A new book by Phillip B. Williams has its roots in his days as a student at Illinois

Phillip B. Williams (BA, '08, English) has been publishing poetry since he left the University of Illinois, whether it was in chapbooks such as “Burn” and “Bruised Gospels” or award-winning collections such “Thief in the Interior” and “Mutiny.” Now he’s publishing his first novel, a work of fiction that started as a short story that he wrote as a student.

Ours,” published by Viking, is set to be released on Feb. 20. The novel is set in 1830s Arkansas and follows Saint, a fearsome conjuror, who makes it her goal to annihilate plantations and create a secret town of her own. The novel focuses on spirituality’s relationship to freedom and has already received strong praise.  

I wanted to write a story during the Antebellum period where enslavement was not the main antagonist, where the characters could interact with each other in multifaceted ways,” Williams said. “Centering Black narratives is incredibly important to me.”

The book stems from a story that Williams wrote for a short story writing contest while he was a student at Illinois. Williams felt that the 15-page story that he submitted to the contest didn’t feel quite finished, but he wanted to pursue the concept. Williams placed fourth, but more important than his ranking was the feedback that he received from a judge, Crystal Wilkinson, award-winning poet and author of “Perfect Black.” She told Williams that his story felt like it was meant to be a part of something bigger.

"Ours" is a work of fiction featuring a conjuror who frees slaves and brings them to a magically concealed community of her own. (Viking) 

Cover of the novel "Ours"
"Ours" is a work of fiction featuring a conjuror who frees slaves and brings them to a magically concealed community of her own. (Viking) 

Wilkinson’s observation inspired him to later revive the story as a novel.  

Her excitement about my ‘not-really-a-short-story’ short story encouraged me to continue expanding it as I had always planned,” Williams said.

Williams arrived on campus as a student in the Gies College of Business, but he always knew that he wanted to be a writer. He would wait by his computer during registration to secure a seat in writing and literature classes. Eventually he transferred to the College of LAS to major in English.

Williams recalls taking part in writing workshops with instructors such as Laura Koritz and Tyehimba Jess, English professor Janice Harrington, and Nancy Castro, professor and deputy director of the Humanities Research Institute, who inspired him with her lessons on the writing of Toni Morrison.

“I don’t think there was a more formative class than that one,” Williams said. “She really lit a fire in me and I appreciate her for that.”

The feedback he received gave him important guidance as he developed himself as a writer.  

“I learned a lot with them, particularly how to write weekly even when I didn’t have anything immediately that I wanted to say. I wrote for practice more than anything,” Williams said. “But because they saw something in my work, I only grew from there.”

Moving on after college, Williams’ poetry was successful. He has been awarded the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, a Lambda Literary Award, and most recently, he has been named a Pew Arts Grant Fellow. Now, “Ours” has been well-received by reviewers, with Britt Bennett, author of “The Vanishing Half,” calling it an “ambitious epic about the complexity of freedom.”  

“Williams crafts an expansive, original world filled with characters who linger long after the final page,” Bennett described.

Williams thinks fondly back to the days on campus that shaped his work.

I loved attending University of Illinois. I mark it as one of my most formative and peaceful experiences,” Williams said. “I went through challenges, of course, but the leadership roles I had helped build confidence. But mostly, I built great friendships there. My goodness, we had a good time together on that huge campus.”