Kent Williams: Looking at Art’s Provocative Side

Editor’s Note: This is the 24th in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Kent Williams grew up in Salem, Ill., and went to college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After that, he spent five more years "in the wilderness," working odd jobs, until a surprisingly high score on the LSAT led to a monumental decision: He would study law. He enrolled in the University of Michigan Law School at Ann Arbor, where he spent a tumultuous three weeks before deciding that the law might not be up his alley after all.

He began to write instead, and was eventually hired as an arts writer for Madison, Wisconsin’s weekly paper, Isthmus, a job he still holds 17 years later. He won a first-place AltWeekly Award for his arts criticism, which included critiques of a film, a sculpture and a pipe organ.

What finally drew you to writing as a profession?

Ann Arbor wasn’t working out. I just wasn’t that interested in the law, plus I was sort of freaking out. So I just stuck my tail between my legs and came back to Illinois. And that’s when I started writing. An alternative newspaper had started in Champaign that I really liked. And I remembered that I had always liked writing term papers, which sounds ridiculous, but I kind of liked organizing information and making arguments. So I started submitting things to that paper, and then to Illinois Times in Springfield. It branched out from there.

Then, one day, a Friday after Thanksgiving, I came up to Madison to see what kind of town it was, and the position that I still have was being advertised in Isthmus. I applied, got the job a week later, and I’ve kept it ever since. So almost overnight my life turned upside down.

Had you considered yourself an "arts writer" before? What were some challenges when you began?

I had done different things: political stuff, some arts stuff. I was always interested in movies — who isn’t? — and so I did a lot of writing about them. I’ve always been interested in the arts, but it’s kind of a tough row to hoe. There’s a need for specialization if you want to advance very far. Papers don’t really like generalists very much, so it was a bit of a struggle.

But I kept at it, and gradually I ended up specializing after all. I started a movie column in 1994, and I still do that. I have an advice column: It’s a lot of fun, and it tends to be the thing that people react to the most. I live in the eternal shadow of Savage Love, but there seems to be a place for my column here. And then I write longer pieces that are about other art forms too: art, architecture, music, theater.

How do you prepare when you’re writing about a subject you aren’t so familiar with?

You know, I don’t feel like I have specialized knowledge about anything. I tend to do a lot of background research. For example, the movie Walk the Line just came out. I’ve been a Johnny Cash fan my whole life, but I still had to bone up on him, just to get a larger sense of what he and his music have meant to us.

Once you’ve spent as much time in the public library as I have, you begin to know which sources to go to and which to trust. You develop an intuitive feel for how to go out and get the information you need.

What about your article about Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ? What kind of research did you do?

Let me see, I had stacks of magazine articles on various aspects of the Bible that I’d saved over the years, so I used those quite a bit. Of course, with that movie, we could hear it coming for almost a year before it got here, so I kept an eye on everything that went by. And there were specific aspects of what Gibson was up to, theologically, that I had to bone up on.

I have a broad-brush approach to research for a challenging subject like that; I tend to just hurl myself at it. It’s a bit of a wild-goose chase. You slowly find your way. And then there comes this moment where you’re starting to repeat what you’ve read, and the next source isn’t illuminating anymore. When I hit that point, I stop.

You mentioned your files. Do you actually sit around and clip stuff?

I do. And it’s embarrassing, because with the Web and hard drives, you could probably take the contents of my filing cabinets, which I’ve been working on for 25 years, and put it all on one CD. If I found out that was true, I’d probably cry.

I’ve been an inveterate clipper from the beginning, partly because in the early days I didn’t have much money, and I’d buy a magazine and couldn’t bear to throw it away. And I just kept at it. I probably have — I don’t know — 10 to 15 four-stack filing cabinets in my basement.

How do you handle big, well-known topics like The Passion of the Christ versus local stories? Do you prefer one over the other?

