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Alumni Spotlight: Willa Richards
Willa Richards

Brookfield East Class of 2009

Willa Richards is a Spartan graduate whose debut novel The Comfort of Monsters was released in July to critical acclaim.

When Willa was four-years-old, her grandmother (and longtime Elmbrook educator) Alice Brown taught her to read and it wasn’t long before her reading list grew to stacks and stacks of books. Then in elementary school, her father gave her an old Macbook that she would use to write science fiction stories and other short stories.

Willa’s Elmbrook journey began in third grade at Dixon Elementary, before continuing on to Pilgrim Park and eventually Brookfield East where she began writing poetry. During her time at East, she was actively involved in Swim and Dive, French Club, and played violin for East’s orchestra and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra. “One of the things I appreciate most about my Elmbrook education was how thoroughly it prepared me for my higher education experiences. I felt really well equipped with the tools I needed to succeed,” reflected Richards. “Also, because I was able to take so many AP courses at East, I was already halfway to a history major when I arrived at UW-Madison! That allowed me to expand my elective writing classes which helped me flourish as a writer.” Willa also recognized the impact of her teachers Pat Coffey (History), Carole Kossoris (English), Kathryn Ryan (English), Jeff Ortman (English), Christine Bustle (English), and Anne Marie Petersen (Orchestra).

Willa’s Elmbrook education took her through unique experiences that allowed her to perform at Carnegie Hall, expand her passion in writing, and attend classes full of energy and enthusiasm for learning. “Academically,” Willa said, “I don’t think I could have gone to a better school than Brookfield East. I felt challenged, and often felt invigorated by the academic environment, by my friends and my peers, and especially by my AP Classes.”

Willa graduated from BEHS in 2009 and continued her education at UW-Madison where she would spend a semester studying Arabic at the American Language Institute in Morocco and also travelled to Spain and France. In addition to her full courseload, she worked at the Wisconsin Historical Society and continued to expand her writing portfolio in her spare time. In 2013, Richards graduated from UW with a Bachelors in History and a Certificate in African Languages and Literature.

While writing her undergraduate thesis in creative writing, she applied for a Masters in Fine Arts program and ended up continuing her education at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Writers’ Workshop. There Willa was young amongst her colleagues, many of them already published and having received accolades. “It was very intimidating being in the company of acclaimed writers, but it was such an incredible time in my life - I was exploring, living, working and breathing writing,” Richards said. It was here that she was named a Truman Capote Fellow and received her Masters in Creative Writing in 2015. During this time, Willa was teaching and met a publishing agent that took interest in one of her stories that would later become her first book. Richards went from Iowa to UW-Milwaukee where she completed her Ph.D. in English with a Creative Writing concentration in 2019 and became published along the way in the Paris Review (Fall 2019).

the comfort of monsters book cover

In November 2018, she completed her first draft of her novel The Comfort of Monsters which she would also use for her dissertation. In the spring of 2020, Willa and her husband were living in New York when HarperCollins offered to buy her book! Over the following year, she edited it for final publication in July 2021. The book, set in Milwaukee in the “Dahmer summer” of 1991, is a ‘remarkable and devastating’ look at a broken family looking for answers in the face of the unknown. The seed of the novel was a project she had worked on with her mother, an historic archaeologist, who had helped a family with a cold case of a missing loved one they believed to be buried in a Milwaukee County cemetery.

The Comfort of Monsters has gone on to be listed in various Must Read lists from Amazon, Oprah Daily, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and more!

Today, Willa and her husband live in Los Angeles with their dog, and she is working on a number of new projects from a screenplay to ideas for future novels. “One of the most exciting things about writing is the possibilities inherent in the process,” reflected Richards. “There is, always, every single time, every project, every draft, every sentence, a chance to learn something new about the world, about yourself, about your loved ones, about consciousness and embodiment. It’s truly an exploratory endeavor.” 

You can learn more about Willa and she her writings at https://willacrichards.com/

 

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