Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Tom Williams about Don’t Start Me Talkin’, his comedic road novel about the Blues, music culture, pretense, and America’s relationship with African American identity.
Did you listen to the Blues as a kid?
I’d guess that I heard blues at my Granny’s house—maybe BB King or Little Milton or Bobby Bland—but didn’t really seek any artists out until my teens, about which I’ll say more to the second question. I’ve always been, however, a backwards sort of music fan, preferring the music that came before me to that which was around me. I’ve loved Chuck Berry since I was nine, Little Richard and Bo Diddley—Elvis too—as well.
What or who brought you to the Blues?
My first albums were my parents’ albums, and as they were an interracial couple, who met and married in the sixties, there were a lot of interesting contrasts: Peter, Paul and Mary, Roberta Flack, Sly and the Family Stone, The Beatles, Jim Croce, Jimi Hendrix. But the one that answers this question was The Smithsonian History of Jazz. I listened to the records in that collection over and over, from Jelly Roll Morton and Joplin to Billie Holiday and Bird. But there was also Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” which from the first listen spooked and spoke to me. I’m still at a loss why that song in particular was so meaningful to the ten-year-old suburban biracial boy I was, but as I’d never heard anything like it, it just stuck with me, and then all but required I found out as much as I could about the man who made it. And realize this is the early to mid-seventies: there wasn’t much to find out about Johnson available. Slowly but surely, though, I started to piece together a broader understanding of this music—Handy called it the “weirdest music he’d ever heard”—and its makers continue to fascinate me.
What or who brought you to writing/literature?
I wasn’t a very discriminating reader as a kid. I read Sports Illustrated more than novels or stories. But along the way some books caught my eye: Chester Himes’s Cotton Comes to Harlem, Roth’s Goodbye Columbus, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (clearly I had a yen for “dirty books”). A huge influence was Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair; I read my mother’s copy of it when I was a sophomore in college and the fact that the central character was a writer who talked about his own writing process really fascinated me. But the clinchers, the books that made me think this was something I could do, were some pretty obvious choices: Gatsby, On the Road, Catcher in the Rye.
But you know, the real answer to the question, is also the answer to the above questions. Music made me want to create more than anything else. Only I couldn’t quite figure out how to make it, or at least make it in a way that others would want to listen. Writing seemed, somehow, when I was taking creative writing classes in the mid-eighties at college, an outlet where I could get somebody to take notice. My transcript says different, though, as I got Cs and a D in the first three workshops I took. But when I wrote a story in my junior year (heavily influenced by Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, Elvis Costello, Elvin Jones, and chili and cheese flavored Fritos, and the end of my athletic career) and the instructor said it was the real deal, I had more stumbled into a need to write.
What incited you to write Don’t Start Me Talkin’?
The visual image of Brother Ben—one of the novel’s central characters—in bed, in a Holiday Inn room, surrounded by white acolytes and “fluttering the sheets like sails”: I wrote a few paragraphs about that and carried it around for almost a year, going nowhere with it, until I had someone to be witnessing the whole show and knowing himself it was a put on—this African American man’s wonderful deception of infirmity and simple mindedness—and not knowing whether he should be impressed or disgusted. Brother Ben was almost always just there in my head—fully formed. I had to create Peter Owens, the book’s narrator. But first he was the short story’s narrator, and when that was finished and eventually published, I still had more to say about them both—a condition I still suffer under, even after an entire novel of their exploits.
The book’s design works beautifully in concert with the novel’s theme — its cover resembling a record album or CD, its 12-chapter format similar to a 12-song LP, and its table of contents mimicking an LP label. Where in the writing process did the design concept emerge?
Well, after the book’s completion. It had an early life: represented by an agent, read by a number of interested editors at the New York houses; but it didn’t make anyone love it enough to publish it. When the guys at Curbside said yes to it, they asked if I had any thoughts about design, and design dunce that I am, I said, “Make it look like a record.” Fortunately, design whiz Alban Fischer did just that, with the expert photography and modeling of Curbsiders Jacob Knabb and Marvin Tate. It was always twelve chapters, though, to parallel the twelve bars blues is typically composed in.
Do you listen to music as you write? If so, what is it? What about while writing this book?
