I’m delighted to introduce Tom Glenn. Here at LitMore, we are grateful to Tom for his early and continuing support for LitMore. He gave one of our first readings, an intense and moving experience that I, for one, will never forget.
Tom has worked as an intelligence operative, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a care-giver for the dying, a leadership coach, and, always, a writer. Many of his prize-winning short stories came from the better part of thirteen years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert signals intelligence assignments before being evacuated under fire when Saigon fell. For his work during those final days, the U.S. Government awarded his the Civilian Meritorious Medal. With a BA in Music, a master’s in Government, and a doctorate in Public Administration and trained as a musician, actor, and public speaker, he toured the country lecturing on leadership and management, trained federal executives, and was the Dean of the Management Department at the National Cryptologic School. His writing is haunted by his five years of work with AIDS patients, two years of helping the homeless, and seven years of caring for the dying in the hospice system. These days he is a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books where he specializes in books on war and Vietnam. His web sites are http://tom-tells-tales.org; http://vietnam-tragedy.org; http://friendly-casuatlties.org; and http://no-accounts.com.
When did you first suspect you may be a writer?
When I was six years old. I was already writing down stories.
If your best writing were edible, what meal would it be?
The hors d’oeuvre would be a tickler, something to awaken the taste buds without hinting at what’s to come, maybe anchovies and avocado. The entrée would have to be something dark and bold—lamb curry or spicy beef kung pao. The dessert would be designed to leave a sweet taste of hope, perhaps cream pie with strawberries.
What is the most unconventional thing you ever did for a piece you were working on?
Visiting a series of gay bars for background to No-Accounts. Not a comfortable experience—I’m straight and looked out of place. But I had to do it because key incidents in the story occur in those venues. I found, fortunately, that the bars vary greatly. When I couldn’t find the right locale for an event, I’d learned enough about the bar culture to invent a believable gay bar. The only comparable thing I ever did was to return repeatedly to the Calvert Street bridge (now known as the Duke Ellington Bridge) over Rock Creek Park in D.C. I set several scenes, including an attempted suicide, there and needed to know what it felt like and smelled like at different times of the day and in different weather.
What inspires you to start a novel or story?
My memories. Sometimes an event in my past is so powerful that I have to write about it to find peace. A speaker of French, Chinese, and Vietnamese, I was in Vietnam on and off for thirteen years doing clandestine intelligence in support of combat troops, then lived through the fall of Saigon, escaping under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets. I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Injury. As a consequence I turned to helping others worse off than I was—AIDS patients, the homeless, the dying (hospice), and now wounded and dying soldiers at the VA. I don’t have to search for story ideas; I have to ward them off.
How do you know when you are finished with a novel or story?
It’s not something that happens at a conscious level. I work and work on a novel or a story, revise it, run it through critique groups, share it with other writers, put it away to cool for as long as a year, revise again. Then one day, I know it’s finished. I don’t know how I know.
What writer are you particularly influenced by and why?
Hemingway, as much as I hate to admit it. His outlook on life and mine are totally at odds, but his clipped, economical style captivates me. I try to hone my work down to the minimum, use as few words as possible, depend on two or three well-chosen details to set the stage and create the emotional flavor.
What objects do you keep close to your writing space?
Paper and pencil to make notes to myself. Nothing more. All my tools—dictionaries (English and other languages), thesauruses, atlases, encyclopedias—are on my computer.
What do you consider your greatest success as a writer, how do you define success?
I define success as helping people to understand and be deeply moved by what they have never experienced in life. My three published novels—Friendly Casualties, No-Accounts, and The Trion Syndrome (due out October 2015)—deal with the Vietnam war, AIDS, and combat trauma, all subjects alien to most Americans. The book I’m currently hawking, The Last of the Annamese, is set during the fall of Saigon. The only people I know who lived through it are the two guys who were with me at the end, one now deceased. But when my editor came to me in tears after finishing the book, I knew I had succeeded.
How do you use LitMore?
Two ways: to introduce my writing to others and to honor other writers by attending their presentations.
What is your best line ever written at LitMore and/or a favorite LitMore moment so far?
I don’t write at LitMore; I only write at home. My favorite moment came while I was reading: I paused to take a breath and listened. No coughs, no throat clearing, not even any breathing. The audience was with me.