An Interview with the Author of Pickard County Atlas, Chris Harding Thornton – Michigan Quarterly Review

An Interview with the Author of Pickard County Atlas, Chris Harding Thornton

Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she taught courses in writing and literature. She has also worked as a quality assurance overseer at a condom factory, a jar-lid screwer at a plastics plant, a closer at Burger King, a record store clerk, an all-ages club manager, and a PR writer. Pickard County Atlas is her first novel.

Richard Stock (RS): I’m wondering what you sat down to write about, the very first time you broke ground on what we now know to be Pickard County Atlas. How long did you think you were writing about one thing before you realized it was another? Or was it not like that at all? Maybe the bones of this thing stayed pretty still­––but I know this book took a while to kick out of the nest so I’m wondering if part of the process was realizing you weren’t writing the book you thought you sat down to write. 

Am I even close to connecting here, or should we start over?

Chris Harding Thornton (CHT): At the very beginning, I sat down to write anything. It was that thing where you sit down and write whatever comes out. That day, I heard the character of Pam Reddick just going off, and I wrote down what she was going off about. That wound up being a major chunk of chapter eleven. I didn’t know what would come of that. I took that chunk into a workshop I had with the great writer, National Book Award winner, and MacArthur fellow Charles Johnson. Dr. Johnson said that whatever the hell it was would be an Oprah pick (Oprah still had a television show at that point). My short stories had been weird and unwieldy for a while––I wasn’t really writing short stories anymore, as hard as I tried. I was writing character sketches. I thought I’d stopped being able to write, but what was actually happening was I was moving toward writing a novel. I didn’t really have any say in the matter –-the brain does what it does.

The character Rick Reddick was embedded already then because Pam was married to him, and Anna was embedded as Pam’s daughter. Pam was the Rosetta Stone of the book. 

I was busy graduating from University of Washington when Pam happened, and then I moved and started school at University of Nebraska and then I moved from a bat-infested house in Lincoln to a bat-infested house in a small town outside Lincoln. At the latter house, I had a shed I set up for writing things, and I think Harley, the sheriff’s deputy, came with the shed. Harley and the sandhills came with the shed. 

When I sit down and write, I usually think, “Where would I like to be for a long time?” and the answer then was the sandhills. I used to drive out to the sandhills a lot, to get out of my car and stand there, mainly. Since Harley is a sheriff’s deputy, I thought some crime might be good, and I thought, “Someone stealing recently deceased people’s clothes and burning them in abandoned farm houses could be fun.” Then my job became figuring out the why. Why someone would steal clothes from dead people and set fire to them in abandoned houses? I grew up around abandoned houses (rural Nebraska has a lot of them), so that helped further define the setting for me.

Then I felt overwhelmed and made a lot of weird decisions because I realized I was writing a novel and I tried to steer it. I came up with a lot of bad ideas concerning what the book would be “about.” At one point, there was a fourth point of view, written in first person, using only song lyrics. Someone pointed out that no publisher would go to the trouble of getting the rights to all those lyrics, and the point of view wasn’t working anyway, so I scrapped it. At one point I thought each character was representative of air, water, fire, and earth. Basically, I was thinking way too hard and putting the proverbial cart of theme before the horse of story. 

Once I let all that go and realized what was important was putting these characters in difficult situations and making them try to figure out and get out of those situations, everything started clicking. I drafted a super loose outline: “these two characters meet in this chapter,”–-and I was able to get the first draft down. If I’d outlined it in detail, I wouldn’t have had any reason to write the book. It’s that Robert Frost thing: “no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” If I knew exactly what would happen and how each thing would happen, I wouldn’t have needed to write the story. I wouldn’t have been watching it unfold like a movie in my head, and I would’ve lost interest.

During my last semester at University of Nebraska, I taught only one class, so I had time to write to the end. But I knew the book wasn’t done; I knew it needed revision when I tried to write a synopsis for the query letter, I think. There were loose ends, mainly with two characters, Paul Reddick and his mother, Virginia Reddick. I revised, and it was better, but I still hadn’t totally figured out those two characters. Once I did, the story became something really close to what the book is now. It started with the puzzle of Pam and ended with the puzzle of Paul and Virginia, really. 

