Interview: Ismée Williams
Today Alexandra Villasante is talking with the lovely and multi-talented Ismée Williams. In addition to being a pediatric cardiologist, Ismée finds time to write swoony, sweet, timely books, like her newest YA novel, THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD.
About THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD...
AV: I love how vibrantly you capture the NYC subway - the people, the smells, the crowd’s music and swaying and every person being an unknown story. The subway is an ecosystem- almost a character. How did you work to get that so right?
IW: Thank you so much for the compliment! Writing about the subway wasn’t something I had to work at because I’ve been taking the train for over twenty years, specifically the Broadway local 1. I moved to New York to start my residency in pediatrics. Anyone who knows about doctors-in-training knows that we aren’t paid much and we work a LOT. We lived on the Upper West Side because I needed that 1 train to get up to Columbia’s New York Presbyterian Hospital on 168th Street. Yes, that is the same neighborhood where Alex is from, Washington Heights. I did everything on that 1 train–ate breakfast, caught up on my medical journal reading, started my notes for the day (back when we still used paper for that!). But at the end of my day or shift, I often was too exhausted for any of that. So, I would watch the people. I’ve always been a people watcher–in church, in restaurants, on line in the grocery store. Ever since I was little, I’ve made up stories about people based on their behavior or what they’re wearing or who they’re with–like that lady with the gray hair in curlers and the purple jacket and a dachshund wiggling out of her purse who’s standing on the corner of my block right now. Except for the dog, you’d think she was going to the library–but she’s really heading into Riverside Park to meet her gentleman friend and his chihuahua for their daily mid-morning walk. I do that on the subway, too. All the time. I just had to put it on the page.
AV: Isa and Alex are from different worlds, different classes–and they’re keenly aware of it. Why did you want to introduce that complexity into their love story?
IW: I was drawn to the idea of lovers from opposite sides of the tracks, two people you wouldn’t expect to find together much less fall in love. Besides the tension this provides for the romance (a definite plus!), I wanted to challenge expectations, for the readers and for the characters. The subway was the perfect place for their meetings to happen. It’s not uncommon to see a woman in a fur coat sitting on the same bench as a homeless person. But I also wanted to explore the challenges that come with crossing social barriers, even though these barriers are artificial constructs based on expectations. My abuela was from a very poor family in Santiago de Cuba yet, due to a crazy whirlwind romance that started with a fateful meeting at a bus stop, she married into a family that belonged to the Havana Country Club. They lost everything when they fled to the US, of course. My mother grew up cutting coupons and shopping at consignment stores. She married a white-anglo-Protestant whose family had been in the US for generations and was very well off. I grew up listening to my mother and grandmother tell me why so-and-so said such-and-such because she/he looked down on them and how I shouldn’t let it affect me–even though I could see it affected them. They had been like the famous immigrant Alexander Hamilton–young, scrappy and hungry–and worried that everyone could still see that in them, even once they attained positions of relative success and comfort. And there was the added element of their Latinx culture, which my mother especially felt led to significant prejudice. I wanted to throw all of that at my characters and see how they reacted.
AV: There’s so much depth to both main characters, so many layers to each personality. We spoke briefly about this, but can you talk about how you wanted to upend stereotypes with Isa & Alex?
IW: Okay–so one of my main themes with THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD is expectations. We all have expectations because it makes our lives easier. We don’t have to take the time to get to know every individual we encounter. We can draw a conclusion based on how that individual appears to us: body language, clothing, facial expression. There’s a reason why pilots wear uniforms, doctors wear white coats and priests wear clerical collars. It jumpstarts a preconceived response–one that in these cases is meant to trigger trust. But expectations can also be bad, for the same reason they are useful. It assumes there is no such thing as an individual. It lumps people into categories where they are all presumed to be the same. Of course, not all pilots and doctors and priests are trustworthy–though we hope that most of them are. When the expectations are based on an individual’s skin color or where they are from–things the individual cannot control–the expectations, or stereotypes, are almost always harmful. I wanted to explore these unconscious biases to make them more apparent. To do so, I turned some of them on their head. A brown male athlete who’s also a tender poet. A rich girl whose family life is falling apart. And I wanted to show that even within a specific cultural group, ie Latinos, bias and racism exist.
AV: I found the exploration of machismo within Alex’s family really affecting. I wanted him to be able to be the poet if he wanted to be!
IW: I amped up the stakes by giving Alex a father who only wants one thing from his son: athletic success. Papi would never accept that Alex might want an academic profession because that wasn’t what he wanted. We see it all the time: parents miss out on their own dreams only to pin them on their children. And Alex lived through the loss of his father, so earning Papi’s respect and attention means even more to him than to a kid whose father was a constant in his life. I put Alex in a tough spot–on purpose.
