Oct/Nov 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Jim Tomlinson

Interview by Elizabeth P. Glixman

Jim Tomlinson's short story collection Things Kept, Things Left Behind received the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award. George Saunders has this to say about Jim's work: "...a very specific and eye-opening version of...working-class rural America. [Tomlinson's] care for these people and his generosity toward them are evident on every page."

Tomlinson's stories have been published in magazines including Five Points, Bellevue Literary Review, and Shenandoah Review. He was an engineer for many years but recently decided to resume a relationship with his other love. His muses were calling.

Jim lives in Kentucky with his wife Gin Petty, a talented fiber and book artist. Jim says. "Should she ever decide to, she'd be an excellent writer. We met, in fact, in a writers' group."

It was Jerry Cole's ex-wife, Cheryl, who lifted the drugs, which were already illegal anyway. She boosted them from this fat pill lady who manages Hilltop Green Assisted Living. As Jerry waited outside behind the wheel of his rust-bucket GMC piece of crap pickup truck parked at the curb, as he sat there imagining how good things would be now that his luck was finally changing, Cheryl's chrome beautician cart came careening down Hilltop Green's front walk like a runaway Peterbilt. Cheryl herself followed close behind, the shoebox stash tucked under her arm for anyone with eyes to see.
                         — from "First Husband, First Wife"

EG     After reading the opening paragraph of "First Husband, First Wife" from your short story collection Things Kept, Things Left Behind, I suspected I was in for a treat. I was right. The stories are well written and entertaining. You have a great ear for dialogue, a great eye for seeing detail, and an intelligence that recognizes the bottom line of why people act as they do. You tell the stories scenically; they are a joy to read. The characters, for the most part, are working class people with ordinary lives. How do you know about the frustrations of people like Jerry and Cheryl? Have you been to jail or know anyone who has? Have you dabbled in drugs? Have you been married more than once? Personal questions. This inquiring mind wants to know.

JT     So that's the kind of interview it's going to be, going straight for the tabloid stuff? Let me order another beer and bum a cigarette from someone, and I'll be ready.

EG     Yes, Jim. I want dirt.

JT     Okay. My jail time has been limited to two brief stints. In first grade my class toured the local jail. This was in Sycamore, Illinois. The jailer put six of us in a cell. When the door clanked shut, I was completely terrified. Right then I vowed in my six-year-old heart to never do anything that would land me back there which, I suspect, was the intended outcome. My second stay in jail was longer, most of a day touring Blackburn Correctional Facility outside Lexington, Kentucky. I'd joined a Citizens Police Academy program as research for crime novel I was writing. At the end of the tour, I met two inmates, both of whom had been convicted of murder. Each told his story and answered questions, gave his perspective on the justice system, on prison life, on what hopes he held for the future. It was an eye-opening day.

My drug use? It's a matter of public record, the whole gamut from acid (acetylsalicylic) to pseudoephedrine. And there was that brief dependency on Nyquil. That's all ancient history, though. I swear.

Seriously, I know people who've done time in prison and some whose involvement with drugs went way beyond dabbling. I've been married twice, and, while I've never counted noses, I'd guess that's not at all unusual among my acquaintances. But really, your question is how do I know how to write about characters like Jerry and Cheryl, right?

I come from working class background, and that certainly shapes my outlook. My father carried mail for the post office, walking a daily route on the west side of Sycamore. He was a quiet man, but not much happened in town, on the surface or below, that he didn't know about. My mother left school in eighth grade to work in a Sycamore pencil factory. Later, she worked in the town library as assistant to the assistant librarian. She loved books—thick novels set in interesting times and far away places—James Michener's Hawaii, Edna Ferber's Giant, Pearl Buck's The Good Earth. My brother was the first person on either side of the family to graduate college, the University of Illinois. I was the third, two years behind him at Illinois. I've never felt far from where I started out.

As for my characters' frustrations; there are those, yes. My fiction is realistic, so their lives and prospects may seem grim at times. But there are also, I hope, times of amazing endurance, of humanity, and a few moments of great grace. At least that's what I aim for in the writing.

