I first got to know Tom Williams when he was the editor for the Arkansas Review and later American Book Review. When I heard he had a book out, I ran out and bought it. Okay, I wandered over to my computer, and ordered it, but still; you get the point.
Me: Why Mimics?
Tom: Because I’ve always admired this odd gift, this dubious talent, this curious capacity to shape one’s voice to that of others. And because to me it’s a perfect kind of role to explore my usual questions about what is art and what is an artist’s role, especially an artist of color. Essentially, it boils down to this: I had always wanted to write about someone who risks his own personality in the pursuit of becoming a great mimic. I wrote a story about this phenomenon and it didn’t satisfy the urge. I wrote this novella and always loved it, even as it sat, in my various hard drives and floppy disks, for years.
Me: You seem to be lampooning some of the players in the 80s comic boom. Who were the standouts to you?
Tom: I’d hate to say lampooning, though it’s probably an accurate assessment. I tried to be very reverent in my treatment of comedians, from the eighties and beyond. Certainly, to my mind, the comics of that period that find themselves clothed in my character names and behavior are Bill Hicks, Richard Belzer, Robin Harris, Eddie Murphy, of course, and Andrew Dice Clay, who was the real inspiration for Rhino Stamps, and many more. But I tried to get in every period of American comedy history I could too, so there’s also Elaine Boozler and Roseanne Barr, Edgar Bergen and Andy Griffith, Henny Youngman and Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl and Bob Newhart. The only ones that I would not try to smuggle in, either in disguise or obvious allusion, were Pryor and Carlin, who just seemed too big to try to reduce to my stage. Isn’t it shocking to realize, as I just did in typing their names, that both are dead? I keep thinking about all the important figures of my youth who are no longer with us: Joe Strummer, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, the aforementioned Bill Hicks, Robin Harris. Man, it makes me feel old and sad.
Me: Why did you choose to use no real names of comics?
Tom: Because I wanted to make this more my own and allow for the possibility of what John Gardner calls the “small changes in the laws of the universe” that a tale writer must employ. I knew Douglas Myles was going to do astonishing things, and just didn’t think that would work in a recognizable universe, where instead of having, say, my Jason “Speedy” Gonzalez, you had this world’s Paul Rodriguez. From the first words of this book, which were the first words I wrote when I was drafting it, I knew it took place in a world I was devising, and I just had to keep it of a piece. Though as some have pointed out, there is a great pleasure in playing, Spot the comedian while reading the book, which I entirely approve of.
Me: In the world of this novel, comedy is taken very seriously—so much so that several scholarly journals focus on it. What is our world missing from not respecting comedy as much?
Tom: I’m kind of making fun of the people who take comedy very seriously. The Mimic’s Own Voice is, at its roots, a parody of a scholarly monograph, and comedic studies is my exaggerated version of American Studies and Film Studies and all the kind of developments in the academy that, in the words of my students over the years, make going to the movies a job instead of fun. Yet I think we should take comedy seriously. It’s often the only thing that allows us to endure. And I do think we should revere comedians as much as any artists. Certainly, I’d take Pryor or Carlin, or Rodney Dangerfield for crying out loud, as inspiration over ninety-nine percent of the actors and a good percentage of the musicians of the past fifty years. (True story, I was recently watching Back to School—which I do every time it’s on—and kicked myself for not having a Rodney-like character in the book. A Sam Kinison one, too. Remember him? He’s dead as well.)
Me: What has your relationship with Main Street Rag Publishing Company been like?
Tom: Speaking as someone who has toiled in the shadows for so long—publishing a few stories a year, submitting to book contests to no avail, working with a respectable agent over another book and having it turned down by everyone from Knopf to Highlights for Children—I feel like Scott Douglass and Craig Renfroe saved my publishing life. And for that I’m grateful. Add to that that Scott designed a beautiful book and I had a hand in selecting and shaping the cover art, and that they do so much work on their website and in going to AWP to promote the work, I feel honored to be a Main Street Rag author. As well, the books they’ve published in this series of novellas (that they even published novellas at all!) are ones I feel humbled by: Ben Tanzer’s My Father’s House, Barry Graham’s, Nothing or Next to Nothing. John Oliver Hodges’s The War of the Crazies. These are books to get in your hands, readers, all of them authored, as well, by ace gents.
Me: Who are your biggest influences?
Tom: I really don’t know the answer to this question any more, as I have read so much and been moved by so many—the core group of Roth, P, Percy, W, O’Connor, F, Johnson, C and Faulkner, W—that it seems the answer is everyone. But I want to take time to talk about two key teachers I had: Lee K. Abbott and Jim Robison. I might be the writer I am today if I didn’t read Barthelme and Allende but I would certainly not be without Lee and Jim.
Lee was a tyrant in workshop. You got copies back from him with words slashed out, furious question marks emblazoned, suggestions for similes that you knew were demands. Lee walked around a lot in this room that was reserved for workshops, while all of us sat on worn and mismatched furniture in a circle around the periphery. This one time, when my story was up, Lee stalked me across the room, as if the influence of Raymond Carver could be sniffed out. (It was 1990—wasn’t everyone influenced by Carver then?) Lee said, Who’ve you been reading? I knew he knew. But I stalled, said Richard Ford. Who else, Lee said. Tom McGuane, I said. Tobias Wolff next. Maybe Bobbie Ann Mason. Who else? Lee was smiling. He knew. He knew. Finally I gave it up. He proceeded to talk about how Carver’s stories worked, often bringing together two variables, like the man with no hands and the guy out of work in “Viewfinder” and how at first they would seem almost incompatible, but then develop almost magically in the story as informing each other. My story tried to do that and didn’t. And it was imprinted on me then a couple of things: I needed to figure out what writers were doing but also figure out what I was doing.
