Tom Glenn has worked as an undercover agent, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a federal budgeteer, a care-giver for the dying, and, always, a writer. Many of his prize-winning stories came from the thirteen years he spent shuttling between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert assignment. Nearly all his writing is, in one way or another, about fathers and children (he has four) and is haunted by his five years of work with AIDS patients (all gay, all died), two years of helping the homeless, and seven years of caring for the dying in the hospice system. His stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Potpourri, The Baltimore Review, and Antietam Review among many others. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and a Baltimore ArtScape Literary award and won the Hackney Literary Award. Four of his novels have won Maryland Writers Association awards, including the grand prize in 2004 and first prize for literary/mainstream in 2010. His web site is http://tom-tells-tales.org
Tom Glenn’s new novel, No-Accounts published by Apprentice House of Baltimore describes the bonds that develop between a straight man (Martin) who acts as a caregiver, and a gay man (Peter) who is dying from AIDS. Set in the 1980s, before the hope of antiretroviral drugs, the novel explores the complex nature of love and redemption.
Jan: Although No-Accounts is described as a novel, I wondered why you chose to write it as a novel rather than as a memoir since you experienced, firsthand, the inner world of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s when you worked as a volunteer caregiver, a role that you’ve cast as Martin?
Tom: First of all, I’m a novelist by trade. That is, I’m an artist rather than a journalist. Second, I chose fiction as the way to convey the story because it allows me the freedom to order events and place them in locales that strict adherence to the facts wouldn’t permit. And I can express what’s going through the minds of the characters—internal monologues—in ways that would be dishonest in straight reporting. I see my job as moving the reader and allowing her to understand rather than to convey information. That said, nothing in No-Accounts is invented. It all really happened. I fictionalized the events to protect real people involved.
Jan: What led you to volunteer as a caregiver, an AIDS buddy, when so many people were shunning people with AIDS?
Tom: When the AIDS epidemic started in the early 1980s, no one knew how the HIV virus was transmitted. As a result, nearly everyone, including doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, was terrified of being in contact with gay men infected with AIDS. A few men actually died on the street because no one would rent to them or come near them, let alone touch them. I watched what was happening and couldn’t tolerate it. So I told my wife I wanted to volunteer to help people suffering from AIDS. Because we didn’t know how AIDS was transmitted, there was an unknown likelihood that I’d contract the disease. If I did, then she would, too, simply because she lived with me. She agreed to take the risk, and I signed up at Whitman-Walker to be a caregiver to AIDS patients.
Jan: And tell us about the title.
Tom: “No-accounts” is a southern term for a worthless person. Early in the story, Peter, the young man dying of AIDS, tells his caregiver, Martin, about his mother’s use of the term and says that he, Peter, is worthless and therefore a no-account. He tells Martin that he’s a no-account, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be wasting his time taking care of “a fag dying of AIDS.” The sub-title, “Dare Mighty Things,” comes from a Teddy Roosevelt quote talking about the need to take on heroic missions, even though checkered by defeat. Peter as a teenager found that quote in his father’s study and concluded that he was a poor spirit incapable of daring mighty things and that his father, consequently, didn’t love him. By the end of the book, Peter has taken on mighty things.
Jan: No-Accounts presents a straightforward account of the terrible personal reality of the medical and social issues in the public and private response to AIDS. What do you see as critical governmental, medical and social mistakes made initially in addressing the AIDS epidemic?
Tom: Our mistakes came from bias. We as a society were so condemning of homosexuality that we were, frankly, willing to stand by and let gay men die of the “gay plague.” The more religious among us declared that the disease was God’s punishment for unnatural and sinful acts. As it gradually became obvious that AIDS wasn’t a gay disease, that attitude changed. In the beginning, I shared, albeit unconsciously, that bias. But as the only straight volunteer at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. caring for men dying of AIDS, I discovered that the gay men working by my side were willing to risk their lives to help others. The only other place I had seen such bravery was in combat. My bias dissolved.
Jan: Previously you’ve written about the Vietnam War, in particular the long-term impact of traumatic events on the “self.” That is difficult to write about, whether witnessed or experienced. It seems to me that most people manage to survive by denial or repression. How does writing help you deal with trauma and catharsis?
