Thomas Pierce was born and raised in South Carolina. His stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Oxford American, and elsewhere. A graduate of the University of Virginia creative writing program, he lives outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and children.
“Channeling The Confusion,” an Interview with Thomas Pierce
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Alexis Campbell. Of the process, she said, “Hall of Small Mammals is unlike any short story collection I have read before, and by far one of my favorites. It is riddled with humor, fantastical truths, and deep emotion. I am grateful for the opportunity to have interviewed Thomas Pierce, who was personable and candid about his process and experiences in the writing world.” In this interview, Thomas talks about understanding his characters, transitioning from radio to fiction writing, and avoiding stereotypes.
Superstition Review: One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Videos of People Falling Down.” It is such a unique concept, yet at the same time, you mention in an interview with NPR that it is really a “study in empathy,” which is an idea of characterization that all writers learn quickly. How did you find this piece to be different in terms of how you approached the “studying” of the different characters?
Thomas Pierce: I’d been writing a lot of close third person stories in which I was pretty deep into a particular consciousness, and partly I was just ready to do something different. I came up with the idea for the structure first, and it appealed to me because it might allow me to write a very novelistic story with lots of moving parts and overlapping characters. It felt innovative, and that was exciting. In terms of the perspective, I adopted a very top-down, camera-like approach, which is unusual for me. Typically I float directly above the character’s head, but in this case I gave myself a longer tether. The voice is a little cold but with a bit of an edge. There’s a distance between the voice and the characters which I hoped would make them feel small but not insignificant.
What initially interested me about those online videos is that they are usually so short—sometimes just five seconds—and yet on either side of that clip is an entire life. I started to wonder about what’s not seen and if my failure to feel much about these poor folks had something to do with what’s missing, with a lack of context. What I mean is, it’s easy not to care about the guy who trips and hits his head on the sprinkler if you know nothing about him, but if you learn he’s an aging grandfather and he’s just been to the doctor and he’s suffering from a blood disorder that causes him to faint—what then? My point is that the more we know and the wider the scope, the harder it is to feel nothing. I wanted to make people of punchlines (of people).
SR: Reading Hall of Small Mammals I was struck by your ability to draw on such compelling attributes of fantastic fiction: accentuating the human condition by bringing in the improbable, and doing it beautifully. How have other writers influenced your writing? Do you find that you gravitate towards similar work?
TP: Thank you. I don’t think I gravitate toward any particular kind of work or writer. That is to say, I see no obvious pattern in what I find myself reading. I’m a huge Charles Portis fan, for instance, and though I doubt most readers would situate me in the Portis tent, certainly I’ve learned from him. Norwood is one of my favorite books of all time. The story is lean and taut, the dialogue so pitch-perfect and funny, and what’s driving the action, essentially, is Norwood trying to get back a couple of bucks his buddy owes him. The lesson being, I think, that it doesn’t take much to make a story go. But like I said, my interests and influences are wide and varied, and here I’ll just list a bunch of names that pop into my head: Munro, O’Connor, Millhauser, Frank Stanford, Beattie, Bolano, Coetzee, Morrison, Percy, Peter Taylor, Muriel Sparks, Marquez, Doestevsky, DeLillo. I don’t think I write like any of them, but I admire and return to many of them.
SR: In an interview with Electric Literature, you discuss how your time at NPR made you “very aware of ‘audience’” in terms of giving the reader as much as possible in a story and not wasting time getting to it. What does your writing process look like in order to achieve this?
TP: I’m aware of the audience—of the fact that whatever I publish will ultimately have one—but it’s not something I consider much as I’m actually writing. If I had the audience in my head at that point, I’m not sure I’d ever get very far at all (All those confused, irritated faces floating out there ahead of me!). What I’m doing most of the time is just thinking of ways to move the story forward. I’m trying to sustain the energy—of a voice, a thought, a scene. I’m trying to keep myself entertained. If I’m not entertained or moved, then I doubt anyone else will be.
As far as my process is concerned, I tend to revise as I go, looping back on what I’ve written again and again. I’m not a writer who needs every sentence to be perfect before I can proceed, but then again I can’t move on when I know there’s a section that’s like a little black hole sucking up all the story’s energy. Usually I can feel when that’s happening. Once I have a complete draft, I enter phase two of revision, in which I often retype the entire story or at least large pieces of it. This helps me find ways to improve the sentences and images and clear up confusions and make cuts. I’m a big believer in cutting and trimming, in making something taut, and I suppose I do have the audience in mind at this point, but it’s more about me not wanting the audience to find any dead spots in the writing. I want everything to feel alive.
SR: I found myself sympathizing with the decisions of almost all of the characters, such as Walker in “The Real Alan Gass,” whose choices are sometimes problematic but unmistakably human. You balance this so well in every story, with the circumstances and personalities playing off of each other. Can you explain how you begin to understand a character and whether his/her circumstances influence personality foremost in the story or vice versa?
TP: My characters typically, though not always, begin as a bundle of emotions, thoughts, wants, desires, questions, and I’ll write a few lines, a few paragraphs, trying to figure out who they are, plus the ideal voice and point of view to capture that person. The situation often arrives in tandem with the character, and it’s only when I have both that I’m interested enough to give up the noodling and actually attempt the story. I don’t tailor the personality to the situation, and probably this is because I try never to have a meaning or a thesis in mind at the start. I don’t want to bend my characters’ decisions and behavior toward a pre-existing idea of what the story is about. In truth, I never seem to have any firm idea about a story’s meaning until I’m almost finished with it.
The question of how I come to understand my characters is a tough one as it really does vary from project to project. I finished a new story last week and I had a fix on the character from the first sentence. She appeared fully-formed. On the other hand, I’m finishing up work on a novel at the moment, mostly narrated in the first person, and I had to write about a hundred pages (many discarded now) before I felt like I really understood the main character at all.
