By Caroline Hwang

This past July, Stephanie Williams C’92 died after a three-year battle with a virulent form of breast cancer. She was 33.

If you didn’t know Williams, but her name rings a bell, it may be because you’ve seen her byline. In a magazine career that spanned 12 years, she was a staff writer for Self (which hired her before she’d even graduated from Penn), TV Guide (where she wrote cover stories profiling the likes of Matthew Perry, Patrick Stewart, and David Duchovny), Teen People, and Smart Money. And her freelance features appeared everywhere, from New York Magazine to Men’s Health, to this publication [“Alumni Voices,” September/October 1999]. “She was talented and versatile and had an incredible nose for news,” says Ellie McGrath, Williams’ boss at Self. “As a 24-year-old she broke the Ephedra story before The New York Times, though because we were a monthly, their piece ran before ours,” she adds, referring to the dietary supplement that was ultimately banned because of associated health risks.

If you haven’t read something by Williams, you may have read something about her. From the Seattle Post Intelligencer to the Boston Globe, newspapers across the country have carried the story of her life and death. National magazines, such as Oprah and Time are also (as the Gazette went to press) planning to run articles. Even Jane Pauley was going to tape an interview with Williams, but unfortunately, “she died before they could get the cameras into the hospital room,” says McGrath.

Breast cancer, as we’re reminded every October during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, has cut short the lives of (too) many women, young and old. Stephanie Williams’ story is not extraordinary for its tragedy but for its triumph over tragedy.

From the time she was a little girl, says her sister Laurie, Stephanie wanted to be a novelist. She went into journalism, as many writers do, to keep her hand at the craft while making a living. But she was so successful in her vocation that she didn’t have time to put into her avocation. “She went freelance to free up some time,” says one of her best friends, Adam Fawer W’92 G’92, “but editors kept calling with assignments that she couldn’t turn down.” Frustrated, she went back on staff, at SmartMoney, where she was working when, at the age of 30, she got her diagnosis.

Radiation and chemo ensued, as well as a mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and another mastectomy. It was after her second breast was removed that she learned that the cancer, already at an advanced stage when found, was terminal. And it was then, bedridden, that she decided to do what she’d always meant to do and “write the great American novel,” says Fawer.

At first, Fawer, who had also always wanted to write a novel and was between jobs, met with her every day for two-hour or 2,000-word (whichever came first) writing sessions. After six weeks, the cancer returned, this time on the skin of her chest. But through 20 different kinds of chemotherapies, she persisted, writing 15 minutes a day if that was all the energy she could muster. “It was a race against time,” says Laurie. “She didn’t know how much longer she had.”

A year and half later, at the end of 2003, Stephanie had a completed first draft. (Fawer, who’d finished and revised his manuscript earlier, had already gotten an agent and sold his book—Improbable, coming out in January from William Morrow.) But the cancer had spread to her lungs; finding representation, let alone a publisher, would take more time than she could count on having. Instead, she took the initiative and called her former boss McGrath, who’d always wanted to start her own imprint. And in five short months—with Stephanie in the hospital for most of that time—they whipped the manuscript into shape, arranged for the typesetting, printing, and everything else that goes into publishing a novel.

Enter Sandman (McWitty Press) was published in August to rave reviews. Williams lived to bask in the praise—Kirkus Reviews compared the semi-autobiographical novel to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, saying, “After making you squirm for the protagonist, it whacks you with a sucker punch of tragedy” —as well as to hold an advance copy of the book. She also had the gratification of knowing that it would be widely read; after a first run of 10,000 copies, Enter Sandman went into a second printing—an extraordinary showing for a first novel.

In her last magazine article, published this August in Glamour, Williams wrote about what it was like to die at her age, leaving her parents and sister and friends, just when everything was going her way. Movingly, she described her regret at never having married or had children, and she mentioned, with longing, the book ideas she wouldn’t be getting around to. “But she’d achieved her goal and she was happy,” says Laurie. “She lived to see her dream.”

Enter Sandman is available at bookstores and at McWittyPress@aol.com. Thirty percent of profits will go to the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Center.

Caroline Hwang C’91, a colleague and friend of Stephanie Williams, is the author of the novel In Full Bloom (Plume Books).

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/27/04

 

EXCERPT: Enter Sandman page 1

FEATURE: Writing For Her Life
By Caroline Hwang
page 2

In the September/ October 1999 Gazette, Stephanie Williams C’92 wrote a funny and honest essay about what did and didn’t make her envious when reading Alumni Notes and her own ambition to one day write a novel. It concluded: “Sometimes, I realize how happy I am to be what I am. Sometimes, I have a fit of jealousy that reminds me to challenge myself to do something Note-worthy. If and when the day comes when I attain that goal and write that blasted book, you may well hear about it—whether you want to or not.”

The accompanying story by Caroline Hwang C’91 tells how Williams did manage to achieve her goal, despite the breast cancer that killed her this summer, with the publication of her novel Enter Sandman. In this excerpt, the book’s main character, Trisha Portman, terminally ill with cancer, visits Coney Island with James, a gifted artist driven by guilt and thoughts of suicide, who becomes her last, best friend.—J.P.