Suspend Your Disbelief

An Interview with Laura Thomas

"A good teacher will give critique in a way that allows you to hear it and take it in."

Interviews |

An Interview with Laura Thomas

"The collection, I hope, challenges assumptions about Southeast Michigan, and the people who live here": Laura Hulthen Thomas chats with Ian Singleton about her debut collection, States of Motion, out today from Wayne State University Press.

When I transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from the Dearborn satellite campus, some of the people I knew from the Detroit area wrote me off. I would be exiting Southeast Michigan to enter the Ann Arbor bubble. I’d never look back at what was, back then, a depressed place of origin.

The stakes did seem higher, especially with regard to creative writing. In the Residential College, my first teacher was Laura Hulthen Thomas. Her kindness gave our meetings a down-to-earth atmosphere, which contrasted with the supposedly highfalutin attitude I had been prepared to encounter, a sentiment I eventually found false. Laura is a perfect example of the nurturing, critical, and supportive creative writing faculty in the Residential College, as well as in the greater University of Michigan.

Laura is a resonant writer, well rooted in the Gothic tradition of American belles-lettres. It’s no surprise that, as she tells here, she ardently read William Faulkner during her teenage years. Her debut collection of short stories, States of Motion (Wayne State University Press), is embedded in Southeast Michigan. The title—with its paradoxical nouns, describing something stationary generated from the complete opposite—suggests the often paradoxical situations in which these characters find themselves. They’re stuck, as it were, but not at rest. The psychologies of the characters in States of Motion lead to particular and devastating language, specific not just to the character but to the very complex situation that anybody, no matter their purchase in life, might face.

However, as Laura says, the book is not the ultimate goal. It’s the daily “devotion” of writing that is the ultimate reward. This devotion is evident to her students and readers, to anybody interested in writing and literature from the heartland—whatever that may mean to you—of this country.

Laura Hulthen Thomas’s short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Cimarron ReviewNimrod International Journal, Epiphany, and Witness. She received her MFA in fiction writing from Warren Wilson College. She currently heads the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan’s Residential College, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction.


Ian Ross Singleton: Why did you choose to link the first and last stories?

Laura Hulthen Thomas: “Lab Will Care” was the final story in my original manuscript but “The Warding Charm,” about Emily as a little girl, appeared a bit later in the collection, not first. My editor, Annie Martin, suggested putting Emily’s childhood story first, to bookend “Lab Will Care” deliberately. And that made sense to me, to show how wounds carry forward from childhood into adult life and how characters like Emily try their best to make their lives work both professionally and personally. Beginning the collection with an “original wound” and ending with how that trauma played out in adult life provides great context for similar themes in the rest of the collection. I’m grateful that Annie Martin saw this context when she suggested a change to my original order.

Your editor read a context that was in your subconscious, because it’s in your stories. But she brought it into the light.

I think it was a strong suggestion on her part. I wasn’t sure how it would read, until I saw the collection reordered and realized it completely makes sense to start with this child and this original wound. She’s the youngest character in the book. All of the characters in between her two stories are adults bringing their childhood wounds into the present. So we start with the child and end with the adult, and the adults in the stories in between are in conversation with the pain they carry forward, the consequences of emotions and actions based on the past.

Do you think there’s any redemption or, at least, relief for your characters? Or is that unrealistic?

I think my characters desperately want to feel redeemed, and to forgive, although they have no idea what forgiveness feels like. And obstacles are put in their way to make it tough for forgiveness to be ongoing, so they’re forced to keep striving for redemption, hoping for it. It’s up to the reader to wonder whether and to what extent the characters achieve it. The stories definitely hold that forgiveness is a precondition for redemption, that mercy towards others is the first necessary step towards feeling absolved for your own actions.

In some of the stories, I gifted a character with the power to take revenge. I wanted to see whether they would seek that vengeance, act on that gift. Whether or not they do says something about redemption and justice, whether you really can overcome the past by hurting the person who hurt you, or whether vengeance just ends up being another wound, self-inflicted this time.

It seems like you’re saying the wounds don’t really heal. They’re sort of…managed.

