Welcome to my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, scriptwriters, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with non-fiction author and songwriter Tom Kidd. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Tom. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Tom: I am a journalist by trade and training. For more than 25 years, I’ve been covering the entertainment industry for Music Connection Magazine in Los Angeles where my work still appears under the name Tom Kidd. MC was my first writing assignment. The short story is that, as I was preparing to promote my first record “Kidd Solo” my manager asked me to write a guest commentary, a feature the magazine no longer runs. Word got back to me that they liked my writing style and I was asked to write more. Little by little my performing career ground to a halt but my writing career took off. During the Eighties I ended up making quite a good living writing for both regional and national magazines. The Internet has changed all that. Writing assignments that once paid in three figures now don’t pay at all.
Morgen: Jules Renard is quoted as saying, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money” and it’s true. I’m often approached by online writers who want to write for me for free just to get a website link publicised. I accepted for a while because they were writing about writing but then a few asked for their links to be removed because Google are cracking down on that ‘compliance’ so I’ve stopped accepting content from anyone other than ‘genuine’ authors. It’s a shame because I’m now missing some potentially good content but I do feel better about it. You write non-fiction, how do you decide what to write about?
Tom: Given my journalistic background, non-fiction was something of a no-brainer. The original idea was to simply tell the story of my husband Darrell’s life living with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). The book quickly became something else entirely. My training forced me to try to prove whatever points Darrell’s memories brought up. That led me to look at DID as the public and psychiatric community understood it during the years he was growing up. A chance encounter – actually a mistake on my part – unearthed someone he had been told was deceased. Bertha Merriman let it be known that Darrell’s father wasn’t his father at all. The book’s third story line is our adventure in Arkansas and Tennessee as we tried to unravel what really happened.
Morgen: I’ve not heard of DID. I live in the UK and it’s not something I’ve come across in the news or on TV so it is great that you’re highlighting it. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Tom: This is our first book. However, as Tom Kidd I’ve been published in the afore-mentioned Music Connection, Frontiers, Advocate and all manner of entertainment publications both print and online.
Morgen: You’ve self-published – what lead to you going your own way?
Tom: The short answer is control. So many people have controlled Darrell’s life that he remains adamant that no details be changed in the telling. My background also had its effect. As a publicist I have worked promoting many books over the years and have found out much to my surprise that traditional publishers really don’t seem to do much promotion. They can get books into the big chains but do very little to help get the books back out. Considering there is only one major chain left here in the U.S. – Barnes & Noble – I figured I could handle that one myself.
Morgen: We only really have Waterstones in the UK. We had Borders until recently but that went just before it did in the U.S. Is your book available as an eBook?
Tom: Ours is definitely available as an eBook. If that is how kids these days are getting their information, then that’s the way we need to go.
Morgen: It does seem to be. Did you have choose the title / cover of your book? How important do you think they are?
Tom: The title of “Which One Am I?” changed four times during the writing process. Strangely, with the help of my editor Erika Compton we ended up settling on the title that Darrell had wanted in the first place. The title I favoured was “From Off,” but that proved too regional for the mass market.
I learned early on that today’s readers aren’t interested enough to dig deeply behind the little foreshadowings and vague comments I favour. With most of the U.S. reading at an Eighth Grade level, you have to rub their noses in it. The final title is a big part of it.
The cover I designed myself and that goes back to my having worked with a record company. As vinyl gave way to CDs, artwork shrunk. We had determined at the label that what jumped out at people browsing CDs in a store was the color yellow. The background we used for the cover was simply to take advantage of that knowledge. Also, the big vase on the cover was a last minute addition driven by the size of icons at Amazon. The back cover with all the faces was originally the front cover but we determined that the face shots would be invisible and hence ineffective when shrunk to icon size.
Morgen: What are you working on at the moment / next?
Tom: This book is about Darrell. The next book will be about me. I am beginning research on the subject of gifted adults that is those of us who were determined in high school to be in the upper 4% of intelligence. Much has been written about helping gifted adolescents but very little has been published that would help adults. It will be another psychological / historical / personal mesh similar to what we did with “Which One Am I?” The working title is “Too Smart for our Own Good.”
