Even before we met, I liked Tom.
I had the opportunity to interview him over the phone (for articles that were published at airstream.com and trailerchix.com), but we didn’t meet until we shared a beer when he visited Bend two Julys ago.
About six months prior Tom published Airstreaming, a story about, in Tom’s words, “family, relationships and characters that would intertwine and cause each other to do surprising things.”
I was curious to find out how, since then, Tom has been changed by both Airstreaming the novel—and his own recent Airstream lifestyle.
At the time of writing, Tom was neither an Airstreamer or a resident of Kansas, where the story takes place. After basing his first two novels on personal experiences, he set out to write Airstreaming from pure imagination with characters developed “out of thin air,” he said. “Of course, when I finished, I realized that I ended up writing about themes that were deeply personal to me, which surprised me.”
“Part of that was wanting to place the story at the center of America—the Midwest—and since I knew a little about Kansas, I felt that was going to be my jumping off place. There’s some amazing history that unfolded there,” he said. “I went to the places I wrote about in the novel so I’d have firsthand knowledge of them, and I took pictures as I toured them so I could be as descriptive as possible. I also did quite a bit of research on the Jazz Age in Kansas City and went to the museum there at 18th and Vine to gain perspective. I also researched the history of the West Bottom stockyards.”
What about the trailer itself—the aluminum character that binds the others?
“I had a neighbor when I lived in Santa Barbara who was restoring an Airstream to take his family on the road for two years across America,” Tom explained. “He gave me a picture book of vintage Airstreams, and since my novel was set in the very early seventies, I chose the Overlander as the central model in the book. I researched the model through that book and online, and then I found one and toured it.”
Now a full-fledged member of The Tribe, Tom and his partner John own “Margaret”, their Flying Cloud 23FB, that they’ve towed to WBCCI gatherings and other Airstream events where Tom has given book readings. “It has been a very rewarding experience speaking at the rallies, and to share the novel with fellow ‘streamers,” he said. “I read at Alumafandango in Oregon, not just from the novel, but some poetry that I’d written about driving trips across the country. It was truly a wonderful experience; I felt like I was really being listened to, and that people there were of a kindred spirit.”
“While I continue to believe that Airstreaming is for everyone given its themes of independence, love, family and letting go, ‘streamers have been uniquely drawn to it because of those themes resonating with their own lives, and their own desire to get away and see what the world has to offer,” he said.
Tom stated that the men he meets “especially love the polishing aspect, and what that means, and all of the work invested in the trailers.” Women readers appreciate the mother/daughter story “and the need for independence resonates with them. Some love the Jack and Martha relationship and they find a special connection to them through their trials and tribulations.”
I’ll see Tom again at Alumafiesta where he’ll be hosting a seminar with Greg Ziegler (author of Travels With Max—the story of his recreation of Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley journey in an Airstream Bambi.) “We’ll talk about the process of writing, and connecting it to your everyday life regardless of whether you’re Airstreaming or not,” he said. “We both have very different books, and I think we’ll be able to offer two perspectives from a fiction and non-fiction point of view that people can, and hopefully will, relate to.”
I asked Tom if it felt weird to be lumped in with the handful of known “Airstream authors”, given that the book is primarily about human relationships and the trailer doesn’t even show up until page 163. He said yes. “I started writing the novel fourteen years ago while I was a graduate student at Bennington and the Airstream, at the time, was not nearly as popular then, or featured in ads or talked about as unique vintage emblems of Americana,” he said. “As I wrote the novel, the shape of the Airstream, and its promise of independence, is what drew me to using it as a central metaphor for what I wanted to express. I didn’t even think of marketing the book to the Airstream community until I got around to publishing the novel twelve years after I wrote it. It’s true, the trailer doesn’t appear until late in the book, but I think it appears at just the right time, when the reader is invested in the characters and their needs.”
He’s had a chance to reflect on the novel from a new perspective now that he has his own Airstream. “There are some aspects of the open road, the feeling of independence, and that of leaving that I feel I got right,” he said. “What I didn’t expect was the sense of community that one immediately encounters when meeting up with other ‘streamers. I think I’ll delve into that more specifically in the sequel as well since I don’t address that at all in the novel. I also feel like I have to work harder to really get specifics right when talking about Airstreams now that I’ve met so many hardcore enthusiasts. Not having an Airstream while working on the first novel gave me freedom to let the characters take me where they needed to go, and begin to create the Airstream as its own character that I’ll explore more fully.”
Speaking of the sequel—if you’ve read Airstreaming, this news is for you: “I have big plans for Linda, and right now she’s on her way to Los Angeles by way of Texas,” Tom revealed. “I also love the characters of Jack and Martha and am trying to figure out a way of incorporating them into the book, but we’ll see.”
Don’t hold your breath, though. Tom and John are undergoing a massive remodel of their Seattle home and the further adventures of the Airstreaming Airstream are on the back burner.
Read a review of Airstreaming from Kirkus Reviews.