I like them both. I’m pretty conscious of wanting to write about something that’s in the spotlight, that’s got the culture’s attention right now. I just wrote a piece of similar length and scope as the Passion piece about the movie Jarhead, partly because I was disappointed with the critical reaction. Other critics dismissed it too quickly, I felt, whereas I thought the movie played well on the screen and had things to tell us.

So in that case I saw something that I wanted to say that hadn’t been said. That happens sometimes. Then there are times — like with The Passion of the Christ, which was so huge — when the subject is too important to ignore. No matter who had covered it, no matter what had been said, I wanted to put my own two cents in. With these longer articles I write, it’s often important to me that the piece pick up on where the culture seems to be going.

And you can argue that movies happen locally, too. The Passion comes to Madison, and Madison has its own reaction to it. I’m always ready to make an argument for local criticism. I hate to think the day might come when all the movie writing is done by critics in L.A. and New York and gets syndicated to the rest of us. That’s why the Village Voice/New Times merger deal worries me. I think there’s a value to people in reading reviews that were written by someone living down the street.

But I also like to write about local things that everyone’s either forgotten or ignored, whose time has long passed. The sculpture I wrote about in “Bare-Naked Lady” was of this woman who had been sitting there for 30 years. She’s on the fourth floor of our local university museum, so it’s like she’s tucked away in the attic. I’ve stood there and seen people walking by who were obviously mystified by her. I liked that — here was this thing, this piece of art, that had settled into the woodwork.

How do you set your pieces apart from straight reviews?

I think of everything I write as being a review-essay. I’m very interested in the essay form, and I do think that it’s different from the standard review. And, although this is an overstatement, daily newspapers tend to engage in checklists: how was the scenery; how was the acting. I’m more interested in feeling my way through an argument. I think my articles are pretty highly organized, but I don’t want that to show. I want the readers to just keep moving along and not necessarily realize that they’re on a track of sorts. I like to give the feeling that the writer himself is feeling his way through the subject.

In “Bare-Naked Lady,” you do that literally. You describe walking around the statue and looking at it from different vantage points. Then at one point you pause, debating whether to look at her crotch. Then you do.

I knew from the moment I decided to write about her that I would have to go for the crotch. That’s part of what’s so provocative about that sculpture. It was something I knew I would have to spring on the reader at one point or another. So I remember thinking I didn’t want to lead with it, but that as soon as I did mention it, it was going to be a big moment for the piece.

Do you think your writing style is particularly suited for alt-weeklies?

Yes, totally. The sculpture piece is a good example. A daily newspaper would have taken that paragraph out. The alternative press is where you can head right down that road to…well, to her crotch.

It was kind of like I had the seed in me of the kind of writing I wanted to do, even before I became a writer. Then the alt-weeklies showed me that there’s actually a place to plant that seed. This was especially true when I started, back in the late ’80s.

I hope it’s still that way for a writer coming up, but some of the pressures that daily newspapers are under, alt-weeklies are under, too. Articles are getting shorter; there’s a lot of change going on in the alternative press that’s quite — I don’t know if worrisome is the right word, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

My particular paper has been really great over the years. My publisher and my editor have given me all the leeway that any writer could ever ask for. They’ve never told me we shouldn’t go somewhere — it’s been a great run.

Your own voice figures prominently in your pieces. How did you develop that voice over time?

When you write pieces like that, you want them to have as much authority as you can give them without sounding like a snob. How I developed that over time, I don’t know. It’s the mysterious process called learning how to be a writer. For someone starting out, it’s the same advice anybody would give you: Read the writers you like, pay close attention to how they write. Reading aloud, I think, is absolutely essential.

Do you still read your own writing aloud?

After I finish a draft, I always read it out loud. If it doesn’t roll off my tongue well, I don’t think it’s going to roll off anyone else’s mental tongue. I’ve heard the argument that if you trip on a word out loud, it doesn’t matter — that people reading it silently won’t notice. But I don’t buy that. Good writing is really the sound of someone talking.

Isaiah Thompson is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin and was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a freelance writer and educator.

Leave a Reply