Writer Tom Paine graduated Princeton University and the Columbia University MFA program in writing. He has worked in a psychiatric hospital, as an advertising copywriter and as a journalist. He has taught at Middlebury College and Warren Wilson and has published a well-regarded short story collection, Scar Vegas, and recently a novel, The Pearl of Kuwait. Tom Paine lives in Vermont with his family.
The Pearl of Kuwait partners up California surfer dude Cody Carmichael with Tommy Trang—son of a Vietnamese prostitute–as US Marines in Kuwait on the eve of the first US incursion into the Arabian Gulf. A buddy story reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, the two young and unworldly soldiers go AWOL to rescue the Kuwaiti princess that Trang has fallen in love with and on the way learn a thing or two about a thing or two…
Robert Birnbaum: I wouldn’t be doing my journalistic duty if I didn’t ask you what you thought your parents were thinking when they named you Tom Paine?
Tom Paine: (laughs) They were thinking about my dad and my granddad. Who were Tom Paine too.
RB: So what was your great, great grandmother thinking? (laughs)
TP: Who the hell knows? There’s actually a Benjamin Franklin Paine back there where you are talking about, six generations back.
RB: All New Englanders?
TP: Actually, it’s a bit of a fake in a sense, in a typically American way. My grandfather was a Yankee, a Rhode Island guy. Hard working, worked from seven [in the morning] to ten or eleven at night. Didn’t say much. When he did, he had a dry sense of humor. But he was Paine. Everybody else, crowding in behind him, peeking around the corner was pretty much an Irish bull-shitter, an Irish immigrant. My grandmother forged a letter to get over here when she was twelve. Saying to her father, who was an alcoholic, "Let me come." It was a fake letter from her relatives in Canada. My great grandfather was too drunk to say no. So she said, "I gotta go." She was the eldest and her father was a street car driver…
RB: I’m not following this story. Let’s start again. Your grandmother who was married to Paine, a Yankee in Rhode Island, was Irish-born and she faked this letter…
TP: She wanted to get the hell away from her dad who was an alcoholic when he wasn’t running a street car. She somehow faked a letter from relatives living in Canada, saying, "We have a job for Kathleen. Send her over." So then she shoved the letter in front of my alcoholic great grandfather and said, "I’m going to Canada." And then she ended up in Rhode Island. She was never actually a legal immigrant. Until Paine became a selectman down in Providence and she realized she had to get legal in the ’70s. She brought over her father, later.
RB: The alcoholic.
TP: The alcoholic who—it didn’t go well between the Yankees and the Irish clan—because then all the other Irish relatives started coming in. And my grandfather Paine wouldn’t let his wife’s father come in the house.
TP: Because he got to America and he was in his late 40s and he had no intention of working. This was the land where the streets were paved with gold.
RB: He still thought that? When was this?
TP: This must have been in the late. It changed when my dad was born and the Depression came. He made his living—this fits in with my being a writer to some degree—made his living is perhaps the wrong way to say it. He survived by—he knew about ten thousand lines of poetry, I am told. He could recite poetry. He was a guy who liked wine, women and song and he would look for Irish Catholic funerals and weddings, just about every other day. And he would go dressed up and he presented himself well. And he’d dance. No one knew who the hell he was, I guess. He was just Billy Mullin. And he’d recite poetry and everyone would cry. And sing "Danny Boy" or whatever.
RB: I remember young writers and other hangers-on living off music-industry receptions and cocktail parties in the ’70s and ’80s.
TP: (laughs) Yeah.
RB: So he did the same thing at funeral and weddings?
TP: Yeah, everybody supposedly liked him—he danced with everyone, not just the prettiest woman.
RB: This is quite some family folklore. Are there some stories that will make their way into your writing?
TP: My mom keeps asking me, "When are you going to write about us?" (both laugh)
RB: Usually families try to discourage that.
TP: Well she might mean that. She is a very kind mom and she would pretty much take anything as just, "My son, my son! He’s written a book." But no, I haven’t written about the Paine clan yet. Maybe someday. I am not as attracted to memoir. The Pearl of Kuwait is done through the mask of—not the mask but it’s fictional. It lets you put on different masks and Cody Carmichael is a surfer dude. It’s a lot more playful…
RB: And distanced.
