Where I came from:
Karlyle Tomms is a writer who grew up in rural Ozarks poverty. He has been a life coach 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.
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, which addresses that struggle. I grew up in the rural Ozarks in the 1960s, what I refer to as the butt crack of nowhere, but don't get me wrong when I say that. I have tremendous respect for the people of the Ozarks and the life they carved out of mostly rock and red clay. I have joked that growing rocks in the Ozarks is easier than growing crops, but crops are also grown there. Having been raised on a farm, I also greatly respect the people who bring us the food we often take for granted. My childhood was challenging in more ways than one. I didn't have it as bad as many 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. Yet, I encourage anyone who has overcome trauma, tragedy, prejudice, or abuse to tell their story. Although there are 12-step anonymous meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous and Co-Dependents Anonymous, silence does not overcome stigma. Those who have achieved significant recovery from trauma, mental illness, or addiction need to be open so others may benefit from their experiences. Who could be better prepared to show you out of hell than one who has been there? My mother was killed when I was barely five years old, and my grandparents took me to raise. I say my mother was killed because she died in a car accident that occurred on a sunny day with dry pavement. The car rolled down an embankment, and my mother was so mutilated they had a closed coffin funeral. Still, my step-father, who had been driving, walked away with barely a scratch, and my aunts speculated that he murdered her and used the car accident as a cover. Then, I was taken into my grandparent's home, and they said they didn't know my father's whereabouts, but one still might question whether they did know and 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. In 1954, soon after publication, the book he narrated about his POW experiences was autographed to my mom. After her death, 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, my grandfather could no longer forbid it, so I contacted my father by writing his book's publishing company. They forwarded my letter to him. Then he wrote to me. We had no phone in the sticks in those days, so communication with my dad was by letter, but he arranged to fly to Little Rock, and we met when I was eighteen. I had a good relationship with my dad for most of the rest of his life. More detail is 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 then, and in those days, in the backwoods, such things were overlooked more than they are today. Grandma outgrew 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 living it than most Christians I have ever met. However, she was also an enabler. My uncle, my mother's brother, was an alcoholic, had always been favored as the oldest boy, and had been spoiled since he was small. At thirty-four, he had never married and never left home, and I was five when taken into my grandparent's 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 family's crown prince 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 to me. So, he took his jealous anger out on me and abused me until I was old enough to fight back. Details of this are in my blog post, Hate (My Story). I was also picked on and bullied at school, but I held out 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. 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 came for me, threatening to beat 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 put some effort into acting instead of just reading the lines as most others seemed to be doing. 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. I assume they respected my courage. Still, it didn't squelch my anger, and I maintained a resentment that I had been the outcast only a few days before. 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 differently. Having had a high school class in psychology offered by the school counselor, whom I admired, I immediately went to the campus counseling center and asked for therapy. However, it wasn't my therapists who helped me the most. My mentors and my willingness to try everything I could and study everything I could helped me the most. Following my efforts to find a better way, I read self-help books, studied spirituality, went to therapy, and, in time, went to Al-Anon. 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 essentially 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, but I was lucky to find many others. All my life, I have been creative. Maybe that came from 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 my father's book inspired me to be an author, but I have been engaging in creative writing since elementary school. At about 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 the editor for the campus literary magazine, publishing the work submitted by students and some of my own. After that, things went pretty dry for a while, although I did learn to play guitar and tried songwriting. In the 1990s, I wrote 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 50s that I was 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 a 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 autobiography. I was surprised that the initial things I joked about were never repeated, but she kept talking and had much to say. So, I kept writing. At one point, I stopped for about a year. Then, when I 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, who published the book in November 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 still shocked when my first novel, Confessions from the Pumpkin Patch, won a New Apple Awards medal. Since then, I have learned a lot, specifically that selling a book takes much more energy than writing one, which is no small task. Still, I have continued to write while I try to market my work because I have discovered that if I 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 personal experience in writing them. Unless I'm channeling some spirit of yesteryear, the characters and their stories are entirely made up. They are stories about survivors, those who overcome tragedy and trauma, and those who experience societal rejection and still manage to find themselves in the process. My novels contain graphic descriptions of sex and violence. I don't hold back because life doesn't hold back on people who know what it is like to struggle with trauma, mental illness, addiction, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Part of my goal is to kill stigmas and help people see that those who have these problems, those who are considered misfits and less than worthy of society, are real people with genuine souls that can still shine behind all the nastiness of their experiences and their reactions to them. Some people have a hard time coping with what I write. Some people get it. Some people have realized 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. Blessings, Karlyle Tomms