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Author Jean Thompson at the Hammer Museum tonight

October 15, 2009 |  3:03 pm

Jean Thompson will be in Los Angeles for a swift 36 hours to read from her new collection, "Do Not Deny Me," in the New American Writing series at the Hammer Museum tonight at 7. Thompson, born in Chicago and brought up in Kentucky and Tennessee, earned an MFA at Bowling Green in Ohio and went on to teach creative writing in many places, including San Francisco and Oregon.  She was a National Book Award finalist for her 1999 collection "Who Do You Love," and now makes her home in Urbana, Illinois.

Jacket Copy: Many of these stories focus on a character, often a character in a difficult situation. What's your starting point?

Jean Thompson:
If you write, you get into the habit of seeing the world around you in terms of stories. Just as a painter might, or a photographer might, look at the world around them in visual terms, framing things in accordance with what they want to do. I think that’s sort of the way writing works, too, at least for me. Here's something I've happened across, or that sets up a kind of question. If you're in the habit of writing stories, you push it a little bit. What if – what if we took that initial situation or question and put it in motion.

JC: As a former writing professor, are there any creative writing rules that you are fond of breaking?   

No, I’m pretty dogmatic and humorless about my rules. I always tell them not to change point of view, and I suppose once in a while I have a story that changes point of view, but I try to do it in a way that is cohesive and focused.

JC: The title story, "Do Not Deny Me," is pretty spooky. How'd you achieve that feeling?

I wanted to write a ghost story, in a way that made sense to me. There were conventions of a ghost story that I couldn't bring myself to use, because they seemed very shopworn. Yet I wanted a kind of creepiness, and I wanted there to be places in the story when you to say to yourself, well, I could see how that might happen. Because there are otherworldly things that may or may not be happening. I suppose I was trying to write a ghost story a bit like Henry James, a psychological ghost story.

JC: You've got two stories with single women in mid-life, coming from different perspectives, that kind of bracket the book. The characters overlap – could you talk about what made you return to those women, and their variations on a theme?

  I wrote "Wilderness" first, which is the story of a woman who is going to spend thanksgiving at her married friend's home. She's both anticipating it and dreading it, because she thinks her friend has had a successful marriage, prospered in the world, and makes her feel inadequate in her own life. Lo and behold, she gets to her friend's house, and her friend is charging out of the driveway in her pajamas, trying to track down her husband who she thinks is sneaking off to see his girlfriend. In other words, the grass may be greener on the other side, but it's pretty brown on both.

That character pretty much leaves for the second story, and it becomes the story of the wife with the unfaithful husband, who she has since divorced, and who is basically trying to be her own person, or come to some peace in her life. It kind of goes full-circle; both characters have more in common with each other than they did at the beginning of the first story.

JC: The stories move between third person and first person, and between women and men. What helps you decide which point of view to use?

Each story is its own little self-contained world. You choose first versus third in terms of which character seems to want to tell their own story, which voice is most interesting, when do you want to be a little closer, when do you want to be a little more distant, what is going to allow you the greatest latitude. The story "Mr. Rat," which is a first-person story, there's a character who's really a rat! He's not a pleasant person in a lot of respects. And there's a lot of fun in allowing him to tell his own story. The more he talks, the more I think he hangs himself by his own rope.

The previous book I had, "Throw Like a Girl," was all stories organized around girls and women, and I just wanted to stretch myself a little more.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Hammer Museum, April 2009. Credit: Ken Hively / L.A. Times