Laura Hulthen Thomas  heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan's Residential College. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including The Cimarron Review, Nimrod International Journal, and Witness. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and received an honorable mention in the 2009 Nimrod Literary Awards. She is a contributor to Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them, a collection of ghost stories by noted Michigan authors published by Wayne State. 

This interview was conducted by email.

Willard Cook: When did you first start to write fiction? What inspired you?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: I was first inspired to write fiction by my parents’ liberal and reverent view of storytelling.  My parents filled every room in the house with books, all stored on low shelves within a child’s reach.  They had a wonderfully haphazard approach to book organization.  Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization flanked Woody Allen’s Getting Even, Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckenridge, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase.  History and literature stood shoulder to shoulder with popular and even sensational books, so I got the message early that compelling fiction embraced all levels of art and audience.  In my parents’ library, “serious” fiction and “popular” fiction coexisted dynamically on the same shelf.  The ability to just grab the next book without regard to category or judgment inspired me to begin writing fiction as a kid.

“Sex on Celexa” has a loosely autobiographical inspiration, but not the elements that might seem most obvious to the reader.  I rarely write directly about personal matters in fiction.  However, I wrote the first draft of the story just prior to a shocking discovery that in hindsight the story seemed to anticipate.  I’ve always been drawn to write about characters who, by accident of circumstance and temperament, are unable to nurture a full sense of self.  Somewhere along the way the flow of the developing person is interrupted, brutalized even, and forced to change course; it’s the consequences of the interruption I am most interested in depicting.  “Sex on Celexa” was initially intended as a study of the narrator’s inability to locate her emotional and sexual self.  I realized early on that I didn’t really know this character, or understand the motivations for her destructive impulses.  The revelation of a painful family secret happened to erupt right around the time I was re-drafting the story.  I’m going to keep the nature of the revelation private, but in coping with this secret and its consequences, I finally understood what had made this character, and from there it was a matter of simply listening to her.

Willard Cook: What kind of stories did you write as a kid? Was there any one writer or writers who you loved?  Did you like English in school?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: Love of English classes, writers, and writing are all connected!

I was the typical English "junkie", one of those nerds who actually found memorizing the prepositions soothing and engaged a bit too actively with the rules of comma placement and sentence structure.  I was lucky to have some committed and very entertaining English teachers.  My eighth grade English teacher read aloud Poe stories and reveled in telling us how the various writers of the "canon" had met their untimely ends, so I was as knowledgeable about how a dedication to writing had killed these folks as I was about their actual stories.

I loved all the books girls typically loved then -Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  Because of my parents' eclectic tastes, I was reading Little House on the Prairie and Myra Breckenridge at roughly the same time, certainly a provocative pairing.  I wrote a lot as a kid, mostly trying to emulate the writers I admired.  My first story was "The Thursday Elephant", about an elephant that only woke up on Thursdays. Don't remember how that one ended.

Willard Cook: Do you think you would have dealt with the secret if you weren't writing about it? Do you think writers writer from a wounded part of themselves?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: Well, when writers aren't writing from their own wounds, they're borrowing others' wounds.  "Sex on Celexa" is a borrowed wound, one I wanted to honor with a portrait of pain that doesn't necessarily lead to healing or redemption, as is, sadly, often the case in life.  Sometimes the things that happen are so awful, and so lopsided in terms of power dynamics, that
suffering continues to infect the present and the future despite the messaging of our self-help, just-deal-with-it culture.  I wanted to present the portrait of trauma's legacy from the perspective of a woman who does want to deal, and to feel, but turns to all the wrong people and all the wrong mechanisms for help.  
As far as whether I personally have dealt with the secret that inspired the story, I wouldn't say that I have, but writing the story granted me a measure of emotional access, if that makes any sense.

Willard Cook: Is it difficult to write about sex? Is this your first sex story? Any women writers you admire who handle this well?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: When I write about sex I'm usually really writing about passion's absence. I'm interested in the ways sex substitutes for other physical and emotional desires that are too scary to locate, or are, for whatever reason specific to the character, out of reach.  I'm drawn to investigate how lonely physical connections can be when these other desires are unattainable, especially if the character is mistaken in what they think they desire, or mistaken in the ways they go about getting what they want.  The intimacy of isolation interests me. "Sex on Celexa" makes these connections more explicitly than some of my other stories, but no, it's not my first sexual story. Not my last either! Writers whose writing I admire for the many layers the explicit unveils include Sarah Waters, particularly in her novel Fingersmith; Laura Kasischke's  novels; and Katherine Dunn, particularly in the novel Geek Love.

Willard Cook: What do you think about the idea fiction writers should lie when they are
telling the truth--that is we should make up stories in order to reveal what we might otherwise be afraid to say openly?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: I think fiction reveals truth openly and deeply by the very nature of the art of storytelling. Through stories, both writer and reader follow arcs of events that in the end have to make some sort of sense.  Even the most avant-garde story demands the achievement of some form of closure.
Events that make sense and people that serve an inevitable and right purpose are not always a part of our real life experience, as much as we may crave to craft
these meanings.

I'm definitely in Tim O'Brien's camp, that "story-truth" reveals emotional layers and access points that "happening-truth" can't always get at. Fiction can enter in a direct, visceral way the psychological and physical experiences of the things that happen, or the things we do. Especially in the case of trauma, where one's natural defenses default to psychic distance or even suppression, good fiction doesn't allow this default.  The visceral experience is the real experience.  Fiction at its best can close the gap of defensive distance for both the reader and the writer.

One of my favorite Hemingway quotes sums it up: "You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true."  I like the word "obligation" here; and also the combination of "invent" and "truer", which would seem to be a contradiction but in fact reinforces that good fiction is about getting at the agate of the authentic. "Truer than things can be true" maybe restates the observation of your question, that in fiction the unsaid can at last be said.

Willard Cook: How do you know if you have a character right?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: I don't really know if I have a character right until a reader tells me that she/he connected with that character on some level of experience or feeling.

Until that point, I find everything about fiction a leap of faith.  When I'm writing a character, I want to follow, not lead; and I want to fall in love. When my relationship with a character touches a reader, I feel honored, and lucky.

Willard Cook: Thanks for the interview.

May 14, 2012