Who knew that one of Santa Barbara’s most beloved musicians could write? With the publication of Backstraw, Tom Ball, half of the venerable duo of Kenny Sultan and Tom Ball, proves he can pen a story. “I never took any creative writing courses,” Ball said when we spoke by phone recently, “but I’ve always been drawn to accessible writing by people like John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and Truman Capote.” Eight years in the making, Backstraw follows the life of Tim DiAngelo from his tragic childhood in a small East Texas town to laid-back Santa Monica, California, and from there to an extended trek across Asia, from Tokyo to war-ravaged Laos, Bangladesh, India, and Afghanistan.
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There are dark moments in Ball’s tale, and several mysteries linger until the end. My reaction when I read the final page was a visceral satisfaction. It was the same feeling I’ve experienced reading Charles Dickens. Ball writes with empathy and humor and an eye for detail. During our phone conversation, I teased him about possessing more talents than one man is entitled to. Besides being a fixture on our local music scene and the festival circuit for four decades, Tom Ball has now added novelist to his CV. The interview that follows has been edited for clarity and length.
The scenes when Tim DiAngelo is traveling across Asia are particularly vivid. Did that spring from research or personal experience?
A lot of that came from my personal experience. I spent several years in my twenties crossing Asia by land. Like Tim, I traveled alone and kept a journal. All these years later, I went back to those journals to refresh my memory on what travel was like 40 years ago, particularly traveling on the cheap, dealing with different currencies, entry and exit visas, rickety buses, sketchy hotels, all of it. Like Tim does, I met all kinds of people along the way, real characters.
Some of the funniest parts of Backstraw center on Tim’s experiences in public school. It was a little like Lord of the Flies on the playground.
Ideas around safety and well-being were definitely different back then. My own experience of school was different from Tim’s, but I enjoyed putting him in uncomfortable situations. My upbringing was the exact opposite of Tim’s. He was orphaned early and experiences some traumatic events that he doesn’t really understand until much later in his life. I grew up in a stable nuclear family in a Southern California beach town. I had a pretty fun and safe childhood.
There’s a scene with a traveling carnival that’s like something out of a Tom Waits song.
Carnivals and clowns seem to spark irrational fear in a lot of people. That scene was important to the plot of the story, but also the annual arrival of a traveling show was an event in the town, part of its rhythm.
Without giving anything away, there are a few interesting plot twists in Backstraw, particularly the identity of a certain benefactor.
I wanted to keep the reader guessing! One thing I really enjoyed about the process of writing was working out resolutions to those questions. It was fun to conjure up predicaments for Tim DiAngelo to get in and out of.
4•1•1| Backstraw by Tom Ball is available at Chaucer’s Books (3321 State St.) and online.