The Way of Stories
An Interview With Jean Thompson
Editor's Picks: One of the most striking aspects of Who Do You Love is your ability to empathize with a wide range of characters. How were you able to do so convincingly? For example, in "The Lost Child," how were you able to create the persona of a kidnapped boy?
Jean Thompson: I would say that what any writer needs is a curiosity about other people and some degree of empathy so that you have some motivation for attempting to get inside somebody else's skin. I think in that particular story it's not hard to imagine fear and powerlessness, and we've all been children. In that story it was easier for me to write from the perspective of the child than from the perspective of the kidnapper. One of the things I tell writing classes is that the more sensational your characters are, the more difficult it is to convey them credibly and thoroughly. Also, there was more appeal for me in trying to write from a naive viewpoint.
EP: Why is that?
JT: Because you can use more irony. Certainly the child is looking at things in a different way than the adult reader would be in this account.
EP: The humor in your stories is so wry that at times Iím not sure if I should be laughing or crying for your characters.
JT: Oh, thatís fine. Thatís excellent. I like that response.
EP: This became apparent to me one night as I read a page from the title story "Who Do You Love" out loud to a creative writing class. When the whole class began giggling, I was astounded because I thought the heroine's actions were pathetic. Do people often react surprisingly when you read your stories out loud?
JT: One of the things Iíve discovered by giving readings of my fiction is that audiences in our culture are only allowed to react in certain ways. Theyíre not allowed to say, "Ohh," or "Amen! Hallelujah!" But they are allowed to laugh. So many times—and I donít think this is just my experience—an audience will laugh at places that might startle you as a writer, places that seem quite inappropriate. I think itís because audiences want to be engaged. They want to respond, but theyíre only allowed to express mirth, and maybe applause at the end. The rest of the time they have to keep a straight face and sit on their hands.
EP: By the end of this story, Judy Applebee, a social worker, has attempted suicide, shoplifted a wallet and walked through a bad neighborhood at night in order to get mugged by two children who then steal the shoplifted wallet from her. Afterwards, she returns home to her sleeping boyfriend, who sheís not sure she loves at all, and thinks, "There was no reason not to love anyone." Do you really think Judy will be able to define herself if she falls in love with someone?
JT: What am I saying? What in the world is going on here? Let me take you back in the story to the character of Mrs. Sturgis, the client who comes into Judyís office. She has cancer and everything else wrong with her, and Judy is repulsed by her because a character like Mrs. Sturgis presents you with a choice. You can either disengage from this person or you can engage, pity, empathize and eventually love her. So itís not just a love story. Who do we love? Well, there was no reason not to love anyone. If you are an ideal human being, leading a fully engaged life, love is the most generous and human response to the world and to the people in it, and Judy is a character who is crippled by her lack of self love. If she doesnít love herself then she canít get outside herself and love anyone else. In the story, you see her going through these pathological rituals of self-hatred and self-destruction. She puts herself in danger and hangs out with the wrong guy. Finally, I think it has less to do with the lover than her attempting to come to terms with the lovelessness of her life.
EP: Why did you make this the title story of your collection?
JT: I like the story. I think it's strong, but also when you're picking titles I think you go for what makes a good title.
EP: What makes a good title?
JT: It helps if you have a nifty song. I think there's an instinct for good titles. Let's go through the stories in the book. For instance, I don't think I want a story collection titled "All Shall Love Me And Despair," although I like that story a great deal too. Don't you know as a writer when you come up with a good title? It's got a kind of resonance, and it can stand by itself. In my case, there's this great Bo Diddley song, which I insisted would be the epigraph of the collection. There's a kind of universality to a good title. It guides you into the book.
EP: On your resume, there are twelve recently published stories that were not included in your latest collection. How did you determine which stories would be included?
JT: A short story collection is finite. You can't include everything, and you shouldn't. Certain stories are natural contenders because you feel they are strong. And then it becomes a process of elimination. There might be stories that aren't particularly strong, or that might have been divergent thematically and stylistically from the rest of the group. And also, certain people like one's agent and one's editor have something to say about it, but they are mostly my decisions.
EP: In the 1996 Best American Short Stories anthology, you explain the characters in your story "All Shall Love Me and Despair" in the following way: "Scott and Annie are the literary ghosts of a couple I knew, vaguely, peripherally, but not well enough to prevent me from transforming them into fiction." Do you ever allow yourself to write about someone you know well?
