Thomas Chatterton Williams Interviewed by Ellen Yaffa
From his website: “I started writing this book out of a searing sense of frustration. It was 2007, hip-hop had sunk to new depths with outrageously ignorant artists like the Dip Set and Soulja Boy dominating the culture and airwaves, and something inside me just snapped. I was in grad school at NYU and one of my teachers gave the class the assignment of writing an op-ed article on a topic of choice, the only requirement being to take a strong stand. I went straight from class to the library and in three or four hours banged out a heartfelt 1000 words against what I saw as the debasement of black culture in the hip-hop era.”
At what point in your writing process did you realize you were moving from cultural criticism to memoir? How difficult was it for you to switch genres?
I didn’t imagine myself writing a memoir until I was actually in the process of selling the book. There were about eight or nine imprints bidding on the book and about half of them would have let me write the story however I wanted and four or five of them were really pushing me in the direction of memoir. I’d never considered that before. I figured I’d write cultural criticism with some anecdotes here and there for emphasis, but the editor I ended up going with at Penguin Press convinced me that the points I wanted to make could be better made through storytelling and scene setting than through heavy-handed argumentation. I think he was right. And though I’d never attempted it before, when I sat down to write, I heard my father’s voice, and the voice of my childhood friends and the rappers and athletes we emulated talking to me, and the writing came more naturally than I would have expected.
One of the challenges authors often mention regarding writing memoir is anticipating what family members will think. Your book opens quite an intimate window into your family growing up–and you say your father is such a private man–what has been their reaction to such public exposure?
My family has been extremely supportive, which is always a relief. Another writer once told me that if your family likes your memoir, you haven’t done your job as a writer. But I’m not sure about that. I think there are cases where that may be true, but there are also cases where you’ve just not been very sensitive or kind. I didn’t want to be unkind at all. I just wanted to use my own experiences and observations to make larger cultural points. Sometimes that involved exposing myself and some of my family members to closer scrutiny than they may have liked. I gave my brother and mother the text early on as I was working through chapters and drafts. There feedback was positive and supportive and made me feel I was on the right track. I never show my father writing before it’s complete, so I didn’t show him anything until the book was in galleys, which is really late in the game. I gave him a galley copy and waited. He went upstairs and about four hours later he came back down and he was in a very good mood. We didn’t speak about the book immediately. He joined my mother and me in front of the Sunday NFL game and my mother brought some food down for us to eat. My father just handed me his notes and comments–he always takes notes when he reads–and that let me know that he really got both what I was trying to do and what was going on in the culture at large. Later on we had long talks about the book and he told me how much it meant to him, which meant a lot to me. It was important to me that my family was on board with the project.
What was your process of finding a publisher? And how was the contract laid out (ie– did you have to submit a finished draft before confirming the deal, or just a few chapters)?
I got kind of lucky finding my agent and then my publisher. I had a teacher in graduate school at NYU, a writer named Katie Roiphe. Katie is a brilliant writer as well as a gifted teacher and she became a mentor to me and a real friend. I did an assignment for her, a fake op-ed, the thesis of which was that black culture in the hip-hop era is not black culture in all its richness and depth, but is black street culture, and the two things are being dangerously conflated. She told me it was pretty good and that I should submit it to newspaper op-ed pages. I did and finally the Washington Post took it and the piece was controversial and generated a lot of comments when it ran. At that point, I knew I wanted to expand the argument into a book, so I sent it to an agent who was recommended to me and she agreed to work with me. Her name is Elyse Cheney and she is a very talented at what she does; she gave me invaluable insights and feedback. It took about eight months, but I finally got a 50 page book proposal together that Elyse approved of and she sent it out to a bunch of publishing houses all at once. A week or so later, I went with her to meet with about eight different imprints who were interested in the book and the day after the meetings we had several serious offers to choose from. We decided to go with the Penguin Press and I signed a contract several weeks later. I had a book deal before I graduated school, which really was very lucky. The terms of the contract were that I would be paid an advance (in four installments) and need to deliver a manuscript (a first draft) to Penguin within 14 months of signing the deal. I submitted the manuscript in 12, and then it took an additional 6 months or so of edits before the book was in its final draft.
I have a notebook full of sketches of ideas for a novel. I’d like to buckle down and tackle that next. I’m not really at liberty to say anything more than that for fear of jinxing myself!Bottom of Form
Thomas Chatterton Williams was educated in his father’s study. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Georgetown University and a master’s degree from the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post and n+1, among other places. He lives in New York City. Read more about him on his website.