AV: There’s a very frank portrayal of mental illness in your book that I think is so important. Not just how mental illness affects an individual, but the whole family. Why did you want to include that portrayal and how did you go about getting it right?
IW: Remember how I said I put Alex in a tough spot? Well, I had to push Isa into an equally if not even more uncomfortable situation. One element of this is Isa living with the repercussions and stigma of mental illness in her family. There is the expectation that because of where she lives and goes to school and how she looks, Isa’s life is perfect. That is what her mother wants everyone to believe, in any case. Which is why Isa’s mother doesn’t want to talk about the bipolar disorder that affects her and her son, Isa’s older brother. She doesn’t want Isa to talk about it either. Meanwhile, Isa has to navigate a mother, and a brother, who are difficult, unpredictable, and sometimes scare her–people whom she loves who make her home life anything but stable. And Isa knows bipolar disorder is genetic. She lives in fear that she might wake up one day and have a depressive or manic episode.
To get this portrayal of mental illness right, I drew on my own family’s experience (I don’t want to name names!). Also, my best friend’s younger sister has bipolar disorder. I didn’t know this growing up, spending summer vacations with her family. I just understood that there was something different about her little sister, because the grown-ups treated her as if she were made of glass. But the years passed and the diagnosis became clear and I held onto my best friend’s hand through her sister’s treatments and accidents and hospitalizations. My best friend is terrified she might have a child like her sister. It’s one of the reasons she’s held off becoming a mother.
Finally, I spoke with psychiatrists and a child psychologist before and while writing this book. We also had a mental health professional read a late draft for accuracy. Everyone’s experience with mental illness is going to be different. Many may not see themselves or their stories in this one. I wanted to be sure not to propagate harmful stereotypes or inconsistencies while raising awareness of an illness that will affect 1 in 5 young people directly. I wanted to highlight how the stigma of mental illness harms not just the person affected but also those close to him or her. It’s not as if it’s anyone’s fault that they have depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder. It would be great if we all acted like it was no different from having a broken bone or being born with tendency towards high cholesterol. Perhaps then more people would talk about it and more would get the help they need. The importance of mental health and taking care of yourself, as well as others, is one of the messages I hope readers take away.
AV: I tend to write my characters with some of my own interests (like language or music) and then give them passions I don’t share- which I then have to go research heavily. So; baseball, poetry, ballet - which ones are your passion and which didn’t you have to research?
IW: I danced ballet for thirteen years! I loved it. The strict discipline spoke to my inner OCD nature. I didn’t love the body image baggage that tends to accompany ballerinas. I was careful to try to dispel some of that in the book and show Isa actually eating.
My Cuban abuelo was a poet, as was his father. We had one of Abuelo’s poems to my abuela read aloud at our wedding. It was so romantic! I fancied myself a poet in high school and wrote pages and pages of flowery odes. I’m sure my friends from that stage in my life would tell you all about it! It was a fun challenge to come at the poetry from Alex’s perspective, incorporating the elements of his life that are important to him, such as baseball and his love for his family.
Baseball…Let’s just say I’m a Yankees fan who likes to go to games and eat the popcorn and do the wave and watch the ground crew dance to YMCA during the seventh inning stretch (OK, I do the dance too). My husband, however, is a baseball encyclopedia. He is rabid about sports and was an incredible asset while writing this story. I also have three nephews who are obsessed with playing baseball in the city as well as mom friends with older sons who’ve played high level baseball throughout the city in different leagues. It takes a village!
AV: I loved how we were able to go through time- the seasons in NYC- in this book- because it meant that this wasn’t an insta-love story and Alex and Isa had time to grow and evolve. What made you decide to structure the story this way?
IW: It’s funny that you ask because originally this story took place over three years! Amazon didn’t update the plot summary for some time so you will occasionally see reference to that in a blogger’s description of the book. My amazing editor, Anne Heltzel, wisely counseled that three years was too long so we shortened the time frame to just under a year and a half. I wanted the story to be realistic so the challenges facing my characters had to reflect the challenges of real kids who are highly scheduled and dedicated to after-school pursuits. Many of them don’t have a lot of time to hang out and socialize and pursue romantic relationships. I know I didn’t at that age. And there was the added twist of Alex and Isa not knowing how to contact each other at first. They had to literally bump into each other on the subway. The plot couldn’t advance over weeks. It had to do so over months.
Thank you Ismée! This wonderful, tender romance is available at IndieBound, Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
You can find Alexandra Villasante online at alexandravillasante.com/
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