Morgen: 🙂 I like that. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Tom: Everybody suffers from writer’s block so writing every day is impossible. I find that when I get too worked up and stressed out about what awaits me on my desk that the best thing to do is to go and do something unrelated that gives me a sense of accomplishment. I bake a lot of cookies.
Morgen: Nice. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Tom: I do lots and lots and lots of editing. Then I get frustrated and ask someone else to take a look. It’s really possible to get too much into your own head and the result is confusion. My Achilles’ Heel is writing sentences without set up. For some reason, I tend to think everyone else knows what I’m thinking. Without the clarity of my editors Kathy Jones and Erika Compton plus all the people who read early drafts for me I am sure this book would have made sense to no one but me.
Morgen: Do you have to do much research?
Tom: In a non-fiction work, research is key. That was the principle reason we returned to the South. Somehow we had to find out the truth we weren’t being told. To be fair, Darrell grew up on the Mississippi flood plain where tornadoes, floods and fires are frighteningly common. As it turns out, so is lying. The only way to get as close to the truth as we did was to go to the South and read the non-verbal cues. Another reason we went was to try to uncover paperwork that we had been told was long destroyed. Due to the way the trip turned out, we were unable to visit the libraries, newspaper offices and various legal offices we needed to see.
Morgen: What a shame. Do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Tom: If I don’t have a home for a piece as well as a marketing plan I don’t create it.
Morgen: A good philosophy. Do you pitch for submissions and / or are you commissioned to write?
Tom: I have pitched for submissions but find pitching is a lot like applying for a job. The entity may have posted an opening, but that is nothing more than a formality. They always already have someone in mind. My journalism is all on commission.
Morgen: Have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Tom: Rejection is part of the process. Writers have to keep in mind that the principal function at any book publisher or agent’s office is the same as at any record label: They are there to say no. “Which One Am I?” did get shopped and rejected. Knowing that this is never going to be a best seller because it is too complicated for those reading on an Eighth Grade level, we took those rejections in stride. I can never compete with a Danielle Steele or Bill O’Reilly and neither would I want to.
Morgen: I had to Wikipedia Bill O’Reilly http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_O’Reilly_(political_commentator) but then I don’t follow politics. Do you enter any non-fiction competitions?
Tom: Not yet but I plan to.
Morgen: Let me know how you get on… maybe you could do me a guest blog piece on your experience. Do you have an agent?
Tom: I do not have an agent. Being a very hands-on kind of guy I never hire anyone else to do something I can probably do myself.
Morgen: How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Tom: We are doing all of the marketing ourselves. It’s a bit difficult living as hand-to-mouth as we do, but it is certainly possible. The trick is not to try and do everything at once as much as I’d like to. We keep in mind that books have a much longer shelf life than do music releases. “Which One Am I?” isn’t designed to fall out of fashion or fit with current events. We have all the time in the world.
Morgen: What’s your favourite / least favourite aspect of your writing life? Has anything surprised you?
Tom: I love all of it although I do with the money would come in a bit quicker. The biggest surprise for me was that I had to tell every aspect of what I was trying to say. Having grown up on the classics I originally believed I could imply references and readers would either understand or look them up. It was both surprising and disappointing to find that today’s readers will do neither.
Morgen: Even though we have the internet. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Tom: Just do it. No one else is going to do it for you.
Morgen: I like that. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Tom: Authors Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Mark Twain. In keeping with the book’s theme, I’d likely prepare my oven-fried chicken, sweet potatoes and whatever green vegetable was in season. For dessert, I make a killer apple crumble.
Morgen: Nice. If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Tom: It would be the first day Darrell and I woke up in San Francisco. I had brought him Frosted Flakes and coffee. He was so appreciative and had such a beautiful smile on his face that I decided right then and there that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him. Nothing has changed.
Morgen: Ahh, bless. So you do have that day over and over. Is there a word, phrase or quote you like?
