Annabelle Williams is a writer. But just about everyone else in her life came to realize that before she did. To Annabelle’s father, she was the “most adult child” he had ever met, constantly clinging to books and absorbing bits of new information. Annabelle’s mother wrote about her “unquenchable desire to read, at all times, in all circumstances.” (She also shared a picture of young Annabelle hula–hooping while reading The Iliad). It’s a mystery how she started out as a Wharton student, when Annabelle has been a writer since she was 12 years old.
To her friends, Annabelle is exacting, sharp, and knows exactly what she wants. She also somehow manages to make watching Pretty Little Liars an intellectual pursuit. During her time as editor–in–chief of Street, she spent most nights sitting at her desk in the Street office, eating Cheez–Its, line–editing stories, and revising headlines until they sat perfectly on the magazine’s cover.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Street lifer for her final cameo in the magazine that helped her figure out who she is. Six feet apart, of course.
Name: Annabelle Williams
Hometown: Chester Springs, Pennsylvania
Major: English with a concentration in creative writing
Activities: 34th Street Magazine, Friars Senior Society
Isabella Simonetti: There was a time when your identity wasn’t wrapped up in Street. Who were you before all of this? And tell me a little bit about who you are now.
Annabelle Williams: I was trying to stop myself from quoting Fight Club here, but I’ve gotta say Street met me at a really strange time in my life. Like a lot of college first years, I was grappling for an identity and found Street sort of by accident. I mean, on a really basic level, Street made me realize that I was a writer. It made me realize that I didn’t want to study business, that I wanted to really do this and go all in for it. And for a long time, I did think that this was just who I was, and that I would sort of cease to be if I didn’t sit in this office.
IS: So now that you’ve taken a few steps back from Street, who would you say that you are now?
AW: I think I am a writer, and that is something that has taken me a long time to realize about myself. Street taught me a lot about how I interact with people, and what I value in people. I think a lot of what I am now, as a person, is just due to the relationships that I’ve formed on Street. And just finding these relationships that have allowed me to ask those weird, hard questions about myself.
IS: And going back a bit, can you tell me about your first encounter with Street?
AW: Yeah, it was during NSO I believe. Freshman year, and someone on my hall invited me to a Street info session in the DP office. I got into the office, and I sat down in what was then sort of the production area, and someone started talking about what Street was. It was Emily Johns, she was the editor–in–chief at that time, and I just felt something weirdly click. She said they were looking for copy editors, and I went right up to the copy director afterwards and just asked if I could help out. I pretty much have not left since that time.
IS: Over the course of your years at Penn, you’ve evolved from a Wharton student to an English major and the editor–in–chief of a magazine. So how did that happen?
AW: Looking back, it feels like such an obvious choice. At the time, it felt like the biggest choice I was ever going to make, and I don’t really think that’s true anymore. But I came in being really sure that I wanted to be a Wharton student. I sort of thought that that was the only way to process ambition. I went to a STEM high school, and I was really focused on what was monetizable and marketable. But all of the English classes I sort of stumbled into by accident helped me realize that I loved doing it. I loved the analytical thinking, I loved writing, I loved writing gay fanfiction about Shakespeare characters for final projects. And I was much happier. I think that was what the choice really boiled down to.
IS: And what’s a project or story that you’re proud of from your time as editor–in–chief? Something that you would want to show your family down the line.
AW: I’m sort of stuck between two. I was very attached to our special issues, and I really liked both Penn 10 and the environmental issue that we did. Traditionally what we do with Penn 10 is it’s like Forbes’ 30 under 30, and you’re basically writing profiles of these amazing, super–accomplished seniors. But I also wanted to push back a little bit against this notion of accomplishment as the end all be all, which, you know, not to beat a dead horse here, but we see a lot of that at Penn. So we had this idea to choose random seniors, and it was just as amazing. Not to reduce these people to their accomplishments, because obviously we are all whole people, but they were just as accomplished as any other person at Penn. And I thought it was really cool to celebrate that, and to just get a snapshot of what daily life looks like here. And then the environmental issue, for potentially more obvious reasons, is something I’m very proud of. We were able to produce a product that I think really resonated with people, and the urgency of that is something that I think we all took very seriously.
IS: Can you tell me about a memory you treasure from your time on Street?
AW: One really salient memory is with the 134th board. We were all arranged in the Street office, we had sent the magazine very late, and somebody put on old Taylor Swift, like Red era, and we all just started singing. We all had stuff to do. It was maybe like 2:30 or 3 in the morning, and we all were just a capella singing Taylor Swift. And that was really lovely.
