INTERVIEW: Mary Elizabeth Williams, author of Gimme Shelter

Monday, March 9th, 2009

By Larry Smith

Contest: What’s your six-word housing story? Leave it in the comments area at the end of this story. We’ll send a copy of Gimme Shelter to three readers, as well as both of SMITH’s six-word memoir books to Williams’ grand-prize winner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams doesn’t want it all. She just wants some of it—a home namely, one in New York City, the land that she loves.

Williams, a longtime writer and editor for Salon, as well as contributor to the NY Observer, the New York Times, and The Takeaway, offers up her desires in the form of her memorably funny, brutally honest, and occasionally gut-wrenching memoir, Gimme Shelter: Ugly Houses, Cruddy Neighborhoods, Fast-Talking Brokers, and Toxic Mortgages: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream. The book is her decision to take the universal desire to find a home and funnel it through her specific experience, bringing her family, her friends, and the subprime mortgage crisis with us down this yellow brick road. While timing plays a part in any memoir, hers is uncanny: Williams’ story began in the midst of the 2003 housing bubble, and her memoir publishes as American home ownership shakes in the face of bad mortgages, foreclosures, and community turmoil across the country. Read an excerpt here.

She’s a longtime contributor to SMITH (whose theories on bacon and chocolate have spurred many a debate on these and other pages), and good friend of mine going back to our scrappy San Francisco days. I was delighted to sit down with Mary Elizabeth Williams and talk the process, path, and aftermath of her search for one piece of the American dream. —Larry Smith.

Let’s ease into this conversation with a question I know you’ve already given some thought to. What’s your six-word housing story?
Priced out of Brooklyn, discovered Manhattan.

Photos by Bill Wadman

Photos by Bill Wadman

Perfect. And now we can really start the interview. Why did you decide to write Gimme Shelter?

It was 2003 and I was very early in the process of try to find and buy a home. I’ve always gotten everything I wanted pretty easily—hey, this is America!—and I thought this would come easily, too. And very, very early in the process, like my second open house, I realized this was going to be more complicated and horrifying than I ever dreamed. So I started writing about it. It was my way of turning this horror into something productive.

What was harder, finding a home or writing a book?
It’s neck to neck. It took me three years to do both. And both require you to look long and hard at who you really are, not who you wish you were, and be willing to accept the scrutiny that comes with that. It was harder than I’d imagined to find a home, and to find a publisher. The first time I shopped around the book nobody was interested—I guess it was too soon. Then, about a year later, housing became much more of an issue. So I got a new agent, reworked the proposal and it sold.

As you were writing about your own personal housing crisis, did you sense where the narrative of the American housing mess was going? And if so, how did that affect your writing?
I kept thinking that this was a lot like it was during the dot com boom, where people were handing you the idea of money rather than real money. The idea of value and the idea of prosperity, which is different than real value and worth and prosperity. And I remember going to these open houses and seeing people open up their checkbooks and feeling like I had the whole Gavin de Becker Gift of Fear feeling. I had realtors show me financing sheets where I didn’t have to pay any money. And then they’d show you what you’d be paying every month. I thought: this is bad, really bad, like, horror-movie bad. And this was definitely a story I needed to tell.

Was working in data around housing and subprime mortgages and all that a chore, or did it come out naturally?
You bet it was hard. My number one fear was riddling the book with clunky, book-report style exposition, of forcing data into regular day-to-day life. I didn’t want to be my own Jeff Goldblum character, you know? I’m the sort of person who just loves to give my little thinky thoughts and my wry quips, and I had to go a lot deeper and work a lot harder to get it right, without taking the reader out of the immediacy of the story. It helps that a lot of the information is so dramatic, it became like another character. When you read some of those hard, scary facts–like what an interest-only mortgage really is, or that over 40 percent of first-time buyers were buying their homes with no money down, that says worlds more than my editorializing ever could.

In many ways, I read this as a book about the death of the middle class in New York City.
Aside from my own obviously very personal stake in it all, I also believe we urgently need to keep the middle class and the working creative class in our cities. The U.S. is becoming a much more urban nation. We have more people living in cities than ever in our history. Yet the middle class population in New York City has been steadily declining since the seventies. Cities need to have regular people in them–people who work in offices and restaurants, people who are making music, and writing copy. If it’s all the very rich and the very poor and the tourists, there goes your public school system. There go your non-Phantom-of-the-Opera-related arts. That’s really bad for everybody. Because we’re not all going back to the farm. So we have to figure out how to make our urban areas sustainable. Basically, I think if I leave New York it’s the end of civilization. Not to alarm you or anything.

