Interview with Douglas Williams about his book ‘Promised Lands: Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s.’
Tell me about your background: Who you are, where you are from.
I was born in Windsor, Ontario in 1946 and grew up in Kingsville, Ontario. Kingsville’s on the north shore of Lake Erie, near Point Pelee. It’s the most southerly town in Canada – when I was there, the population was around 3000. My father was a businessman, and my mother a high school teacher. I left when I was 20 years old to see the world. My book, ‘Promised Lands,’ is the story of that journey.
Is there a particular feeling or experience that you hope to evoke for the reader of Promised Lands?
I wanted to relate some of the magical moments – and some of the less-magical ones, too! – that I experienced as a traveller in distant lands during a time of great social upheaval – the 1960s. If this interview were a film trailer, you’d see me living a surrealist lifestyle in a mansion full of hippies in Athens, driving overland through the Middle East, getting stoned with goat herders by the Dead Sea, hiding as jets scream overhead during the June War of 1967, astonished on LSD during the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, and living free in a mobile community of like-minded road-trippers.
It was a great time to be young. BTW, many readers have referred to the book as “hilarious,” “provocative” and “a real page-turner.” One reviewer called it “deeply sad” too, a trait common to old-guy reminiscences about growing up, and another said it was “beautifully written – full of superb turns of phrase.”
What themes does your book explore and what do you hope the readers will take away from the experience?
It’s a very personal account of escaping from the limitations of Canadian small town and family life – a classic predicament for young people of every generation. Kingsville was a place I couldn’t wait to get away from. My unrest was compounded by family tragedy and happily influenced by the burgeoning counter- culture of the 1960s. I would encourage all young people who feel the urge, to embark on journeys of exploration and self-exploration. Seeing the world – becoming “worldly” or “cosmopolitan” – is a big part of the struggle we all face to resist pressures of conformity and narrow-mindedness. In the 1960s, young people really wanted to reach out to the rest of the world in friendship and solidarity – against those who saw only war and conflict.
The subtitle of my book, Promised Lands, is Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ‘60s; it refers to sociologist Paul Goodman’s famous best-seller, ‘Growing Up Absurd,’ which helped define and inspire the youth rebellion of the 1960s. There was immense pressure to conform then, and there’s even greater pressure to conform now. But it’s your life, and you owe it to yourself to decide freely what to do with it, and how to view the world.
So, do you feel that the 1960s have relevance for us today?
Absolutely – All contemporary progressive movements have roots in the 1960s. Some critics have labelled the counterculture of the 1960s as “the last great flowering of human freedom,” and it’s a persuasive idea, especially if If you look at the youth culture since that time. Now, schools are training grounds for corporate workers who eat factory food, watch corporate movies, absorb corporate-approved information, and listen to corporate music. Corporate culture has attempted rather successfully to roll back many of the achievements of the 1960s.
Have things really changed so much since the ‘60s?
Yes, and it’s been an insidious process. When I returned to Canada in 1970, after four years in Europe and the Middle East, the counter culture of the 1960s was still in full flower. One of the hallmarks of that time was seeing crowds of back-packers thumbing rides at very city intersection and on major highways – young people setting out on personal exploration of the world. It was part of a new openness and feelings of universal brotherhood and internationalism that flowed naturally from counter-culture philosophy.
Now, you never see people hitch-hiking: hitchers are suspected of being terrorists or serial killers or possibly the inevitable victims of serial killers. Fear and distrust have taken over society, reactionary feelings consciously fostered by corporate culture, because they want us to seek solace – not in creativity and exploration but – in consumption of the products they produce.
So, part of my book’s purpose is to remind young people that there might be other ways to live and that a better world is possible. While mere survival is a growing challenge for most of us (and a very conservatizing influence in itself), it’s easy to forget that human life should be fun too. It’s our birthright as living sentient beings, and that right is being severely curtailed today, and channeled into narrowly-defined corporate-sanctioned lifestyles. There’s a world of extraordinary experience out there that has nothing to do with video games, iPads, iPods, tweeting movie stars, FaceBook, etc.
What prompted you to be an author and did you have a specific inspiration in mind? Were you influenced by a certain person, artist, or genre?
