INTERVIEW WITH KAY WILLIAMS AND EILEEN WYMAN
Kay Williams and Eileen Wyman
Calliope Press (2015)
Reviewed by Michel Violante for Reader Views (12/15)
Article first published as Interview: Kay Williams and Eileen Wyman, Authors of ‘The Matryoshka Murders’ on Blogcritics.
Kay Williams always had an inclination to be a professional actress, so, with stars in her eyes, she moved to New York City right after college graduation (she was a theater major). She lived in a rent-controlled apartment with no heat, and lots of rodents, too busy earning money to act (her dad had saved her letters from that time so she recently took a fresh look at those hair-raising and now hilarious adventures). After 9 months in the Big Apple, Kay slunk back to Ohio, to a safer life, teaching, directing, acting in community theater, and reviewing films and plays.
Her dream didn’t die. She moved to San Francisco, where she played many leading roles until several theaters went bankrupt (an occupational hazard, she discovered). Acting roles dried up just after she earned her Equity union card. She left the Bay Area for the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Two years later that theater was too broke to renew her contract. There was only one place left to go, New York City. It still scared her, but this time she vowed to be victorious. Kay acted in a number of new off-Broadway plays, finding it more fun than doing a show that had been successfully produced and “set in stone.” In between acting jobs, she worked as an office temp until she landed a perfect job, “Gal Friday” to an award-winning independent filmmaker, which not only gave her flexible hours to audition, but also an education about film writing, directing, and producing. She took films she’d helped produce to the Cannes Film Festival and to the Leningrad International Documentary Festival (where Kay and Eileen’s second thriller, The Matryoshka Murders, begins).
Kay’s eventual move to an apartment in New York’s crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen became one of the catalysts for Butcher of Dreams, Kay and Eileen’s first thriller (about the theater, of course).
Fearful of spending her retirement as a bag lady begging for money outside Actors Equity, Kay took a “real” job. A physician she’d worked for as a temp asked her to join him as he set up a Primary Care Residency Track at NYU Medical Center. She did, and learned a great deal about gooddoctoring and academic medicine (and the politics of academe–another book, perhaps). The NYU job was too demanding to take time off to audition so she and Eileen teamed up to write, a move they had been contemplating for several years. Kay discovered that she didn’t miss acting all that much. With fiction writing, she had total control and could play all the characters! Kay and Eileen found they jelled as a writing team.
Eileen Wyman, an only child, invented a friend named Peanut Butter to keep her company when she was little. Her whimsical, quirky sense of humor and off-the-cuff quips attracted many friends as she grew older. In college, she majored in radio/TV, developing skills as a scriptwriter, and began her lifelong collection of humorous ideas, witty bon mots, silly names, and pithy observations, which she jotted into notebooks and then typed onto index cards, organized by category, filling many file drawers.
She would have been a wonderful stand-up comedienne but didn’t have the physical stamina. She developed her comic genius in her spare time and took jobs that brought in money. In Ohio, she was a much-loved third-grade teacher of underprivileged children; in San Francisco, a sympathetic and wise listener as she counseled pre-delinquent teens; in a Manhattan corporation, an empathetic human resources person. She brought imagination, soul and wit to everything she wrote, empathy and compassion to everyone she knew. She sold her humorous ideas as cartoon captions and greeting card messages. She wrote jokes and one-liners for textbook authors and speech writers. She edited many books and film scripts, and co-wrote two thrillers, Butcher of Dreams and The Matryoshka Murders.
Eileen, an amazing, talented woman, passed away on Sept. 6, 2013, just after The Matryoshka Murders was completed. Tragically, she didn’t get to see the published book.
Sheri: Welcome Kay, and thank you for being here today. Can you start by telling our readers a bit about yourself and Eileen, and your journeys to becoming published authors?
Kay: Eileen and I knew each other in high school but became real friends when we worked at a radio-TV station in Columbus, Ohio. We both wanted the same things–to escape the stultifying roles for women that existed at that time, and to develop our talents, she as a writer, and me as an actress, in a nurturing environment. Our quest made us gypsies for the first 20 years. We went from our first adventure in New York City, a dismal, ego-shattering failure, to the San Francisco-Bay Area (where we developed our talents and gained self-confidence), then back east to Pittsburgh, finally returning to New York (with a stopover for Kay in Jackson, Mississippi for a year of regional repertory). We earned money from our art, but most years not enough to live on, so we worked day jobs too.