In addition to the scoldings—once Lee said, to another student, not me, “In the words of John Saxon in the movie The Appaloosa, “Why did you do such a stupid thing?”, I’ll also never forget the praise Lee gave. One of my paragraphs received, Great three sentence run, and I wanted to frame it. But in all, Lee was the man for craft. He taught where stories started, where they ended, how you got characters alive on the page and moved them from place to place, and how you made sure that the reader was not made to work excessively hard to get what you were up to.
Jim might have been Lee’s complete opposite. He was self effacing in class, often wishing, it seemed, that somebody else would take the lead in the workshop discussion so he could offer an occasional witticism from the back row. He was also genuinely enigmatic. Once, on the chalkboard at the then awful workshop rooms at U of Houston, he wrote a time (I forget it now) and said, “Still the best marathon time for any member of the Creative Writing Program,” then erased it. Looking back, that was the same joy I got out of his fiction: sudden, illuminating flashes that vanished before they showed too much.
If Lee was the man for craft, Jim was the man for ambition. He could look at the draft and see in it the story it wanted to be. He’d say something like, “Tom seems to be working within the high modernist tradition here but violating it just a little with this flourish of uncertainty near the end.” And when my classmates turned to me, I’d nod, wishing I’d known that was what I wanted to do. Then I’d go home and get to work on doing just that.
But it’s like I tell my CW students now, be on the lookout for two teachers who might be the devil and angel who manifest on opposite shoulders. When I’m writing, I’ve got Lee Abbott hovering over one shoulder saying, “You sure about that, bud?” when a story stumbles out of the gates, and Jim Robison hovering over the other and saying, “Aren’t you trying to enter a dialogue with Ellison here?” To repeat: without these two fine men—great writers and great guys—I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.
Me: As an editor for American Book Review, you must’ve seen some good books lately—what really blew you away? Or, if nothing did, what was wrong with them?
Tom: Lydia Yuknavtich’s The Chronology of Water. If all memoirs were like this, no one would be griping about the genre.
Jim Greer’s The Failure and Artificial Light. I think Jim and I dial into the same hidden radio frequency for inspiration. We both love stories of hidden or lost manuscripts, find French film divine, and don’t mind using the proverbial fifty cent word now and then.
Ben Tanzer’s You Can Make Him Like You. How Ben does it, I don’t know. But he writes a book every season of the year and each one’s better than the next. The fact that this one’s about a guy about to become a dad hit home with me, but it’s also a valentine to Chicago, a city that always deserves more love than it gets.
Extie Ecks, Normally Special. A collection of stories in a volume so compact it fits in a shirt pocket, though the characters are as wily as fire eaters and more human than not. I am not a big fan of the short short, but Extie has me reevaluating my aesthetic.
There are more, but these were the most recent and the most vivid. As far as what I see for ABR, I get excited every time I assign a review because it seems like there is , no other phrase can describe it, a fucking shitload of good books out there right now.
Me: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing schedule?
Tom: When I’m working—which I have to say I’m not right now (see reply to next question)—I am at my most productive when I’m aiming at two to three pages a day, seven days a week. Doesn’t matter if it’s a story, essay or longer work, I need to stay with it, from day to day, stopping in the middle of a page, a scene, a graph, a sentence. Rereading the previous day’s work. Making cosmetic changes, then picking up where I left off. I recently read Ron Carlson’s great little book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and he had some great advice about not even pausing to look up if, for example, a song you want to put in the story came out the year you’ve set it. I’ve done that, and wound up losing the thread of what I was trying to work with that day. Damn Internet.
I wrote the first draft of The Mimic’s Own Voice entirely by hand, and wonder if I should get back to that routine to avoid the temptation of checking to see, for example, what’s up on Facebook or whether anyone else has given me only four stars on Goodreads.
Me: How has being a father influenced your writing?
Tom: I have not written much at all since my son Finn’s birth in 2009. Reviews and some little essay like deals—I really liked an essay I wrote to introduce Charles Johnson’s story “Popper’s Disease” in an issue of The Collagist—but little fiction to speak of. But it’s not all Finn’s doing. I’ve now changed jobs twice in four years, moving from Arkansas to Texas to Kentucky. But a few things stand out about my writerly life since the happy day Carmen and I were joined by the Finner. My friend Josh Russell advised me to not beat myself up about not writing, and to do “head work.” Josh says that once he started writing more regularly, he had so much stored up. I’m looking forward to getting some stuff on paper, that’s for sure. I’m also more aware that I’ve become such a softy, as a father. I worry about a strain of sentimentality entering into my fiction, too. But above all, I am more aware, as a father that I want to be sure that what I do write is something that Finn will want to read when he gets older. You see: what a softy.
Me: What are you working on now?
Tom: I have a collection of stories out right now, called Among the Wild Mulattoes, and have never given up completely on the novel that my agent sent out back in 05, True To the Blues. One of the advantages of writing a lot that doesn’t get published is that you always have a nice backlog to work with. Not that anyone’s clamoring for more Williams—but I do think I’m about to get back into the game. Just as soon as I finish this interview and the report for my department that’s due in the provost’s office . . . which in many ways is the most complicated fiction I’ve ever essayed.