If he wasn’t a writer Jason Odell Williams would be
a) wildly happy b) wildly unhappy c) wild d) a musician
Jason Odell William’s Young Adult novel ‘Personal Statement’ is a wildly fun read about three high schoolers, Emily Kim, Rani Caldwell, and Robert Clinton III, trying to write personal statements that will make their already laudatory college applications just that much more special. I really enjoyed this smart and sassy satire on societal expectations and what we expect from ourselves.
How did the idea for your young adult novel Personal Statement come?
Several things inspired me to write this book, but most notably having a daughter in Manhattan and seeing what it was like when it came time to enroll her in pre-school. It was nuts! The mothers in our Upper West Side neighborhood were talking about nothing but schools and waiting lists and “why haven’t you filled out any applications yet, your daughter will never get into a good school or go on to a good college if you don’t do what we are all doing!!” It was insanity. And that was just pre-school! Then it came time for Kindergarten and we live near a wonderful public school so my wife and I thought, “Great, one less thing to worry about.” But then we found out our school was overcrowded and there would be a lottery and it was the same insanity all over again. So this was all in the back of my mind, when two friends from college, Carey Albertine and Saira Rao (who both have kids as well) came to me soon after they launched their publishing company with an idea for a book about teenagers racing to volunteer after a hurricane to pad their college applications and I was like “Yes, yes, yes! I get this! We have to write this book!” We started talking about how there aren’t many great stories about what it’s like RIGHT NOW for kids applying to college and speaking to the insanity of it with humor and heart. So over the course of a few months we plotted out a story and all of the characters and it grew from there. But it goes back to my personal experience with the Manhattan pre-school application process. I don’t even want to think about my daughter’s college application years. She’s the high school class of 2023! I can’t imagine what it will be like then.
What did you write your college application on?
I honestly don’t remember. I’ve tried to bring it back but can’t seem to. Maybe I blocked it out!
Your novel is told from the Point of View of four characters – which is your favorite?
That’s really difficult – it’s like Sophie’s Choice! Because I truly love them all – for different reasons. But I guess I like Emily Kim the most. I also love Duncan (who is not a narrator, and is really just a minor character), but I love to write characters who aren’t afraid to be brutally honest and controversial and say funny but sometimes harsh and true things about the world.
Can you tell us a little about your writing/revision process?
A lot of it is pre-writing. I think about what I’m going to write long before I put pen to paper (or type words on my computer). I let ideas float around and have conversations in my head for a long time. Then finally after weeks and months I begin with early notes and ideas (I like to use colored notecards for that). Sometimes I have a full outline or treatment, other times I just have scattered notes and ideas. But the real hard writing begins for me when I get my characters “talking” – whether it’s to each other or to the reader narrating. That’s when the story and characters come alive to me: when the character’s voices take shape. Then I try to methodically work my way through a first draft. Push through – leave placeholders if I need to for beats or lines of dialogue I haven’t quite figured out yet, and just keep moving forward. Get all the way to the end and THEN I have some understanding of the whole story and can go back to begin rewrites. Which is a different process and I think that’s actually where the real “writing” takes place—that’s where this rough blob is molded and shaped into something with a real form, connections are made and it all starts to make sense. I also like to read everything out loud – narration and dialogue should read easily out loud. If it doesn’t, something is wrong and needs to be rewritten.
Any advise for a beginning writer?
Write, write, write. Get the bad stuff out of the way. Then write some more. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be perfect out of the gate. All great writers get rejected, write bad drafts, have doubts, etc. But I think the real difference between great writers and everyone else, is that the great ones keep writing. They keep at it. There’s no book or class that can teach you how to write, I think. The only way is to just do it. Write, write, write.
A favorite memoir/short story/novel/poem?
Short stories, hands down it’s A Perfect Day For Bananafish and Just Before the War with the Eskimos from NINE STORIES by J.D. Salinger. Perfect little gems. Novels…? There are too many to name all of my favorites but I’ll say The World According to Garp, The Art of Fielding, The Catcher in the Rye, 1984, The Great Gatsby, and Breakfast of Champions. Those are books I loved so much that I’ve read them multiple times.
Your favorite social media tool?
Used to be Facebook, and now Twitter is growing on me. But I’m still kind of old-fashioned and like to use e-mail. (Strange that I consider email to be old-fashioned!)
E-reader. Hardcover. Paperback?
Paperback! I like to bend and fold books in my back pocket and I carry them to read on the train and wear them in so much the cover falls off. I love that tactile feeling of pages… and I think font and layout are crucial to the reading experience and I want to see what the author and publisher picked… not what my Kindle decides is the correct format and font.
Chocolate. Strawberry. Vanilla?
Dog. Cat. Horse. Gorilla?
Dog. We want to get one soon (mostly for our daughter), but it’s tough in the city.
Fame. Wealth. Looks. Respect. Love?
That should be easy right… we should all say love. But Wealth, fame and respect are hard to resist. I’ll say “success” – that can mean lots of things.
Tea? Coffee? Water?
Water – all the way.
A favorite cuisine?
Whatever my wife makes.
A favorite movie?
OLD: The Graduate. SORT OF OLD: Rushmore. RECENT: Pitch Perfect.
A favorite song?
A Day in the Life by the Beatles
Your most favorite place in the whole world?
A favorite magazine?
I’m not a magazine guy. But if I see Vanity Fair or New York Magazine lying around I’ll read them. But the only subscription I used to have was to Golf magazine.
A favorite work of art?
I love Mondrian. And “The Kiss” by Klimt. I also love the architecture of the buildings and open spaces of Lincoln Center near where we live. They recently added this grassy area above a restaurant and added this statue in a pool of water and trees nearby. It’s a nice little city oasis. And Central Park is also a work of art in my opinion!
If you weren’t a writer you’d be…..
What are working on now?
Most exciting is the screenplay adaptation of Personal Statement! It was optioned by two former Miramax executives and we just had a great meeting with them in L.A. I’m really excited to dive into that – plus I get to collaborate with my wife, Charlotte Cohn, on that script. We love working together! I’ve also got my “day job” writing and producing Season 3 of “Brain Games” on the National Geographic Channel, fine-tuning my play for its Off-Broadway debut later this year, and also adapting that same play for the big screen. That’s plenty for now.