An Interview by Shaun Sanders and Silver Webb
Tom Timmins is the author of novels, poetry, short and flash fiction, and non-fiction. You can visit him here. His flash contributions “Leaving for Church,” “Miracle Dirt,” and “The Fox Can't Resist” are in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here.
Shaun: You live in Massachusetts, west of Boston. What’s the best part of living there?
Tom: I love the forest, and my wife is from here. I have a lot of friends and am making new ones. I came back to Massachusetts nine years ago from Santa Barbara and started a company. But I’m far from my children, who are all over the country. Otherwise, it’s a wonderful place, aside from the winters.
Silver: I met you many years ago, Tom, when you were writing and rewriting Aphrodisiac for an Angel, and now it’s been published through your company ZöeTown Media. The heroine, Zöe, is a remarkable fifteen-year-old.
Tom: Yes, she's driven by the notion that she can rise to heaven body-and-soul, meet her mother and her mother's friends, and return to Earth. She lives near the Pine Ridge Oglala Native American reservation in South Dakota, near the Badlands and the Black Hills.
Shaun: In the book, we see the world through Zöe’s perspective and it really draws the reader in. What was your inspiration was for Zöe?
Tom: Zöe is focused, fearless, buoyed by indefatigable optimism. Since her only life goal is to ascend to heaven in her body to see her mother who is a spirit, you might think she’s childish or mentally disturbed. But her longing to be with her mother has propelled her thinking and acting since she was six when her mother died in the car accident that Zöe survived.
I was raised in a rural Iowa town, with strong religious and moral values, and I structured the novel after the Catholic mass. In the novel, events move Zöe to follow the path Jesus followed after his death and prior to his final Ascension. When he died, he first he went to the underworld to save the souls, so Zöe collects souls to take to heaven and much of the novel takes place in an underworld.
Silver: So Aphrodisiac for an Angel is a quest tale?
Tom: Yes. And a coming-of-age tale. And a love story. As Zöe seeks heaven—and an angel to fly her there—she grows up fast. My sense is that almost all American hero novels are based on the Christ story. The basic structure of a heroine who endures terrible pain and doubt, is nearly killed while facing and overcoming evil, then through some act of immense generosity, saves people or solves the problem. This is the first book in the series, with two more in the hopper. Aphrodisiac is also an environmental novel. But if a novel doesn't feature love it's likely to be boring to most readers. The core of the book emerges when Zöe finds a drink recipe in an old cookbook called “An aphrodisiac for your angel.” With this recipe, she intends to entice an angel to bear her up to heaven. In pursuit of her angel, Zöe, her beloved stepbrother, and a Hunkpapa tribal elder stumble into what could be the most catastrophic environmental disaster in U.S. history.
Shaun: I wasn’t raised in the Catholic Church, but it seemed to me that the things Zöe sees and believes in are possible because of the element of magical realism. Tom: Garcia Marquez was a big influence on me. Besides a literary genre, magical realism as an approach to understanding the world is something I believe in. I treasure imagination, even as I’m a fairly scientific and logical person. I'm interested in brain science and genetic biology as roots of behaviors and relationships. Studies have shown that magical thinking is networked in the brain with the same places where the imagination arises. Zöe's enormous imagination impels her through the world. Shaun: Early in the book, we meet Reverend Kessup, who becomes Zöe's antagonist. It’s quite a juxtaposition to go from Zöe’s point of view to this sleazy guy. Tom: When Zöe is ten years old, she learns about the Rapture, and all the souls who are saved will rise up to heaven. And that’s part of her fantasy. Reverend Kessup comes along and Zöe believes he might help her get to heaven. But it becomes obvious that he’s really sleazy, a dark, bad guy. He represents the false manipulation of people’s minds, dreams, needs. The kind of thing we see when we turn on the television. Shaun: The book is set in the Dakotas, and we find ourselves in conversation with Wakanda, who is a Lakota elder. I’m wondering did you did have to do a lot of research or did you grow up there? Tom: As a kid, I spent time in the Black Hills, exploring them, camping, spelunking. I wanted to make the "Wakanda" character a contemporary citizen acting out a family vision. The book does not touch deeply on the sorrowful troubles with life on the reservation. I’ve studied Native American mythology and my sister taught on Pine Ridge in Oglala County, the poorest county in the United States. I don’t pretend to know anything from the inside of Native American cultures. Shaun: Zöe has her own hero in her brother Devan and they stumble on a nuclear dumpsite deep in the hills near the reservation. We’re exploring a lot of interesting areas, mythology, Native Americans, magical realism, and then toxic dumping. Tell us about that.