EG     Here is another excerpt from the same story:

While he drove, Cheryl pawed through the jumble. She read labels out loud to him, sounding out the syllables of the chemicals' names.

"Jesus," she said. "I don't recognize none of this stuff."

"No problem," Jerry said, feeling juiced now that they were on the interstate. "We'll get us a D.A..R.E. book," he said, "sort it all out, what we can sell, what to flush."

What does D.A. R. E. stand for?

JT     D.A.R.E. is "Drug Abuse Resistance Education." It's a national program that prepares children for a world where illegal drugs are a fact. They do wonderful work, primarily through the schools. I have one daughter, who is grown now. I don't remember D.A.R.E. being prominent at her school. Here in Kentucky, my local community has a very active program. Children wear the DARE t-shirts proudly, and parents' cars and pickup trucks sport the bumper stickers. As I said, they do wonderful work. Anyway, a drug enforcement officer once told me that resellers of black market prescription medicines often use D.A.R.E. literature, too, use it to understand exactly what they've got. Thus, Jerry's remark about sorting pills.

EG     Although I enjoyed many of the stories in the collection, these two stories stood out: "Flights" and "Things Kept." "Flights" because of the ambiguity. I don't want to give the story away or ruin it for others, but time was my dilemma in the story, what was happening in present time, who was there. At the end I thought what a fantastic coup to have written this tale and made it poignant and have the ambiguity fall into clarity in so few pages. Should we tell the reader what "Flights" was about? What inspired this story?

JT     I don't think telling the story will spoil the reading. I hope not.

EG     In "Flights," the reader meets a father and son in a hospital. They are looking at a photograph of their deceased wife and mother. The son is the narrator. There is a nurse in the room that is asking questions. It is hard to tell who the patient is in this story. It has a surprise ending. This kind of ending was different than the endings of the other stories. Do you agree?

JT     In short fiction there is, ideally, a moment when the reader experiences something that lingers long after the page is turned, some new understanding or way of seeing. How you do that changes from one story to the next. A surprise ending is an especially tricky thing. If not arrived at with scrupulous fairness on the writer's part, the reader can feel tricked, a dangerous condition often accompanied by angry slammings-shut and vigorous overhand throwings.

In "Flights," the uncertainties in the narration mirror the character's state-of-mind. Those uncertainties and the moment of clarity at the end are the heart of the story. Most readers experience it as a surprise. It's one, I hope, that's fairly earned.

The origins of the story? After my parents died, I was looking through their oldest photo album. In it was one photo that my father had particularly prized; the two of them in bathing suits, quite young and sitting on a blanket beside the Illinois River. I remembered him telling me about that day, about my mother as a young woman. She'd died several years before. And I sensed that he was telling me because the memories felt fragile to him, and he saw himself as their last caretaker.

When he died not long after that, my brother, sister and I were left with a house filled with things that had such meaning for him. The emotion of that realization was the impetus for "Flights."

EG     That would explain this line. In the story the narrator is in the hospital. He says, "From beneath his pillow, my father takes a photograph. It's black and white, small and square, the edges deckled in crisp half-moons. He taps the glossy image with his tough fingernail. 'That's me,' he says, showing it, 'me and Betty Lowe.'"

I was struck not only by your ability to keep the reader interested in what was happening by creating different kinds of tensions in scenes, but also by your ability to tell complete stories in a few pages or in a lot of pages. Some stories are three pages, as was "Flights." Others are 33, as "Prologues (two lives in letters) ." You managed to show the underbelly of relationships in a variety of settings and lengths. Do you consciously decide what length and form a story will take before you sit down to write?

JT     Sometimes I write my way into a story and only learn when the first draft or two is completed what it wants to be. Other times I have an endpoint in mind before I start, a certain emotion, a moment, a turning. Story length is just what it takes to get the reader to that moment and then let them go.

Most of my fiction goes through many drafts — 20 or 30 drafts are not unusual.

EG     How much time do you spend writing each day? Twenty or 30 drafts are a lot of drafts.

