Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Guest in Progress: An Interview with Jean Thompson

"Gossiping About Imaginary People”: An Interview with Jean Thompson
By Rachel Hall

Writer Jean Thompson [bio below] has been heralded as an American Alice Munro for her understanding of human nature and for the way her stories are as rich and satisfying as novels. In The Boston Globe, Bruce Allen writes that Thompson is “one of our most astute diagnosticians of contemporary experience, conflict, unhappiness and regret…She can encapsulate a life’s worth of disillusionment in a stinging, hurtling sentence.”

Thompson’s stories are also funny. One suspects it is the combination of astuteness and humor that makes her one of the writers David Sedaris celebrates in his anthology Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. Sedaris says this of her fiction: “If there are ‘Jean Thompson characters,’ they’re us, and never have we been as articulate and worthy of compassion.”

I first encountered Jean Thompson’s fiction in the anthology Matters of Life and Death, edited by Tobias Wolf in 1983. This was the assigned text for my very first creative writing class and a wonderful introduction to the contemporary short story. I loved especially Thompson’s story “Applause, Applause,” a story about the long friendship and competition between two writers. I was thrilled several years later when she was a featured reader at Indiana University where I was pursuing my MFA. Indeed, I am a proud owner of a signed copy of The Gasoline Wars, Thompson’s first collection, sadly out of print, though surely her current publisher plans to reissue it. Or is a collected works in the works?

In the interview that follows, Jean graciously answers some questions about her new novel, THE YEAR WE LEFT HOME, and writing in general.

One reviewer has called The Year We Left Home an epic page turner but it’s a very internal book too. Many of the characters, even those who don’t initially strike us as introspective, are self-aware. Which aspect of the writing—dramatic scenes or character thought—comes more naturally to you? Which is more fun to write?

Oh how I wish I could as easily write suspenseful drama as I can a character's internal processes. Psychology, or maybe it's just gossiping about imaginary people, is always a natural for me, drama might be more fun if and when I pull it off. I admire writers who can do clever plotting and make it look plausible, even slick. I guess I need to practice my car chase scenes.

I’m struck by how much of your writing examines relationships that aren’t romantic, but are long-term and as complicated as marriage. I’m thinking of the two writers in “Applause, Applause,” also Lynn and Anna in “Wilderness,” and Janey and the protagonist in “Throw Like a Girl.” While Chip and Ryan are cousins, their relationship in The Year We Left Home resembles these other friendships in its rhythm. They come together and separate but stay important to each other throughout. Can you talk about what interests you in this kind of relationship?

Another good and perceptive question. I'm drawn to complexities, in people and in relationships, and how they play out over time. Few of us are entirely blameless (or blameworthy) when it comes to navigating the expectations and disappointments of a long-term relationship. There's always a burr beneath the saddle. With Chip and Ryan, each has something the other lacks, and perhaps wants: Chip's freedom and range of experience and his very craziness, Ryan's ease of manner and worldly success. Yet they do seek each other out as touchstones, and even, in terms of their restlessness, as kindred spirits.

One reviewer suggested that The Year We Left Home reads like a chronologically arranged collection of stories. Did you think of it that way as you wrote or was it a novel to you? Are labels like novel, linked stories, novel-in-stories meaningful beyond marketing?

What I set out to do was write a novel using short story craft. That is, I wanted each chapter to have the same momentum and final impact as a short story might, without them necessarily being freestanding. And since the novel covers so much time, thirty years' worth, this episodic structure seemed a good way to go about it. Labels can serve an initial useful purpose - our impulse is always to categorize and sort - but I hope they eventually fall away as a reader experiences the book.

The Year We Left Home is your fifth novel. You’ve also written five collections of stories. How is your writing process different when you are working on a novel rather than stories? Which do you prefer writing?

I started out as a short story writer, as most writers of fiction do. And that form has always seemed to be a better fit for me, perhaps because gratification comes sooner, and perhaps because I like the possibilities for, see above, momentum and impact, as well as the discipline that the short form requires. It is a more or less finite box that must contain all the basics: conflict, engagement, action, resolution. Novels require more patience, and you must learn to reward yourself for shorter-term accomplishments, finishing a section or a chapter. There's also the greater commitment of time and resources. Richard Ford has said that beginning a novel is rather like getting married: if you can talk yourself out of it, you should.

What surprises were there for you in these characters’ lives? Anita, for instance, becomes a much more sympathetic character by the end of the novel. Did you know early on what she would encounter and how she would be changed by it?

I begin with a notion of a character, in this case, Anita, the hometown success with conventional aspirations, then look for ways to build on that notion. Possibilities reveal themselves. Some of this is based on exploring character, but just as often it has to do with plot development and my sense of what a reader might wish to read. We might wish to heap a few problems on Anita, perhaps because we want successful people to have problems. Just look at the tabloid coverage of celebrities. But what is true to form about Anita is that she's a winner, and she finds a way to win out in the end.

The Year We Left Home is an intriguing title. It suggests that everyone left home at the same time, but in fact, the central characters leave at different times, and some, like Torrie, not until late in the novel. Of course, there is also the mass exodus of family farmers that is the backdrop for the novel. Can you talk about titling and this title in particular?

Titling is seldom easy, but as I used to tell student writers, if you can't think of your own title, some editor or another entity will think of one for you. And you will like their ideas even less than your own. I think that titles need a certain stand-alone eloquence and must be interesting in and of themselves. So yes, "The Year We Left Home" does not translate into a literal year when everyone leaves all at once, but rather, the process of leaving, attempting to leave, and circling back again, for different characters at different times. And certainly there are those who never leave. But I wanted to work with the idea of home versus the wider, unknown world, the pull and tug of what is familiar and settled in our natures versus how we might reinvent ourselves in different circumstances.

Of all your books, which is your favorite?

Easy question. It's always the one I'm writing at the present moment, the page I just finished, the process currently engaging me, the hunt still on.

Helpful links:
More information about Jean Thompson: http://www.jeanthompsononline.com/
Buy the book
Jean Thompson’s previous guest post on this blog about finding the ideas for stories.
Rachel Hall’s previous guest posts on this blog about using letters in writing.

About: Jean Thompson is the author of five collections of stories, among them the acclaimed Who Do You Love? (a National Book Award finalist) and Throw Like a Girl, a New York Times Notable Book, as well as five novels including City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder, also a New York Times Notable Book and a Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection. Her new novel The Year We Left Home, which follows an Iowa family, the Eriksons, from 1973 to 2003,has received praise in the New York Times Book Review, People, Entertainment Weekly, More, Bust, among other publications.

About: Rachel Hall teaches creative writing and literature at the State University of New York at Geneseo where she holds the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. New fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Water~Stone Review and The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art. She has received honors and awards from New Letters, Lilith, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Constance Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She is completing work on a linked collection of short stories entitled HEIRLOOMS.

Disclosure per the FTC overlords: Simon & Schuster sent me a complimentary copy of The Year We Left Home which I sent to the interviewer, Rachel Hall, who was delighted to receive it but who is also a smart and tough critic. No easy ride here, despite the free book!


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