Thomas Wictor: Interviewing A Bass Journalist Story
An odd, curious thing occurred in our little world of bass about a year and a half ago. As most of you know, the popular website Talkbass.com is a hot spot for low-enders to visit and write about what they do, who they like, and talk shop. One day in March 2012 I happened to stop in there for a look around and noticed an interesting thread started by someone with the forum name “Arthritic_Tom”. It was titled “Interviewing Bassist Stories”, and that was enough of an attention grabber to reel me in.
Though only a few days old, the thread had already become several pages long with responses from intrigued readers. Perusing the posts, it became apparent that Arthritic Tom was actually former music journalist Thomas Wictor, who wrote for Bass Player magazine for nearly a decade beginning in the mid 90’s. His posts on Talkbass were stories about the odd characters and frequently bizarre situations he encountered while interviewing bassists, both famous and otherwise, for BP. Wictor was sharing a fascinating inside peak at his wild ride as a writer in Los Angeles during the music industry’s bloated heyday. Cleverly, he didn’t reveal the names of any of the industry people or bass players on the forum (well, except for a few of his heroes) — thereby fueling an instant guessing game among visitors as to who his stories were referring to.
Wictor’s own personal story unfolded as well within the thread. We learned that his life at Bass Player ended on such a sour note that he quit the business altogether, and many of the interviews he wrote during his last years at the magazine were never even published. Tom was quick to identify and compliment the BP editors who helped him on his way up (specifically Jim Roberts and Karl Coryat), but made no secret about his contempt for those who he felt caused his demise– most notably the third and fourth editors he worked under during his tenure. Again, he didn’t name names.
His health had fallen apart in the years since quitting the magazine, as he struggled with a rare condition called Meniere’s disease, likely triggered in part by years of pent-up rage and stress. The disease, which compromised his hearing and balance, kept him from living any real kind of normal life. To make matters worse, due to osteoarthritis he could no longer play bass without unbearable pain, and had to put his instrument down permanently. Yet, there was not an ounce of self-pity to be found in his posts. Arthritic Tom caught the attention of many, but it was more than just the interview stories that brought repeat visitors. Wictor’s brilliant writing style and outlandish sense of humor kept the ball rolling. In a single month, after nearly 140,000 views, the hyperactive thread was bursting data at the seams and was forced closed after a thousand reader posts. It gave way to “Interviewing Bassist Stories” parts 2 and 3 on the Talkbass forum– which pulled in another 100,000 views.
In the course of the year-long back and forth between Tom and his newly found audience, it was suggested by several forum members that he should write a book about his whole music journalism ordeal. “I would buy a magazine that was nothing but your stories axed from Bass Player,” wrote one reader. “That is, without question, the best thing anyone has ever said to me,” responded Tom. “Bless you.” After some initial hesitation, he took their advice, and with the help of his Talkbass popularity he landed a book deal. In less than a year after he first appeared from out of nowhere on the forum, Wictor’s book Ghosts And Balyhoo: Memoirs Of A Failed L.A. Music Journalist was released. It seemed that Tom’s fateful career at BP would actually have a fairy tale ending, that his work as a music journalist would finally be recognized by the public, and that his readers would get a whole bookful more of juicy stories about bass-playing characters and music industry zombies. A win-win for all. Well… not so fast.
“I was the most haunted person you could ever meet,” writes Tom in the first line of his book. “This memoir is about my ten years as a music journalist in Los Angeles, my obsessive quest to ‘help’ one of the finest musicians I’ve ever met, and my inability to move beyond a failed relationship with a woman I’ll call Carmen.” And so began Thomas Wictor’s tale of his own life. Did the book fall into the “too much info” category? It was certainly more than his Talkbass audience had expected. Why should we care about the life story of an unknown music journalist? Why was Wictor even telling it to us? To make matters even stranger, a full seven chapters of the book contained nothing but words spoken by former Frank Zappa bassist Scott Thunes, whose path in life Tom seemed to view as a reflection of his own.
