Imagine that you had invested four years of your life developing a project only to have your body of work disappear. How would you react and would you have the perseverance to start over from the beginning? That's what happened to author Nikesha Williams while writing her debut novel Four Women.
Williams, who received her Bachelors in Science degree in Communications from Florida State University, started writing Four Women in 2010. The novel began as a short story surrounding one of the book's female protagonists, Soleil. In 2013 the project evolved from a short story to a novel. Then, in 2014 Williams suffered a hard drive crash and she lost her manuscript. Unable to recover the data, Williams picked up the pieces, started over, and finished the novel in 2015.
Four Women is set in Jacksonville. Williams exhibits her ambitious nature by the subject matter she chose to tackle in her debut novel, which includes domestic violence, sexual abuse, bigotry, and the abuse of power. The story also explores the stand-your-ground law, which has been adopted in some form by thirty-three states in the United States. In 2012 national conversations occurred surrounding the stand-your-ground law after the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. The law has been criticized by civil rights groups for encouraging violence and being racially biased.
Williams has surpassed three major milestones with her project. First, she started writing the book. Second, she finished the book. Third, she acquired a literary agent to represent the book. Williams is now working with her literary team to secure distribution of Four Women, which will be officially released on November 23, 2017.
Williams is also a Producer for Action News Jax. She was nominated for a Suncoast Chapter Emmy Award in 2013. In 2014 Williams was awarded the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters award for Best Breaking News. Williams drew from her experience working in the news when writing Four Women.
10 Questions with Nikesha Williams
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
I don't think I have any specific patterns or routines when starting a new project. But, I will say my subconscious does; lines, words, and bits and pieces of conversation will come to me.
I'm not the kind of writer that automatically jots down these bits and pieces when they come. But, if they keep coming in the same way, over and over again, then I consciously pay attention and start a tab of notes in my phone. Usually I know the title of the project, the first line, the last line, and maybe a general story arc by the time I'm really ready to sit down and write. In a sense, I am both the creator and a spectator.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
I've learned how much I really want the profession of being an author as my full-time gig and not just a hobby or a passion project. Rarely does anyone lose sleep over things they don't sincerely want to do for the rest of their life. Or even put their normal career in jeopardy because of their love of an art form that has yet to pay dividends. I have done both in bringing Four Women to life, and would do it again. At the time of this interview I'm half way through my second novel, so in a way I am doing it again.
How do you define success in what you do?
I first thought success would be just finishing the novel, because it has been such a long time coming. While that was sweet, finishing was almost lackluster anti-climactic. Lately success has been looking at the printed and bound advanced copy of the novel on my desk. I look at it and still can't believe I did it. I finished.
The book is only in a few hands right now. I'm loving the feeling I receive when folks come up and start discussing the novel with me. That's the best example of success for me right now. It keeps me grounded, especially when my over active imagination has me casting characters for the movie even though I still have to focus on the day-to-day and securing mass publishing first.
How did you stay motivated and avoid feeling defeated when you lost your initial draft of "Four Women"? Additionally, how did you approach re-writing the book after the draft was lost?
Faith kept me motivated. When I lost the very first draft of the novel I was broken. I cried hysterically then tried to find anyone who could recover data from a failed flash drive. Two data recovery specialists later and I had everything I had ever saved on the drive EXCEPT the manuscript that was seven chapters from completion.
I remember talking to my mother and she said "you know you'll never be able to remember everything that you wrote." That attitude jolted me inside and I said to her, "That's ok. I wrote it. The story is in my head. I won't forget it. This setback is just a set up for a comeback."
Very cliche but that's what got me through the initial shock of losing the manuscript. Eventually I found an early draft saved in an email, which ended at chapter 10. From there I took it day by day, page by page, chapter by chapter. I worked out of frustration, banging out the story to recover what I lost, and defiance of anyone who doubted that I really could finish.
You invested a number of years into this project. How did you feel once you completed writing the book?
Completing the book was interesting. A few weeks after I set out on the re-write I learned I was pregnant with my first child. I continued writing through my pregnancy. I finished the novel while I was on maternity leave, with my munchkin playing at my feet after he'd just woken up for a nap.
As I wrote what I knew to be the last words, I kept trying to go forward and tell more story as if I didn't want it to end. Then I went back and deleted a paragraph and said "No, Nikesha, you're done." I hit save and print.
The little one and I went to Cold Stone Creamery to celebrate. It was a great feeling, but being a mom caused my perspective to change. It wasn't just about me and my book anymore. It was also about this little person who was with me during the process, and who will continue to be with me after through every project.
