A “slightly askew universe.” In coversation with Thomas Pierce
She pours him some grapefruit juice in a tall Daffy Duck glass. Tommy comes into the house through the back door. She hands him the glass and he takes a swig, then looks at her, confused. He pulls a flask out of his pocket and tips it into Daffy Duck. “Follow me,” he says, and leads her into the backyard, both of them swatting their way through a veil of mosquitoes and moths attacking the overhead floodlight. There, in the freshly mowed grass, Tommy has something hidden under a quilt. It’s moving.
“What I’m about to show you,” he says, “you can’t tell a soul about it. If you did, it would be major trouble. Trouble with a capital T.” He sips his drink and tugs the quilt away.
Mawmaw takes a step back. She’s looking at some kind of elephant. With hair.
“Don’t worry. She’s not dangerous,” Tommy says. “Bread Island Dwarf Mammoth. The last wild one lived about ten thousand years ago. They’re the smallest mammoths that ever existed. Cute, isn’t she?”
–Excerpt from “Shirley Temple Three,” Hall of Small Mammals (Riverhead Books)
CORINNE GOULD: I enjoyed the diversity and range of the stories in this collection. The narratives range from realism to absurdism, sometimes in the same story! “Why We Ate Mud” and “Saint Possy” offered surreal and mysterious experiences while “Videos of People Falling Down” stands out as effortlessly experimental. Despite the range, your voice unites the texts cohesively. There are even some recurrent threads like Bread Island and Pop-Yop that discreetly link the storyworlds. Are there any particular themes or narrative techniques that you included to create unification in the collection? Can you talk about the process of putting a collection together in terms of which stories to include, the sequence, and design?
THOMAS PIERCE: Thank you! While writing I didn’t think too concretely about how the stories would fit together. To be honest, I didn’t even really have a collection in mind until I’d finished maybe eight or nine of the stories that appear in the book –meaning, none of these stories was conceived in order to satisfy an overarching theme. Each had its own particular genesis. I think my agent was the first to observe that I was close to a collection. I just hadn’t been thinking in those terms until then.
I’m generally a fast writer, but that being said, I write plenty of terrible stories. It’s hard for me to escape what you call my voice, but I will say that I’ve written stories that feel less like me –in other words, that feel false. For every publishable one I write, I’ve got one or two more that will never leave my computer. I had a handful of other pieces I might have included in this book, but I wanted the stories to feel like they all belonged to the same slightly askew universe, and I wanted them to resonate off each other in interesting ways. I cut any story that felt like an outlier. I wanted what was best for the collection rather than what was best for any individual story.
Once I had them all together, I did revise, but the most obvious repetitions-Pop-Yop, Bread Island, et al-were there from the beginning. In a short story you can only chase so many tangents before the story begins to feel uncertain or meandering. But sometimes I create some element that I’d like to explore further, and this requires another story. That’s what happened with Bread Island, which first appeared in “Shirley Temple Three.” It’s a cold, rocky island where dwarf mammoths lived thousands of years ago. Bread Island felt very much to me like a real place, I wanted to know more about it. That’s why I returned to it in two more stories. I suspect I’m still not finished with Bread Island.
CG: You make Bread Island feel very real. “Shirley Temple Three” also establishes a rich and changing southern voice that is maintained throughout the other stories. The strong domestic imagery, diction, and characterization in the first story transformed my couch in Portland into the porch of a small home just outside Atlanta. I’m not the only reader to be transported by your work –Hall of Small Mammals has been described as a “testament of the New South.” Can you talk about the role of place, and the southern influences in particular, that impact your work?
TP: I’m very glad to hear you were transported to Mawmaw’s porch! I often refer to my stories as obliquely Southern. They do mostly take place in the South –and use various expressions, details, and landscapes particular to that region –but I’d like to think they could have been set almost anywhere. I grew up in what’s called the upstate of South Carolina, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, along the I-85 corridor between Charlotte and Atlanta. I often use these two cities as geographical markers, as clues that we’re somewhere in the upper South, but I’m usually careful never to locate them in any real or identifiable town. These stories are of the South, but I wouldn’t say they are about the South. They are Southern, in other words, because I am Southern. As for my influences, I read and enjoy the work of many Southern writers and artists, past and present, though I do have a special place in my heart for Charles Portis, Frank Stanford, and Flannery O’Connor. I also admire the documentary films of Ross McElwee-specifically Sherman’s March and Bright Leaves. How they have specifically influenced me is tough to say, but presumably they’ve shaped the way I think and write about the South.
