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Chaos Questions with Tom Williams photo

The first time I met Tom Williams was the same day I first met Don Pollock. This was because Tom knows good writing when he sees it and had arranged a reading for him as chair of the English department at Morehead State University.

When I showed up Tom was the only one there. He had on a masterfully kickass suit, dressed to the teeth. First thing I noticed after the sweet suit was how focused his eyes seemed, these two bright blue spotlights scanning the room. He was sweating and pacing around the university’s Kentucky Folk Center, where everything was set up for the reading. I don’t remember what we talked about, the reading I’m sure, but I remember how welcoming and warm he was and just generally cool as hell. He would later bring West Virginia author Scott McClanahan to Morehead for a reading and discussion of his book Crapalachia: A Biography of Place, moving away from the old guard of Appalachian authors given exposure to the point of campaign onto more daring new voices.

Over the years I kept in contact with Tom first through American Book Review, where he served as associate editor, writing book reviews for him, and then later through social media and email. And thank god I did. I’m a richer person for it. My advice is to get to know Tom Williams. Read his work, touch base with him. He’s one of the great ones.

He is the author of the novels The Mimic’s Own Voice and Don’t Start Me Talkin’, as well as the short story collection Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales, named a Great Read of 2015 by National Public Radio. In 2014, he co-authored a collection of fiction called Four Fathers with authors Ben Tanzer, Dave Housley, and BL Pawelek.

Here’s how Tom handled some pure form chaos.


SHELDON LEE COMPTON: Tomorrow the world is made of food. Everything can be eaten. At some point you’re going to get hungry, so where do you start? You can explain what stuff is made of what if you want. I think it’d be fun.

TOM WILLIAMS: I am going to eat the editorial offices of literary magazines and book publishers that have rejected me and my friends and since I’ll have a lot to eat they are going to be made of the pizza I ate as a teenager, thin, crackery crust with pepperoni, sausage, and banana peppers, cut party-style, the way the Good Lord intended.

SLC: You're traveling in Pikeville, Kentucky and your car breaks down. You manage to get it to a shop but it's an overnight fix. What do you do during your day there? Feel free to research the town for your answer.

TW: Thank goodness, I made it to Pikeville! Considering there are no straight roads in Kentucky, and so many hills and hollers, named and un-, and this is Hatfield and McCoy country. I could have wound up in West By God, too! But not only have I made it to the seat of Pike County, I’ve wound up here on Hillbilly Days and I’ve got nothing to do but wander around downtown and eat every meal on a stick and listen to every kind of bluegrass possible while making sure I blend in with faded overalls kept closed with a safety pin, shirtless and shoeless, of course, and with blacked out front teeth. My Wildcats’ cap’s backward and I’m headed finally to Food City for a pound of bologna salad and a couple Ale 8’s.

SLC: There's a cooking competition, sort of Hell's Kitchen style shit. Only thing is, they're asking you to come up with the dish for the renewed Fear Factor series pilot episode. How disgusting can you make your dish?

TW: I’ll just open a jar of Miracle Whip.

SLC: Your artist friend has painted an unflattering self-portrait of you and made it their Facebook profile picture, along with Twitter, etc. In fact, they've decided to vigorously pursue a gallery in their city to feature it for an entire month. What do you do? How do you handle it?

TW: Do all I can with paint and polish and rouge to resemble the unflattering portrait. Mine’s a mug not much to look at anyway.

SLC: Cheers was a real bar. Let's make that true first. Okay, you wander in and, eight years later, you're a regular. What's your deal, you know, what character are you? The new feisty kid? The pool hustler who always sits in the pool room in the back. Who are you at Cheers?

TW: I am wearing pointy shoes, pleated, baggy tweed trousers, a plaid shirt with a button-down collar and a leather tie the width of a shoelace, and I am going to wear it well past the outfit’s best worn by date. In these duds, I lean by the jukebox (which I Googled to be sure actually was in the Cheers bar despite its never being used in an episode) and sneer or sigh at all the selections that do not rise to my lofty expectations. Then one day, Rebecca Howe sidles up with a quarter, Naked Eyes’s “Always Something There to Remind Me,” springs forth, and I am poleaxed by love.

SLC: It's 1984 and the talent agency you work for has asked that you get them the next hot band. It's the morning of the pitch meeting where you have to turn them onto your new discovery. Only thing is, you ain't discovered shit. You're going to have to wing it and buy yourself some time. It's a five-minute pitch, so I figure about two paragraphs should do it.

TW: What exactly constitutes “hot” these days? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a long time, well before I found myself on this particular search for the next hot band, pretty much as long as I’ve been in this industry. More often than not it seems the calculus is some combination of talent and physical attractiveness. There’s been plenty of times when we’ve discovered some marginally, talented and handsome kids and propped them up with our seasoned pros in the studios, right? And this MTV thing, it’s not going away, so doesn’t it make more sense to look for what’s telegenic more than anything else. But I figure somewhere along the way that that’s what everybody else is thinking. And that nobody ever Makes a really big splash following the herd. I’ve gotta take a different path! What is it that we’ve got right beneath our noses? Those very seasoned pros who can play just about anything, just give them the right charts. Guys, you’ve got Earl fucking Palmer out here in LA. The guy played on “Tutti Frutti” for chrissakes. You don’t think he could be part of the next hot thing? Carole Kaye on bass with him! Jim Burton could play guitar, and have Darlene Love—the voice of an angel—do the singing. My god, I’ve got chills. And what a story: these long-time performers in the shadows, now taking center stage! Honestly, can’t beat it. I’d listen to them play “Froggy Went A Courtin’!” Jesus, that’s it! Some revved up versions of songs in the public domain! It's all coming together, right? Nobody’s thinking of something like this. It’ll come out of left field. Catch everybody off guard . . .

Or there’s these handsome kids I know . . .

SLC: Extraterrestrial life forms have finally left the shadows and revealed themselves to us. The only catch is that they will only respond to communication in the form of popular music from the 1980s and 1990s. They visit you as they make rounds, hoping to find out more about the human species. What songs do you choose to communicate your answer and why?

TW: I’m going to stick with the wisdom of three Minnesotans:

“I apologize.”

“Party over, oops out of time.”

“Am I the only one who feels ashamed?”

SLC: You've just been told by a stranger in a bar that your face is offensive. They describe your face extensively and not a single detail matches your actual face. How do you respond?

TW: Politely disagree, then bare my ass and ask him to try again with this subject.

SLC: You're in an alternate universe where instead of presents people give celebrities for Christmas. In fact, it's not even called Christmas; it's called Celebmas. Who do you give? Who is on your list?

TW: ...

Living Celebrities

Bruce Springsteen


Michelle Yeoh

Paul Finebaum (It would have been Nick Saban had he not testified before the Senate)

Hakeem Olajuwon

Dead Celebrities

Cary Grant

Jimi Hendrix

Fredi Washington (Google her)

Groucho Marx

Mae West

Dorothy Parker

Woody Strode

SLC: The dentist accidentally pulled three of your front teeth and you have a reading that evening. You're ashamed and want to give them a good story about how it happened. What's your story, you toothless wonder?

TW: I got so much into Hillbilly Days that I wanted my character to be more genuine.