An Interview with Tom Williams

Tom Williams' The Story of My NovelThree Piece Combo with Drink: ” (we lopped off that first part when we published it—sorry, Tom!) first appeared in the second issue of Barrelhouse. That was ten years ago, and at the time, we the editors were still trying to figure out what the hell Barrelhouse was. In fact, publishing the second issues was, in some ways, a little more complicated than publishing the first. With first issues, authors you admire are happy to send you stories when you solicit them, designers are happy to work for free, and the editors—in our case, four dudes who met in a writing workshop—are just happy to be putting something into the world. With the second issue, though, there’s more to figure out. We ended up asking ourselves things like, “Well, shit. Does this thing actually work? Are there other stories out there that are doing what we like?” 

We might not have said this at the time, but Tom’s story alleviated a lot our fears. “Three Piece Combo with Drink” was, in many ways, exactly the kind of story we envisioned when we started kicking around the idea of Barrelhouse. It’s a story that’s smart, funny, and accessible, but that probably didn’t quite fit in with what other lit mags were doing at the time. It was almost like we were meant to be together. 

So, upon the publication of Tom’s new collection, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales, we sat down to discuss the story.    

Barrelhouse: First off, congratulations on the publication of Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales and for all of the good notices it’s getting. “Three Piece Combo with Drink” is the first story in that collection. Can you talk a little bit about the story’s origins and how you eventually came to submit it to Barrelhouse?

Tom Williams: Thanks, Joe! Writing that story was so key to me: only a couple of the tales in the collection preceded it and if there is a kind of anchoring moment in my literary life it’s when this story got published and assured me it was okay to go on in the manner I’d discovered, truly, in writing “Three Piece Combo with Drink”—which I still insist on calling, “The Story of My Novel, Three Piece Combo with Drink.”

But the origins are much like the origins within the story. I was eating, by myself, at a fried chicken franchise (name redacted), and felt, like my narrator, that if there were some way to commemorate how good the chicken was, I’d do it, and the only thing I was kind of good at was writing fiction. There was so much in that premise that I couldn’t turn it down. The shape of the story became so vivid to me, so quickly. And once I had the first line, I was racing to get the story done. I think I drafted it in four days or so.

But it’s a story that isn’t quite traditional enough or experimental enough and it’s about a writer, and all three qualities were expressed by editors as reason for its return to me. The late Lewis “Buddy” Nordan—a very generous soul and one of the best comic writers ever—recommended it to the editors of an esteemed but often financially strapped and peripatetic magazine (another name redacted) but they too said no, and while on one hand the completion of the story had led me to write several of the others in the book (“Movie Star Entrances,” “The Lessons of Effacement” and “Among the Wild Mulattos”), its failure to find a home had left me a little bummed.

About this time, though, y’all’s website started showing up. Must have been linked to NewPages (Hey, Denise! Hey, Casey). Everything that y’all spoke of—bridging high and low culture, buying your contributors beer for life—spoke to me and I gave it a try and boom. The rest is history. A match made, well, probably not heaven, but a dive bar just on the outskirts of heaven.

BH: While some aspects of the piece feel autobiographical (the narrator shares some traits with you—he’s a biracial writer with a firm grasp of American literature)—the narrator also seems decidedly different from you: he’s somewhat naive, maybe a bit dim even, and I would say that you’re neither of those things. Did you have any trouble writing in the voice of someone who resembles you but is also very much not you? Was that something you set out to do? I should say that this question is based on a lot of assumptions so feel free to implode them as you like.

TW: You’re too kind because I feel as though, just as Flaubert said about Madame Bovary, my narrator c’est moi!. I have felt as isolated from and as much an interloper in the literary world as he is. I sent stories without a SASE, cut and pasted the wrong address on my cover letters, made innumerable mistakes that I believed would reveal me to be the poseur I knew I was. I still feel that way. 

But one of the things that does separate me from the narrator is that he possesses a kind of orotund manner of speaking, a characteristic of a lot of wanna be writers I’ve met. As a creative writing professor, I’ve met countless people who wanted to audit my class or wanted feedback about their ten book sequence or wanted to know if the lawyer who promised them a good deal on paying to have their manuscript copyrighted was honest, and, by and large, most would adopt that kind of language and ethos, as if you had to first talk like a writer, no, I’m sorry, an author, to be one. And it was a lot of fun to use that kind of voice for this story, because in it I could obscure my own shortcomings and fears and foibles. But real talk: the dude is me. No question.

