I like to tell myself that I am basing my characters on people I know, and never on just me or on stock, literary types. This is the only way to get variety. Walter Terry, the main character of my novel Apocalypse TV, is based on a friend of mine who is very tall, huge, gentle, and very articulate and smart. But I also know that his moodiness, his inner thought and ideas, come from me. I know that his obsessions—even his tendency to be obsessive—all come from me.
As a contrast, Walter’s sister Melissa seems completely other than me—I enjoyed listening to the way that she talks down to Walter. A few of the other characters are based on fighting stereotypes of one kind or another. Brittney, on the reality show, starts out being eye candy, but it becomes apparent rather quickly that she’s bright and longs for an authentic relationship with God. She’s just been hurt—and I guess that is a lot like me.
I also know that my experiences become what happens to my characters, although I look for them to often react differently from the way I did.
What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
As an introvert, I am good at hiding. But two things—in eighth grade, when I knew two guitar chords, I played in a band called The Wormstretchers at a school dance. Second, my most quirky writing got published four years ago in a small online journal, The Oddville Press. My story, “Subtleman Loses his Day Job, an Origin Story,” concerns a wimpy divorced guy in his early thirties who believes that his super power is being subtle.
When did you first discover that you were a writer?
I think I first learned this in the fourth grade, in 1965, when I heard my father typing in the basement—he was a newspaper reporter. The next day, I went to the basement, saw his papers and notes lying around the Smith-Corona, and I started typing a story. Then I read it to my father, and he said, “That’s good. It reminds me a little bit in one part of Mark Twain. Now, rewrite it.” I was so encouraged that I wrote a bunch of other stories that year, most of them exaggerated accounts of toboggan rides or satires based on my friends.
How wonderful to have parental support at a young age. Tell us the range of the kinds of books you enjoy reading.
I began, I suppose like many people, by reading fantasy in junior high and in high school. But I have also enjoyed a great number of literary novels. I read C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Ray Bradbury in high school, then read too much Hemingway in early college. Then, my junior year of college, as an English major, I discovered Dostoyevski, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor. Today, I just finished reading a murder mystery by Daniel Taylor, and I also appreciate satire. I’ve been reading a lot of George Saunder’s work lately. The Tenth of December, The Braindead Megaphone, and
in the Bardo
are all incredible works of real insight. Marilyn Robinson’s Lincoln Gilead
is wonderful, and I like the short stories of Sherman Alexie. I recently read a
short novel by Neil Gaiman, but it really wasn’t for me. Today I teach a course
in nonfiction, so I try to find good memoir and nonfiction that’s not
self-help. Oh, and I always am open to reading great poetry. Susan Delaney
Spear’s Beyond All Bearing has been a
very helpful read for me at this time.
How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
I think that any art that slows me down and makes me pay attention is very important. I like to pay attention. Music helps with this, and I play a lot of it—Jackson Browne, classical music, some jazz. I play the guitar and the bass on our church worship team, and that gets me through every week. But I also have found over the last nine months since we lost my youngest son (he took his own life) that writing is keeping me from despairing. I’ve been keeping a journal of my son and my grief and trying to remember as much as I can. This has helped me in some ways to move forward a little. Also, I do read the Bible, but since losing my son, the scriptures that speak to me now are not the ones that would have spoken to me before. People try to help me by quoting scripture, but the verses they quote are actually hurtful and alienating, because they show that they don’t understand that I’m hurting, and the verse is meant to motivate me to get up and quit moping. The verses almost come off as accusations that I’m lacking in faith. My wife and I are discovering in this year of very hard loss that many in our church, at least, don’t understand grief or how to help people to work through loss. People in church can tend sometimes to be a bit too triumphal.
That’s true. I’m so thankful that our church has a grief program that helps those who’ve lost loved ones. How do you choose your characters’ names?
Sometimes, as with Walter Terry, the narrative POV character of my first novel, the name just appears. At other times, I’ve discovered a character’s name through the family they grew up in. For example, a character I’m writing about in my new novel went through two different names before I realized that his father had named him Clement, after the second century church father. He’s awkward with that name because he’s now a Buddhist, but that’s his name. Names, I’ve noticed as a teacher, often follow trends. I’m a baby boomer and grew up with at least two Debbie’s or Deborah’s in every class from first grade to college. Today, as a teacher, I’ve met many Kristin’s and Kaitlin’s or versions of that name. I’ve noticed that Kaitlin seems to have replaced Catherine, which was my sister’s name, and it’s a name I love. Today I meet many Chloe’s and Sean’s. Sometimes it helps to have read a lot and to think about names in terms of ethnicity, without going into stereotypes.
What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
I was proud of finishing my Ph.D. in composition and then of getting a full-time job as a teacher. But today I am very proud of the fact that I have become a competent teacher who can help other writers, because I grew up introverted and never thought I’d be able to speak clearly in front of a room full of people.
That’s wonderful. If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
I would be a cat, because although I am standoffish and introverted, I also love to be helpful and belong, even if at something of a distance. Also, I’m nocturnal and would love to sleep all day.
What is your favorite food?
My grandmother’s chicken and spaghetti. My mother’s parents were Calabrian (Southern Italian), and I grew up with this wonderful cooking, which we lost when my grandparents were murdered in 1974.
Wow! You’ve gone through a lot. What is the problem with writing that was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
Descriptive writing has always been a challenge to me. I’ve always found dialogue easy to write because I like to listen to the way people talk, and I got some training for that in a playwriting class I took in college. But describing a character or a setting in a few well-chosen images—that’s really hard. I’ve been overcoming this difficulty by practicing it more and by studying other writers, noticing, for example, how Neil Gaiman and some other writers do this. This is helping.
Apocalypse TV is a story about Walter Terry, who is an English professor but who is also a little naïve, and who goes on a reality TV show because he has been told it will be religious and serious, and he will be influential on it. The show follows Walter and a group of contestants as they travel across the country, face challenges, and try to talk to people about God. I first got the idea from a British reality TV show that aired in 2007 and was like this. Popular, religious, and academic culture mix, and there is some satire and engagement with history. The theme of guns also enters immediately on page one, and I tried to honor the Chekov rule (If a gun appears on page one, it must be used in the story). The narrative shows Walter Terry getting in over his head in the filming of the reality show, and as guns factor in to the story more and more as they travel in America, the story becomes something of a mystery—Who shot Walter?
Please give us the first page of the book.
Minutes before his sister texted that she had moved their father to a hospice, Walter Terry listened behind half-empty rows of chairs in the Haskins Room as the new writer-in-residence read from her work. It was an early draft, she had announced, and it concerned a bride-to-be hunting elk in
, a part of the
country Walter had never seen. And it came to him with sudden finality: he
could never write a great American novel; he had never shot a gun. Wyoming
Nothing was more American. Faulkner, Hemingway certainly, both knew guns. And Walter had never felt one kick back and ruin his shoulder. He had never had the gunpowder residue spotting his hands, his face, and his clothes.
Those details? They came from TV.
The writer had to feel it, not just hear about it.
His colleague’s writing signaled that she knew guns, and Walter had never shot a beer can. He couldn’t tell a Smith and Wesson from a Remington. He wouldn’t know if they were names for handguns or rifles. Sure, he could Google them. But how many others wouldn’t have to?
Interesting. How can readers find you on the Internet?
My website is at http://thomasallbaugh.com , where readers can sign up for my newsletter. And I have an Amazon author page.
Thank you, Thomas, for sharing this book with me and my blog readers.
Readers, here are links to the book.Apocalypse TV - Paperback
Apocalypse TV - Kindle
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