Interview With an Author: Brittany N. Williams

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Britttany N. Williams and her debut novel, That Self-Same Metal
Author Britttany N. Williams and her debut novel, That Self-Same Metal. Photo of author by Jessica Osber Photography

Brittany N. Williams () is a classically-trained actress who studied Musical Theatre at Howard University and Shakespearean performance at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama in London. Previously she's been a principal vocalist at Hong Kong Disneyland, a theatre professor at Coppin State University, and made appearances in Queen Sugar and Leverage: Redemption. Her short stories have been published in The Gambit Weekly, Fireside Magazine, and the Star Wars anthology From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back. That Self-Same Metal is her debut novel and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for That Self-Same Metal?

I’d been researching West African traditions and the Orisha—I don’t want to call it "mythology" because my inspiration is a religion that’s still very much in practice—and I came across Ogun, the orisha of iron and technology. My brain immediately jumped to wondering what would happen if someone given magic by Ogun fought the fae—who are vulnerable to iron. Then my love of Shakespeare took over and I knew I had to have a fight happen during a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

It actually started as an adult fantasy with the main character facing down Queen Elizabeth I and I’ll be honest, I struggled with that version for a few years. But, when I made Joan sixteen, the story suddenly opened up and the writing came easily. From there I’ve pretty much been adding, not subtracting, and even the stuff that I did take out of this book, I can slide those moments into the sequels. One thing I did lose was a really epic moment from the ending of the first draft. I can’t tell you exactly what it was because it’s still a spoiler. The ending of the book now is honestly better, but I still miss that old scene.

Are Joan, James, Nick, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

So, everyone in Shakespeare’s acting company is based on a real person, including James and Nick. The one change I made there was that I made Nick younger. Robert Cecil, his son William, the queen, and her ladies are all based on real people as well. I found including historical figures really fun especially because for a lot of them only the most scandalous facts have survived. Joan however is completely fabricated—aside from her last name—and she’s named after Joan of Arc and my friend, hip-hop journalist Joan Morgan.

Several of the characters are clearly inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Is it your favorite of Shakespeare’s plays or do you have another? If so, what is it?

There’s no way I was writing a fae story set in Shakespearean London and not including some version of Puck, Oberon, and Titania. That would be sacrilegious! I’m currently directing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in New Orleans, but it isn’t my favorite Shakespeare play. That title goes to Richard III. It’s got a villain for a main character, salacious murders, ghosts, court intrigue, everything!

Do you have a favorite adaptation (television, motion picture or theatre production)? A least favorite?

My favorite adaptation was a production of Richard III set in a slaughterhouse. It was done by the all-male company Propeller—they’ve since disbanded—and it was one of the most thrilling shows I’ve ever seen. My least favorite was a Romeo and Juliet I saw years ago at the Royal Shakespeare Company. The show itself was great but Romeo and Juliet were dating in real life, so the PDA was really over-the-top and didn’t suit the play.

Do you have a favorite film, novel, or story involving Shakespeare as a character, as you have done in That Self-Same Metal?

I think I’m one of the few folks who watched the show Will on TNT. It was about a young William Shakespeare moving to London and had so much potential. It showed a diverse and bustling city, it did fun things with contemporary music, it had master spy Christopher Marlowe. It only ran for one season back in 2017 but I really enjoyed it.

Do you have an idea or theory regarding why/how Shakespeare’s works have become so ingrained in Western culture and his contemporaries and their works have been mostly forgotten?

I think it’s partially because the stories are so universal, the characters are extremely interesting, and the drama gets so messy. I think the other reason is because his works became this shorthand signifier of sophistication, elite status, and ultimately power. "Shakespeare" became a tool of exclusion and separation which I think gave folks more of an incentive to keep his works in the popular conversation. The irony of that is that not only were Shakespeare’s original audiences mostly illiterate, but it was also one of the few places where people of all economic and social statuses would come together.

