Stephanie Williams C’92 was determined to fulfill her ambition to write and publish a novel before cancer killed her. With some help from her friends, she succeeded.
By Caroline Hwang
Plus: An excerpt from Williams’ novel, Enter Sandman.
This past July, Stephanie Williams C’92 died after a three-year battle with a virulent form of breast cancer. She was 33.
If you didn’t know Williams, but her name rings a bell, it may be because you’ve seen her byline. In a magazine career that spanned 12 years, she was a staff writer for Self (which hired her before she’d even graduated from Penn), TV Guide (where she wrote cover stories profiling the likes of Matthew Perry, Patrick Stewart, and David Duchovny), Teen People, and Smart Money. And her freelance features appeared everywhere, from New York Magazine to Men’s Health, to this publication [“Alumni Voices,” September/October 1999]. “She was talented and versatile and had an incredible nose for news,” says Ellie McGrath, Williams’ boss at Self. “As a 24-year-old she broke the Ephedra story before The New York Times, though because we were a monthly, their piece ran before ours,” she adds, referring to the dietary supplement that was ultimately banned because of associated health risks.
If you haven’t read something by Williams, you may have read something about her. From the Seattle Post Intelligencer to the Boston Globe, newspapers across the country have carried the story of her life and death. National magazines, such as Oprah and Time are also (as the Gazette went to press) planning to run articles. Even Jane Pauley was going to tape an interview with Williams, but unfortunately, “she died before they could get the cameras into the hospital room,” says McGrath.
Breast cancer, as we’re reminded every October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, has cut short the lives of (too) many women, young and old. Stephanie Williams’ story is not extraordinary for its tragedy but for its triumph over tragedy.
From the time she was a little girl, says her sister Laurie, Stephanie wanted to be a novelist. She went into journalism, as many writers do, to keep her hand at the craft while making a living. But she was so successful in her vocation that she didn’t have time to put into her avocation. “She went freelance to free up some time,” says one of her best friends, Adam Fawer W’92 G’92, “but editors kept calling with assignments that she couldn’t turn down.” Frustrated, she went back on staff, at SmartMoney, where she was working when, at the age of 30, she got her diagnosis.
Radiation and chemo ensued, as well as a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and another mastectomy. It was after her second breast was removed that she learned that the cancer, already at an advanced stage when found, was terminal. And it was then, bedridden, that she decided to do what she’d always meant to do and “write the great American novel,” says Fawer.
At first, Fawer, who had also always wanted to write a novel and was between jobs, met with her every day for two-hour or 2,000-word (whichever came first) writing sessions. After six weeks, the cancer returned, this time on the skin of her chest. But through 20 different kinds of chemotherapies, she persisted, writing 15 minutes a day if that was all the energy she could muster. “It was a race against time,” says Laurie. “She didn’t know how much longer she had.”
A year and half later, at the end of 2003, Stephanie had a completed first draft. (Fawer, who’d finished and revised his manuscript earlier, had already gotten an agent and sold his book—Improbable, coming out in January from William Morrow.) But the cancer had spread to her lungs; finding representation, let alone a publisher, would take more time than she could count on having. Instead, she took the initiative and called her former boss McGrath, who’d always wanted to start her own imprint. And in five short months—with Stephanie in the hospital for most of that time—they whipped the manuscript into shape, arranged for the typesetting, printing, and everything else that goes into publishing a novel.
Enter Sandman (McWitty Press) was published in August to rave reviews. Williams lived to bask in the praise—Kirkus Reviews compared the semi-autobiographical novel to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, saying, “After making you squirm for the protagonist, it whacks you with a sucker punch of tragedy” —as well as to hold an advance copy of the book. She also had the gratification of knowing that it would be widely read; after a first run of 10,000 copies, Enter Sandman went into a second printing—an extraordinary showing for a first novel.
In her last magazine article, published this August in Glamour, Williams wrote about what it was like to die at her age, leaving her parents and sister and friends, just when everything was going her way. Movingly, she described her regret at never having married or had children, and she mentioned, with longing, the book ideas she wouldn’t be getting around to. “But she’d achieved her goal and she was happy,” says Laurie. “She lived to see her dream.”