JT: I think there has to be a distance between life and literature, and every writer sets his or her boundaries differently. Some writers are perfectly happy transforming friends and family into creations of fiction. Some writers are not necessarily inhibited by these boundaries. Thomas Wolfe, for instance, didnít seem to have many of these boundaries. On the other hand, Robert Boswell once told me that when he wrote he had to pretend that no one was going to read it. I admire that sentiment.
EP: In the story "Applause, Applause" from The Gasoline Wars, a writer named Ted Valentine holds a mock interview with himself. He asks himself how he got his ideas for his stories, and then he replies, "I simply exploit everything I come into contact with."
JT: I did write that, didn't I.
EP: Do you agree with this?
JT: Yes and no. You could call it exploitation, or you could call it making use of the material of your life. Exploitation comes into play when you feel that particular "writer's guilt," when you say, "Oh, what an interesting crisis happened either to me or to someone else. My, wouldn't that make a good story." Actually, I think everything we do is tainted with exploitation. And finally, if you are an artist, you're willing to do that.
EP: How do you experience life this way without sapping all the joy out of it?
JT: That's a good question. It's always a balancing act between self consciousness and experience. No one would want to go through life entirely unselfconscious, yet no one wants to be examining herself and taking notes at every turn. It's the writer's curse to be stuck with an automatic notebook. Some part of you is always saying in the moment after something happens, "Oh, grist for my mill."
EP: Where do your stories come from?
JT: Every story has a different kind of origin. Let me give you some examples here. "The Widower," the story about the old man who wonít let go of his house, has an easy origin. Thereís a friend of mine here in town who had a similar experience. She bought a house, and the previous owners just would not let her be. They werenít old men who died in the kitchen, or anything like that. The characters of the story are fictitious, but the notion of buying a house and dealing with someone who refuses to leave it was what motivated that story.
EP: Do you believe the experiences that become your fiction come to you, or do you actively seek them out?
JT: They come to me. If you are a writer, you make use of what comes your way. Your job is to process experience, as opposed to the journalist who goes out to research a story. Actually, I think there is some fiction that is written this way. When writing Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck had to go find out what the migrant workers sang and what their dialect was in the migrant camps, what they earned, what they were picking that day. But I think a writer's job is to say here is the world that I filter through my instrument of writing and try to order and make sense of it in an aesthetic way.
EP: Along with teaching at the University of Illinois, you have been involved with volunteer projects. For instance, you teach English to migrant workers.
JT: I tutor English at a center for migrant workers, though that's a little deceiving because many of them are people who work in small factories and restaurants here in town, Latino people.
EP: Why is it important for you to do this?
JT: I think that as a writer you always want to hear everybody's stories, and often that involves breaking through the language barrier to communicate with someone. When I was living out in California, there was a ranch hand who worked on the property that I lived on. His English was quite good. You could have a very reasonable conversation with him, but English wasn't his native language. And there was a local newspaper that did a feature involving the Mexican people. They asked him a question about his daughter's schooling, and they translated the answer and all of the sudden here was this person who had been confined to rudimentary English giving this wonderful, eloquent answer. So actually I think my work here is a way of getting inside someone else's experience. It's always wonderful for me to see how people construct the narrative of their lives. When I say to someone, "Tell me your story," they are very forthcoming. For instance, they might say, "Once in Los Angeles I was really beat up badly," or "My wife died giving birth to our first child." Itís fascinating to see where their stories begin, how they foreground the incidents of their lives.
EP: Love and despair often seem synonymous to your characters, and many of them are unaware of their own sadness. How do you keep yourself from slipping into that same despair when you are writing about them?
JT: I think some of that energizes me as a writer. It's a little bit like Orwell's 1984 when they have the "two-minute hate." They work you up into a frenzy so you get a really good adrenaline stream going, and none of it is logical or rational, and you kind of come out of it feeling sick to your stomach, but you've participated in that emotion. Richard Bausch once remarked to me that if our literature had no conflict every story would be about how happy we all were and what we ate for dinner. Conflict in our literature is the lynch pin of what is going to happen next. I suppose what seems most valid to me is a vision of what we contend with as human beings. Fiction is a way of working through what is difficult, or oppressive, or challenging about life, at least for me. And then I feel better once I've written it. There's something therapeutic about it.
EP: After I finished reading the story "Poor Helen," (Who Do You Love), I turned off the lights and went to bed in the middle of the afternoon. It was such a devastating story. Did you expect this type of reaction from your reader?