When we started writing, we still had our day jobs so we wrote at 4:00am weekdays before work and on the weekends. (It took forever to finish a book, but we persevered.) Through the Mystery Writers of America, we found a writers’ group who provided invaluable feedback for our first thriller, Butcher of Dreams, and three more titles beyond, including The Matryoshka Murders.
(This group helped my journalist Dad revise his first book, a biography/memoir, about his mother Maude, and my sister Jerri and me to revise his second book, One Last Dance, a comic romance that we finished after his death at age 95.) The Writers’ Group still meets. I don’t know what I’d do without it.
Sheri: I understand you are also an accomplished actress and independent filmmaker. What impact did these skills have on your writing?
Kay: I have performed in so many plays (and a few films) and done so many audition scenes, I understand (by osmosis, I think) the arc of a satisfying scene –with a beginning, middle and end–and I recognize good dialogue (not too clunky or expository). Also, I visualize scenes as if I were seeing a film: a wide shot here, a close up there, a pan, an establishing shot, a cutaway.
Finding a character’s through-line carried over to my writing. Also knowing how to search for a play’s spine steadied our focus as the number of chapters grew.
Eileen was an enthusiastic student of improvisational comedy; as an actor, I improvised scenes not in the play to enrich my role and my relationship with the other characters. When Eileen or I had writer’s block, we improvised, doing speed writing, not playing safe, letting everything out. Sometimes it produced a small crack so could move forward. Other times it gave us huge breakthroughs, as when we had to re-think our path to the conclusion of the book.
Even with a leg up, writing is hard, hard work. All you authors out there, if you can find a good group of writers whose talent and judgment you respect, that’s a real plus. The writers’ group helped us shape our work, and we learned to critique theirs, giving us a critical skill we hadn’t had when we started writing.
As an actor, I read between the lines, searching for subtext in the dialogue. Often I would understand what was happening in a dialogue-heavy scene read by another writer, while my colleagues were confused, and said they needed a narrative guide in addition to the dialogue. To have that pointed out, that most people didn’t read the way I did, that I represented a small percentage of readers who might “get” that scene, was eye-opening, (and helped my writing).
Sheri: What is “The Matryoshka Murders” about?
Kay: Kate Hennessey is in Leningrad for the 1991 Documentary Festival with colleagues, the chance of a lifetime, she feels, to collect fascinating interviews for her guerrilla film class in NYC. After attending an “illegal” meeting of women and taping their descriptions of the harshness of their lives, Kate and her new friend Sveta are abducted to a cemetery, robbed, and left to die in the bitter cold. Kate escapes; she thinks Sveta has too. Kate believes the abduction was random. She’s more worried about the fight that she and her lover Gilly had just before she left the U.S., and she throws herself into gathering more footage, her “Messages from Leningrad.”
As rumors circulate of an impending coup, Kate discovers that Sveta is missing and tapes a video interview of Sveta’s lover, 17-year-old Nadya, who has been raped by the police because she is rozovaya, gay. Kate learns to her horror when she and Nadya visit the Kafé Dusha (Café Soul), a dairy bar where gay women socialize, that Sveta may be incarcerated in aPsychiatric Clinic for the Cure (drugs and shock therapy). Or she may be dead.
An attack against Kate as she shops along the Nevsky Prospect, and a fire in the wing of her hotel make her understand that someone wants to kill her. She flees Leningrad, her videos taped to her stomach, pursued by a scar-faced KGB officer and the local police who have found Sveta’s frozen body in the cemetery pond.
Back home in her NYC apartment, Kate finds that the danger overseas has come straight to her doorstep, and that nothing is what it seems.
The story takes place just before the Soviet Union broke apart, during a time of intrinsic violence, economic collapse, and political chaos, a time when no lives were safe and crime was a way of life. According to some, Russia is as murky and as menacing today and the KGB (under a different name) continue to remain in total control.
The book is a spotlight on this fascinating country and a caution. Important political and gender issues are woven in, add value and enhance the plot, reminding us we must never–no matter where we live in the world–take our rights for granted, that without vigilance they may be lost.
