Interview with Tetman Callis

Q: Congratulations on High Street, your first published book. When did you begin working on it, and at what point did you realize you were writing a book?

A: The idea for High Street first came to me in the Autumn of 2006, shortly after I’d moved out of the High Street house.  At that point I knew the book would begin with the third burglary.  By the late Autumn of 2009 I knew how the book would end, and knew it was time to write it.

Q: The book’s construction and content is not that of a typical memoir. What decisions did you make along the way that led to the book’s eventual structure?

A: Initially I thought it was going to be a more standard memoir sort of thing, both in tone and form.  The idea to begin with an interesting event that occurs in the middle of the larger story is one I got from Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club, which I read in 2006 and read again right before I started writing High Street.  The broken chronological structure I pretty much got from Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, which I also read right before I started writing High Street.  I had copies of letters I’d written while I lived on High Street and started reviewing them for incidents to include in the book.  I quickly realized they were the book.  All I had to do was edit the hell out of them and find the book they contained.  I also tossed in some poetry that I reformatted as prose poems.  There were even a couple of short stories in early drafts, but I edited those out.  On my morning walks I worked out the larger nine-book structure.  Before I started writing, I read a select eighteen books, including everything by W. G. Sebald that was translated into English, Carr’s and Flynn’s books as noted above, a couple Kunderas, a couple Bernhards, Dillard’s For the Time Being, and a few others, to inform myself with mood and voice and structure.

Q: The book opens with the story of a break-in to your home–for the third time–which seems to characterize life on High Street: You both need and fear authority, are part of the legal system and in some ways a victim of it. How does this dichotomy shape the culture of High Street? In what ways do you personally represent the two sides of the coin?

A: As an Everyman, I think.  We all of us live within a larger social structure we need to be both protected by and protected from.

Q: There’s a mentality that accompanies marijuana use among marijuana users, which you articulate throughout the book, but most poetically here:

I was walking by the candy store when I tripped and stumbled over myself, fell into a sticky-bud bush, lay there for about a week, stuck. It was hard to get up when I had only one free hand, the other gripping a loaded roachclip. A delightful dark light, an accursed, cursing, curvaceous bitch, my sweet lover, the loaded roachclip. Stuck to the bush, flat on my back, I suck on the loaded roachclip, my lollipop.

It’s keeping you down, it’s keeping you up, it’s comfort and candy and it’s forbidden. Do you see the marijuana culture as representative of a larger social issue? A human issue?

A: The piece you quote is one of the poems reformatted as prose.  As for larger issues, social or human—it’s hard to be a person.  Fucking hard!  This is no secret.  We all find ways of coping.  For any one way of coping to be outlawed is part of the human comedy.  What the group will demand and tolerate and what the individual will demand and tolerate have always been—and please pardon my French—shifting nodes of contention along the webs of discourse where power is deployed.

Q: Your son Owen appears throughout the book, a poignant counterpoint within the milieu you describe:

He and I really do not belong in this neighborhood. I think he feels it more than I do. A couple of years ago I realized that poverty is not just poverty of money: it’s poverty of hope, poverty of imagination, poverty of intellect, poverty of desire. There’s a lot of that kind of poverty in this neighborhood; people who live in small worlds they have no clue how to enlarge.

How was his childhood influenced by the decision to have him live with you? How do you think he would be different if he’d stayed with his mother?

A: He would have to speak for himself to answer these questions.  I know he changed my life, and changed it for the better.  More than once I have told him that the three smartest things I’ve done were to go back to school, marry his mother, and father him.

Q: Throughout the narrative, there is a persistent sense of longing, a feeling of, Is this all there is? There’s a quest, but the quest is internal and somewhat circular. Can you talk a bit about that?

A: I did not know that was there, but I am not surprised.  It is the being-in-the-world of the artist.  We are always yearning to be someplace else.  Hell, it’s probably part of what it means to be human.  We artisty writery types just chase after it and show it off more.

Q: What’s next for you? What are you working on at the moment?

A: I could be too clever by half and say that at the moment, I’m working on this interview, but ha-ha-ha and that’s not what you’re asking.  I’ve been these past four months and more working on a novel that was a novella I wrote a few years ago and I was just going to do a tiny bit of tweaking and polishing to it, but you’re a writer too and you know how these things go.  It was a caterpillar and it’s going to be either a butterfly or a moth.  We’ll see.

15 responses

  1. Wonderful interview. Love the structural decisions, the longing to be elsewhere, the circularity, the awareness of true poverty, the poetic yet very clear prose. The real accomplishment of your book. Thank you. Gives me hope.

  2. Great questions, great answers!

    I enjoyed hearing about your process, prep, and decisions with this book, Tetman. And I can’t wait to read it!

    • And congrats to you too, Phil! I’m going to work on a sidebar with all my friends’ books, and yours will be one of the first to populate it.

  3. I really love these author interviews, Averil. What a great hostess you are! And Tetman, Mazel Tov! I love what you say about your son. Clearly you are a giant among men.

  4. Congratulations Tetman, i myself miss the ritual of it all. the slightly heating the hash, then mixing it with black tobacco, then slowly, and lovingly rolling the perfect spliv…the same with grass…the ritual…the carefully rolled, easy drawing joint. no more High St for me these days but… wonderful interview Averil. it takes a writer to draw a writer out into the best light. well done. continue…

    • You’ve touched on an important and often neglected aspect of addiction, and that is ritual. Whatever a person might have an addiction to, it’s not just the thing itself (orgasm, a drug, the internet, cruising, whatever), but the panoply of set activities that accompany the thing. Escaping an addiction–if one wishes to escape–means not just giving up the addictive thing itself, but finding ways to fill the time that is now empty but was once filled by the ritual accompanying the addiction.

  5. Love the interview, and particularly the information about your influences and structure decisions, Tetman. Very very cool. Congratulations!!

  6. Hearty congrats, Tetman! Your title/tagline is grabby and this interview makes me want to read your book even more. I am intrigued by the list of books you read in preparation– I do that, too, although without such pointed focus (although I often pick up The Liar’s Club and read randomly, just for a little kick in the butt).

  7. I read your excerpt, sir, and I thought the writing was lean and limpid. In a certain way, it reminded me a little of a book entitled Call Someplace Paradise, by a woman named Pat Hartman, whom I admire.

  8. “I did not know that was there, but I am not surprised.”

    Love this interview with Tetman, and also love how Averil often digs into her interviews with questions/observations that surprise even the author.

  9. Outside of my blog, I almost never write any memoir. I tried a piece of it a while back, and as long as I’m making fun of myself, I think it’s okay, but as soon as I get serious, I think I am ridiculous and trite. I have the same problem with writing poetry, except haiku which is (technically supposed to be) about nature, and even then, I often look at my haiku and am glad that no one but me ever sees them.

    So there you go! All my hang-ups about writing about myself! I’m impressed with people who can do it and not be crippled by self-consciousness.

  10. I just finished the book and found it very powerful. Tetman lives (or lived) in a world he was able to analyze and explain to himself. Yet the great majority of the others in his neighborhood and in his jails do not comprehend the nature of their problem or solution. Escape for him is just a matter of focusing his high intellect. Well, there is also the matter of his addiction. It seduces him, caresses him, and then slaps him around like an abusive lover. And he returns for more like the abused often do.

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