At the end of October last year I posted an interview with the author Herbert Simmons. I had found a notebook with some badly scrawled notes in it and tried to make some sense of them. The interview had occurred over fifteen years ago and my recollection was hazy. I thought I had recorded our conversation but I couldn't be sure. I wanted to make sure that Mr Simmons' time hadn't been wasted speaking to me, so I did my best to make sense of those words and turn it into something beneficial for future Simmons scholars, even if some of it was guess work. I figured something was better than nothing, right?

Anyway, I found the cassette. I did record the interview. And now I have transcribed our conversation. I thought about updating the previous post with the 'real' words but it felt a bit dishonest just slipping them in. I suppose that's the danger of having access to so much information in these modern times. What's true, false, hyperbole, etc? But isn't that what history is? A subjective retelling of a story? I thought for integrity's sake I should create a new post. Still, it isn't completely untampered. I got rid of a few 'ums' and 'ehs' and where we stumbled over words, I tidied them up. Herbert struggled with my Scottish brogue on only a couple of occasions so I've glossed over those. (I also didn't want to correct his UK geography.) For some reason I said 'yeah' quite a lot. Most importantly however, you don't get to hear what my voice sounds like on tape. This pleases me, as I do a pretty good impression of a muppet. One in particular. Let's just say it's a different kind of Gonzo journalism...

The interview:

Me - Hello Mr Simmons, it's Martin here - I spoke to you yesterday in Fopp. Sorry about calling after 8 o'clock.

HS - Right.

Me - Can I ask you just a few questions over the phone? Is that ok?

HS - Sure.

Me - How do you feel your trip's been going?

HS - How do I feel about England?

Me - Yeah, well how do you feel about your whole trip? Has it been going pretty well?

HS - Yeah it was a delightful trip for me. I really enjoyed it.

Me - Have you been over before.

HS - No this is my first time over. And I went from one, I guess, one end of England to the other, you know to Glasgow and back again.

Me - Are you shattered?

HS - I'm sorry?

Me - Are you very tired?

HS - No I'm not. I have some herbal teas. As a matter of fact, I'm preparing myself some herbal tea now, with some honey and a little slice of lemon. That keeps me going [laughter]

Me - So do you reckon you'll come back over again?

HS - Ah, If I'm invited! I'm sure.

Me - We'd love to have you back over. I'd like to ask you some questions about your writing now. Do you think that the essence of your novels and your writing is still as valid today as it was when you originally started out?

HS - Well, the only thing that has changed in the streets is style, you know?

Me - Yeah.

HS - Um, the problems are still there. And the basic problem, which is not racism, the basic problem is oppression. Racism is simply a tool that oppressors use. But if you look around the world, you know, and you look through history, you will always find people oppressing other people. Sometimes it's one race oppressing another race, but most of the time it's the same race oppressing people that are the same as them.

Me - Yeah.

HS - So, the problem is man's inhumanity to man. And until that changes we are going to have problems. Until the polluted mentality of man changes, then whatever system is brought in, because the mentalities of other people are polluted, they're going to pollute it, and it won't work like it's supposed to work anyway. Because the Declaration of Independence, you know coming from the Magna Carta, is definitely a great instrument. It's just not practised properly.

Me - When you started out to write, were you intending to make a statement, or was it just the fact that what...?

HS – No, I don't see any point in writing if you're not going to make a statement, you know. And I always believed that writing can bring about some changes. And that books do change things. Certainly the bible has changed things, and certainly the Qur'an has changed things. And there are other books; Uncle Tom's Cabin, you know was the spark that triggered the Civil War; it was because of Uncle Tom's Cabin, you know? And you know, look at Mein Kampf, see what happened in Germany behind that book.

Me - Yeah – that's right. So when you started writing was it purely personal that you felt you had to get something out of your system or was it to make other people more aware, was it more political?

HS - It was something to get out of my system and to also, to communicate to other people, what was going on.

Me - Did you find it quite difficult to finance yourself at the start? You were saying yesterday that with your second book, your publisher tried to cut you off financially, or they did cut you off financially? How did they do that?