Sheri: Where did you get the inspiration for the story?
Kay: In January 1991, my filmmaker friend Jack and I were in Leningrad because his documentary film Revolution (about the 60’s hippies in San Francisco) had been invited to the Film Festival. Shortly before we arrived in Russia, all 50- and 100-ruble notes had been ordered turned into the banks as part of the government’s crackdown on the black market manipulation of the ruble. This was really an attack on free enterprise. The real crooks dealt in hard currency. The KGB “mafia” were encouraging the black market, we discovered, hoping to throw a monkey wrench in the country’s attempts to move from communism to capitalism. Little food was on the shelves, there were long lines for a loaf of bread or a bottle of vodka. “I’ll do anything for a dollar,” said one apple-cheeked young man volunteering at the festival. (A U.S. dollar was worth 40-50 rubles on the black market.) “Anything?” I asked. He looked me in the eye and said, “Yes.”
Grim-looking soldiers (demobilized from East Germany after the Berlin Wall fell) patrolled the streets and the hotel. At the festival’s opening ceremonies, the General Director read an appeal to all people of the earth: a protest against the turn to dictatorship in the USSR, and a return to the cold war.
What a great setting, I thought, for a thriller. A rising crime wave, desperate citizens who were broke and willing to do anything for U.S dollars, who had tasted Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, and now feared a return to totalitarianism. KGB, soldiers, illegal meetings not approved by the government, husbands who’d lost their jobs sending wives out to work as prostitutes. Huge snowfalls and temperatures 30 and 40 degrees below zero, then dramatic thaws, the Neva River, fat and oily, outside our hotel windows coiled like a snake.
Jack and I made friends with a wonderful festival translator, Olga, who loved her country, feared for it, and answered our many questions. When she told me, “It’s like the third world here for women,” a plot idea began to bubble in my brain. It was 1991. 20 years ago. Women’s issues were big in the U.S. too.
We wanted to help the many lovely people we met who were hurting economically. People in power were fleeing the country with suitcases full of hard currency, but it was illegal for the average citizen to accept more fifty U.S. dollars. Almost every Russian we met on the streets, in the metro, their eyes lit up when they realized we were Americans. They wanted to talk to us, exchange information. But if they saw a soldier nearby, they grew afraid and turned away. They didn’t know who would win the fight between the old guard and the new entrepreneurs.
When I returned to NYC, Eileen and I created a detailed outline from my photos and notes. Olga, translator at the festival, and her mother, a retired pediatrician, visited us. We had prepared questions which they answered on videotape, Olga translating her mother’s replies.
We wrote 6 chapters before we had to put the book aside because of family illnesses. We came back to it much later, but that delay turned out to be a blessing. After the Soviet Union broke apart in August 1991, hidden information came to light that gave us new insights and changed our story for the better.
Sheri: Tell us about Kate’s character, and the significance of a female protagonist in your story.
Kay: Kate is 25, at a crossroads in her life. She has had a wrenching breakup with her lover Gilly; she isn’t sure how much longer she will have this job she loves with Titan Films, a company that’s going broke. She, Dom, and Steve have come to the Leningrad festival desperate to sell subsidiary rights of current properties and to pick up foreign investors for new film projects. Kate loves and respects her boss Dom, an award-winning independent filmmaker, for his talent and for giving her the chance to learn. She has a good “eye,” he’s told her, interesting and original, essential for film directors. She is loyal to Dom, and protective.
She’s brave, can think on her feet, and can take care of herself. When, right after college, she escaped to Manhattan from her overbearing Uncle Burt, she decided that as a woman living alone, she needed to know how to protect herself on the mean streets of New York City. She earned a green belt in Tae Kwon Do, and is going for black.
Kate also has a secret life that she hides from guardians Burt and Maureen, a life she isn’t sure she can continue.
Curious, compassionate, adventurous, she has brought the company video camera to Leningrad to gather interviews of real people for her film course back in NYC. She is appalled and angered by the oppression of the Russian women she meets, and records the tragic stories of those unafraid to speak, as well as their criticisms of current political leaders. Kate feels honor-bound to help a terrified young woman who is afraid she may be killed, and is swept up in a whirlwind that leads her on an interior journey as well as a literal one, the run for her life. With the help of new Russian friends, Masha, the film festival translator, and Olga, who works at the Olgino Motel, she escapes. Back in the U.S., inspired by the bravery of these women and the “moonlight” women at the Café Soul she finds the courage to face her own life and to fight for what she believes and who she loves.
