In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by handpicking which questions (and how many!) they want to answer. James Whitfield Thomson is the author of Lies You Wanted to Hear, a novel about the far reaching consequences of a failed marriage. Here is what James had to say about reading, writing, and his favorite character from his novel.
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I guess I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but it took me a long time to get started. As a young man I used come up with titles I thought Pulitzer-prize winners would have gladly killed for. Unfortunately, there were no stories to go along with them. Now I’m superstitious and don’t give a piece a title until I’ve completed the first draft. I didn’t write my first short story until I was forty. I sent it out to magazines, got a handful of rejections and didn’t write another story for three years. What finally got me going was being in a workshop with the late Andre Dubus, Jr. He was a terrific mentor, always pushing me to go deeper into my characters to find out what makes them tick. Finally, at the age of 68, I’m a debut novelist, so it’s taken a long time for this dream to come true.
I tell people that I write literary fiction, by which I mean stories that they are more character-driven than plot-driven. In a murder mystery what drives the story is whodunnit. In a literary novel we’re more concerned about whydunnit — what could drive a person to do such a terrible thing? That said, there’s no reason why a literary novel can’t be riveting.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the process of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
Once I got serious about writing I decided to treat it as a job, so I needed someplace to go to work every morning. I tried to write in a separate room in my house, but I kept getting distracted and started going to the public library. When I got home in the evening my workday was done, though my wife will tell you that there were plenty of dinners when I was looking right at her, pretending to have a conversation, but she could tell I was far away. Sometimes a thought will come to me — it could be almost anywhere — and I immediately jot it down on a slip of paper. Then there are times when I stay up half the night, working at the kitchen table because things seem to be clicking and I don’t want to stop. Unfortunately, I can’t predict how usable that late night stuff will be in the long run. What seems like brilliance at 3am is often detritus in the light of day.
The stuff I write at night is usually in longhand on a lined tablet, using one of my trusty uni-ball VISION elite pens with blue-black ink. I’m a bit manic, trying to get as much down as possible, with milk and Oreos (which I’ve just discovered in the last week are as addictive as cocaine) to keep me going. When I’m working on my laptop in the library, I make deals with myself not to check my email or read about the Red Sox on the Internet until I’ve finished thus and so. I also turn off my cell phone, which drives my family slightly mad.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
In one of your two epigraphs you quote the lyrics of a song called “Good Man Blue” by Johnny Joe Thibodeau. Why can’t I find anything when I Google him?
Because I made him up. I waited for months to get permission to quote a Jackson Browne song, only to have the publisher turn me down. At that point I didn’t have time to get permission for something else, so I had to scramble and try to find something in the public domain, but nothing seemed to fit. Then I remembered that Fitzgerald made up the epigraph for The Great Gatsby and I decided to follow suit. His is such a neat little poem by a writer named Thomas Parke D’Invilliers. I was in the Navy when I read the book and I liked the quote so much I tried to find out more about D’Invilliers. This was before the Internet, so it took me a while to discover the truth. If an interviewer asks me this question, I get a chance to mention Fitzgerald and me in the same sentence, which always brings a smile to my face.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
In 1998 I read a series of articles in the Boston Globe about a man who had kidnapped his two small children and got away with it for eighteen years. That fellow seemed like a shady character, but it got me thinking, What could make a good man do such a terrible thing? The story stuck with me for years until I finally decided to tackle it in a novel. I had saved all the newspaper articles, but once I started writing, I never went back to them. My characters were coming alive on the page and I didn’t want any of the real-life details to interfere with my imagination. I have no idea why I wrote the story at this point in my life. Maybe I just felt like I had gained enough wisdom to tell it well.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
I’m reading Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III. Terrific book. He’s a good friend, and he and I are doing a reading together in a few weeks. I’d feel embarrassed if I couldn’t talk to him about his book when I saw him. I like so many writers — Dan Chaon, Alice Munro, Nicole Krauss, Roddy Doyle — the list goes on and on.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
I have spells where I’m too busy to do much reading, but in the long run I average about a book a week. I’ve heard writers say they don’t read other writers while they’re working on a novel, which completely baffles me. My novel took five years to write. How could I possibly give up reading all that time? I have a feeling these writers aren’t being completely honest. But I get their point. They are worried that someone else’s work will have too strong an influence on their own. Personally, I find that isn’t a problem. No matter who I’m reading my work I always end up sounding like me.
If you could have everyone read five books, which ones would they be?
Let me give you five short stories. The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth; So Much Water So Close to Home by Raymond Carver; A Father’s Story by Andre Dubus, Jr.; Vandals by Alice Munro; and The Rich Brother by Tobias Wolff. Also a poem called Clamming by Reed Whittemore. The first time I read it I wept like a child.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
Oddly, I never read when I was growing up. My wife just rolls her eyes because I’m clueless about all the classics like Winnie-the-Pooh, The Little Prince, Charlotte’s Web. I didn’t start reading until college, and what really got me going was Paradise Lost. That may sound pretentious, but I was simply awestruck. Not that it made me want to become a writer — how could I ever hope to create something like that? — but it made me start to love literature and I became an English major. Then I discovered the Victorian novelists and… wow!
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
I am completely and utterly focused on one work at a time, and it is very rare for me to abandon a project. That may not be the wisest approach, but I’m very stubborn. I suppose it’s a bit like having a child — once that little creature show his face, I figure it’s my job to make sure he makes it all the way to adulthood.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
My favorite character for Lies You Wanted to Hear was Lucy. I’d never written in a woman’s voice before and she kept surprising me. I’ve had readers get very animated telling me how much they despise her, which I figure is a pretty good sign. I’m not trying to make everyone like my characters. I want people to feel like they’re real.
About James Whitfield Thomson: James was a city boy, born and raised on the North Side of Pittsburgh. In 1977 he completed a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, then spent a year teaching at the University of Miami. For years he harbored a desire to become a writer but had rarely put pen to paper. Then he got a chance to join a workshop led by the great short story writer Andre Dubus, Jr. Since then he has written three novels, a memoir and a dozen short stories. His work has earned him a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and several of his stories, including Mr. Spotless which won a national short story contest, have appeared in literary quarterlies.