Winner of the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award
I was thrilled when Jim Tomlinson announced he’d been awarded the 2006 Iowa Short Fiction Award for his collection, THINGS KEPT, THINGS LEFT BEHIND. Jim is one of the most generous writers I know — not just with the time and support he offers his colleagues, but he is equally generous and loving with the characters in his stories. It’s my honor to introduce you to him today.
Your story collection won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. Up until then, I assume you’d been sending stories out one by one and getting some ratio of acceptances and rejections, all in relative obscurity. Describe to me how long you’ve been in this game of trying to get your work out there, and what it was like to get the news you’d won.
I began writing fiction in earnest in late 1999. By fall 2003, I’d accumulated three complete, unpublished, and probably unpublishable, novel manuscripts. When my fourth attempt foundered after eighty pages, I took a break from the heartbreak of novels and made a serious try at short fiction.
My first stories were submitted to literary magazines in April 2004. I’d received 31 rejections by the time Wind Magazine took “Paragon Tea” that October. That was followed by several dozen more rejections. Then in August 2005, the planets aligned and I placed three stories within a week. Another was placed in September, then another in October.
An earlier incarnation of the collection, THINGS KEPT, THINGS LEFT BEHIND, had done well in a regional short fiction competition that summer. Since then I’d revised the stories to the point where each seemed to earn and hold its place in the book. I’d reset stories to a single small town, and I’d let characters appear briefly in each other’s stories, which is something they’d been asking to do.
Still, it seemed like an act of incredible hubris, submitting the collection for the Iowa Short Fiction Award. They have no entry fee, though. The only costs were paper, printer toner, and postage. So I took a shot. This was in September.
Mid-afternoon on January 6th, the Director of University of Iowa Press phoned from her car. She told me that George Saunders had chosen TKTLB for the Iowa Award. I was stunned. She went on to explain, quite needlessly, who George Saunders is. They’d be publishing the book in the fall, she told me. Whatever else she said was lost forever between my excitement and her cell phone static.
What was it like, getting the news, once the shock wore off? Both gratifying and humbling, Sue. Intimidating, too. I had a sudden desire to edit the manuscript again, to add just one more story. Maybe I was insecure. Maybe I worried that the collection might not live up to the award, that it might not measure up with winners from past years. Okay, maybe there is no maybe about it.
But aside from all that, a writer gets one first book in a career. I wanted mine as rock solid as I could make it. That was my thinking anyway. Fortunately, the Iowa editor let add the story and make a few other post-contest changes.
Your book spends a good deal of time with the subject of divorce and with characters feeling unable to discuss the disappointments in their lives. I’m remembering specifically the story “Things Left Behind.” In a hotel room where two characters have had an extra-marital affair, we learn that this man ”“ torn as he is about what he’s doing ”“ feels it is only with this other woman and in the journal he keeps that he’s able to find the part of him that is still alive and passionate.
Okay, strictly speaking, he had been unfaithful. But he had never been more faithful to his essential self, to his potential for good. (p. 83)
First, I wonder if you could talk to me about this theme in the book.
And secondly, I’m interested quite a bit in this – most of your characters keep their disappointments and dreams to themselves. Assuming you understand the kind of man who might not share his vulnerabilities, what is it like for you to put such honest and vulnerable stories into the world? Exposed? Free?
I haven’t thought in terms of theme, Sue. Whatever is there comes up in the writing.
I want my stories to be about what it means to be human in this world. Often, as in life, dreams aren’t realized. Characters experience disappointments, and they just try to go on from there. How they cope in hard circumstances is what interests me. Everyone wants a bit of grace in their life. What gets substituted for a dream that has died? How does someone like Dex Chalk or LeAnn McCray or even Lonnie in that story find a way back and up from disappointment? Their silence, it seems to me, comes out of pride, that and maybe a refusal to acknowledge pain or defeat. Even an unsteady pride can salve the hurt temporarily. So it’s understandable to me, this defensive sort of reticence.
The second part gets into a really fascinating area…what of the writer goes into the characters. I like that you call the stories honest, Sue. They may not always be sweet and uplifting tales, but they are honest. At least that’s the kind I’m striving to write.
While my characters are different from me in many ways, there is nothing in their desires and yearnings that I haven’t felt or couldn’t imagine myself feeling in their circumstances. That keeps them grounded, real to me on the page. I would not and have not done most of what my characters do, but I’m in touch enough with my own urges and yearnings to recognize what’s going on inside. So when it comes to my characters, I can understand and empathize completely. There is not one character in THINGS KEPT, THINGS LEFT BEHIND that I don’t feel compassion and affection for. They may be screwing up time after time. But they’re trying to do something justifiable, something redeeming, trying to do some version of the right thing.
You ask how it feels…exposing or freeing…to write these stories. A little of both, I suppose. A bit like running naked through the graveyard. Now there’s something I have done.
Well, you can’t say you’ve run naked through a graveyard and not follow it up with some details.
Sue, I grew up in a typical Midwest small town, Sycamore, Illinois. The cemetery was at the end of our short street. Parades went by our house on Independence Day and Armistice Day. Soldiers shot rifle salutes at the military graves, and we kids scrambled beneath them, grabbing up the hot brass.
Outside the cemetery gates was this vacant lot where we played pickup baseball games. One summer someone sunk a house foundation there, and we had to move the game to the open area, no graves yet, at the back of the cemetery.
