Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Cold Water by Billie A. Williams: Interview & Excerpt

The school was already quiet and had that certain kind of feeling empty places have like the ghosts of everyone in the past lined the walls watching you. Zip was silently hoping against hope that he could just walk home to find a warm cooked meal, no gangs, his mother all cleaned up and smiling, waiting for him. Instead, his mother was carted off to a psychiatric hospital and his only choices were homeless or foster home. He chose in an instant when he saw the worker from Child Protective Services charging across the walk toward him. Homeless wasn’t the problem. He’d been that before. Bullying gangs, survival and freedom were on his mind now.
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Chapter One

Zip ever so slowly tromped down each step, one at a time. He had a heavy weight on his shoulders; at least, to him, to him it was a very heavy weight he'd carried for longer than he could remember. The school was already quiet and had that certain kind of feeling empty places have. The ghosts of everyone who had ever passed this way lined the walls watching him. He was silently hoping he could just walk home to find a warm cooked meal, and his mother waiting for him.
He had gotten used to the messy house and stale cigarette odor. But he’d never get used to the fear that the smell of alcohol on her breath put to his insides. He wished it could be the way it was before his father left them. The alcohol—that was an illness. Mother is “sick with the disease of alcoholism,” the woman from Child Protective Services said. That was the second time. That was the time when he went to THAT foster home. A different foster home than the first one he had been sent to. She said that, the social worker, she was the one who said about it being a disease, the disease of alcoholism. He never forgot it.
The first time, no one told him anything about why he couldn't be with his mother, except he needed to go live with someone else for a while. The experience with the second foster home made him promise he would never go to another one again, no matter what.
Every step down the stairs, he tried to imagine he was crushing one of the bad things that happened in his life lately—if only he could. Zip tried everything to steer clear of trouble. He hoped that somehow he would be able to get around Snake and his gang for a change and walk home peacefully. He even tuned out the jeers of the gang. They called him a lily-livered-coward, a girl chicken. If he stomped and crushed enough of the steps like they were his troubles, even if they were just the steps to the back door of the school, maybe he’d be okay. Even if everything was only in his imagination, maybe his mother would be okay—or dead. The word slammed into his mind like a jackhammer. Death was around every corner for him. He grew numb to it, mostly—or so he thought he could. But, he never did, not really.
If he did everything right, Mr. M said he could get out of here and be somebody. But what? Wasn’t he already somebody? Didn’t he count the way he was? It was hard to think when…the thought slipped from his mind. He pushed open the door and immediately saw Snake and Waxy playing keep-away with little Tyler Worth’s new backpack full of books. She bragged to everyone about her new backpack. She showed off to anyone who would listen, saying it was her birthday present. Zip skirted the playground. He felt like a rat sneaking away. At the same time, he was glad Snake and his gang had found someone else to harass today. Never mind Tyler was a first grader. She was new to the school and to life on this side of the tracks. AND she was a girl. Zip’s hands curled into fists as his anger built. He tried not to listen when Tyler screamed and cried to the group to just stop and leave her alone.
“Give me back my books, give me back my backpack.” He could hear the tears in her voice. He tried to block them out. “Leave me alone. Somebody help me, please.”
The gang’s answer was wild laughter and teasing jeers. “Oooh, baby wants her backpack. Let’s see—all that’s in here are some stupid books. See Dick, See Jane—baby stories.”
“No, don’t,” Tyler cried as Snake dropped the book on the ground. Zip heard it land with a pop on the blacktop.
He started around the corner to safety. If he could get out of earshot of the loud laughs and Tyler’s feeble pleadings, he’d be okay. Home, home free for once this week. That’s all he wanted. His stomach knotted. He couldn’t take it anymore. She was a little girl. Couldn’t they leave anyone alone?
Zip spun around and retraced his steps. He marched as if he had a troop of soldiers behind him. He didn’t stop until he was inches from Snake's face. The chaos Snake was causing the little girl angered Zip. “Leave her alone,” Zip yelled in a voice filled with as much anger as he felt, a voice he tried to make deep and loud. He spaced the words with air so each had weight of its own. He hoped to make them listen for a change. “Back off and leave—her—alone.”
A moment of dead silence stretched endlessly across the steaming hot blacktop of the playground. It was so silent the katydids forgot to chirp. Silence, except for Tyler’s sobs. A gust of wind moved a swing. The chain squeaked like a message of old hinges and haunted places. Zip’s skin crawled with a million ants. Anger bristled the hairs on his arms. The dread of confronting the bullies that plagued him after school hours faded as Tyler turned to face him. Her huge hazel eyes opened so wide with fear the whites seemed twice as large as they should be. Tears streamed from those eyes like a waterfall.
“Ooooh, big tough baby Ziegfeld is coming to rescue the damsel in distress, is he?” Snake teased.