HS - Well, after they published Man Walking on Eggshells, they didn't really distribute it you know; sort of like kept it in a private little circle. So that most people didn't know about it but then they had it for prosperity ,you know, they did this so that should anything ever happen, which it did, because it turned out I was right, so then they could say they published it you know. They certainly didn't push it. And they certainly weren't interested in anything else I had to write. Nor were any of the other New York publishers, or Boston publishers.

Me - So you were completely thrown out basically into the...?

HS - Well, um, what I did, was unexpected in a sense, because I was expected to be begging and pleading for them to change their mind about me, you know? The way the mild civil rights movement, you know Martin Luther King, and Arthur Dow, pleading with them for their conscience and all that kind of thing, you know, but I wasn't that type of person, I wasn't going to plead with them about anything. I just went out and started making a living doing, you know, other things and building an economic base for myself which is immaterial now, because I'm still the president involved in the Watts 13 Foundation and we have over $2 million in houses donated to us each year.

Me - Do you?

HS - So you know, we've been active in over 28 years. I don't count on how people respond to my art to make money from it . Anyway I went, it would have been difficult, you know, proof of that is that I'm the only one of those coming out again now; as a novelist, I'm the only one still alive. So definitely, they didn't have it easy, you know?

Me - That was actually going to be one of my next questions. Do you now feel vindicated that you're at last receiving, not just you but the other black writers in Payback Press, that you're receiving such critical acclaim? Or do you feel that it's come a bit too late?

HS - No, because we won the war on human rights front; we eliminated, we annihilated, we decimated a system, the caste system in America. It does not exist any more. And we tore it down and I feel good about that because we weren't supposed to win. Things don't change, nothing we can do about it, you gotta live all your life like that. Well, I'm alive and I'm not living like that, you know? A lot of those people that were intent on enforcing that caste system are in the grave. So I'm alive, so I'm rejoicing! [laughter]

Me - When you were writing about the be-bop era at the time, it probably hadn't been widely written about. Did you people find it harder to accept what you were writing about, or easier because you yourself had more information which was untapped [and the subject] hadn't been touched upon much before?

HS - Well you know, to me, this is what's interesting about now, you know. About how my work is going to be received in this generation. That's very interesting to me now. From the tour that I've had and the readings I've been doing and so forth, especially in the United Kingdom, it seems likely that it will be very well received. I'm not sure yet if the States are ready or not for it, you know? But I'll know shortly on both accounts. Man Walking on Eggshells, the book that got me sort of financially cut off and ostracised, came out in 1962, so we're about 33 years down the road and maybe America's ready for it now. Although Elaine Brown's book, she ran my [inaudible – conference?] for a while, her book A Taste of Power is out...

Me - What's it called sorry?

HS - A Taste of Power and it's an inside look at the Panthers, she was one you know. As a matter of fact Huey Newton put her in charge, you know, while he had to leave the country, so her book is really enlightening and it's well received so that indicated to me that the time could finally be right for Man Walking On Eggshells. As a matter of fact Man Walking on Eggshells was a fictionalised account of things that were coming, like the Black Panthers and that type of thing.

Me - You were saying it's taking you something like 26 years to work on your new book?

HS - Yes – it's taken over 26 years.

Me - Have you encountered any difficulty with continuity writing it?

HS - Well the thing now is, I don't have to earn a living now. I'm not employed, I'm now in business now with, and there's a company called [inaudible – Base or Not?] it's just a small company, but its a motion picture company, it's a production company and its recording company. So I don't really have to go outside the company to get my works published, but since Canongate and Payback Press has expressed an interest in my work I have submitted Tough Country to them. But you know, I'm not really submitting Tough Country to any publishers to publish, because now I can do it myself, you know, so I don't have to do that. And when I needed them, they turned their back on me, so I don't have to submit it to them. There is one publisher in the United States who is interested in it but I'm not sure that I want to go with them because they've been wanting me to cut a lot, cut the guts out of it really, and I'm not going to do that to the book, so there's no point in fooling around. I'm like Miles and Diz, I can get my work published the way it is. Tough Country is the second book of the trilogy which is titled Destined to be Free. Which is really what I'm concerned about, and I've always been concerned about as a writer, the freedom of men, not just black people, all men should be free, and that's what it's all about, it's to break the yoke of oppression from all people. Because people on the planet, should be free. It's not right for others to oppress and not allow people their freedom.

Me - Do you feel that, as jazz developed, your writing developed alongside it? From be-bop or something traditional...

