Conversation With Thom Vernon

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 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 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?

TV: Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel. It is a very long list. As soon as I think I’m well-read I realize how ill-read I am.

Catching Vernon’s Drift is Sure to Please

The Drifts

By: Thom Vernon

Coach House Books, May 2010, 216 pp, Paperback $19.95

This is an updated review of Thom’s book that appeared in the Arthur. I will have a featured interview with Thom posted by tomorrow evening to accompany this review.

Thom Vernon has crafted a wonderful and compelling novel that is both difficult to put down, and at times, emotionally painful to endure. Vernon hails from Arkansas, but currently calls Toronto his home. His working life has involved an eclectic mixture of jobs and it is very much reflected in his ability to capture the nuances of both dialogue and character development in the novel. If this book is a marker for what is to come, queer fiction literature, as categorized by both Vernon and the publisher, will be much the richer in the future. CanLit, that ever-nebulous field of writing, is also much the better for it.

The novel takes place in a small town in northeastern Arkansas and focuses on four characters. Julie is forty-six and an expectant mother who cannot stand the thought of being pregnant again. Charlie, her husband, does not want to help Julie cope with her complex emotions and is in the final days of an affair with his best friend, Wilson, a female who works at the local Singer factory. Charlie’s affections have become newly focused on a new subject, a pet calf. Wilson, if you’re still following, is no longer infatuated with Charlie, but is in love with her childhood friend, Dol. She is a transsexual father of two who desperately wants to make the transition to female but can’t afford the financial costs of the transition. These brief descriptions do not capture what is one of the greatest strengths of Vernon’s novel – character development. I challenge all readers to not care very deeply about what happens to all of these characters, and in particular Dol, who is experiencing an extremely conflicted and tortuous life.

Vernon has chosen to tell the story in the first person with each of the four main characters narrating the events that unfold chronologically over the course of one wintry evening. The narrative unfolds chronologically with chapter headings detailing the character and the time at each chapter’s beginning. There are some temporal overlaps from chapter to chapter with several flashbacks skillfully interwoven into the larger story. There is great intimacy in the way that Vernon crafts the novel – it is very easy to climb into the minds of each narrator. The entire novel has a feeling of claustrophobia, as the characters can never seem to avoid or escape each other. They cannot seem to find any space for privacy within the small, closely-knit town. This lends great effect to the dramatic events that unfold over the evening.

In this excerpt, Julie and Wilson discuss womanhood.

Wilson took a pointed sip of her beer. ‘We’re right back where we started. You don’t think much of what a woman is.’

‘Oh no. I have the utmost – I know what it is. To be a woman. Getting. The equipment. That’s the nothing part of a woman, look at your … friend. He can do it in his bathroom. Nah, it’s the stuff your mama teaches you. How not to take up space. Look away when a boy gets a look at you. Spend every minute of every day of your life thinkin’ about how other people see you, every minute of every mucking day thinkin’ what somebody else needs, and when you get an extra minute to yourself, you can just think about how that’s affectin’ other people!’

At times, the book may prove to be challenging, and occasionally frustrating for some readers to follow. Some of the language is very much rooted in the American south; although I would say that I find much of the language very similar to rural western Canadian cadence and rhythms. Vernon’s text is not meant to be skimmed, but should be savoured for its richness and depth. Charlie’s chapters are particularly interesting in that his white, straight, male privilege affords him the ability to communicate to the reader without punctuation and explicitly flouting rules and customs that are oppressive to others in the novel. Several of Vernon’s characters are flawed and unlikable in many ways, thus lending some stark realism to the novel. This rawness is an obvious strength of the novel.

The book does have a few areas that are weaker than others. One criticism is that the novel comes to a quick close with little if any denouement. I was not seeking a neat and packaged ending, but with the power of the rest of the novel, the closing is exceedingly disappointing. I am sure that Vernon will address this in his future writing and it does not seriously diminish the overall quality of the book. Additionally, because the novel moves so quickly over an evening, I did find it difficult to understand some of the intense attraction that certain characters experience for others despite the flashback sequences that attempt to contextualize the evening’s events. This is not intended to be a sweeping epic, but there is not nearly enough of an exploration of some of the deepest feelings of the four main characters – something that Vernon may want us, as readers, to create on our own. However, I did feel somewhat shortchanged by this lack of exploration on the author’s part.

While the themes of identity, gender, sexuality, infidelity, love, job loss, health care and animal rights are all explored in Vernon’s novel, there is never a sense that he is proselytizing. This book offers wide appeal and could serve as a gateway to readers who have never read a title from the genre of queer fiction. Thom Vernon has written a fine first novel and I believe that many if not most of you will be moved or possibly even changed in some way by its power.

