Q and A with Mardo Williams' daughters about the writing of One Last Dance
What is the story behind the story of “One Last Dance: It’s Never Too Late to Fall in Love”?
This romance novel was started by our dad Mardo Williams at age 92. He had had a distinguished career as journalist and author (for which he won an Ohioana Library Award). After he completed the first draft of “One Last Dance" he asked us (his daughters, Kay and Jerri) to finish the book if he could not. He died a few weeks later. We honored his wishes.
Q: Why did your father decided to write this book? What about the characters and situation appealed to him?
Jerri Williams Lawrence: When he was touring with his first book “Maude,” he met a woman who’d tracked him down after seeing him interviewed on TV. She came over to my house (in Ohio) to get her copy of “Maude” autographed. Dad discovered that he knew her. She’d worked at the “Columbus Dispatch” as an executive secretary on the fifth floor while Dad had worked in the newsroom on the fourth floor. After they talked about old times and Dad autographed her book, he pecked her lightly on the lips. She said later, “It was a kiss goodbye that became a kiss hello.”
As the two shared living quarters, the challenges became apparent. What did it take for an older adult, set in his ways, to begin a new life living with someone just as rigid and needy as he was. Enough material to fill a book, Dad thought. He had a great deal he wanted to say about aging and what it means to be in your nineties with the body failing and the mind and spirit still wanting it all. And he wanted to say it as humorously as possible. So he dropped his first idea of writing a newspaper novel and “One Last Dance” was born. Dad said “One Last Dance” was about “about two old duffers trying to keep their independence,” but it’s also about two people set in their ways who learn to change and grow and value their relationships.
Q: One theme of the book is about how the past can haunt a person. It seems an advantage to having older characters if they have more of a past for a novelist to build upon. Will you tell us about the past and secrets of the main characters, Morgan and Dixie, and how the past is integral to the plot?
Kay Williams: Morgan wants a real relationship with Dixie, who fears intimacy. Morgan only finds out later why this is so. He also discovers that although Dixie owns her lovely home, other financial strings are attached. Morgan, too, has concealed important details—about his divorce, his estranged children, and why he lost his prestigious Chicago banking job. Dixie finds out enough while rummaging in his dresser drawer to give her qualms. Morgan explains, but still she’s left with nagging doubts. A few weeks later, the two return from seeing a movie and find the house trashed—drawers ransacked, their contents dumped on the floor, furniture knocked over, lamps broken. Two antique figurines and most of the food in the refrigerator have been stolen. A message is painted on the wall: “Happy New Year, you pig.” Dixie blurts out to Morgan, “Nothing like this ever happened before you moved in.” Dixie is terrified. Morgan is worried. Is the break-in a random act, the work of vandals? Or someone with a grudge from Morgan’s past?
Q: It is not often that senior citizens are the main characters in books. What appeal do you think the main characters have and whom do you think is the audience for “One Last Dance”?
Jerri: Several readers have commented that Dixie and Morgan are real people, not caricatures, as older people are so often portrayed in books, films and on TV. The reason they aren’t caricatures is that “One Last Dance” was written by a man in his nineties who knew exactly what he was talking about. As one reviewer wrote, “The audience for this book is every senior citizen and their children.”
Q: The story was inspirational. What about “One Last Dance” may inspire people?
Kay: It could have been a dismal, discouraging story. Instead, Dad dealt with the issues of aging openly, honestly, and with humor and thoughtfulness. The book is uplifting and encouraging, reminding us to live every day and always be in search of new experiences, regardless of age. Our dad lived that philosophy by writing this, his first novel, at age 92.
Q: Was it difficult for you to finish a book he had written? What concerns did you have in finishing it?
Jerri: It was very difficult. His death was sudden, two weeks after he, Kay, and I had agreed to meet. He was going to dictate to us his ending and needed our eyes to help him start revisions. By then Dad was 95, ill and frail, and blind from macular degeneration. (He’d had to dictate into a small tape recorder what turned out to be the last 11 chapters of the book, everything that happens after The Accident.)
After his death, we couldn’t bear to look at the manuscript for over a year. But we’d made him a promise to finish the book. We didn’t know if we could do it right—maintain Dad’s humorous tone and his pithy style while fleshing out what needed to be fleshed out. It was like walking a tightrope. But we felt we had guidance. It seemed almost as if he were looking over our shoulders as we worked.
