May 2021 4th Circle: Interview with John WM Thompson
DESI D: What’s your favorite line in a book/movie? And why?
JOHN WM THOMPSON: No singular favorite, but there are a few lines that drift through my mind unbidden every few weeks at most, and one of them is from Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD: “Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.”
In a vacuum, I think it’s a perfect description of a character at the precipice of a well-told story, but in context, it’s how O’Connor cuts to the heart of certain spiritual desperation, despair, displacement. I’m captivated by stories of spiritually alienated and confused people and the way that confusion manifests as a kind of vague menace. You never know what a person who doesn’t know themselves will do.
DESI D: As a writer, what’s drawn you to write dark short stories and essays? And what’s your process for tackling a new project?
JOHN WM THOMPSON: I continue with essaying because it was my entry to the writing world, and it’s often the case that I can only make sense of something I’m reading by writing about it. Plus, essays and correspondence are a great way to keep in contact with old friends.
I’ve always enjoyed horror/surreal/weird fiction as a reader, and they all naturally lend themselves to the short story form. SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK, Stephen King, and Philip K. Dick collections were constants for me as a kid.
I write short stories because I feel each of them is only one thing; a novel can go all kinds of ways, but a short story, when it comes to me, wants to be something specific. I succeed or fail in writing it based on whether I can find out what that is and express it. I fail most of the time.
My new projects usually start with a single short scene, which could be beginning or end but is most often neither. I intuit my way through it, writing to see what happens with no judgments. Then I compile a “slush document” where I record particular lines/words/plot points/images/characters rattling around my head out of context. I compare them against the scene and see how they might relate. I sort of map out rough constellations of other scenes using those elements. Then I have to pull them into a whole story, which is the least fun part.
DESI D: What author has been your biggest inspiration to write? And why?
JOHN WM THOMPSON: M. John Harrison is my guiding light these days when writing my novel, specifically his contemporary-set novels like THE COURSE OF THE HEART and THE SUNKEN LAND BEINGS TO RISE AGAIN, and right now, there’s a lot of Adam Golaski’s WORSE THAN MYSELF in my short fiction. Brian Evenson and Lisa Tuttle are great resources, too. Basically, anyone who can write the rippling fabric of a bad dream. My mentor here in Denver, Evelyn Hampton, has been pushing me to be better about everything.
DESI D: What is it about the art of storytelling that excites you? And of course, what is the next story or essay we can look forward to reading from you?
JOHN WM THOMPSON: What’s most exciting to me is when I write something I want to read. I think that’s what every writer, especially in genre, aims for.
Increasingly I’ve found myself writing after M. John Harrison’s philosophy of anti-worldbuilding. MJH is an exponent of the idea that pleasure in reading is entirely contained between reader and text–meaning, everything that’s exciting and memorable about the reading experience has vanishingly little to do with how the writer intends their work to be read, what the writer wants the reader to understand and value about the story. The more a writer tries to exert control over the work and assert a “correct” or “objective” meaning to it, the more lifeless it becomes.
I’ve leaned into this thinking alongside the use of David Lynch’s philosophy of embracing accident when creating art –my problem has always been overthinking things, getting in my own way. So, the occult novel I’m writing now is only planned in the loosest sense and relies heavily on suggestion, uncertainty, and weird echoes. I’ve forbidden myself from second-guessing any choice made in the first draft. The second draft… we’ll see. But I’m really happy with it so far.
Beyond that, I’ve got several stories out for consideration that have already accrued their share of rejections. If I get anything placed, my DHC people will be the first to know.