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)

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)

Ghosts of the past inspire contemporary novel

Tanya E. Williams ‘All That Was’ tells uplifting tale of navigating grief

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 ripplingeffects.ca



alex.browne@peacearchnews.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter

authorBooks

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Pixabay image
Surrey recovers 29,000 jobs it lost to pandemic

That’s according to Surrey Board of Trade’s fifth Surrey Labour Market Intelligence Report on COVID-19

Desmond Tompkins helped curate and host a youth art show at the South Surrey/White Rock Learning Centre. (Contributed photo)
South Surrey/White Rock Learning Centre art show highlights ‘diverse perspectives’

With COVID-19 protocols in place, youth art show underway

RCMP Isp. Benoit Maure (top right) has written a book, Leading at the Edge, which details Canadian peacekeeping missions, including his own 1999 mission in Guatemala (bottom right). (Contributed photos)
Longtime RCMP officer pens book on Canadian peacekeeping efforts

RCMP Insp. Benoit Maure’s new book, Leading at the Edge, features stories from 10 missions

The SACH Community Hub team, from left to right: Upkar Singh Tatlay, Gary Thandi, Allysha Ram, Jassy Pandher, Harman Pander. (Submitted photo)
There’s help for South Asian men wrestling with drug addiction in Surrey

South Asian deaths related to toxic drugs increased by 255 per cent between 2015 and 2018

Crews with Discovery Channel film as an Aggressive Towing driver moves a Grumman S2F Tracker aircraft around a 90-degree turn from its compound and onto the road on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021. It was the “most difficult” part of the move for the airplane, one organizer said. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
VIDEO: Vintage military plane gets towed from Chilliwack to Greater Victoria

Grumman CP-121 Tracker’s eventual home the British Columbia Aviation Museum on Vancouver Island

The Independent Investigations Office of BC (IIO) is looking into the death of man discovered Jan. 11 in east Maple Ridge. (Black Press files)
B.C.’s police watchdog investigating man’s death in Maple Ridge

Man was found dead Jan. 11 after recent contact with police

Chilliwack Law Courts. (Black Press file)
Man sentenced to 20 months for sexual offences involving a minor in Mission

Will Laws Clark was 22 and victim was 13 at time offences began

Rolling seven-day average of cases by B.C. health authority to Jan. 21. Fraser Health in purple, Vancouver Coastal red, Interior Health orange, Northern Health green and Vancouver Island blue. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control)
2nd COVID vaccine doses on hold as B.C. delivery delayed again

New COVID-19 cases slowing in Fraser Health region

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. Two more cases of the COVID-19 strain first identified in South Africa have been diagnosed in British Columbia, bringing the total to three as of Jan. 16.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. now has three cases of South African COVID-19 variant, six of U.K. strain

Both variants are thought to spread faster than earlier strains

Rodney and Ekaterina Baker in an undated photo from social media. The couple has been ticketed and charged under the Yukon’s <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> for breaking isolation requirements in order to sneak into a vaccine clinic and receive Moderna vaccine doses in Beaver Creek. (Facebook/Submitted)
Great Canadian Gaming CEO resigns after being accused of sneaking into Yukon for vaccine

Rod Baker and Ekaterina Baker were charged with two CEMA violations each

Police discovered a makeshift nightclub in a Vancouver apartment on Jan. 23, 2021, and say it wasn’t the first time this month officers have been called to the unit over social gathering concerns. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News)
Doorman of makeshift ‘booze-can’ in Vancouver apartment fined; police look to court order

This marks the fourth complaint about social gatherings inside the apartment in January

A Kelowna couple welcomed their Nooner baby in December. (Flytographer)
Kelowna couple welcomes baby girl from Hotel Zed Nooner campaign

Nicole and Alex will now have 18 years of free stays at the hotel

Most Read