The members of his gang quickly picked up the chant Zip had grown so used to hearing. “Baby Ziegfeld runs from boys like a little girl scardy cat, m-e-o-w,” they taunted as they surrounded him.
“Run Tyler,” Zip called out to the little girl. She scrambled to grab up the books the gang had pulled out of her backpack. She stuffed them back into the bag as she watched them out of the corner of her eye.
Zip wished she’d hurry and go before they decided to mess with her again.
As if hearing his wishes, she grabbed up her backpack and zipped it shut. She hugged it close to her. Then Tyler took off running like someone had set her on fire.
Zip breathed a sigh of relief before he turned to face the gang. His sure punishment for interfering and daring to face Snake would be next. Snake was in his face. Fear replaced the anger he had felt a moment ago. He hadn’t thought about taking on four guys at once. He hadn’t thought about the consequences of trying to help Tyler. Snake shoved Zip’s right shoulder and he stumbled backward, nearly falling.
“Come on, baby boy. Show us what you’re made of,” Snake jeered.
Twist shoved Zip into Tony. Tony shoved him off into Waxy. Zip felt like a ball in a game of hot potato. They flung him from person to person until he was so dizzy he couldn’t see straight.
When Zip was flung back to Tony, Tony grabbed his arms and held them down at his sides. Snake doubled up a fist and hit him square in the gut. It felt like all the breath had been knocked out of his lungs as the air blew out of him like a windstorm. The force pushed him backwards into Tony.
Zip gasped, sucking in a gulp of hot stale air. If Tony hadn’t been holding him, he’d have crumpled to the ground on the spot. He wished he had collapsed. Then maybe he would have avoided Snake’s next punch. It connected with his nose. This time, bright red blood spurted from his nose, and down his shirt. It felt like his nose was split in two.
Zip’s mind erased the pain his nose was causing and the blood that still spurted out of it from the punch. He needed to do something to stop them. He wasn’t about to stand there and take a beating. He jumped up using Tony as a brace he kicked out and caught Snake in the groin with the toe of his tennis shoe. Snake doubled over, holding himself. He collapsed in a moaning heap to the ground. Tony flung Zip toward Waxy and landed a blow to Zip’s left eye at the same time. Zip struggled to get out of Waxy’s grip. Anger fueled his strength. He tried kicking out at Tony, but Tony stayed just out of reach. “Oh, baby’s gotta bloody nose,” he taunted.
Zip bounced his feet forward, using Waxy as a lever to lift him off the ground. No one dared approach his flying feet for fear of getting a kick like Snake got.
“Hey! You kids!”
Zip heard Mr. M’s voice. Waxy released his grip, and shoved Zip off. Tony connected another gut punch as Zip stumbled forward toward him. Zip lurched and fell over from the force of Tony’s last punch. His struggle against Waxy ended as Waxy suddenly pushed off to rescue Snake before Mr. M could reach them. Waxy grabbed one of Snake’s arms as Tony grabbed the other. They yanked Snake to his feet.
“I’m not done with you yet,” Snake said in a voice like a growl as he struggled to straighten up enough to run. He pointed a finger at Zip. “You’ll pay for this,” he said, allowing his gang to hold him up as they sped off. They evaporated from the scene before Mr. M reached where Zip was sprawled on the ground.
“You okay?” he asked as he helped Zip to his feet.
“Yeah,” Zip said. He really wasn’t. He hurt everywhere, but he wasn’t going to tell Mr. M that. Mr. M couldn’t do anything anyway. Zip just wanted to get home and be done with this day.
“Is your nose broken, do you think?” Mr. M asked trying to reach out to touch Zip’s nose.
Zip turned away abruptly. If it was broken, he didn’t want anyone touching it. “No, I don’t think so.”
“Come with me back into the school, we’ll clean you up.”
“Ah, no thanks. I gotta get home. Ma will be worried,” Zip said. His mother never seemed to worry about him, not lately. But Mr. M didn’t need to know that. Zip was afraid to have to talk about the incident. He wasn’t going to rat out Snake and his guys. Chances are he’d get a worse beating than he already had gotten from them if he did. It was better if he just went home, as fast as he could.
He broke free from Mr. M and raced off.
“Wait, I’ll give you a ride,” Mr. M said.
Turning and running backwards for the few seconds it took him to shout, “Thanks, I’m fine,” Zip waved over his head to Mr. M and ran faster.
But, he wasn’t fine. If he didn’t keep running, he’d feel the pain. He was used to pain. It wasn’t the first time he had been the brunt end of a beating by Snake and his gang. Zip wished he knew how to stop it. But, until they set their sights on someone else, he was their target. He’d just have to live with it.
His insides hurt where he’d been punched, his nose hurt and the blood dripped down onto his shirt and jacket. He could barely see out of his eye as it started to swell shut. Zip wound around the block and through the alley on Baxter Avenue. He doubled back through Xavier Park. It took him a half hour longer to get home that way. Snake didn’t know where he lived. Zip wanted to keep it that way. The roundabout way was the only way he could figure to keep anyone from knowing where he lived. As he ran, he kept his eyes peeled for any sign of Snake’s gang colors.
The gang could be waiting around any corner. Surely they’d want to get revenge for what he had done to Snake. He knew that, so he kept to the shadows as much as he could. He slipped through backyards. Ducked into doorways and stayed close to the dumpsters in the alleys. If you run long enough, you figure out all the ways to keep from being seen. You figure out all the tricks to hide in plain sight. No one was going to see him tonight, no one.