Q: I understand your father wrote the entire rough draft. What role did the two of you then play—did you just edit and proofread the book, or did you do some major rewrites and add or delete scenes from the book?
Kay: Yes, Dad wrote the entire first draft—except for the last chapter. He had been undecided for some time—about whether to have a sad, happy or in between ending and still be realistic. Just before he died, he told us he wanted a happy ending. One comment he made in one of his tapes was: “About here, we need a big celebration to perk Morgan up.” That’s when Jerri and I came up with the ending—which is more than happy, it’s joyous. I know it’s an ending Dad would approve of.
The plot is totally Dad’s…and was sparked when he began to share living quarters for parts of two years with a significant other and her little dog. He knew there’d be some humor as each tried to adjust to new living arrangements and to each other’s friends (and to the little dog who seemed to be the Master of the household). And he realized there’d be humor and tension in the couple’s differences of opinion, power plays, and fights. And he realized there’d be worries as the health of one or the other deteriorated.
Before we started revisions, we took a long look at the entire manuscript and saw that his three main characters—Morgan, Dixie, and Tony, the mysterious stranger—were totally there; we felt it was an important book—not too many books feature an 89-year-old and a 79-year-old as leading romantic characters. We changed from Dad’s bird’s eye view to being in the heads of three main characters, so they could indulge in a little more introspection than Dad allowed. Also, the readers would have the fun of knowing what they were thinking, despite what they said to one another.
While many parts of his manuscript read like a final draft, underdeveloped sections remained. (Since I’d just finished writing a suspense novel, I knew that this is usual for first drafts—you really don’t know what you have until you near the end of the book.) We fleshed out some characters, added a character that we discovered we needed to build more tension. We cut scenes, rearranged scenes. Dad’s keen wit and sense of humor shines throughout the book, starting in the very first chapter.
We worked two more years on it. (Dad had worked on the book for four years—between hospitalizations.) As we finished a second draft, I read it aloud to my writers group in New York City ten pages at a time for feedback. We did third, fourth, and even fifth drafts. When we thought the manuscript was ready, we farmed it out to other readers for their input and received valuable feedback—which resulted in more changes. We both had stacks of papers—various versions of the book—all over our homes. Finally, after 6 years, the novel seemed ready for publication—and we submitted it. We believed in it. We didn’t know if anyone else would.
Q: How did you two collaborate?
Kay: Jerri and I did much of the collaboration via e-mail. We didn’t want to send chapters over the internet so Jerri marked the pages on the manuscript itself, then typed off page by page her comments, really spelling out what she meant, re-writing passages showing the original and her suggestions. She’s a gifted editor. Then we might get on the phone to fight over changes or to hash out complicated matters.
Q: You mentioned that Tony is the mysterious stranger—can you tell us anything more about him without giving away the plot?
Jerri: The reader sees him three times before he comes face to face with Morgan and Dixie. And up until that meeting, the reader only knows him as a question mark, alienated, discontented, someone who’s looking for trouble and finds it. Readers sense that a confrontation between him and Morgan and Dixie is inevitable and worry how he will impact their lives. That kind of tension keeps readers turning pages. Although one reader said she was so worried about what Tony might do to the vulnerable older couple that she had to look ahead to see what was going to happen.
Q: I bet your father would be very happy with how well the book has done. Will you tell us a little bit about the awards it has won or for which it has been a finalist?
Jerri: We were thrilled in May 2006 when we learned that “One Last Dance” had won the 2006 Independent Publishers Award for Best Regional Fiction. Kay traveled to Washington D.C. on May 19th to attend the awards reception held at the Women’s Museum.
The book was also one of five Finalists in the National Readers’ Choice Awards for 2005, sponsored by the Romance Writers of America. Dad was the only man in the list of finalists. We think he would have been amused, flattered, and slightly stunned to know that many Romance Readers of all ages loved his book.
The most recent award is the Ohioana Award to Jerri and me for writing and editing excellence in finishing Dad’s book.
Q: While “One Last Dance” was your father’s first novel, he also wrote other books. Will you tell us a little bit about his other writing?
