|Ohio Author John Thorndike|
An Interview with Ohio Author John Thorndike
The first time I met John Thorndike was at the 2010 Ohioana Book Festival. He was a signing author and my table was not far from his. I purchased John's book The Last of His Mind and feel fortunate that he lives in the next county over. John’s bio:
John Thorndike grew up in New England, graduated from Harvard, took an MA from Columbia, then lit out for Latin America. He spent two years in the Peace Corps in El Salvador and two, with his wife and child, on a backcountry farm in Chile. Eventually he settled with his son in Athens, Ohio, where for ten years his day job was farming. Then it was construction. His first two books were novels, followed by a memoir, Another Way Home, about his wife’s schizophrenia and his life as a single parent (“The directness, the honesty, the terrible plain chant of the narrative stunned me.”—Doris Grumbach.) A second memoir, The Last of His Mind, describes his father’s year-long descent into Alzheimer’s, and was a Washington Post Best Book of 2009. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “a beautiful book.” A Hundred Fires in Cuba is his latest novel, and he’s at work on the next one, a half-fictional evocation of his mother’s life.
GM: What is the premise for your new book?
JT: After writing a memoir about my father and his Alzheimer’s, I wanted to write a book about my mother. It had to be a novel, for I knew I’d be making up many details and scenes. I wrote A Hundred Fires in Cuba, which I meant to be about my mother, but you know how characters can ride off into their own stories in a book. Ginny, who started out much like Virginia Thorndike, falls in love with a Cuban revolutionary in the Castro days, and flies off into another life, nothing like my mother’s. So I wrote another book, The World Against Her Skin, which will come out next spring from Beck & Branch. As it says on the back cover,
The World Against Her Skin is a biographical novel in which much is remembered and much imagined. “I stay close to my mother’s story,” the author explains, “but to know the details I had to make them up.”
GM: How do you maintain thoughts and ideas?
JT: I try—and often fail—to keep the world at bay. I don’t have a television, I have a cell phone but rarely turn it on in my house. I stay away from Facebook and Twitter and such. I do go on my laptop, all the time, but I try not to wander around on it. I clear up my emails, I might follow some current news, but then I go into WordPerfect and try to stay there. I’m not always successful.
GM: Where do you like to write?
JT: Years ago I found a little stand that works perfectly for writing while lying down, and ever since I’ve written either in or on my bed. My back seems to like it, and it helps, at least slightly, to keep me in place, to keep me focused on whatever I’m writing. I’m less likely to jump up and look at something, do something, take care of something.
GM: Do you have a muse or other inspiration that sparks creative ideas?
JT: I don’t. At least I’ve never thought of it that way. I guess my inspiration is the book at hand. What gets me going is the work itself. I open up a file. There’s the book I’m working on. I resist it. I resist focusing on it. I’m not into it. But I start reading what I wrote the day before, and of course it needs some work. Before it’s done, I’m going to rewrite passages ten times. twenty times. The story draws me in. Perhaps this is why I’m inclined to longer books, rather than to short stories or poems. The truck is already lumbering down the road, and I must jump on and start steering, all over again.
GM: What are you currently reading?
JT: I always have a pile on my bedside table. Right now I’m about to finish J.M. Coetzee’s Scenes From Provincial Life, and I’ve started Peggy Gish’s Iraq, which I’d somehow never read, but bought at the Monday Creek fair. I’ve also been working for some months on Gabriel García Márquez’s El amor en los tiempos del cólera. I’ve always wanted to read it in Spanish, but that does go slower.
GM: Do you have advice for novice writers?
JT: I think Natalie Goldberg has some great ideas about writing: about getting it to flow, about getting scenes and characters and ideas down on paper. Among her rules:
Keep your hand moving. No matter what, don't stop. ...
Lose Control. Let it rip. ...
Be specific. ...
Don't think. ...
Don't worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar. ...
You are free to write the worst junk in the world. ...
Go for the jugular.
She explains this all in her great book, Writing Down The Bones.
GM: Please share your book marketing secrets...
JT: It’s infinite, the time you can spend on marketing. But of course, marketing is part of the world that interferes with writing. Still, book fairs are a great way to connect to other writers, and sometimes publishers. Radio interviews are fun. Once, to promote Another Way Home, I bought a van and lived in it for five months, driving all around the country and stopping in at 160 bookstores, just to alert the staff to my book. For A Hundred Fires in Cuba I took a booth at the Miami Book Fair, drove down there, sat and stood in the booth for four days, talking to anyone who slowed down. Lots of Cubans in Miami, so that was the place to go. I spent far more than I earned, but what fun that was.
GM: List 10 things your fans may not know about you...
JT: –I’m a grandfather. I will talk your ear off about my grandkids. Kinda predictable.
–I ran an organic farm in Athens for ten years in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Organic produce was new at the time, almost unknown and eventually I took my organic sign down as unproductive. This was after hearing one woman explain to another, “It means it’s full of bugs and things.”
–For one eight-month period, when we were living on a farm in Chile, my wife and I bought only four foods: wheat, salt, cooking oil and yerba mate. Everything else came out of our garden and the hen house.
–I’m a founding member of the Men’s Noncoercive League. Well, after all these years there are still only two of us—and the other member is no longer a man, she has emerged as a woman.
–My two favorite books are Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees and James Salter’s Light Years. They sit between my mattress and headboard, and I read them over and over.
–I’ve been a volleyball fanatic since I played on the OU club team in the mid-Seventies, and I’ve made almost a hundred videos of the Bobcat women’s team, all posted at MatchPointOhio on YouTube.
–Like my father, I’m a bit of a nutcase on grammar. No, you’re not laying on the ground, you’re lying there. My dad kept his mouth shut about it, and I try to.
–My parents have died, many friends have died, and the topic creeps into half my conversations. I don’ resist it.
–For thirty years, the bumper sticker on my car has been a quote from my son: I Do What I Feel Like –Janir
--I have an ancestor, George Jacobs, who was hanged (not hung, my father would point out) as a wizard at the Salem witch trials.
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