Colorism, Classism, and Contemporary Romance: An Interview with Ismée Williams

2020 was obviously a tough year for all of us. And one of the toughest parts of publishing fell on those authors whose books debuted at the beginning of the pandemic, particularly those that came out last Spring. To say that they got a little lost in the shuffle, is definitely understating how difficult it was! 

One of my favorite contemporary YA novels came out in February 2020. I’m giving it a little extra love now with an interview with its delightful author Ismée Williams. If you are reading this and are a romance fan, especially for stories that have deeper layers, then this would be great book for you! Either way, I’d love you to read my conversation with Ismée and find out more about THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD!


JOY PREBLE: I read an essay you wrote about THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD in which you observed that the novel is about “two young people who don’t fit neatly into boxes.” Can you talk a little about that and how this idea, and both family and societal expectation, played a part in the inspiration for your story?


ISMÉE WILLIAMS: I love the idea of turning expectations on their heads. My mother, a Cuban immigrant, went to medical school when I was in 1st grade. She applied three times before they accepted her - the first two times they told her to apply to the nursing school (this was back in the late 1970’s). So I grew up with this sense that there were rules of what girls and boys should do, but that these rules could and should be challenged if they stood in the way of your dreams. I was the girl who excelled at math and science - as well as poetry and ballet - and I have always loved fast cars. I was a chauffeur one summer after college to make money. It wasn’t necessarily what people expected me to do, but I had a blast doing it. 

For THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD, I wanted to develop characters that did not necessarily fit the mold. A hulky baseball prodigy who wants to be a poet. A blond ballerina who’s half-Cuban, who, even though she lives in the fancy part of the city, has a really tough family life. I also wanted to explore the burden that expectations place on young adults as they are figuring out what type of person they are going to be. All teens go through this stage as they start to think of themselves as separate from their family unit. But family opinion can still be quite important. What happens if you see yourself pursuing a passion that your parent does not want for you? What if that goal is not traditionally accepted by your community or your friends because of gender rules or cultural rules or any rules? It can be a struggle. Especially if you’re trying to do the right thing and not let down the family you love.



JP: For sure! The tension between self and the expectations of others can be so huge! You also touch on both classism and racism in THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD. Were these always topics that you set out to weave a story around, or did they just develop as you developed Isa and Alex’s story?


IW: Oh I very much intended to explore racism and colorism within the Latinx community with THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD. I knew I was going to have two protagonists who are both Latinx, but are very different. I wanted to showcase the beauty of the variety that is Latinx and overturn expectations of readers in doing so. But I also wanted to make people aware that colorism and racism do exist within our community and hopefully start some needed conversations. There is work to be done. And the classism part of the story? Yeah, that was there from the beginning. I wanted this to be a romance and I was looking at all the ways that Alex and Isa could be different because I wanted to amplify the tension and provide more reasons for them to be pulled apart. That way, when they fight for each other, when they fight to come back to one another, it’s all the more powerful. 



JP: Agreed! And speaking of those characters, who came first to your imagination? Isa and Alex? The plot? And to follow up with that, for any aspiring writers reading this, what’s your general process when you write? Are you plot driven? Character driven? Something else? Tell us all! 


IW: I am very much a character-driven writer. I need to know the main characters’ wants and needs as well as their wounds – the past experiences that shape who they are and motivate their behavior – before I start writing. For Alex and Isa, I knew I wanted two very driven teens who are highly successful in their pursuits (of baseball and ballet) and don’t have a lot of downtime. Neither of them have had a relationship before because of this (I love stories about first love!). I also wanted them to both have the burden of parent expectations holding them back. In Alex’s case, his papi would never support his decision to explore being a poet. And Isa’s Cuban-born immigrant mother thinks being a professional ballerina is an unacceptable career choice for a modern woman. She also doesn’t want her daughter dating a Latino because her father was always off having affairs. I wanted that added pressure, which comes from both families, actually (Alex’s papi isn’t too keen on Isa’s family either), to push the lovers apart. And of course, Alex and Isa love their families, are devoted to their families, so that would make it all the more impactful when they fight to be together despite these obstacles.