Not one to pass up an opportunity, I read the book and asked Tom for an interview. He was quick to oblige, and offered a great little bit of advice: “Take off the kid gloves. Let’s have fun with it.” And so I did, and just as quickly I offered him my opinion of Ghosts: brilliantly written, hilarious, entertaining, intriguing, sad, enlightening, creepy, insightful, self-serving. The kid gloves were off. Tom was great throughout, giving me honest and thoughtful answers, allowing me to poke away at the surface. He re-thought several of his answers, but suggested I feel free to use what want. I also needed to address one particularly disturbing section of the book with him; it was the one instance in our interview in which he was evasive, offering metaphor rather than a direct answer to a direct question. Still, I figured, he didn’t have to give me an interview at all, and so I accepted his response on its own terms and didn’t challenge him on his response. I’ll leave it to those who read this to decide for themselves.
Which finally brings me to my own little bit of advice to all who are within eyeshot: read Ghosts And Ballyhoo. It just may be one of the best books you’ve ever read. If you allow Tom’s world into your world, his words will linger in your consciousness long after you’ve finished his memoir, and you’ll be treated to a 280-page adventure with one of the funniest motherfuckers you’ll ever encounter. Yes, he’s a controlling guy, at times annoyingly so; you’ll occasionally feel that you’ve been kidnapped and forced to watch Wictor get the final word with some of those he has battled with along the way. But the book will suck you into his stranger-in-a-strange-land journey, replete with Stephen Crane poetry, Scott Thunes unedited, brushes with death, a reincarnated cat, a stalker, enough dysfunctional characters to fill a couple of lifetimes, and certainly a bunch of life lessons learned the hard way. Oh, and by the way you’ll discover why he’s the world’s only expert on World War I flamethrowers.
As you find yourself laughing out loud on one page and getting a lump in your throat on the next, you’ll come to the same conclusion I did: Thomas Wictor is a great writer. Calling Wictor a bass journalist is kind of like calling Picasso a cartoonist; Tom was once, and Pablo was once, but of course that was never their real calling.
In your book you refer to yourself not only as “a failed music journalist”, but also a failure in more than twenty other fields. What is your definition of a success?
These days I think of success purely in terms of being the best person you can possibly be, meaning you have empathy for others and you try to keep growing, learning, and bettering yourself. For me, learning is the key. Learning seems to automatically improve you as a person, so I try to go to bed knowing more each night than I knew in the morning. For example, RSS feeds. I just learned about them a couple days ago. Website-wise, I was stuck in 2003. Learning about RSS feeds allowed me to understand that I’d been unfair to my Website designers out of ignorance, so I apologized to them.
Has your health improved or worsened since the completion of the book? What is your current prognosis?
It’s worsened. Meniere’s disease can either spontaneously disappear or continue to erode you. Stress is a major factor. The death of my father and my mother’s battle with cancer have taken their toll. But I’m still happy, and I still look forward to each day. I wouldn’t wish Meniere’s on anyone. (Who am I kidding? Lots of people deserve Meniere’s disease). But contracting it was the only way I could stop being angry and learn to appreciate the worthwhile things in life. Meniere’s made me grateful for what’s good, so in my case getting the disease was worth it.
During your tenure at Bass Player, were writers privy to the politics of the mag regarding the frequent changing of editors? For example, had you heard about any particular reason why Richard Johnston took over as editor in the late 90’s, or why Bill Leigh replaced him in 2001?
Oh, yes! We were all a bunch of sneaky little gossips. I was privy to a heck of a lot that I can’t disclose because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. I also happened to be sitting in offices when important phone calls were received, illustrating just how political the entire process was and how I was utterly unsuited for the job. But I was too thickheaded to realize it at the time. My main weakness has been denial. I no longer suffer from it, but that’s only because my existence is now extremely Spartan. I write, talk to my brother Tim, help Mom when I can, engage in e-mail conversations with friends, and go to doctors. And watch DVDs! Not much to deny about any of that.