Tom: I was born in 1945, on the day the United States dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The mushroom cloud is a haunting, fundamental image for me of this world. Having grown up in the 1950's, I had a real awareness of the Cold War and the potential for nuclear bombs. My business is an environmental energy efficiency business, so I’m focusing on reducing energy use throughout the company in large facilities. Though nuclear energy is not polluting in the short term, it has this tremendous pollution of radioactive waste for ten thousand years or more. Right here in Massachusetts, 20 miles to the west and 20 miles to the east sit two of the earliest nuclear power plants in the country. They're closed and the waste is stored there, so I’m very conscious of the presence and dangers of the waste.
Silver: How long have you been writing and do you have a regular time for writing? Tom: I’ve been writing all my remembered life, but I didn’t write any fiction until I was in my thirties. I wrote short stories. Right now I’m writing a lot of narrative poetry and my favorite time to write is just before I go to sleep. Somehow in that liminal world between waking and sleep, images and ideas emerged unscathed by consciousness. Shaun: Something that strikes me about your writing is the level of intensity, there’s a lot of description, nuance, characters. I really feel gripped by it. What’s it like to maintain this level of intensity throughout the writing process? Tom: I think that’s just who I am. I’ve written several books, run several business, I have several children, I love researching and talking. There’s some kind of a creative drive. It’s a drive. Shaun: You’ve written in a variety of genres from poetry books, Likings for Shadows and I was just laughing, ghazals and sonnets, to Puff of Time, which has shorter stories, to novels. All of these are published through Zöetown Media, your company. How did Zöetown Media come about? Tom: I first went the route of trying to find agents and publishers. One of my friends is a non-fiction agent with successful nonfiction authors. She sent me to some of her colleagues. They got back to me with “It’s good, but who’s going to publish it?” I received more than 100 rejections. At some point, I realized I was good at starting businesses, and together with help from my son and few other people, I started the publishing company. We expect to expand to a variety of authors. I have an interest in publishing translations of Japanese women mystery and thriller writers. Silver: My favorite stories, of the ones you’ve written, are the Tofu Noir Mystery novels. You obviously founded and ran a tofu company for a while. How did that experience inform the tofu novels?
Tom: I had a wild ride during the times I was in the tofu manufacturing and marketing business in the 1980's, when the word "tofu" guaranteed a laugh on late-night TV shows. We were idealists who thought we had a chance to solve world hunger issues while making a living to support our families. Those ten years taught me more about the ins and outs, upsides and downsides, light sides and dark sides of people and possibilities than any other time in my life. I couldn't help but write a dark comedic mystery novel set in the tofu and international foods industry. There are quite a few funny scenes. Silver: You have sustained an amazingly productive writing life, with over ten books published. What do you see ahead for writing projects and maybe new areas you’d like to explore? Tom: The next book to arrive (fall 2018) is Zom, a graphic verse novel. Then two more books of poems. I have a non-fiction book in the final draft stages and notes for the next two Aphrodisiac novels. Shaun: Thank you very much for speaking with us, Tom.
Shaun Sanders is a Kiwi author and independent publisher who has lived in Carpinteria for the past eleven years. He has two novels available under the pen name Ray Swift, and he also contributed an essay "The Good Ship Pallamary" to Volume 1 of SB Lit Jo, available here.