JT: Well now, if it were really a good story you would have kept the lights on. That's one of the more gothic stories in the collection. It is, in effect, a ghost story. I meant it to be very spooky, and in my mind the story is in the mode that Joyce Carol Oates calls "realistic allegory." In the case of her fiction, I think of the story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" with Arnold Friend, who is never really called "death." My intention in "Poor Helen," which isn't necessarily what the reader comes away with, is that the man at the bar with Helen is death. She's dying. The man in the bar is her suitor. He's wooing her, saying things like, "Relax," and "Let it go," and "Don't fight it." It's a death story. Don't ask me how she's dying literally, but everything is being taken off of her. She's losing not just clothing. She's losing personhood. She's losing language. She's losing sensation. The story reads, "Beautiful lady be comforted, the mirror is empty." She's not there anymore, and all that work of vanity is a way for her of not giving in to the truly terrible circumstances of her life.
EP: Many of your stories take place on the road. Often it is only after your characters remove themselves from their lives that they can begin the process of examining themselves and take action. Do you travel by car a lot? How do your travels affect your fiction?
JT: Of course one of the wonderful things you can do as a writer to make things easy on yourself is have your characters go on vacation, for example, so that you donít have to talk about what they do for a living and how they get up in the morning and how they get to work. Theyíre removed from that. Along the same lines—this is a page out of a Raymond Carver book—if a writer makes her characters have a few drinks, that can kind of speed that process of epiphany along quite nicely because people will do and say things, or behave in a more extreme fashion. Of course, I love driving and cars and have done a great deal of it at different times in my life. And we're Americans, let's face it. We love our cars. I'm often not consciously thinking of using cars as a motif. But yep, everyone in my fiction does spend a lot of time behind the wheel.
EP: What conditions must you have to write?
JT: I need discipline. I need to sit down daily. I need continuity. When I'm teaching or otherwise distracted I can't do that. Really, I need freedom from distraction.
EP: Do you get feedback from anyone before you send something out?
JT: Most recently, the feedback I've gotten is from my agent. But I think you reach that point in your career where you are your own best critic so that you don't have to have fifteen people sitting there telling you what you did right and wrong. Actually, this is an interesting thing. Sometimes just the gap between when that last page rolls out, when I think something is finished, and when someone other than an editor responds to it is a long time, and it's like, "Oh yeah, I vaguely remember writing that." So you'd better get a kick out of it yourself as opposed to waiting for people to give you reinforcement because it can be a long time in coming.
EP: What was your first attempt at writing?
JT: I was twenty years old. I took a writing workshop at the University of Illinois. I don't remember the story very well, but I'll tell you something that I do remember. My teacher was Mark Costello, and I was such a little hot shot that I think I wrote the story before class started and turned it in the first day. That tells you something, I guess. Then Mark came into class the next day and said, "Oh, I read your story and I liked it." And he said it in front of everyone. Wasn't that wonderful? So I was hooked at that point.
EP: Was "Birds in Air" your first published story?
JT: No. My first published story is something that I don't anthologize anymore. I can't remember the name of it, but I remember the name of the magazine was The Ball State University Forum. That was when I was a graduate student. I was twenty-two. I think "Birds In Air" followed not long after that.
EP: Your first collection, The Gasoline Wars, came out when you were twenty-nine. How did the early acclaim affect your craft?
JT: Well, you know I would almost say, "What early acclaim?" I did not leap full blown into critical praise, or anything. What I've been fortunate to have is a long career, by now thirty years of writing fiction wherein I've gotten reinforcement and recognition in greater or lesser amounts along the way in a steady stream, and there have been some very nice pieces of recognition—the NEA Fellowship and the Guggenheim, appearances in The Best American anthology—but I think rather than the kind of Hollywood fantasy of "you write a book and all of the sudden you're the toast of the town," my career has been a lot steadier and slower, the tortoise as opposed to the hare. You know, and finally it's the poor old tortoise creeping across the finish line of The National Book Award. But I would say I've had that profile as opposed to I wrote something that set the world on fire, and in a way I think that's fortunate. I served a pretty long apprenticeship in terms of writing and publications. The publication of stories particularly is something that accrues as opposed to explodes on the scene. I've got forty stories on my vitae, and some of them I've left off because they weren't very good. When people say, "Oh, what have you been doing for all this time?" I say, "Well, here's the list."
EP: How has being a finalist for The National Book Award affected you?
JT: It's made it hard to get any writing done. You really tend to think you're invisible as a writer because you mostly are, and then all of the sudden people are seeking you out. And you know what? They're actually reading the stuff that you write. That's a scary thought. There's a kind of exposure in writing to begin with, and then when something like this comes along, you think, "What have I done? I wrote all this and now people are reading it."