Tom Williams is the author of the novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice and the forthcoming novel Don’t Start Me Talkin,’ due out in February 2014 from Curbside Splendor. He’s also the Chair of English at Morehead State University and this year’s judge for cream city review‘s fiction contest, among other things. CCR‘s Mollie Boutell recently caught up with him to chat about writing, music, and beer.
Cream City Review: Give me three stories everyone should read.
Tom Williams: This is such a difficult question. Why only three? And which three? How to choose and not sound deliberately obscure, a literary log-roller, or hopelessly conservative? My solution: a first, second, and third-person story by people I do not know:
1. “The Moths,” Helena Viramontes. US Magic Realism, sad and triumphant, rite of passage, incredible ending.
2. “Soul Food,” Reginald McKnight. Will honestly flip your lid when it comes to notions of what second person does or should do, and was published in the ’90s, well before the quasi-literary, post-apocalyptic, zombie genre was getting its footing. And it’s in second person! With a first and last line you’ll not soon forget.
3. “Murphy’s Xmas,” Mark Costello. Simply put: Costello is the best short story writer you do not know. And this holiday classic makes Fear’s “Fuck Christmas” and The Pogues’s “Fairy Tale of New York” look like Hallmark cards.
CCR: I love that you included a second-person story. Sometimes I feel like Lorrie Moore was the last person allowed to use it. Speaking of Lorrie Moore — she said “a short story is a flower, a novel is a job.” What’s a novella?
TW: When I was writing The Mimic’s Own Voice, this is what cheered me every day: Melville’s line from The Confidence Man: “It is with fiction as it is religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie.” And that reminds me of a scene in Animal House, where Pinto (played by Tom Hulce) and Professor Jennings (played by Donald Sutherland) have this pot-stoked conversation:
Pinto: Our whole solar system could be like one tiny atom under the fingernail of some other giant being. Oh. Oh. This is too much! That means one tiny atom under my fingernail could be . . .
Jennings: One tiny universe.
This strikes me as a perfect analogy for the novella: a complete and complex object—a tiny universe–that fits neatly under a fingernail. If the short story is too brief for you and the novel too long, yet you want both the perfection of form and the complexity of life, there’s that middle form that you either call the long story or the novella.
CCR: If you could make a soundtrack for your soon-to-be-released novel, what might be on it?
TW: Mollie, this is the softball. My forthcoming novel is called Don’t Start Me Talkin’, which is also the title of a song by the book’s principal muse, Sonny Boy Williamson II, who your readers might know lived for some time in Milwaukee in his later years, while he was recording for Checker, in Chicago—where my publisher is located. And in addition to borrowing that title, at present, each of the twelve chapters of my book have Sonny Boy Williamson titles as their titles. So the simplest thing would be to go to iTunes and download His Best, by Sonny Boy Williamson, and listen to such numbers as “One Way Out,” “Fattening Frogs for Snakes,” “Good Evening Everybody,” and “Help Me.” And then listen to Big Walter Horton, Little Walter, James Cotton, Sugar Blue, Charlie Musselwhite, Satan and Adam, and any other blues harpist of note.
CCR: We will. Now, your best advice for someone, say, entering a short fiction contest?
TW: Send the story that’s currently making you worried; the one that appears to be finished but has something to it that keeps you from sending it out might be the one that’s busted through all the limitations one invariably muscles into one’s work. If a story seems “your” story, it might be one that only works for you. If it’s one that seems to trouble your aesthetic, your standards, your sense of what it is that stories essay, it might work for others. Send it out to a contest sponsored by a magazine you like to read and then don’t periodically check the contest journal’s website for updates.
CCR: What’s your favorite Wisconsin beer?
TW: This question is even harder than the one about three stories people should read, because there are so many good Wisconsin beers, including the macro brews of Miller, the resuscitated majesty of Pabst and Schlitz, the serious old school wow of Point, the craft intricacies of New Glaurus and Sprecher, the unbelievable freshness of Hinterland and Titletown. All of this is to say that while I lived in Wisconsin, it was not the best time of my life, but the beer was ineffably wonderful; but the one that caught me first and best was a Leinie (not of the new vintage but the old)—a can of what’s now called “Original,” with its less than politically correct Native American in profile logo. It came dripping with ice from a cooler on a summer day and I can still feel the tang at the back of my throat. And suffice it to say when I think of Wisconsin beers, it’s the one that first surfaces in my mind.
Cream City Review’s contest postmark deadline has been extended to January 15. Stuff your story (and the $15 entry fee) into an envelope right now and send it along to: cream city review c/o UWM Department of English, PO Box 413, Milwaukee, WI 53201.