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.
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
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
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
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?
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 email@example.com. 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
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
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
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