Interview With Tom Parker

by Claire E. White

Tom Parker (A/K/A Thomas Trebitsch Parker) has authored five books. His first novel, Small Business, was a Bay Area best seller and honored by the Commonwealth Club. Anna, Ann, Annie was also a Bay Area best seller as well as a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize nominee. Mr. Parker also co-authored the national best-selling Winfield: A Player's Life (W.W. Norton/Avon) with former New York Yankee superstar Dave Winfield; and
CEO: Building a $400 Million Company from the Ground Up (W.W. Norton/Harvard Business School Press) with ASK Group founder, Sandra Kurtzig. A management book, Leadership and the Customer Revolution, was co-authored with Gary Heil and Rick Tate (Van Nostrand Reinhold) with a second management book, One Size Fits One, under contract with the same publisher. His short stories have appeared in Harper's and other literary magazines and anthologies including Prize Stories 1971: The O. Henry Awards.

In addition to his literary endeavors, he has been developing film, video, video teleconferences and executive speeches for over twenty five years. Past and present clients include Acuson, Adobe, Amdahl, Apple, Coldwell Banker, the Gap, Hewlett-Packard, Honda, Silicon Graphics, Suzuki and Tandem. He has a B.A. in Communication from Stanford and an M.A. in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. He has been on the Stanford faculty and currently teaches writing at the University of California and Foothill College.

What was the impetus for writing your novel, "Anna, Ann, Annie"?

For many years, I took the blame for my mother's death by suicide. I kept thinking I was in a position to save her life. Annie gets me off the hook. The blame goes much farther back.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Annie is your ability to tell a story from a female point of view. Was that difficult? How did you get into the mindset?

I didn't find it difficult. I believe that men and women are more alike than they are unalike. Once I became that little girl at the beginning of the novel, it was relatively easy for me to grow up with her and become a woman. Having said that, I'm not really sure I was convincing as a female. However, on a talk show a number of women called in telling me I was.

Believe me, you were!

Thank you!

How much research was involved in writing Annie?

Very little, actually. It was important to get the dates of the second world war right. But for the most part I just made stuff up. I had been in Vienna, however. And also New York. But never Florida, though I like that section best.

Annie was a real departure from your previous work. Was it difficult to switch gears to do a different style of writing?

Anna Ann Annie Cover
In my career as a writer of films and speeches for corporations I find myself changing styles radically sometimes from morning to afternoon. I came to the writing of Annie more as a technician than as an artist. It was a matter of craft and once I found the mindset, I could click it on at any point.

A friend of mine, a surgeon, once remarked about Annie, that it must have been a very difficult and moving task to write. I asked him when he cuts someone's chest open, if that is difficult and moving or simply an exercise of his craft. In any event it wasn't until a year or two after I wrote the book that I was able to experience the feelings I evoked in it.

How did writing Annie change your life?

It didn't really change my life, but, prior to writing it, I thought of myself as a comic writer and Annie gave me the opportunity to think of myself as a serious writer. Alas, it wasn't a national "bestseller" nor did it even win me a Nobel prize.

But it WAS nominated for a Pulitzer.

So are a lot of novels! Maybe 300 of them. Still, it was. And it pleases me.

Did it change your life from a personal or emotional standpoint?

I wish I could say yes, but no. I was almost 50 when it came out and I'd already done all my changing. I am the archetypal old dog.

laugh. If they made Annie into a movie, who would you choose to play Annie?

Well, I'd be very happy with Meryl Streep or Ellen Barkin.

A little about the mundane aspects of do you write? Computer, typewriter, longhand?

Small Business
I write by longhand, using a fountain pen and ink. When writing fiction, I then read what I've written into a tape recorder, changing and editing as I do. Then I have it typed and subsequently do my rewrites in pencil on the typed manuscript, finally incorporating those changes myself on the computer. I think the computer is a very good editing tool and not a particularly good writing tool. Block moves miss the point.

I see. Rumor has it that you don't use this true?

I might sometimes use an outline, but only as a point of divergence. With outlines, there's less discovery and the only real fun of writing, other than on-line interviews, is discovery.

I really don't know how these rumors get started.

I once did a film for Sun Microsystems which had a segment about a literal "rumor mill," that was being run in a back room at headquarters.

Do you do character profiles before you start writing?

No, No, No, NO, NO. Usually I start with people I vaguely know and start tabbing characteristics on them like paper clothes on those little cut-out dolls.

How interesting. Do you develop the character fully before you start to write or does the character take on a life of its own as the story progresses?

