Can Tom Zigal Really Say That?

Local Writer Reveals All!

Can Tom Zigal Really Say That?
Photo By Shelley Rutledge

Let's say you have an old friend who you see maybe a dozen times a year and you think you know him pretty well. You go to lunch, you share some of the same friends, you've been drinking with him, his son goes to the same school your kids went to. He's a writer with a really good new book and a couple of others out that you admire. You persuade him to do an extended interview that concentrates on his work, his influences, and his opinions on his craft and his peers. He passes on the names of some of his other friends and family that you contact. What you learn is reassuringly what you thought, only with more depth and detail. What is confirmed is that above all he is observant, loyal, generous, self-deprecating about his talent, and very funny. Let's say he is Tom Zigal, whose new novel Pariah was published a couple of weeks ago. Here are some important Zigal factoids to keep in mind: In his day job, Zigal occupies a lofty perch over at the University of Texas, writing speeches for university president Larry Faulkner. Zigal's wife, Annette Carlozzi, is a notable figure in American art circles and currently is curator of contemporary and American Art at UT's Blanton Museum. Zigal is a Czech-Texan name, and there is a clan of them in Fayette County, although Zigal and his brother Frank were raised in Texas City, the working-class suburb of Galveston and Houston. Zigal was a football standout in Catholic schools in Texas City and Lafayette, Louisiana; he says that he can "still diagram a sentence and recite the seven deadly sins."

Like many others in the high school class of 1966, Zigal became a natural-born hell-raiser, war protester, and psychedelic pioneer. During a college year abroad, he took his guitar with him to the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, where he charmed the girls and impressed the locals with his comprehensive knowledge of Bob Dylan songs. And then one of those life-changing experiences occurred: He attended Stanford's creative writing program in the early Seventies, just after the program's founding director, novelist Wallace Stegner, retired. "I wanted to go to grad school and study more literature and write the Great American Novel," Zigal explains, "but I didn't want to become academic and work on some masterpiece called "Furniture in the Later Works of Henry James.' I thought Stanford was in Connecticut. In fact, even after I moved there I would receive letters from my parents saying, "What are you doing in California? We thought you were in Connecticut.' At a family funeral a few years ago, I saw a cousin I hadn't seen in 30 years. He said, "So how was Connecticut?'"

Zigal's classmates included Scott Turow, April Smith, and Chuck Kinder, who later turned up as the memorable character Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. The star of Zigal's class, Scott Turow, has a memory of the writing program that makes it sound like a tough, competitive place -- excepting Zigal. "While many of us were, in retrospect, young assholes during our California years, Tom has always been a through-and-through mensch. Zigal was the person who was most sincerely rooting for everybody else and who was widely beloved as a result." The tendency toward self-deprecation in Zigal that Turow alludes to is evident when Zigal is asked whether his Stanford class represented an early Seventies cutting edge in creative writing: "Don't forget that 10 years before me, in 1961, the Stanford writing program had Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Tom McGuane, Peter Beagle, and Wendell Berry all in the same class. That was cutting-edge."

Remaining in California, at times living with his brother Frank, Zigal rubbed shoulders with the country's literary elite and literary outlaws. The latter includes the Texas expatriate detective novelist James Crumley and S. Clay Wilson, the raunchiest of the Bay Area underground cartoonists, whose comics depicted pirates ravaging nubile wenches. Describing Wilson as "one of the big three in Underground Comix," along with R. Crumb and UT's Gilbert Shelton, Zigal remembers him as a Hell's Angel in the making. "He made Crumb look like a French semiotician. My favorite Wilson series were "Ruby the Dyke and the Pirates,' "Captain Pissgums and His Ma,' and the "Checkered Flag.' I went bar-hopping with him a couple of times. But he was gruff and something of a bully and you had the feeling he might hit you in the head with a Harley chain."