What’s the most heinous person, place, or thing you witnessed in your journey to find a home?
I can handle straight up bad behavior–I live in New York. So the pushy brokers and the flaky sellers didn’t bother me. I didn’t know them anyway. It was the pity that pissed me off. It was my friends who had bought early saying things like, “We’re just lucky we got in when we did” or giving me the sad trombone face when they’d ask me, “Still looking?” That would make me cringe. I felt like the Bridget Jones of real estate.

Still, a memoir is a great way to revenge on people you don’t like. It’s a one-way conversation.
There’s a woman in the book who had a bizarre overreaction when she knew that I was buying. She would say, “My husband and I make really good money, but it’s just really crazy to buy right now!” And she just had a freakout, a total meltdown when she found out we bought a house.

And subsequently, not long after, she went through a really ugly divorce. So I wrote this whole thing about this scene when she was kind of dickish to me and it’s like, you never really know what what else is going on in somebody else’s mind. It’s not really about you. But at the time she was a total douche to me.

Do you find yourself editing yourself–who you were and now are–in the process of writing this book?
A lot of what’s in the book comes from my own notes and emails from the time, so I hope it’s reasonably accurate. I definitely didn’t want to shy away from my own darker side–I wanted to be honest about feeling scared and jealous and frustrated because I’d like to believe I wasn’t the only person in America going through that. But I know that the way I remember things is different than anybody else’s version. The first time my best friend read it, she told me she’d had no idea how broken up I was when she moved. I did try to go easier on some of my friends and family, especially the ones who had less of a say in the narrative. I’m sure some people will still be pissed anyway.

You wrote the book you needed to write. Did you expect a certain feeling to be evoked for your readers?
A friend from college said that it reminded her of the conversations we used to have and that’s exactly what I wanted. I wanted it to be a really intimate read. And to the people who have told me they’ve gotten this feeling out of it, I said, “great!”

Did you give any of the very real characters in the book advance notice about its contents? Did anyone you write about object to the words you’ve written?
Well, my mom hasn’t seen it; I haven’t consulted her about it at all. But I did show it to most of my friends I talked to for the book before I submitted it. I’ve heard horror stories from other writers about people trying to rewrite themselves, but nobody did that. One person felt very vulnerable about one line he’d said, and initially asked me to take it out. We talked about it and sat with it a while and eventually he agreed to keep it. But had it come down to it, I’d rather keep my friend than a line of dialogue.

I still feel really vulnerable about the book, and the people depicted in it. My friend Helene Stapinski told me early on–”Somebody will get mad, and it won’t be who you expected or what you expected it for.” I’m still sort of bracing for that.

I felt kind of stressed out going through your apartment search. Do you worry that this book is going to stress people out?
Well, now I do… thank you so much [laughs]. But it’s not like I’m a child soldier in the Sudan and it’s not like my dad raped me. Still, there’s something empowering about seeing other people’s struggles, whatever they are. I was aware that my search for a home was funny and it was absurd. It was absurd how manic it got, and how manic I got, and how much I was swept up in all of it. I wanted to write it in that way. I didn’t want it to be like: I can’t spend $400,000, poor me. I wanted it to be crazy and silly and often really funny and often really weird. Because that’s how life is, that’s the kind of story I really like.

Were there any memoir influences? Maybe in the great canon of real estate literature…or just other books you looked to for inspiration?
I read Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape while I was writing it. And I loved that he was able to write about something so sad in his life— the very sudden death of his wife—and somehow combine it with their shared passion for music and also make the book so funny. I read The Tender Bar while I was writing the proposal, and it knocked me out. I loved that it was a book about longing, but it was funny and quirky and very natural. It set the bar, so to speak, for what I wanted to do. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. I even named a chapter after it! Ehrenreich has been one of my heroes since college.

