Today's interviewee is most recently the author of the short story collection Throw Like a Girl 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. Her short fiction has been published in places like The New Yorker and The Best American Short Stories. She 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. Plus, David Sedaris loves her. What other accolade do you need?
The Jean Thompson Interview: Just Under Twenty Questions
What made you decide to focus on women in your latest short story collection?
It wasn't a decision, more of an organic process. Although I have certainly written about male characters - including an entire novel, City Boy, with a male point of view - it's simply easier to write about women characters. One less layer of invention, a skin that fits a little better. There are times that writing from a man's perspective feels a bit like a ventriloquist's act.
Who are some of your favorite female characters in fiction?
I love Colette's women characters, with their lush sensibilities, and for very different reasons, Barbara Pym's, who are never as resigned to their stations in life as everyone thinks they are. I'm fond of Isabel Walker in Diane Johnson's Le Divorce- a young woman who takes her own bravery and risk-seeking for granted. I think I'd like to be Maggie Jones in Kent Haruf's Plainsong - brisk, practical, no-nonsense sexy.
How did you find out that David Sedaris was promoting your work on his tour?
David Sedaris read an early story of mine, "Applause, Applause", in an anthology edited by Tobias Wolff, and was so taken with it that he read it on Symphony Space, then included it in his own benefit anthology, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules. I believe it was my editor who told me that David was promoting my book Who Do You Love, but then I kept hearing from friends all around the country - 'I went to a David Sedaris appearance and he was reading from your book.' He has been more than generous to me and to other writers, and that is a heartening thing to see.
Are you a fan of his? If so, what is your favorite book or essay of his?
I love David's wit, and the way he can fasten on to any subject and make it his own through his ironic, sharp-edged perspective. My favorites? Anything I've heard him read. He is a wonderful performer.
If you could promote a book on your book tour (new or otherwise) in addition to your own, which would you choose?
Must I choose just one? Bernard Cooper's funny and agonizing memoir, The Bill From My Father. Tayari Jones' novel The Untelling. Anything by Jim Harrison, perhaps The Summer He Didn't Die.
What do you think is the most practical lesson you teach your writing students?
The most useful lesson for writers is simply to stick with the task, to develop discipline and a good set of work habits. Unsexy advice but true, since everything else follows from it. Discipline can get you through the flat times and the frustrating times, and, not incidentally, the more one practices one's craft, the more one improves.
How do you decide which short stories to include in a collection? Do you begin writing the stories with a collection in mind or does the collection come together after you've written?
Throw Like A Girl was idiosyncratic for me in that I began with the idea of a collection, specifically a collection centered on the experiences of girls and women, and wrote a number of stories to fill out a range of ages and types of characters and circumstances, i.e., a growing-up story, a friendship story. I've also done exactly the opposite and assembled a collection from an accumulated body of work. As for selection, you always want what you judge is your most
successful/accomplished work, although you need to take into account the shape or structure of a collection - does a particular story provide variety, for example, or is it just too different in tone or technique to be a good fit.
You said in another interview, about using real life as inspiration for stories, "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."" So how do you judge yourself when to use something from real life and when to leave that part of real life alone?
Real life is always a departure point for me. Sometimes it's useful to exhaust everything you know about a 'real' person, place, event, etc., so that the actual work of the story can begin. Ratherlike walking yourself up to the edge of the plank and then peering over.
Which have been some of your hardest stories to write and why?
Within recent memory, it was probably hardest for me to write the title story in Throw Like A Girl, both because it covers so much time - decades - and because there's so much narrative involved. There'sa first-person speaker who is looking back on the events of her life and trying to process them. She has to be true or accurate to the self she was in the past, and also tell us what, if anything, she's learned. It's a tall order to try and sum up any life, real or
What's your method when it comes to revising your work, especially based on feedback from your agent or editor?
At this point in my career, I know what I want a piece of fiction to accomplish, and once I satisfy myself, I don't feel a real need for advice or suggestions. My discussions with my editor or my agent have more to do with the shape or the type of book I'm aiming for, and of course, details of presentation, marketing, etc. For writers who are newer to the process, and find themselves deluged with (possibly) helpful criticism, I would say that editing can be a useful process in that it forces you to decide what is really important to you in a particular piece of writing, what you need to hold fast to, and how you can best present a rationale for doing so. You can also appreciate things that others point out to you, which often do make for improvements. One way to look at editing is as a negotiation, where you accede to some things and draw a line in the
sand on others.
I read in another interview that you didn't start writing until you were 20 years old. What were you studying prior to that?
I was always an English major, perhaps because at the time there was not the proliferation of writing courses and programs that we have today. I think it served me well in that it immersed me in reading, although nowadays the English major has become encrusted with critical theory, and is certainly not as hospitable to writers.
How do you know when the idea for a story is better for a short one or a novel?
The decision has less to do with an idea than with how I feel my energy will best be spent - on the sustained labor of a novel, or something that requires less commitment, less exhaustion. Richard Ford has said that you should approach the decision to write a novel the same way you approach the decision to marry: prayerfully, and if you find you can talk yourself out of it, then do so.
My favorite book is always the most recent one I've completed.
When it comes to the books you've published, do you have favorites, or they all equally important to you?
The Morning News lamented online that you're not more well-known. Do you feel the same way or are fine with your level of visibility?
I'm not unhappy with my level of visibility, although one would always like to reach more readers. But ours is an entertainment culture, and writers should not expect (nor wish) to be the equivalent of Lindsay Lohan.
A lot of authors are taking up blogging: have you considered it?
Not a blogger. Just not that extroverted, and besides, my day to day routine doesn't seem that interesting, even to me.
When you teach, how much of your own experience as a writer do you share with your students? Do you feel it's important to keep a boundary between Jean Thompson the teacher and Jean Thompson the writer? Or do you tell them what you're working on and what you're struggling with?
I try to take care that any writing course I teach is not a course in Me. To some extent, the level of the course determines this. My own experience is by now much different than that of a beginning writer, and it would be distracting and confusing to talk about my own processes or issues. With advanced or professional students, there's more common ground, and there are times when it's helpful to all of us, them and me, to speak about problems in craft that I might be encountering. But that's the exception. I function better if I can keep writing in one pocket, teaching in another.
What's the hardest part of the writing process for you?
Oh, the hardest thing is always to begin something new, to make something out of nothing - the ultimate magic trick.
How does it feel to be the 189th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
Feels like a lucky number.
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