HS - I never was traditional! I was writing about junkies and dope pushers. In 1957. And also they were black, you know. So I had three strikes from the beginning. It won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship award. The first time I sent it out, it was published. But I started out in controversy. My mind just goes that way, cos I'm always looking at the problems in life, and in the culture, and in society and wanting to point that out and seek solutions. So I'm always at odds with the establishment. Tough Country is that kind of book although when I first started writing it I thought that it wouldn't be. But now after the time I put into doing it, because I really started writing it in 1962 and I finished it around '89 and won an award at California State University, I decided to just hold it until I completed the Land of Nod, the third book of the trilogy and then deal with it. But then WW Norton sought me out for Corner Boy and Man Walking on Eggshells and are also interested in Tough Country so I let them see it. But only they [Canongate] and WW Norton in the United States who is bringing out Corner Boy in July this year and Man Walking on Eggshells next year, they've seen Tough Country and Jamie Byng, from Canongate has seen it. He's already brought Corner Boy out and he's bringing Man Walking on Eggshells out probably around November this year. They've seen it, but you know, I'm not even interested in showing it to anyone else. I'm interested in whether they are going to like it or not, but it's going to come out because you know this business that I'm involved in? They are going to publish it anyway. Work with other people; as long as it makes sense.

Me - It seems you are in control of your own destiny you've broken through all these barriers and have free range now more or less?

HS - Well, people have said a lot of things, mainly it can't be done you know. So now what can't be done is being done and ironically a lot of those people saying that, that you couldn't go on your own, there is no possible way to do that, ironically they've been laid off or are downsizing. They wanted jobs that would always be safe. Life is strange you know.

Me - Have you got any pointers for anyone who has something to say and wants to write?

HS - Well the main thing I would say is you have to be serious about your work, you know you have to develop your craft. That's number one. You have to learn what you're doing and be able to do it well, so well that when others start to criticise you negatively, because there is positive and negative criticism, whenever they start to criticise you negatively, you have the ability to know whether or not they know what they are talking about. And if they do, then you can make some corrections, and if they don't you can just point out to them, 'you don't know what you are talking about'. So that allows you to maintain the confidence in yourself because it's very easy for that confidence to be destroyed, because it's vulnerable, when they know you really haven't mastered your craft. So that's the first thing. And then you can go from there. You have to keep doing it, because if you don't you lose your ability to do whatever it is that you are so good at doing. You have to go your own way if others feel that what you are doing is not acceptable, you have to be willing to pay your dues. And in my case, it was a case of paying my dues anyway, so I felt well I might as well go out on my own since I'm going be through these changes. I might as well go through these changes and build something for myself.

Me - Well listen thanks Mr Simmons for your time in talking to me. I really enjoyed your reading last night in Edinburgh.

HS - Well you know its been a long time since I've done any readings. I used to do quite a few of them years ago, but haven't done any for a long time, so it was a good feeling to get back into it, get the feel of the crowd, get the feedback and all of that. It brought back a lot of memories. It kind of took it to a new level for me.

Me - It was really exciting. Still really fresh and really vibrant. I'll definitely remember your visit for years down the line. I hope you do come back over again though.

HS - Well as I say, if I'm invited (laughs) I'll be happy to come back again.

Me - I'll see if I can get your expenses paid!

HS - Ok!

Me - Thanks very much for your time.

HS - Ok - good talking to you.


This interview originally appeared on Posterous.
 
I'm not sure what Herbert Simmons thought when I interviewed him some time at the end of March in 1996. I wasn't a journalist. I sold records. I don't even think I felt qualified to interview him. As a colleague rather neatly put it, I was a 'till monkey'. But some things fell into place and an interview felt like the right thing to do. Canongate had been recently bought out and the publisher was in the process of undergoing a reboot. One of the first things to happen was a sizable run of reprinted books via the imprint Payback Press. Their authors included Iceberg Slim, Gil Scott Heron, Melvin Van Peebles, Charles Mingus and Chester Himes amongst others. Herbert Simmons was another. The music shop I worked in stocked a few boxes on sale or return, and we developed a bit of a relationship with Canongate. Not many music shops stocked fiction at that point.