Is there a list available anywhere of all the articles you had published in BP? If not, will you make one available?
I don’t have such a list. In fact, I’d blocked out so much of that period that I’d forgotten who I’d interviewed and in which issue the interview appeared. For example, I was absolutely positive that my Curt Smith interview had been published, but it wasn’t. I also couldn’t remember when my Geezer Butler interview appeared. That was because they took two years to publish it. The original interview was about Geezer’s brilliant solo album Black Science, but they used it when Black Sabbath reunited. The article had nothing to do with Black Sabbath. I still feel sick about that.
I’d tucked away all the paper correspondence from that period, but–having once been a very histrionic person–I’d deleted all the e-mails. Brian Fox has a database of all my articles. He helped me reconstruct my years at Bass Player. I never asked him for the list, though. In fact, now that you mention it, I realize that it didn’t even occur to me. Strange. But as I write this, I’m still not interested in seeing a list. It seems like three hundred years ago. I’m so different from the person who did those interviews that I don’t know him at all. He sort of grosses me out, to be frank.
Were you a regular visitor to Talkbass.com before you registered and began posting last year? What drew you to the site?
No. I signed up specifically to post stories of my failed career. I thought I’d post about eight, and I’d get a feeble cheer, like in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail when Terry Gilliam’s knights eat Robin’s minstrels: “And there was much rejoicing.” The site was great and it had a section where I could tell my handful of stories, so I signed up and intended to just post a couple of times and then… do something. I had no idea. But I never planned to write a book about my failed career. It literally never entered my mind.
The Talkbass reaction to your “Interviewing Bassist Stories” thread was obviously incredible. Folks everywhere flocked to it– for the bassist stories, the guessing games, your insightful writing and your wonderfully detached take on it all.
It was a total shock. I honestly had no idea that this would happen. I still can’t quite believe it. I’m deeply grateful that so many people were able to see the potential that I couldn’t. Like my brother Tim, they convinced me that there was value in my work. I didn’t see it at all, so I grudgingly did what Tim and the Talkbass readers asked me to do. It’s all their idea. I can’t take credit for any of it.
It was suggested, in the course of those threads, that you should write a book so that Talkbass readers could get more of all of that. You did, and they did get more. Not so expected was a writer seemingly looking to communicate with the love of his life, and needing her (and others) to read his perspective on their failed love affair. At what point did you make the decision to make the book a memoir, with the “Carmen” relationship as a main theme? Was she your primary reason for writing the book?
Yes. The main theme is my relationship with Carmen. Although the book is ostensibly about my failed career in music journalism, I had to write about Carmen in order to banish the pain I still felt twenty years after our relationship ended. I tried multiple times to move beyond that relationship, but eventually I had to admit to myself that it wasn’t possible. By articulating such deeply personal thoughts–which I’d never really done before–I was able to finally accept that she wasn’t coming back.
Part of me always thought that someday we’d get back together. Contacting her, getting her blessings, and writing the book allowed me to finally exorcise the Cardinal Ghost, the one that haunted me without letup. I thought of her literally all the time because being with her was the only period of my life during which I was happy, until October 7, 2011, when I was diagnosed with Meniere’s disease. Writing the book ended the pain I felt over losing her, so it served its purpose. The three themes of the memoir–my failed career, Carmen, and how I overcame my chronic rage–can’t be separated. They’re three parts of a whole.
The companion volumes are a novel titled Chasing the Last Whale and Hallucinabulia: the Dream Diary of an Unintended Solitarian. Both share the theme of the memoir: overcoming a deeply traumatic past by transforming rage over loss into gratitude for what once was. The novel is fiction, and the diary is based on flights of fancy: dreams. Therefore, I have absolute freedom to write whatever I want and I have plausible deniability.