TP: Not totally. Distanced from my own personal life in Rhode Island as a kid. I suspect some time when I am older—that’s a nice anecdote and there are others like that, but maybe down the road.
RB: Maybe it’s too close to you now.
TP: Maybe. There’s a lot to say. My dad’s a character, to say the least.
RB: I was trying to think of war novels set after Vietnam. There’s Gabe Hudson‘s book and the recent memoir Jarhead. and The Aardvark is Ready for War by James Blinn and then Raul Correa’s I Don’t Know But I’ve Been Told.
TP: Raul was a classmate of mine at Columbia.
RB: Set in Panama. Is your book a war story?
TP: Well, sure. Like War and Peace.
TP: I’m not being facetious. It’s set during war.
RB: What I am trying to get at is war as a setting has not really been used much since Vietnam—even to explore larger themes like bravery and commitment.
TP: You nailed it with the word ‘bravery’ there. A cynical friend of mine, a very liberal Vermont writer said about my novel, "Paine, your book is the first possibly pro-war novel in a hundred years." I don’t know if I am answering your question exactly, but it’s got a romantic sensibility rather than a cynical sensibility and I think, "Yeah, there hasn’t been much written about war, but war has changed so much." I struggled with this war a lot in research and talking to Marines and so forth and how to present it, how to get at what makes this war particular and unique.
RB: Black Hawk Down was a bestseller. Which would indicate a readership hunger for war stories. Does it require some kind of proximity to armed conflict for fiction writers to want to use war as a setting? Other than Alan Furst, I can’t think of anyone who is writing today using World War II as a stage. War is a big set on which to let characters act out things.
TP: That’s why I was attracted to it. My collection of stories, some people liked this about it, others didn’t. As opposed to the stories I grew up reading in grad school, my collection is all over the place. It’s geographically diverse. It comes out of my reporter background. I had no particular interest—it took me a while to realize this—in doing quiet domestic, quietly melodramatic stories. I had no interest in quiet, in a sense. I wasn’t attracted to that. Although I felt obliged to take a stab at it. I have always been so curious about other people, other places. When we travel, I try to talk to the person next to me. It’s just natural to me. So, in a larger sense, this book is an expansion of who I am. That was exhibited in the collection. I get really bored really quickly.
RB: You were a Marine.
TP: Yeah. Technically. I went through Office Candidate School with about eight or nine guys from college after my junior summer, and I graduated and was offered a commission. But I didn’t take it. So I was in, I was out.
RB: Any tattoos?
TP: No tattoos. (laughs) No tattoos yet. I may be tattooed for this novel.
RB: Can you say ‘ooraay’ convincingly? What’s the origin?
TP: My friends call it the seal call. It’s a motivational yell. I can do it pretty well.
RB: I was talking with a friend about the warrior mentality. He commented that in Black Hawk Down it had more to do with personal achievement. I thought that about the characters in The Pearl of Kuwait. Do you think the notion of being a warrior has devolved into something very egocentric? Tommy Trang is bent on finding a real war, eyeball-to-eyeball, hand–to-hand war…
TP: That’s supposed to be the humorous thing about it, that this is the air war that really was the war in many ways and he can’t find a war and so he is constantly struggling to find a god-damn battle, in the sense that you are talking about—he is personally on a mission to find a battle to prove his heroism. The idea was that at the beginning of the novel, he’s a guy willing to go AWOL, he’s not a guy who exactly sticks to the rules.
RB: For personal gain.
TP: Yeah, for personal gain. And he is after some pearls, for the adventure and all. If there is some sort of traditional movement toward an epiphany, it’s at the end. Not to ruin the end but for worse for many liberals reading of the novel—he does morph into someone who has a much wider, grander perspective. He has bumped into Arab culture in his own seventeen-year-old Amerasian kid way, and he has come out of it with a much wider scope, I think. He’s grown. One reader might think he has grown very badly, but he has grown to want to change things that are bigger than himself. At least that is what I thought he was thinking. Did I make sense? That was the idea. You try to have a character grow in some way. By the end he really has…
RB: That’s an interesting formulation. The writer says, "At least that’s what I thought my character was thinking." Perhaps an unkind person would ask "If you don’t know, who does?" I can live with that because I don’t see an author’s characters as robotic creations.
