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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Let It Fly: An Interview with Ted Thompson
In the well-to-do, Connecticut commuter town where Ted Thompson’s debut novel takes place, things tend to happen like clockwork: from the trains pulling into and out of their stations, to the holiday party invitations that appear in mailboxes each year. The place is nicknamed “The Land of Steady Habits,” after all. But what happens when someone goes off script? What does a middle-aged man do when he refuses to live the life that’s expected of him? If this man retires unexpectedly, leaves his wife, moves out of the house he’s worked so hard to afford and away from the family he’s worked so hard to support, who does he become? This is the premise of Thompson’s heart-rending, highly compelling, and gorgeously written first book:The Land of Steady Habits.
By happy coincidence, I was able to meet Ted in Westport, Connecticut—the commuter town where he grew up—to discuss his book. Though New York City is just a short train ride away, the town feels bucolic. Stately renovated farmhouses sprawl along the roads, separated by enormous lawns, long driveways, and lovely stone fences. As we drove, Ted pointed out the house where Martha Stewart once lived, and then the charming downtown Starbucks that used to be a strip club. These incongruities—the suburb that is also rural, the tasteful decorator who is also a criminal, the former-nightclub that now houses a global coffee chain—seem integral to the fabric of the place. Though it initially appears flawless, the town is in fact much more complicated, and interesting, below the surface—a truth that The Land of Steady Habits explores with both humor and insight.
We finally parked at the handsome private academy where Ted attended middle school and set one of the novel’s scenes. He hadn’t visited the school in seven years, and as we walked up and down the snowy paths surrounding the place, he marveled at how much had changed: the traffic guards at the gated entrances and exits, the new sports fields and lower school buildings, the modern home now marring the school’s (still-stunning) view of Long Island Sound. Since his days growing up in Westport, Ted lived for several years in Iowa City (where he attend the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) and now resides in Brooklyn with his wife and dachshund. He is a product of this Land of Steady Habits, but also a keen observer of its idiosyncrasies. Most importantly, with this tremendous debut, Ted Thompson has proven himself a daring and talented new voice in American literature.
LIZ WYCKOFF: How did the idea for this novel come about?
TED THOMPSON: It started as a story a long time ago. I think it was in the period when I had graduated from college and I hadn’t yet found a job, when I was sitting at home, trying to figure out how to be an adult and what to do with my time. I had started a lot of stories, but this was the one that I couldn’t figure out how to end. I started obsessing over it, as if it was a puzzle that I could solve. And then it sort of evolved from there to a workshop instructor telling me it could get longer. I called it a novelito for a long time, which is a form I invented. And then finally in grad school I got around to having the guts to call it a novel.
LW: Do you think you considered that it could be a novel before grad school? Or did you really not let your mind get there until you’d worked on it for a while?
TT: I remember showing an early draft of the story to a friend and her saying, “It seems to me this is your first novel.” I said, “No, no, no way!” I remember thinking: No, I’m going to write something ambitious. This isn’t ambitious enough. I had this young man’s idea that a first novel should be some grand statement, some sort of noble declaration of myself in the world. In a way, this novel was so far from my life as a young person that it felt like an exercise, more than anything else.
TT: That’s something that’s emerged through drafts and drafts and drafts. I was always interested in thinking about this particular place as its own society with its own set of assumptions and rules. There’s an impermanence built into the way that it functions as a commuter town. People don’t stay here. They come and they raise their kids and they leave. It’s just too expensive or it’s not practical to pay the property taxes or whatever it is. So, it becomes this kind of way station. At least, it did in my experience. That’s what I was toying with, and it came through on the page as people running away from home or looking for home or trying to find permanence in a place.
LW: Also, a lot of characters are running away from expectations, trying to create their own paths instead of falling into the paths that have been laid out for them.
TT: One of the things that’s fun for me as a fiction writer is taking characters out of their expected roles and watching how they behave, once the mores have been stripped away. It’s fun to write about a suburban commuter town because those roles are so clearly defined. So, writing scenes in which the characters can kind of break from their roles is partly just me entertaining myself.
LW: Some scenes are entertaining, but some are so heartbreaking, too. Was it challenging to write some of those difficult scenes, especially toward the end?
TT: A friend of mine recently described the dinner party scene at the end as madcap. And I totally agree. It took me forever to get that scene right—and I still don’t know if I got it right, but I eventually stopped resisting the absurdity of it and let it kind of sit there. Now I think it reflects the subtext in a way that’s helpful. For a long time it was this very terse, very self-serious scene in which everyone’s mistakes were somehow clearly defined and it just didn’t work. So yes, some of that stuff was hard to write.
