Conversation with Tom Wilson: On the Creative Process, Twitter, and Being Honest

Article by Kolston Gogan and Heather Bedesford

The following is a transcript of the conversation between Kolston Gogan and Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson will be at Heartwood Hall this Thursday night for a literary recital of his best selling memoir Beautiful Scars. The evening will be rounded out with song as well.


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T: Let me turn down the music…

This is Portuguese club music, modern Portuguese singers, it's  really cool to hear that language. I'm not familiar with it at all but it's an interesting thing.

K:Is that a part of your morning routine?

T:No, I'm busy painting right now. I have a show opening on November 30th... just preparing, it's funny, they asked me to do this show, an art show, I've been painting for years and I've done a lot of shows but this won't be in a private gallery, it's a public gallery that will tour Canada in 2019 and it's related to my book.

I rented a space downtown and I thought "this will take me about 8 weeks, it's wintertime and it's pretty close to home so I'll be able to knock this off in those 8 weeks." It was in January, that I said that. It's now closing in on November and I'm still painting. I found the commitment to doing something like this, and being fresh and being relative to myself was a little bit more than I had anticipated.

K: I see you've been interviewed about this book a lot, let’s see what we can do differently. It's been around 6 years since you were told about your adoption. I'm wondering, are you starting to find peace in knowing who you are now?

T: I think that's a job I'm going to be working on for the rest of my life because I had been trying to find some kind of peace in the 53 years before I knew anything. I would have to say that I have a job ahead of me. People ask me "so what's it like to be a Mohawk?" And they say that like I just hopped a fence and landed in the reserve. I come from 7 generations of iron workers, the men who built North America into the sky. My brother was there at 9/11, when those towers came down. He was first of the first responders there clearing debris so the firefighters could get in and do their job. My great uncle was the guy who raised the antennae up on top of those twin towers. "So Tom how does it feel to be a Mohawk?" During the Oka crisis, my brothers were filling out their wills, picking up weapons and going to the woods to fight a war that they didn't think they were coming home from. I was in Hamilton, watching it all on tv, listening to it on the radio. "So, Tom, how does it feel to be a Mohawk?" I feel that I am going to get closer to my culture and my culture is going to get closer to me by me bringing honour and respect to the Mohawk culture and to my reserve. If I do that successfully by the time I'm 80 years old then I feel I will be achieving what it is that I set out to do. We live our lives the way churches and governments and corporations have told us to live them since time ingrained. We do things under the restrictions that other people give us. I feel that for me to be more comfortable with who I am, that I have the rest of my life to be able to find that, and I shouldn't be in a rush to appease other peoples expectations of when that should be. It's only up to me. When it comes down to it, it's really not even up to me, it just happens when it happens. 

K: It sounds to me like you're not focused on being comfortable with it, that it's just about allowing the process to unfold. 

T: Well, I am comfortable with who I am. I was comfortable with who I was before. I'm the grandfather of 2 kids and a father of 2, I'm doing pretty well, I've defined myself and made my own family. So, I'm happy, I mean, in that way I'm ok and with the addition of growing up an only child and meeting 6 of my brothers and sisters, that's a bonus for me. 

K: When you first found out, while you were processing the information, what was your reaction? Did you turn to music, which you knew so well, or did it come out immediately as writing, was it a bit of both?

T: I just felt exhausted. I learned a long time ago not to try to create something with a knee jerk reaction. When I was writing the book, well a lot of the book was written in real time. In the way that when I went back to my reserve and met my brothers and sisters, I was just starting to write the book but I didn't write about that. It's not like I went home and wrote down everything we had talked about at the kitchen table, or everything I had just discovered about the family I never knew. I had to let that resonate with me for months, actually I let it resonate with me for about a year and a half before I sat down and wrote about that. 

There's something about the creative process that is free wheeling, as I mentioned before and I'm not trying to sound like a rebel here but if there is something that does not involve churches or government or corporations or mainstream thinking, it is the way of looking at the world how you discovered it. And sometimes it takes a little while, if you're going to do it any justice, you have to give it some time to be able to really have an individual point of view to it. 

K: So you tend to take everything in, absorb and process it before letting it out. 

T: Oh my gosh ya. You gotta find out how it resonates with you. Because if not you're writing down things, you know, if you lose a lover or a friend dies or you find out that you're a Mohawk instead of a big Irish white guy, than you're not doing yourself any justice. It's been my experience that you're not as pleased with what you're creating if it's in the moment, and it's nice to get a broader sense of what it is that you're doing. You do that by taking your time and having the kind of patience to be able to do it. 

