Schellman, ’09, is the author of The Body in the Garden, a historical mystery that has been reviewed as a “perfect London crime novel and a masterful debut.” 

Katharine’s nonfiction and essays have been published in Mother Magazine, The Huffington Post, Business News Daily, and more.  The Body in the Garden is available through Swem.

https://www.katharineschellman.com/

Michelle Gable, ’96, is a lifelong lover of writing, and the New York Times bestselling author of A Paris Apartment, I’ll See You in Paris, The Book of Summer, and The Summer I Met Jack.  On her website, Gable states that the “#1 tip for becoming a published author” is to “write. No matter what.” All four of Gable’s novels are available through Swem.

https://michellegable.com/

Amanda Foody, ’16, is a YA and middle-grade novelist with five books under her belt and another on the way. Foody “has always considered imagination to be our best attempt at magic,” and her vibrant and imaginative work reflects her passion for fantastical tales. Foody’s debut novel, Daughter of the Burning City, and her Shadow Games series are available through Swem.

https://www.amandafoody.com/

Crystal Joseph, ’09, is a licensed psychotherapist, clinical executive officer of PsycYourMind, and the author of PoundCake & Private Practice: 5 Things I learned during my First Year.  In the book, Joseph “uses her own experiences as a self-made businesswoman to uncover the main ingredients of maintaining a successful practice.”   PoundCake is available in the Swem Stacks.

https://linktr.ee/thereal_psycyourmind

Cass Morris, ’07, is a writer, educator, and author of the Aven Cycle, a “Roman-flavored historical fantasy.”  From Unseen Fire - Morris’ debut novel and the first book of the Aven Cycle -  is available at the Swem Library Stacks.

https://cassmorriswrites.com/

Cheston Knapp, ’04, is the author of Up Up, Down Down, a collection of essays described as “full of wit and disquiet,” “light and generous,” and “always smart, often hilarious, and ultimately transcendent.”  Up Up, Down Down is available through Swem.

https://www.chestonknapp.com/

Tom Angleberger & Cece Bell, ’92, are an alumni power couple of bestselling children’s literature. Angleberger is the author of the Origami Yoda series and an array of other graphic novels and early chapter books. Bell is the writer and illustrator of El Deafo, Rabbit & Robot, the Sock Monkey series, and other vibrant picture books. You can find much of their work in the Swem Library Juvenile Collection.

https://origamiyoda.com/

https://cecebell.wordpress.com/

Fiona Davis is a former stage actress, editor, journalist, and current bestselling historical fiction author. Her work has been described as “thrilling, poignant, and utterly irresistible.” Four of Davis’ novels, The Address, The Dollhouse, The Masterpiece, and The Lions of Fifth Avenue are available through Swem.

https://www.fionadavisbooks.com/