Tom: “I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.” – Lily Tomlin
Morgen: <laughs> She’s great. Do you write fiction?
Tom: Fiction doesn’t interest me much. Non-fiction is much more of a challenge because real life seldom makes for either good comedy or tragedy. To be able to make non-fiction fit the parameters of what people expect is very rewarding.
Morgen: Do you have a favourite aspect of your book, and if it were to be made into a film, who would you have as the leading actor/s?
Tom: We have been negotiating a documentary about “Which One Am I?” since its inception. My favourite “character” in “Which One Am I?” has to be Billy, the 2-year-old who dominates Darrell’s personalities. Actually, I’m partial to all the little ones he has inside: Billy, Jimmie (age 4), Robbie (the 10-year-old musician), and Dot (the gregarious 10-year-old who considers me his Daddy.)
Morgen: 🙂 Do you plot your writing or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Tom: There is really no way to plot real life. We had no idea where this book was taking us when we started and I think that’s reflected in the telling. To plot would have been impossible anyway. Every time we talked with someone new who had known Darrell or unearthed another scrap of official information we’d be hit with a horrible surprise that ultimately would change everything we’d already written.
Morgen: Apart from it being based on real life, what do you think makes your book believable?
Tom: We hope, really hope, that people will identify with Darrell and to some extent with the people inside. Because those inside him represent different things, we can only give so much. Some are people he’s been, others people he wanted to be. Some based themselves on people he knew, others on people he wished he’d known. Some are pure emotion.
Considering that today’s psychiatrists don’t believe in DID itself, our big goal was to make sure that readers would.
Morgen: What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person? Have you ever tried second person?
Tom: Third person is the easiest because it requires no emotional commitment from the author. That is how most of “Which One Am I?” is told though the nature of Darrell’s and my life together ultimately forced the narrative into the first person at its end. First person I found very difficult for a number of reasons. The natural tendency is to want to begin every sentence with “I.” This makes for a very repetitive reading experience and so I wanted to avoid it. The chapter “Tom” was especially difficult because telling the story of what I was feeling in the moment there in the recording studio in the Ozarks forced me to confront my own emotions and self-perceptions. Rarely am I that selfish.
As a song-writer, I have used the second person myriad times. That style is always tricky because the writer has to make assumptions about what the reader will and will not feel or is and is not willing to experience. When I use it, my trick is to write most of the lyric in third person and save a startling admission along the lines of “This was you” for the end.
Morgen: Songwriter… ooh, I’d love a guest blog on that… and maybe an interview sometime on that topic… although I don’t have a questionnaire for that genre but could create one 🙂 Are you involved in anything else writing-related other than actual writing or marketing of your writing?
Tom: I teach when I can get an assignment. California State University Long Beach, where I got my journalism degree and where I was invited back to lecture right afterwards, is supposedly considering have me return next semester depending on whether they can stem their falling enrolment. For a long time I also taught at various adult schools in the area though today they mostly want unpaid volunteers making them worth neither my time nor gasoline.
Morgen: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Tom: I take care of Darrell and our puppy Tigger. I clean. I cook – a lot.
Morgen: I love the name of your dog. I should have called mine that because he bounces a lot when someone comes to the door. Are there any writing-related websites and / or books that you find useful?
Tom: My tendency has always been to look at what others are doing and then do the opposite. It also seems to me that most of the writing resources out there are geared to those wanting to write for the best seller list. I find this approach short-sighted. I’m building a career.
Morgen: Me too. 🙂 Are you on any forums or networking sites? If so, how valuable do you find them?
Tom: Without mentioning any names, I do belong to several forums and networking sites. They are becoming increasingly frustrating. My background in the music business may be coloring my perception of this, but please bear with me. When I dig a little deeper into the comments, everyone on these sites wants the same thing: to be an overnight sensation. No one wants to promote themselves. No one wants to do anything but write another book while the one before it languishes on their desktop. Like teenaged musicians who have made their first demo tape in their garage, they are expecting a book agent to come knocking on their door and make them an overnight sensation. This is not going to happen.