I think what unlocked the final version for me was my fixation on Iago from Othello (and Coleridge’s insistence that Iago had no motive to be so malignant; I think he did) and with Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I’ve written about the Iago thing elsewhere, so I won’t go on about it. The Hemingway novel, though, is a book whose narrator seems fairly oblivious. Jake makes all these assertions about the other characters, and the characters consistently undermine whatever Jake asserts about them. For me, and this is just my reading of Pickard County Atlas––other people will read it completely differently––the characters we see the world through have perceptions of each other and of other characters central to the story but peripheral in the narrative, and, well, the main characters are ultimately wrong. Or at least they’re not seeing the full picture.

RS: I’m interested (due to a personal stake in the matter) in the idea of a book being written as a series of implications starting at the surefire existence of one character, in your case, Pam Reddick. It sounds like half the work after Pam was an epistemic progression about her: Pam exists, therefore she lives somewhere. Or: Pam exists, therefore she has a mom, therefore Pam will slowly become her mom while attempting to not do that, therefore Pam has a daughter, Anna, who has a dad, Rick, who has a brother Paul, who has a nemesis, Harley. I think I said epistemic instead of logical. But my question is: do the second and third order aspects of the book ever lose their gravitons? What’s the particle that gives mass? The Higgs boson. 

Pam’s got all of hers, but is it harder to commit to the details that are implicated around her, or do they become as obvious as the thing itself (Pam)? I feel like they might float away easier, and as the author you could wake up one morning, surrounded by a gummy deck of playing cards, trying to figure out how you ever thought they made a house.

CHT: I hope you include that whole paragraph in the interview because that’s a doozy. 

Yeah, I mean, Pam was a really vivid and real character, and I knew everything about her as soon as I heard her. I knew she lived in a rural trailer court, I knew she’d married young because it was a thing she saw people simply do, I knew she had a daughter and probably shouldn’t have (again, because that was a thing she saw other people do, and, as she said in the book, she realized she could, and that was novel to her at the time). 

I won’t get into whether or not Paul and Harley are nemeses or if Pam turns into Babe ––––I don’t experience the book that way, but I respect the experiences other readers have and definitely don’t want to tell people to read it differently. 

The easiest way for me to answer this is to say there are no second or third order aspects of the book to me. Everything has to be the way that it is. I mentioned Charles Johnson earlier.–– He told me he used to write a novel every quarter (he went to school for philosophy and was on the quarter system). He’d write these 2,500-page books every quarter and throw them in a drawer. Finally, he met John Gardner (that John Gardner), who told him to knock it off. Revise. So, Dr. Johnson started taking these 2,500-page books and trimming them down to the 250 pages that needed to be there. The end result was you couldn’t pluck out one sentence without the whole thing falling apart. I can’t say I managed that with Pickard County Atlas,, but it was the goal. There was only one way every aspect surrounding every character could be and still have the characters’ actions be organic. 

I think the particle that holds the whole thing together is my rough and insufficient understanding of chaos theory. The people in the story are already in motion, already reacting to a gazillion reactions that have preceded their existence, and in any given moment, they’re reacting to that stew. Chaos isn’t random, but there are so many variables, it’s unpredictable. The characters toil over their decisions, but ultimately, they don’t even make decisions. They act according to who they are in that moment of decision––––and who they are is another stew of reactions, the sum of cognition and chemicals, every experience they’ve had in the exact order they’ve had them.

I think the center of gravity here might be my skepticism about free will. I think we need to think we have it; I think that serves a purpose; but I think it’s pretty illusory. Maybe.

RS: There was more to that question. The other half of the work. Picking cool details. Or picking details that you are naturally attracted to, like the Nebraska sandhills. How much of writing is having good taste’? My theory about writing is that the really good parts happen by miracle. But in general, the good stuff happens by having good taste while you edit your own slop. Sniffing out anything precious and destroying it. Trusting your ear. Not questioning your gut feelings about what to include until it’s time to edit, and then you trust your second instinct more than your first, because really it’s your first time reading the thing––and I guess I believe in myself as a reader more than I do as a writer, so I am stuck on this theory that good writing (system wide) comes from being an obnoxiously demanding reader, which I realize now is where the language “good taste” came from.

CHT: That’s a tough question. I don’t think I’m good at saying which details or phrases are good or bad. I know if they sound right––I go a lot off of literal sound. I mention this a lot, but syllables are a big deal to me. Sentences need a certain number of syllables, series of sentences need a specific rhythm. 