The comedian Jon Stewart is famous for his “clown nose on, clown nose off” routine. If he says something deeply felt that angers others, his reply is, “Hey, I’m just a comedian!” But he’s still managed to make points about things he finds important. By writing a novel and publishing a dream diary, I can say, “Hey, it’s just fiction and dreams!” The best way to describe Whale and Hallucinabulia is that they’re supercharged sequels to the memoir. Although all three volumes of the trilogy can stand on their own, each complements the other two in terms of character development and back-story. Or maybe not. Hey, it’s just fiction and dreams!
Regarding the events in your life: is your ability for recall as astonishing as it seems, or you have been keeping a diary for most of your life? Or both?
I’ve been blessed-cursed with near perfect recall. I remember events as though they happened yesterday. With the Internet, I can check dates, and I’ve learned that I remember conversations I had with my parents when I was three. In the case of Ghosts and Ballyhoo, I’d written a huge, pathetic, monstrously amateurish novel that was laughed out of every literary agent’s office in the nation. Being a drama queen, I was going to throw away the 200,000-word behemoth, along with the tapes and notes I made. Tim bluntly told me that doing so would be stupid. Since I don’t want to disappoint him, I saved it all for fourteen years, and when I decided to write the memoir, most of it was already on paper. I filled in the blanks from memory.
In the section “Forbidden Knowledge” you write, “I had a conversation with Carmen that destroyed my relationship,” and you tell her of a formative experience you had. Based on what you’ve written, including the mention of your interest in Alice Miller’s books in a later chapter, I’m sensing– perhaps incorrectly– that you told Carmen of some form of child abuse experience you suffered early in life. You consider this experience, whatever it was, to be “central to your character”. Can you reveal more about this experience that “defines you”?
Although I understand the desire of people to know more and I’m not in the least offended by the question, I’ll have to gracefully decline to say anything else about it. Discussing my past has brought me nothing but grief, including stalkers, psychos, and disgust from people I thought were my friends. It presses buttons that people don’t even know they have. Only one layperson–in this case meaning someone not in the psychiatric or ecclesiastic fields–didn’t change after I described my formative experiences. That person is Scott Thunes. He thanked me for confiding in him, and our relationship remained as bawdy, bizarre, and irreverent as before. He didn’t treat me any differently. The letter he wrote in response allowed me to see things in a way I never had before, despite the fact that I’ve been studying this for over twenty years. Scott is a man of phenomenal character and insight. But as you pointed out, discussing my past cost me the relationship that meant the world to me. I don’t blame Carmen for driving me away, because she didn’t sign up for what she got. I’ve learned the hard way that some things are better left unsaid.
Why do you suppose that people tend to repeat destructive patterns of behavior?
Two reasons: Orientation and denial. You do what you were trained to do, and then you deny the disastrous outcomes. That was why I stayed at Bass Player long after my editor made it as clear as he could that my services were no longer required. There’s a great scene in the TV show Wings, in which a psychiatrist is talking to one of the characters about how one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different response each time. In the background, the mechanic Lowell is working on something and he gets an electric shock. “Ow!” he says. “Let’s try that again.” Zap. “Ow! Let’s try that again.” Zap. “Ow! Let’s try that again.” Though I’ve made gigantic strides, I’ll never fully overcome my orientation. What normal people do is react. What I have to do is first think and then adapt my initial reaction. I can do it really fast now, and–most importantly–I’m fully aware that my instinct is garbage. I have no problem admitting that I’m a wreck. Once you can make that admission, you can take the steps needed to try and fix the problem.