CG: Characters throughout the text seem to grapple with issues of faith and religion. In “Shirley Temple Three,” Mawmaw questions her faith and reminds us “to surrender control to the universe.” Alan Gass was raised in a Baptist home and continues to abstain from alcohol. Dr. Anders of “We of the Present Age” navigates the tensions of Creationism and scientific discovery. What draws you to religion as a theme and focus?
TP: I’m drawn to characters who are asking questions about their existence and who are trying to explain the universe to themselves. The ways in which people come up with their explanations, typically, involve some combination of science and religion. Those are two avenues of investigation available to us when it comes to understanding who we are and how we got here. Many of these stories take place at moments when a character’s beliefs-about Creation, about the soul, about a relationship, et al-are being tested by a new technological development or by a mysterious skull or a strange dream. The characters have to reevaluate those beliefs and, more often than not, adapt. Sometimes –as in the case of Dr. Anders and Mawmaw –incorporating new information into a preexisting system of belief can have amusing results. The mind wants a story that explains things and it will perform some strange contortions to keep the story intact. Believing anything too firmly, it seems to me, is not a healthy way of being, whereas faith –which I think of as requiring no story at all and which possibly resides in the heart rather than the head –can survive most encounters with the mysterious and the unexplainable.
CG: Placed in the middle of the collection, “Videos of People Falling Down” serves to slow the pace of the work. In fourteen saturated microstories, you unravel the interconnected and delicate lives of a handful of dynamic characters including a young artist, a heartbroken cellist, a news reporter, an author, and a murder victim. Each story hinges on a fall, playing on the instinctual humor and inherent trauma of the event. Even this description seems to oversimplify the complexity and sincerity of the story, which is admittedly my favorite in the collection. How did this story come about? Have you been surprised by any of the early reader responses to this or other stories?
TG: I’m happy to hear you liked it. To be honest, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many people have named this one as a favorite. Because it’s long and involves so many characters, I initially worried that people might find it frustrating and stop reading before the connections began to emerge. It’s a story that requires some trust and patience on the part of the reader.
“Videos” began with an idea for structure, which is rare for me. I wondered if it would be possible for a short story to mimic-and expand on-the experience of clicking through internet videos, specifically videos of people falling down and hurting themselves in various situations. On escalators, in crosswalks, on skateboards, in zoos. The videos are posted to make us laugh –and they do –but I wondered if there was something more to it, if there was a deeper reason that we enjoy watching other people’s accidents. I also wondered about the rest of their lives, about what happened just after the video stopped. I wanted to humanize them. In many of the vignettes, the falls are just a sentence, almost an afterthought. When you watch these videos on the Internet, you can go from one to the next, each video suggesting five more just like it, and you sometimes get the feeling that this is a bottomless well, that you could click forever, that you might eventually find yourself on there. My first draft was almost 60 pages. I couldn’t stop writing. Eventually I had to pull the brake and make sense of it all.
CG: In previous interviews you have discussed the importance of maintaining a balance between levity and gloom in your work. Do you ever feel an ethical responsibility as a writer wrestling with emotional or darker themes?
TG: No, I don’t feel an ethical responsibility to maintain that balance. That’s an interesting question. I suppose I do feel a responsibility to capture the universe as I see and experience it, and this requires moments of levity and gloom –and more often than not, some balance between the two. I certainly never set out to write a dark story for the sake of writing a dark story. But I also wonder how “dark” my work really is. If my stories are dark, I’m hardly ever aware of it. Maybe the stories operate like an emotional litmus test. Take, for instance, this very basic thought: One day we will die. Is this a dark thought? I’m not sure. That really depends on your particular view of life and death. I also wonder if darkness is a function of where a story ends. For instance, in my story, “Ba Baboon,” a man gets hit on the head with a brick and suffers a brain injury. Now, if the story ended there, and had nothing much else to say for itself, then yes, I’d say that’s a dark story. But the story keeps going!