Sheri: What kind of reaction to your writing do you most seek from your audience?
Kay: That they will invest in the characters, and be drawn into another world, one that will enlighten as well as entertain.
Sheri: What is the best advice you have ever received, about your writing or life in general?
Kay: My grandmother Maude had this philosophy: Try not to worry about those things over which you have no control. She had a positive outlook and was able to change with the changes for most of her 110 years.
A successful life as an actor or writer depends as much on luck and who you know as talent. To survive, I decided not to worry over lost auditions, not to take rejection personally. I try to accept the changes (like theaters folding, or publishing companies going out of business) and move on, to see life as an improvisation. Go on the journey, I tell myself, see where it leads, and when something right comes along, grab it by the shoulders, and say, Yes. Muster the nerve to try. And keep trying.
Sheri: What do you like to do in your free time, that is, if you have any!
Kay: Read, see plays and movies, socialize with friends and family, attend professional meetings (Sisters in Crime, Women’s National Book Association, Mystery Writers of America). Share ideas and new work with the Writers’ Group. Walk around the city and experience the wonderful energy of it. Swim.
Sheri: Do you have a new project in the works, and if so, what can you tell us about it?
Kay: My sister, Jerri Lawrence, and I are revising a second edition of our journalist dad’s book, Maude (1883-1993), a biography/memoir first published in 1996. It will be a paperback printing, with added historical content, twice as many photos, and revisions that Dad wanted to make if Maude ever went into another printing. (Jerri and I had collaborated earlier to finish our Dad’s novel, One Last Dance, winning us an Ohioana Library Award in 2009 for Writing and Editing Excellence.)
Also, I discovered recently that my dad saved my letters (25 years’ worth) from those gypsy days when I was traveling around the country. I wrote very detailed ones–phone calls were too expensive and e-mails didn’t exist. Reading them has been a real trip. I’m transcribing them as a social history, a window on the times, and adding photos, newspaper clips, and playbills.
A third project is preserving Jack O’Connell’s legacy as an independent filmmaker. I worked on two films with him, but he made a total of five, each emblematic of its time. His partner Britta and I have digitized and transferred everything to hard drives.
Anthology Film Archives, in Manhattan, has collected his sound mags and reels of celluloid film for future generations to know how movies were made before the digital world existed. Our next step is to build a website to honor Jack, an overlooked pioneer of independent cinema, who spent 10 years as a Mad Man (as in “Mad Men”) and traveled to Italy to learn filmmaking with Federico Fellini (on La Dolce Vita) and Michelangelo Antonioni (on L’Avventura). In 1961, he wrote, produced and directed his first feature, a drama called Greenwich Village Story, set in the Greenwich Village world of beats and poets. Revolution, his iconic documentary shot among the hippies in 1967 San Francisco, features music by the Steve Miller Band, Mother Earth, and Quicksilver Messenger.
Sheri: Before we go, can you tell us about your website and what additional information can be found there about “The Matryoshka Murders?”
Kay: Besides the usual–author bios, book discussion questions, excerpt, and review snippets– the Calliope Press website (http://www.calliopepress.com/the-matryoshka-murders/) features two videos. One, put together with photos I shot in Leningrad, gives a brief synopsis of the story. The other consists of snaps from the video of the Laboratory of Experimental Modeling whose performance Jack and I saw in 1991, shocking for two reasons: the audacity of the actors who poked fun at the KGB and the Communist Party; and the extreme costumes (and lack of costumes) they wore. This fearless company was a forerunner of today’s Pussy Riot, a feminist rock protest group, three of whose members were jailed by Russian officials in 2012 for their “hooliganism” or heresy. Interestingly, Pussy Riot’s themes are much the same as the Laboratory of Experimental Modeling’s were over 20 years ago: feminism, LGBT rights, and opposition to the policies of political leaders.
Sheri: Kay, it has been a pleasure chatting with you today and I look forward to seeing more work from you in the future. Thank you again for stopping by.
Kay: Thank you for the good questions. I had fun answering them.