On February 23, 2013, my father died of bone cancer that he knew about for almost two years but denied. He didn’t tell us about the gigantic mass in his abdomen and he didn’t do anything about it. We learned of it on January 16, 2013, when he admitted that he was in a lot of pain. They did a biopsy and found that the mass was malignant. We took him to City of Hope for tests, and when they showed him that the cancer had spread to his spine, kidneys, and colon, he lost his mind in less than a day. He went crazy from terror. He’d told me that until he was seventy-five, he honestly thought he’d live forever. When he was eighty-two, he had to have an operation on a tendon in his hand, and he was worried about blood loss. He asked me if I could donate blood for him, and I told him that I’m permanently barred from donating blood because I lived in Europe for six years in the 1980s. I’m a risk for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human equivalent of mad cow disease. Dad got very agitated and started worrying that he’d get Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease if they gave him a transfusion. I said, “Well, you don’t need to worry, because it has a forty-year incubation period.” Mom–who was also eighty-two at the time–laughed, but Dad’s face fell and he said, “Are you saying I won’t be here in forty years?” I’d tried to make a joke, but I upset him, because he expected to live to be 122 years old and just keep going. He smoked five packs of cigarettes and drank up to two fifths of scotch a day, lived on a diet of cheese and bacon, and never exercised, not once giving a moment’s thought to what it might be doing to him. When he ended up in a hospice with terminal cancer, he couldn’t believe it was actually happening. To escape it, he went into a coma and died in a matter hours. The hospice staff had never seen anybody die so quickly. I think he died of shock.
Back to the Bass Player days: When you use the term “killed articles”, I assume that means you wrote entire pieces that were not published, and you were not paid for. Is that correct?
Yes. More importantly, I asked musicians to give me irreplaceable moments of their lives, and then the articles were simply thrown away without explanation. It was a completely inhumane thing to do to busy artists, and it eroded the magazine’s credibility. Why talk to a publication if you can’t be sure the article will even be published? It also destroyed my own credibility. I was given a sort of Opposite Midas Touch: Everything I did turned to crap. I was the guy whose pieces never got published.
When interviewing bassists, how did you find the balance between what you wanted to know about that person, and what you thought BP readers would want to know about them?
When Jim Roberts and Karl Coryat were the editors, there was no distinction between what I wanted to know and what the readers would want to know. Jim and Karl understood that most people didn’t just want to read about strings and amp settings. After Karl was replaced, my pieces were edited so that anything that wasn’t about the bass was removed. I still asked what I wanted to ask, but it never made it into print.
Would you happen to know how big a circulation BP had during its heyday?
I think I heard that the number of subscribers was in the mid tens of thousands. Total circulation was much larger, though.
Were there other BP writers whose work you admired while you were there?
Karl Coryat, Jim Roberts, Chris Jisi, Scott Malandrone, Greg Isola, and Bill Leigh. Bryan Beller is my favorite, though. He’s my official hands, you know.
For you, what is the most satisfying part of the writing process–whether it be books, articles, etc?
Finding the perfect phrase to express deeply complex thoughts. And trying to make people laugh. The doctor who diagnosed me with Meniere’s disease told me that he felt bad laughing when he read Ghosts, so I had to reassure him that the point of the book was to entertain. Chasing the Last Whale is a novel about love and suicide, but it’s very, very funny. Though Hallucinabulia is mostly filled with nightmares, most of them are really funny. It’s possible to write about pain–even tragedy–and make it funny. The secret is to poke fun at your own pain and tragedy, not others’.
Did you have other working titles for Ghosts And Ballyhoo?
Yes, but they’re too embarrassing to mention.
Let’s take money out of the equation, and say you were wealthy enough to have never needed to work. Would you have pursued music journalism as a hobby?
Absolutely! I loved it. I’d still rather do it than write books. I’m not a natural writer, but I was a natural interviewer. It was performance art, and the smartest interview subjects–Gene Simmons, Scott Thunes, Bryan Beller, Andy West, John Taylor–got it. What we did was both real and contrived. It wasn’t fake, but it wasn’t this heavy, important, thudding ego contest where each side is trying to somehow get the better of the other. It was cooperation. I loved the moment when they caught on, and then we could talk about anything without it being dangerous for either of us. They knew I wouldn’t screw them, and I knew they’d give me a good interview. It was great.