You’ve never shied about from writing about your life, and in fact wrote about your separation in a piece on Salon. Talk about the decision to not talk about your separation in the book.
The separation happened in 2008 and the book is set in 2006. It felt like it was too new to write about with any kind of distance. I felt if you went through 300 pages with this family and then to drop that bombshell in the last five pages of the book didn’t feel like the right call. I didn’t mean to be disingenuous, but also wanted it to make sense. But I do go there a little. I said in it that my life has changed and Jeff’s life has changed and we’ve paid the price for pursuing this dream.

To me the bigger story for the reader is going to be what happened to the economy and what happened to the country. It was interesting to me how so many players in my story that changed their home situations, and that the idea that you put down roots turned out to be so not true. Many people I know who told me they’ve gotten a home wound up getting divorced, wound up moving. And a lot of people’s homes are being repossessed right now. We all have this idea that we’re going to get it and we’re going to figure it out and then we’re going to be happy. The idea of happy ever after isn’t real. Life is fluid, while you’re living, there is no “The End,” you just go on to the next thing. Permanence just doesn’t exist. And it certainly doesn’t exist in terms of your mailing address.

Larry Smith is the editor of SMITH Magazine.


READ an excerpt of Gimme Shelter.

VISIT Mary Elizabeth Williams’ web site.

WATCH the Gimme Shelter video preview.

WIN a copy of Gimme Shelter by telling us your six-word housing story in the comments section below the interview.

BUY Gimme Shelter.

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161 responses

  1. Call for Submissions: Your six-word housing story | Editors’ Blog says:

    [...] got an interview with Williams over at Memoirville, as well as an excerpt from her new book, Gimme Shelter: Ugly [...]

  2. Larry Smith says:

    “Previous owner: 10 cats. Housecoat. Bourbon.”

  3. Niki says:

    Nine houses. Two cities. Home? None.

  4. Dana Robb says:

    Fixer-upper? No, a burner-downer.

  5. Ellis Reyes says:

    Memories replaced by shiny new condos.

  6. Patricia Heery says:

    Home. My sanctuary within the universe.

  7. Sherry says:

    Parents live above garage. Life reversed.

  8. Ellis Reyes says:

    Does a tumbleweed have a home?

  9. Ellis Reyes says:

    At home, you control the remote.

  10. Tony says:

    Bought in 04. Lost in 08. Rent now.

  11. Tony says:

    Forest burnt. Houses built. Nature returning.

  12. Gregg B says:

    Leak is from roof to basement.

  13. William Owen says:

    Cities full of post office ghosts.

  14. Sherry says:

    Apartments: Like living in a shoebox.

  15. Jackie D says:

    Three years to working-class heaven

  16. tom says:

    Roof leaks. Bed squeaks. … It’s … affordable.

  17. Eric says:

    Hot winters, cold summers, central air.

  18. Rosally says:

    Single girl living in a box

  19. Beryl Singleton Bissell says:

    Our fresh start was not hers.

  20. Tony says:

    Plywood makes good doors and windows.

  21. Whitney says:

    Still rent, but finally at home.

  22. April Star says:

    Apartment is too small for us.

  23. cyberpetal says:

    Mom left me my childhood home.

  24. Nick says:

    Old and creaky, just like me.

  25. Nick says:

    It’s not much, but it’s mine.

  26. Christy says:

    Sometimes I still miss the dorm.

  27. Christy says:

    Next home will have giant bathtub.

  28. Nick says:

    Within these four walls, life happens.

  29. Helen says:

    My dream home became a nightmare.

  30. Deborah says:

    Stepping toward yoga music collective vision

  31. abby Ellin says:

    Without parents, no co-op for me.

  32. mwschmeer says:

    Home sweet home sweet money pit.

  33. mwschmeer says:

    3BDR, 2BATH, w/GAR & w/oBSMNT in Methville.

  34. slipofthetongue says:

    we’ll stay, can’t afford the divorce

  35. Mr. Perkins says:

    The third time is the charm.

  36. Jeanette Cheezum says:

    We decided to flip, and flopped.

  37. Jeanette Cheezum says:

    Sold large home, bought beach condo.

  38. Julie says:

    So close to babysitting in-laws. Perfect.

  39. pplschmp says:

    Alone, found love, apartment, wedding, home

  40. Jim Tenuto says:

    We lived in New Jersey once.

  41. suzanne says:

    What a lovely scarf, realtor panders.

  42. suzanne says:

    Burned down the house: spurned lover.

