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Writer Phillip B. Williams brought the power of conjuring into his debut novel 'Ours'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the writer Phillip B. Williams was a kid, he heard about certain family practices. You could call them superstitions, folklore or even magic.

PHILLIP B WILLIAMS: A story that was told to me by my mother about her father involved kind of conjuration, where he would salt his thresholds in order to keep what is considered dark spirits out of the house. It's this idea that sea salt can either burn a bad spirit or distract them as they're counting the grains so that they can't actually enter your house. And I was raised with an idea that a lot of things are possible (laughter).

SHAPIRO: Phillip B. Williams weaves that idea through his debut novel, "Ours" - O-U-R-S. It is a sprawling American epic spanning decades. Many of the characters use herbs, roots or stones to bring people safety or harm. At the heart of the story is a woman named Saint. She uses her powers to free enslaved people and build a town for them, hidden from the outside world. The place is called Ours.

WILLIAMS: Saint is difficult to describe. She seems to be in control, but she's not necessarily in control. She likes to have control. She likes to have privacy. And for the most part, one can say that she is benign until you cross her. The trouble is, crossing her could be anything. You never know exactly what she would take offense by. She's mercurial in that way. She's also extraordinarily passionate and loving.

SHAPIRO: Early in the book, she seems like almost a superhero. She destroys plantations and the enslavers who live on them. She frees the Black people who were living there and brings them to freedom. It is such an unequivocal kind of embodiment of a fantasy of what might have happened if superheroes existed in that time.

WILLIAMS: There are, you know, parallels. People might think Harriet Tubman. They might think of the Haitian Revolution, where there were no superheroes, but there were people who took up the mantle of hero, right? And they didn't do it alone. They did it with assistance. But, yeah, she does it with a lot more ease.

SHAPIRO: You were a poet before you were a novelist, and so it's not surprising that there are some really beautifully written lines in the book. And I'd love you to tell us about one that comes right near the beginning, where Saint has just freed a man from slavery. And she says to him, don't ever try to touch your chains again. You might get rust on your priceless skin.

WILLIAMS: Mmm hmm. Mmm hmm. She does not believe in thinking about the past and focusing on the past. It's Sully's (ph). The self - and Sully's the spirit in her belief system. And so to interact with anything that had tried to destroy you means that you want to be destroyed. It means that you want to remain in what held you captive and in what stained every part of your being. And so she says that to keep him from playing with the detritus that had enchained his body, mind and spirit.

SHAPIRO: Hmm. So much of the book is about how to be free and what it means to be free. And there's a really poignant exchange between two close friends named Justice and Luther-Philip. Could you read this passage?

WILLIAMS: (Reading) He spoke aloud one of the hurts meant to be his most concealed. I don't think I'm being free the right way. No right way to be free. Our mothers didn't know freedom longer than we did. My father wasn't born free. Neither was yours. Mine's still finding out how to be free, and he don't even leave the house none, let alone ours. How are we supposed to learn from them when they never have been free long enough to tell us how to do it? No right way to be free. That's why it's called free. You make all the right and wrong with it as you want. Just be mindful of how much of each.

SHAPIRO: First, I just have to say, wow, you read that so beautifully.

WILLIAMS: Oh, thank you (laughter).

SHAPIRO: I hope you read the audiobook.

WILLIAMS: I do not read the audiobook.

SHAPIRO: Well, I would listen to you read the audiobook. That idea of no right way to be free almost feels to me like a distillation of the entire book.

WILLIAMS: Mmm hmm.

SHAPIRO: Did you see it that way?

WILLIAMS: I did. I did. And part of me wanted to move it later or just take it out 'cause I thought it was telegraphing too much. I thought it telegraphed too much. But...

SHAPIRO: Huh.

WILLIAMS: ...No, this is definitely a book where everyone has to find their own path. And because of the circumstances allowed to them by Saint, they are given the opportunity to do that and to see just how challenging it can be.

SHAPIRO: And does that apply to people who were not just liberated from slavery, who are not the children of enslaved people? Do you think it applies to those of us living in 2024?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I think we don't necessarily know what to do with ourselves. We are born into whatever our circumstances are, and we have to figure out - with guidance, hopefully - what our path is, what is possible for us. The only thing that - and this is part of the warning - is you make all the right and wrong with it as you want; you just have to be mindful with how much of each - is to not get in someone else's way as they try to pursue their freedom - to make sure that there is a balance between, you know, the mistakes that you made and the lessons you learned from those mistakes. So yeah, we're all trying to figure out how to be our best selves, our free selves, also in a world where there are others for whom our freedom is seen as a threat. So yes, I think we are still very much living in that location - right? - that kind of logic of there's no right way to do it, but it's still a challenge.

SHAPIRO: And what's interesting about the people who live in the town of Ours is that they're concealed from the outside world.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And so the people who see their freedom as a threat don't have to be a factor, and yet their problems don't go away.

WILLIAMS: They don't go away. They don't go away. They still have to interact with one another. They still have to deal with the experiences that they had when they were not there - right? - when they were on the plantation, when they were enslaved, when they were used and harmed. And for their new generation - the children of those - they have to build this kind of lexicon and experience around freedom without necessarily having someone to guide them. But they don't have someone to say, you do this, this and this because I did that. Everyone is learning. And they all have a similar learning curve, but they have different histories. So trauma is affecting everyone very differently.

SHAPIRO: This is a long book. It's nearly 600 pages. And you have said that the length is not incidental to the story. It is an essential part of it. Can you explain that?

WILLIAMS: I wanted to write an epic because I wanted them to have all the space to have their stories developed. I do not believe there is a main character, though there is a character or a couple of characters who are linchpins, but - so that everyone could have their plotlines fulfilled. They can have their aspirations known and their voices heard. And I believe epic stories are stories, yes, about heroes, but also about communities. And so it was very important for me to, craft-wise, create something that honored that history.

SHAPIRO: Phillip B. Williams, it has been so good talking with you. Thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. It's an honor.

SHAPIRO: His debut novel is "Ours."

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