Interview: Laura Hulthen Thomas
Midwestern Gothic staffer Allison Reck talked with author Laura Hulthen Thomas about her collection States of Motion, the danger in fearing to write what you don’t know, the shortcut to writing success, and more.
Allison Reck: What is your connection to the Midwest?
Laura Hulthen Thomas: I’m a Midwestern almost-lifer. When I was very young, my parents moved from New Hampshire to Southeast Michigan to work in the auto industry. We spent a couple of years in a Wisconsin paper mill town, too, before becoming permanent Michiganders. Midwestern living hasn’t taken the Yank out of my family, or me, although I like to think my rougher Eastern edges—quick, white-hot opinions, no space for gray areas (Live Free or Die! is my birth state’s motto)—have been sanded down by the Midwest’s pace, and patience.
AR: In your recently published collection, States of Motion, the stories are set in Michigan – a place you are very familiar with as a professor at the University of Michigan’s Residential College. Do you believe that authors should only “write what they know” or is it important to explore the unfamiliar?
LHT: I encourage my writing students to seek out the unfamiliar as much as possible! Maybe this is because, as a transplant from the East, Michigan has never felt all that familiar to me. Moving while very young means having to navigate new, strange situations and friendships before your first, original home ever had a chance to claim your heart. I don’t think I had learned the ropes of what a hometown is, or what friends mean, before having to start all over a couple of times in a few short years. I’m also lucky to live in the very diverse Southeast Michigan region. Just when you think you have this place all figured out, well, guess what. I played with assumptions about place when writing the stories that became States of Motion. Hippy-dippy stronghold Ann Arbor isn’t the whole story of that town, and our rural places aren’t just farmer-in-the-dell burgs. This region brings town and gown, rural and urban, absolutely cheek to jowl with one another, but the various economic classes and identity groups can form their bubbles if they choose. You can isolate, congregate, avoid or mix-and-mingle with ease. It’s a weird place, which is the best place to be.
The trick to writing fiction is to make the unfamiliar natural, and to make the familiar odd, strange, worth a deeper look. This leads to wonderfully compelling stories. It can be really tough to find the unknown about home, but if the writer can de-familiarize what she knows so well, she can make the landscape part of the trouble, and then maybe, part of the epiphany.
AR: Drawing on the previous question, do you think that this could be dangerous for a writer, to write about something they haven’t personally experienced or known?
LHT: I find my imagination is set in motion most passionately when wondering how someone different from me experiences the world. A great example is Emily, the scientist turned lab manager in “Lab Will Care”. Science was my absolute worst subject in school, especially chemistry and biology. I never even took physics, having by that point given up all hope of understanding any scientific subject matter. Even now, I’m not at all a logical thinker! It’s really embarrassing how befuddled I am by equations, beakers, and data points. But Emily is built for the lab; that’s where the world makes sense, where she feels useful. She can systematize. She can work for something greater than herself, save people, change the course of human knowledge. She can also nurture, in ways she can’t in her family life. I have never experienced anything remotely like Emily’s daily doings, but it’s her life, not mine. I have to go where she lives and learn what I can about what she experiences and knows.
I think it’s dangerous for any writer to be afraid to write about something they haven’t personally experienced or known. We wouldn’t have fiction, journalism, poetry, or nonfiction without writers figuring stuff out, inhabiting other perspectives, in their mission to bring full stories to the page. Sometimes writers get the facts wrong, or don’t capture an experience authentically; sometimes tone undermines integrity, and intent. That’s the breaks—writers make mistakes, and some published writing is in poor taste, whether intentionally or not. I understand the purpose of this question is to comment on the current conversations around the appropriation of identity and experience. More than ever, writers and readers are questioning authenticity and a story’s true owner. These are marvelous and important conversations to have, and I have them with my own students. We watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story.” Then we read Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, in which the character of Richard, a white Briton, leaps off the page with the same intensity as Nigerians Olanna, and Kainene, and Odenigbo. Adichie’s novel can only tell the whole sweeping story of Biafra’s short-lived independence by inhabiting the perspectives of women and men of all races. I’m glad she didn’t think this work dangerous, but necessary.
AR: Explain the inspiration behind this collection’s theme. Why did you decide to highlight Newton’s Laws of Motion (inertia is referenced in the epigraph and the Third Law of Motion is represented in the cover art) and how are they relevant to the stories?
LHT: Yes, Wayne State Press designer Rachel Ross’s wonderful cover features a Newton’s Cradle, those cool swinging balls that demonstrate the law of energy conservation; that energy can’t be created or destroyed, but can only change form. In this case, the balls change from potential to kinetic energy. While writing these stories, I saw how my characters so often made choices and chased desires to spark reactions from their families or their communities. I think the stories question whether laws of the heart are as inevitable as physical laws. Many of the characters come to learn that love, or hate, are neither created nor destroyed, but only change form once they are set in motion.