K: Patience is the key, not reaction. 

T: Reactionary, that's twitter. It's almost like it takes the importance out of your voice. It's not like you're trying to make this statement that "everybody's got to hear" and "everybody's got to know how I feel right now", (art) is not twitter. It's not about "my voice is bigger than yours" or "I can be more obnoxious" or "I can be smarter, or I have more of the facts". It's stepping away from all of that, (patience) allows us to create and act as artists rather than as buffoons. 

K: Thank you. That's great. It's a good reminder and very nice to hear. 

In a CBC interview you mentioned, after releasing the book, that your foster parents for the first year of your life reached out and you had the opportunity to meet them. 

T: I haven't been prepared to cross that bridge yet. I've been in touch with some of the kids of that family, in their sixties now, but I haven't been in touch with Mrs. Miller yet. She lives up on the mountain in Hamilton. She lives in the same neighbourhood that I grew up in. Actually, the foster home that I was in was only blocks away from where Bunny and George Wilson lived, where they raised me. It was also literally on the street behind where I got my first haircut. How crazy is that? 

K: I'm curious then, as you're still uncovering, are you also planning to write another book? 
T: Ya, well, I jokingly say that Random House had me for a 2 book deal. I'm experiencing things still, along with that, I'm compiling emotionally, and the things that resonate with me will become another book but I don't see that happening for another couple of years. You definitely need to sit down and have a rest for a moment and catch your breath after writing a book... At least I'm finding that. 

K: In addition to the writing, you're also creating music and painting. Has each discipline been a part of your life for a long time?
T: I've been painting for 21 years. I've had shows in New York, Edmonton and Toronto. I had a painting at the National Gallery in Ottawa. So I've been painting a long time, I just hadn't done anything so concentrated and I've found that my art has changed. I'm painting Mohawk warriors, hunters and chiefs. I'm writing stories from my book into the paintings. I'll send you something I'm working on. 

Tom Wilson painting Mohawk

K: Thanks, I would love see it. On incorporating the words from your stories into your paintings, do you believe there's a relationship between painting and music for you as well? 

T: The creative process holds all of the answers. All of these artistic disciplines, they all take the same creative process. It's just using different methods to be able to express yourself. The desire to express yourself is there. The burning desire to create is so important for us. It's funny, I go out and lecture at universities sometimes and one of the first things I say, without being mean, is that if you don't have to do this, then don't! If you don't have to wake up and create something for the world then don't do it, because then you're wasting your own time. As a result, you're then wasting the time of the people who are exposed to what you've created. People smell fear, they also smell when things aren't real around them, they know it deep down. So we have to enter this world honestly and we have to be honest with ourselves about why were doing things. It would make for a world of way better music, way better art and way better literature, I think. You know what, having said that, I'm working on getting there. I'm not acting like the expert here. I'm as much figuring it out as you are or the next guy is. 

K: Indeed, I am a musician as well and my partner, she's a painter, so we've definitely talked a lot about that. I always found it interesting that with painting and music there are similar relationships. In music it might be a perfect 5th while in painting it happens in regards to complimentary colours. Is that something you think about? It seems to be related in that way.

T: It does seem to be, I think that finding the artist inside of us is so important and that's really what I talk about. Thats what my job is. When they're throwing dirt on my grave, up until that point I still want to be working on becoming an artist. I paint but I'm actually not an artist, I play guitar but I'm not very good at it; I like writing songs. I am so dyslexic that I have a hard time reading books, but somehow I wrote one. That's all about desire, about having to do it. 

K: Do you ever look at what you see and have that surreal moment of "wow, I just did that"?

 T: When you're so close to it, you actually have a pretty good idea of what you're doing. We can take pride in our work but there's nothing surprising about how that song came to be. We were the ones that did it; It was our energy that went into it. I don't necessarily have that feeling. Daniel Langlois, who is from Hamilton also, said that you can give an artist a hammer and a saw and they'll make something out of it. Either musically or visually, besides building something with it. That's how an artists mind works. 

K: You are a multidisciplinary artist, with a full schedule, traveling the world. Do you find when you're switching back and forth from a writers festival to playing music on a stage that you have any process of switching your mind set as well?

T: No, I think that one thing I've learnt being the age I am is that I can only be who I am and that's what I put forward. I can actually say that I'm very honest about my performances regardless of if I'm writing or singing a song or whatever the hell I'm doing. If there's one thing I can say that I'm happy to be working at everyday and to be achieving, it's being honest.