10 Great Recommended CanLit Reads for the Holidays

This list of books is not meant to be exhaustive or to indicate anything other than these are ten great CanLit reads that I highly recommend. I have chosen books published from the 1980s forward for this particular list. I believe these titles offer a relatively broad range of themes and writing styles, and should be available in most new and used bookstores across the country. Please enjoy the brief list, with titles that appear in no particular order, and I hope that it is useful in some small way either for gifts or recommendations over the holiday season and beyond.

The Jade Peony, Wayson Choy.

Some writers make it seem effortless. I put Wayson Choy in this category. He is a beautiful storyteller whose writing style is exquisite. Three young narrators lead us on a journey through Vancouver’s Chinatown during the Second World War. Choy’s skills are on full display in this novel from the driving narrative to the compelling characters. Family and forbidden love are two of the novel’s dominant themes.

Shoeless Joe, W.P. Kinsella.

Even if you have seen Field of Dreams, I am confident that you can enjoy Kinsella’s baseball tale that weaves myth, nostalgia and fact to create a great story. While the movie is mildly entertaining, Kinsella’s novel is quite simply, captivating. Sports, and particularly baseball fans will enjoy this book most, but anyone who appreciates unfettered imagination in the books they read will not be disappointed.

The Book of Negroes, Lawrence Hill.

Lawrence Hill has created one of the most compelling heroines in recent Canadian literature. Aminata is a force from beginning to end in this sweeping epic. Hill provides us with an unforgettable tale that contains wisdom, pain, beauty and unwavering hope. The pre-Confederation British North America colonies are cast in a light that is too often ignored when discussing this problematic history. This is Hill’s best effort to date but I have a feeling there are even greater novels to come as he begins to peak as an author.

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood.

This is not necessarily Atwood’s best, but I think it endures as her signature novel. If you have not yet read anything by one of Canada’s most famous authors (maybe you have been living under a rock) this is the one to get started with before tackling some of her more complex novels. Written in the dark shadows of Reaganomics and increasing religious fundamentalism in the United States, Atwood’s dystopian future remains eerily prescient more than twenty years later. Read some Palin-speak – you will not require a dictionary – before you dive into The Handmaid’s Tale to get the full effect of Atwood’s justifiable angst.

Fruit, Brian Francis.

This novel does not appear on enough lists as a highly recommended read for my liking. Francis’s gifts are many as he creates one of the most endearing characters, in Peter Paddington, that I have encountered in the last ten years. Talking nipples alone are reason to start this fine book; Francis’s sensitivity, humour and compassion makes you wish the book were twice as long as it sails along.

Monkey Beach, Eden Robinson.

There is a rawness, along with a gripping reality contained in this book that is rarely matched in contemporary CanLit. Robinson, much like Hill, teaches without making the reader feel as if they are being lectured at. Empathy, compassion and sincerity define this West Coast novel and while some of Robinson’s characters are impossible to like, others will make you believe the human spirit can triumph in the face of despair and pain.

The Outlander, Gil Adamson.

I recommend this book to so many people, I am sure they think that Gil is a family member. From the opening pages, the murderous widow leads us on one of the best chases in CanLit history. If you can put this book down more than a dozen times from start to finish, you will have me beat. Adamson’s prose is as rich and as clear as the Rocky Mountain air that the widow breathes with every deep inhale.

The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews.

Many people will argue that A Complicated Kindness is Toews’s best work. While there is much to like in her debut, award-winning novel, I prefer The Flying Troutmans, hands down. Toews has an excellent ear for language and this is reflected in the dialogue exchanged between her dynamic young characters. This modern quest across North America in a damaged minivan by three scarred young people is both brilliant and moving. Toews’s potential as a writer seems boundless from my perspective.

In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje.

Ondaatje is both lyrical and powerful in writing style in this exploration of working class and immigrant lives of Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. Ondaatje’s books are crafted with skill and care. Because he is such a gifted storyteller, the tendency is to race through them, but if you take your time, you pick up the subtleties and nuances that make him one of the finest writers of our time. This book, along with most of his other efforts, will endure.

Nikolski, Nicolas Dickner.

Thankfully, this excellent novel was the Canada Reads 2010 winner, because I fear it would not have received the recognition it so richly deserves. While it received early rave reviews in Quebec, non-Quebeckers, sadly, did not engage with it until it received some English-Canada stamps of approval. Dickner takes the reader on an amazing journey with characters that you want to succeed in all that they do. Disparate storylines are woven together to create an unforgettable novel. I challenge you not to devour this book within a day or two of opening its first page.