Thursday, July 26, 2007

Guest in Progress: Jean Thompson

Okay, I’m from Iowa so maybe that explains it, but I still marvel at the Internet and how it makes the world simultaneously larger and smaller. One day I’m blogging in this post about a great new book I’m reading, and the next day the author of that book has graciously agreed to share a piece about her creative process with us.

Okay, so there were a few days in-between: special thanks to independent literary publicist Lauren Cerand for facilitating the exchange.

As I noted previously, I picked up Jean Thompson's new book of short stories Throw Like a Girl about two days after reading this review in the New York Times Book Review (registration required). That’s not my usual book-buying pattern, but somehow I immediately knew that this was a book I would love…and I was right. They’re sharp, smart stories about women in difficult situations. Highly recommended!

And here’s Jean commenting on where her stories “come from”:

“So, where do you get your ideas for stories?"

Of all the well-meant, uninformed questions that come a writer's way, this is the one that is hardest either to respond to honestly, or evade gracefully. People are understandably curious. They want to get inside the secret, watch genius at work (or at least, something sweaty and earnest at work), they want some answers.

If only there were some. Stories, or novels, or poems, or any other kind of art, arrive, like baby dear, out of the everywhere into here. Genesis of any sort is a mystery that resists prodding. The only straightforward answer I ever heard to the query was Stanley Elkin's, who said that he came up with an occupation (debt collector, professional wrestler, etc.), and that turned into the impetus for a story.

That's fine as far as it goes, and I commend the vocational method to anyone who can make use of it. But where does that leave the rest of us who have to come with an answer, or for that matter, a story? Jayne Anne Phillips has said that she works "guided by whispers", and many of us would agree. Perhaps writers are people who develop particularly fine-tuned antennae, or, at our worst, go stumbling around listening to the voices in our heads.

For myself I suppose there is disquiet, or a curiosity that coalesces around something tangible. This might be as slight as an image, a physical detail, a line of speech in a distinctive voice. My story "Forever", about an unsolved murder, took shape around a quote from the mother of an actual murder victim: "Do you know how long it took me to use a knife again?" That sounds, and admittedly feels, rather exploitative, even though the resulting story diverged quickly from its origin. For "The Five Senses", another story that explores violence, my impetus was something vaguer: the notion of a young woman facing the unfamiliar ocean, and finding nothing there to comfort her. Some stories get swept up by the course of outside events, as when "Pie of the Month", which began as a kind of homage to idyllic pie baking, gained force and momentum as an anti-war tract. Sometimes one begins with a real person as a model for a character, or a real place, or real happenings. But how seldom, if ever, do stories arrive fully formed in the shape of entire narratives, so that one transcribes rather than invents? I suppose this leads into that other unfavorite question: Did this really happen? And the answer to that is something along the line of, No, I did not burn down that house (or commit this or that other transgression), but I did write the book all by myself.

No sure-fire method or never-fail technique presents itself. Different works come to us on different wavelengths, and with varying degrees of clear intent. The one thing that does seem constant is the writer's willingness for patient exploration, to see if one word, or scene, or speech, won't lead to the next. To examine the process too minutely is to risk taking all the art, and indeed the life from it, or, in the words of Emily Dickinson:

Split the Lark - and you'll find the Music -
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled-
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.

Loose the Flood - you shall find it patent -
Gush after Gush, reserved for you -
Scarlet experiment! Skeptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt your Bird was true?

~~Jean Thompson

About: Jean Thompson is the author of (among others) Throw Like a Girl (Simon & Schuster, June 2007) as well as the novel City Boy; the short story collection Who Do You Love, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction; and the novel Wide Blue Yonder, a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection for 2002.

Her short fiction has been published in many magazines and journals, including The New Yorker, and been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and Pushcart Prize. Jean's work has been praised by Elle Magazine as "bracing and wildly intelligent writing that explores the nature of love in all its hidden and manifest dimensions."

Jean has been the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, among other accolades, and taught creative writing at the University of Illinois--Champaign/ Urbana, Reed College, Northwestern University, and many other colleges and universities.

For more information, check out Jean's web site.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.