Okay, so I’ll be back in Wisconsin for the first time since I moved in 2000.
I’ll be readingand expounding in Platteville, invited by two fellow Coogs: Stormy Stipe and Terri Burns of UW Platteville.
It is a much needed retreat from the life of a department chair to the role of visiting writer.
Hope to see a lot of people there. So encourage attendance if you’re anywhere near Platteville, which is here:
Cris Mazza is seriously one of my idols, and she tagged me to be part of these shenanigans. I think I inherited her sense of skepticism about this project, though I have to say, as does Isaac Davis in Manhattan, “I could talk about my book all night.”
What is the working title of the book?
Don’t Start Me Talkin’–this is not the title I started with and it is borrowed from one of the book’s principal influences, Sonny Boy Williamson II.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Let me say up front that most of the things I’ve tried that started with an “idea” led to bloodless, preachy, windy or obvious writing; the project wound up unfinished. The story that led to this book started with an image: an older African American man in a hotel bed with his sheets up like sails, telling all his white acolytes that he needed to take a nap. The ideas that informed that image began percolating back probably when I read an article in Spin magazine about John Lee Hooker that principally concentrated on his wardrobe–in particular his socks. John Lee Hooker wrote back, wondering why the writer had haberdashery in mind when the magazine purported to be about music. Then I saw John Lee Hooker perform. Then I saw Chuck Berry perform. Then I saw the very good documentary Hail, Hail Rock and Roll. And read a lot about blues musicians and saw them perform. And wondered always how much time they spent cultivating their personae v. how much time they spent on their music, if the two weren’t somehow inextricably linked.
Did the book actually end up being what you thought it would?
Pretty much. I knew the ending because I’d written and published the short story that effectively became the last chapter. But that doesn’t mean it proceeded by rote or without surprises along the way. It is, most of all, the book I discovered it needed to be.
What genre does your book fall under?
Picaresques? Buddy novels? Road novels? Blues novels? Kunstlerromans? Buddy-road-kunsterromans about the blues?
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
In an adaptation of Native Son, Richard Wright played his central character, Bigger Thomas. Uncovincingly, by most reviews, as he was forty and Bigger was a teenager. Being a writer and not an actor didn’t help either. Yet I can fully understand Wright’s motives. Because the characters as they live in one’s head and on one’s pages are primarily envisioned by or perhaps through one’s own eyes. And why would you let some joker try to be that character that you’ve spent some time if not being then certainly the closest thing to it?
Now, to say I never envisioned some actor playing my character would be a lie. But I did that when I was thinking about the book, not when I was writing it.
Also, because my characters are African American, I don’t have a whole lot of actor choices. Even in this day and age it seems there’s about six African American actors working and many of them have become so identified with a certain type of character; it makes me wonder if, for example, Messrs. Smith, Washington, Freeman and Jackson turn down roles that would require them to be something alternative to their screen personae or if those roles even exist. That said, if I had to choose someone to be my central character/narrator (who has a real name, Peter Owens, and a stage name, Sam Stamps), I’d likely select Will Smith and select Morgan Freeman to play his mentor, Brother Ben, the Last True Delta Bluesman. But that’s so it would make a lot of money. I suppose if I was really trying to find someone who fit my conception of the characters I’d want an unknown to play Peter/Sam and hope the incomparable Joe Morton would play Brother Ben. And if he wasn’t available, Avery Brooks.
What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
A veteran blues man and his protege hit the road for one last ride through the US, with plenty of blues and roles to play.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Maybe four or five months? First drafts, though, those are warmups, rehearsals, auditions. The fun of composition is that every day you can come to the desk and if you get stuck, come up with something new. I kept a blank book by the manuscript to keep track of all the digressions and divergences so that when I read the mess I could make a little sense of it.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Sonny Boy Williamson II, among others, because he is, of that generation of electric blues players, the one who seemed the most enigmatic and the coolest and the least celebrated. Also, he was in the fullest sense of the word, a true character.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
Did I mention it was a kunstlerroman? Those are hot right now, right?
And John Dufresne said this about it:
Tom Williams’ Don’t Start Me Talking reminds me of why I started reading in the first place—to be enchanted, to be carried away from my world and dropped into a world more vivid and incandescent. Here is a heartfelt and irresistible novel about the Last True Delta Bluesman, Brother Ben, and his steadfast harp player, Silent Sam. Williams handles this ironic tale of the Blues, race, pretense, and life on the road, with intelligence, grace, and abiding tenderness. Read this remarkable and exhilarating novel, friend, and I promise you’ll start reading it slowly so it won’t ever end.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
A long time ago, it was represented by a very good agent, who worked to make it a better book and tried damned hard to get people in Manhattan and Boston to take notice. But now, after many years of scuffling, it has found the best kind of home among the good folk at Curbside Splendor, and will come out in February 2014.
And now, I’m tagging the following people to participate: Jessica Treat, Paula Bomer, Stormy Stipe, Dave Housley. I still have no idea if I’ve done this correctly.