An Interview with Deborah Thompson
by Suzanne Guess, Mud Season Review Nonfiction Editor
“Whenever I despair (i.e. often) that I can never achieve that quality of the many amazing writers around me, I remind myself that my job is not to try to write with the charisma of other people but merely to write my own idiosyncratic self.”
What topics/themes do you find that you’re most interested in exploring through your work?
I used to joke that I wrote about things that started with the letter D (dogs, death, diet, Debby). Over the years I’ve branched out (hamsters, grief, inedible consumer goods, a select few other people), but D remains my home base.
What nonfiction pieces and authors made it onto your syllabus during your teaching career?
I tried to include a variety of subgenres of creative nonfiction: personal essay, memoir, literary journalism, science and nature writing, cultural criticism, experimental and hybrid forms, and flash essays. I almost always included Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” which opened up the whole essay form to me; Ross Gay’s “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” which masterfully interweaves personal narrative with cultural and historical analysis; Sherman Alexie’s “Captivity,” which shows how poetic structure can enact a piece’s politics; and an essay by my late colleague Gerry Callahan, an immunologist, called “Chimera,” which is both a scientific explanation of the immune system’s memory and a lyrical meditation on interconnectedness.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received? Given?
Beside my desk is a sign that says, “Write the piece that only you can write.” I wish I could remember where I’d read this advice so I could give its author credit. Whenever I despair (i.e. often) that I can never achieve that quality of the many amazing writers around me, I remind myself that my job is not to try to write with the charisma of other people but merely to write my own idiosyncratic self. I’ve given that advice to many students, and it sometimes gives them the relief it gives me.
One of the challenges of creative nonfiction is maintaining the balance between creativity and credibility. Some writers add scenes, characters, and dialogue to make a story more interesting. Others argue that this violates the contract with the reader. Your thoughts?
There are so many subgenres of creative nonfiction, each with its own contract with the reader. Actually, each piece of CNF creates its own contract with the reader as it unfolds. If the piece signals to the reader that it is literary journalism, it promises to provide complete verifiability. If the piece is in a more lyric and personal mode, and begins with, say, a vivid memory of the narrator at two years old, then it’s signaling to the reader that emotional truth will be more important than verifiable fact. A good rule of thumb (this one comes from my former colleague John Calderazzo) is that you must never lie in order to make yourself look better.
What project(s) are you currently working on?
I’m working on a book-length project on plastics. Years ago, I published a piece in Passages North (“When the Future was Plastic”) about my father, a polymer chemist, and the fate of plastics in America over his lifetime. I’m working to expand that essay into a book, which is sending me far from my comfort zone into the fields of organic chemistry, environmental regulation, industrial design, hyper-capitalism, and beyond. I’ve passed the peak of smug stupidity on the Dunning Kruger effect graph, tumbled into the valley of despair, and am beginning to claw my way up the slope of enlightenment. It’s going to be a multi-year project. In the meanwhile, I’m writing an occasional personal or flash essay, especially because dogs continue to happen in my life.
The Oxford comma: yes or no?
Yes. No question. As posters on the doors of English professors across the English-speaking world say, “the Oxford comma saves lives.”