  43. suzanne says:

    Hi-lo carpet, flocked wallpaper. Such potential.

  44. Jacques says:

    Islander to northlander. Sweat to Wear.

  45. Commandrine says:

    Home is nowhere; Eden is everywhere

  46. Georgia Hubley says:

    Invested; lost shirt; house gone!

  47. Genie says:

    Won’t buy. Might need to leave.

  48. David Boyer says:

    Bought my apartment over the phone.

  49. Hana says:

    Six bedrooms. Four people. No room.

  50. echolt says:

    warm house with a cold wind

  51. deb-e says:

    Three homes. No job. What now?

  52. Caitlin says:

    I’m only leaving in a box.

  53. fern chasida says:

    Moved furniture, shut electricity, forgot fridge.

  54. Noe Hemingway says:

    My cardboard home has curb appeal

  55. Tom Stohlman says:

    Home is where the head rests.

  56. Miz Ang says:


  57. sekos says:

    Wife got house. Rent-control eases pain.

  58. Jacques says:

    Girl next door? Gone. Feel sorrow.

  59. GOTFilms says:

    Sometimes white picket fences need repainting.

  60. jleica says:

    Love my house. Hate my house.

  61. Yvonne says:

    Sign here,here,here and here.

  62. Gravy059 says:

    “Cheap: Livable Sardine Can, __ Sprung Roof!

  63. “Sam” from Tahoe says:

    Trapped in paradise - can’t sell it!

  64. “Sam” from Tahoe says:

    perfect house, less than perfect life.

  65. “Sam” from Tahoe says:

    perfect for entertaining: nobody to entertain

  66. Gravy059 says:

    Mobile Doublewide Refrigerator, Priced for Homeless

  67. Gravy059 says:

    Boxy Doublewide Refrigerator, mobile, homeless affordable

  68. Gravy059 says:

    Choices, choices, choices, six-word choices

  69. editrrix says:

    Just get used to the dripping…

  70. Gravy059 says:

    Fixer : Livable Sardine Can __ Sprung Roof

    is Fixerupper one word or two?

  71. Debi says:

    They were wrong. Renting is smart.

  72. Gravy059 says:

    Doublewide Refrigerator, Collapsible Features, Priced Homeless

  73. Gravy059 says:

    Boxy Doublewide Refrigerator, Collapsible, Priced Homeless

  74. Tanja Cilia says:

    My castle is not my home.

  75. Vikki says:

    The pride of ownership is overrated.

  76. Vikki says:

    The landlady: I buy the paint.

  77. Vikki says:

    30-year fixed, if it’s still standing.

  78. Kimberly Wetherell says:

    “Co-op” is rarely synonymous with “cooperation”.

  79. Joe_Patrick says:

    Foreclosure Listing: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, Washington

  80. Joe_Patrick says:

    Foreclosure victims now searching for closure.

  81. Adrian King says:

    Old debts thwarting my new dreams.

  82. stripeymeow says:

    Evidently, eviction goes on credit report.

  83. Bonnie says:

    I live to tell your story.

  84. Beryl Singleton Bissell says:

    big house if kids thrive elsewhere

  85. ginamac says:

    At least the chipmunks like it.

  86. Piper says:

    Moved from cell to Park Slope.

  87. Lorri says:

    Only love it because it’s mine.

  88. Bellasoul says:

    I destroy the clones of drones

  89. Bellasoul says:

    live in the Bronx its cheaper

  90. Yvonne says:

    Single,white,female homeowner seeks hammer.

  91. sheila says:

    Home, where everybody knows your name.

  92. Lacie says:

    Mice only help clean in movies.

  93. Sue Lick says:

    Bought high, sold low, retired poor.

  94. Gimme Shelter: Mary Elizabeth’s neighborhood » Blog Archive » Gimme Shelter in SMITH says:

    [...] the interview. And here’s the [...]

  95. Judy says:

    Two homes. One Childhood, one grownup.

  96. Judy says:

    Out front. Large tree. Bird sanctuary

  97. Voodoo Lady says:

    Like “Money Pit”, only not funny.

  98. Voodoo Lady says:

    Foreclosure due to ex, not economy.

  99. Voodoo Lady says:

    That place was never my home.

  100. Lorri says:

    Can’t live here, can’t move there.