TP: I agree with you. Writing Tommy Trang was writing against the grain, for me. Although I was a marine for 10 weeks, a deeper part of me and perhaps that will hopefully will make the novel interesting, the tear within myself—I was a vegetarian for five or six years.
RB: An ex-vegetarian.
TP: Basically, a Vermont progressive, hippie who was against the first Gulf War and first got involved with this thing, because I was writing editorials for a newspaper I was working for against Desert Storm. (long pause)
RB: Where were you?
TP: Where were you? (laughs)
RB: We were talking about the character and you were speaking about writing against the grain… and then we were addressing the notion that "you surmised what your own character was thinking."
TP: That is important to me. Trang to me—it may not have come across in that thing you picked up on, he exists as a living, breathing human being. And what I found most enjoyable about this novel and my own personal sense as a writer, of success, for myself, having written the book—was that I think Trang—you or I or a psychotherapist or the person on the street can read and look at Trang like a person on the street. You can make your own interpretations based on his dress and what he says and what he does, and I’m proud of having achieved that. I have had that experience of two different friends have given me two completely different reads on Trang, at the end. My agent keeps stressing that he should be read ironically, "He’s ironic. He’s ironic. It’s an anti-war book. He’s very ironic." Because he is trying to sell it to the Germans. (both laugh) And he is having no success. Germans say, "He’s not ironic. Nein, nein."
RB: I would be surprised if the Germans understand irony, even in English. Do they see Mark Twain as ironic?
TP: I don’t know but they have recently exhibited themselves to be really confusing. (laughs) But they are reading the novel as a gung-ho story of an American cowboy and that doesn’t really turn them on right now. To go back to your question, my first collection although I didn’t mean it to be, it was just myself, the pacifist vegetarian writing. Writing by what was called by both those who liked it and the occasional person that didn’t like it, "progressive." This one it will be interesting to see where it’s going to land because I just let Tommy Trang run.
RB: Tell me about Scar Vegas? The lead story "Will You Say Something Monseur Elliot?" won an O Henry award.
TP: That story was about to be published when we invaded Haiti, the very week. I understood there was a debate about whether to run it because it was perceived…
RB: In The New Yorker? And then it won the O Henry prize.
RB: Was that your big break?
TP: Oh yeah.
RB: This is Tom Paine, hello!
TP: Well, for five minutes. (laughs) It was a collection of ten stories that had been published here and there and everywhere.
RB: And you have one other novel in a drawer?
TP: Oh, did you read that?
RB: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a writer?
TP: When I was in first grade. Second grade, eighth grade.
RB: You wrote a novel in the second grade?
TP: It was a great novel with drawings to go with it. No, I didn’t but my thing was poetry then. Writing [poetry] when I was in high school and it got some awards and congratulations. I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I wish it hadn’t been, but it was struggle to decide to do it. It never really was a question in some sense. I just wish I knew it wasn’t a question.
RB: What was part of the process of deciding? Why was it hard to settle on writing?
TP: Although I wanted to be a writer, I hadn’t written anything after graduation, and you have to support yourself, and I had to take a lot of crappy jobs. I worked nights in a psych hospital for three years—which actually turned out to be a great job. But that was the hard part, being pretty broke when your classmates are sailing on to careers.
RB: This is after Princeton?
TP: Yeah, after. Most of my classmates went straight to Wall Street. And I said, "I think I want to be a writer. No, I do want to be a writer. I do want to be a writer."
RB: Who taught creative writing at Princeton when you were there, Russell Banks?
TP: Banks was there and Oates, of course. But they wouldn’t let me in the program.
TP: You submitted work and uh …
RB: Who’s there now?
