Monday, February 13, 2012

My First Time: Thomas Balázs

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 Thomas Balázs, author of the new short-story collection Omicron Ceti III.  Kevin Wilson (author of The Family Fang) had this to say about the book: "Though many of the characters in Omicron Ceti III deal with isolation, either falling deeper into themselves or struggling to connect with others, each story is so unique in terms of voice, atmosphere, and narrative that they feel like undiscovered planets, strange new worlds. With this dazzling collection, Thomas Balázs boldly goes into unknown territory, and you should count yourself lucky to follow him wherever he travels."  Balázs teaches creative writing, Western humanities, and literature at The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.  His fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including The North American Review, Soundings East, and The Southern Humanities Review.  His work has also appeared in The Vermont College 25 Anniversary Fiction Anthology and Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology 2004.  A recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, he was awarded the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for best short fiction 2010.  His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and the AWP Intro Journals Project Award.  He has also published scholarly work in The James Joyce Annual.  He lives in Chattanooga with his family.

My First Book

There I was standing before a small crowd of friends, colleagues, students, and other well-wishers with my first book in my hand open to the title story of the collection, about to start reading, when I felt the strain in my eyes.  It’s a generously-sized font, the type in my debut collection, Omicron Ceti III, but I had to call for a pause and fish in my pockets for the little half-spectacles I now try to remember to carry with me and lodge them on the end of my nose before commencing.  I had wanted to be a prodigy, but here I was needing reading glasses at my release party.  They put more than the letters in perspective.

I’ve wanted to be a writer, considered myself a writer, for almost as long as I can remember.  I say almost because I do recall, or think I recall, the moment of vocation, sometime in second grade when I made the connection, when sitting at my wood-and-steel hinged desk—the kind where you lift the top to store books and pencils and crayons in, the kind with a chair permanently attached—when I realized, waking up from a reverie, that some people made a life out of daydreams, that what I wanted to be was not a reindeer, as I first told my parents, but a writer.

I figured I’d get a novel out by the end of sixth grade, if not sooner.  And my teachers encouraged my dreams if not my delusions.  They told me I was a good writer, better-than-average, talented.  My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Rose, went so far as to give me hours alone to write a story for a children’s writing contest.  You were supposed to come up with text for an illustrated book.  I don’t remember much about the book except for a scene in which the little white bunnies played leap-frog in their burrow--that and having to do multiple rewrites because my handwriting was so bad, and then having to wait months for the results, only to find that my entry didn’t even make the top five hundred.  It was my first experience of literary rejection.  I guess you can never start too soon.

Around fourth grade, I plagiarized Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, penning a play called Diamond Rings Are Forever.  Around fifth grade, I wrote a treatment for a comic-book character called “Moleculin, Master of Molecules!” that I mailed to Marvel Comics, but never got an answer on.  And in Junior High I wrote a few chapters of a fantasy novel, whose name I can’t remember, but which was inspired by a combination of Heart’s song “Dream of the Archer” from Little Queen and one of my first experiments with marijuana.  I still have the maps I drew somewhere.

The thing is, though I read a lot, and daydreamed about being a great author at a young age, I wrote comparatively little.  Compared to who?  Oh, I don’t know, Stephen King or the Bronte sisters or any one of those other writers we’ve all read about or heard of or met who began churning out fictions, however childish, as preteens, who filled leather-bound journals to bursting, or published their own 'zines using primitive  ink-roller copiers.  I wrote mostly for school, when we were assigned creative writing projects, and then I always, or almost always, got high marks for writing and imagination, but my spare time was devoted mostly to watching TV, reading the occasional fantasy, sci-fi or horror novel, and for just about all of my adolescence, getting high.

In college, I wrote maybe half a dozen short stories I showed my friends, did an independent creative writing class.  But I wasn’t part of a writer’s community, didn’t participate in the college literary magazine, didn’t read stuff written by other writers my age or, for that matter, by other writers who were still alive, with the exception of Vonnegut.

I wanted to publish a book by the time I got my BA.  I thought I’d write the definitive high-school  novel or maybe a collection of linked short stories telling the truth about suburban teenagers, but it never happened.  Too much assigned reading, too many papers, too much agonizing over the girl who loved me back just enough to make me crazy but not enough to make me happy.

After college, I thought I’d go away and spend a year in Paris, get myself a cheap little place on the left bank, and write the great American novel.  I know, so derivative.  But I couldn’t get my parents to back me, and I didn’t have the guts to just make it happen on my own, and, to be honest, I was a little afraid I’d get there and just spend twelve months drinking café au laits and staring at a blank pad.  So I got a job as a reporter instead, which I loved, and which improved my writing, but which didn’t leave me time for my own work—or at least that’s what I told myself.  And then I got my master’s in literature and went on for a PhD, all the while saying I needed to set myself up with a college-level teaching job, so I’d have time to write, conning myself that the ten years or so of immersing myself in literary theory and the scholarly study of texts would somehow lead to me writing that novel.  And so went my twenties and most of my thirties.

Finally, I got myself into an MFA program and started writing in earnest.  Then, not long after I finished my program, my father passed away, and I was left with a little money I used to quit my various part-time jobs and take a year to finally write that novel.  I went to Israel to research it.  It was to be a kind of spiritual quest novel, but instead of writing it, I actually went on a spiritual quest which led me to leave behind forty years of Christianity and embrace my Semitic roots.  I spent the year I had set aside for writing a novel to learn what it meant to be a Jew instead, and then it was time to figure out a way to make a living, to go back to school yet again.  I was going to get a teaching degree and work at a high school, since that PhD which delayed my writing career for a decade never got me the full-time teaching gig I was after.

And then I got a lucky break and landed a position teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and, because, it was a requirement of my job that I be published, and very much in my career interest to get a book out, I started working more seriously and diligently to complete a collection of short stories.  I hadn’t given up on the novel, but all the novels I ever conceived were epic tomes, and I just didn’t have the time for that.  The tenure clock was ticking.

And then I got lucky yet again and found a publisher and more than a year after getting the acceptance email and after months of back and forths on the galleys, the book came out last week.

It isn’t what I thought my first book would be.  It isn’t an epic.  It’s not even a novel.  It isn’t, I think, destined to be a New York Times bestseller.  Instead, it’s a collection of nine “literary” short stories, arranged as a triptych, that’s gotten some pretty good reviews and that, in the end, I’m proud of—even though I, who until my mid-forties had nearly perfect eyesight, now need glasses to read it.

I still hope to write that novel.  I still have epic dreams.  I also now have a wife and kid, two aging dogs, a needy cat, a 3,000-square-foot, 1954 house in endless need of repairs and improvements, three or more classes a semester to teach, independent studies, advising, a load of departmental administrative duties, committees, committees, and more committees, and a prohibition against working on Saturdays....I wonder what sort of prosthetic device I’ll require to read from my next book.

Photo by Carolyn Drake

1 comment:

  1. Tom's narrative here speaks to who he is as a person and a fiction writer, funny and self-effacing. Most of the stories I hear him read are funny-with-an-edge. Actually, I think it's tough to pull off a novel like that! Another challenge. Ha. Anyway, thanks for the post here David. Can't wait to check out Tom's book now that he's deflowered his literary self.