It quickly becomes evident in speaking with Zigal that humor is one of his most abundant resources. That said, during his California years, Zigal fully participated in the politics and culture of the times, including an antiwar episode in San Francisco that literally turned him into a street-fighting man when a peaceful march was charged by police on horses. Still, confronted with questions about a psychedelic lifestyle and long-term hearing loss incurred at San Francisco's Winterland, Zigal has only this to say: "I'm still pissed about the breakup of Quicksilver."

Returning to Austin, Zigal says, was more than a welcome experience. "I had returned several times during my California daze to see my brother, Frank, and friends here in Austin, and my family in Texas City. Austin has always been Oz to me. Even in the great San Francisco/Berkeley heyday, Austin held its own. In 1976, Austin seemed hipper than Berkeley, to tell the truth."

Back home, Zigal was part of a burgeoning literary scene as a founding member of the innovative poets cooperative Texas Circuit. As editor and publisher of The Pawn Review, he developed "a small press movement in response to the lack interest from New York presses, and the lack of interest in poetry in general." His poet contemporaries included Susan Bright, David Gene Fowler, Dave Oliphant, and a young Steve Harrigan.

One offbeat focus for Austin's small press scene was Paul Foreman's book store, on Red River, across the street from The Spanish Village. "He [Foreman] ran a wonderfully funky used bookstore where Stubb's is now," Zigal recalls. "It felt like a cross between a dusty bookstore and a country store. You always expected to walk in and buy a copy of Proust and a pound of beef jerky. It was a great hangout for some truly unusual characters." Foreman's Thorp Springs Press published Zigal's first novel Playland in 1982: "My agent had sent Playland around to the New York publishers in the Seventies with no luck. Paul liked the book and agreed to publish it. Carlos Lowry, the artist who painted the mural on the Varsity theatre, designed a wonderful dust jacket. All went well until the autograph party. Everything was planned for the big day and everyone I knew showed up, but there were no books. Paul hadn't made the last payment on the printing bill, and the printer was holding the books hostage. I developed a migraine, sent everyone home from Paul's store, and thought about the hit men I knew who would whack a bookstore owner for a buck fifty. I took out a loan from the UT Credit Union and liberated the books. Paul, bless his tortured heart, made monthly payments with his book sales until the note was paid off."

At that time, Zigal was also an editor of publications for UT's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. He describes his years surrounded by rare books and manuscripts as being "like a kid in a candy shop." His short stories were conventionally published in good literary journals and anthologies. Perhaps his signature piece of writing is the long story "Second Lieutenants of Literature," which appeared in the SMU Press collection Careless Weeds. The title is taken from a Robert Stone interview in The Paris Review in which Stone remarks that MFA creative writing programs are producing "the second lieutenants of literature," a metaphor that brings to mind the beginning officers during the Vietnam War who were often sacrificed in bloody combat. Zigal's story is a darkly comic meditation on a down-on-his-luck (and once-promising) story writer who is relegated to judging a story contest in a tiny West Texas town.

In 1986, Zigal and Carlozzi moved to Aspen, Colorado, the jet-set ski resort ("She was executive director of the Aspen Art Museum and I hung out with Goldie Hawn," Zigal asserts). But the idea for a mystery novel set in Aspen, with its radically opposed factions of rich celebrities, ardent environmentalists, and ruthless developers didn't take shape until their next move in 1989 to New Orleans. The idea materialized as Into Thin Air, the book that first introduced Pitkin County Sheriff Kurt Muller, a lapsed hippie who is often caught in the middle of local controversy and who, as a single father, has to balance his job, his serious responsibilities raising his son, and a sometimes chaotic personal life. Writing Into Thin Air placed Zigal in a familiar literary quandary: Should he write a literary novel or a genre book that could make money? Zigal says that he "wasn't sure which novel I was going to write -- a commercial venture or the trilogy of my sensitive, misunderstood youth in the south of France. So I consulted the always insightful, always elegant Annette, and she said, "Hey, whyn't ya write somethin' that makes money for a friggin' change?'"

