Friday, January 29, 2021

Q&A with Denise Williams


Photo by D&dorf Photography

Denise Williams is the author of the new novel How to Fail at Flirting. She is a diversity trainer and the co-creator of a women's empowerment group. She lives in Iowa.


Q:  How did you come up with the idea for How to Fail at Flirting, and for your character Naya?


A: How to Fail at Flirting started as a lighthearted romcom about ex-boyfriends and how old relationships shape us. As I got to know the character, I knew her story was much more about her journey to being open to love and open to life.


Naya as a character was born when I participated in a guided mediation activity based on Tara Mohr’s book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. As part of the guided mediation, we envisioned an ideal future self and I thought about how my character would see an ideal future self and try to get there.

Type-A Naya would want to control as much as she could, which was why I added the to-do list. The list gives her a roadmap to get where she thinks she wants to go. In the end, the list gives her the foundation to imagine so much more.


Q: You blend very serious topics with a lot of humor. What did you see as the right balance?


A: I don’t think there is one right balance. For this book, Naya’s humor is part of her personality, but it’s only something she feels comfortable sharing with people she trusts. The humor and fun in the book is the character showing more and more of herself to the hero.


As the author, I also wanted to show the duality of a character dealing with trauma and trying to heal and still finding joy and love and having good sex. I hope showing those as not mutually exclusive illustrates that trauma and healing don’t diminish the possibility of joy, love, and sex. At the same time, the latter don’t ameliorate the trauma and healing either.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My second book is about a budding journalist, Britta, tasked with reviewing a fitness app as a user. Along the way, she falls for her virtual coach who is working through his own challenges.


Like Naya, Britta finds her strength and the hero, Wes, finds his but in different ways. I loved writing this book and the first chapter is included at the end of the printed copy of How to Fail at Flirting.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Why I decided to make Naya a professor. That she was a professor was one of the first things I knew about Naya. I have a Ph.D. and work at a university; unlike Naya, my role is administrative, though I sometimes teach classes here and there.


There is so much vitriol and misunderstanding about what universities do and who professors are. It’s also the case that women and womxn of color in the academy are often unseen—a quick Google image search for professor will turn up very few images of people who look like me.


At the same time, there are so many womxn of color shaping our institutions, doing important research, putting in the work, and supporting students despite racism, sexism, and the politics of a racialized institution.


It was important to me that Naya—a character with flaws, fears, struggles, and dreams—also be on her way to tenure, a great teacher, and passionate about her research. I had a wealth of inspiration from the myriad of kick-ass womxn of color I’ve worked with for the last 15 years!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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