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Writer Reaching for a Dream : UCSD Professor's 1st Novel Wins Critical Acclaim

July 23, 1986|MIKE GRANBERRY | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA — Like most writers, Sherley Anne Williams had a dream.

"I wanted to write a best-seller that people would still be reading hundreds of years from now," she said.

Just at that moment, Williams looked as if she had been too brash, too bold.

"Of course," she said with a shy smile, "I won't be living hundreds of years from now, so how would I know?"

Hundreds of years may be hard to predict, but in the present, the New York Times, for one, thinks Williams' first novel, "Dessa Rose," is one of the best pieces of fiction of 1986.

It is, as they say, the kind of fiction that lasts. Maybe even hundreds of years.

Esteemed critic Christoper Lehmann-Haupt, writing in that paper, says Williams has a "tough and realistic" imagination. Her imagination is the fuel behind the fire in "Dessa Rose," a book about slavery, suffering and friendship.

The New York Times is so excited it plans to follow that daily review with one on Sunday as well as an interview. In literary circles such duplicate treatment is known as a coup, one that leaves Williams staggered and slightly chagrined.

"It's amazing," she said, "but it's still so, so . . . out there . I mean, that's New York, and this is La Jolla. I live in San Diego. This is so hard for me and my family to relate to."

Williams has "a son, a sister, several nieces and nephews." These are the people with whom she shares her love and her recent good fortune. Mini-cams have hardly been appearing on the doorstep, so her son has yet to rhapsodize about being the child of a great American writer.

Even though it's something his mama has worked at for quite a while now.

"I'm 41," she said, tossing a bit of a grim look at an interviewer, who had asked her age.

"I'm certainly no spring chicken," she added, this time with a stunning smile. "I'm embarrassed because that seems too old for the author of a first novel."

Williams is a slim, attractive, woman with large dark eyes and a soft, buttery voice. She's a professor of Afro-American literature and fiction writing at UC San Diego, a post she has held since 1973. She's the author of other books, all poetry, the most notable of which is "Some One Sweet Angel Chile," published in 1982.

She's hardly a stranger to good reviews. Still, the treatment "Dessa Rose" is getting is new and deliciously overwhelming, almost intoxicating. The Los Angeles Times and a host of scholarly journals plan reviews, and of course, there's always Hollywood.

Hollywood is interested, with talks going on even now. The attention is quite heady to a woman from the San Joaquin Valley--born in Bakersfield, raised in Fresno--and finds herself quietly in danger of becoming a celebrity.

"This is kind of intimidating," she said. "On the other hand, this is something you strive for your whole adult life. I must say I'm embarrassed that it took me till 41 to complete a novel. You have to have confidence that this (notoriety) won't destroy you--that you can somehow control, or continue to control, your creative life.

"Celebrity may be ephemeral, but it can give you space, the kind you need to maintain that creative life."

In other words, money made from a best-seller, and from movie rights, can give a writer the kind of time to write more and possibly better prose.

"Dessa Rose" took Williams four years and several reworkings to complete. She's somewhat embarrassed by that. She says the book should have been finished sooner but is quick to note that editors for William Morrow, the publisher, were patient, caring and terribly judicious.

She has no plans to quit teaching--she likes the discipline as well as the students she meets--but it's easy to see that Williams' future lies between the pages of a book.

As a woman who spends much of her time immersed in the lives of blues singers--Billie Holliday, Esther Phillips, Bessie Smith--you half-expect Williams to say "Dessa Rose" was influenced or inspired by music.

In some ways, it must have been. Williams' writing is a lot like music, lyrical and rhythmic. She is certainly no stranger to the blues--she understands them. "Some One Sweet Angel Chile" was based largely on the life of Bessie Smith.

This time, Williams says science fiction was as big an influence as any. That's right, science fiction--as well as black activist Angela Davis and Marxist historian Herbert Aptheker.

First, Davis and Aptheker. Williams writes in her introduction that "Dessa Rose" is based on two historical incidents. In one, she writes: "A pregnant black woman helped to lead an uprising on a coffle (a group of slaves chained together and herded, usually to market) in 1829 in Kentucky. Caught and convicted, she was sentenced to death; her hanging, however, was delayed until after the birth of her baby."

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