The previous year, a few mates and I had harboured some ambitions to produce a lifestyle and leisure magazine. It would take its design ethic from 1950s National Geographics. We had sussed out the bulk of the first issue. It'd have a mini-bio of the rat-pack, tips on how to make the perfect cocktail complimented with some choice music suggestions for drinking them to (Sammy Davis Jr singing 'Up, Up and Away', Nancy Sinatra doing 'Daytripper', Nancy Wilson's 'Call Me' and definitely some Neil Diamond). It would also contain complete instructions on how to build your own mini-bar, a guide to the best crazy golf courses in Scotland, a history of electronic music, a study of UFOs in Scotland and tips on how to organise your own sky-watch. We even had a name – EastCoasting – and toyed with the subtitle 'an approach to relaxation'. In the end we procrastinated and missed the boat. A deluge of rat-pack books, programmes and articles subsequently appeared. Ufology ate itself. Austin Powers came out in 1997 and that vibe (well a bastardised version of it) became mainstream. We didn't quite know this yet, though. So we were still on the lookout for more articles. Literature was one of our gaps. I wondered if I could tap into our shop's recent links with Canongate.

We held an instore event to promote the Payback Press titles. These instores were pretty popular and usually involved cases of free booze. This helped sell things. It also made it easier to talk to other folk I probably wouldn't speak to under normal circumstances. (Note to self - there is a fine line between making new acquaintances and gibbering drunken pish.) Herbert Simmons gave a reading and hung around to sign copies of his books. I got my copy of Corner Boy signed and he wrote a fantastically uplifting message inside:

I asked if I could interview him for EastCoasting. Graciously he accepted. He was heading down to London the next day, but Lisa, who I think was PR for Payback Press, kindly help set it up for me. An interview with Herbert Simmons would be a perfect fit for our first issue. It was a link to one of the decades that fascinated us and the content was completely relevant to the present.

Both of his books Corner Boy and Man Walking On Eggshells had been reprinted by Canongate. The former, as I learned from the blurb, won the Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship in 1957. He was 26. From the book's introduction: 'One suspects it must have been a controversial choice. It was not every day a novel about a dope pusher caught up in a world of hope, corruption and failure won a literary prize.' Indeed. Corner Boy is street savvy, and flaunts itwith verve and flair. The dialogue crackles, way ahead of its time.

Man Walking on Eggshells came five years later, released to critical acclaim, but subsequently buried by the publisher. The book proved to be too controversial Simmons claimed. You'd be hard pushed to disagree with this statement. Perhaps the publisher hadn't fully recognised the simmering subtext carefully positioned throughout the novel. Or maybe as the fifties ended and the sixties begun, the publisher shied away from confrontation as tensions raised. Raymond Douglas is born during a tornado in St Louis on the day Florence Mills died. His Grandma tells him stories that feed his imagination, firing his musical creativity into something radical that will challenge contemporary society. 'I can tell you 'bout lots of times when black folks got sick and tired of white folks and done something about it just like Nat Turner.'

Stylistically the book is as bold as its message. The narrative is fused with the energy of jazz and the pain of the blues; words become its music:

In the beginning he was a voice in the wind storming his way into existence.

A half day passed before they dug them out. When they succeeded, even the reporters and cameramen, standing there with their equipment poised, got more than they bargained for.

In the beginning he was wind in a storm voicing its way into existence.

After a split second of surprise, cameras snapped, reporters jabbered away, policemen fought back the curiosity seekers pressing to the attack, and a few of the other officers in charge pestered the crowd and victims for the necessary information.

In the beginning he was voice storming wind.

Having read Corner Boy and secured an interview, I now had to work out how the hell I was actually going to conduct a telephone interview with him. A dictaphone was something I did not own and my scribing skills were (and still are) pretty poor. Fortunately my pokey basement flat did have two telephone extensions, so with the help of two telephones, a microphone connected to my tape deck and some Sellotape to weld the mic to an ear-piece, I managed to set up something that could record a telephone conversation. Now I have no idea where that tape is. I don't even know if I still have it. I'm kind of hopeful that it's in a big bag of old cassettes buried somewhere in the attic, but I can't be sure. I did however take notes during our interview and I have found that notebook. I have transcribed these notes into the following interview. I have tried to transcribe it as literally as I can. If it seems like the response doesn't really relate to the question, then that's because my notes are quite shite (see above disclaimer). I have tried very hard not to change the essence of what was said. This isn't perfect and there are a couple of places where I'm a bit unsure if I've accurately captured exactly what I / he said. If I do ever find the cassette I will update this interview. Until then? This is as good as it gets.