I think my characters develop contradictions as the story progresses. They're difficult to handle, pesky, irrascible and sometimes just a pain in the butt. But, what can you expect from a human being?

True! As a teacher, what are the most common mistakes you see made by a first-time novelist?

First of all, I don't teach novel writing. I teach short story writing. In stories, the biggest problem is that a lot of writers simply don't know what constitutes a story. They may understand an event and lord knows they understand flashbacks, but they don't know how to put it together into a form that's dramatic and progressively more compelling.
"Many inexperienced writers feel they have to provide 'background' in order for us to understand their characters. You'd be amazed by how little we really need to know. Get the drama up front."
I basically don't believe that novel writing can be taught in anything other than a one-to-one situation and not in a class.

There are trends that appear in writing (and are reflected in the bestseller lists). Would you advise aspiring writers follow these trends and incorporate them into their work?

To some extent, trends are an extension of the zeitgeist and they're natural to follow. On the other hand, no serious writer -- to include serious comic writers -- should perform unnatural acts. Besides, your best shot at publication is writing the best story possible. To tell aspiring writers that they should follow trends is cynical and limiting. However, Claire, if you would tell me what those trends are, I'd be happy to follow them!



What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I love to see people with ability surprise themselves. I love it when students make huge leaps forward. And I must admit, I revel in their adoration. Seriously though, there's nothing quite as rewarding as a student getting so good that he or she feels confident enough to move on.

For the student who has talent but little or no training in writing, what is the greatest advantage to him or her in taking a writing course?

In a fairly rapid fashion that student can learn what NOT to do. So much time is wasted in learning to write, making mistakes and not knowing they have. Writing classes for the serious student can significantly shorten the learning curve.

Writing classes can't really teach someone to be a fabulous writer. The best writing is the outcome of a unique thought process, an iconoclastic view of the world, and some basic skills.

Can you give one example of what NOT to do when writing a short story?

Don't start your story with a long "situational" opening. We're far less interested, as readers, in what "is," than we are in what "might be." Many inexperienced writers feel they have to provide "background" in order for us to understand their characters. You'd be amazed by how little we really need to know. Get the drama up front.

How much do you use the Internet, for research, communications etc?

Kicking and screaming, I check my email when someone on the phone tells me they sent me some. I find the internet slow and cumbersome. I'll wait three minutes for fast food, but not three seconds for text that I know is there. However, I wrote the keynote speech for this year's InterOp tradeshow and it's my understanding that things are about to change for the better. ie., T1 lines to every home.

I can't wait for mine! Do you think that the Internet has had an effect yet on the writing world?

I really don't know but I hope so. The thing is, Internet or no Internet, writing is still a lonely task and most people write, I believe, to be acknowledged and accepted by the New York publishing world. Relative freedom to write and be read on the Internet takes some of the ego out of writing and it is precisely this ego that is the movitivation for many to write. Having said that, I suppose that if the Internet and its publishing outlets were to develop more of a cachet, I would think that better writers would flock to it and that we would really see a change in the writing world.

We see that starting to happen're here aren't you? :) You have an exciting new venture into multimedia with your new CD-ROM series. How did the Desktop Writing Workshop come about?

Bob Searle, a former student and professional educator, and I had thought of writing a text-only computer program about writing when Tim Hill sat in on one of my workshops and suggested we expand our horizons and develop a CD-ROM. That was five years ago. Luckily we worked so slowly that the new technology that came along enabled us to put out a much better product than we had originally concieved. PS. Some of my best friends are on the Internet.

Smile. What should a student expect to have learned or achieved after completing the first part of the series, "Character"?

I think that "Character" provides you with the most important single element in writing a story that people will be interested in. Well-developed characters, more than plot, and in some cases more than drama, is a story's attract loop. If you create truly interesting characters, with interesting problems, and an interesting approach to solving Character CD Cover
them, the reader will usually stick around. Working through the lessons on the disc should make the writer confident that he or she can create solid characters that compel a reader to stay with the story.

What's coming next in the Desktop Writing Workshop writing series?

Forthcoming discs that address theme, plot, mood, tone and point-of-view are in the development stage for the fiction series. Hot on their heels will be titles in business, travel, nature, and other non-fiction writing.

What's next for Tom Parker on the writing front?

My current mortgage is larger than the Gross National Product of many third-world countries, so I'm concentrating largely on business projects, however I do have a novel under contract, although the editor is no longer there, and I have also begun a book about a man who receives his son's heart in transplant operation. Seriously, and on a more comic note, a book about the first woman player in the National Football League.

We will look forward to it! Tom, thank you for coming.

Thank you, Claire, for having me. It was fun.

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