JT     When I'm writing, it's usually for four or five hours a day. It's surprisingly exhausting. And the later drafts on a story are usually tweakings and polishings. Sometimes I'll complete a new draft in a single sitting. Still, it all takes time.

"Stainless," the most recent story in Things Kept, isn't a very long story. But it took nearly three months to write, grinding away, writing and revising five days a week.

My early drafts tend to be longer and more meandering. During revision, I cut anything that's not needed and try to compress everything left on the page, make sentences work at doing more than one thing.

You asked about "Flights," about it being very short. It was written originally for SmokeLong Quarterly, a flash fiction publication. The word limit there is one thousand words, no exceptions. The pivotal moment of that story is small enough to be created in that small format.

"Prologue (two lives in letters)," on the other hand, is a novel-in-disguise. The epistolary form lets me (and the reader) make huge jumps in time. There are no narrative transitions. The thing I love most about the form is that readers can enter the time gaps and imagine for themselves what isn't in those few letters. They can bring their own sensibilities to the relationship between Davis and Clare. Written traditionally, their story would be novel length. But length wasn't a consideration here. I wanted to try the epistolary form and use it to tell those two lives.

EG     There is something real and familiar about your stories. I could tell this from the first page. There is a sort of soap opera quality but raised to a "literary" level. Are you a man who discusses relationships with his wife and friends? Are you an emotionally sensitive guy? Please don't take the fifth on this one.

JT     I'm quite introverted, actually. Congenitally shy. But emotionally sensitive? That's hard for me to say. Wait, let me ask my wife…. Okay, Gin says I am. We'll trust her judgment on this, although, I warn you, she is incredibly biased.

To describe my fiction, for a while I tried calling them "relationship stories." Nearly every story involves two characters, each given fairly equal weight in the writing. In fact, the story is usually more about "them" (sisters, lovers, spouses, father and son, etc.) than it is about either individually. It's about who the two are together, the dynamics of the pairing, which is to say—their relationship. The phrase does seem to evoke "soap opera" too strongly, though, so I've stopped calling them relationship stories. Between the two of us, though, that's what they are.

EG     Have you studied writing?

JT     As a high school senior, I applied to the university's colleges of engineering and journalism. I was accepted in both, and for one long week that spring, vacillated. Ultimately, I chose engineering, but not without much anguish.

EG     Was there a particular reason you finally decided on engineering?

JT     I was seventeen. How does a 17-year-old decide anything? I don't know. Maybe I thought slide rules were cool.

Anyway, I've never studied writing formally. But I've always read fiction, and in recent years I've attended workshops, learning from several wonderful teachers. The Kentucky Arts Council has been incredibly helpful along the way, both with encouragement and with financial support.

You learn to write by writing. Reading and writing—I don't know any other way.

EG     Do you ever regret that you didn't go to journalism school?

JT     I've wondered what directions my life would have taken if I'd made the other choice. But I don't regret the decision. I enjoyed engineering. I was successful at it. And I'm not at all certain I'd have been half as good as a journalist.

As a footnote, my daughter, 30 years later, has a journalism degree. She works as a publicist in New York now, her clients in the music, film, and digital entertainment space.

EG     When was the pivotal point in your life when you decided you needed to write?

JT     For many years I earned a good living as an engineer in industry, both manufacturing and product design. I found much satisfaction in the work. When you're an engineer in industry, you're often asked to write a brief report each Friday to document the week's accomplishments. At some point a few years ago, I realized that the high point of my week often involved coming up with perfect verbs for that report. That was my first clue.

When I reached a point where I could escape corporate life and try the proverbial path not taken, I did. I've been writing in earnest now for about six years, writing full-time.

EG     Was it your need to write that allowed you to escape the corporate life, or did you win the lottery?

JT     No lottery winnings. There was just this realization, a slow dawning, that I could exist quite happily, given basic food and shelter and the freedom to write every day. Call it "motivated frugality."

EG     Was the decision to leave engineering a difficult one to make? Was it made over days, weeks, years? It takes courage to leave what is familiar to pursue a dream.

