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An Interview With Thomas Pierce

Thomas PierceAt the beginning of Thomas Pierce's story "Shirley Temple Three," Mawmaw is waiting for her son to show up at the wedding reception she's thrown for her nephew and his bride. Tommy, who we later learn is a problematic son—charming, easy to love, and a perennial flake—is already three hours late. After the party, Mawmaw goes outside to smoke a menthol and ameliorate her anger, performing a kind of meta meditation learned from a television segment about how to feel at peace during times of financial trouble. When she returns inside to stack the dishes, Tommy arrives. "The porch lights hum with a new electricity. If the moon could radiate more light, it would. Tommy is home. She wants to sing. She wishes the party weren't over so everyone could see her son."

I found "Shirley Temple Three" after reading "Why We Ate Mud" (in the Oxford American's Fall issue), and then quickly tracked down "Grasshopper Kings" and "The Critics." How had I not known of Pierce before? Though he's just begun to publish widely, and he's at work on his first novel and collection of short stories, he is clearly a writer at home in his craft. His stories, which are often whimsical and slightly off kilter, are both effortlessly entertaining and, more subtly, challenging. The characters should be familiar to each of us; they're people we stand behind in the grocery line, their day's tribulations running through our own head. As Pierce explained in an interview with the New Yorker, they, like us, are "muddling through life," while reaching at moments—in a bathroom stall after sex, or perspiring in a sweat lodge—for answers to the big questions: Why am I doing this? What is love? How do I protect my child?

My colleagues and I talked about Ellie, from "Why We Ate Mud," like she was someone we knew intimately. During my third reading of the story I realized how invested I'd become in her character. Will Ellie be okay? The question kept posing itself. She had become as familiar and as unknowable to me as a friend.

What's a typical day for you?

Today seems to be a fairly representative day for me this summer, so I'll describe that. I woke up around 7, read some e-mails on my phone in bed (a bad habit that I'm trying to break), and then went downstairs to make coffee. My wife and I ate breakfast together—peaches, granola—before she was off to work. I took our dog over to a nearby field and tossed the tennis ball. Home again, I sat down in front of the computer to work on a new story. I fiddled with it for a few hours and then switched over to another story that I began a few days ago. Generally, this is how I prefer to work, cycling through different stories, juggling a few projects at a time. Then I was off to run errands: the grocery store because we're having some friends over for dinner tonight and then the post office. (Off topic, but do you find it odd that the stamp dispenser machine refers to itself in the first person? I'm retrieving those stamps for you now. Has it always been this way? Are ATMs like this too? I'm printing your receipt. I'm scanning your fingerprints. Don't walk away from me. We belong together . . .)

After lunch I'll write and revise for a few more hours and/or work on a few ongoing house projects. If there's time I'd also like to go for a short run.

It occurs to me that if you ask me this question again in another month or so, my answer will be very different. We're about to have a baby, and from what we've been told, babies have a knack for upending your life. But so long as coffee and writing are still a part of my day, I'll be happy.

I've bought stamps from a dispenser once in my life, and I was so worried about messing up that I missed that detail. Do you know if they're all like that? Now I'm imagining my computer talking to me as I write this to you.

It sounds like you have a wonderful life, with a growing family and ample time to write. Is this what you imagined for yourself when you were young? When did you realize, or decide, that you would be a writer, assuming you've made this decision?

The stamp machines must be like this all over the country. I wonder if it changes how people interact with them. At some point, I'll bet there was a government study that outlined all the benefits of programming the machines in this way. Maybe it cuts down on stamp machine abuse? Don't hurt me. I'm like you!

Yes, things are definitely good right now—wonderful even—but I should probably note that my time has not always been so ample and that my current daily routine is a relatively new situation for me. Until a few years ago I was working full-time and barely had time for fiction. I was at NPR in DC. I landed there out of college on a radio journalism fellowship and stayed on for five years. Then my wife and I moved down to Charlottesville, Virginia, and I refashioned myself as a freelance journalist, doing print and radio pieces, because in theory being self-employed would create more time for the fiction. Of course it didn't exactly pan out that way. Working freelance, if you aren't in the middle of a piece, you're drumming up the next one. I had less time than ever. Enter UVA's MFA program. I was already in town, so I figured I should apply. Two years later, here I am, graduated and grateful to that wonderful faculty and grateful for all that writing time. (I'm feeling very grateful these days, generally.) 