Kay: Dad’s writing career spanned 73 years. At age 21 and recently married, he lost his job at a Kenton, Ohio car shop due to the Depression. Always having an inclination to write, he answered an ad, “Wanted: young man who can type and knows English.” He became the only reporter for the “Kenton News-Republican,” a small Ohio daily. Nineteen years later, after World War II ended, the “Columbus Dispatch” recruited him to the copy desk. So we all moved from the small town of Kenton, Ohio to Columbus, Ohio. He moved up the ranks from the copy desk to travel editor ...and in 1954 he was asked to develop and write stories about the world of business. Columbus was booming at this time. Dad, familiar with pounding the pavement to search out stories, did just that. Within the year, he was writing a daily business column with byline.
After he retired from the “Dispatch” in 1970, he freelanced for several years, editing a newsletter and doing publicity. He began his second career, writing books, at age 88, when our mother died after a long illness. At our urging, he learned to use a computer and began writing his first book, “Maude.” It was about his mother—our grandmother, who lived to be 110— and also life at the turn of the century when everything was done arduously by hand. This was to be for family, but I read a few sections to my writers group. They loved it, and wanted more.
The manuscript grew from 50 pages to a 334-page book with a 32 page picture insert. The finished product—the hardcover edition--was published in 1996, “Maude (1883-1993): She Grew up with the Country.” It won an Ohioana Library award (their first posthumous award) and has been adopted by some college American history classes as a supplemental text “to put a human face on history.” It’s been very popular with Book Discussion groups and is available in all e-book formats; in 2016 a second edition paperback was published, with updated material and additional photographs.
Then Dad wrote an illustrated children’s book, “Great-Grandpa Fussy and the Little Puckerdoodles,” based on the escapades of four of his great-grandchildren, now in paperback and e-book formats. At age 92 he decided to try something completely different—a novel. His magnum opus.
Q: How would you describe your father’s influence as a writer on your own careers as writers, actor and educator?
Jerri: We’ve probably inherited Dad’s love of words, of reading, of self-expression—and I know I’ve learned more about writing from Dad than any teacher. Possibly the most useful advice for me personally—and in my teaching of writing was how to begin putting ideas to paper. Even now when I’m not sure how to begin, I can hear his voice telling me: “Don’t worry about how to start—just start.” Once the brain is engaged, words flow—sentence and paragraph order can easily be transposed when ideas are down. (Of course, during his career, he had to rely on scissors and a paste pot to “cut and paste.”) His news-style “editing” suggestions during my high school and college years were also invaluable: Be precise. Get rid of unnecessary words. Can you rephrase for clarity? Avoid needless repetition. And he was always encouraging, praising my writing when it was warranted. My teaching career allowed me to earn a living using these strengths and interests.
Kay: When Dad worked as reporter at the “News-Republican” in Kenton, Ohio, I loved being at the office, watching him pound out his stories on the manual typewriter, seeing him throw the metal type into the fire to be re-melted and used again, going down to the basement with him to hear the roar of the presses and watch them spew out the printed pages. It was magical. In the sixth grade I decided I had to be part of it. I became the first paper girl in that small town.
Dad was always typing in his basement office when he wasn’t at the newspaper. That influenced me to write (by hand) small plays. We did neighborhood shows—kind of like the kids did in the old Mickey Rooney movies. Someone said, “Let’s put on a show,” and we did just that.
I learned a lot by having Dad give my writing the once-over. In junior high school, I’d show him a finished paper for English and he’d come up with better adjectives or verbs or a different or unusual thrust. If the teacher happened to read it aloud, the class would say, “I’ll bet your dad helped you with that.”
When Dad was working at the “Columbus Dispatch,” I freelanced for the newspaper as a reviewer of movies and plays. By then I knew I wanted to try to make it as an actor, so I turned down a full-time job with the “Dispatch.” I didn’t like the idea of writing with a deadline. After acting roles dried up, I turned to writing thrillers and discovered that I didn’t miss acting all that much. With fiction writing I had total control and could play all the characters!
Q: Let’s give your father the last word. What do you think he would want to say to people interested in “One Last Dance”?
Jerri: Dad once told an interviewer: “Life is for living, no matter what our age or condition. If we can sing, we should sing. If we can write, we should write. We should always be in search of a new experience, always be ready to commit ourselves to a new interest.” He lived this philosophy right up to the day of his death, February 3, 2001.
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Maude (1883-1993): She Grew Up With the Country
Great-Grandpa Fussy and the Little Puckerdoodles
Butcher Of Dreams
The Five O’Clock Follies