a conversation with Sheila Williams      


Bold Type: Juanita is not your typical choice for a heroine. But despite her undesirable day job, ungrateful children, and abusive marriages she remains determined and hopeful. Who is your inspiration for this character? Did you write the story hoping to reach a particular audience that could identify with her situation?

Sheila J. Williams: Everyone knows a "Juanita". She is your sister, mother, cousin or best friend. She might even be your nephew or brother. She is that salt-of-the-earth person who does for everyone but herself. She can be depended upon to baby-sit on short notice, cook for you, loan money and let you stay at her apartment indefinitely. She listens to your troubles. She asks so little for herself that people tend to take advantage of her. And the rest of us say, out of her hearing, or course, "She shouldn't let so-and-so use her like that!" This comment often comes after she's worn out, broken down and dead, however. The Juanitas of this world don't always get to live a life that they wanted for themselves. They are too busy taking care of everyone else's drama. We all know people like that. Some of us are people like that. And no, Dancing is not autobiographical!

BT: A nice compliment to Juanita's outspoken and domineering personality is found in Jess, the strong and silent owner of the Paper Moon diner. What were the challenges you found in trying to bring a character to life using a minimal amount of dialogue?

SJW: Jess is really a man of action not of words. So when he speaks, he uses economy and what he says, he means. With Jess, it was important to make certain that his comments were full of meaning — because he doesn't use a lot of words! Also, he speaks to Juanita in the way that he looks at her. She feels him as much as she hears him.

BT: The other imaginative characters in the story add a nice flavor. Some sweet (like Mignon and Peaches), some sour (Juanita's children), from mild to spicy. How did you come up with such a colorful cast and manage to keep them all straight in your head? Who is your favorite?

SJW: Characters in a book are like an extended family sitting around the table at Thanksgiving. You have a real gumbo of people — from tyrannical Great-Aunt Bessie to peculiar Cousin Fred. When I am writing, my characters just show up like uninvited houseguests with lots of suitcases and big appetites! Coordinating a zany cast of characters can be a challenge. You have to keep them engaged and busy and make sure that they behave themselves and don't get into too much trouble!

My favorite character, besides Juanita, is Millie Tilson. She is intelligent, fun-loving, adventurous and resourceful. And ageless — an old soul with a young heart. I want to be like Millie when I'm…older.

BT: Dancing on the Edge of the Roof takes us from the crowded urban sprawl of Ohio to the wide-open spaces of Montana. What experiences did you draw on in order to reflect the feel of these places? Did you have to do any research on an Indian reservation?

SJW: While I have not visited any of the western reservations, I have visited a few of those huge boxy-shaped states that stretch out forever. The vastness and dramatic terrain are intimidating to a Midwestern girl like me. I am like Juanita in that regard. I come from a flat place. The plains, mountains, lakes and the colors are beautiful and almost other-worldly. The land itself is inspiring. And I used it to emphasize the contrast between the small, urban spaces of body and of mind and the wider, more open possibilities of life, illustrated by the vastness of Montana.

Before I wrote Dancing, I stumbled onto a pow-wow. (OK, I'll admit it. I was lost, driving on an unfamiliar county road.) I chucked the event I was headed to and stayed. It was a revelation. The beauty of the clothing, the pounding drums and voices, the dance. I was awe-struck. It was a spiritual experience that I have never forgotten.

BT: Juanita runs away, and ends up at the Paper Moon Diner. The way she describes it you can feel the grease and smell the bacon frying. What made you decide to choose the familiar, cozy diner as the main setting where her transformation occurs? Does it have any symbolic significance to you?

SJW: Without even thinking about it, we gravitate to places that are familiar and, therefore, safe. Juanita has never been to Montana but she knows her way around any kitchen. The diner gives her a launching pad for her next adventure. It provides her with a home base as she recreates herself. The kitchen, the hearth, is often the place where people gather and make themselves comfortable. It has been that way since the dawn of time. In the kitchen, Juanita feels both creative and empowered. As for me, I am a veteran of the "It's 6:30, Mom, what's for dinner, we're HUNGRY!" kind of cooking. Now, I just enjoy puttering around the kitchen, mostly on weekends, taking all day to make something that is spicy, high in fat and calories and goes well with cornbread.

BT: Throughout the story, something is always cooking. The menu is thrown in here and there almost to tease the reader and whet our appetites. And now…would you mind sharing your favorite recipe with us?


*Juanita's Pinto Beans*

bag of pinto beans
2 ham hocks the size of Georgia
Chopped white onion
one celery stalk
Two bay leaves
cilantro or basil (if desired)
A pinch of cumin and cayenne pepper (there are few things that a little bit of red pepper doesn't improve), salt and pepper to taste (I use whole peppercorns)

Cover the beans with water, bring to a boil. Turn off the heat, let set for one hour. At the same time, simmer ham hocks in water (to cover).
After the hour, drain the beans, add them to the ham hocks and add the spices and other ingredients. Cook on medium heat until the beans are tender (probably 3 hours or until the ball game is over). The dish should have a nice broth.
Carve up those Georgia-sized ham hocks (throw out the fat and the skin) and serve with fresh cooked greens (combination mustard, kale and collard are my favorites) and cornbread.

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    Photo credit: Ann Segal