TP: Toni Morrison and Ed White. Princeton is a nice little island.
RB: What I was edging toward is when you wrote this novel that is never going to be published?
TP: That was after college. I took a stab at being an advertising copywriter. Got out of the psych hospital and I lasted about three months.
TP: I thought that was pretty long. I gave it a shot but they came one day and—they literally had me in a large closet—I was the third copywriter and they only needed two. The head guy came and sat on the edge of my desk and said, "We need the closet space." I said, "No problem, man." I wanted to keep the job, for the moment. "I can work out in the hall. Whatever it takes. Just set me up a desk." He said, "You don’t understand." I still didn’t get it. It took me a while to digest that I was being fired.
RB: I like the way the onus was put on you. "You don’t understand." I’m glad you were fired.
TP: I would have left eventually. But while I was working at the psych hospital I’d come home at eight in the morning, eventually I shifted to the night shift, I’d sleep until about four in the afternoon. I was also writing short stories that I was firing out to whomever. So I sat down and wrote this novel about a talking bird which I then proceeded to try and sell. Of course, it didn’t fly. That was ’86 or ’87.
RB: Did you have an agent?
TP: I couldn’t get an agent. In those days I didn’t even know about the agent game. I just went to the library and got the names of like Penguin and got the address, send it off and got mostly form rejection letters. Finally, a friend gave me an agent’s address and I sent it off and I was so excited because I thought, "I have a contact, someone may actually read it." And I call up and say, "What do you think?" And they go like, "Who is this?" It was called Dodo for Dinner. It was about the last dodo in the world.
RB: A 19th century epic.
TP: So I say, "What do you think?" And she says, "I couldn’t read it." Same thing like getting fired from the ad agency, I couldn’t hear it. "You mean you didn’t have time to read it. Look I know you are very busy…"
RB: So in your young career going back sixteen years has the business changed a lot?
TP: I was so far from getting anyone to even look at my work in those days that I am not even sure it was the case that you had to have an agent or not. Certainly, since my collection came out in 2000, it is just an intuitive thing. It seems to have changed—it seems so much tighter about getting a first novel published and once you get a first novel published, if you are lucky enough to, and the slots seem pretty small, it just seems like a horse race. The publishers put twenty horses in the gate and let them run. Some people get lucky and get great publicity backing—I have a great publicist, but I think they just let the horses run and if you are winning around the first bend everyone goes, "Hurray!" And if you are winning around the second bend, they say, "I told you so." (laughs) And if you win it, you are the eight hundred pound gorilla, as one former agent said you had to become.
RB: These ten stories were publishing in the usual places, quality small magazine? The New Yorker, Harpers, New England Review, Ploughshares?
TP: I tried Ploughshares a lot. I l always got back a very nice letter. They usually said they had some particular issue and that my Zulu warrior story wouldn’t fit their Appalachian theme.
RB: Did you take that personally?
TP: I did.
RB: Of course.
TP: I took rejections personally, but I got over them in twenty four hours or less. The best thing I did was, I would send out twenty copies so that reduces the impact of each one. You still have nineteen balls out there. Which was technically illegal, I guess. But screw it, I didn’t want gray hair. Nothing wrong with gray hair. (laughs)
RB: You didn’t want gray hair at the age of twenty. When did the idea for this novel come about?
TP: Writing this novel has been on my mind since the Gulf War ’90, ’91 since I was writing editorials. If you asked me if I was going to write a novel some day, what would come out of my mouth right away was, "Yeah, I’m going to write about this war." It took twelve or thirteen years to get that going. Sometimes my dreams are way ahead of my practical implementation. So it took a while. I kept starting over writing short stories. Talk about having novels in the drawer. I have slews of short stories and I just went through these phases. I kept getting closer to doing it right. Eventually, I did it right that I was published.
RB: You did it right meaning you had a draft of it that you liked?
TP: I had the ideas of writing the novel for more than ten years but it was only about three years ago when I got the contract for Scar Vegas that I said, "Now’s the time to do it. I better return to trying a novel." And so for the last two and half years I have been doing that.