The interview.

Me: Sorry about the delay, I had a problem getting the microphone to work. How has your trip been? We sold a lot of books last night.

HS: Delightful! I'm enjoying a herbal tea with honey and a slice of lemon. Yesterday I was in Glasgow and Edinburgh. It's been a long time since I've done a reading. I've been getting a good feel and great feedback from the crowd.

Me: I loved your reading last night. Do you think the essence and substance of your novels is still as valid today?

HS: The only thing that has changed is the style of oppression. These problems still exist. Racism is a a tool for people to oppress other people. Man's inhumanity to man continues and won't change as long as mentalities are polluted.

Me: When you were writing, was it intended as a statement or social commentary? Did you have a manifesto in mind?

HS: There's no point in writing if you're not making a statement. Books do change things. Look at the Bible and Qur'an. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the spark that triggered the Civil War. Mein Kampf for all the wrong reasons.

Me: What was the drive behind writing? Was it personal or political?

HS: Both. It was a personal thing for me to communicate it.

Me: How did you finance yourself? How did it all begin?

HS: Man Walking on Eggshells wasn't distributed. They didn't push it. They were no longer interested. I wasn't sure if they expected me to beg or plead with them. I started living – doing things for myself.

Me: When you were writing about the bebop era, was it easier to write having lived through it, or was there a sense that it was more difficult because of what you were saying, that it would be hard for some to accept?

HS: My work has never been traditional. I was writing about pimps and dope in the fifties – that was never traditional. I'm not sure if the US was ready for it, but it seemed to be better received in the UK.

Me: It's been a while since your last published work, but you continue to work onTough Country part of the Destined to be Free trilogy that includes Man Walking on Eggshells. How is that going?

HS: It's been over 26 years since Man Walking on Eggshells. After Elaine Brown published A Taste of Power about being chairman of the Black Panther Party, I thought the time could be right for Man Walking on Eggshells. Publishing is a bit like a recording contract. Now I don't have to go outside the country to get published. Canongate and Payback Press want to publish me. I don't have to submit my work. Like Dizzy and Miles, it doesn't matter what you do to me, I can still get my work published. Tough Country is chiefly concerned with the premise that all men should be free. To break the oak of oppression. I'm always looking at problems in life, culture and society. Seeking solutions at odds with the establishment.

Me: Do you feel vindicated that writers like you and the other Payback Press authors are still receiving critical acclaim after all this time?

HS: We won the war on the Civil Rights front – we weren't supposed to. We're alive but not living the American Dream. We haven't decimated the class system. I was writing about this before I was supposed to. People said it couldn't be done. You can't go there. This is why I ended up involved in the Watts Writers Workshop. Life is strange...

Me: Finally, do you have any pointers for anyone who wants to write?

HS: You have to be serious about your work. You have to develop your work. When criticised negatively, you have to know your work inside out. Master your craft so you can say 'You don't know what you are talking about.' You have to keep doing it – or lose your ability. Keep going your own way, be willing to pay your dues, build.

And there my interview notes with Herbert Simmons end.

Looking back at this there is plenty I'd change. My questions would be different, I'd want to probe more about his canon for a start. What did he read when he was growing up. What was he reading on tour. I should have picked up on the direction of what he was saying to me instead of ploughing through a fixed set of previously prepared questions. I should have wrote up the interview at the time instead of waiting for an undefined something else. (That'll be why EastCoasting never happened then.) Having said this, after all this time, I'm glad to be able to finally get this interview 'out there'. He deserves it. It was an honour to get some one-to-one time with him. He didn't have to do that for me; he was generous with his time. Herbert will be about 81 now. I'd love to know where he is and what he's been up to in the meantime. If anyone does know where he is, please drop me a line. I'd love to know what progress he has made with his trilogy. On a much, much smaller scale Mr Simmons, it might have been 15 years in the making, but at last, here is your interview.

This originally appeared on Posterous. I subsequently discovered the tape (see the other Herbert Simmons post) but decided to repost this blog entry as a reminder that all history is viewed through a subjective prism.