The graveyard became our neighborhood park. We played kick-the-can until after dark, the can on the narrow asphalt road running between graves. We hid among the gravestones and monuments. We played truth or dare there, too. And that was where Steve Savage double-dared me once to make a late night dash from Tewksberry’s grave all the way over to Weidemeir’s monument and back, to do it naked as a jaybird.
The rest is legend, still, in the annals of Sycamore.
Ha! I love that story ”“ and that you knew the graves well enough to run to specific people.
And this raises an interesting tension within your book between the setting and the characters. There is a young man from a coal mining town whose life turns down a path very different from those in his community. There is a daughter expected to care for an ailing parent. And these characters don’t want to become what’s expected of them. In many ways, what I see as a recurring theme in your book is how complicated it is to break away–from community or family expectations, from a failed marriage, from a past you’re not proud of.
Stories are all about conflict. Often the most intense conflict isn’t between characters, though. It’s waged within a single character, matched internal tugs, a well-balanced dilemma. In “Lake Charles,” for example, Ben’s quandary is completely internal. His responsibility to care for his ill-equipped, brother and perhaps remnants of guilt over his injury, battle Ben’s desire for a more exotic and fulfilling life. The quandary absolutely paralyzes him.
Most stories are set in rural Kentucky. Although it’s somewhat true everywhere, it is particularly true in this region that love of the home-place and connection to family are primary values. Many young people have an intense love-hate relationship with their community and region. They dream of moving away as soon as they can. Some stay away, but more return two or three years later to settle in. It’s an interesting ambivalence, how people feel about the region, those who stay and those who leave. The sisters, Cass and LeAnn, in “Things Kept,” live the echoes of that struggle. LeAnn thinks of herself as having escaped Spivey long ago, while Cass is happily settled there. Those choices and how each feels about them colors their attitudes toward each other and their present-day relationship as they try to help their mother with tax problems.
A major arena where human ambivalence plays out daily is marriage. That and it’s flip side, divorce. It’s not just conflict between characters that offers story possibilities. It is the internal landscape that each must navigate…the private negotiations between hope and fear, dreams and commitments, pride and vulnerability. It seems to me that a lasting marriage is often a tattered and a most heroic thing. In the book’s final story, “Stainless,” a grieving couple teeters on the brink of divorce. By the story’s last page, I care deeply about both characters and what will become of them. I hope the reader does, too.
I love an evenhanded story, one where readers can’t comfortably take sides. Stories by Raymond Carver are like that, and Andre Dubus II, Jill McCorkle, Richard Bausch, and Bobbie Ann Mason, to name a few favorite authors. They have a balance that feels true-to-life.
So tell me something about what you’ve left behind. Or maybe what you’ve tried to leave behind though it goes with you or you can’t help but return to it.
Ah! A perfect place for a Faulkner quote. Okay, it’s actually a dialogue line from his novel, REQUIEM FOR A NUN — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The past is so weighty in Faulkner’s fiction.
Several of my characters can’t get free of their pasts. Jack in “Marathon Man” lives in a rosy version of his past, much more than he does the present day. Jerry and Cheryl, ex-spouses in “First Husband, First Wife,” can’t seem to get free of their badly flawed relationship, despite other marriages. And memories are the only substantial thing Georgia, the proud mother in the story “Things Kept,” has left… that and an enduring love for her dead husband.
But that’s not what you asked, was it Sue. What have I left behind, or tried to?
My past always feels present, especially when I’m writing fiction. I moved away from my hometown a long time ago. Still, I have a sense of the place and the people, and I carry those with me, even after many years. My former career as an engineer was a successful one with patents to show for it and trade secret processes developed. It’s left behind, more completely than I’d expected, although I can slip back into that way of seeing the world. And my baby daughter, who grew into a girl-child and then a woman. A father relinquishes a piece of heart as that happens, unavoidably. If he’s lucky, a different, equally wonderful relationship, one with the person she becomes, takes root in its place. I’m working at being that fortunate.
I’ve loved four women in my life…loved in the romantic sense. (Let me just note that, in the general sense, I’ve loved thousands.) But here I’m talking capital “L” kind of love. And I’m thinking that four is a damn good number.
First was my high school sweetheart. She died too young, with too much unresolved between us, one very hard lesson in regret. The next was my college girlfriend, the one who up and dumped me one day for no good reason at all. We’re friends again, years later, in an e-mail kind of way. The ache hasn’t stopped, though, not completely. Not yet.
The third is my first wife, mother of my daughter, intended life-partner. For many years, despite rough patches, I believed we’d make it. We didn’t, though, divorcing a decade ago, finally throwing in our tattered towel. Divorce is a devastating thing, as anyone who’s been through it knows. Fodder for fiction, yes. But not worth the emotional price.
And number four is my beloved wife, the multi-talented and lovingly tolerant Gin Petty. THINGS KEPT, THINGS LEFT BEHIND, you will notice, is dedicated to her. For good reason.
Ah, I see Jim Tomlinson, the man, is not unlike Jim Tomlinson, the author, who has compassion for all of his characters. Even as characters fail and disappoint and inflict pain on each other, you also show their vulnerabilities, their secret dreams, and all the ways they are trying to do better. I think this open but honest heart is what makes this collection so potent.
It’s been a pleasure to talk with you, Jim.
Thank you, Sue. It’s been fun. Can I put my clothes back on now?