Enter Sandman is available at bookstores. Thirty percent of profits will go to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Center.
Caroline Hwang C’91, a colleague and friend of Stephanie Williams, is the author of the novel In Full Bloom (Plume Books).
By Stephanie Williams
The chemotherapy made Trisha increasingly tired and nauseated. For the most part, she felt too depleted to call her friends and family to talk about her condition—what good would it do, anyway? But every night, she developed a depressed insomnia around 1 a.m., which more often than not resulted in a call to James (who apparently never slept). He would listen to her rant about how shitty life was treating her. Then his firm folded, rendering him as acutely miserable as she.
So James came up with a plan. “I’m usually the last one to try to make things happy,” he jeered, “but I remember you saying you never been to Coney Island. It’s a good time of year to go.” And they didn’t even have to wait for the weekend, since neither had anyplace to be.
Trisha broke away to wheeze for a minute and then returned to say yes, wondering if she had the strength.
She wondered even more when the day they chose, Thursday, dawned a little bit cold, a little bit wet.
“God, and it’s freaking May,” Trisha said to no one in particular as she walked, at a crawling pace, to the subway. Even so, she was out of breath; according to her latest CAT scan, she had at least a liter of fluid around one of her lungs. As an elderly black woman passed her, hearing the outburst, she mumbled, “Mmm-hmm.”
Trisha made her way down to the large, dark wooden benches in the center of the subterranean station and caught a train that she rode deep into Brooklyn. When she got to his stop, she yelled James’s name out the train door, some 20-odd feet from where she saw him sitting.
“Yo!” she said, happy to see him. “Let’s go.”
Trisha smiled when she got a good look at him. He looked like a little kid dressed in his favorite articles of clothing: pulled-down Yankees cap, blue-mirrored sunglasses, a Nathan’s Hot Dogs T-shirt covered by a thin jacket, jeans frayed at the bottoms, and flip-flops revealing gnarled, fungus-covered toenails.
He looks almost sexy, she mused. What’s wrong with me? Is it hormones?
“Hey,” he muttered and held out his hand for a high-five.
“So what’s there to see at this place, anyway, James?” Trisha asked.
“Oh god, like, a ton,” he said. “There’s the Cyclone—you know the Cyclone, right?”
Trisha shook her head.
Then James had to shake his. “Dude, there’s even a Brooklyn baseball team called the Cyclones. Didn’t you ever wonder where that came from?”
Trisha shook her head slowly.
“This roller coaster’s like, I don’t know, maybe a hundred years old. It’s wooden. It’s a trip. There are other rides at Astroland, that’s the amusement park part of it, and, like, arcades, and sometimes stuff like the Mermaid Parade, and, like, hot dog eating contests at Nathan’s. But the Cyclone, that’s the shit.”
“Wow. You seem so happy.”
James shrugged. “I love Da Isle,” he said.
The car came above ground, and Trisha squinted into the sun to watch Brooklyn through the windows, smiling at dirt-caked signs and crumbling buildings straight out of a Seventies crime drama. A black boy in the next seat over peered out, too, whipping his head back and forth as he read “Avenue U. Avenue U. Avenue U.” off the signs in a station. His younger brother, or friend or neighbor, hopped up to join him, repeating the phrase in unison without seeming to know what it meant. Then the car slowed and the boys jumped up to be first at the door, and Trisha knew they had reached Coney Island.
Trisha glanced at her watch. Eleven o’clock, as the sky could have told her, since it had finally reported to its job of baking the earth. She pulled down her sunglasses against the glare and zippered her purple fleece coat, then shivered and drew it to her.
They stepped onto the grimy wooden boardwalk and were at once bombarded with vendors hawking cotton candy and knock-off Yankees shirts to the off-season visitors. To their right, a few stragglers, looking for driftwood, walked the bottle- and bag-littered beach. Up on the wooden boardwalk, several deeply sunburned, shaggy-haired men with ballooning bellies—they might have been brothers—made little effort to restrain their hyperactive offspring. “Wow,” Trisha muttered. Despite the biting ocean breeze, her cheeks burned. Something, sand maybe, stuck inside her lungs, and despite all the coughing, she couldn’t get it out.