Four Women focuses on the intersection of race and gender. As the author you delve into topics that are not always easy to discuss: domestic violence, sexual abuse, bigotry, and the abuse of power/prestige. What influenced your decision to focus on these topics for your debut as a novelist?
It took awhile for me to really zero in on the focus of the book. When I first started writing I was working without an outline and without a plan, just sort of riffing off of my imagination and creativity and being obedient to whatever came out of me.
I knew I wanted four Black women to have four distinct and strong voices, opinions, demons, and secrets. I wanted them to have full lives and be messy. I also wanted them to be connected in some way that wouldn’t normally bring these women together.
The thread of the news anchor and the news cycle was an easy reach for me because of my day job. In news you often find groups and clusters of people who would never know each other if not for this one moment in time. I was also writing at the time of protests and debates surrounding stand your ground. With that being part of my 9-5, it made it into the work in a warped sort of way.
The only thing I knew going in to the story was that these four women were going to speak. The things that they said, the issues that they deal with, and the relationships and situations that they find themselves in I give all credit to God for using me as a vehicle to spark conversation. Sometimes I shock myself when writing. I will write things that I’d rarely give a voice to, if that makes sense.
On page 7 you wrote, "Submission comes from love and is done willingly. Not by Force." Do you feel that excerpt relates to the process of writing?
Yes and no. I love writing. A lot of times I prefer to be in the mood to write. When I’m in the mood to write I can wall off myself for hours (if my child allows it) and just zone out in the story and nothing feels forced or rushed.
That is complete submission.
However, in addition to being an author I’m also a wife, a mother, and a step-mother. I have a full-time job and life couldn't care less about what mood I’m in. If I want to make authorship my career I have to make myself write even if I really don’t feel like it.
I have taught myself to write anytime a free moment comes available. I prefer to write between the hours of 4:00 AM and 7:00 AM on Saturday or Sunday mornings. But, if that doesn’t happen and I can get my son down for a nap at 3 in the afternoon, then I’m writing at 3 in the afternoon even if I'd prefer to lay down next to him and go to sleep too.
Can you describe the processes by which the book's cover was designed and what the cover represents to you?
The book cover is another instance of letting God take the wheel. I approached my graphic designer with a very specific concept. I also told her I was open to her own interpretations.
She hadn’t read the novel and all she had to go on was the back cover synopsis and the song Four Women by Nina Simone, which is also part inspiration for the novel. She finished my concept and I liked it, but I still wanted to see hers. She sent me her concept and I loved the eyes because they’re so expressive. I look at them and try to match them up with each character. I knew that her concept was the one for the cover.
How did you obtain representation for your work? Furthermore, how did you go about expressing your expectations and goals to make sure that they were in line with those representing you and your work?
Obtaining representation was difficult.
I finished the novel in March 2015. After I finished I then started cold emailing agents. I had a list of about 60, or more, who I would send material to. Some would respond, some wouldn’t.
One responded that she really liked the work but that it still need major revisions, so she passed. I got discouraged and said “F it. I’ll self publish on Amazon.” I reached out to a friend who’s boyfriend had a talent agent to see if his agent did literary work. They didn’t but knew someone who did. About a month before I was going to release the work on Amazon my now agents came back and said they wanted to represent me. Here we are, two years and two revisions later.
As far as the expectations and goals, I knew and I know that whoever picks up this book may not make it to the end. While intriguing, the first few chapters may be hard for some people to get through when they’re reading for pleasure. But, for those that do finish the novel, I think they will see the point I was trying to make in the beginning. Or at least I hope they do.
With that said, there are certain things I am not willing to compromise in the telling of this story. The first chapter is one of them. Thankfully my agents agreed.
Have you defined your target audience for this book? Also, now that the book is complete, how do you plan to market the book and get it into the hands of readers?
I know my target audience is predominantly African-American and female. I think it may have a wider appeal because of the issues that it deals with considering today’s socio-political climate. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself into one genre but I know my voice.
Toni Morrison said she wrote her first novel The Bluest Eye because she wanted to read it. Morrison is a literary treasure. I feel somewhat the same regarding why I wrote Four Women. As an African-American woman, I wanted something I could relate to on some level, in some way, that was for me and by me. I think my “target audience” will feel the same.
As for the marketing, that’s what I’m doing now. Meeting people in the arts/literary community in Jacksonville and getting the book or the sampler into their hands. I can use this interview with the Cultural Council to show my agents there is interest. I made a trailer for the book to peak interest beyond the book cover and the back synopsis, which is available on YouTube. I'm also working on possible collaborations with Bab's Lab (Barbara Colaciello) and First Coast Connect at WJCT.
It’s a daily grind but with work and the good Lord I’m hopeful that when the novel is ready for the world on November 23, 2017 the world will be ready for it.