Karlyle Tomms is a writer who grew up in rural Ozarks poverty. He has been a life change consultant and speaker for over 38 years. He has written for different regional magazines and newspapers, and has often been selected to speak at both professional and non-professional events, as well as radio talk shows. However, he had never published fiction until completing his first award winning novel in 2014. His general method for fiction has been to define a character and allow that character to tell his or her own story from first person perspective as though the character is writing an autobiography. Through his characters he explores the psychology of the human condition as well as the various elements and entanglements of personalities which is why it has been said that he has, "a deft appreciation of personalities." His novels incorporate the social and historical influences surrounding the lifetimes of his characters, and are stories of overcoming social, emotional and spiritual challenges.
A PERSONAL NOTE:
Okay, that’s the resume. Now a few lines that are about the real me. I am a gay man, and it has taken me most of my life to reach the point where I could admit that to anyone, much less everyone. There is a poem in my poetry book, “The Gulls Are Always Laughing” titled “Don’t Tell” and it addresses that struggle. I grew up in the rural Ozarks in the 1960’s, what I refer to as the butt crack of nowhere, but don’t get me wrong when I say that. I have a tremendous respect for the people of the Ozarks and for the life they carved out of mostly rock and red clay. I have joked that it is easier to grow rocks in the Ozarks than it is to grow crops. Having grown up on a farm, I also have a tremendous respect for the people who bring us the food that we all too often take for granted.
My childhood was difficult in more ways than one. I know I didn’t have it as bad as a lot of people, but it wasn’t great. Over the years, I have met quite a few people who had it much worse than I did. However, this is my story, not theirs, but I very much encourage anyone who has overcome trauma, tragedy, prejudice or abuse to tell their story. Stigma is not overcome by silence.
My mother was killed when I was barely five years old, and my grandparents took me to raise. They said they didn’t know my father’s whereabouts, but one still might question whether they did know and simply chose not to contact him. Nonetheless, during my upbringing, he never attempted to contact me. He was USMC and had been captured in Guam a few days after Pearl Harbor. Then, he spent the remainder of World War II in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps where a third of all those captured never survived. He had narrated a book about his experiences as a POW, and had autographed a copy of it to my mom. After she died, it was one of the few things I had to hold onto, since my step-father took almost everything she had and disappeared. When I was eighteen, and my grandfather could no longer forbid it, I was able to contact my father by writing the publishing company of his book. They forwarded my letter to him. Then he contacted me and I had a good relationship with my dad for most of the rest of his life. More detail is found in my blog post, "Standing in the Shadow of Courage".
My grandparents had lived through the Great Depression. They had eloped across the county line in 1923 when Grandma was fourteen. She lied about her age and they got married. He was twenty-four at the time, and in those days, in the backwoods, such things were overlooked more than they are today. Grandma out grew him, though. She matured when he didn’t. Perhaps that was because of her faith. She was committed to her Christianity and did a better job of living it than most of the Christians I have ever met. However, she was also an enabler. My uncle, my mother’s brother, was an alcoholic, had always been the favored as the oldest boy and had apparently been spoiled since he was small. At the age of thirty-four when I was taken in, he had never married and had never left home. Grandma took care of him as though he were still a little boy. She cooked and cleaned, picked up after him, fed him, worried and paced the floor when he was out drinking instead of coming home. Since he had always been the crown prince of the family with only four younger sisters who were not his competition, he had never really had to share that status. When I came into the family, orphaned and pitied, the attention shifted onto me. So, he took his jealous anger out on me and proceeded to abuse me until I was old enough to fight back. The details of this may be read in my blog post “Hate (My Story)”.
I was picked on and bullied at school, as well, but I held out a hope and borrowed my self-esteem from my father’s book because he was an author and a hero. I would take his book to school to show others his picture inside the front cover. Some would not believe me. Others would taunt me that I was a liar and that It was not even my book. It didn’t stop the bullying. I stopped the bullying when I kicked a bigger kid in the nuts as he was coming for me, threatening to beat the hell out of me. I stopped it when, in the sixth grade, I slammed my books across the face of a high school senior because he wouldn’t stop pulling my hair. I stopped it when I worked up my courage to try out for the school play and actually put some effort into acting instead of just reading the lines. I stopped it when I wrote a letter to the school board telling them that I thought it was the responsibility of individual parents, not the school board, to set a dress code for their kids, and posted copies of it on the school bulletin boards. That one moved me from obscurity into getting in with the popular kids. Still, it didn’t squelch my anger, and I maintained a resentment, that only a few days before, I had been the outcast.
