Exclusive Author Interview #2
#2 Pizza and Poets
JB: So you were here and then you went to college and university here.
TP: Yeah. In Fullerton. Cal State Fullerton which is a very local college.
JB: Can you give me some idea of what it was like in the seventies? What year did you actually begin attending?
TP: Yeah. I went from 70 thru 76…
JB: Is that a long time? It sounds like a long time to me!
TP: It's a very long time. When I finally did what they call "grad-check" to see if I had enough units in my major to graduate they found that I had twice as many units in my major – which was English Literature – as I needed. But I just thought I love this! I'll take a class in restoration drama. I'll take a class in romantic poets! What fun!!
JB: And did it feel like it was kind of a creative atmosphere there? Something that fed your writing even more?
TP: Sure. Yeah, It's that, you know, when you're twenty and you're reading Faulkner and Joyce for the first time, and Dante for the first time and Milton. All these things are new to you and it's also new to all the people sitting round you and you just talk feverishly about all this as if you're the first people to ever notice it. And we did quickly establish a very nice crowd at college. Very quickly I ran into Blaylock and Jeter and a number of other friends. We wound up really spending more time in the commons talking than attending classes. I remember one class I took, I showed up for the first session and never again, because all the tests were take home and so I would get them and fill them out and turn them in to the teachers' office but I never again attended class. We would always just sit under a tree outside the commons building and just talk all day long.
JB: So did you actually learn anything in the whole six years you were there?
TP: I did wind up doing a whole lot of reading that would never have done on my own.
JB: And were you writing whilst you were at college?
TP: Yeah. In fact there was an old Irish lady named Dorethea Kenny who was a teacher there and she taught writing and at weekends at her house she would host a kind of beer and pizza evening where the young wannabe writers would come and read poetry or stories or whatever they had and me and Blaylock were always there. Both Blaylock and I were writing at the time each an interminable unplanned novel that probably each of us got up to a 100,000 words I bet. And we had no plan at all, just every day or every other day we would extend the current scene. Have the character fall down a hole or get shot at or go have dinner. We kept thinking that if we kept this up a plot would eventually manifest itself! And eventually we noticed that we had done it long enough that it was clear that no plot would ever in fact manifest itself. We were fooled because real books seemed so spontaneous. Seemed so to be occurring just because the characters decide to do this and then that. We thought that's how books actually occurred. We didn't realise that was just a façade.
JB: It's something you subsequently grasped I think!
TP: We did grasp it before too long!
JB: How were you supporting yourself while you were at college?
TP: I was a janitor at a local school system during the summers. As the real janitors would take their summer vacations I would substitute for them and then two weeks at another school and I worked in a lot of pizza places, you know, bartender or pizza cook and that was probably mostly it. Which was all fun because other college pals of mine were also in those jobs.
JB: I've read that you've said somewhere that would-be writers should always take dead-end jobs.
TP: Right! Because then if you do make any sale at all it'll be easy to quit the dead-end job, because you'll be giving up nothing of value. There'll be no benefits, no tenure, no stock options and you haven't got any raises so it's not as you wouldn't be able to get the same minimum wage pay somewhere else. And I was true to that. I always made sure I had very junky jobs.
TP: Well, the school paper would print poetry written by the students and it was still close enough to 1968 that the poems were all free-verse, unpunctuated, unrhymed hippie drivel. Very pretentious though. Kinda Donovan Leitch after a lobotomy, if you could picture that effect! So Blaylock and I decided we could write stuff that would be way more pretentious and portentous but totally nonsense. And so we started and I would write a line and pass it to Blaylock. He'd write a line below mine and we'd pass it back and forth 'til we had got to the end of the page and the person who saw his line would be the last would make sure to tie it up. And then we cooked up a name for him. I said the last name should be one of those two syllable, two word things… Mitford, you know. And so one of us came up with Ash, the other came with Bless and our friend William was sitting right there, so we took his first name.
And so we sent these to the paper and they did publish it and we had given them Blaylock's phone number, so they called him and said "Golly! We love your poetry. Is this William Ashbless?" And Blaylock said "Uh, Yah!"
"We love your poetry. Can we know some biographical details about you?"
"Ummm… I don't get out much."
And so we began bringing Ashbless' poems in fact to this little writers group that the old Irish lady hosted and we would say "Our friend William Ashbless gave us these to read here and he wants to know what the company thinks of this work." And people would go "Why couldn't he come on his own?" and we'd go, "He's hideously deformed! Terribly crippled!" and everybody would go "Oh, good heavens! That's so sad. Do, do read his poems." And so Blaylock and I would start reading but we couldn't get more than four lines in before we'd start laughing real hard. And everybody thought we were just totally insensitive to be laughing this way at the work, no doubt painstaking, laboured work of this tortured cripple. Ha! And some of these people, of course, would claim to see huge significance in Ashbless's work. Just vast, you know, layer on layer of meaning. And Blaylock and I would try subtly to indicate our contempt for the people who thought this, but of course after a few pitchers of beer your estimate of what is subtle diminishes, you know? So by the end of the evening it was usually pretty disgraceful!
But anyway after that, anytime Blaylock or I were writing a book that involved a crazy bearded poet or any kind of poet, we would use the name William Ashbless and I had used Ashbless in my book The Anubis Gates and while it was still in production, Blaylock sent them sent them his book The Digging Leviathan, in which Ashbless was a character. And the editor wrote to Blaylock and said "What is this Ashbless stuff? Do you know this Powers guy?" and Blaylock said, "Oh! I'm sorry. Does he have Ashbless in his? We use it a lot. I'll take mine out." And she said, "No. Leave it in. Leave it in. But talk with Powers and try to make it consistent." And so ever since then, in fact in all my books I had been referring to Ashbless and now I almost have the idea that it would be bad luck for me to leave him out. In the last few books I haven't used the name Ashbless, I've used Ceniza-Bendiga, which of course is Spanish for "Ash-Bless". But I kind of think maybe I'll move to German or something next, but I think it would be bad luck to leave him out.
JB: The evolution of Ashbless… he's almost become in the consciousness of your readers, a very real figure. You must be quite delighted that the hoax as it were, has permeated everywhere!
TP: That's true. Every now and then I get on the net and I do a search for William Ashbless. One place I found him was in a totally serious non-fiction article on how to get a PhD. They're saying how to apply to colleges, how to organise your thesis, what a thesis should consist of… and the example they used was "Let's say for example you're doing your thesis on the works of William Ashbless…" and there's no further reference to like me or anything, and I'm not sure the person writing the article knew that Ashbless was made up. And I have heard of people who went trying to look him up in Britannica or Books in Print and things like that.
JB: But the two of you have perpetuated the hoax over the years. There is something wicked in what you're doing. You quite obviously enjoy making him that real!
TP: Yeah. We've even written a cookbook! – The William Ashbless memorial Cookbook – which we have never published. It's all of Ashbless's recipes excerpted from Ashbless's correspondence. We say "Excerpted from a letter to Marcel Proust" and translated into English. So we've excerpted Ashbless's favourite recipes from his correspondence with famous people.
JB: Is it going to see the light of day, do you think?
TP: Eventually! It's disgusting that it's gone this many years!