Going “on the road” when you’re young inevitably yields a variety of experiences, and keeping a journal of events, thoughts and feelings is very important. The modern classic example is Jack Kerouac, the “beatnik” writer. My inspirations were mark Twain (who was quite left-wing and anti-imperialist), George Orwell, whose 1984 was a life-changer for me, and recently, I’ve started re-reading John Steinbeck, who’s very leftist and very funny and humane. Tom Sawyer Abroad and 1984 are two of my favorite books. I had the great pleasure of reading Twain to my young daughter and she was knocked out. The travel bug bit her in a serious way, too. The down-side of that is my never seeing her for years at a time.
I read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie back in Kingsville: it was very inspiring. I also read Black Like Me, by a white journalist, John Howard Griffin, who darkened his skin in order to find out, first hand, what it was like to be black in America. It typified the empathy felt by young people for the oppressed everywhere. James Baldwin was an important writer for me, too.
So, reading those writers was a great influence: Promised Lands is saturated with rebellious feelings and ideas, and bizarre characters and events – all from the viewpoint of a very young, rather unsophisticated young man. One of my aims was to contribute definitively to literature about the 1960s. I hope the book has significant nostalgic appeal for people who were young then, too.
Do you enjoy writing? Do you feel a sense of purpose as you work?
I enjoy writing and have always been a journal-keeper and letter-writer; I still correspond with friends I met forty or more years ago on the road. English composition was one of the few subjects I liked in school. At my age, I feel very generationally-aware, and I have no regrets about our opposition to war and the many other ways we rebelled. We were iconoclasts and I hope that my generation will re-awaken and continue to distinguish themselves as rebels against the burgeoning corporate police state we face today.
Our mainstream intelligentsia is confused, largely silent or has “sold out” as we used to say. Meanwhile, police violence – against youth, the poor, minorities and the marginalized – is skyrocketing everywhere in North America, not just in Toronto; it’s a reflection of the violence America inflicts on helpless countries around the world, and Canada is complicit in everything America does. Unfortunately, too few voices are raised against what’s happening. In the 1960s, we saw the criminality of America’s war in Viet Nam – the assassinations of the Kennedys, Dr. King and Malcolm X – as major reasons to question the system and our rulers – who were used to obedience and conformity. They responded with ferocious determination: That’s why, today, the media wages relentless war on the traditions of the 1960s.
These attitudes fueled my desire to travel and see the world for myself. But, I don’t want to give the impression that PROMISED LANDS is dry sociology or a political tract – far from it: it’s a personal memoir full of travel to “exotic” places, strange adventures and lots of “sex, drugs, and Rock’n’Roll!”
If you could compare your book to any other existing works, which ones would it be and why?
As long as “compare” doesn’t mean “equate”, I would say Huckleberry Finn, the Tom Sawyer books and Kerouac’s work figure prominently for me. Hemingway and Burroughs to some extent. Along with Alice Monroe and Richard Ford, they achieved simplicity of style that I find very attractive, and travel was a featured theme in much of their work.
Tell us about your latest work, and what inspired you.
I’m working on a sequel to Promised Lands and a collection of short stories. My study of cinema led to writing film criticism as well as making films; you may not have guessed this, but I write cranky cultural criticism, film and book reviews and some outrageous political stuff for my Blog: ME OF ALL PEOPLE.
How can your readers contact you? Or buy your books? Or where can they sign up for a newsletter?
My BLOG: ME OF ALL PEOPLE will connect readers with the slow unravelling of my mind; it has a few excerpts from my book, comments from literary experts, and Readers Reviews which can also be found on Amazon. PROMISED LANDS is widely available in paper and electronic formats on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc. And I have extra copies in my bedroom closet if Amazon runs out.
Tell me about your education and career.
I studied painting and drawing at Wayne State University in Detroit, photography at OCAD in Toronto, creative writing at University of Toronto, and film at the London School of Film Technique in England.
For a living, I direct, produce and sometimes write television programs – my resume includes TV movies, documentaries, and hundreds of hours of various kinds of TV. I’ve directed shows in Europe, USA and North Africa, and have lectured in film and television at Ryerson, Humber and Centennial. I’ve lived in Toronto since 1970, am married to screenwriter Laura Phillips, and have 2 children. And I have considerably less hair than I used to, but not by choice!
Thanks for taking the time for this interview. All the best!
Thanks for the opportunity, Paul.