Reading South Surrey author Tanya E. Williams’ trilogy of historic novels is akin to stumbling on a cache of anonymous vintage family photos in an antique store – along with the stories behind them.
Somewhere behind the faded sepia and black-and-white tones, the smiles summoned up for the camera, the events long-forgotten and clothing that can only seem quaint to modern eyes, there is an underlying sense that these pictures are part of a narrative of very real lives, full of all the complicated motives and emotions endemic to the human condition.
“That’s really how I like to write historical fiction – like a series of snapshots of the past,” Williams acknowledged in an interview with Peace Arch News this week.
Her latest novel, A Man Called Smith – to be released officially on Tuesday (Aug. 13) – provides a richly layered, if often heart-wrenching, final instalment to her saga of the family of South Dakota-raised John Smith.
Starting with her poetic novella Becoming Mrs. Smith, released in 2017, Williams has traced a very 20th century story that moves from the 1930s through the 1960s – and beyond.
In the process she has created characters that linger in the mind, and a subtle evocation of comparatively recent history that manages to convince, even while imbued with all the resonance, and nostalgic sense of time and place, of a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover (streaming service mini-series producers take note!).
Williams freely admits that as his name suggests, John Smith was intended to be an Everyman, and his story encapsulates both the joys and heartaches of a generation.
But crucial in the cumulative telling of that story are the voices of three women in his life – his childhood sweetheart and first wife Violet; Bernice, who becomes his second wife; and daughter Calla – each one, in her own way, throwing a light on the restricted options of women of their generations.
In Becoming Mrs. Smith, the empathetic, sensitive Violet gives her touching account of her relationship with John and the emotional turmoil of separation and life on the home front during the Second World War while John is overseas, serving in the U.S. Army.
In Stealing Mr. Smith, released last year, Williams gives voice to the neurotic and ultimately destructive Bernice, who invades the lives of John – and his children – in the post-war world of the late ’40s, seeing in him a chance to have everything that cruel circumstance has denied her.
“That one was the most difficult to write – it was a very challenging place to be, inside her head,” Williams said.
Now, with the longest of the three, A Man Called Smith, Calla – John’s and Violet’s daughter – tells her own story, starting as a 16-year-old in Washington State in 1964, determined to build a new life outside the conflict within her family.
The other voice in the latest novel is John’s own, as he attempts, over the years, to come to terms with his life and the choices he has made. That narrative, starting in the late 1940s, is interspersed with Calla’s – following an emotional rather than chronological line – until both accounts merge in the 1960s and move forward from there.
“It seemed like a great idea to tell it that way – until it came to the editing,” Williams laughed. “Then it was a case of ‘what have I done?’”
But she feels that the approach makes sense, nonetheless, in relating the underlying issues in John’s life.
“He’s always trying to do the right thing throughout his life, but he never quite makes it. He will frustrate some readers, I’m sure, because of what he doesn’t do,” Williams notes.
“(The novel) follows this idea – what if it’s not the choices we make, but the choices we don’t make that determine our lives? John lets life happen to him – and he’s certainly not alone in that.”
“This one is a harder read than the other two, in that there’s a lot of emotion; a lot of angst there.”
Interestingly, Williams feels that it doesn’t matter which of the trilogy is read first by people new to the series – each can stand on its own as a novel, she said.
“I almost prefer that people new to the books read the last one first, because the other two work well as background material to that,” she said.
“I think it’s all worked out even better than I expected,” she added, noting that while she has realized she enjoys writing story arcs that include elements of sadness and tragedy, she has taken pains to leave the Smith family on a positive note.
Telling the story of John Smith, with all his strengths and flaws, was always her original plan, even before she wrote Becoming Mrs. Smith, she said.
“But then these two strong women characters – Violet and Bernice – came along who demanded that their stories be told, too.”
Williams doesn’t find it fanciful that it seems her well fleshed-out characters have exerted their own will over the telling – a testament to the power of imagination she brings to her writing.
“They are real to me – until they are out in the world and no longer in my hands, and then they tend to belong to other people,” she said.
While her story deals with regrets over past choices, she has none of her own about her decision to close the Tri-Geeks Multisport store in South Surrey three years ago (after 14 years in business) and devote herself to writing and publishing in tandem with her husband David, and with technical help from their son Justin, now a forensic psychology student at KPU.
“While I loved the sport (triathlons) and the store taught me a lot about running a business, I’m very glad I decided to concentrate on my writing,” she said.
“I absolutely love it – every part of it. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
A Man Called Smith is available online at amazon.ca and also at Indigo and other local retailers.