RB: I am thinking about a recent conversation I had with TC Boyle who had just published his fifteenth book. He is a well-established writer who seemingly just has to focus on writing. In your case as a young writer with now two books you have a lot of work to do, so you can be in a position to write a big work like a novel. That’s hard.
TP: (long pause) I think one answer to that is you are right. It was in reality a strain but some of the characteristics of my Marines are similar to my own in that I feel pretty lucky and enthusiastic and whereas in my twenties I was— and perhaps I won’t live to regret saying this — but in my twenties I was quite worried about money and so forth, the effect of having no money and working really crappy jobs and basically in the eyes of the people who knew me being pretty much a failure, for ten years or more. "What’s Tommy doing?" the family would ask. "Well, he’s writing."
TP: Quietly. "That nice." The effect of being a complete failure for so long and having so little money, is that you develop a self that is liberated. Failure can be great, in that way. I think my long apprenticeship seen from a writing point of view and failure seen from an exterior world, point of view. I had these financial concerns, but I had this strange feeling of liberty and luck. I have been so fricking lucky. I got handed a job when I was really down and out. I got handed a job editing a newspaper in the Caribbean. There was no reason for that.
RB: What island?
TP: St John. There was no reason in God’s own world why that should have been what happened. I had just quit my job because I was sick of staying up all night because it was driving me insane. So I feel lucky—maybe I’ll start cranking out a book a year, I don’t know. I don’t think so though—but I feel lucky that this that has been in my unconscious as an interest and an obsession is finally here and it’s done. I don’t worry about it that much right now. I might go back to worrying about money, I might have to. There is a very good chance I will.
RB: Do you worry about your writing skills?
TP: One thing that happened in this book was that I wrote about five drafts. The first two drafts were not about this gung-ho Marine. They were about an extension of my characters in my story collection that got into the war and turned into a pacifist, "And said I won’t fire the weapon. I won’t kill people." And then I wrote a third draft and this guy Cody Carmicheal, the surfer narrator came to me when I was just lying in bed saying to myself, "What the hell am I doing?" But I wasn’t depressed about it. I find when I get up in the morning—it’s kind of corny, a lot of people might think it’s shallow to be relatively content in doing what you are doing. But I got up one morning and that’s it, I’ll do this surfer point of view. Because the voice made me enthusiastic. As to the writing skills when I got to the fourth draft, I was just in a groove. I felt like I was semi-channeling this kid’s voice. And having a blast from a poetical point of view, riffing on the tanginess of his language. I worked very hard on it, but I didn’t worry too much about my writing skills. I thought I was flying. I thought I was really making it happen. You look back and it’s "What was that all about? How’d I do that?" Maybe I ought to worry about my writing skills. When I wrote the thing in the final daft—what I really wanted to do at that point— what I realized what I was really searching for was to recapture some of the vitality of the books that I loved as a young person. The books that read when I wasn’t reading for school. The books that were simply stories told that were basically Kipling or Huckleberry Finn, any books that were ripping yarns or even some of the exuberance of On the Road. I wanted something that mainlined American optimism and enthusiasm and played it out and when I nailed that it segued with what I was feeling which was optimism and enthusiasm, whether the thing flew or not. Do you see that?
RB: Yes, I do. Who is responsible for characterizing this as a modern-day Huckleberry Finn? Was that your intention?
TP: Mostly what I was thinking about was —the reason I sometimes forget my train of thought is because I have these preambles to the point I am trying to circle around to—I knew what I liked in those books and I felt that I reached the point in my life that I could almost reach out and touch Gatsby’s romantic nature. I almost felt like I could reach out and put my arm around Zorba in a direct human to human way. I felt like I understood where they are coming from. And so all I knew was that it paralleled the development of Trang and Cody’s characters. It dawned on me, "That’s what I want." I wanted that level of an American dreamer, an optimist. I didn’t see a lot of—you asked earlier about war novels since Vietnam, there haven’t been a lot of novels, if I might say something about my own novel that is unique, there have not been a lot of novels recently that have unjaded, utterly American enthusiasts for life. That’s why this story pounds along. That’s what refreshing to me. For some reason it was very hard and took me a couple of drafts before I came around to that’s what I want to write about. I want that sort of real straight on mainline American energy. And let that play out and see what the hell …that’s why this story bounces along like that. Underneath, if the damn story works at all it’s because of that. When I was younger I used to eat books in a sense. If I was fed by them that was great. I loved them and I took them to bed. Kurt Vonnegut carried the day for me for a long time. He fed me, especially in those post-college years. And that’s what I wanted to put in here. Which is a very long-winded answer.
