Dr. Gibbs Williams, Ph.D., is a noted psychoanalyst in Manhattan with fifty years of expertise in issues of individual identity, isolation, self-esteem, anxiety, anger, substance abuse, mental health, and others. He has written a number of original papers and several books, including Demystifying Meaningful Coincidences and Attitude Shifting. His broad base of knowledge in the field, along with his work on behalf of many patients over the years, makes him a particularly viable choice to interview the author of Almost Like Praying because of one of the book's main characters, whose emotional makeup has roots in some of the areas central to Dr. Williams' work.
Gibbs Williams: Almost Like Praying takes place in the 1970s and 1980s, a baby boomer timeframe that I’ve noticed you’ve used a number of times both in fiction and nonfiction. How did the story at the heart of this new novel make its way into your head--particularly the characters of Dolores and Maria, both of whom drive a major portion of the narrative?
Joel Samberg: No surprise here, but I am a baby boomer, and like many people, the time left an indelible impression on me in terms of memories, sensitivities, even motivations. Now, as far as Almost Like Praying is concerned, when I was growing up, one of my friends on the block had a mother who to me seemed humorless and severe. I always wondered about her. Why was she so icy? I mean, she wasn't a bad-looking woman, from what I recall. Trim. Well-attired. Pleasant to look at. But she had a hard-as-nails façade that could make any kid want to run away. Well, she became Dolores Kelleher in Almost Like Praying, a woman with five interesting children, but plenty of secrets and disappointments. Secondly, whenever my family drove through the Bronx from our home on Long Island, I’d look at the dilapidated apartment buildings and wonder how the kids who lived there would fare in my own middle-class neighborhood. One of them became Maria. Almost Like Praying, which is to a great extent about the relationship between Dolores and Maria in the mid-80s, came out of these two combined recollections.
GW: In all honesty, there was one aspect of the novel that touched a little too close to home for me, in terms of emotional memories, which made it a little challenging to grow entirely comfortable with the book here and there. Does that surprise you?
JS: If I may steal your first three words from that question, in all honesty it thrills me. It's a genuine confirmation that the characters in Almost Like Praying will be as real as real-life people to readers, and that the things they go through are as real as real-life family situations. But I must note that you said “here and there,” which I'll take to mean that the number of uncomfortable parts pales compared to the number of comfortable parts. Or, to put it another way, whatever hit too close to home for you wasn't nearly enough to make you stop reading. Am I on the mark?
GW: Dead on. I certainly did want to see where it all was heading. After all, I’m a psychologist, and the complexity of Dolores’s persona was something that intrigued me. She ends up being a perfect example of how we all have the power to shift our attitudes by facing our challenges, instead of running away from them. She’s also an example of how we often create our own destinies in a way—that not everything is luck and chance, but manifestations of who we are. I've actually written books on both of those subjects.
JS: What that says to me, Dr. Williams, is that it’s entirely possible to create fictional characters that speak to actual psychologies simply by being honest in our depictions. Sure, there’s some literary flourishes and dramatic license, but my goal is always to make both the flourishes and the licenses seamless. So, thank you for that.
GW: You're welcome. Speaking of which, the story here is completely distinct from your previous novel, Blowin' in the Wind, and even the construction is a bit different. But there is a constancy to your style, in terms of scene progression, natural dialogue, even your use of real-life people who appear as sort of cameo characters. Is your style something you specifically work on?
JS: I love cameos, whether they’re based on real people of not. It’s just fun, and I think it adds depth and color to any story. In Blowin’ in the Wind there were cameos by Bob Dylan, Hillary Rodham, Billy Joel, Jim Henson, Karen Carpenter, John Gotti and others. In the new novel, Almost Like Praying, there are cameos by Bing Crosby, the TV personality Joey Heatherton, the ballplayer Carl Yastrzemski, actress Barbara Eden and others—mostly 60s and 70s people.
GW: Are there any other methods you use to create your own style?
JS: One major character in Almost Like Praying, Dolores's son Michael, is a skilled cartoonist. I’m not a cartoonist, but I'll make believe Michael is giving me permission to use a famous cartoon character in order to answer your question. As Popeye said, I am what I am. Whatever basic, overall style I have is something that developed decades ago. I guess it follows me from project to project, changing only to achieve a specific effect or support a distinctive idea.
GW: To my way of thinking, Joel, the title of the new novel has multiple meanings, such as truth being almost like praying, hope being almost like praying, and two central characters having met in a play in which a song lyric is “almost like praying.” Am I correct in my assertion?
JS: Spot on, Dr. Williams. Two main characters in Almost Like Praying, Dolores's son Doug, and Maria's mother, whose name is also Maria, meet and fall in love during a community theater production of West Side Story, and that relationship sparks a plot development that is central to the novel. When Doug sings that line from the song “Maria,” he may not know it at the time, but he’s enunciating a phrase that, in ways large and small, plays a part in the lives of so many people around him. And of course, the title of my previous novel was also song-related, so there was a neat little tie-in there, too. And I just completed writing another novel that also has a song-related title, It’s called Remember Me to Herald Square, which is a line from the song “Give My Regards to Broadway.” But after that, I think I’ll move along to a different methods of coming up with titles. I mean, I am who I am, but I can change. A little.
GW: Thank you very much, Joel.
Almost Like Praying can be purchased on Amazon.