Indeed, the book landed Zigal the powerhouse New York literary agent Esther Newberg and a package with a good New York publishing house. "When I wrote Into Thin Air I didn't envision a series. I know that sounds ludicrous now, because why in God's name would you write one mystery without planning a series? The truth is, I didn't know a thing about the world of mystery writers and crime publishing, and I still don't know as much as I should. I have never seen myself as a mystery writer and I have fallen into this madness by accident. Probably by mistake. But Sarah Bird read Air and said, "Tell them you can write 50 of these things.' So I did, and I got a multiple-book contract from Delacorte. But I've written Kurt Muller one book at a time -- trying desperately to fill the pages and not make a fool of myself."

The next stop for Zigal, Carlozzi, and their son Danny was Atlanta, where Carlozzi coordinated public art for the 1996 summer Olympics. It was there that Zigal wrote the second Kurt Muller book, Hardrock Stiff, which took both the author and the reader into the techniques and lore of mining and the incendiary politics of eco-terrorism. By the time Hardrock Stiff was published in the fall of 1996, the Zigal/Carlozzis were back in Austin, and Zigal read to a packed house at BookPeople. That particular evening there must have been a noir harmonic convergence, because also signing new books in town were Zigal's old California chum Jim Crumley as well as James Ellroy, whose memoir My Dark Places was just out. Zigal speaks affectionately about community in the world of crime fiction writers, but he does take exception to Ellroy, whose recent readings have been notable for their reactionary political rantings."I don't have a very good impression of James Ellroy," Zigal confesses. "I've never believed a word of his faux bebop prose. And his posturing cynicism strikes me as adolescent. So screw James Ellroy. Yes, he was in Austin the same night Crumley and I had signings. Jim and I called Ellroy's "handler' and invited him to an outrageous after-signing party that now lives on in infamy, but Ellroy didn't show. He was probably out breaking into houses to sniff women's underwear. Apparently that was his occupation before he started writing novels."

With a successful mystery series under way, Zigal was confronting writing in a genre that was foreign to him. "I don't read many mysteries or thrillers," Zigal says. "In fact, before I fell into this scene I had read only the classic hardboiled guys -- Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Jim Thompson, and James Crumley because he was a personal friend. But then in 1994, when Into Thin Air was in production, I panicked and thought I should read some mysteries in order to sound authoritative if someone gave me a pop quiz."

Turow admiringly quotes Zigal as saying that to become a writer you have to "log a lot of pages." Seeing an early draft of the opening pages of Into Thin Air, Turow recalls that "the first pages of the first Kurt Muller book were just jaw-droppingly good -- it was high art, which would have won him literary admirers, but probably many fewer readers." The opening was rewritten. Now comes Pariah, published, like the others, by Delacorte, with a paperback contract with Dell. Pariah has garnered good early reviews and establishes Zigal as one of the most successful series writers published by a New York house, although hardback mystery sales are waning across the board.

Since being back in town, Zigal clearly relishes his success and that of his friends. Held in high esteem by his writer colleagues, some of them are reluctant to let him forget his generational imperative to raise hell and live on the edge. Sarah Bird offers this pungent near-memory: "In the end, the best any of us can do is to try and reconstruct those magic moments with Zieg Heil using circumstantial evidence and blood tests. Like that morning I came to in a cheap motel in Juarez with his name tattooed across my ass and a prescription for penicillin signed by Dr. Reo Symes. Was that the time when I came to consider Tom to be the most generous supporter of fellow writers I'd ever known and, quite possibly, the funniest Czech-Texan around? Who can say? I only wish I could remember."

Austin's fall literary season is upon us and during the Texas Book Festival in November, there will be a big public writers' party at the Austin Music Hall on the Saturday night of the Festival weekend. These gatherings, much like the spring party that focuses on Texas Writers Month, seem like a high school reunion where they only invited the really smart kids, many of whom have been competing with each other for a long time. Tom Zigal won't be hard to pick out in this group. He'll be the one lighting up the room, telling funny stories. He's the guy everyone is glad to see. end story

Tom Zigal will read from and sign Pariah at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Saturday, Sep. 18, at 2pm and at Adventures in Crime and Space on Sunday, Sep. 26, from 3-5pm.

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