I wish writing were as simple as sniffing out what’s precious and destroying it, but I think William Kittredge or someone else once said if you’re not risking sentimentality, you’re not writing poetry. I think about writing like I think about music. John Zorn is brilliant, right? I was able to see John Zorn play once, and it was incredible. But I don’t listen to his records over and over again (okay, there was one whose first track I listened to a lot). But then you have someone like Duke Ellington, who was, I suspect, the most sophisticated American composer so far. Like out of all of them. What he was writing was––I don’t know how you get to that level, intellectually and artistically. But I will listen to Duke Ellington’s records over and over again because they’re not only intellectual and artistic achievements––they’re that while also being something you can shake your ass to. Take Tom Petty. Someone can say what Tom Petty did was the easiest thing in the world––super obvious stuff. Maybe it was, but he had the guts to risk being cheesy, the guts to edge right up against that border, not cross it, and somehow pull it off. Plus, “American Girl” is one of the greatest poems of the American canon. 

That’s how I feel about other people’s work, though, and that’s what I aspire to. I’m definitely not saying I pull it off. I’m definitely no Duke Ellington. As far as my own work goes, if I write something that makes me laugh or that guts me, I feel like I’m on the right track. If it makes me laugh, it’ll make about ten other people laugh. If it guts me, it’ll gut about ten other people. I think that makes up twenty different people. 

I think that’s where “good” is, for me. It’s the stuff that guts me or makes me laugh. It’s the stuff that comes out while I’m writing that surprises me. Revision winds up being where I find more little surprises––things I threw in and didn’t know why––and I figure out why they’re there. And then pacing. Revision is where I try to cut as much slack as possible, make it crackle.

RS: My other theory is that it’s important in fiction to never be horribly awful. Like in golf. You are always staring at, and contending with the real possibility of ruining your whole day on a single meltdown. There’s no limit to how bad you can foul things up. But in baseball, the worst thing you can do is strike out, the worst you can do is already measured out, and it’s never really the end of the world and can be easily salvaged. But in golf, if you don’t put the ball in the cup, your score gets worse and worse until the heat death of the universe. Anyway, how important is it to not be bad? I think more important than being good. I think people will look at you like a tragedy if you are just as bad as you are good. But if you aren’t any good, no one will care how bad you are because they won’t be reading you in the first place. And you have a good book now, so I’d like to hear about how the fear of writing bad fits into your writing practice, if at all.

CHT: I can’t worry about not being bad. I’m not sure that being bad or good is possible. For one, we’re talking about language. Words. Words are generalizations. They’re little logical fallacies. They’re abstract, arbitrary symbols, and narrative, well, it’s kind of a sham. We inflict narrative, inflict order, on what we perceive, probably as a mnemonic device for memory, which can sometimes be useful for survival purposes. It’s useful sometimes, but we should put a large serving of salt on it.

RS: Ok, I went to dinner and you answered questions while I was eating a reuben but I think earlier you kindly told me I read your book wrong when you said, ““I don’’t experience the book that way, but I respect the experiences other readers have and definitely don’t want to tell people to read it differently.” So somehow you transmitted information to me by saying something glancingly oppositional to what you meant. What are words then, if a trick like that can be pulled? Are words just the basic units of tone, which is the actual and only currency people accept their information with? 

CHT: LOL. No, you didn’t read the book wrong; I just interpret it differently. I think Harley and Paul love each other, if maybe in a twisted way, and I don’t think Pam turns into Babe. I think Pam thinks she could turn into Babe, but she ultimately doesn’t. 

You ask what words are, then, and if they’re basic units of tone. There’s a line in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus (that’s a whole other can of worms, I know) says to limit your speech to “yea” and “nay” because anything beyond that just causes problems. I think Shakespeare was obsessed with that line (and the one about how you should never make vows), and I tend to agree with the spirit of the statement. I don’t think words are reducible to basic units of tone. I think they’re symbols with literal and connotative or “associative” meanings. I mentioned earlier that I think everyone is a stew of chemicals and chronological experiences––that’s the baggage we bring to language, and it’s the baggage that creates the associative meanings, the connotations, we bring to words. And since what fiction does is give readers an experience. But we’re not blank slates going into that experience, so we don’t have the same exact experience, and we don’t interpret things the same way. I can’t tell you that you read the book wrong, any more than I can tell you I read the book right. 