Let’s discuss Scott Thunes. You wrote that you weren’t much of a Zappa fan prior to the Thunes era; did your initial impression of his ability as a bassist come more from his own originality as a player, or more from his ability to perform Zappa’s complex music (which was new to you at the time)?
Scott’s great skill is his ability to accompany. He’s by no means a technical player, as he himself will be the first to admit. I’d never heard such emotion coming out of a bass. Don’t get me wrong: He’s got chops. But what drew me to him was the feeling he put into it. He’s like Suzanne Vega, Dianna Krall, and Rósín Murphy. You couldn’t call them “great” singers, but they’re brilliant singers. They express so much with their instruments. I’d never heard anyone play the bass like Scott. I was hooked from the first time I heard him.
I do not understand your years-long need for Thunes to know the giant pedestal you put him on. Does that need have more to do with you or him?
Me. Entirely me. By “saving” Scott–getting him back into music–I’d be saving a whole bunch of other people. Not really, of course. It took me years to realize that he doesn’t need saving. Mostly it was my obsession with righting wrongs and fighting injustice that compelled me to try and “help” him. One bedrock principle of my life now is that I must accept people on their terms, not mine. If it bothers me too much that a giant like Scott Thunes chooses not to play, I must either accept it or walk away. I have no right to try and force him to do something that is actually for my benefit, not his. It’s funny that you ask that question, because I had a dream about Scott that is in Hallucinabulia. It addresses this precise issue, of putting him on a pedestal. My friend Joe Cady–one of the smartest people in the world–interpreted the dream for me. It has probably the most embarrassing imagery I’ll ever publish about myself. Here’s a teaser: In the dream, I was Jennifer Love Hewitt, the young, totally hot version.
What are your thoughts on this Frank Zappa quote: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
Obviously that’s a nonsensical sentiment. Zappa talked to music journalists nonstop. All music journalists can write, and people buying the magazines or now going to the Websites can read. Zappa and I just have different approaches. I don’t read reviews of my work, and I won’t read any interview I give or articles about me. The way I look at it, this is your art project, so you’re free to do with it what you want. What interests me is the interviewing process, the performance-art aspect. I never reread the interviews I did of others, so I won’t be reading any interviews I give. Also, it’s embarrassing. My perfect solution would be to write books and have Scott Thunes promote them for me. He loves giving interviews.
Today, Sandpiper Publicity accepted me as a client after the president did something unheard of in the publicity world: He read my book. The campaign they have planned is daunting and ambitious, requiring me to talk about myself for at least three months. I wish I could have Scott do it for me. But me having to do this is part of the game, so I would never say the sort of thing Zappa said about music journalists. My sense is he just didn’t like the loss of control. I’m not interested in controlling how you or anybody else presents me. And if you read my dream diary, you’ll see that I don’t even care how I present myself. This is all just a blast for me. Getting angry at interviewers would be monumentally ungrateful. The only reason you’re interviewing me is because of what I did, not who I am. So thanks for your interest.
What does it feel like to have written your memoir? It’s something most people will obviously never experience.
Weird! Who the heck am I to have written a memoir? It’s like they went out on the street and handed a publishing contract to the first person they met. My goal was to be a music journalist and maybe–just maybe–a novelist. Mom always used to say, “You should write your life story,” and I’d say, “What on earth for?” And then she’d get mad at me. This is freaky to the point of being scary, like it’s a breakdown of the natural order. It was utterly unplanned and accidental. All my life, I’ve been plagued by a sense of illegitimacy and fraudulence. I still have it, but it no longer bothers me. It’s how codeine works: It doesn’t make you not feel the pain. Instead, it makes you not care about the pain. I still have a sense of illegitimacy and fraudulence. I keep expecting e-mails from my publisher or now my publicist telling me they’ve changed their minds and are dumping me. I’ll give you a preview of Hallucinabulia. These are the sorts of dreams I have:
March 15, 2013
As I stood at a podium and gave a reading for Ghosts and Ballyhoo, I broke wind continually and deafeningly. It sounded like a string of cannon shots in the large auditorium. I knew I should leave the stage, but I couldn’t. Flop sweat poured out of me, and the audience laughed, groaned, or palmed their faces.