IS: What was the pressure like of running a magazine while being a student? Did you feel different walking around campus then than you do now?
AW: I’ve been lucky in that I’ve spent a lot of time in this office even before I was editor–in–chief, so I had a bit of a sense of how to manage those commitments. But yeah, I mean, it was hard. I had to learn how to do all of my work in the office at the same time, how to manage an editorial crisis while I was in a lecture, how to prioritize Street most of the time and my classes some of the time. I think after I was elected I did feel a little different, at first, walking around campus. And then, you know, the spell wears off and you realize I’m just a person, everybody else is so, so busy, everyone else does so much all the time here.
IS: Who are the people that made this experience for you, and why?
AW: So my first few years on Street, I met some of what would now be considered the old guard, although they won’t like that I said that. So Mark Paraskevas, Dani Blum, Orly Greenberg, Angela Huang, Sabrina Qiao, Autumn. And then there was the 134, which was the first board I was on, and I think that was maybe one of the happiest times I’ve had at Penn, just feeling like I really belonged somewhere and was just learning so much. So I worked with Nick, Autumn, Remi, Angela, and Rebecca Tan. I’m just listing people at this point. But I think the person who I want to say the most is Dalton DeStefano, who was my managing editor. Tireless worker, spent countless late nights in the office with me. And then all of the rest of my team. Daniel Bulpitt, Ethan Wu, Lily Snider, Lucy Ferry, Sarah Fortinsky, Isabella Simonetti. I’m truly missing some people, but I probably would have left Penn if it weren’t for these people, and it weren’t for Street giving me that framework to really feel like I was happy here.
IS: If you could complement Dalton now, what would you say to him?
AW: I would tell him that he is like an encyclopedia of weird knowledge, and I love that about him. And he has no qualms about really being interested in something. He’s so detail–oriented, and that’s something I’ve always really admired about him, and he’s incisive as an editor and as a friend. He can really get to the heart of something really quickly, and I’ve always admired his ability to do that.
IS: Stepping away from Street for a minute, can you talk a little bit about what you’ve been up to this semester?
AW: I’ve mostly been staying in my house lately. But I was working on a thesis for the creative writing department about vampires, and that was really fun. I enjoyed sort of stepping away from the strict reporting, features–type stuff that I had been doing for a while, and moving into a different element of nonfiction writing. They were sort of critical and personal essays about the vampire trope in 21st century pop culture. I like the feeling of having finished something of substance and holding it in my hand. So that was a nice part of finishing the thesis. Other than that, when I was on campus, I was just trying to relax a little bit, which is not something that comes naturally to me or to many people at Penn. And since this whole quarantine started, I’ve been at home trying to read, write, freelance, going on a lot of walks. Life is sort of boring now.
IS: What’s something that keeps you up at night, ever since this has started?
AW: At the risk of getting too heavy, my grandma died on the same day that we found out Penn had closed, and because of all the travel concerns, we weren’t able to go to her funeral. So I wonder when that might be. And, you know, I mean, there’s just the feeling of existential plague worry that is happening for everybody right now, and manifesting in different and weird ways that I'm sure none of us will excavate until years down the line when they all come up again.
IS: What’s something that makes you smile, or motivates you to get through the day?
AW: I think there’s a sort of urgency in keeping up with people. Almost like an end of the world type, I wanna see my friends, I wanna go on Zoom calls and see how people are doing, reach out to people who I haven’t talked to in years. And I like that. The intensity of it has been nice, and just being able to really meaningfully and intentionally keep up with people.
What’s one Penn tradition/cultural phenomenon that you never subscribed to?
I slept through a lot of the NSO events freshman year. So while I was at the Facebook live stream of the Final Toast, I did not attend the First Toast and I didn’t really understand what it was. I still don’t.
There are two types of people at Penn:
I think it’s people who bring their childhood stuffed animals to campus and people who don’t.
Song on replay:
Runaway by Carly Rae Jepsen.
Thing you’ll miss about Penn:
My friends, and access to the amazing library.
There’s one memory of Annabelle that sticks with me. She was in the first creative writing class I took at Penn, where we each wrote four personal essays. I was the only first year in the class, and Annabelle wrote long, detailed paragraphs of comments on my work. She made me feel heard when I needed that most. I remember right before Thanksgiving break, Annabelle told our class she was transferring out of Wharton to be an English major. I was shocked. Our professor, however, wasn’t. “I’m not surprised at all,” he said. At the time, it seemed to me like something so un–Penn, and out of the ordinary. Now, I realize it was just a college student parsing through who she was. It was just Annabelle.
Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for content and clarity.