Tom Williams' new book DON'T START ME TALKIN' is loose in the world, and we've stolen a bit of his time to answer a dozen questions. Check out the Pep Talk below especially, the bit on marrying a writer, his tribute to some great teachers (with some great quotes), and a lack of balance between writing and life. (Well, just read it all. It'll be easier than picking through.)
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.
Don't Start Me Talkin' was built on my obsession with blues. I've told others that since I can't play a musical instrument, writing this book was the best way to at least feel close to what it must be like to be able to summon sound in a meaningful way. But writing the book was more than a surrogate for me, it was a way to populate a world, continue a tradition whose health and safety I'm always worried about. Anyone remotely familiar with blues music will recognize a host of the historical and current figures in the blues world that I've brought between the book covers; people will likely have fun guessing if any of the more fictional characters have real-life counterparts. But I hope that with my obsession I've done something more than just wrote a kind of tribute. You know, like at the Academy Awards when we see those montages of the recently deceased, complete with a triumphant orchestral score. I hope instead I've poked fun at the blues and its devotees. I hope I've been true to the players. I hope I've been honest. I hope I've honored the makers but found also a way of talking about the music that's unorthodox. But most of all, I hope I've done something as raucous and heartfelt as the best blues song, the kinds that were playing, literally, in my ears, every day I got to go to work on bringing Brother Ben and Silent Sam--the two central characters--to life.
Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?
This particular novel was truly a pleasure to write. Even though, at the time of composition, the only certainty I had was that I wanted to finish (no agent, no interested editor), I felt as though each hour with the characters was far more lively than the hours I spent without them. But I did what I always do with a longer work: I never tried to get too far ahead. Listening to Hemingway and Dubus, I'd stop in the middle of sentences, then spend the rest of the day trying to temper my excitement. It's the joy you should have all the time, where you're almost rushing through the rest of life to get to the next morning's work, yet everything that's happening in your daily life seems like it should be imported into the book. Now that it's coming out in the world, I love looking over the pages to see not only what I did but to detect what inspired it. As someone, Julianna, who has completed a book or two, you still no doubt encounter the frustration of being at the beginning of the middle of a project and not being able to see the end; but with Don't Start Me Talkin', I always have proof that I got to the end, and that can be a little inspirational, on occasion.
What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)
I'm a writer who is married to another writer--my delightful wife of six and a half years, Carmen Edington. And I think that it's pretty obvious that if you are, as Bellow or James or Calvino is purported to say, a writer because you were a reader "driven to emulation," it's a pretty good trait to remain an encouraging reader. I love to take a look at what Carmen's working on. Your spouse is writing, you want to write. Not to say that it's a mutual admiration society--everyone who falls in love with a writer needs to learn a way to say, "This needs more work"--but it is a mutual encouragement marriage. God knows every writer needs a whole lot of that. And what better place to get some than you're own home?
Now if our son becomes a writer--that's another story.
Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.
I will borrow one from my great mentor, Lee K. Abbott (though Lee would laugh if I used the m word around him). I was once downhearted because I was completing my dissertation, didn't have any certain job prospects, only a couple of publications, and I wrote to him--rather, I whined in a letter to him about all these obstacles and how I worried I wouldn't get the "right kind of job," and Lee responded thusly: "Stevens was an insurance man, Eliot worked in a bank, Christy Brown wrote a book with his freaking foot."
So, yeah, that. If you're putting the job before the fiction, you might need to ask how important making the fiction is to you first.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?
No. I'm a husband. I'm a father. I'm a department chair. I'm a son. I'm an editor for American Book Review. I take on all sorts of projects to help out students and other department chairs. I spend way too much time on Facebook. I worry about my fitness. (At times, I actually act upon my desire to be fit.) I spend too much time obsessing about what I eat. I watch Pawn Stars too often. And American Pickers. And that awesome new show, Bad Ink. So when I get a minute, I write a page or two. Or I make a note about the page or two I want to write. Or I just hold it in. I get encouraged by prolific writers, like Oates, who claims she just sits around and doodles all day. I'm in this for the long haul, I guess is what I'm saying. And I sometimes think that if this was it, if this book was my last one to see the light of day (picture me now frantically looking for wood to knock), I'd be comfortable. I'd have plenty of other occupations. Though gathering paradise with my narrow hands is a pretty good gig.
Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who had a great impact on your writing life?
Here's a list of my writing teachers: Richard Snyder, Robert McGovern, David Citino, Ernest Lockridge, Randall Silvis, Lee K. Abbott, Rosellen Brown, Jim Robison, Mary Robison, Richard Howard, Bob Phillips, Ed Hirsch. I had some outstanding literature professors too (without whom I would not be the writer I am today): Randall Stein, Russell Weaver, Walter Davis, Lawrence Hogue, Elizabeth Gregory, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory.
A pretty good list, don't you think? Some are passed on, which saddens me, but all these folk did something to my eye or ear or brain.
But of them, the one whose voice speaks loudest, still, to this day, is Lee K. Who was, really, the first teacher to have not only the right words but the right way to say them. He has a document called, "The Rules," which outlines twenty things that every fiction must do. Some of them are quotes: "Clarity is the style of all honest men," from Jim Whitehead. Others are a tad obscure: "Eschew the conventional wisdom." But they are all governed by this: "Bigger than all the rules is the story." And I was lucky enough to have that kind of creative writing wit and wisdom every day for a Spring quarter in 1990.And whenever I'm stuck or lost or messing around in a fiction, the voice that steers me away from Scylla and Charybdis is Lee's.
Tom Williams is the author of two books of fiction, Don't Start Me Talkin' (forthcoming in February from Curbside Splendor) and The Mimic's Own Voice, a novella. His short fiction is forthcoming in South Carolina Review, Florida Review, and the anthology, Four Fathers. The Chair of English at Morehead State University, he lives in Kentucky with his wife, Carmen Edington, and their son.For more information about Tom's new book, go here.