During the composition of DSMT, every morning I would plug in a CD and listen to it over and over until the writing was done. I listened to everybody: Mud, Wolf, Little Walter, Memphis Minnie, T-Bone Walker, RL Burnside, Bessie Smith, Professor Longhair, Junior Wells. Everybody. But especially Sonny Boy Williamson II, whom I affectionately consider my co-author (as he is the source of the title chapters and the novel’s title). I find that I am no longer as keen to keep up that kind of practice, though, in the work I do now. But what was vital to me with this novel was keeping my mind and Peter’s voice steeped in the rhythm, cadence, and language of the blues. It was a daunting task, though, trying to come up with lines better than Sonny Boy: “She can love to heal the sick, she can love to raise the dead, you might think I’m joking but you better believe the words I said.” Yeah, that’s hard to beat.
Your chapter titles are actual songs. Thus, you have already provided readers with a suggested playlist for Don’t Start Me Talkin’. Are there other songs you’d like to add to that list for readers?
You could just start with listening to the entire Chess Records blues catalogue and not go wrong. But you could also listen to any- and everything by Charley Patton and Son House, Tommy and Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Skip James, the aforementioned Memphis Minnie. But here’s my top five blues songs by artists who sustained me through the composition but who do not play a key role in the novel:
“Dark was the Night,” “Cold was the Ground,” Blind Willie Johnson
“Time is on my Side,” Irma Thomas (blues or R&B? Does it matter.)
“Hideaway,” Freddie King (an instrumental, sure)
“Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” Chris Thomas King (a cover of Skip James but oh so compelling)
“They’re Red Hot,” Robert Johnson (OK, I cheated with RJ but this is such a curious number in his catalog and I’ve been wanting to share my affection for it for some time.)
Which authors influence your writing?
Any more, I’m not sure about an answer to this question, as it feels as though I might have so consolidated all my influences that I’m mindful only of what it is I want my characters to do and what they tell me is the wiser path. That said, I’m always hoping to write as well as Walker Percy, Charles Johnson, Sandra Cisneros, and Paul Auster. I hope I’m as funny as Francine Prose, Charles Portis, and Lewis Nordan, as adventuresome as Clarice Lispector and Reginald McKnight, as empathetic as Mark Harris, just to name a few.
What are your favorite books about the Blues?
Dave “Honeyboy” Edwards had a great memoir, The World Don’t Owe Me Nothing. And it’s rare to have an account such as his, as he was a contemporary of Johnson, Williamson, Waters, and more. Robert Gordon’s Can’t Be Satisfied is a fantastic biography of Muddy Waters. Sam Charters just died recently—his The Country Blues is really fine. So is Bill Ferris’s Blues From the Delta. A novel that no one knows enough about is Albert Murray’s Train, Whistle, Guitar, and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora certainly is bluesy enough.
What instrument/s do you play?
I own an electric guitar and a harmonica. As to whether what I do with them constitutes playing in any sense is a hard case to make.
Do you have projects in the works? What’s next?
My biggest, realest project is trying to raise two incredible children with my fantastic wife, also a writer, while we live far from our families and occasionally eke out time to read and write and stay in the larger literary conversation and hold down jobs.
But as for a book, I have a new collection of stories coming out in July from Texas Review Press; it’s called Among the Wild Mulattos and asks many of the same questions about race, identity, and the consolations of art that Don’t Start Me Talkin’ and my first book, The Mimic’s Own Voice, revel in. I’ll be working hard to convince people that short story collections are still relevant.
I’d like to get started on a novel—that’s what summer’s for when you’re a fiction writer who is also a department chair. Meantime, I keep cranking out some tiny stories with long titles, the most recent of which, “On Being Told the Sound Your Band Recently Discovered Resembles the MC5’s,” appeared in Cream City Review.
And if anyone out there wants to learn just what happens next with Brother Ben and Silent Sam, just let me know. I’d be happy to oblige.
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Tom Williams is the author of The Mimic’s Own Voice (Main Street Rag Publishing Co). He has also published numerous stories, reviews, and essays, most recently in RE:AL, The Collagist, Booth, and Slab. An associate editor of American Book Review, he is the Chair of English at Morehead State University.