I’m married to an architect, and one of the ways Ron and I are most different is how we relate to inertia. In my view, if that ugly wall is chopping up the floor plan, hang a pretty picture, arrange a couple of comfy chairs around an end table, create a conversation nook. You make the best of what’s already there. In my husband’s view, if that wall isn’t load bearing, out it goes. Open up that plan, let the light in. Don’t accept what’s ugly unless ripping it out will bring the house down. Both views make sense of the environment and the world, but the stakes and outcomes are different.
My daughter and two sons turned out to be scientific types, mechanically skilled, brilliant logical thinkers. The Bionicles they built!! The Lego cities and outposts they created!! All I could ever do at those tender ages was read an effing book! I was fascinated by this construction crew I was living with, and through them drawn to spend time with characters who take on inertia directly, and then hope for an equal and opposite reaction. But, do passion and love create kinetic energy, or are they just different forms of inertia, as Moor wonders in the title story? In States of Motion, the characters are either awaiting an unbalanced force to set them in motion, or they are that unbalanced force!
AR: States of Motion features eight stories that have vastly different subjects. How do you think they are all connected – is there one common theme, or a general feeling or idea that you are trying to convey throughout the stories?
LHT: At my book launch, someone pointed out that animals play a role in nearly every story, and they don’t usually meet happy ends. I had to admit to the questioner that I hadn’t caught this connection! She asked if I was trying to say anything about the fate of animals at human hands. I didn’t realize how many of these stories mirror morality through pets, or suburban wildlife, or lab subjects. How lucky, that readers are so much smarter than writers and can pick out themes the writer only subconsciously intends.
As far as the glue I consciously intended to connect these stories, the variety you point out in subject matter, characters, and place is most definitely a driving force. I also wanted variety in story length, and I am super grateful to my editor Annie Martin and Wayne State University Press for including the long stories alongside the more standard length stories in this collection. Southeast Michigan is a connector. The great recession and its aftermath is a recurring character. And, as we’ve talked about above, physical laws were an early inspiration, too.
AR: In the initial pages of the book, you include two very different epigraphs – one is Newton’s Law of Inertia and the other is from a Shakespeare play. Traditionally, science and literature are considered opposites, yet you connect them here and in one of the stories, “Lab Will Care,” – why?
LHT: One could say science and literature are not opposites, since they both share the mission of serious inquiry. The scientific method seeks to answer a question through systematic observation and experimentation. Literature also poses questions, and then presents the investigation. I believe where the disciplines differ is that science is out to explain a discovery and supply solutions, while I think the best writing complicates, asks more questions than it answers. Even this is not always true, as some scientific inquiry reveals complexity, or only intends to bring us one step closer to a resolution. Another difference between the two disciplines is that literature is out to entertain us, while science, not so much; but then, the Newton’s Cradle is crazy fun to play with, so there you go.
The Shakespeare quote, from The Merry Wives of Windsor, reads: “O powerful love! that, in some / respects, makes a beast a man, in some other, a man / a beast”. It’s really just another way to state the law of energy conservation – the different forms a man will take when love sets him in motion.
AR: If your students leave your class having learned just one lesson from you, what do you hope that important lesson was?
LHT: Eat your chocolate, and don’t let the poets have all the fun. Just kidding, plus that’s two lessons. I think my students would say I teach them how important it is to come back to the work, find the gaps and mysteries to explore. As a very young writer, I thought revision meant failure; shouldn’t a story just flow the first time out? Looking back, I realize I just didn’t understand how to find what comes next for each story. It took me so long to figure out how to revise on my own, I want to spare every writer I can that grueling waste of time. I want my students to feel more excited writing the third draft, or the fifth, than writing the first. Inspired, disciplined revision is the ultimate short cut to writing success.
AR: Describe your writing process. How do you approach crafting a story?
LHT: Every story has its own unique ratio of winging it, whining, avoiding, and just doing it already, so I can’t claim a consistent craft approach. I try to write in the mornings when I’m fresh, but because of juggling a full-time job and kids for so many years, I have had to learn to be more flexible about the conditions for inspiration. I also have learned to be ok with really crappy writing, or a terrible writing session. A paragraph that seems like a bad idea at the time can turn out to have a sentence or two that takes a story in a new direction. To the extent I have a process, I usually have already fallen for a character I’ve carried around for a bit, and then I think of, or hear about, a situation that might drive that character crazy, or maybe drive them to do something they would never have done before, or couldn’t imagine ever doing; and then I can begin a new story. I like to read scene-driven stories, so I keep things moving along for my characters rather than trap them in chunks of narrative.
AR: What’s next for you?
LHT: I’m writing a novel about a rural Southeast Michigan cop whose unraveling marriage distracts him from the search for a missing Detroit teen. Love, that most wonderful, and terrible, diversion!
Laura Hulthen Thomas is the author of the short fiction collection, States of Motion, published by Wayne State University Press. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Cimarron Review, Nimrod International Journal, Epiphany and Witness. She received her MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College. She currently heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.
Be sure to check out the follow events for Laura’s book:
Reading with Kelly Fordon on July 26th in Cleveland at the Cleveland Inkubator LitFest.
Reading with Kelly and Lolita Hernandez at Kazoo Books on Saturday, Aug 5th at noon.