Are the names of the characters in your novels important?  How and why?


The names of my characters are very important, especially with my Zodiac Series which usually is some combination of the name of the zodiac sign and designates the character profile of the protagonist.


But it is important for me to select a name for each of my characters that reflect the part they play in the story whether they are part of the zodiac series or not.  I choose the names, not just for the protagonists but all of the more important characters.   And often, more often than not my starting place is the Zodiac signs and meanings as well as what tree this character would be—designated by their birth date.


As an example of how a name affects the character "Zip" in Cold Water is a Scorpio. First his nickname 'Zip' comes from his action of zipping wherever he goes or whatever he is doing. His 'real' name is Ziegfeld Scorpio-Scorpio is his zodiac sign, character traits of this sign: intense, strong-willed and determined.


I use the zodiac signs and their meanings to reveal my characters in my stories. I have finished the Zodiac series from Aquarius through Leo (Leona Augustine – in Orchestrated Murders to be released November 2012).


How do you develop your plots and your characters? Do you use any set formula?

I don't have a set formula persé. However, no matter where the story idea comes from, I usually begin with character sketches as I feel characters can either make or break a novel. Even if the character is setting, or an entity such as a company or a certain political group, it still needs to be defined in order to make it relevant to the story itself.


I may do a summary outline of sorts with story goals for each character and a story goal for the overall focus of the story.


