I know, I know. I’m sorry. I just have a lot of obligations and duties—many roles to play.
Husband, father, son, brother, department chair, mentor, friend, book reviewer, writer, etc.
So, mulattos, eh?
Isn’t that kind of a politically incorrect term?
Probably, but then again, these days, what is the best way to refer to a person, like me, like many of the characters in my book, men and women who have a black parent and a white parent? Biracial—which I’ve used more than once—is simply too generic; mixed race has always struck me as sloppy. What’s that leave? Half-caste? Halfie? Multiculti? After a while, mulatto starts looking pretty good again.
So you’re trying to make readers uncomfortable?
Not really. I’m just asking them to think about their own state of in-betweenness, bearing allegiances to two or more groups yet never feeling as though one belongs anywhere. Everybody recognizes that, right?
About the book then. Many interviewers ask about influences. Whom did you steal from?
Charles Johnson, Donald Barthelme, and John Cheever.
Johnson’s collection of stories, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice doesn’t offer a template for Among the Wild Mulattos but it always struck me as the perfect kind of story collection, with varied lengths, styles, points of view. It’s kind of show-offy. Johnson’s not trying to construct a “novel in stories” and yet a common theme slyly emerges. And that’s what I was attempting in putting this book together. One of the tales, “Ethnic Studies,” appeared in an issue of Indiana Review with a story by Chuck—a proud moment for me.
Barthelme gets stolen from lot these days. I swiped his tone. I have some pretty unconventional events in these pages but what I learned from many Barthelme first person stories (“Some of Us Were Trying to Kill Our Friend Colby” and “I Bought a Little City” are my faves) was that if your narrator just starts talking about things as though they’re the most natural things in the world—doesn’t call attention to their ridiculousness or absurdity—you can just keep piling up the nonsense if your narrator looks upon the events unflinching and reports back to the reader as though not one thing is out of the ordinary.
As for Cheever, it’s a trick that Lee Abbott—a great mentor—showed me: In “A Vision of the World,” Cheever writes, “This is being written in another seaside cottage on another coast.” Lee called this foregrounding—calling attention to the story as a written text produced by the narrator —and I cannot tell you how vividly that information opened a blocked channel in my writer’s mind and provided a solution for so many stories.
And right there you’ll see my biggest endorsement of creative writing classes. Surely I’d seen a line like that in a story before but a real writer—Lee K. Abbott—pointed it out to me, gave it a name, and explained what the risks and rewards were, and suddenly I had a way to finish a story. You can’t get that on your own. You can’t get that in a writing group where everybody’s on the same level of achievement. So thanks, Lee. Thanks, John. Thanks, Chuck. Thanks, Don.
You went to the University of Houston. Did you study with Barthelme?
I started at UH in 1990, which places me in the first class of fiction writers admitted to that august program which had not been vetted by Donald Barthelme. We suffered greatly, I tell you. All the other fiction writers would say, in workshops, “Well, Don would have . . .” And then they’d break off, eye us, and say, “Oh, that’s right. You weren’t around when Don was here.” As a result, I grew pretty resentful of Don. I’d read some stories prior to coming to Houston but I read no more when I was there. Only later, away from Houston, did I rediscover his stories. But I think it was a good thing for me to have that time and distance. Otherwise, I might have become a slavish imitator.
And these are tales, not stories? What’s the difference?
I suppose tales are a kind of story, but I’m thinking about it in John Gardner’s terms, how the tale writer’s job is to “persuade the reader that the [events] might have happened (given small changes in the laws of the universe).” All my books rely heavily on those “small changes in the laws of the universe”: that comedians are the dominant artists of the time in The Mimic’s Own Voice, and that blues musicians can control reality in Don’t Start Me Talkin’. Just about every one of the tales in Among the Wild Mulattos has at least one of those “small changes.”
So I’ve got to ask you about Rachel Dolezal . . .
The only characters I’m interested in are fictional ones.
TOM WILLIAMS is the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, and his newest, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. He lives with his wife and children in Morehead, Kentucky.