Tom: Soldiers who seek to survive their unbearable memories by denial or repression only make their trauma worse, especially as they grow older. That intensifies nightmares, flashbacks, irrational rage, and panic attacks. We now know that the indelible experiences must be faced, and we must find ways to come to terms with them. Writing down what happened forces me to remember and own my responsibility for the unspeakable things that happened. That allows me to channel my despair into my writing, not into my living.
Jan: What do you see as some differences and similarities between an individual traumatized by war versus disease?
Tom: The similarities are far greater than the differences. After Vietnam, I used writing and public speaking to make peace with the awful stuff that was in my head. After five years of taking care of AIDS patients and another seven years working with dying people in a hospice, the very same symptoms were coming back. The deaths I faced, particularly in the AIDS epidemic, were sometimes pretty grisly. Those memories, like the ones from combat, never fade or weaken. They must be faced and owned. Fiction helps in a way nonfiction can’t. It has allowed me to tell the stories of what I wanted to do to act out my rages rather than actually doing it.
Jan: If you could go back in time now, knowing what you know, what do you think Martin would want to say to Peter?
Tom: Nothing he didn’t say in No-Accounts. Two reasons for that: First, I wanted to show how Martin learned and grew, just as I had. I let him make the same mistakes I did. Second, I spent fifteen years writing No-Accounts. It went through three different critique groups and twenty-one drafts. By the time I was finished, I knew I had said what I wanted to say. That hasn’t changed since.
Jan: What do you hope readers learn and experience from reading No-Accounts?
Tom: Two things really. The first is how gruesome AIDS is. We as a society romanticize. I wanted to put the unvarnished truth before the reader, just as I have done in my writing about war. Second, I wanted to chronicle the profound love that comes when two men face death together. It happens in combat, and it happened during the AIDS crisis. The bond that people form when death is imminent are the strongest love I’ve ever witnessed.
Jan: Readers have commented on the straightforward and yet lyrical style of your writing. I wondered to what degree do you think your love of opera and musical training has affected your writing style?
Tom: In the broadest sense, the same aesthetic rules apply to music and writing. In music, simplicity, economy, directness, and proportion are the hallmarks of greatness. Put differently, it’s all form and content with a minimum or even an absence of showiness. Writing uses a different medium, but the rules are the same. One way to express that in writerly terms is the old acronym KISS, that is, keep it simple, stupid. Another is show, don’t tell. In both arts, the purpose is to transport the listener or reader so that one forgets that he is listening to music or is so wrapped up in the story that she forgets she’s reading. In Bach and Mozart, there is not a single unnecessary note; in Shakespeare not a single extra word.
Jan: Finally, what advice about writing have you found helpful and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
Tom: First, only write about what moves you to the core. Second, hone the craft. Both are life-long endeavors. Least useful to me have been admonitions about being disciplined—write every day, set goals for how many pages you’ll write, work from an outline. I have to write, so I don’t need to harness myself. What works best for me is to unleash my subconscious so that it is as if I’m watching a scene and writing down what I see as fast as I can. At the best of times, that means I write for fourteen hours straight. Only later do I bring orderliness to bear. In sum, my sense is that if one is inspired by a subject or story, the discipline will take care of itself. That of course assumes that one has perfected writing craftsmanship to the point that it is second nature and all but unconscious.
Jan: Thanks for the interview, Tom. How can readers obtain a copy of your book, and contact you to speak?
Tom: No-Accounts is on sale at Amazon.com, BN.com. and Powell’s Books on line and in many independent bookshops. As for speaking, I do readings from my books, a presentation on fiction craftsmanship, and another on healing through writing. But my most popular presentation by far is “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon.” I was stranded in Saigon doing undercover intelligence when the North Vietnamese captured the city at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. I escaped by helicopter under fire when the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city. Since the information about my work was declassified, I’ve given the fall of Saigon presentation more than thirty times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My four web sites are http://tom-tells-tales.org; http://vietnam-tragedy.org; http://friendly-casualties.org; and http://no-accounts.com
Thanks for the interview, Jan. I’m grateful for the opportunity.
Tom Glenn is the author of a new novel, “No-Accounts” (Apprentice House of Baltimore), drawn from his years of caring for AIDS patients and ministering to the dying in the hospice system.He is also the author of a Vietnam novel-in-stories, “Friendly Casualties,” and 16 published short stories, many of which came from the 13 years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert intelligence assignments before being evacuated under fire when Saigon fell.These days, Tom writes reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books, for which he specializes in Vietnam and war books.
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan’s stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.
A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories. She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com (note: homepage under revision right now) so visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com