The scene that I spent a year rewriting over and over and over again was the one where Charlie shows up in the middle of the night and he and Anders forge this bond. I always kind of knew that that would naturally happen. Charlie and Anders are actually sort of soul brothers, even though they’re the most lost. So, I knew that would happen but I could never figure the scene out. Somehow when I got them alone together to talk, it was always just a tricky scene to write. I think it’s because that scene gets close to the heart of what my subconscious was interested in in the book—the live wire that you don’t want to hold onto too tightly.
LW: In the time you spent revising, was there a memorable breakthrough moment?
TT: The big breakthrough in the revision for me had to do with point of view. The whole book used to be in Anders’ point of view, third-person close, and it was really tight. The novel takes place over two weeks, from the first holiday party to Christmas Eve, and I gave it a lot of restrictions. It’s very short-story-y. You know: third person, close, very simple. But I had never really written a novel before, so I was struggling to figure out how to put all that other stuff in there. It was like having a straightjacket on. My breakthrough moment came after I sold the book and I knew it needed scope somehow. I knew that I needed a way to access other characters and time passing, all that stuff that novels do so well. So, I went back home and I basically cut everything except for Part 1, and I decided to try writing from Helene’s point of view. That’s when the sky opened and the angels came down. And then, of course, I became obsessed with structure. I looked a lot at Revolutionary Road, which I think is a masterpiece and probably the best book written about the same subject matter.
LW: I had been thinking about that, too. It’s so funny how all of the pre-pub reviewers keep comparing you to Updike and Cheever, Updike and Cheever.
TT: It is really funny! I was going to write something on my blog about that. I love those guys—they’re masters. But I don’t think I write like either of them, really. I mean, the comparisons are so flattering, but I think they’re based on pure subject matter. Of course, those are iconic American writers who have influenced me and I love them. To have a third of the talent they each have in their pinky nails would be a gift, but part of me just feels like the comparison is about genre. That’s essentially what I wrote: a genre book. This is a clear subgenre of a kind of American writing. I just hope that people don’t look too closely in the comparison.
LW: Other than Revolutionary Road, what else did you read during the writing process that influenced you?
TT: I read a ton of novels during the period when I changed the point of view. I was reading whatever the Zeitgeist was reading at the moment, so that was Freedom in 2010. I tried to ask myself, Why is this book the thing that is connecting with everyone? In part, it’s just seamlessly, beautifully structured. It really keeps you moving the pages. Regardless of what you think of Franzen’s writing or that book—which I happen to be very fond of—I was just enamored with the craft of how it was put together. I heard someone describe it as a high-speed Japanese train—you just get on it and you start flying and then before you know it, you’re in another part of the country and you don’t even remember how you got there. So, I was looking at that, and then I was also looking at classic novels I had read growing up. I remember trying to figure out how To Kill A Mockingbird works.
LW: That must have been really fun research.
TT: Yeah, it was fun. But I was also freaking out. I was rereading everything and looking at structure. One of the most amazing things to me was Revolutionary Road, which I always thought of as the story of one couple. But Yates breaks all kinds of rules in the way that book is structured. Halfway through, he switches to a different point of view and then it never comes back to that character. He just keeps expanding the narrative scope. If you brought that in to workshop, people would say, “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” In the end, I just figured: if it’s answering a narrative question that the reader has, we’ll go with it.
You need that long line—whatever it is—that’s going to keep someone reading until the end. And, of course, that comes from character. In order to figure out what the real long line of tension is, you need to know the character. But you don’t until you write! Unless you’re like John Irving or one of these highly-structured people who know the end before they start. But I think that would sort of take away the fun of it—that thing where you’re half-aware of what you’re actually writing. And then you get to go back and see, like we were talking about before, Oh yeah, weird. I’m writing about home. Of course I am. I’m writing about my hometown. You’re articulating something you’ve felt but never really had the words for.
LW: I love that the novel includes so many of the characters’ backstories. Anders’ point of view is wonderful and it involves Donny and Helene, but some of Helene’s backstory comes as a surprise and really complicates the narrative. And Preston’s backstory struck me as something really fun to explore.
TT: Yeah, my experience is far from Preston’s—I was never a drug-addict, or a runaway, or a jai alai gambler. But he’s my generation, and I’ve been to many a Phish concert. I know that kid. Also, the voice for that part of the book is more natural to the way that I normally write. You know, you kind of hear the voice of a book when you’re writing it at first, and often it’s not yours. You have to kind of get to know it. So, Anders’ point of view and Helene’s point of view didn’t feel quite as natural as Preston’s.