Some times as with Watch For The Raven (my other young adult book)I started writing and didn't stop to think where I was going. It seemed the story just wanted to be told. It was from a prompt my mother gave me. I was her caregiver when she was terminally ill with cancer. She said "When my grandpa used to tell me stories he always began them with 'when turkeys chewed tabaccy and Tag was a pup.'" I wrote that phrase across the top of my page and began writing. It took over a year before I submitted that manuscript, but it was a rare experience with a story that nearly wrote itself.


I have used The Marshall Plan For Novel Writing by Evan Marshall where I filled out a detailed outline (not your high school English class Roman numerals kind of outline though). This is a tedious process. You don't have to adhere to the outline by any means as you write, but if you do—you have your synopsis pretty well written by the time you are finished, which, to me, is a real plus. Saves a lot of work later.


 Have any of your characters been modeled after yourself?


I think it would be extremely difficult to write an authentic character without using yourself and your experiences, to some degree, to define them. Not that I am all my characters, heaven forbid, but pieces of me are, I'm sure, incorporated into them. I would like to think I do not have a villainous bone in my body, but those nasty people have to come from somewhere – and if I own the good I have to own the not so good. Revenge is sweet. Some of my character rogues have been developed because the story was awoken when some injustice (perceived or real) occurred in my life. Sort of like the current  tote bag saying going around "Don't annoy the author, she may put you in her book and kill you."  

Is there one passage in your book that you feel gets to the heart of your book and would encourage people to read it?  If so, can you share it?

This particular passage is from when Zip is staring into the school yard wishing he didn't have to grow up, didn't have to worry about bullies, homeless, hunger or any of the other things that he is now forced to deal with.
Zip passed by the playground; it was empty. Dead leaves crowded against the fence all around the playground as if trying to escape. He knew how they felt as he had felt the same thing so many times. Someone had forgotten a book. It lay on the ground. The wind turned its pages as though it was reading them. Zip wondered what the title of the book was and then wondered why it mattered. It was abandoned, just like he was.
Wind whipped a piece of white notebook paper into the fence and held it there as if it were another child watching him, wondering where he was going, why he was free, why he didn’t have any rules to follow today.

He did have rules, he wanted to shout. Not easy ones like sitting in a classroom listening, trying to follow the rules of classroom. Be quiet, listen and repeat. No, his rules had changed. Now, they were watch your back, check that dumpster for food or clothing, grab what you can to eat and wear. Things weren’t as easy as they were in school, safe, at least, for part of the day. The swings creaked as if they understood, yet they seemed to laugh at him, mocking him that he couldn’t just walk in and ride them to imaginary places. He wouldn’t do that anymore, anyway. Pretend was for babies, not for homeless teenagers.

What book are you reading now?

I am currently working on a series that involves a woman who raises and trains Bloodhounds for Search and Rescue missions. So I am reading Nora Roberts The Search in which she operates just such an enterprise. Her dogs however are Labrador retrievers. But the principal is the same.  My writing instructor (yes, I'm enrolled in another novel writing class with Long Ridge Writers Group—I'm always taking more workshops and classes)suggested that I read how other authors handle the interweaving of dogs into their stories. Ms. Roberts is an excellent author. I could only hope to have some of her talent rub off on me.

What was the scariest moment of your life?

Oh that isn't as easy as it might sound, I've had many. Like when I thought that the Blue Heron flying over my head when I was walking the mile home on a rural road to my grandparents house, that he was about to swoop down and grab my 8 year old body and haul me away to his castle rock to feed me to his babies. 

Or when I was picking raspberries for my grandmother and a black bear was picking berries in the same patch as me. I was miles from home. I was worried I would become more tasty to him than the berries we were picking. I froze, which was probably a good thing…he left and I raced home as fast as my 10 year old legs could carry me. 


But those weren't the scariest – the scariest was when my first book Death by Candlelight was published way back in 2001. This person who nearly flunked high school English, this person who thought socializing was more important than knowledge so much so she nearly didn't graduate with her class—this person actually had someone who believed in her enough to publish a book by her. I was terrified.  What if they found out I was a fake, I was a failure? What would people who knew me think? I still have not reread that book after it was published. It's too scary.

