Interview with Tom Calarco

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Schenectady, N.Y. The setting of my fantasy novel, Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha, is taken in part from Schenectady. I also have written historical articles about Schenectady, which was founded in 1660 and still has many houses dating from the colonial period in the Stockade section, where I grew up. The city also boasts a long-running 24-hour classical music radio station, WMHT-FM, that began in 1972 and I credit it for my intense interest in classical music, which later led to my work as a classical music reviewer for a period of about 10 years.
When did you first start writing?
I first tried my hand at creative writing around 1969 / 1970 when I was tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. It was after being inspired by Herman Hesse's book, Steppenwolf, that I thought I might want to be a writer.
What's the story behind your latest book?
My latest, a Middle Reader / YA book, that I'm shopping around is set in northern Italy circa 1700 and deals with the power that music can have in our life -- thus, the title, The Magic of Music or Magia della Musica
What motivated you to become an indie author?
The impatient desire to publish my book. If I had to do it again, I might not, though today it is much different than 1996 when I self-published Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha. There are countless opportunities to bring exposure to a self-published book now that didn't exist then. This is one reason I'm trying to revive it.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Expressing what I feel and believe in exactly the way I want. Also, getting a creative insight that seems to come out of nowhere when I'm in the process of writing.
Who are your favorite authors?
There are so many. But some of the ones that I hold fast to, perhaps because they were my early favorites are Herman Hesse, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D. Salinger, Jack Kerouac, and John Irving -- all men, you probably notice. Flannery O'Connor's short stories, however, are hard to beat.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
Yes, it was an autobiographical fictional work about the time I got a low number in the draft lottery.
What is your writing process?
I've become very undisciplined over the years. I don't have a process, like I used to. I always had to have a special place where I wouldn't be disturbed with music playing. Now I seldom have music playing. I think if I went back to a more regimented process it would be beneficial, though I don't know if I ever will. The toll of rejection weighs mightily over me and inhibits my inspiration.
What do you read for pleasure?
Right now, mostly non-fiction. I'm very interested in politics and troubled by the transformation of the U.S. into a militaristic oligarchy. Reading about it though doesn't do much good, nor does talking about it to others. The only way people are going to affect change is to organize.
How did you become a professional writer?
My first love as a writer was fantasy. I started out writing dark allegories reminiscent of Franz Kafa that evolved into satires of my experiences and people I had met in my life. I reached out to the writing community and joined a number of writing groups from which I not only learned about writing but which reinforced my desire to be a writer.

For longest time I considered myself an aspiring writer, even as I got older, I still was an aspiring writer. It wasn’t until I turned 36 that I decided to enter a graduate writing program at Iowa State University. One of the draws was Jane Smiley, whose stories I had read in The Atlantic (then called Atlantic Monthly), and as fate would have it, she ended up being my advisor.

I enjoyed my time at ISU, also taking grad course in journalism and working on the staff of the Iowa State Daily, which was the first writing I got paid for on a regular basis (Up to that time, I had only written a few piece for local weeklies that paid me small fees). At ISU I was busy every minute, working for the Daily, teaching freshman composition or working at the Writing Center as a TA, and keeping up with my fiction and poetry writing workshops.

Minimalism and academic realism was the favored style at the time, something that I would ascribe to Jane’s writing at the time, though I wouldn’t call her a minimalist. In any case, I learned the fundamentals and my penchant for fantasy was not given much encouragement, though I was able to have fun with it in the poetry workshops of Neal Bowers and also given some free rein by Mike Martone. However, I left ISU with more preparation for the world of journalism than the world of fiction.

So, I became a news reporter and English teacher. When the latter seemed to sap all my energy for writing, I left full-time teaching and tried to make it as a writer. Good luck, it doesn’t pay the bills. It wasn’t as if I didn’t try, but sometimes I think I didn’t work hard enough – the rejection can be discouraging. But if there was one thing Jane taught all her students, which was right on, is that the most important ingredient to becoming a successful writer is to keep working and not to let rejection discourage you. I admit I sometimes failed to follow her advice.
How did Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha originate?
While studying Creative Writing at Iowa State, I came up with an idea to write a fantasy novel and did an independent study on classic fantasy with the late Professor P.G. Davies, who taught Victorian Literature. I wanted to do it for my thesis. But my advisor, Jane Smiley, advised that I wasn’t ready and that I always could do it after I graduated. I wasn’t happy but it was good advice. It eventually led to the self-publication on Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha, a decade after graduation.

I had been trying to break into fiction publications without success before Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha, though I felt some of my work was worthy. Still, to this day, I’ve had almost no success as a fiction writer, though to be honest I don't understand why because I see so much work inferior to mine being published. Sometimes, I think it is because my work can be offensive to some people. For example, some children’s book “experts” were put off by my use of the word, fart, on the first page. Some are still put off by the crude and offensive behavior of the Slobobslob. But I have found that kids will laugh out loud at these allegedly inappropriate descriptions. Another time I wrote some very graphic stories in a workshop with the Pulitzer Prize winner Marilynne Robinson, which both offended and upset her. I guess I have this dark side.

Self-publication is not easy. From the start people will think the work is suspect or amateurish. For instance, a local bookstore rejected the book without an explanation, but I sensed the buyer had not read the book. And the children’s librarian at my local library was put off the by “inappropriate” language on the first page – I had to collect my reviews and bring them to the head of the library to get them to take the book (I had nine in all, and all positive). And yet to this very day, they refuse to circulate it.

After the self-publication of Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha, I became interested in the Underground Railroad, and since the year 2003, I have had seven books on the topic published, the latest coming out in December 2014. It was at the urging of a friend that I have pushed forward and am trying to revive Hi-doh Hi-dee Ha-Ha. I think it’s my best work and the kind of writing where my true talents reside – quirky, imaginative, and satirical fantasy.
Published 2014-11-07.
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