Q&A with Philip Lee Williams, author of FAR BEYOND THE GATES
By Ranha Beak
Philip Lee Williams is an award-winning author and essayist, member of the Georgia Writer s Hall of Fame, and a four-time recipient of a Georgia Author of the Year title whose literary career spans over four decades. His works capture themes of the natural world, human connections, and aging. His latest novel, Far Beyond the Gates explores all three motifs through a tense father-daughter relationship.
When I was assigned to proofread the drafts of Far Beyond the Gates last fall semester, I found myself pining for human connection in Lucy and Pratt’s North-Carolinian mountain setting. Philip Lee Williams asks what it means for humans to love as friends, neighbors, and family, presenting two points of view of a father and a daughter constantly attempting to express unconditional love in their own private moments.
Far Beyond the Gates (March 2020) is soon to be published through Mercer University Press, and marks the 12th Philip Lee Williams novel in his career. Here is a Q&A of the creative process, plot development, and more from the author himself:
What led you to write about Pratt and Lucy’s tense father-daughter relationship?
I wanted to write a novel about the advantages and costs of a life in academia. There are so many books about fathers and sons, and I wanted to explore one about fathers and daughters. It was a difficult problem to attack because I had to try my best to get inside the problems of a woman who has suffered but is just as strong and intelligent as her father (and mother). That kind of knowledge always seems to come with benefits and costs. But in the end, I wanted to write a love story that requires revelation and transcendence on the part of both these characters. One could not do it alone. They are both smart, stubborn, and hard-working. They share the same profession but from different angles. I thought that by seeing their worlds as they see themselves day to day for a whole season, the reader could see how we balance and shift to find our way to the love we so desperately need.
Was one character harder to write than the other? Any favorite side characters?
I think Pratt was much more of a challenge to write because of his illness and because of the consequences of his huge and hidden mistake as a young man. I was also intrigued that in a way, he and Lucy both knew each was trying to make his or her way back to the other. The roadblocks I throw in their way creates suspense, and the final redemption comes for both of them. Reaching it is much harder for Pratt, and he keeps ruining opportunities. I did it this way because women are more intelligent than men, have to work harder for the same pay, and can touch their emotions more easily than men.
Why a mountain setting?
I have visited the Georgia-North Carolina mountains since childhood and lived in Clayton, Georgia, for 6 months at the beginning of my career as a journalist. It’s an area I know very well. But the gated community also needed to be in place with a view—a setting from which they could literally see the world below them and metaphorically around them. I have rarely written about wealthy people, but I made Pratt different because of his accomplishments and awards as a historian and his contentious battle with his wife for academic supremacy. So setting it within a day’s driving from the Research Triangle in the mountains was a perfect distance.
I was surprised to realize that at the end of proofing the manuscript, I had read Far Beyond the Gates as a story about love despite the destructive lust associated with Pratt’s younger days and Lucy’s post-divorce process. Love is a vague term to describe the characters’ complicated relationships, but I can’t help but feel that there’s nothing more sacred than love for the characters at the end of the story— did you begin the writing process with a love story in mind?
It was absolutely, from the beginning, meant to be a love story. Every character in the book is dealing with love in some way. The Beardens, for example, remember their lost son with great love. Sean Crayton loved his father but could not get along with him until it was too late. He feels tremendous guilt for being the cause of his father’s death. He also loves plants and the natural world. Pratt’s marriages have been disasters, but each began in love. He simply paid more attention to himself than his wives—and they found fairly quickly that they did not really love him. The only real love of his life was Mary Lou, who finds her way back to him toward the end of his life as a home health care nurse. Lucy loves Jan and her son. Lucy, as she says, even adored James in the beginning before their relationship fell apart. I wanted Lucy and Pratt to find, with great difficulty, the path back to a love that had evaded them for most of their lives. So yes: from the beginning it was a love story.
Part of Lucy’s identity is that she’s an English teacher, and the fulfillment from Pratt’s career as a famous professor falls short to Lucy’s high school teaching career. In your opinion, what is the most inspiring aspect of teachers, and what’s the difference between teachers and professors?
That distinction was there from the beginning and quite deliberate. Lucy believes in her heart that being a high school teacher has more significance than being a college professor—that she can change more lives, teach more students, and do it better. For the most part, I agree with her. And yet the very special students are rare to all teachers. She chose high school, in a way, to thumb her nose at her famous father, to dare him to think he is better. What she doesn’t know is that he agrees with everything she believes and considers his own professional life a failure, not because of his teaching or writing, but because of his failure to be a good man. He thinks he can make everything straight by inviting Lucy up for the summer and revealing his secrets, but he soon realizes what it is going to cost him. Still, in the end, with Mary Lou’s help, he is able to forgive himself and reveal his secrets to Lucy. Lucy, after going through a terrible time with James’s death and Sean’s problems, find a path to her father through the love of Sean. I planned all this from the beginning.
You have not only published several written works ranging from poetry, fiction, memoir, and essay, but also produced documentary films, composed symphonies, painted, and carved. Do you ever find creative themes that you return to, no matter what medium you’re working with at the time?
Yes, I do. I have written a great deal about the natural world and aging, about difficult relationships and that transcendent moment when pain and suffering are set aside for love and peace. I suppose I do that mostly in poetry and fiction, but in a way I have done it with compositions and visual art, too. I have spent most of my life around academic types and college towns, and so in that case I write what I know about. I don’t write about the “rough South” that writers like Larry Brown have because I don’t come from that. My parents were both college graduates, and so from the beginning, I was taught that money was necessary but not important—and that the arts and sciences are where one should spend a life. So all those are themes that I have dealt with time and again.
As an award-winning author and an honoree of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, what advice do you have for my 21st century peers who aim to establish a successful literary career?
The publishing business has changed radically since my first book came out in 1984. Back then, the publisher did all the publicity for the book and the author basically had to show up for autographings and speeches. Now, most publishers do just a little (out of financial necessity) and leave most of it to the author to figure out. But the road to success is still the same as it always has been: find out who you are and what you want to write about; write every day; welcome failure—it is just as valuable to a career as success, possibly more valuable; make social contacts with other living writers and read their work; read all the classics, whatever you consider them to be—a seasoned writer can tell in a heartbeat when a would-be writer is not well-read; be willing to change—to change themes, publishers, editors, agents—and don’t let any of those be a reason to stop; be ambitious but realistic; yes, write about what you know, at least until you are good enough to convince an editor you know a lot about something you don’t, and that takes years; realize that without conflict in your book, there is no story; and most important, never quit.
So many writers publish one book and their second one doesn’t sell or the publisher dumps them and on and on. And they quit; but you just can’t. I would argue against self-publishing for at least the first 5-10 years of trying to be a writer. There is no such thing as self-publishing; one is just paying for a printing job or a little space online to dump some words. If one’s goal is simply to make money as a writer, pick the best genre—probably YA right now—and work hard. Literary fiction, which I write, rarely makes much money, though I have done well through film and foreign sales. Only write literary fiction because you must. I never wrote thinking about money. So I always had a full-time job. It is very freeing if the writer is committed enough to have two jobs for 40 years.
Could you describe Lucy and Pratt in a single phrase or a quote?
Lucy and Pratt are voyagers whose journey diverged years back, and now they are paddling as hard as humanly possible to return to the place where they drifted apart.
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