Issue 123 |
Spring 2014

About Jean Thompson

As a child—“I mean really little,” Jean Thompson says, “teething and waking up at night crying”—her sleep-deprived parents put a stack of graham crackers in one corner of her crib and a stack of Little Golden Books in the other. “Whenever I woke up with sore gums, instead of screaming, I’d find my books and my graham crackers and snack and read myself back to sleep.” With a typically dry aside, Thompson wonders “what might have been different if they’d put me to bed with, say, a bassoon and a strong cup of coffee.”

Given this story, it’s not surprising that Thompson’s mother taught her how to read before she began school by creating little books with letters and pictures. With such an early start, she was reading the classics before junior high—books that were “way too old for me,” she says, “like Chekhov,” and books that “seemed about right, like Dickens.”

She read anything, including at one point an old Abnormal Psychology textbook on the shelves at home, engrossed by the “painful pictures of morons, imbeciles, idiots, people with hydrocephalus.” She couldn’t resist reading Gone With the Wind when she overheard her mother and her friends talking about it. Eventually, she became so absorbed in books that her concerned parents told her to “quit reading and go outside and play.” But, she argues, “Once you are transported by a book, it is a profound and active engagement.”

From this early engagement with literature has come a long and distinguished career. Called the “American Alice Munro” by admiring reviewers—a nod toward both her masterful prose and her subject matter, which focuses on the lives of ordinary people, often women, living in the overlooked center of the country—Thompson’s stark vision is offset by pitch-perfect dialogue, elegant pacing, and deadpan humor. The setting for most of her stories and novels are places that have been, in some way, left behind, but her honest and generous portrayal of these downtrodden areas and the characters who inhabit them, along with sense of humor, mediates what might otherwise become bleak in her work.

Until she retired in 2006, Thompson taught in the English Department at the University of Illinois. The author of eleven books of fiction, her writing career has built slowly and steadily. She began by publishing in little magazines in her early 20s, eventually catching the attention of Ploughshares and The New Yorker. From there, she gained the notice of the Best American and Pushcart prize anthologies. Despite prize attention, stellar reviews for her books, and the respect of other serious writers, it wasn’t until 2001, when her short-story collection Who Do You Love was nominated for the National Book Award, that she began to attract wider notice.

In 2003, her novel, The Wide Blue Yonder, was recognized by the New York Times as a Notable Book and was a Best Fiction selection of the Chicago Tribune. Since then, with the publication of two more acclaimed short-story collections and three more novels, her reputation has only grown. Reviewers have praised her as a warm-hearted, “masterful storyteller” capable of “literary heights” with an “ear for the worries of small-town dwellers,” whose “comic timing…simultaneously captures the colloquial tone of her character’s inner monologues and skewers their limited worldview without ever losing affection for [them].” With an impressive and growing body of work, she seems poised to be among the contemporary writers most likely to be remembered by future generations.

Serious writing first came for Thompson in a fiction workshop in college, which she signed up for only because her roommates were already in it. Later, she applied to graduate schools in writing because a friend of hers had the idea. “I’d like to think I would have figured things out on my own, eventually,” she says, “but there’s no telling.”

Her workshop teachers were all, “almost without exception, tough-minded, generous, encouraging,” and she goes on to ask if it would surprise her sister writers that these teachers were all men, that there “were no women teaching poetry or fiction at either school.” She adds, “the visiting writers were [also all] men, save one, and that was Joyce Carol Oates.” And “no one, including myself, thought this was remarkable at the time.”

Thompson is philosophical about a career that has built slowly over time rather than overnight, concluding that she feels fortunate for having “served a pretty long apprenticeship in terms of writing and publications.” Ever gracious, she acknowledges in an online interview with Susan Tekulve for Web del Sol that she’s “been fortunate to have a long career of writing fiction” with “some nice pieces of recognition” along the way. She believes that, if she’s had any success, it’s “because I never stopped never stopped never stopped writing.” If you keep writing, she adds, “you can’t help but get better.”

Thompson describes herself as a “brick-by-brick writer,” by which she means she can’t move on until the work she’s done previously is sound. She usually begins each day by re-reading a story or a chapter from its beginning, making changes along the way, before moving on to the next thing.

For young writers, Thompson’s long career is instructive. Her work, rather than diminishing with time, is instead gathering energy and authority. “I think I’ve gotten slower but surer as a writer,” she says. “I seem to need a steady sense of momentum with my work, and to keep in touch with it on a daily basis. If you make your best conscious effort, as Graham Greene said, then your subconscious does its work and presents you with solutions.”

As for her personal writing schedule, she says, “The trick is not to sabotage yourself by engaging in necessary but distracting household chores, or reading newspapers online. I have reasonably good work habits and self-discipline, plus if I slack off or give my work less than my best effort, self-loathing sets in.” Her routine is movable: “I don’t have a dedicated writing space,” she says, in an interview on the blog Catching Days. “The computer sits on the dining room table, but the yellow legal pads that I use for first drafts get dragged all over the house, and I perch (or recline) with them in different places.”

When asked in an online interview how she finds her material, Thompson says, “Obviously, there’s a great distance between the original impulse for a story and the carrying out of it. This is the way of stories. There’s a beginning place, and then you build on that. The impulse is what guides you through a story…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…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.”

In the same interview, she says that she considers writing a form of exploration: “I think my work…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.” Refusing to remain bound to a certain region or mode of fiction, her imagination has continued to expand into new areas. “I’ve been working on stories that are, perhaps versions, perhaps corruptions, of traditional fairy tales. What if,” she asks, “Hansel and Gretel were neglected children who ended up in the foster care system? What if Little Red Riding Hood hung around Internet chat rooms, doing funky things online?” Asked about the dark turns in many of her stories, Thompson replies, “Fiction is a way of working through what is difficult or oppressive, or challenging about life, at least for me.”

Thompson often writes about the difficulties and complexities of love. Though there are no uncomplicated happy endings in her work, those few who exhibit resilience in the face of adversity—those willing to negotiate and realign their expectations for happiness—often discover a kind of contentment. Perhaps the most telling example of this kind of adaptation in Thompson’s work is the love affair (in her novel The Year We Left Home) between an artist who starts his life with no advantages and a woman who, after suffering a debilitating and life-changing stroke as a teenager, goes on to become an accomplished and committed art photographer. These unlikely characters meet through their mutual connection to a deeply damaged Vietnam vet who serves as a kind of trickster figure throughout the novel. Together, the three of them form a new kind of family, which, although imperfect and limited, nonetheless deepens their individual humanity and allows all of them to live with greater dignity than they would if alone. Such arrangements, Thompson seems to be saying in many of her novels and stories, are as much as any of us can expect from life, and they are often the basis for a deeper form of happiness than that celebrated by the dominant culture.

Thompson elaborates on this theme in her most recent novel, The Humanity Project, which is in part the story of a wealthy, dotty woman who creates a foundation dedicated to the promotion of happiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, little is achieved by the foundation itself, but the bonds formed between the individuals within the inner circle of the foundation’s project become the real story. Despite the problem of human nature, real relationships, flawed as they may be—in this novel, and in all of Jean Thompson’s work—are the truest route to a modest sort of happiness.

Ladette Randolph is the Editor-in-chief of Ploughshares.