JT     I'd thought about it for two or three years. The work situation was changing, and a move from Kentucky seemed to be in the cards if I wanted a comparable job. That helped tip the balance, helped me make the choice to leave the profession and write full-time.

EG     As a child and as an adult can you remember a book or books that made you want write fiction?

JT     My seventh grade teacher, Mr. Bodeen, read fiction aloud to us every day for the better part of an hour — Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, the Penrod books. Others, too, but I remember especially hearing those books read aloud, how marvelously a story happened in my head. That got me started reading for pleasure. It probably planted the writing seed, too. I wanted to tell stories the way Mark Twain did. What could be grander than that?

There were always books around the house for us kids — Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Heidi — and shelves stuffed with books at the library where my mother worked. And there were magazines, too, new magazines arriving in our mailbox several times a month. Reading and writing always seemed such worthy things to do.

EG     Congratulations on winning The Iowa Short Fiction Award. Why did you choose to enter your manuscript to this particular award contest?

JT     Thanks, Elizabeth. I was very fortunate in that my manuscript was rounding into shape as the deadline for the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award approached. I'd been building the collection for nearly two years. Last summer I replaced two stories with new ones I'd just written, ones that seemed stronger to me. I also worked on a tighter linking among stories, the location, characters and overarching themes. After that, each story seemed to carry its share of the load. For the first time I felt that Things Kept, Things Left Behind had a real consistency of story quality and of voice, beginning to end. By fall, four of the stories had been bought by literary journals. The collection seemed ready to send out to competitions. The earlier incarnation of Things Kept, Things Left Behind had placed as a finalist in another competition in the fall 2005. It was the restructured and upgraded version that won the Iowa Award.

So there was much good luck involved. Good timing.

EG     How did winning this award affect your feelings about being a writer?

JT     It's been gratifying and more than a little humbling. How could it not be, being chosen by a writer like George Saunders, who judged this year's competition? And then writers like Jill McCorkle and Robert Olen Butler offer superb cover quotes for the book. And recently Kirkus Reviews gave the thing a starred review. Best of all, the words of that review tell me that the reviewer really connected with the stories and the characters. That's what every writer wants, isn't it, that connection through the work to some reader? What could be more gratifying than that?

That said, the process — the act of writing — doesn't change. You still go alone to a quiet place for several hours each day, and you put down words or rearrange them. Fortunately, that process offers a sustaining energy of its own, a visceral and psychic kind of satisfaction. So far, that part doesn't seem affected in the least by the award. I hope it never is.

EG     When you aren't writing what do you do?

JT     I read quite a bit, short stories, novels, and some non-fiction. I love movies and listening to music, especially music played live. I'm a baseball fan, Chicago Cubs, which is quite painful this year. Actually, it's been painful most years.

EG     What books have you recently read?

JT     Just finished Michael Cunningham's The Hours yesterday, and I started Daniel Woodrell's Tomato Red this morning. They're very different but both are such masterful writers.

EG     Writers often enjoy some type of exercise due to the sedentary nature of writing. Do you?

JT     In winter I sometimes ride my incredibly boring exercise bike. We're lucky to live in the Appalachian foothills, which is a great area for hiking when the weather cooperates. There are more wooded trails up and down these hills than we could ever hope to hike. Other than that, my exercise comes mostly from walking. A college campus is a half-mile from the house, a bookstore and library a mile away, a country stream just over the hill. They're all pleasant places after the day's writing.

EG     Is you wife a reader? Does she emotionally and creatively support your work?

JT     My wife, Gin Petty, is an amazing, multi-talented artist and a craftsman. From childhood, she was a woodcarver. In recent years, she's been a basket maker, a papermaker and a bookbinder, too. Gin is also a voracious reader. She does volunteer editing for local and state arts organizations, and I'm most fortunate that she is my first reader. I can't imagine anyone more supportive.

EG     Anything hidden in the closet you want to reveal? This is the last chance.

JT     Nothing left to tell. You already got it all. I truly appreciate your enthusiasm about Things Kept, Things Left Behind. Thank you.


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