Tom “TA” Anderson’s ’81 career has taken some interesting twists and turns… from Paris, IL to Lomita, CA; from an internal staff attorney with a power company near Atlanta to a screenwriter and author. And, of course, he took a four-year tour at the ATO house at the University of Illinois, majoring in Engineering. That all makes perfect sense, right?
Tom, Lomita, CA… can you get any further from Paris, IL?
That’s funny – I always heard that Paris is further away from anywhere else! But Southern Cal is where a writer should be if he wants to sell screenplays, as the business revolves around connections. None of which I have, but it did lead to a couple successful screenwriters taking pity on me and introducing me to a very good manager, who took me on as a client. So I’m very fortunate, as the only way to get your work seen in Hollywood is through agents and managers.
Tell us about your career… how did you get from attorney to screenwriter/author?
That’s easy – rampant stupidity. I kept leaving perfectly good jobs in order to write and essentially forced myself to go for it. I’m not one of those who hates the corporate life. I actually enjoy the camaraderie of an office and the chance to venture into a courtroom. But the personal satisfaction of writing has grabbed me and won’t let go. Now all I have to do is succeed. Simple.
Your pledge brother, Jim Bremhorst ’81, passed on an electronic copy of your book “Colt Humboldt and the Close of Death”. He described it as ‘sort of in the Harry Potter genre in that it was written for a teenage audience but has much broader appeal’. How would you describe it?
Jim about nailed it, though the target audience would be a little younger than teens, what the publishing industry calls ‘middle grade’. That said, I strived to make the story smart and fun and, much like the Potter series, hopefully readers of all ages will enjoy it.
What inspired you to retire from your legal career and to begin writing? Is this something that you always wanted to do? Were you a good writer in school?
I repeat – rampant stupidity. Writing is something I always wanted to do, but practicality kept getting in the way. So I got an engineering degree at Illinois, followed by a law degree at Georgia. I probably should have studied journalism or advertising! I always envied those guys who followed that path, and a surprising number of writers have come out of the advertising world.
Fellow Illinois ATO Gary Carter came down to University of Georgia for law school a year after I did (we rented a big townhouse with three other guys. It was the time of REM and B-52s emerging in Athens, and the law school was like a big frat, even hosting exchanges with sororities. Great times!) He used to fill me in on Mike Buchner’s burgeoning career in advertising. I found it quite distracting, as it sounded like what I preferred to have been doing. As most know, it turned out rather well for Mike, and his brother, too. Congrats to them.
I didn’t get a chance to write much in the engineering program that didn’t involve equations, but I was Worthy Scribe for three semesters. In order to get the brothers to read the minutes, I took some artistic license with what transpired at the chapter meetings. It was fantastic to have my stuff read, though a good part of that was from posting the minutes in the heads, where there was scant competition of reading material.
This book, this setting- Edinburgh, Scotland from the time of the black plague in the mid-14th century to current day… where did that come from? What attracted you to this time and place? Have you spent time in Scotland researching the history, settings and folklore that you used in the book?
I had a girlfriend who was from Scotland, so I got to know the place when we would visit her family. She was from Ayrshire (near Royal Troon and Turnberry, for those who know their British Opens). The writer Robert Burns was also from there. His story Tam O’Shanter was set there, so we visited the places mentioned in the story, and they inspired part of the book. We also visited her friends in Edinburgh a good bit, and that’s where I first heard the story of Mary King’s Close, a downtown neighborhood that was supposedly sealed in 1645 to stop the spread of the plague. Unfortunately, all the residents were still in the neighborhood, and they all perished, giving rise to ghost stories and tourist attractions. That was the spark that started the idea for the book. The folklore you ask about goes back to Celtic times, and my research for that was pure Google.
What inspired your characters- family, friends, pledge brothers?
Ha! No pledge brother was the basis for a character, though I have used a couple in my screenplays. The characters were all completely made up from scratch, with the exception being the Scottish ex-girlfriend. She got a part. And no – we’re on good terms, so it’s a likeable character.
This was just the first in a series? How far along are you on the rest of the books? Do you have the full outline in mind already or will you “make it up as you go?”
There will be four more books, each set in a different country. In plotting the first book, I roughly outlined it, but didn’t know the answer to some of the tough spots I was creating for the characters and had to make it up on the go. With the next book, I’m trying to outline a bit more, as I now have both the overarching story and main characters. But I think as with screenplays (and thus movies), some of the better books result when writers paint their characters into corners without knowing how to get them out. That forces the writer to come up with inventive solutions, and it keeps the audience engaged as it reduces predictability.
Do you envision this being turned into a movie(s)?
