Today’s guest: Thomas Galasso
Every other Monday, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.
Today’s featured guest is the multitalented author, musician, actor, and teacher Thomas Galasso. Thomas received his bachelor of arts in English from Wayne State University, and eventually earned a teaching certification in Secondary English, Speech, and Drama. He also received a master of arts in English from Marygrove College. He has been teaching in Detroit Public Schools for over twenty years. He worked on another certification, and now teaches kids with Autism. His “serious hobby” is playing guitar, bass, a little harmonica, and singing. Thomas is the author of a novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings (Aquarius Press, 2017), described in detail below.
Recently I posed some questions to Thomas. Here’s what he told me.
DL: Thomas, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
TG: I was born and raised on the East Side of Detroit. My grandparents were immigrants from Italy and never spoke English fluently. My mother at five or six years old, remembered pulling into Ellis Island and got so excited, she started ringing the ship’s bell. My parents never graduated from high school, but they were serious about education. They sent my sister and me to Catholic school for twelve years. Early on in grade school, I was an avid reader and I used to make what is now considered graphic literature. My first story I ever wrote was in third grade. It was about a kid who wakes up and has a head of cabbage instead of his own head. I won some contest in school for it. However, I stole the idea from a similar story I read at the neighborhood library and then put my own spin on it. At the time, I didn’t understand plagiarizing or its crime, but I certainly was not going to say anything.
When I got to be a teen, we took the bus downtown to J.L. Hudson Department Store and I fell in love with exploring downtown. We also spent a lot of time at Belle Isle, as well. I took Creative Writing classes at Wayne State and then got involved in theater. After doing a dozen plays or so, I spent one year making a living on just acting. I joined Actor’s Equity, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, three unions I no longer belong to since I stopped paying dues. I studied acting at the University of Detroit and with famed actress/acting teacher/author, Uta Hagan, both here in Detroit and at her old HB Studios in New York City.
DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those come from?
TG: My debut novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings, is under the genre of historical fiction. It’s about a group of black and some white businessmen, numbers runners, hustlers, and Hastings regulars who face the destruction of their beloved neighborhood to make way for I-75 in an age of segregation. The neighborhood was razed from Gratiot all the way beyond Warren Ave.
The novel has a very interesting upbringing. It started as a bunch of dramatic monologues and then morphed into a one-act play that I wrote and directed for my drama class. It was performed at Detroit Northern High School where I taught. A year before I wrote the play, I was teaching drama at a DPS middle school. We put on a show every year for Black History Month that would include my drama class, the vocal music class, and the school band. The vocal music teacher, Ms. Rosalind Stearns-Brown, is also the daughter of Turkey Stearns, the Hall of Fame outfielder who played for the Detroit Stars of the Negro Leagues. His plaque is on the wall outside Comerica Park. (Ms. Stearns-Brown also sings the National Anthem every year for the Negro League series game at Comerica. Recently, she sang it at Keyworth Stadium in Hamtramck where the Stars once played.)
For Black History Month one year, she wanted to do “something about my dad” for our annual presentation. I wrote some monologues of three Negro League ballplayers, Stearns, Cool Papa Bell, and Jimmie Crutchfield as older men reminiscing about the old days.
Segue to a year later, and I rewrote the monologues into a one-act play that takes place on Hastings Street in Detroit’s historical Paradise Valley. I did research on the Negro League players and on Paradise Valley for the play.
This mash-up of Negro Leaguers and Hastings Street came about from my befriending blues musicians who played on Hastings. I bartended in Greektown in the ‘90s, and when I got off work I would go down to the now defunct Music Menu Bar on Monroe to listen to music. They had some great bands playing there. Through the great Detroit drummer, R.J. Spangler, I met Johnnie Basset, the famed blues guitarist who played on Hastings. I also met the extraordinary blues vocalist, Alberta Adams.
When they took their breaks, I was lucky enough to corner them at the bar and they would tell me stories about Hastings Street and its lively music scene and nightclubs and after-hours joints. One thing led to another, and I decided to bring the Negro League guys into the world of Hastings Street. I also decided a novel was more accessible to an audience than a play; one can read a novel anywhere, even on the other side of the world. (Actually, I know someone who read it in South Korea.) So I took a deep breath and said, “Well, I think I can write a novel. We will see one way or another.”
My work in progress is a series of short stories—a dozen or so that have to do with “working Detroit.” Two, however, are set in San Francisco. Three of them will be published in a few months along with stories from three other Detroit writers, Diana Wolfe-Popa, Ryan Ennis, and Michael Schwartz, in a collection.
I pull my art from my work and life experiences. The characters in my new batch of short stories are all working people—waiters, orderlies, assembly line workers, and actors trying to scruff their way through. I am also working on a screenplay of my novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings. I am co-writing it with Heather Buchanan, producer of AUX Media. We have a short film of the same name showing at the Royal Oak Main Theatre on August 28 at 7p.m. We are going to show the film and play some blues with a little band I put together. I play a numbers runner in the film. But I am most excited about the cast. Arthur Ray and Grover McCants, two acting veterans from Detroit, star in it. Shahida Hasan, a dynamic actress/vocalist, plays the “Aretha” role and sings her heart out.
DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?
TG: I write because it is who I am. Creating is very important to me, be it playing guitar, acting, or whatever kind of creative activity. I could take a more spiritual stance and say it is a gift from God, which I believe. It would be wasteful if I didn’t create. Ever since I was a kid, I was an avid storyteller and it is natural for me. In terms of accomplishment, I hope to give my readers a fulfilling experience that leaves an impression after they put the book down. I want to take them “there.” I want them to feel something—visually, emotionally-—I want them to touch, smell, and listen to the world I am creating for them. I want to take them to a place that I have living in my head and in my heart. I want them to get inside someone else and feel their joy, pain, or other emotion. I believe when we read, we see the world better, and not just from our own perspective.
DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?
TG: My writing process consists of rethinking incidents that I experienced in my life and finding the “literature” or the “story” in them. Everything in our mundane moments in life contributes to a bigger canvas or movie. I used to do a lot of writing with a glass of red wine or a pint of beer or at times a joint and sit in a corner at a bar and scribble away. Jack Kerouac called it “sketching.” I would sketch physical aspects of a room or people or conversations I overheard. I would scribble them down and then go home and within hours, maybe days or even weeks, I would take them and put them in a story with more meaning.
Then, there is the craft of the art. What can this story tell? What do I want my reader to feel? I love rewriting something I wrote months ago. I like to write and let it sit for a while and then come back to it with a clear head. A writer should not fall in love with one’s own words too much. Use only what drives the story. Pruning, cleaning up, watering, nourishing-—that is what I love. When I have nothing in the well, I stop. I play guitar and do other things, maybe act.
I can’t think of anything I don’t like about the writing process except forcing myself to write when I should be doing something else.
DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?
TG: Ever since I was a kid, I was told I was a good storyteller. I never looked at it that way. I just said, “Man, lemme tell you what happened today.” After reading bios on Hemingway and Kerouac, I found how we can take our everyday moments in life and make them something bigger than that moment. There is so much to be found in our simple daily lives. The beauty of literature is that it takes these simple moments and makes them so much more important, psychologically, emotionally, and intellectually. Every second of life is holy. There is a story in everybody and that is what makes being a writer so precious, exciting and yeah, HOLY.
DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What is the link to your book’s web site so readers can learn more about it?
TG: Thank you for giving me this opportunity. Here is the link to the Amazon page for When the Swan Sings on Hastings: https://amzn.to/2LKL4Gk.