Since Jean Thompson  was first published in American Short Fiction in the Winter 1993 issue, her short story collection Who Do You Love  was nominated for The National Book Award, and her novel, Wide Blue Yonder , was named a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection. Her newest novel, The Humanity Project  (Blue Rider Press, March 2013) beautifully tackles the grand and complicated notion of humanity, while excavating a glimmer of hope in our foreclosed and sometimes painful present.
JS: I thought we could start with Who Do You Love , as I wondered if you remembered how either “Mercy,” “The Amish,” or “Who Do You Love” ended up in those early issues of American Short Fiction? Especially as the magazine was in its nearly-nascent days and the stories were published a few years before the collection was published (and deservedly lavished with critical acclaim)? Although remembering back to 1993 is kind of an unfair request.
JT: Oh, it doesn’t seem like that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, but it was a different era, back when we were all putting manuscripts into brown paper envelopes, with another envelope, post-paid, for manuscript return. I can’t tell you how the magazine came to my attention, but it was new, and I believe it paid a little money, maybe a few hundred dollars, which is, and was, not always the case when it comes to lit magazines. And the production looked great. You were happy to show it around with your name in it. Then there was the name: American Short Fiction. Something close to a national brand name. You didn’t have to explain it to anybody. And it specialized in fiction, fiction, fiction, a happy thing. Laura Furman published two of my stories, and of course I am grateful to her, and also to Joseph Kruppa, who published a third one.
JS: So many of your stories (even between collections or novels), seem to pulse in the same orbit. It’s a tremendous experience for a reader of your work, to feel like the characters bristle and spark in some kind of proximity to each other; whereas a story of yours, on its own in a magazine, rubs up against different worlds, different kinds of characters and experiences. Is this something you have been or still are intrigued by—seeing a story of yours out of its context of the collection?
JT: I like all those action verbs, bristling and pulsing and sparking, as if the stories are little asteroids or shooting stars. I think your question has to do with the continuity of collections, and how stories might build on each other. Usually my collections are pretty loosely structured, so that if anything holds them together it’s whatever authorial consciousness or stylistic tics they share. But I have been working on a series of stories, not yet a book, that re-examine or revisit traditional fairy tales, and in this case I think each story will reinforce the others.
JS: Is asking if you ever go back and re-read Who Do You Love kind of like asking actors if they rewatch the movies they starred in 15 years ago (at which point most of them cringe (although its not like Who Do You Love is Leprechaun 2 ))? Do you ever go back and reread your earlier work? Do you feel distant from it in some way?
JT: In a word, no. I don’t reread old work much and never have. Some of this might be squeamishness – oh why, why did I ever write that line – but it also has to do with maintaining momentum for whatever I’m working on now.
JS: From Who Do You Love through The Humanity Project, you tend to go back and forth between male and female narrators…it feels like a conscious effort, to find the balance. A common exercise in a creative writing class or in any of those “How to Write ” tomes is that a writer should try and write a second/third/whatever draft from another character’s point of view. As an example: In “Mercy,” Bonnie feels so realized (not understood, but present and real and enriched), even though the story is told from Quinn’s point of view. I had to wonder, as a writer, if the story started with her, and then worked its way out to Quinn?
JT: Well, would you believe, the story actually started with the possum. (Although I did not ever give the possum point of view.) I’ve rescued a number of the creatures from my various dogs, just as Quinn does in the story. And I’m always struck by how godawful ugly they are, even the babies. It’s a much less sentimental operation than helping out baby rabbits or birds. So the story became, who would save a possum, and how would such a character go about it. And so Quinn came into being. Bonnie was never going to be a point of view character because she was so imperfectly understood by Quinn – as we are all imperfectly understood by each other.
JS: The notion of being imperfectly understood seems to really capture what it is about these characters of yours, how their sometimes selfish or bewildering impulses and decisions feel usefully, familiarly uncomfortable for the reader. Which is why, I think, the jumps in time in your earlier stories feel unexpectedly tremendous; they expose the storytelling, ensure readers don’t get so close to the characters that they lose themselves or disappear into the ways they are similar. Since you’re writing short stories presently, I wonder if you might be able to speak to that push and pull? The drawing the reader into the somewhat recognizable and then distancing them?
JT: I’m not sure that the kinds of transitions you point out are about characterization; rather, they are narrative choices designed to keep a reader from complacency. I’ve never been considered (nor do I consider myself) an experimentalist when it comes to form, but I do like to take a less expected path from time to time. And sometimes the best transition is no transition at all. If this zooming, or strategic omission, helps to defamiliarize characters and allow readers to reconsider them, so much the better.
JS: In The Humanity Project, time moves mostly forward, but now the “jumps” are in the point of view, with each chapter told from the experience of a different character. Whole lives can happen in a fifteen page short story, while this novel seems to be focused in on a certain period of time. Is it less constraining for you, to work with/against time in a story versus a novel? Does it even feel that way?
JT: Both The Humanity Project and my previous novel, The Year We Left Home , divided point of view among a number of characters, so that each chapter moves the story forward, but on a slightly different track. And of course there are gaps in time, events that are sometimes only referred to in passing, or in summary. Both of these books use short story craft in the service of the novel. The chapters are not necessarily self-contained or able to stand alone, but I want each of them to contain a completed movement, as a good short story does.
JS: As for those jumps, one of the things that I think works so well in The Humanity Project is that because of the movement in between characters, the reader is wondering, wondering, how everything is going to connect. Yet, even when these different characters’ story lines start to intertwine, we still feel propelled forward, nothing is understood because we know how their lives intersect. For lack of a better way of asking this question: How did you do this?
JT: You mean, what’s my secret? I’ll never tell! Really, all I’m doing is arranging a series of cliffhangers, very consciously so. What will happen to that badly driven car in the first chapter, or the teenage girl trying to talk her way past a predator? Give ’em what they want, but don’t give it yet. I’m not sure who came up with that motto, but I endorse it.
JS: And finally, there’s a scene when a character in the novel, Christine, spaces out in a meeting about The Humanity Project, the charitable endeavor for which the book is titled, and when she looks at the woman transcribing the notes of the meetings, she sees that all the secretary had written: “was the word ‘Humanity,’ followed by a question mark.” Do you find yourself propelled to write, to create stories around questions like this? Or would be it be closer to home to say that you’re more interested in how these kinds of questions can kind of unexpectedly bloom from the recognizable everyday?
JT: The latter. I don’t think that effective fiction necessarily begins with the big idea, even if there’s a big idea floating around overhead during your writing process. Realistic fiction, of the sort I traffic in, builds a recognizable world from the ground up, with details and circumstances and characters, so that drama embodies ideas. Otherwise you’re writing polemics.
You can read Jean Thompson’s stories in our back issues (12, 13, & 26); they keep company with other fantastic works from J. Robert Lennon, Don Lee, Barry Lopez, and other writers who were featured in some of American Short Fiction ‘s earliest days.