My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Tom Williams, the author of three books of fiction: The Mimic’s Own Voice, Don't Start Me Talkin’, and the new short story collection, Among The Wild Mulattos and Other Tales. His fiction has appeared in such online and print venues as Boulevard, Barrelhouse, The Collagist, Florida Review, and Cream City Review. Williams is the Chair of the English Department at Morehead State University. He lives in Kentucky with his wife and their two children.
My First Short Story Collection
I blame Raymond Carver. I blame Bobbie Ann Mason. I blame Reginald McKnight, too. And while we’re at it, Lorrie Moore and Sandra Cisneros—if you consider The House on Mango Street, as I did, back in 1990, a collection of stories. Of course, had I not taken a workshop with Lee K. Abbott, I might not have been exposed to so many authors who made their literary debut with short story collections: Buddy Nordan and Steve Yarbrough, Amy Hempel and Deborah Eisenberg, to name a few more. I would have likely succumbed anyway in Houston, where I not only studied with Mary but also James Robison, and, learned, like many of my peers, to overlook or outright ignore novels and memoirs (they weren’t even a thing until Tobias Wolff and Beverly Lowry invented creative nonfiction). Instead, we shared with each other the slim volumes of Rick Bass, Pam Houston, Mary Gaitskill, Dagoberto Gilb, and Carolyn Ferrell.
Later, there were my contemporaries, those I came to know after I graduated from U of H and began my first academic job. The author of three published stories (it was a lot easier to get a job back then) and a creative dissertation yearning to be a collection, I reveled, as a reader, in the accomplishments of Cris Mazza, Jessica Treat, George Singleton, Tom Franklin, Junot Diaz. Kevin Brockmeier, Thomas Glave, Jhumpa Lahiri. ZZ Packer. As the so-called writer I was, however, I read one page with admiration, the next with envy. Some of these people were younger than I. When would my turn come?
It didn’t help either that the past offered so many remarkable debut collections: Goodbye, Columbus. Hue and Cry. The Little Disturbances of Man. Gorilla, My Love. Come Back, Dr. Caligari. Uncle Tom’s Children. In Our Time. Hell, before all those gigantic and ponderous best sellers, James Michener appeared on the scene with a modest collection (and soon Pulitzer Prize winner and source of Broadway and Hollywood musicals), Tales of the South Pacific. And who can overlook those titles that, while not first book length fictions, helped establish their writers in the pantheon? A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Nine Stories. The Magic Barrel. Lost in the Funhouse. Airships, oh my god, Airships. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Distortions. Rock Springs.
I could go on.
But I hope by now the reader has figured it out: somewhere in my early writing life I became consumed by the idea that my first published book of fiction should be, had to be, a collection of short stories. Perhaps it was the sheen of all those Vintage Contemporary covers. There was also the parallel between the record album and the story collection—we still listened to It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Nevermind and Exile in Guyville then. Story collections possessed, frankly, a greater degree of cool than novels. Tom Clancy wrote novels. Lydia Davis wrote stories. Whom did you want to hang with? Furthermore, one assumed novels were always flawed, even a slim and elegant number of the most delicate construction. A short story collection, with eight to a dozen winners (previously published in all the right journals) could near perfection, a state which all we word-worriers were so eager to achieve.
It was with all this and more in my mind that I passed many a bookless year trying to craft my collection. I sent off a copy of my dissertation to the Drue Heinz or Iowa competition sometime shortly after graduation but little came of that, save for the debit from my checking account for the submission fee. Undaunted, I wrestled the next group of stories into into various book length manuscripts, which I submitted to contests. Individual stories saw their way into print, yet I saw little to indicate my talents at short story writing matched my ambition. No runner up or finalist accolades for my collections. No inquiries from smaller presses or agents. For a time I left behind short story writing entirely and drafted a novel (oh, the shame I felt when I walked past my copies of Dubliners and Labyrinths) but its fate mirrored that of my story collections, and I wondered if I might not get a turn, any turn, at all.
Did I ever get close? Let’s say a terrific and uncommonly helpful writer (he’s named somewhere above) once told me he would aid me as best he could to get that debut collection in the world. Imagine I wasted no time in mailing him a copy, which he then praised and said I should send it with his recommendation to one university press who still published fiction. Pretend that press said no and the author recommended another university press, who kept my stories almost a year before offering some faint praise and a big fat no thanks. (At least they returned the manuscript.) If I didn’t think ninety-five percent of the writers my age have a similar story, I’d pull this one out at every AWP and just wait for the free sympathy drinks to come at the hotel bar.
In the end, though, what prevented my publishing a debut short story collection should be counted as a success: I published a novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice, which had once been part of a collection. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little bit sad watching my dream of book publication come at the expense of my dream of a debut story collection. This is ridiculous, of course. There is never a time to say no to a book being published when the publisher’s not a scam artist. I’m so grateful that book came out. I’ve heard from real readers that they feel the same. And I’m honored that my second book, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, a novel (that coincidentally started as a short story), is on bookshelves other than my own.
So forgive me for getting a little lyrical and nostalgic: but the book I hold in my hands, my first published collection of stories, seems to have on every page some emblem of the writer I was when I didn’t know what I was doing, when every story I read entered my imagination in a way that altered what I might do with characters, plots, point of view, scene and setting. Don’t get me wrong: I think I’m a pretty good novelist. I want to write more. My best book might be a novella. But the short story got to me first. It made me want to be the writer I am today.