Author Phillip Lee Williams. Contributed by Jason Thrasher
Photo: Jason Thrasher
Photo: Jason Thrasher

Philip Lee Williams weathers the highs and lows of the writing life

You might call it “The Heart of a Distant Forest” — the title of his first novel, published in 1984, that tells the story of a man who writes about the natural world in the twilight of his life.

Thirty-six years later, Williams just published his 13th novel and 20th book, “Far Beyond the Gates” (Mercer University Press, $25), which captures the angst of a woman trying to heal a toxic relationship with her father.

The story is told in a double-journal form by Lucy McKay, 35, a divorced high school teacher, and her father, Pratt McKay, a prize-winning history professor who is ill with multiple sclerosis. The father lives in a gated mountain community in North Carolina and invites Lucy to spend the summer.

“I had been interested for some time in writing a novel about fathers and daughters,” Williams says. “And I especially wanted to explore how the world of colleges and other schools help shape their relationships. The novel has several levels of discovery that have to be made between Lucy and Pratt. But neither knows how to talk to each other.”

Ultimately, the story is about the “achingly hard job of making love work in a woman’s life,” he says. To write convincingly in the voice of a woman, Williams says he spent his life and career “talking to women friends about their thoughts, hopes and dreams, while letting them know I was trying to better understand how women react under certain circumstances.”

The book is Williams’ first new novel in eight years, a long dry spell for one of the South’s most prolific authors. About 200 fans gathered in Athens for signed copies on his 70th birthday in January, but by the book’s official release date on March 2, the COVID-19 pandemic had wiped out Williams’ plans for a tour.

“I figured it was all over, for that book, and for my writing career,” he says.

While overall book sales slumped during the pandemic, the virus was devastating for presses like Mercer University Press, which is based in Macon and provides a welcoming home for regional authors.

“University presses have taken an average loss of 50 (percent) to 60 percent,” says Mercer University Press Director Marc Jolley. “As time has gone on, sales are creeping back up a little.”

“Far Beyond the Gates” by Phillip Lee Williams. Contributed by Mercer University Press
Photo: For the AJC

Williams takes disappointment in stride. His 1988 novel, “All the Western Stars,” led to an MGM contract to make a movie with Richard Zanuck and David Brown, who produced “Jaws.” But MGM was sold, and the studio dropped the movie along with dozens of others. The option was picked up by another company. Jack Lemmon and James Garner were set to star. Five weeks before the cameras rolled, Lemmon backed out.

Despite the setbacks, Williams continued to wake every morning at 4 a.m. to write for two hours before heading to his day job as a publicist and adjunct creative writing professor for the University of Georgia. Since retiring in 2010, he’s lightened up on his writing schedule.

“I have much less pressure to write now, so I suppose I write less because of that. But I am always working, if only in my head,” he says.

“Phil Williams built a writer’s life for himself simply by getting up every morning early, no matter how he felt or how much he drank the night before or whatever else he had to do that day, including a full-time job, and he wrote,” said his former boss at the old Athens Observer, Pete McCommons, now editor of The Flagpole, the city’s alternative newsweekly.

Those early mornings produced an extraordinary body of work: 13 novels, four non-fiction books, three books of poetry, plays, 32 unpublished completed manuscripts and 20 partially written manuscripts.

Unlike so many writers who die broke, Williams told his wife, Linda, he was writing to create art, not make money. “I wanted to write novels, to create something of value without expecting to make a dime off of it.” To that end, they both held secure jobs in education that promised comfortable retirements, which they now enjoy. Along the way, Williams cashed a few healthy checks from advances and movie options, which he saved and invested.

As the son of educators with modest incomes, Williams knew what it was like to struggle making ends meet. For example, he couldn’t afford to live in the dorms at the University of Georgia so he commuted 60 miles round trip every day from his parents’ home in Madison.

It was at UGA where he met Linda, an English major, while he majored in radio, TV and film with minors in English and history. They’ve been married 47 years and have two children. He later worked for four Georgia newspapers that taught him to write fast and edit carefully, he says.

William’s first novel was published by W.W. Norton in New York. At book signings in Atlanta, he received encouragement from local writers who blossomed into fame in the 1970s — Pat Conroy, Anne Rivers Siddons, Paul Hemphill, Bill Diehl and Terry Kay.

“Phil simply hasn’t had the public recognition that people of his talent deserve,” says Kay, who lives a few miles from Williams and has a new novel of his own coming out in September.

Not content just to write manuscripts, Williams, who plays piano and guitar, also has composed 18 symphonies on his computer using the Sibelius score-writer program. Never performed live, they are archived with his papers at UGA and can be heard on his website.

At times, Williams merged his passion for music with his writing. His fifth novel, “Perfect Timing,” was a comic romp about a music professor at a small conservatory on an adventure “between heaven, hell and Myrtle Beach.”

Using his reporter’s skills, he researched Nazi death camps for his most ambitious musical work, the “Holocaust Symphony.” The symphony has nine movements: The first eight are dedicated to different camps, the final one, “Kaddish,” is a memorial to the victims.

Williams revisits the theme of antisemitism in his latest manuscript, tentatively titled “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day,” that he’s been working on for six years. Set in north Georgia in 1915, the story follows a young gentile woman who falls in love with a Jewish man. He is framed for theft and sentenced to prison.

As book sales are starting to revive, Williams is monitoring the sales of “Far Beyond the Gates” to see if publishing his new novel makes sense. Either way, he’ll continue writing it because that’s just what he does, regardless of the outcome.

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