When each trembling, rumbling eruption built in my gut, I tried desperately to hold it in. This seemed to make the explosion even more violent. Some of my discharges went on for twenty seconds. I shouted to make myself heard over my own rear end.
People in the audience were hysterical–weeping and breathless, holding their middles, begging me to stop.
In reply, I blew off seat of my pants. It flew across the stage and hit the wall behind me, leaving my buttocks exposed. I felt cool air wafting over them as I thought of the lyrics to the song “The Music Goes Round and Round.”
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
Jettisoning the rage that crippled me for my entire life. No question. Also learning to be grateful for every dollop, jot, tittle, and microsecond of beauty.
Excuse my ignorance: tell me more about the poetry in the book. When were these verses written? How did you pick the ones to include in the book?
All the poetry is the work of Stephen Crane (1871-1900). Nobody knows when Crane wrote the poems, but they were first published in 1926, in two anthologies titled The Black Riders and Other Lines and War is Kind. Don’t feel ignorant; Crane’s poetry has received almost no scholarly attention. I didn’t know about his poems until I accidentally ran across them on a Website and was gobsmacked. The poems I chose are each chapter of the memoir distilled down into one short, brilliant burst of art. Reading the poems at the beginning of each chapter will tell you what the chapter is about.
Name a few of your favorite authors, and why.
The best novel ever written is The Far Arena, by Richard Ben Sapir. He’s my favorite author for that one work. Barbara Tuchman is my favorite nonfiction writer, even though there may be problems with her scholarship. Her style is incredible. P.J. O’Rourke, because he makes me laugh until I’m crying. His turn of phrase is phenomenal, as is his humor. John Gardner wrote an unbelievably disturbing novel called Mickelsson’s Ghosts that I’ve never been able to get out of my mind. E.L. Doctorow is another novelist who plays with the language in a way that I always envied. I love Frederick Forsyth because The Day of the Jackal is the first novel I read. I was seven and didn’t understand most of it, but I re-read it every year. Also, his novel The Fist of God is arguably the best military thriller of all time. Tim O’Brien for Going After Cacciato, a surreal, dreamlike masterpiece. Tom Wolfe for his unbelievable humor and completely unfettered style. David Westheimer for his genius novel Lighter Than a Feather, about how the invasion of the Japanese home islands would’ve gone if we hadn’t dropped the atom bombs. It’s amazing because it’s a novel that’s made up of hundreds of unrelated vignettes with hundreds of characters. It’s not a continuous narrative at all, yet somehow it works. And for all budding novelists, see if you can find a copy of John Godey’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It’s a manual for how to write the perfect novel.
Your final chapter, “Things Just Might Turn Out All Right”. How can an event like that not permanently change your life? How could you have forgotten it? Not having had this experience myself, I would have thought something like that would change a person’s perspective on everything that comes after. Seems like it could have eliminated much stress, rage, obsession, etc.
Trauma, depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, endless failure, and rage can make a person lose sight of something as reassuring as that experience. What happened was that my life got so horrible that I no longer believed in anything except pain. Also, people laugh at such experiences, and they point to scientific explanations and the work of neuroscientists like Michael A. Persinger to debunk what I felt at the time was real. The short answer is I lost my faith in what I now believe–believe, not know–to have been a genuine experience. For a long time I thought I’d just fooled myself. I’ve had many other similar experiences that I choose to keep to myself, but maybe someday I’ll put them all into a book titled “Really Weird Stuff That’s Happened to Me That Makes People Think I’m Insane”.