The story was originally pitched as a possible screenplay to my manager. He, in turn, said, “sounds like a book.” He went on to say that studios pretty much only make these types of stories if they start as books, thus providing a built-in audience. So I need to find an audience…
Tell us a little bit about the “business” approach that you are taking to getting your books published. That world has certainly changed.
… which will be difficult as this book is self-published. While some genres do very well with self-publishing, middle grade isn’t one of them. Ideally, I’ll get a publisher interested, which means I’ll have to get a lit agent interested first. Other than that, I’ll push and cajole to get reviews or ratings by anyone who will be willing to post it on Amazon. I’ll also give the e-book away to anyone who wants it, and would love to find a way to give it to kids, including getting it into schools. I hear that’s where kids tend to hang out. A teacher in Colorado wrote me saying she’s offering extra credit to any of her students who write a book report on it, so it’s a start. There’s always the slight chance of a book catching fire if it gets enough ratings on Amazon. Fifty Shades of Gray, among other notable titles, started that way, though my book has slightly different content.
What else have you written?
This is the first book, but there are a number of screenplays.
What other sorts of things do you hope to write in the future?
Besides the book series, I have other ideas for screenplays. One in particular may be of interest, as I’d like to write a story set in an early 80’s fraternity. It would be a comic drama along the lines of Dazed and Confused, where the story would jump among a number of main characters, from pledges trying to sneak away on walk-out to seniors sweating through job searches. And there will be no shortage of characters and situations recognizable to anyone who was in the house during my time. That said, I’d love to hear from anyone who has a story or stories that they can’t shake… the funnier, the better.
Who are some of the “characters” in the house that made things interesting at the time? Do any of them show up in your current characters?
If I had to list all the “characters” in the house who made things interesting, you’d end up with three pages, single-spaced. But I will mention that when I was a freshman, there was a small group of seniors who had to be one of the funniest collections of human beings ever assembled. I’m sure I’m omitting a few names, but among them was Tom Minner, Bob Lundstedt, Rick Korst and Jim Lyon (spellings may be off – it’s been a while since I memorized them for Hell Week). Will Stroth, from my class, was a natural addition to their group. I usually tried to study in the dining room addition, but those guys happened to live in the rooms tucked away next to the addition. Every night was like improv night, and they were a hell of a lot more entertaining than my engineering books. For better or worse, their style of humor stuck to me.
Going back to your time at the University of Illinois and ATO… what prompted you to choose the U of I and why ATO?
There was never any question that I’d attend the University of Illinois. It was the best state school with a top engineering program, and that was that. As far as choosing ATO, there had always been a Parisian or two in the house, and my friend in high school was Seth Berl’s brother. He dragged me along to visit Seth a couple times. So I saw the house without being a rushee, and then when I went through formal rush while still in high school, ATOs easily made the largest impact. Every active I met was incredibly nice. It made my dad happy, who had been a president of ATO at South Dakota. Then, my brother John pledged ATO after I graduated, and my sister Laurie married an ATO. It was all rather incestuous.
Do you stay in touch with any of your ATO brothers?
Moving to Georgia and then California, I haven’t stayed in touch nearly as well as I’d like. So if anyone reading this wants to e-mail me, please do. I spent a weekend back in Champaign three or four years ago with Jim Bremhorst, Jim Lauschke and Dave Ehrhardt (where I rediscovered how much I suck at foosball). It was Jim Bremhorst who read the book and brought it to your attention. So a big thanks to Jim.
Where can guys get a copy of your book and learn about new things that you’ve written?
The paperback and e-book are available on Amazon, but if you’ll settle for the e-book version, just email me and I’ll send it to you. If you like it, feel free to copy it and give it away as much as you like. I’ve set up a website and Facebook page, though they both need some serious attention.
What advice would you have for brothers who have an interest in writing?
Hit yourself in the head with a rubber mallet until the urge passes. Or, at least be smart and don’t go all in like some of us idiots. But the two best pieces of advice I’ve heard from those who actually know are 1) “ass in seat”, as one writer indelicately puts it; write every day, even if it’s just jibberish. You’ve got to make it a habit; and 2) Read. A lot.
This is neither here nor there, but a couple years ago, that Scottish ex-girlfriend and I were talking on the phone while she was at a bachelorette party in Las Vegas (she moved from the U.K. to Atlanta, where I was living, after we met). She knew I had been in a fraternity at Illinois and asked me which one, and when she told another girl from the bachelorette party, that other girl said she had read that the ATO house at Illinois was the best fraternity in the United States. I missed that article, but Illinois ATOs have a mean rep in Vegas.