Interview Kay Williams

Topics of conversation:

  • Her adventures in NYC and San Francisco in the 60s
  • Being a Gypsy Actor
  • Working as a "Gal-Friday" for independent film writer, producer, director, Jack O'Connell
  • Her trip to Russia to the Leningrad International Documentary Festival
  • How she and her sister finished writing their dad's romance novel

Kay Williams always had an inclination to be a professional actress, so, with stars in her eyes, she moved to New York City right after college graduation (she was a theater major). She lived in a rent-controlled apartment with no heat, and lots of rodents, too busy earning money to act (her dad had saved her letters from that time so she recently took a fresh look at those hair-raising and now hilarious adventures).  After 9 months in the Big Apple, Kay slunk back to Ohio, to a safer life, teaching, directing, acting in community theater, and reviewing films and plays.

Her dream didn’t die. She moved to San Francisco, where she played many leading roles until several theaters went bankrupt (an occupational hazard, she discovered).  Acting roles dried up just after she earned her Equity union card.  She left the Bay Area for the Pittsburgh PlayhouseTwo years later that theater was too broke to renew her contract. There was only one place left to go, New York City. It still scared her, but this time, she vowed to be victorious.  Kay acted in a number of new off-Broadway plays, finding it more fun than doing a show that had been successfully produced and “set in stone.”  In between acting jobs, she worked as an office temp until she landed a perfect job, “Gal Friday” to an award-winning independent filmmaker, which not only gave her flexible hours to audition, but also an education about film writing, directing, and producing.  She took films she’d helped produce to the Cannes Film Festival and to the Leningrad International Documentary Festival (where Kay and Eileen’s second thrillerThe Matryoshka Murders, begins).

 Kay’s eventual move to an apartment in New York’s crime-ridden Hell’s Kitchen became one of the catalysts for Butcher of Dreams, Kay and Eileen’s first thriller (about the theater, of course).

Fearful of spending her retirement as a bag lady begging for money outside Actors Equity, Kay took a "real" job.  A physician she’d worked for as a temp asked her to join him as he set up a Primary Care Residency Track at NYU Medical Center. She did and learned a great deal about gooddoctoring and academic medicine (and the politics of academe--another book, perhaps). The NYU job was too demanding to take time off to audition so she and Eileen teamed up to write, a move they had been contemplating for several years. Kay discovered that she didn’t miss acting all that much. With fiction writing, she had total control and could play all the characters! Kay and Eileen found they jelled as a writing team.




Kate Hennessey has arrived with colleagues in January, 1991 to take part in Leningrad’s Second International Documentary Festival. The USSR is in severe economic and political crisis. Crime is rampant, shelves are bare. Kate stumbles into an “illegal meeting” of women and audiotapes their descriptions of the harshness of their lives as well as their criticisms of current leaders. There, Sveta, age 17, confides to her that she is afraid she will be killed. Kate offers to help, and is swept up in a series of frightening events, beginning with Kate’s and Sveta’s abduction by Kolya, a drunken cab driver, to a cemetery on the outskirts of Leningrad. Kate is robbed of earrings her lover Gilly has given her, then left to die in the bitter cold. She makes it to a nearby inn, believing that Sveta also escaped.

Was the abduction random, part of the escalating crime wave? Was it meant for Sveta who feared for her life? Or was Kate herself the target?

She might be under scrutiny, Kate decides, because when she first arrived, she inadvertently videotaped an officer with a scarred face talking with a baby-faced civilian in a gray designer suit in the hotel bar. Since then a red-haired soldier—one of the many soldiers roaming the hotel—seems to be following her. Her guide book warns, No pictures allowed of the military.

Kate’s more worried about the fight that she and Gilly had just before she left the U.S., and she throws herself into gathering more footage, her “Messages from Leningrad” for her NYC course in guerrilla filmmaking.

As rumors circulate of an impending coup, Kate discovers that Sveta is missing and tapes a video interview of Sveta’s lover, 17-year-old Nadya, who has been beaten and raped by the police because she is rozovaya, pink, gay. Kate learns to her horror when she and Nadya visit the Kafé Dusha (Café Soul), a dairy bar where the “moonlight” women socialize, that Sveta may be incarcerated in a Psychiatric Clinic for the Cure (drugs and shock therapy). Or she may be dead.

After an invasion into her hotel room while she sleeps and a near miss by a speeding convoy truck at the Palace of Pavlovsk, Kate understands that she is not a victim of Leningrad’s rising crime wave but that there is a real plot to kill her as well as to confiscate her videotapes. An attack against her as she shops along the Nevsky Prospekt and a devastating fire in the wing of her hotel force her (her videos taped to her body) to flee Leningrad with the help of new Russian friends. She is pursued by the scar-faced KGB officer and the local police who have found Sveta’s frozen body in the cemetery pond.

Back home in her NYC apartment, Kate finds that the danger overseas has come straight to her doorstep, and that nothing is what it seems.

If you’re looking for a compelling book for discussion by your reading group The Matryoshka Murders has unforgettable characters. It is also a snapshot of Leningrad at that desperate time when Russians, having tasted freedom with Gorbachev’s introduction of glasnost andperestroika, hoped for more freedoms, as hard liners fought to take the country back to the cold war era. Today Russia is as murky and menacing as ever--and the KGB continues to remain in total control.

Read Review of The Matryoshka Murders