But as for when I initially decided that I wanted to be a writer, I'm not sure I can point to a specific moment. I've always enjoyed making up stories, though I suppose I became more serious about it in middle and high school. I had some teachers who made writing seem a bit more legitimate by letting me bend essays into creative writing assignments and so for the first time I was actually handing over plays and stories for someone to read critically. In particular I remember turning in a not-so-great story about a wounded soldier in the Civil War who comes home to find Sherman's troops in his backyard. (I remember it mostly because I stole the plot from a cassette tape we'd found of my grandfather interviewing his own grandfather, who'd been a boy during the war and who told of his one-legged father hiding from Union troops in the woods behind their house. The one-legged father, eventually, died from lightning down a chimney, though I don't think I was able to work that detail into my version.) In college I was able to take some great creative writing classes. This was at Wofford College in South Carolina, and in my final year there they brought in Mike Curtis, the long-time Atlantic fiction editor, as a professor. That was a bit of good luck. I owe Mike so much. He's been reading my stories for years and has been a needed source of encouragement and also really thoughtful and honest feedback.

What's some of Curtis's advice that's stayed with you? Are there any tricks or rules that serve as polestars for your fiction, that you have in mind whenever you sit down to write?

Mike has a keen sense of whether or not a story is fully realized or dramatized. Does the story go all the way? That's how he put it to me recently, and I like that formulation. All-the-way-ness. I like the idea because it isn't necessarily prescriptive. It allows for beautiful houses that aren't built to code. But it also requires that all the elements are cooperating in service of that particular story's way-ness. Naturally I don't think about any of this while I'm writing because I have a hard enough time as it is, but once I've got something on the page I do look to see if the story is doing all it can do. Even if it is doing all it can do, of course, it might not be a good story but at the very least it will be a best possible bad or mediocre one.

I'm not sure I have rules. I do try to treat every character like someone who could track me down after publication to lodge a complaint—or worse. And I do try to earn my moments of writerly indulgence. If the story is entertaining or compelling enough, I've convinced myself, then maybe people will forgive me if I go off the rails for a paragraph or two.

I'm afraid I have no tricks. Only tics. Lots of those.

There were moments in "Why We Ate Mud"—like with the "hallelujah bath," the interview with Burton, and the post-interview waffling—when I felt like Ellie's character was in my own head. Other times I found her inscrutable. Everyone in the office had a slightly different take on her, which showed in our opinions about what art to use for the story. How is writing a woman's character different from writing a man's, for you? And what do you think Ellie would say to you if she met you on the street, or on the playground, or at a bar (would she be at a bar alone?), and knew you were her creator?

Maybe we'd run into each other at the soft-serve ice cream place. One of those chilly and sweet-smelling strip mall shops with the silver handles on the wall and all the toppings behind the glass. Ellie would probably be there with a friend and ignore me. She'd want nothing to do with me. Or maybe she'd tell me that I was a bit unfair in my literary treatment of her, that some of my stylistic choices had made her seem a bit too cavalier or cruel or even disconnected, particularly regarding her romantic relationships. And she'd be right, to an extent, so I might apologize. In this imagined scenario, I'm thinking of myself more like a journalist than creator. I'd prefer to think she pre-exists me and my story. Otherwise I'd have so much more explaining to do. I'd have to answer not only for any mischaracterizations but also for the very conditions of her reality, her fate, the mud-eating. My only defense would be that I've foisted onto her what's been foisted onto the rest of us, and if she bought that line, I suspect we could eventually become friends. In certain respects, I don't think we're all that dissimilar from one another. Some of her spiritual questions and concerns are my own, after all. (Are we alone in the universe? I reckon not.)