When I went to college, I was very angry, but I was also very lucky. I encountered mentors who took me under their wing and guided me out of the resentment for my abuse and into being able to see my life a different way. Having had a high school class in psychology offered by the school counselor, who I admired, I immediately went to the campus counseling center and asked for therapy. However, it wasn’t my therapists who helped me most. It was my mentors, my willingness to try everything I could and study everything I could, that helped me most. I read self-help books, studied spirituality, went to therapy, and in time went to Al-Anon in my efforts to find that better way. There may be some levels of that struggle that will always be with me, but I think I am finally happy. Several years ago, I was reading an old journal from years earlier where I had written basically this, “I feel like shit! I’m doing everything I can to try to feel better. I keep seeing therapists. I keep reading self-help books. I keep going to meetings. I keep saying affirmations. I study spirituality and I still feel like shit! I’ve always felt like shit and I probably always will feel like shit!” When I read it, I smiled because I didn’t feel like shit anymore, and the only thing I could see that I had done was that I had kept going to meetings, seeing therapists, saying affirmations, studying spirituality and reading self-help books until I could finally accept and love myself for who I am and let go of the anger. During all the turmoil of my life, I held onto hope. I credit my grandmother for being my first mentor and the first one to guide me on a path to a better way.
All my life, I have been creative. Maybe that came out of being an only child on a farm at least a few miles from the nearest neighbor. So, I had to find ways to entertain myself. Maybe it is because of my father’s book and aspiring to also be an author, but I have been writing since I was very young. At about the age of eight or ten, I wrote a play titled, “Who Ate the Tree”. I have no idea what I might have written or what may have become of it, but I remember writing it. I wrote poetry quite a lot as a teen. Don’t most troubled teens write poetry? In college I was editor of the campus literary magazine, publishing the work of students who submitted, as well as some of my own. After that, things went pretty dry for a while, although I did learn to play guitar and tried song writing. Later, when I lived in Nashville, I got a gig writing a monthly article for a regional recovery magazine and did that for about three years.
All through my life, I have had multiple ideas for novels, but I couldn’t seem to make one go past the third or fourth chapter. It was not until I was in my 50’s that I was actually able to complete a novel and I had not intended to write a novel when I started that. I had been joking, playing the character of this burned out old hippie woman and her irreverence for most things provincial. I thought, “Won’t it be fun to see what she has to say?” So, I sat down at the computer and began writing, letting her speak through me as though she were writing her own autobiography. I was surprised that the initial things I had joked about were never said again, but she kept talking and she had a lot to say. So, I kept writing. At one point, I stopped for about a year. Then, when I went back and opened the file again, she backed up a few pages, started over and finished the novel. When I had finished the book, I shared it with a friend who had retired to the Ozarks from New York and had been involved with publishing. I was surprised that she liked it, but not only did she like it, she wanted to help me prep it for publication. Next, I found my initial publisher, and the book was published in November of 2014. I was shocked when I was able to get a copy to Marideth Sisco who had worked with the Oscar nominated film, “Winter’s Bone”. I was shocked again, but delighted, when she returned a positive review, and I was shocked, still more, when "Confessions from the Pumpkin Patch" won a New Apple Awards medal. Since then, I have learned a lot, specifically that it takes a lot more energy to sell a book than it does to write one, and writing one is no small task. Still, I have continued to write while I try to market my work because I have discovered that if I simply let the characters in my head have their say, the novel gets written. If I don’t, they pester me till I write it.
In some ways, my stories are autobiographical and I pull from my own personal experience in writing them. The characters and their stories are completely made up, unless I’m channeling some spirit of yesteryear. They are stories about survivors, those who overcome tragedy and trauma, those who experience rejection by society, and still manage to find themselves in the process. My novels are very graphic and I don’t hold back in my descriptions because life doesn’t hold back on people who know what it is like to struggle with trauma, mental illness and addiction. Part of my goal is to kill the stigma of mental illness and addiction (among other stigmas) and help people to see that those who have these problems are real people with real souls that can still shine behind all the nastiness of their surface behavior and mental anguish. Some people have a hard time coping with what I write. Some people get it. Some people come to the realization that there is soul and a substance in my stories. If you would like to find out which kind of person you are, then by all means, read my work.
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