I think that’s the best one can hope for, honestly. A friend of mine and I were talking about why it’s so hard to forgive. You can say to yourself, “I’m not angry with this person anymore, I really do feel a sense of resolution,” and you can truly, in your heart, mean it. But when you keep having to see that person who has wounded you, it’s hard to maintain forgiveness, to maintain that state of grace. We were talking about how anger is an emotion, but forgiveness is an act. You can get over the emotion and put that aside. But forgiveness is a commitment, it’s a devotion, you have to bestow it every time you see the person who hurt you. It requires tremendous discipline, especially if that person has not changed, or may not even fully realize that they wounded you, and how. The abusers in States of Motion completely lack self-awareness, or are deeply in denial. If asked, some would reject the notion that they were abusers at all. If they were granted a point of view, they would maintain that they were in the right, or at least justified, and some might be mentally ill. This dynamic informed a lot of my thinking about my wounded characters. How do they practice the devotion of forgiveness? Where does that break down? What if you have to care for someone who’s dying who has been your abuser in the past? The choices my characters have to make under such difficult circumstances fascinates and bothers me. Some people refuse that care and some people devote themselves to that care. What does that feel like? How do they make the choice?

Whether forgiveness is sustained or not.

Right. And whether it actually makes you feel better.

Many of these characters are parents. There’s not a lot of cute irony about the parent’s troubles. It seems like so much about parent characters involves the cliché of daddy or mommy acting irresponsibly and the ensuing comedic irony of bad behavior from a person responsible for another human being. You’ve been talking about people caring for another person, even a victim caring for a former abuser. It’s not necessarily because they universally love that person. These relationships of care sometimes have issues and wounds within them. Would you talk about how being a parent or being a caregiver can affect a character?

I have two sons and a stepdaughter. It’s such a tightrope to walk, trying to be the most graceful parent one can be under great circumstances that keep you over-busy trying to make sure things stay great. It’s a different tightrope altogether when terrible circumstances arise, some beyond your control, and some of your own making. No matter the circumstances, we all fall off that rope, some more than others. I admit to being one of those mothers who doesn’t get that job done as gracefully as I’d like to under great and difficult circumstances both. I identify with characters who have serious struggles and are trying their best to shepherd their kids through these hard times while trying not to let their own anxieties bubble to the surface. As parents, we just love our kids to death, and we want to introduce them to the complexities of life and family relationships as gently, as lovingly, as possible. And, of course, selfishly, I don’t want my kids to have a complicated view of me. I would love them to love me as unconditionally as I love them. But the parent-child relationship is much more skewed toward the parent being the keeper of unconditional love, and the kids’ job is to test that love, see if it breaks down. So, I find it comic and sad that my characters are trying their best to be loving parents and good role models and failing miserably at times, without necessarily knowing it. And scoring some victories along the way as well, despite themselves. I’m trying to capture the dreams and intentions we have for our kids versus our ability to carry them out.

I feel like that irony I mentioned isn’t there, for one reason, because these kids aren’t ignorant of things going on with their parents. The child in “An Uneven Recovery,” Arthur, is aware at times, at other times not. It’s best reflected in the scene with the grandfather and the psychic. There are several layers to that conversation. There’s a situation, in which parents often find themselves, where there’s a level of understanding for the child that’s different from that of the adults in the room. But that difference is often not so distinct.

In that story in particular, I really wanted to get at this reality, that kids always know more than their parents think they do. They hear things, they pick up on vibes, they eavesdrop, they know the score. Obviously, they can’t process it on the adult level. Although, even the adults in that story don’t necessarily process anything on the adult level. But I think parents are often surprised by what they’ve failed to hide from their kids. And then, of course, the consequences of a big secret coming to the floor that you really never wanted your kids to know. That also fascinated me. In the scene you mentioned, I played with Gina’s expectations and notions of what her son knows and what she absolutely does not want him to know. All of that surfaces in front of her father, for whom she has complicated feelings.

I think parents are often surprised by what they’ve failed to hide from their kids.

Your characters are usually working-class, rural people. But that doesn’t make their problems any less complex than those of middle-class, urban characters. In fact, it might even make them more complex. In a sense, I think a lot of this distinction just comes from how we put up airs about ourselves.

I agree. The collection, I hope, challenges assumptions about Southeast Michigan, and the people who live here.

So, do you consider yourself a regional writer, of the Midwest, Midwestern Gothic, along the lines of somebody like Alice Munro?