As to the differences in writing male and female characters, that's a tough question. I'm working on a novel right now and the majority of the narrative perspectives are female. The simple truth is I enjoy writing women. I feel like there's more to discover when I do, and I wonder if readers are less inclined to project the characters onto me or me onto the characters. But I don't want to make it seem like I approach my men and women characters that much differently. I don't think I do. To crudely paraphrase Whitman: We are large, we contain multitudes. What I mean to say is, just because a character is a woman I never consciously decide she must therefore think or behave according to x, y, or z. Same goes for men. I suppose that I also trust and rely on my early readers, particularly my wife, to help me with any problems or inaccuracies that might arise when writing from the female perspective.

It sounds like you're concentrating on fiction now, though your stories with historical and scientific elements (mammoths, fossil hunters) are well-researched. And now I know you have family stories from the Civil War-era South. Are you doing any nonfiction or essay writing?

Focusing on fiction presently, that's true, but occasionally I do jot down notes and ideas for future essays. Back when I was in radio, my favorite projects were the longer, less newsy pieces that landed me, say, on a shrimp boat at dawn or in the middle of an archaeological dig. Sometimes I really miss heading out into the field with my mics and cables or pen and pad. So, we'll see. This summer I've been working on a series of stories, all narrated in the same first person voice, that use more autobiographical bits than is customary for me. They exist somewhere between essay and fiction. Not sure what I'll do with them. Maybe nothing. 

The research bug, I suspect, is something I inherited from journalism but also from having been a history major in college. I enjoy doing research, for the most part, but I have found that when it comes to fiction, research can be a help or hindrance, depending on when it occurs in the writing process. Maybe I do have a rule after all: I try not to research while I write. Leaving the world of the story to chase down a detail interrupts the creative wave, and anyway, there's always the chance you might invent something more interesting than what is technically accurate. My preferred method is to do the majority of my reading in advance and then to wait a bit. I wait because I don't want to be regurgitating facts, per se, but only the chewed-up partially digested remnants of those facts. (Wow, that sounds gross. Sorry.) I want to give my brain the chance to mix and mess up all the information because ideally the research—whether it's based in science, history, religion, pop culture—will bubble up from the bottom of the story or, in some cases, through a character's consciousness. This, as opposed to the research being inserted or imposed by me as I go. In stories that need it, I'll often do some more reading and research as I revise and then change things accordingly.

Was there any book or story that you read when you were a child that altered the way you viewed the world or yourself, or sparked some kind of subconscious awareness of how stories can be deeply morally or emotionally affecting?

In the beginning I read for the adventure. There was a Madeleine L'Engle phase. One summer I read lots of paperback books with cartoon aliens on the covers, though I couldn't tell you now who wrote them or what they were called, but they did lead me, eventually, to Ray Bradbury. My parents let me read most anything, thankfully. One story that really stands out to me in retrospect is Carl Sandburg's book about the young Abe Lincoln. We used to semi-regularly drive up to Sandburg's house in North Carolina, which is a national monument now, to see the goats and to walk the trails. I think I got the Lincoln book there, and I read it many times. It wasn't a book that made me want to write, but it did wake me up to the idea that we exist in a certain time and place, out of many times and places, which sounds simple but was something of a revelation for me. It also fed my obsession with Lincoln. There are embarrassing home movies of me going over the details of his assassination when I was about four or five. I was like some weird version of Kevin Costner in the JFK movie (Back and to the left, back and to the left), only very small with a high-pitched Southern accent.

I'm curious to know how those experiences will influence what you read to your child.

I'm really looking forward to this part of being a parent. My own parents kept me well supplied with books. What I read early on is sort of a blur to me now, but I'm not even sure that matters. It's all in there. A while back I was trying to write this crazy story about a man who becomes a mountain. Something about it was so familiar, and I'm sure I must have encountered something like it as a kid. There's a Hermann Hesse fairy tale that's based on a similar idea. Maybe it was that one. Either way, it's been up there in my brain all these years as a sort of archetypal story. That's something I want to keep in mind as I start picking out stories for my own child. Maybe I'll read her that Hermann Hesse fairy tale. I'll follow her lead.

Read Thomas Pierce's story, "Why We Ate Mud," from our Fall 2013 issue.