As for words being “the actual and only currency people accept their information with,” I think they’re popularly used for conveying information, but a thrown plate or a punch to the nose conveys information, too. Somewhere in here I’m reminded of a Richard Hugo statement about how if you want to communicate, pick up the phone; poetry and prose  aren’t great media for making statements or communicating. Richard Bausch pointed out that stories aren’t objects meant to be decoded. I think if people have something that can be said in a sentence, just say the sentence. Otherwise, these forms are better at giving people an experience. You give people an experience and it goes into that stew of chemicals and other experiences that make a person who that person is, and to go back to my crude understanding of chaos theory, you can’t and maybe shouldn’t try to predict how that’s going to play out––how it’s going to shape the person and how that, in turn, is going to determine the person’s actions going forward. 

RS: I like what you’ve been saying about stew. Feels like it takes the pressure off me and my endless string of awful decisions. I’m just a stock pot full of random and directed experience, the whole of which can only be understood (taste tested) when it is put to a decision, like what’s for lunch, or which word is next, or are you really going to follow through with this MFA degree. Anyway, thanks for the assurance that I’m not making poor choices, just the only ones that are available to me after packing my bags with whatever I’ve packed them with. Feels kind of cool as long as I don’t go crazy with power or step in front of a train just to prove something pedantic to you about free will. Last question: how is your second book coming along, and what is different about the process now that you’ve already debuted with PCA. I’m not interested in a different attitude, or all the swamps you know not to step into now. I want to know something empirical, what can you tell is different now, just by observing yourself. Or does nothing ever change and is writing always a walk through hell in a gasoline suit?

CHT: Okay, so a couple of observations before I try to get into that. First, I don’t think we pack our own bags all that much. I mean, we participate in our baggage, to the degree that we can call what we do participation, but I think what gets tossed in there is largely beyond our control. Second, if you step in front of a train (and I urge you not to), you still wouldn’t prove a point to me. I’d just Freud it. You know how Freud theorized that dreams were wish fulfillment? He wrote about a patient who said, during psychoanalysis, that she’d dreamed he was wrong, and Freud just said, “This proves my point. You wish I was wrong, so you dreamt I was wrong.” 

Process-wise, I had really broad-strokes ideas about who and what this next book was about. This story started with genealogy, which I’m a nerd for, in part because there’s a pretty twisted limb in my family tree. I won’t go into how weird it gets. Suffice it to say it involves secret second families and some very Don Draper stuff. Anyway, I had a pair of uncles. They were my great-grandpa’s uncles, which makes them sound distant, but even though they were dead fifty years before I was born, I grew up next door to my great-grandpa. He was around until about the end of my junior year of high school, and I grew up with his daughter, so his uncles don’t feel that far removed from my experience. One of these uncles killed some people and his death involved mysterious circumstances. The other uncle was a cop, a prohibition agent, a truant officer, a low-level politician, and a private investigator. His death was also sketchy. The two uncles were the jumping off point for the story, and as I was researching them, I stumbled across some really glaring things that contradict popular historical narratives about not just Omaha but also a lot of major cities. There’s this popular narrative that cities were run by criminal underworlds during Prohibition, and some of that narrative has merit, for sure, but what we often hear less about is how an only nominally less criminal “overworld”––people who held public office and owned huge businesses––exploited and shaped and even created that narrative to gain and maintain political power. The “underworld” was often used like psy-ops, basically. Boardwalk Empire got into the political aspect, for sure. The Godfather did, too. But this story seems to put maybe more direct focus on Nebraska’s bizarro version of Tammany Hall.

I feel like I’m not answering your question, so let me look at it again. Okay, so you want to know “something empirical, what [I] can . . . tell is different now, just by observing [myself].” If Pickard County Atlas taught me anything, it’s that writing, for me, is method acting. I’ve accepted that, so that’s something different. People give method actors a tough time, and I get it, but I had to be Pam and Paul and Harley and Virginia and Rick and Babe and the rest. I had to live in their heads to be able to write them. It took me a chapter or two of this book to realize that was where I had to go again––and it’s not necessarily a pleasant thing to do, especially with Jim Beely, the main character of this book. He’s going through a nearing-end-of-life crisis, which means that I’m going through that crisis. So, if there’s something different about process, it’s that I accept that I have to be these people. And I have more urgency. I’m older than I was while writing Pickard County Atlas, which means I have less time left. And how much of the urgency and existential crisis is me and how much is Jim, that’s tough to distinguish. As I think it should be.

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