Photo By Paul Vasiliades
Story By Randy Gross – firstname.lastname@example.org
“Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” — E.M. Forster
It may be a tired cliché but think about life for a moment as a journey. It could be your own personal one, or a developmental one taken by a child. Now think about the best, most productive way for that journey to teach and mold. Is it purely by reading a textbook? Or is it, as author and travel-enthusiast Steven G. Williams, believes, more experiential.
A youthful looking 32, Williams certainly doesn’t convey the personage of a wizened old prophet. Even so, his personal journeys have shown him so much of the world in so short a span of time that he is perhaps better qualified than most to be a mentor to Harrisburg-area youths who, for the moment, may only dream of learning more than just the shape of spoons. It is because of Williams’ broad experiences in areas ranging from state legislature to afterschool programming, fantasy and science fiction writing to, yes, world traveling, that he has been selected as this month’s Influencer.
As youngsters, kids can’t avoid being asked that oft-repeated question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But it’s because of naivete that their childhood dreams can often sound fanciful, if not unattainable. Case in point: when Williams was in the 4th grade, he wanted to own a 4-star hotel.
“I don’t know where that came from,” Williams recalls with a smile. “I remember telling my teacher, ‘yeah, I wanna grow up and be a 4-star hotel owner.’ And he would always jokingly reference it during the course of 4th grade.”
There was also a period in high school when, inspired by Barack Obama, Williams dreamed of being president – another short-lived flight of fancy.
Then, things got serious.
“Somewhere between high school and college,” he recalls, “it really kind of clicked that, full-time, the goal for me is to be an author. President still floats around there somewhere (he laughs), and I think that would be cool, like an opportunity to give back. But obviously in today’s political climate it would be incredibly taxing.”
He continues, “But there are ways to give back to the world that don’t require you to be president of the United States … obviously, as an adult, I see there are far more ways to do it, which you can even make an argument, might be more impactful.”
One of four children, the Central Dauphin High School, Shippensburg, and Northwestern University grad credits several people for putting him on an impactful career path. At the top of his list: his parents. “They traveled with me and my siblings when we were young,” he remembers fondly, “and kind of helped me expand my world view. Like, I got to have experiences as a kid that a lot of folks don’t.” Some of the places his mom and dad took him were the Bahamas, at age 10, and then the Cayman Islands when he was a little older. With his passion for travel growing as strong as his passion for writing, he would end up studying abroad. “That’s when my desire to travel and see the world really exploded.”
Others who contributed to Williams early success include: Gail McDermott at the Office of Member Services and, later, District Operations and Outreach, for opening that initial door at the PA House of Representatives (“she said ‘hey, Steve, come on, let’s take a chance on you, you’re right out of college, you don’t necessarily have the background that most folks here have, but I’m still gonna take a chance on you because you seem like a smart kid”); former Pittsburgh representative Jake Wheatly (“he took a chance on me being the Research Analyst for the House Finance Committee, and that really opened up the door. Because, like, one of the first things he did was say ‘Steve, let’s go meet the Governor. And that was just profound”); and, last but not least, his wife Danielle (“I feel like we’re partners for each other first and we really are supportive. And I can’t even stress how crucial that is.”)
WHEN “AFTER” BECOMES AS IMPORTANT AS “DURING”
After eight years of filling various staff positions in the PA legislature, Williams was ready to move on. But the “big picture” skills he had gained at the capitol would help him to excel at two new positions, one his full-time day job, the other an unpaid elected job – and both of them targeted at helping Harrisburg-area youths.
In the former position – Associate Director of the Pennsylvania Statewide Afterschool Youth Development Network (PSAYDN) – Williams gets to stress how afterschool options for young students are as equally important as options available during the school day. “After school as an option for young people allows for career exploration,” he maintains. “It allows for them to engage in the arts, and yes, it’s also a means for keeping people out of trouble, in those in-between hours when your parents might not be home, and you’re kind of like, what do you do with yourself. But it’s also a place for them to learn about what the future might look like.”
Citing “the direct positive impact that we’re having on young people’s lives” as the thing he like’s best about his job at PSAYDN, Williams mentions a recent fruit of his labors. “We had our Advocacy Day at the capitol building back in March, and we brought in students from all across the state to come talk to their state Rep and Senator… and we made it a priority of bringing in students from Harrisburg, because they had not participated in this in the past.”
He continues, “I was so blown away. I’m not one who is quick to come to tears, but I definitely was almost about to. I was just proud, man.”