BH: I just read the story for the first time in probably ten years and a few of things struck me. The first was how funny it is, both at the line level and in the story’s overall premise. For me, a huge part of what makes it work, and what appealed to me when you submitted it, is that the narrator is unintentionally funny. He doesn't seem to see what he’s saying or doing as funny, but we as the readers do. That’s a tough trick to pull off, particularly given that we maintain our sympathy for him throughout (at least I do). To that end, how do you see humor functioning in this story or in your work in general?

TW: The narrator has no self-awareness.  This is a guy who compares himself to Melville and Hawthorne after publishing a novel with a coupon in it. Yet here he is a writing a confession. And in the process of the confession he’s getting psyched up to write his next book, even after the fiasco his first one was. A reader told me recently how sad the story is and she’s right; the narrator’s kind of pathetic and we feel bad for him. But like Wile E Coyote he’s already onto the next plan and thinking that’ll work. And that, I hope, is the secret to the laughs. We kind of admire the narrator’s persistence. We kind of recognize ourselves in him. And yet we’re thoroughly glad we’re not him.

I hope that’s the source of the humor: it’s that everything’s recognizable—the people, places, situations—but skewed just enough so you know I’m not saying, “This is how things are!” When I try to write with that voice and approach, I wind up as solemn as Steinbeck—blech. But when I just come from this other angle, where I’m writing comic tales—humorous stories that require the reader’s acceptance of a slight alteration of the universe’s laws—I think that I’m able to talk about some pretty serious things without sounding too preachy. For instance, as I’ve thought about “Three Piece Combo with Drink” again, I’ve seen it less as a story about a guy whose ambitions overtake his good sense and more of a comment on publishing in general—that is, who’s to say, these days, there’s any difference between a fast food franchise as your publisher and a commercial press?

BH: The second things that struck me on rereading was that the story’s structure is incredibly traditional (a youngish man’s tale of the downfall of his artistic life). However, the story’s inherent awareness of itself as a story in addition to the general absurdity of the premise prevents it from feeling like a rehash—in fact, in the end, it’s totally its own thing, but one that exist within a pretty clear tradition of American storytelling. I guess this is a muddled way of asking about influences—do you remember what you were reading when you were drafting and whether or not that came to bear on the finished product? 

TW: As I recall the time I was writing this story, one key influence was George Singleton. George’s my friend now, my son Finn’s unofficial godfather, but when I was first reading his stories in journals and in These People Are Us and The Half Mammals of Dixie, I started to get excited again about first person narrators, particularly slightly unreliable ones. Not like Poe’s or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s (“I’m not crazy, I swear”), but ones who announce early on that they have a story to tell, and are very complete in their telling but reveal indirectly as much about themselves and their shortcomings. I’m sure that stories like “Outlaw Head and Tale” and “How I Met My Second Wife” were roiling around in my brain when I sat down to write.

Another key influence is Donald Barthelme. I have talked much about how I went to the University of Houston after Barthelme died, so there’s no mentor/protégé connection here; however, it was Barthelme’s ability to make the absurd seem possible by not having his narrators ever call attention to the absurdity that really informed this story, really made it possible to complete (and many others in the collection).

Charles Johnson was big too. He’s always big for me, but with this story it was really a slight borrowing (or theft) of his narrator Rutherford Calhoun from Middle Passage: I think my narrator is a distant relation.

But the secret influence, the one I’m only now revealing, though John Warner, the great comic writer of Funny Man already knows this about me, is Behind the Music. Seriously. I devoured those shows back in the early oughts. Whether it was about REO Speedwagon (I loved that one!) or Leif Garret or MC Hammer, I would watch the episodes over and over. And I think they got into my creative DNA, that narrative of humble beginnings, sudden fame, and sad returns to earth. The narrator even tips my hand a little, when he says, “There is a moment in many stories like the story of my novel where the artist finds himself the victim of unscrupulous managers, promoters and executives but has no recourse. The contract he signed assures his hands are tied.” 

I thought certainly everyone would read that and think, “Behind the Music!” Seems I got away with this one, though. Pop flotsam? Cultural jetsam? You be the judge

Tom Williams is the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start Me Talkin, and his latest, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and children.