From the boards I learn what they are doing – or failing to do – and then do the opposite.
Morgen: Authors doing nothing else but touting their books do get swiftly de-followed… and then wonder why. It should never be more than 10% of the conversation, which is why my interviews (etc) are always more about the author than the book. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Tom: The future can be bright if the writer learns how to use the tools available to promote themselves. Right now, people take their news from (in order) TV, Internet, radio and newspapers. That may change and the writer has to be able to keep up. If keeping up proves impossible, the writer needs to hire someone who does know about what’s happening today.
Morgen: Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Tom: Good Lord, Morgen! If this doesn’t cover everything I don’t know what else I could add.
Morgen: <laughs> I’m fairly thoroughm aren’t I? Is there anything you’d like to ask me?
Tom: No, but I do want to thank you for offering this valuable outlet.
Morgen: You’re so welcome. Thank you for joining me today, and my regards to Darrell and Tigger.
I then invited Tom to include an extract of his writing…
It was a shame what Carolyn did to that man. It was bad enough that she went and fooled around on R.D., but then she listened to Bertha Merriman and named that baby of hers after that no good James Darrell Jackson! What would people say? They would think R.D. was less than a man, that’s what they’d say. That is, if they ever found out the truth. R.D. wasn’t about to let anybody know, not while he was alive and sure not while that boy was still breathing.
As far as anybody knew – as far as he knew – James Darrell Williams was the youngest of five. The Williams family always called him James, a name he came to detest as it was usually followed by an accusation of something he was supposed to have done. After he got big enough and far enough away from his tormentors, he’d always call himself Darrell.
Years would pass before anybody would tell him who his father was. At the time of Darrell’s birth, R.D. was making what living he could working odd jobs for his good friend and next door neighbor Gene Merriman. Only a teen himself, R.D. worked in the rice fields until Gene took him under his wing and taught him to drive a bulldozer. Until her accident, Darrell’s mother Carolyn worked in one of the small town’s factories making shirts.
The Williams were barely adults when they got together. Richard Williams, who always called himself R.D., was just 17. That’s him in the photos on Darrell’s bookcase, all sinew and swagger. With his father’s farm fanning out behind him, the dark-haired youth stares down the camera, daring it to show that he wouldn’t be the world’s best husband and father if given half the chance. He is every inch the proud young man.
Off his shoulder is Carolyn. She was just 14 when they hooked up, not nearly as self-assured as R.D., but still trying to portray the proper lady in a pleated skirt fashionable for its place if not its time. Change her hair from brown to blond and she’d look just like she did the day she died.
And a synopsis…
There are at least 16 personalities inside James Darrell Williams. But who is he really? And why? “Which One Am I?” is a singular story about universal truths, horrors and grace. Setting their work apart from other memoirs, the authors explore the nature of family and how Darrell – and all of us — are shaped by culture, history and geography. After two years of research, Darrell and his partner Thomas Smith dug deeply into family secrets, Southern culture and Darrell’s own psyche to explore portrayals of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) in popular culture and the psychiatric community, linking them with the events that made Darrell the man he is.
After spending more than 20 years as a journalist, publicist and educator, something told Thomas Smith it was time for a change. Though he searched for something to keep himself busy in my middle years, it seemed like doors in the professional world were closed. In 2008, when Tom met James Darrell Williams in a Long Beach bar, he immediately knew this kind and thoughtful man would have an effect on his personal life. There was no way of knowing that Darrell would change Tom’s professional life as well. Darrell wanted someone to tell his life story, about what it was really like growing up with multiple personalities. As a music reporter, Tom was unfazed, having become used to people changing personalities immediately after they left the stage. As Tom & Darrell came to better know each other, Tom realized what Darrell had experienced growing up with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) was a story the rest of the world needed to hear. Tom & Darrell live peacefully with all the ‘kids’ inside Darrell and a Miniature Pinscher, Tigger, in Long Beach, California.
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