LW: At what point did you know the novel was going to involve the housing and loan crisis?
TT: Initially, that wasn’t in there. When I sold the book in 2010, I realized I had a character who had worked in finance during the boom years of the 80s and 90s, but had grown weary of it, basically chucked his whole career, and left it. I couldn’t set this in the world that we all live in without at least addressing that in some way. So, it was kind of lucky that it fit seamlessly into the timeline of the novel. But it wasn’t as though watching the nation’s financial industry come apart at the seams was what inspired the book. The idea of a man who rejects the world that he’s participated in—that was the premise years and years earlier. It’s also kind of hard to write about this town and this area without writing about real estate. Which then, of course, is tied into everything that’s been happening.
LW: Yeah, and it’s tied into questions like: What do you do once you have what you’ve worked for? When do you feel satisfied?
TT: Right. When I first started this book, the idea of work was really interesting to me. Where is the reward in working a job? How do you find meaning in something that is often not meaningful—the day-to-day life of going into an office and handling the things that are in front of you and making a company a profit, or whatever it is. Of course, the go-to answer is: my family. My kids, my wife, I go home to this beautiful house. I think I was interested in asking, OK, what if that doesn’t hold?
LW: Right, then what are you working for?
TT: Or what are you working with? It’s hard to talk about it in any kind of conversation without seeming entirely disconnected from the value of just working.
LW: Do you think of your writing as work that you do?
TT: That’s a really good question. Sometimes it’s obligation. I do think, as I’m getting up and getting to the desk, I know I’ll feel terrible if I don’t do this. I’ll feel terrible about myself, I’ll feel terrible about all of the time that I try to earn for myself to do this. And if I don’t do it, I feel guilty. But when it’s going well, it’s so rewarding. Not even when its just going well—when you accumulate a draft and you can look at it and say: Even though this is lumpy and flawed and never as good as anything else I’ve ever read, I still made this. That’s a joyful thing.
I remember Richard Bausch, who I had a brief workshop with, saying that the only question you can ask yourself is: Did I write today? That’s the only thing you have control over. You need to let yourself off the hook for the rest. It’s not like: Did I write 1,000 words today? Or: 10,000 words today? Or: Did I write the masterpiece today? It’s just that one question. So, I have that in my head often when, literally, I will have only written a sentence on the subway on my iPhone and I’m beating myself up feeling like I somehow squandered the day. Well, I’m like: Did I? And, Yes, I did.
LW: How do you deal with criticism and rejection?
TT: It always feels personal. You get these things and you’re like, Oh, they clearly just hate me. Or, They think I’m not talented. Or, There are so many others that are better than me. It’s the worst. Actually, having the book come out, I’ve been thinking a lot about this—how to stop comparing. Because, of course, taste is taste. Art is art. No two books can ever really be compared. But we’re obsessed with lists right now. And with buzz. And marketing budgets. So I’ve had to really try to focus on what is going on that is good, and there’s a lot of stuff! You have to just enjoy it. Otherwise it would make you crazy. In the age of user-generated reviews, you have to be careful. You can fall down the hole so easily. When the first reviews started to come out about the book, long before any of the pre-pub stuff, I wrote something about the first review I had gotten, and another writer friend responded and said, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Haha. It’s like, yep, that’s totally right. Some people are really very articulate and thoughtful, but it’s like bathroom graffiti at some point.
LW: And the anonymity of it makes it kind of a free-for-all.
TT: Well, but the author isn’t anonymous, the author is very public. So then it all becomes a very Google-able thing. For me, part of this process has just been learning to let it fly. Let the work go out there and be on its own. It weathers the storm. It’s so funny how, when books come out, they do get the scrutiny. The literary public’s job is to kind of decide what its value is. And they often miss! But then a couple of months later, you see these books that maybe got tepid reviews or were sort of overlooked, and they find their readers. So, I just have to let the book find its place. It still feels like a miracle to me when somebody’s read it. I mean the fact that you’ve read the entire book—it’s amazing to me. Any person that I reach is a major achievement.
Ted Thompson was born in Connecticut. His first novel, The Land of Steady Habits, was published by Little, Brown in March 2014. His stories have appeared in Tin House, American Short Fiction, and Best New American Voices, and he was a Truman Capote fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and their dog Raisin.
Liz Wyckoff’s short fiction has been published in Annalemma, The Collagist, and fwriction: review among other journals, and her book reviews and author interviews can be found online at Electric Lit, the Tin House blog, and The Lit Pub. She works in book publicity for Barrelhouse and Penn State Press, and does marketing for A Strange Object.