Tom Williams and Other Tales

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Tom Williams is the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and Among The Wild Mulattos And Other Tales, which was named a Great Read of 2015 by National Public Radio. The chair of English at Morehead State University, he resides in Kentucky with his wife and children.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Can you talk about the title of your book "Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales."

Tom Williams (TW): I was clearly trying to get into trouble with this title. I was using a word that has hounded me all my life, as the son of a black father and white mother. And I expected I would provoke a response from just about everybody—mulatto or not; plus, I was modifying it with a term, “wild,” that seems to problematize it even more. But hardly anyone’s shown much displeasure or distaste toward my title, which makes me wonder if what I consider provocative really isn’t. That’s not saying everybody loves to say mulatto. But I’ve become more comfortable with the term. It’s so much more definitive than “biracial,” which seems to describe a good percentage of Americans, these days. Sadly, a reader asked if I was a wild mulatto and I had to demure that I was a pretty mild one.

In purely literary terms, though, the most important word in the title is “Tales.” Because that’s what I’m telling: stories that rely on a slight alteration of the universe’s laws. Though, in truth, I sometimes look around at the world and wonder if I’m not a social realist.

LK: What about identity is addressed in all of the stories in this collection? Which one was the hardest to write and why?

TW: In “The Finest Writers in the World Today,” one of the few stories of mine where racial identity isn’t central to the plot and theme, Tina, the story’s antagonist, starts out with “blunt, black bangs” and winds up with blond hair and pink and silver Nikes, causing the narrator to wonder which was “the real Tina.” He’s on the right track, but as a first person plural narrator suffering the usual limitations attached to such a personage, he’s off a bit: the question is if any of us are the “real” one.

On this subject, W.E.B. DuBois writes so eloquently, asserting that for an African American, “one ever feels his twoness.” Yet I saddle my characters with a threeness, a fourness, maybe even a fiveness. I think of myself: Mulatto, male, Midwestern by birth, a department chair, a husband, a father, a writer (sometimes). Is one of these identities central to who I am? Are all of them? Or are they just a series of guises, roles, parts to play? I keep noticing how often clothes play a role in these stories, as if characters aren’t so much concealing as revealing who they are by what they put on. I’m just asking a lot of questions, aren’t I? But I’ll defer to Chekhov, who said writers need not “solve the problem but state the problem correctly.” I hope I’m doing that with identity in all of these stories.

As far as which one was the hardest to write, I have to cop out and say most were equally difficult, each with its own sets of problems. The title story, “Among the Wild Mulattos,” however, was the easiest to write—it was a joy from the first word to the last and all the revisions between. But it was the hardest to place: in fact, it never appeared in print prior to the book’s publication. And it is, as far as I’m concerned, the story that unifies the collection as a whole. Go figure.

LK: Mark Doty once said (paraphrasing), "we write the feeling first, and then [during revision] we write from the feeling." What is he getting at, and how do you apply this practice to your own work, specifically with this collection?

TW: I once spent five minutes with Mark Doty sharing my admiration and affection for one of nature’s most annoying birds, the great-tailed grackle. (He’d just read aloud a poem in which they figured prominently. I don’t randomly hector poets with avian accolades.) Whether Mr. Doty was just humoring me remains to be seen. I mention this anecdote by way of implying that his wisdom might be a little elusive for me.

That said, I find so often that drafting a story, for me, is a way of writing feeling out—eliminating my own feelings by grafting them onto the characters. It’s not pure therapy. I often find that a story that began out of fury or grief winds up something else altogether, but that engineering emotion steers me through draft after draft until the story finds its way. Because, as your next question suggests, my tendency runs toward the comic, the characters aren’t themselves always aware of their emotional states, but I thank them for being the vehicles of keeping me a little saner and happier.

LK: Is humor writing hard? Is it formulaic? How did you incorporate this type of writing into your collection, and how do you know when you've nailed it?

TW: I used to write solemn, realistic stories about race and identity. They followed very specific patterns. They preached and railed against injustice. Sometimes they got published. More often they did not. I always had another instinct—to point out the absurdity that people of color live in like fish live in water—but suppressed that because of the belief that a minority writer’s duty was to uplift the race and shame the oppressor.

As to what changed my approach, I think it’s this: that when I entered a pretty difficult time in my life—my mother had cancer; my first marriage was breaking up—I didn’t want to read or watch or listen to anything somber. So I watched the Marx Brothers. Annie Hall. I listened to songs like The Meters’ “They All Asked for You.” I read Sterling Brown and Charles Portis and Reg McKnight and Francine Prose. And suddenly all these strange mutations started to emerge. Wacky first lines led to crackpot scenarios; it was honestly one of the most productive periods of my life, 2005-2008. Many of the stories in Among The Wild Mulattos were begun during this period. And while my solemn stories featured the same kind of characters and settings and even themes, they were the formulaic, plot-driven ones. These stories of doubles and enigmatic hotels and fried-chicken franchises publishing novels were, well, wild and untamed and though they might rely on such conventions as unreliable narrators, irony and absurd situations, they seemed to have no limits, and I just hung out every morning, trying to see where they’d go.

Here's possibly a ridiculous comparison. I distinctly remember watching Casablanca during this time, too, a movie I, like every American, watch annually, at least. There’s a moment when a spiffy and dapper man warns a couple new to the city of its dangers. “This place is full of vultures,” he warns. “Vultures everywhere. Everywhere.” Then he bids the new arrivals adieu and it becomes clear that he’s picked the man’s pocket. The pickpocket returns later for further comic relief, and though I’d seen those moments countless times before, never had they registered with the heft they did this time. This movie, which is about noble aims and self-sacrifice, depends upon that humor. Those light touches provide, perhaps, some capacity for the viewer to step away from the intensity of the plot, gather herself and prepare for the next plot maneuver. I think I’m doing the opposite of Casablanca. I’m hinging these absurd tales of costumers and lookalikes around very serious moments, balancing, I hope, the light with the dark, the airy and the grave. I guess that might lead me to the last part of the question: I know I’ve nailed it when the jokes are funny even when the story’s subject isn’t.

LK: What's next?

TW: I’m so happy to have three books in the world, all of them with actual readers who aren’t my relatives or friends, sometimes I think I don’t have to get my fingers on the home keys any more. And yet I keep going back, though now what has seemed to be my newest phase is to go small. Tiny fictions. Under a thousand words. Subjects domestic and not. At times, I feel I’m writing what might prove to be an assemblage of miniatures. Other times they seem as separate from one another as Amarillo from Zapata. But I just go to meet these little micros. Sometimes five days a week. Other times once every two months. Give me another year, Loren. I’ll tell you what I’ve managed then.