  101. Yale says:

    She gets house. I get insomnia.

  102. ex-tex says:

    Divorce, college tuition. Traded down twice.

  103. Betian says:

    I never got the paint right.

  104. ex-tex says:

    New address. Empty nest. Empty chairs.

  105. Audrey says:

    No mortgage; we prefer to rent

  106. Pepper says:

    New owners will enjoy my dream.

  107. Allen says:

    Beautifully remodeled. Please don’t touch anything.

  108. Lora says:

    Barbie’s house just went into foreclosure.

  109. Lora says:

    New owners can join the termites.

  110. Lora says:

    Beware! Your new house is haunted.

  111. Ashlee says:

    My house makes me proud today.

  112. Lora says:

    A baby’s crying behind the wallpaper.

  113. Lora says:

    Glad I never bought that house.

  114. Lora says:

    Tear it down! Hated it anyhow.

  115. Ashlee says:

    The land, a mystery to me

  116. Lora says:

    Too much boozing in that house.

  117. Lora says:

    Our rich uncle stole daddy’s land.

  118. Lora says:

    Rebury the cat under the house.

  119. Lora says:

    indian burial ground under that house.

  120. Lora says:

    Who removed my swing and seesaw?

  121. Lora says:

    Goodbye wretched House. I moved on.

  122. harrison says:

    Children grown: home reverts to house.

  123. mattk says:

    local garden club repossessed our yard.

  124. Hecker says:

    Living with Dad. Babysitting the babysitter.

  125. GottaLoveNYLori says:

    Lost river view. Found cross-dressing jogger.

  126. nnalorac says:

    Bought 1993. Unemployment covers low mortgage!

  127. pacificohen says:

    It is so worth the headache.

  128. Laura Fraser says:

    Three bedrooms, rent control: twenty-five years.

  129. marianna swallow says:

    up and coming, leaky and roachy.

  130. marianna swallow says:

    left lakefront, bought crapola.

  131. Amy says:

    Dream home will have cruise control.

  132. lizzie007 says:

    plane’s bathroom broken. are you kidding?

  133. lizzie007 says:

    drunk lady barfs on my kid

  134. Steve Schohan says:

    Home owners associations are power hungry

  135. Steve Schohan says:

    Keeping up with the Jonses is lame

  136. Steve Schohan says:

    My neighbors lawn is meticulously manicured

  137. Gladys Cortez says:

    Naive first-time buyer got screwed.

  138. Mirenda says:

    My house invited my soul inside.

  139. KM says:

    Boy who lives down the lane.

  140. ex-belovedbride says:

    Divorced means borough walkup no laundry!

  141. Jane says:

    Former chicken coop, our newlywed apartment.

  142. Gravy059 says:

    The Housing Market’s High’s and Low’s

    “Mansion, Livable Forrest, Needs Swinging Jane”

    “Under Rocks, Down by the River!

  143. Gravy059 says:

    PoBoy’s Housing Market High’s and Low’s

    Mansion, Livable Forrest, Needs Swinging Jane

    Under Rocks, “DOWN BY THE RIVER”

  144. Vinnie Costa says:

    Rent control equals fifteen-year resident!

  145. Vinnie Costa says:

    Pry my cold, dead body out…

  146. Becky says:

    Twenty-two and still hiding from fights.

  147. And the Winners of the Six-Word Housing Story Contest Are… | Editors’ Blog says:

    [...] celebrate our excerpt of Gimme Shelter and interview with author Mary Elizabeth Williams, we held a little contest: What’s your six-word housing [...]

  148. Lindsay says:

    Mom hanged herself in the basement.

  149. CAEB8 says:

    Can’t sell. Living next to Ex.

  150. K. A. Laity says:

    Dream house, not mine. Better off.

  151. Frank says:

    Rent stabilized in NYC,hit lottery.

  152. Linda C. Wisniewski says:

    Ten years, eight moves, home free.

  153. Sandy says:

    Remodel becomes Tear-down, financial disaster ensues.

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  155. wrdxoipbuq says:

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  156. Bruno Araujo says:

    Nice interview. I wanna hear more about mobile features such as parental control. Would it be in the next podcasts?

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    Best monitor app for ios and android device

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    Hire a hacker today. How to find one

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  160. Ricardo Tanner says:

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  161. Mary Brian says:

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