CG: Thanks for mentioning the wit of “Ba Baboon.” In another interview, you said that you started the story seven years ago but struggled to complete it until 2014. Is that kind of prolonged process common for you? What does it mean to conclude your collection with a piece that percolated as long as “Ba Baboon”?
TP: Typically, when I’m working on a story, I’ll have a couple of false starts, usually a page or two long, before I’m able to proceed. The false starts might occur over a few weeks or months, and then once I do manage to proceed, I might only need a few days to scrape together a rough draft (emphasis on rough) with a beginning, middle, and end. (I’d like re-emphasize the word rough once more.) “Ba Baboon” was an exception in that my false starts didn’t take weeks or months –but years. Of course I wasn’t working on this story non-stop for seven years. “Percolate” is a good word for it. I’d just think about it from time to time, in a somewhat lazy way, wondering if I’d ever figure out the right way to tell it. I’m glad that I finally did. The story is important to me –because it took so long to figure out and for other, more personal reasons –and to have it end the collection feels appropriate. I like the chord it hits in its final moment. In subtle ways the book circles back on itself-or maybe finds a kind of symmetry.
CG: You have been working with Jin Auh and Wylie Agency. How did that relationship originate, and how did you pick Riverhead Books for the publication of your first short story collection?
TP: I connected with Jin after I sold a story called “The Critics” to The Atlantic. It was the first story I ever sold but not the first to get published. For various reasons –none having to do with me or the story –the magazine was unable to publish it for almost three years after taking it. It was during that wait that Mike Curtis, their longtime fiction editor, kindly asked if he could pass the story along to Jin at Wylie. We started working together not long after that. I owe so much to both Mike and Jin. This book would not exist without the two of them. As for Riverhead, they’ve published some fantastic short story writers over the years –and novelists too, of course. My editor, Laura Perciasepe, had very smart things to say about the collection, and it seemed to me that the whole team was excited about the project. Not once did they express any hesitation about publishing a book of stories before a novel. I’m very grateful to them for taking on the book-and for giving it such attention and care.
CG: I’m glad to hear your relationships with Wylie and Riverhead have been so constructive! As a division of Penguin Random House, Riverhead’s authors have been winners and finalists for Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, National Book Critic Circle Awards, MacArthur Genius Awards, Hurston Wright Legacy Awards, and Dayton Literary Peace Prizes among others. Your story, “The Real Alan Glass” was also included in Daniel Handler’s The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014. How does it feel to receive this kind of recognition with your first collection?
TP: It’s very gratifying! I’d be lying if I said anything else. I’m very happy people are reading and connecting to these stories. I’m happy people are reading. Going into this, I really didn’t know what to expect. I still don’t. The fact that you’re asking me questions right now about this book… I still find that astounding on some level.
CG: You mentioned that there could be pushback for authors who start with stories. What are you working on next? Can we expect more stories and collections, or will you move into longer fiction?
TP: My experience in the publishing world is still very limited, so I’m reluctant to speak too broadly. I was shopping around the collection plus an unfinished novel, and I sensed that certain publishers would be keen on getting the novel out there first. That’s what I’m working on right now for Riverhead, the unfinished novel, along with another very short novel that I haven’t sold. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the two projects. But I’m always writing short stories, and the odds of another future collection are high. I’ve got a couple of new stories that I’m hoping to place soon.
Find a copy of Hall of Small Mammals on IndieBound.
Thomas Pierce‘s short stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Best American Non-Required Reading, and elsewhere. Born and raised in South Carolina, he received his M.F.A. from the University of Virginia as a Poe/Faulkner Fellow. Hall of Small Mammals (January 2015, Riverhead) is his debut collection of stories. He currently lives in Charlottesville, VA with his wife and daughter. (Photo credit: Andrew Owen)
Corinne Gould is a first-year graduate student in the Book Publishing M.A. program at Portland State University and has high hopes for embracing the changing industry. An enthusiastic reader and reluctant writer, Corinne is a publicity intern with Hawthorne Books, volunteers in the Bonny Slope Elementary’s Library, and adores Late Night Library. She also enjoys tea, scarves, animals, and spontaneous travel.