SR: You discussed with The Paris Review how your Southern roots make their way into your stories, but you try to stay away from any stereotypes, saying, “Maybe a character has a Robert E. Lee portrait over her mantel but maybe she also goes to hatha yoga classes every morning and drinks iced almond-milk lattes or whatever.” I love this image. Can you explain how you see others challenging similar stereotypes and what it means to you?
TP: I’m not sure I ever intend to challenge stereotypes so much as simply avoid them. But then again, maybe that’s just another way of challenging them? My primary goal is to create real, complicated characters with thriving inner lives, characters that readers might feel something about or connected to, and this means staying away from broad types. In the context of a story, a stereotype is really just a shortcut. I feed you one or two facts about a person, and you fill in the rest based on what those facts suggest. This happens all the time in fiction to varying degrees. It’s really sort of fundamental to storytelling. I tell you a character goes to church every Sunday and only shops at Walmart, you’re going to make certain assumptions about that character’s values and traits, some of which may be true. But I can’t be sure you have in mind the same person that I do because I haven’t been specific enough; I’ve drawn a circle around a certain group of people, but the circle is too large. So I tighten the circle some. If I tell you this same character once turned down a beauty pageant crown because she’d been forced to compete by her mama and didn’t much care to be judged for her good looks, then the circle gets much, much smaller. I haven’t exactly challenged any stereotypes with those details, but I’m on my way to creating a more complex and real-seeming person. As I see it, stereotypes in a story are just failures of specificity and particularity. If, in the process of trying to create more life-like characters, I challenge people’s assumptions about a people or a place (the South or anywhere else), I’m glad for it, though that’s a secondary concern.
SR: How has your writing community changed or evolved since leaving radio?
TP: I worked as a freelance journalist for a couple of years after leaving NPR, and I didn’t have much time for fiction, but then I wound up in the MFA program at UVA. That was really the first time I’d ever been part of a community of writers. I’d known writers over the years—some of my undergrad professors had been mentors and friends—but I hadn’t really felt part of a scene. Suddenly I was surrounded by writers and all we ever talked about was writing, as if it was the most important thing in the world, which it is and isn’t. I made some good friends in the program, and I read books and stories I might not have known about otherwise, and I learned how to better articulate and understand what I was trying to do with my own work. But now a couple of years have gone by, and I don’t see those folks as much. My wife and I have two small kids, and we live in the woods—that’s part of it. I think when it comes to my writing, I’m a bit of a loner. I have a few folks I share early work with, but not many and not always. At this point, for better and worse, I feel pretty disconnected from any larger writing community.
SR: The story “More Soon” struck me as darkly humorous, as a convincingly exaggerated portrayal of the government that is slightly terrifying in its possibility. How often are you drawn to writing stories with the possibility for social interpretations?
TP: I would say I’m often drawn to writing such stories, though I don’t usually succeed at it and most drafts never see the light of day. Partly this is because I’m reluctant to publish a story that comes down too hard on a single side of an issue. For instance, with Shirley Temple Three, I didn’t want to write what might ultimately be construed as anti-cloning polemic. I wanted to leave room for the reader to move around in that story, to feel things without being preached at. I published another story last year about a never-ending drone war here in the US, and I was equally careful there not to write a screed against the use of drones, though that interpretation is entirely possible. I’m interested most in those issues about which I don’t really have a fixed opinion, in the problems that don’t allow for easy solutions or positions. If I already feel like I know what’s right or wrong in a given situation, that’s not so intriguing to me as a fiction writer. I’m drawn to what’s murky and to what makes me feel uneasy. What I’m trying to do with stories such as these is channel the confusion that comes from living in an age like ours, where new technologies and discoveries are foisted upon us daily and we’re constantly having to reevaluate what we think about the universe and our place in it.
SR: How did this collection come about?
TP: I wrote these stories over a period of about three years, and they all seemed to fit together in different ways. They were all running on the same gasoline. It felt right to bring them together in a book and to make some of those connections clearer with revisions. I sold it, along with an unfinished novel.
SR: Hall of Small Mammals is full of scientific accuracy in terms of names, facts, etc. Can you describe how you researched and incorporated these into your pieces?
TP: I worked for a couple of years as a freelancer writing short features and captions for National Geographic. They call their captions writers "legends-writers" which makes it sound pretty fancy, no? Anyway, I was on the phone constantly with scientists and researchers, trying to reduce complex information and concepts into small but accurate captions—er, legends. All this to say, I came up as a journalist, and it’s sort of against my nature and training to disregard facts.
I do most of my research before I write and I try not to feel tied to it. I’ll read a lot, let it sit, and then it will emerge in the story as it will. I don’t like to research as I write because that interrupts the flow, plus I don’t think I should feel constrained by what’s known. I’m not opposed to making up science when it suits me or the story. I did a reading last year with a very nice and respected scientist who’d written a book about cloning extinct species, and she very politely informed me that researchers would never be able to bring back a woolly mammoth. And I just sort of shrugged. That doesn’t really concern me, you know? I’m a fiction writer! The story both is and isn’t about our current or future cloning capabilities. I suppose it boils down to this: I’m fine departing from what’s known and factual so long as I’m aware that I’m doing it and have a good reason for it.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
TP: My wife and I share an office in our house. I’ve got a long desk that stays pretty messy with books and pottery shards pilfered from various archaeological sites, and, at the moment, tax documents. I have all sorts of odd pictures and postcards tacked to the wall above the desk, plus other, larger things: the last known photograph ever taken of Lincoln; a kina shell necklace that I brought home from Papua New Guinea about a decade ago; a mandolin. Outside the window we can see down through the woods to a river. It’s almost spring here, and it’s tempting to move outside.