How familiar were you with early 17th century London? Did you have to do a bit of research? How long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write That Self-Same Metal?

I came into writing this book with a substantial bit of knowledge because I’ve studied the time and his life as my acting preparation. I wasn’t an expert, but I had enough facts rolling around in my head to start writing pretty quickly. That said, I love research, so I was happy to fill in the gaps as I ran into them. I kept picking up books and reading articles until we got to the point where I couldn’t make any more changes. I’m honestly still picking up research for the sequels. Fingers crossed I get to visit Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon at some point before I’m done with the trilogy.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned about William Shakespeare, his work, or the London in which he lived/worked during your research?

One thing that surprised me, and I’m a little ashamed that it did, was how many women worked in the theatre at the time. They didn’t perform onstage, but they handled costumes and props, helped dress the actors, and collected admission fees at the front gates. I think I’d heard that theatre in Shakespeare’s time was only men so often and exclusively that I didn’t even consider anything else. It led to me adjusting some smaller characters and the book is honestly way better for those changes.

That Self-Same Metal ends with several cliffhangers and the book is often listed as the first in the Forge & Fracture Saga. What are your plans for the series? Do you have an idea at this time how long the series will be and how many books will be necessary to tell the story you want to tell?

The Forge & Fracture Saga is a trilogy, and That Self-Same Metal

What’s currently on your nightstand?

Aside from my toddler’s many Sandra Boynton board books, I’m reading Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Virginia Hamilton, Diana Wynne Jones, Gail Carson Levine, Fred Crump Jr. and, of course, William Shakespeare.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

One big thing I learned is how long everything takes and how many secrets you have to keep. My editor at Abrams bought my books in January 2021 but we didn’t make the announcement until April 2022 and the book isn’t hitting shelves in April 2023. It seemed like a ridiculous amount of time to wait back in 2021 but we needed that time to really get the last bits of work done. It’s been hard not talking about half the exciting things I hear immediately but it’s starting to get easier.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

In middle school I checked out Truly Grim Tales by Patricia Galloway just about every other week. I own my own copy now and I still read it often.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

There was a popular Black erotica novel that came out when I was about twelve that I was WAAAY too young to be reading. That was the only book I had to hide.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I must confess, faked reading just about every assigned book in high school except Jurassic Park, The Winter’s Tale, and The Interstellar Pig. I think it all worked out, though.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

I remember seeing the cover for Angela and Diabola by Lynne Reid Banks in the grocery store as a kid and immediately asking to buy it.

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin completely blew my mind when I read it. I loved it so much; I finished the entire trilogy in a single week and immediately made me a massive fan. She’s also the reason I met my husband, so it was a multi-leveled blessing.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I have an extensive list, but I always want everyone to read The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older. It’s so beautiful and it’s one of the few books that had me sobbing at the end.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Rule of Wolves by Leigh Bardugo because the stress that first read caused me was the best kind and I just want to experience all those twists and reveals again.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I live in New Orleans, and we have some really gorgeous murals featuring Black people all over the city. I was recently riding the streetcar through the Central Business District, and we passed a stunning painting of two Black women that took up an entire wall of a building over about half a block. It took my breath away.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

My perfect day would be spent in London with my husband and son. We’d go see a play at The Globe, take a boat ride on the Thames, and just spend time strolling around exploring the city without strict plans or a schedule.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

What belief did you have about writing a book that you found out wasn’t true? I always thought the book we saw on the shelf just sprang out of the author’s mind like that. I had no idea how much work it takes and how many rounds of feedback and edits get you to the finished product. It’s been freeing to realize that I don’t have to be perfect from the first draft and that there are many people to help me make the book it's very best.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m writing the sequel to That Self-Same Metal, directing a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the theatre company The NOLA Project, and learning my lines before I start rehearsals for Twelfth Night with the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival.

Book cover of That self-same metal
That Self-Same Metal
Williams, Brittany N.