Tom Williams is the author of Don't Start Me Talkin', a novel from Curbside Splendor. His novella, The Mimic's Own Voice, was published in 2011. His short fiction has appeared in numerous publications and is forthcoming in Florida Review, South Carolina 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.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Did you always want to be a writer?
Tom Williams (TW): The first line of Lorrie Moore's masterful How to Become a Writer speaks for me: "First, try to be something, anything, else." I was just like Moore's Francie: I wanted to be a rock star/basketball player/boxer/actor. More than anything I wanted to be in some vocation that offered a chance to excel and have that excellence adored by thousands of fans. I did actually play basketball well enough to earn a college scholarship but I stopped wanting to play on or about the day I arrived on campus. For sure all that novel reading I was doing didn't help. (It really pleased me, after loving On the Road, to discover Kerouac had played football at Columbia but quit.) What has connected me as a writer to the kid who never dreamed of being a writer--no surprise--is that fiction allows me to occupy the skins of people who went on to be those things I wanted to be until something, typically my lack of talent, got in the way.
LK: Who is your favorite character in your new release?
TW: This one's tough because I've got two characters I feel almost equal levels of affection for: the master and the student, Brother Ben and Silent Sam Stamps. I most identify with Silent Sam (real name Peter Owens), because of our ages and interests and upbringings, but in the end Brother Ben (real name Wilton Mabry) charms me the most because he's the least like me and so chimaeric: I would love to be, like him, the kind of individual who can walk into a room and shift modes of speaking or acting or even standing to best advantage him. And always, or almost always, have the best last line in the scene.
People who've seen the book or excerpts wonder if Brother Ben's based on a real person and the answer is yes and no: he's an amalgam of every blues performer I've ever seen, from John Lee Hooker to Little Milton to Chuck Berry and Buddy Guy, but he's also, I hope, a member of the same class of confidence men that stretch through Charles Johnson, Ishmael Reed, Richard Pryor, Flannery O'Connor, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Sterling Brown, Charles Chestnut and Herman Melville.
LK: What inspired you to write, you took any ideas from other books, movies, etc.?
TW: Don't Start Me Talkin' started out as a short story. Really, it started out as a few paragraphs that I could never move forward until I had Silent Sam to second Brother Ben. But what inspired those paragraphs and carried it along to where it is now is first and foremost my love of blues. Since the first time I heard Robert Johnson to the last time I heard somebody current, like Gary Clark, Jr., I am ever inspired by this form that's both rudimentary and ethereal. And though this book is a love letter to blues and blues musicians, it's also a comedy--I like to think--and what took things to a place where I could write a novel was the sense that I got watching blues performers, seeing how they seemed to recognize that they were more than just playing the music, they were playing a role. Perhaps all performers feel this, but particularly in a genre associated with authenticity, blues performers seemed to be trapped. I mean, what would happen if BB King started singing about the problems with his Bentley or Koko Tyler rhymed mason jar with caviar? Wouldn't the fans revolt? Once I started thinking about the multiple levels of performance for Brother Ben--and had his chronicler, his Boswell, in Silent Sam--I just had so much. Plus, I had Sonny Boy Williamson to supply all my chapter titles and provide, I hope, a raucous overall spirit to the book.
LK: If you could visit any place in the world or a place created by a book, where would you visit?
TW: That question's too good to just give one answer.
A place in the world? Vienna. The Third Man. It just got into my head. The Vienna in that film was war torn and corrupt but all I wanted to do was walk over those same cobbled streets as Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. Preferably with a zither playing.
A place created by a book? The Berghof Sanatorium in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. Alpine air, ten course meals, day long philosophical conversations with fellow convalescents and conversing in French and exchanging X rays with Madame Chauchat: how can you beat that?
LK: What is the one book that you think everyone should read?
TW: I'm casting around widely right now, wanting to select something neither ubiquitous nor obscure. I don't want to be a bandwagon rider or an insufferable snob. But the book that comes to me, again and again, as the one that everyone should read is Robert's Rules of Order. I'm totally serious. It is absolutely one of the most majestic navigations through the difficulty that is human discourse. My other choice was Ulysses or Invisible Man, but days go by and I don't open either of those tomes. I never pass a day without a quick consultation of Robert's Rules. And its orotund, nineteenth century diction makes it seem as though it was written by Melville or Clemens after a few drinks.
LK: Are you reading or writing something else at the moment?
TW: I want to be writing a novel but my day job (Chair of an English Department) and my life (husband, father, son, brother, friend) make that a difficult prospect. But I am writing some short-shorts, really microscopic fictions about the husband, father, son, brother parts of my life.
I'm reading way too much, but that's because there's so much good stuff out there: Commercial Fiction by Dave Housley, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History by Phong Nguyen, Threats by Amelia Gray, Ayiti by Roxane Gay, Edie and the Low Hung Hands by Brian Allen Carr. I just finished Ben Tanzer's dazzling Orphans and Scott McClanahan's masterful Hill William, and I think it fair to say that we really are in a time of great plenty with fiction. Even in graduate school, I can't recall being so stunned by new releases, finding another novel or collection that requires my attention.