Thom Vernon, irreverent and witty author of The Drifts, was kind enough to respond to some questions about his first novel and some other related topics. I hope that you enjoy his responses as much as I did.
JO: Thom, you have worn several hats in your working life. Can you talk about some of them with us?
TV: Clearly, I like to eat. Look, you can do anything you want if you practice enough and stay interested. To me, although I am biased, the fact that I’ve been a paperboy, janitor, busboy, secretary, secretary, receptionist, telephone salesperson, waiter, caterer, actor, actor, teacher, actor, teacher, actor, screenwriter, teacher, writer, arts administrator, novelist and now teacher again, is all of piece—I am interested in all of them. Or, I was at some point. ‘Career’ would be stretch for most of those; e.g. telephone salesperson. Try as I might I have never been able to stop writing. I have stopped trying to stop.
JO: What prompted you to write The Drifts?
TV: Funny you should ask that. That is literally the second question in every single interview I’ve done! I’ve just submitted a critical paper asking that very question. I didn’t know either, not really. I had a short, impromptu answer that I gave to most of the press people. That nickel-answer is…
‘Oh, my whole life growing up, my aunts would tell me stories—Aunt Sarah, Aunt Doodle, Aunt Ale, my grandma, my Dad—about this little town in Arkansas: Bay. They grew up there. Before they all moved up north in the forties, they were all cotton-pickers. My book is not a re-telling of those stories, I’d say, but is informed by them.’
But ‘informed’ niggled at me so I started researching, for my own sake at first, what exactly that means. Then I got invited to an academic conference on this question this summer so I had to start digging a little further. You can find an audio version of that conference presentation, The Angel at Our Table at http://thomvernon.com in the audio gallery.
After that presentation, I was invited to elaborate in a critical paper. So, over the last two months, this is what I have been articulating. Here goes: turns out that when we have perceptions & sensations those become experiences, which are inscribed upon our neural networks. This inscription called by Freud, Benjamin and others, trace. These traces, then, are cobbled together by artists, in a purposeful melancholic brooding, into novels, paintings and so on. Proust is the master of trace. The crafting of trace actually erects an architecture—I call it an architecture of empathy—into which a reader or a viewer can enter and have her own experience. Pretty cool, huh. Now, I’d never say all that to the average journalist talking me up, but you’re no average journalist so…you can take it, right?
JO: Thom, this book is extremely challenging to read emotionally. I found myself having to put the book down for a few minutes at certain points just to gather my thoughts and feelings. What was it like for you emotionally as you wrote it?
TV: As I wrote, I continually had to re-sign up: I either go in or I don’t. Having read the book, you know what I’m talking about. Craft helped me get to places that perhaps I couldn’t have reached ten years ago, but it also allowed me to not get lost in it. As I wrote it in this way, with this attitude, I became, and still am, very protective of these people. Not of my writing, but Julie, Charlie, Dol, Wilson, Vincent, etc. Each of them, straight up, behave awfully. No question, but every single reader that’s approached me has entered the book and had her own experience. Boy, as a writer, writing it, that’s the scaffolding I hope to erect; so that a reader wants to reach into the pages and shake Julie, holler at Dol and take care of Pity and Squirrel. Too, people I love—my biological family mainly—do cringe-worthy things all the time. So, having come from colourful people (as they say) perhaps what happens in the book isn’t, for me, that out of the ballpark.
JO: If you had to create a Tweet to summarize The Drifts, how would it read?
TV: Over 3 hours in a mean mean Arkansas blizzard, a bitter & pregnant housewife, a trans-dad, a butch factory wrkr & a confused husband fight like hell to get what they want. 140 characters on the nose!
JO: What are you reading right now?
TV: The last volume of Proust, Finding Time Again. The part I’m in is, basically, a lesson in writing literature. Talk about ‘trace’. This guy has like fourteen traces in every sentence. Incredible. Too, the book, serendipitously, exactly addresses your second question. It seems that where does it come from is on everybody’s mind. I’m sorry to see Mr. P go, so I’ll probably start back at Swann’s Way (the first volume) again. I need that fix. Plus, you enter anew every time you come back to it. For upcoming research I have a whole bunch of books on Walter Benjamin’s years in exile and the Third Reich. Yikes.
I’m reading too, just now: John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, Julia Kristeva’s, Time and Sense (about Proust) and just finished the astounding, late, great, great Tony Judt’s teeny treatise indicting the weakening of the Social Democratic project in favour of the neo-liberal (Tax Cuts!) project, Ill Fares the Land. Proust is a comfort, a friend.
JO: Is there anything specific that you hope readers might take away from The Drifts?
TV: An experience of empathy. No message. Lord, no messages. I aspire to write in such a way that a reader can enter, experience and, perhaps, empathize. If my cringing can help someone else practice empathy… I don’t know, what else is there? If they do read it, I hope they’ll contact me through my website or http://facebook.com/thedrifts and let me know their experience with the book.
JO: Thom, what is one thing about you that readers might be surprised to learn?
TV: Oh, geez, here’s one. I’ve gotten so fed up with toxic cleaning products that I’m bringing my own, Sister Thom’s, to market. “Elbow Grease” laundry detergent, cleanser, all-purpose cleaner and “Fou-Fou Juice” air freshener. Sister Thom says things like: “You can do anything you want. Now, clean your sink.” I’ve got all sorts of social entrepreneurial deeds lined up for Sister Thom; she’s going to do great things, I think.
Oh, oh. Of course. My partner, Vajdon, just reminded me that you might be pleased to know that I have a long-time crush on Dr. Pozzi, John Singer Sargent’s painting. That Doctor can fill out a bathrobe.
JO: How would you characterize the response to your novel to date?
TV: Swell, just swell. Humbling. Gratifying. Satisfying. Two stories: first, a young woman, a stranger, approached me, teary, after a reading this summer. She’d found the book on Queen West. When, I asked her if there was a person in it that drew her in, in particular, she answered. “Dol. (pause, pause, pause) Dol.” Second story: a book club in Los Angeles took on The Drifts. Whew, they really entered it. It was me and six readers,for three hours. Imagine. It was like an AA meeting where, at least for me, I kept my mouth shut. They let it rip: “I did not like Charlie.” “I just totally dug, Charlie.” “Julie’s an asshole.” “You know, my heart just so went out to Wilson.” “You know that part, that part where, that whole identity section? I just loved that. It made so much sense. I could relate to that.’ “How could you (me, Thom) let him do that?” And it went on. That book club humbled me with their capacity to hold the people in the book. People seemed to have really entered it and empathized.
Reviews have been awfully generous as well.
JO: Would you care to share some of your current projects with us? Can we expect another novel any time soon?
TV: Oh, well. I only blew this question a little. That ‘Angel’ paper is in. I Met Death & Sex Through My Friend, Tom Meuley, a literary novel is coming, I hope, this year. At least I hope to get it to the point where a publisher might take it on: more blizzards, teenage gay sex, finding home, murder—a love poem to my new home, Toronto. It looks like I’ll be teaching a couple of classes at the University of Toronto over the winter term, then it’s off to a residency and then to Europe for research on that novel about Walter Benjamin’s last decade in exile. I’m probably one of the few non-military Americans who came to Canada in the refugee category. That was a pretty jarring and disorienting experience. It colours my work a lot; although it’s still a little too hot to write about directly.
JO: Thom, what is one book that you would love to read but haven’t been able to so far? Is this a lengthy list?