Nearly 35 books later I still get that chill, that terror of a new book coming out—what will people think? I wonder if I'll ever get used to the term Author attached to my name. {smile and shiver}


Tell us about your current release.


Cold Water (a Young Adult Mystery Suspense) is actually a continuation, or a different voice I should say, from an earlier novel. Knapsack Secrets contains many of the same characters, even Zip. So many readers wanted to hear Zip's side of the story. What was he going through? What was happening to him outside the adult story of Knapsack Secrets…that I had to write his story.


It took a long time. I couldn't find his voice at first. Although, I was a tomboy growing up, I was a woman, a white woman – I won't pretend I knew exactly how an African American teenager would think – though I have nephews who are. It took me many false starts until I finally found Zip, or did he find me…So this is a book I've wanted to write and people have wanted to read, that's a good feeling.


Zip finds himself homeless, again. His mother ripped away from him and sent to a psychiatric clinic—actually a place to dry out for alcohol abuse. Rather than risk a foster home, he knew teenagers were the last pick for most foster parents or it seemed that way to him. He decided the street was better, bullying gangs worried him, survival worried him. But, he was resilient and when he was rescued from a gang attack by a woman (Vanilla Lady to him, because she smelled vanilla clean) who was herself suddenly homeless and destitute, he found a cause—someone who needed him.


She needed him, he was street wise, and he needed a mother figure. Then they adopted Valentine Azusa, who became Granny Val to Zip. The story centers around him trying to stay out of bully's way while he tries to help his two new friends in whatever ways he can to survive and thrive.


I have a readers guide for this book and it has resources in it for anti-bullying techniques, help and links to more information. It deals with such important issues facing our young people today. I hope it will help in some small way.


Tell us about your next release.


My next release Orchestrated Murders, November 2012 is the release date, is another I've wanted to write for a long, long time. It's a story that involves a young woman from Poland who comes to the United States to find her sister, Alka, who was sold into indentured servitude to save Leona's life. Leona is now sold to the same family under the guise of finding her sister. However, Kevin Kratz has other plans. It was his family that took Alka away to the United States all those years ago to be a seamstress in his museum. Leona is now to be designated seamstress in this same hoarder's museum.


Leona finds that everything is not as it seems in America. She is locked in her room, or locked in the exhibits she is working on. No freedom allowed. Everyone who befriends her seems to wind up dead. There is no one left for her to turn to, she needs to rely on her own wit and wisdom to save herself.


I had visited an actual museum that is the basis for this story. I was scared beyond imagining before we got out of that place. It was a hoarder's collection of epic proportions from doll houses, and merry go rounds, to orchestras—whole, life-sized orchestras suspended from the ceilings, river boats and the crown jewel (replicas but perfect) and everything in between the final exhibit with the four horsemen of apocalypse was the curtain call for me. I was out of there – and there is only one exit you can use – it's like the Bates Motel you check in and you can check out, but you can never leave. It still haunts me.  


Best-Selling, Award winning Mystery/Suspense author Billie A Williams is a fiction, non-fiction and poetry author and has won numerous contests for her short/flash fiction stories, essays, and poetry. Currently she has over two dozen books published. She is published in various magazines such as the literary magazine Thema; Guide, a Magazine for Children, Novel, Writing Etc., and Women In The Arts newsletter as well as Sister’s in Crime, to list but a few.

Williams is currently a member of The Wisconsin Regional Writers Association (WRWA) Sister’s in Crime, Women in the Arts Program, ,  Pen Writer's Org., Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. (SCBWI) and Children’s Book Insider, and the Children Writers Coaching Club, Working Writers Club. Visit her at her website or sign up for her Newsletter The Mystery Readers Connection at  . Visit her blog at 

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Debby said...

Great interview. I enjoyed reading about the names.
debby236 at gmail dot com

loumathema said...

Looks like a great book. Really interesting interview