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Ghosts of the past inspire contemporary novel

Tanya E. Williams ‘All That Was’ tells uplifting tale of navigating grief
South Surrey novelist Tanya E. Williams at the time of the release of the third installment of her Smith family trilogy in 2019. (C.J. Armitage photo)

The first thing to note about All That Was, South Surrey author’s Tanya E. Williams’ new novel, is that it’s a stand-alone work – not a continuation of her trilogy (Becoming Mrs. Smith, Stealing Mr. Smith, A Man Called Smith).

But in line with the earlier books, it’s another manifestation of Williams’ penchant for breathing new life into historical eras – through her combination of sensitive creative imagination, movie-like visual detail, and thorough research.

“It’s definitely less angsty – and the leading character has a little more grace,” Williams commented, recalling the manipulative, vindictive character of Bernice, the heartless stepmother in the last two books of her South Dakota-based trilogy.

The inspiration for the latest novel was a real building – the former First United Methodist Church of Seattle at Fifth and Marion, built in 1910 to serve a congregation that could trace its roots back to 1853, just six months after the founding of the town of Seattle.

Discovered during one of many pleasure trips Williams has taken to the city with her husband, photographer David C. Williams, the initial appeal of the distinctively domed building for both was as a piece of a striking early 20th century architecture.

But as Williams looked into the history of the building, she discovered two things that inspired her story – that the church organization was inextricably linked to the history of good works among the early residents of Seattle, and that, starting in the 1980s, it had become embroiled in a battle with Seattle’s Landmarks Board over a pragmatic wish to sell the heritage building for redevelopment.

While a famously lengthy litigation may seem like a dry beginning for a novel, one must hasten to add that – as fictionalized by Williams, with considerable poetic licence and chronological compression – it has formed the basis for a hopeful and uplifting tale.

In All That Was, two women, one from the present day and one from the past, share a common problem. Neither Emily Reed, a first-year attorney tasked with organizing the church’s archives in 2015, nor former congregation member Elizabet Thomas, who died in 1935, have been able to come to terms with their grief.

Emily is still mourning the death of her parents in a car crash when she was a teenager; Elizabet spent most of her life mourning a beloved husband who died at a relatively young age.

On one hand, the novel is a touching and involving exploration of what it means to let go and move on with life. But at the same time, it’s also a ghost story, albeit not of the more ghoulish variety.

For, in the two-perspective narrative, Elizabet is still very much a presence in the building – some 80 years after her death – watching the junior attorney closely as she struggles to impose order on a chaotic basement storeroom packed with dusty files and artifacts.

And it’s her hand that guides Emily to discover her long-hidden diary – ultimately providing a key, not only to solving the dilemma over the building’s future, but also to freeing them both from the bonds of the past.

Without offering any spoilers, it’s safe to say there are a few other surprises in store for the reader before All That Was reaches its conclusion.

In a way, the author readily agrees, a third character in this journey of discovery has been Williams herself.

“It wasn’t lost on me – believe me,” she laughed.

She has often remarked in the past that, in the intense creative process of imagining and fleshing out her characters, they will eventually “tell her” what they must do and say.

So it was with this novel, in which she discovered, during the writing process, that, rather than simply being a compelling voice from the past, Elizabet is also “present.”

“I remember I looked up from my laptop at one point and said, out loud, ‘You didn’t tell me you were a ghost!’” she recalled, with a chuckle.

“I’m kind of glad that where I write is on the bottom level of our house, where I couldn’t be heard.”

Her original plan for the book was to incorporate multiple voices of women from the church’s past – but that evolved as the novel took shape, Williams said.

“I’m aware enough, by now, to step aside and let the characters come through,” she said. “It’s almost like (raising) children – you have to let them learn and discover who they are, and support that process.”

There is another character that pushed her way into the narrative, Williams said, and while some of the other characters are inspired by aspects of real people, she is a genuine historic figure in Seattle.

That’s Dorothea Ohben, also known as Madame Lou, who – unlike the respectable, moneyed Elizabet – is infamous for owning and operating one of Seattle’s foremost pioneer-era brothels.

And while Williams admits that she shifted the real Dorothea to a slightly later era, she feels that her presence, as both a symbol and a motivator of the story, justifies the change.

“My preference is to write fictional people in real times and places, but at every point as I was researching, she kept putting up her hand,” she said. “I eventually realized that she needed to be in the story.”

Some aspects of Elizabet are also inspired by Eliza Ferry Leary, widow of Seattle’s first mayor, Williams said.

She spent decades until her death mourning the early loss of her husband, as she lived on in the Capitol Hill mansion that had been built for them, but which he hadn’t lived to see completed.

“I toured the house and was struck by a sense of grief there that was still so strong,” Williams said, adding that that almost tangible sensation helped determine what the novel was ultimately to become.

“This is a story about grief – how do you manage it, and what does your life mean after that loss?” she said.

For more information on buying All That Was, visit the Williams’ publishing site at

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About the Author: Alex Browne

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