Williams has been equally proud to have been elected to the Harrisburg City School Board in 2019, for whom he currently serves as Vice President. His goals for the city school system (which recently had its receivership status extended for three more years) include bringing a chapter of Youth in Government to the High School (“Harrisburg is right there … the capitol is right down the street … it’s an incredible learning opportunity,” he asserts), and also the bolstering of arts and theatre programs.
But, through it all, Williams’ dream of being a published author had never diminished.
TWO ICELANDIC GENTLEMAN WALK INTO A COFFEE SHOP
With his second fantasy fiction book (“Thyra”) released on August 31st, Williams is able to catch his breath long enough to reminisce about his long path toward authorhood.
“My first story that I remember completing was in 2nd or 3rd grade,” he recalls, “and it was because the teacher’s assignment was to use the vocabulary words of the week and construct a story around those vocabulary words. But I remember the story that I had come up with was about the 4th Little Pig. So, the 3 Little Pigs, and then they had this 4th brother who no one had ever heard of, and he was evil. His name was Evil Ethan, and he wanted to take over the world, and the 3 Little Pigs had to stop him. But that was the first time I remember writing a story to completion.”
When he was a little older, Williams would get caught up in Anime and Manga, coming up with storylines with his buddy, Tom, and then using his burgeoning cartooning skills to create comics. “My dad would then take them to Kinko’s and get them printed,” he says with a laugh. “My dad was my original publisher!”
As he matured and did more reading, Williams would be influenced by a diversity of works ranging from “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential.” But, being a fantasy and science fiction writer, Williams is quick to add that “in terms of writing or author influences, definitely Neil Gaiman is someone I look at as inspirational. In fact, I’m watching ‘The Sandman’ right now.”
Among Williams’ favorite activities as a writer are the book tours and book signings that he gets to plan himself with his publisher, Sunbury Press. “I’ll take on what I need to do to plan these book tours,” he says. “So, I reach out to local establishments like bookstores and coffee shops and say ‘hey, would you be cool with me setting up shop with you all for like two hours,’ and I just sell my book and sign it.” One signing event, for his first novel, “Skadi,” rises above the rest.
“One of the really cool experiences was at Cornerstone Coffeehouse,” he recalls. “When I was signing books there, two gentlemen came in and they were from Iceland. And the book is obviously Norse mythology, which is Icelandic … they came through, and that was one of the coolest experiences during the entire book tour. Because Danielle and I got married in Iceland. Meeting the two gentlemen from Iceland and them buying the book, and then the son went back to Iceland and was like ‘I’m reading it … I’m enjoying it!’ So that was something cool.”
PERSISTANCE, PATIENCE, AND THE PURSUIT OF A BUCKET LIST
As someone aspiring to eventually write full-time, Williams isn’t averse to serving as a role model for younger writers. “As long as they’re looking for it,” he self-cautions. “I don’t want to be preachy, or anything. If you’re looking for advice, I’ll give you the advice.” Seeing as how it took him a decade to publish his first book, Williams offers up two words – persistence and patience – as the most helpful for any writer. As an example of persevering in the face of criticism, he relates an early publishing effort:
“One time, I had written this science fiction story, about this war in space, and since I was working for the legislature, I was kind of thinking of this political realm, and I was like, ‘okay, what if each planet represented a different country and a particular governing style?’ And I sent it off to this small press publisher. And, I had gotten a ‘no.’ I had always gotten ‘no’s,’ I’d gotten used to it. But this time I said ‘why?’ (laughs) I just emailed the guy back and I said, ‘what is it that’s not resonating?’ And he emailed me back actually, like a page-long tirade. I say tirade because there were a lot of mean-spirited comments. Like he said that the office had a collective laugh around one of the scenes in my story, and I was like ‘damn, well okay.’ But, even in the arguably cruel feedback he was providing there were nuggets of good feedback, and that’s what I chose to focus on.”
Williams’ wide-ranging travel experiences – and, hence, his enhanced world view – come back into play when asked for words of advice to kids who want to become writers, but don’t necessarily want to go to college. “I would argue that, if writing is what you really want to do, I would pursue something else and then try to find a way to merge that with your interest in writing,” he suggests. “Then, learn the tricks and the trades of writing through other means. I would even say, save your money and go travel the world for a couple years! If you’re gonna spend $50,000 on a degree, if you have it like that, I would take that $50,000 and spend time in Europe, and Asia, and Africa for like two years.”
And what travel destinations are on the Williams’ bucket list? For Steven, it’s Japan, and perhaps more time in the Nordic countries. “And then,” he adds, “hitting parts of Africa and even some parts of Africa that don’t get spoken about a lot, like Namibia.”
“For Danielle,” he continues, “I know the top of hers is India.”
“But the list is long.”