JP: Alex and Isa definitely have what Eli Wallach’s character in the movie, THE HOLIDAY, adorably refers to as the ‘meet cute’. Are you a fan of the ‘meet-cute’ in romance? For that matter, what are your favorite romances, both book and movie? We love author recommendations!


IW: You know, I never knew what a meet-cute was until I attended a SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference and it came up in a small group discussion. I ended up asking a neighbor what it meant. I think I was already drafting THIS TRAIN IS BEING HELD by that point! The scene I wrote where Alex and Isa first meet on the subway just felt true to the characters: Isa is nervous about an upcoming audition that she didn’t tell her mother about and she’s running late, and Alex holds the door open for her.  So yes, I am a fan of the meet-cute! 


I’m also a fan of romances where the main characters are antagonistic at first. One of my favorite romantic pairs is Aelin and Rowan in the 3rd Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. Other favorites book romances include: Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black. For movies, I’m sorry, I’m going to have to come out and admit it: I love Twilight. I also loved Tristan & Isolde with James Franco. Talk about tortured lovers! I’m all about that brooding male love interest who thinks he’s not good, or good enough, for the object of his passion.



JP: Oh Jude and Prince Cardan in The Cruel Prince!  *dies a little* And digressing from that swoon to art in general, art (in the form of poetry for Alex and ballet for Isa) is a central defining characteristic for both characters (a somewhat hidden one for Alex). Since I see that you are a pediatric cardiologist as your ‘day job’, can you talk a little about that balance between art and science, writing and practicing medicine? Did you also always want to write?


IW: Great question - finding balance is tough but so important. I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer until I was pregnant with my 3rd baby and put on bedrest and picked up a YA romance novel. It was the first fiction I had read in about 11 years, seeing as I had gone straight from college to med school to residency to fellowship and then started having babies. I had honestly forgotten how powerful a story could be, how it could sweep you away into a different world and make you feel all sorts of emotions, even ones you tried to keep at bay to protect yourself (like sadness and grief, something that I bottled up as a training pediatrician as I took care of very sick babies and children, some of whom died). I was grateful for that book that made me feel intense emotions again – and made me realize that it was OK to feel these things, especially in a safe space such as a story. I wanted to create something that would do the same for another reader. So I started writing.

I consider myself lucky that I am able to maintain both my medical career and my writing because they complement each other wonderfully. When I see patients, I have the immediate gratification of knowing that I have helped someone and accomplished concrete goals that day. With writing, days, weeks, and even months go by before I get any external feedback from critique partners and other early readers. Making a book often takes years. But writing accesses my creative side, whereas doctoring is very much a reactive pursuit – fitting the pieces of a puzzle together, figuring out the diagnosis and how to best explain to the patient and the parents what is going on and what we are going to do about it in a way they can understand. Again, I feel very lucky to have the flexibility to do both. It is hard to manage all of it though, especially on top of my family life being a wife and a mother to three girls!



JP: I’d say you definitely have a lot on your plate! But we’re all glad you’re writing! What’s coming next for Ismée Williams?


IW: I have some ideas for another YA romance and am in the drafting stage. It’s too early to talk about yet, though. I’m superstitious that way! I can share that I am co-editing an upcoming anthology with Rebecca Balcárcel on the biracial/bicultural experience that will be published by Inkyard in 2022. It hasn’t been officially announced yet though, so I can’t tell you all the contributor names - but they are pretty fantastic. Writers you’ve actually heard of because they’ve won awards or have been NYTimes bestsellers. Seriously, I am the smallest name of the bunch. I am really excited about it as this book will fill a much needed gap and hopefully speak to all those readers who come from mixed race or mixed cultural backgrounds, like I do. There are so many of us and our numbers are growing.


JP: Well, we are hoping that your name continues to grow and grow!!

This Train Is Being Held By Ismée Williams Cover Image
ISBN: 9781419734939
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Harry N. Abrams - February 11th, 2020

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