The section “The Family That Set A Trap For Me”: You describe a nine-year relationship with another family– two parents and their daughter, during her age from three through eleven. To me, this chapter reeks of inappropriate behavior on your part, no matter how you explain it away, and is made worse by your placing blame on the parents. What is the purpose of your inclusion of this section? Who is it intended for?
Roméo Antonius Dallaire was the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda. He tried unsuccessfully to stop the Hutu massacre of nearly a million Tutsis in 1994. Most of the victims were killed with machetes. For years Dallaire couldn’t go to supermarkets because of the meat departments. No amount of therapy or medication could overcome his inability to go into supermarkets. What he experienced made him unable to do the things that others do. He knew rationally that the meat on display bore no relation to what he saw, but post-traumatic stress disorder robs you of your volition and causes you to re-experience the same emotions–in the same intensity–as you did during the original trauma. It’s as though you’re there in the middle of it again. It hits you like a sledgehammer. Telling a person with PTSD that he’s weak, sick, perverted, or irresponsible has no impact whatsoever on his reaction to the stressors that trigger an episode. Having PTSD is a sign that what you went through ruined you. As Dallaire said about himself, “I’ll never again be the man I once was.”
After a guy tried to murder me on December 28, 1995, I’d run blindly into the street when I heard a certain kind of voice or saw a young man walking toward me with a certain bouncy step. One time I dove into bushes. My reaction was entirely involuntary. It was beyond my control. Another form of PTSD is disassociation. You become completely detached. You go outside of yourself until it’s safe to come back.
The purpose of including this section is to bear witness to the fate of “Leni,” a lost soul. It’s intended for those who understand why I would write about such a thing.
One of the blessings of Meniere’s disease was clarity. A blessing in disguise is that it keeps me housebound, which is good because I’m oriented toward dysfunction. That was the reason I was never able to get over Carmen. She gave me three years of perfect happiness, a respite from the chaos, fear, and anger that characterized my existence. I stopped keeping my dream diary in 1997, when my life became indistinguishable from my nightmares. But not all my dreams were nightmares. This is the final entry of the dream diary.
November 26, 1997
As I lay in my bed at night, a fissure opened up in the wooden floor. It simply appeared; one second it wasn’t there, and the next it was. Shaped roughly like a diamond, it released a cool, blue light that filled the room and awed me with its beauty. I got out of bed and cautiously approached. The hole revealed a vast underground city–skyscrapers, monorails, elevated freeways, and flying machines like ornithopters. The blue light came from the sky, which was below my floor.
Two women appeared on either side of the fissure, gazing up at me. I saw solid ground beneath their feet, and I realized that they stood on a mountaintop. It was as though my house floated above their heads. They were dressed in sleeveless, thigh-length white tunics, with cloth belts and leather sandals, the straps of which criss-crossed all the way up their calves to their knees. Both women had long, dark hair and dark-brown eyes, and they smiled at me the way Carmen did when I told her I loved her. It took me a second to recognize their outfits: They looked like Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, and wild animals.
“Come on down, Tom,” one called, holding out her hand.
I sat on the edge of the hole, nearly passing out from happiness. When I turned over onto my stomach and lowered myself, the women grabbed my legs. I dropped down, holding on until I hung about two feet above the mountaintop, and then I let go. The women caught me in their powerful arms.
Standing on the mountain, I looked out across the beautiful city, a gentle breeze ruffling my hair.
“Are you ready?” one of the women asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Where are we going?”
She pointed to the city. “Down there. We’ve been waiting for you.”
“Are there any men there?” I asked.
The other woman touched my forearm. Her hand was hard with callus built up from extensive training with swords and quarterstaffs.
“Yes,” she said, “but we won’t let them hurt you.”
I was home. When they set off down the mountain, I followed.
Visit Tom at his website: thomaswictor.com
Ghosts And Ballyhoo on Amazon