RB: So here we are sitting on Day One of this Iraq invasion, is there any sense in which current events might affect the marketing efforts of The Pearl of Kuwait?
TP: It seems like a no-brainer as far as marketing goes. There are few novels about the Gulf War. Here’s one. So from a marketing point of view which I am not very good at it seems like it should be picked up, in sense. This war is going to be over soon, god willing, I hope. Someone said it’s like hitting a bullet with a bullet. The chance that you bring out a book at the very…I did my first reading last night and I was wondering who is going to come out for this book about the first Gulf War at the very moment that they can stay home and watch the big screen TV and the second war?
RB: So who came out?
TP: About thirty people. I am hoping that this war is over quickly and goes away and for obvious humanitarian reasons but as being a book I hope that damn book lasts because of what I was speaking of earlier. I didn’t think of George Bush when I wrote it, he wasn’t in my frame of reference, really. It’s strange and sort of scary the degree to which Tommy Trang in a different body has some of the same Us vs Them, Moral vs Immoral, Gung ho, clean this up, knock off Saddam goals.
RB: Tommy is a seventeen year old, without much education.
TP: That’s true.
RB: The book has just come out. To what degree are you caught up in working on it’s publicity to the exclusion what you want to do next?
TP: Pretty much. Totally. I would like to be writing right now.
RB: You have an idea?
TP: Yeah. I have four or five. I dig a lot of holes when I start out. It’s a very clumsy process. It’s like dig all over the yard and I come up with all sorts of different pieces. You have to be pretty mellow to accept that. You are trying to search for the center of a piece, for what holds it together. I didn’t find some of the things that would hold this book together until later drafts. But I would much rather be writing and …
RB: Are many your friends writers?
TP: I have a lot of what you might call second tier friends—people I know who I am friendly with— who are writers. My best friends are actually artists up in Vermont. But I know a lot of Marines…
RB: Have they read this book? Like John Lowry, who blurbs the book.
TP: I have two friends blurbing the book. (laughs) But what the hell. You have to lean on some one. He’s seemed quite honestly to like the book—he’s very literate. He has a Master’s in literature from Stanford and he loves books.
RB: Not most people’s picture of Marine.
TP: I get that a lot. People won’t accept the idea that Marines read books. That Marines have a complex relationship with honor and duty, patriotism and in some sense as a I wrote this book, that became interesting to see.
RB: Those words seem to have become devalued. They are used by people who make them seem so false.
TP: It does and in some sense it is too bad that the people who are speaking these things—the current president—is perhaps not the best vehicle.
RB: What’s up with you in the future?
TP: I hadn’t realized that it was going to take this damn long to get published. If you had told me in 1985 that I was going to be sitting here with you in 2003 discussing my first novel. I had set a done date of 28, because that’s when Kurt Vonnegut got his first one published. I said, "If don’t make by the time I am twenty eight and get a damn book done I better quit." But I never quit. Or I quit a hundred times and kept saying, "Fuck it. I don’t give a shit. I’m going back to doing what I like." I haven’t looked that far ahead. I am assuming I am writing another book. I have plans to. Much more than ever, I am doing it because I get a kick out of it, which doesn’t seem like the most complex answer. But I really like telling a good story, making things up and potentially be allowed to do it. In other words making a living doing it. In some sense at forty years old it’s that simple. Yeah, it’d be great to have seventeen novels by the time I’m fifty seven. I don’t know how much room there is out there from seventeen novels by Tom Paine.
RB: Not a judgment you have to make. Well, thanks.
TP: Thank you.
© 2003 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing