Posts Tagged ‘Mary Elizabeth Williams’

Live Nude Books: You’ve written several personal narratives for a number of publications; have you always had a desire to write a memoir?  What made you choose to write about this subject—the experience of purchasing a home?

Mary Elizabeth Williams: I’ve always written first person — I would go on field trips as a kid and come home and compose an essay about what I did and how I felt. 

The challenge for any writer is to get out of your own navel and figure out how your own experience will resonate on a more universal level. That’s why I chose to do a book about home — it wasn’t something unique to me, it’s something anyone who’s ever had a roof over his or her head has context for. And what happened during the housing bubble was particularly dramatic — I wanted people to know wherever they were and whatever they went through, they weren’t alone.

LNB: In the book, you develop and explore several themes: familial bonds, friendship, security, and how place contributes to a person’s identity.  When you began working on the memoir, did you have an idea for the types of themes you wanted to touch on?  Did those themes emerge naturally through the writing process?

MEW: The book went through some changes — originally a lot more took place in my childhood. But as I refined the narrative, I was more involved in the story of a family in a particular place and time in history, so that began to take more of the center stage. As I got more confident as a first time author, I realized you don’t need to know my whole life to get why buying a home was so important. I also wanted to emphasize that this notion of the “ownership society” wasn’t just something that hit me because of my specific circumstances — it was something that was very aggressively peddled to the American people in general. That’s why I brought in the stories of my friends and family and their homebuying experiences.

LNB: During the three-year process of becoming a homeowner, you were raising two kids and working.  How were you able to find time to write this book?  Do you have a writing routine?

MEW: Well, sleep is the first to go. I got in the habit very early on of firing up the laptop right after putting the kids to bed, and making myself do at least a solid hour every night. I could carve out longer blocks on the weekends. No checking email. No surfing. Just me and a word document. 

The key is to just bang away and keep banging. I cut a lot of parts and I rewrote even more, but if you’re in the routine of writing, you become very Pavlovian about it.

LNB: What are you currently working on?

MEW: I’m writing regularly for and continuing to contribute to PRI’s morning show, and I have two messy, much too unformed book ideas. Summer has kicked my routine to bits, so the plan is to start developing the next book more fully in the fall. I’m basically going to put both ideas in the steel cage, write every night, and see which one emerges victorious.

LNB: What have you recently read that you’re recommending to friends and other readers?

MEW: Lily Burana’s, I Love a Man in Uniform, is great — it’s the story of an unlikely military wife that’s incredibly funny and moving and taught me so much about this world that’s so alien to me. And I’m just finishing Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. You could call it a supernatural noir novel — imagine Sam Spade if he’d gone to hell and you start to get the idea. It’s fantastic.


Homeownership constitutes a good portion of the American Dream.  It represents a transitional stage in people’s lives, moving from the temporary lifestyle of renting to the permanence of buying.  It’s an investment—both financially and in terms of family security.  Mary Elizabeth Williams includes all of these as reasons for why she wants to own a home in her debut memoir, Gimme Shelter.  But what’s made just as clear during this three-year period is the desire for her and her family to find a place to call home that represents their personality.

Originally from New Jersey, Williams had visions of living in New York City.  Before the dot-com boom of the mid-nineties relocated her to San Francisco, she lived across the river from NYC and described its distance from her as being “light years” away.  When the dot-com bubble burst, she and her husband moved to Brooklyn to start a family.  They knew that New York was where they wanted to establish themselves and figured the money they were pumping into rent would be better served going toward a more permanent investment. However, home values in the neighborhood where they lived and wanted to stay began rising steadily.  They were being priced out of the area they had called home since 1999.

The decision to leave the area, or move completely out of the city, seems logical.  If you can’t afford to live where you want, look elsewhere.  But that’s not how Williams sees it.  When pondering the idea of returning to New Jersey, she writes, “In my mind, if I move back to exactly where I clawed my way out of, I haven’t gone anywhere in my life at all.”  She knows for sure that she must stay in the city, but where-to becomes a large obstacle.  As Williams explains, “In New York, if you live off your friends’ nearest subway line, or anywhere that involves crossing a park, body of water, or from east to west, you will never ever see them.”  People are a big part of what makes a location.

It’s easy to empathize with the frustrations she experiences—the lack of adequate homes for sale in the area, financial woes, a pregnancy, and the various hoops one has to jump through when trying to obtain a mortgage—all of which contribute to delaying her and her family from reaching their goal.  The entire process envelops her, creating emotional strain and causing her to doubt whether or not to continue house hunting. Anytime a setback or thoughts about leaving New York occur, Williams weaves in a friend’s story that applies to the situation.

These anecdotes seem to help reaffirm her desire to live in New York and provide a certain level of comfort to her.  Knowing that she’s experiencing stress and anxiety about this transition similar to what others have felt helps her maintain a level of sanity that might otherwise vanish.  She also contrasts the friends’ situations—involving divorce, expanding families, 9/11, and even hurricane Katrina—to hers.  In light of her friends’ circumstances, Williams realizes that her family’s situation is different.  They are as much a part of New York as it is of them.

You can make the best of what’s inside four walls, but what characterizes your place in the world is what greets you when you step outside.  It’s like the old guy I overheard in the deli once.  “Leave?” he’d said.  “I need my track.  I need my bookies.”  For Mike and Deb and their sons, it’s the lawn and this swing set and this hammock.  For us it’s the throb of humanity, viewed from a stoop.

Williams does a wonderful job of pinpointing the locations of neighborhoods in the city, describing them in detail, and providing enough background information on them to give the reader a sense of their cultural and economic importance to the narrative.  And more importantly, she gains the readers trust.  Her responses to adversity feel genuine, likely because the insight she offers isn’t predictable.  She candidly shares a wide range of emotion throughout the book, which made me root for her every step of the way.


Mary Elizabeth Williams is the author of Gimme Shelter, a memoir chronicling her journey toward becoming a homeowner.  She has contributed to the following books, as well: Not Quite What I was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure; The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World; The Complete Idiots Guide to Movies, Flicks & Films; and The Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors.

Bio from the Gimme Shelter book jacket:

Mary Elizabeth Williams is the cultural critic for Public Radio International’s morning news show, THE TAKEWAWAY, and a regular contributor to  She has written for many publications including THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE NEW YORK OBSERVER, and PARENTS.  She has appeared on Court TV and has lectured on journalism and community at New York University and Columbia University.  She lives in New York City.

To read a sample of Williams’s work, click here.

To see the book trailer for Gimme Shelter, click here.