James happily inhaled the gritty air. “First things first,” he said. “Dogs.”
He made a beeline for Nathan’s; Trisha lagged far behind. Up ahead, James stomped up and expertly pushed his way through the clamoring crowd, held up two fingers and yelled, “chili cheese”—winning his food as the cavemen once had, via intimidation. A profusely sweating employee obliged more quickly than seemed possible. Holding both plastic boats in one large paw, James pushed his way to the condiment bar and smothered the contents in ketchup and mustard, as Trisha tried to get in a word.
“Not so much ketchup for me,” she said—too late.
“Oh.” James turned, eyebrows raised. “Did you want one?”
“That’s okay, I’ll do it.” Trisha blushed and started toward the counter. A moment later, she heard James call back that he was kidding. She joined him on a whitened wooden bench by the sea. Trisha picked up the overflowing, soggy bun. Some of the beany chili and then the dog itself slithered back into the paper cocoon. “Got a fork?” she asked, and James fished one out. “Don’t say I never gave you nothin’,” he announced.
“Thanks.” With a thin and therefore insufficient napkin, she gingerly brought the hot dog to her lips, careful to confine the sandwich to the area over the flimsy cardboard. “Mmm.” She ate quickly, and listened, hypnotized, as a man with an Arabic accent attempted to sell a “real good bike” to everyone who passed—and occasionally to Trisha and James, who ignored him.
“So what is there to do now?” Trisha asked breathlessly, as she daintily ate her dog.
“That’s it for you? One?”
“Girl’s got to mind her figure,” Trisha said. She’d lost twenty pounds lately that she couldn’t afford. James raised his eyebrows at her.
James threw his left arm out from his side, inadvertently hitting Trisha as she brought the last chili-drenched bite to her face; simultaneously, the wind whipped at the polyester scarf she wore over her wig. She reached up reflexively, a tic she’d developed. She would never quite get used to the wig, or become comfortable not wearing it. “Goddamn it,” she said.
“Why don’t you just take the damn wig off?” James said.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do at the Cyclone, then.”
Trisha frowned, fretted, but decided she would figure that out later.
Occupying a place of honor at the outskirts of the park sat the rickety wooden roller coaster, a patriotic landmark given its red, white and blue paint. Trisha eyed the slats and, when she thought no one was looking, dug her fingernails into the wood to test its sponginess. She was not reassured.
Above them, the giant creaked. James continually bounced up and down on the balls of his feet in anticipation. Ahead of them, in the good-sized line, several teenaged couples were making out. At first Trisha smiled at them, rooting for the guys and girls who probably never got the chance to do that during the week, until things turned grabby. “Kids these days,” Trisha muttered under her breath. She felt old. And envious. Anger welled inside her, but James didn’t notice the knuckles at her side, and as always, she willed herself to look at the bright side. She was here, alive, outside.
They reached the cashier, an old woman who took their money with a toothless grin. A sign behind her warned passengers to keep hold of all belongings, since things like sunglasses often fell off in flight. As James and Trisha made their way back and forth in a snaking line, like cows on their way to the slaughterhouse, Trisha wasn’t sure why she was shivering. Was it the temperature or her dignity that had her upset?
Sighing, she pulled off her hair and then extremely quickly replaced the scarf on her scalp. She tied it tight, knotted it, and put her “hair” into her purse, which she promptly zipped up.
James clapped. “All right,” he said loudly, making supportive hooting noises.
And then there was no escape: They had reached the front of the line. Trisha squeezed in first, and James followed her. When he got in, his leg touched hers. She scooted over but then fell forward as the car jolted and began to click-click-click its way up a very tall hill.
Even before it reached the top, Trisha screamed. The thought crossed her mind that maybe it was like watching a horror movie, that the anticipation might be worse than the fall. It had to be that way. Didn’t it?
But that was not the case. When the car began its rapid descent, Trisha shrunk into James, looking for protection. She froze, barely aware of who or where she was at the moment, or how long this would take, or how it all would end.
Excerpted with permission from Enter Sandman, published by McWitty Press, New York (www.mcwittypress.com), copyright © 2004 by Stephanie Williams.