I wanted States of Motion to say something about Southeast Michigan because both newcomers and longtime residents have their own take on the region based upon their personal experience. The nature of the region makes it possible to have very limited experiences, too, that may be very different from your neighbors’ experiences, just a little ways down the road. We have Detroit, we have Ann Arbor. Both Michiganders and non-Michiganders have very strong notions of what those places are like. And those places have been written about in fiction quite a bit. But Southeast Michigan also has Dearborn, the less well-known places centered around the auto culture and economy. There’s the never-ending strip mall landscape in some of the ‘burbs ringing Detroit. There’s Dexter, Milan, Chelsea, Saline, where I grew up, these pretty village hubs for old rural communities that are fast becoming suburbs. Some people have adopted the suburban sophistication that comes with… not gentrification exactly, but the transformation of farmland to housing developments. But then there are plenty of folks who still identify with the rural, county-based community. So, it’s an odd mix of people who may not cross paths all that often in their daily lives. I’m trying to capture something about Southeast Michigan that I don’t think is written about very often.

I don’t think so either. You write about “the state economy’s riptide.” I really like that metaphor for what happened in Michigan. Do you think this state’s economic troubles are unique, or is it similar to other places in the Midwest?

I think it’s unique. I’m not well-schooled in the regional economy, so these are just my impressions. I think the auto industry is unique. I think Southeast Michigan’s feed into the auto industry is unique. I worked factory jobs and at auto suppliers to put myself through school. My parents were all Ford people. My best friend’s folks were GM people. I mean, how weird that which auto company your parents worked for said something about family identity. But, you know, growing up it did. Since the nineties, high-tech has come in and ameliorated some of that and diversified the economy. Of course, in Ann Arbor, we’ve always had the university, so economic and identity issues have always been a bit different from the rest of the southeast region. But, it’s well known that Michigan had been in recession for years, before the economic meltdown. My entire kids’ lives, we’ve been in recession. By the time of the great recession, UM had learned how to manage downturns, which is why the university wasn’t as hard hit as other universities, because the financial people had been managing recession budgets for so long. Michigan continues to hang in there. Grand Rapids is booming. But other places continue to stagnate, like a lot of other rural places. I mean, Trump carried the state, and it’s because of the people who are still struggling and have been for many years.

But he won by so few people. I mean, ten thousand or so. It’s a tenth of the capacity of Michigan Stadium.

That’s a good analogy. But that’s Michigan. It was that close. I mean, if you drive fifteen minutes out of Ann Arbor, as you know, it’s an entirely different world. Ann Arbor is, and Detroit is in a different way, its own bubble.

Or how outer metropolitan areas of Detroit have developed in different ways. The West hasn’t been as successful as the Northeast and the North. In Dearborn, where I’m from, now there’s some development, a new train station, for example. But, in the last decade, there have been times when people said you could shoot a cannonball down Michigan Avenue and you wouldn’t hit anybody.

It’s true. Look at a community like Wyandotte, where the tax base has eroded. I think Southeast Michigan is a very interesting place. It encapsulates so much of what we talk about in American politics and social strata right now.

Laura Hulthen Thomas

It’s almost an economic bellwether. A friend of mine (the Michigan poet Cal Freeman) referred to it as such. What happened in 2008 had already hit Michigan. 

I think that’s right. I would totally agree with that.

The description of Jerrell’s father in “Adult Crowding” reminded me of family members who worked for Ford. There’s this petty bourgeois guy with a briefcase.

It’s a guy we don’t see anymore. And they don’t take the train anymore, ‘cause there ain’t no train anymore. My dad used to take the train into Dearborn. Caught it in Ypsi and went down.

My mom took it. So, who are your influences? Does it have to do with how you see Southeast Michigan as this unique place? So, not necessarily writers from Southeast Michigan but writers from places that have similarly unique histories.

I’m so bad with the influence question, because I’m so easily influenced. I hate to say it because it’s embarrassing that I love so much of what I read. I’m not a very critical reader at all. I love so many authors that I’ve read and studied, that it’s a hard question for me to answer.

Well, who’s the latest?

I’m teaching William Gay a lot right now. And ZZ Packer is another writer I’m teaching a lot. I’ve been reading her stories very carefully for the way she uses—since you asked specifically about place—how place and situation just completely bring people’s troubles and the way people act to the foreground, both in comic ways and also deadly serious ways. She’s a big influence on me right now. William Gay, with the way he both comically and tragically captures the South. Both are capturing a range or spectrum of society, instead of always writing about the poor or the wealthy.

Faulkner was the author I read most frequently as a teenager. And you mentioned Alice Munro. Obviously, she’s a huge influence. Joyce Carol Oates I read for her characters and also for her technical brilliance. All of these writers are adept at bringing character psychology into the plot, into the story. We were talking about psychic drama, about how you bring what goes on in a character’s head to the page. We’re all out to make our own trouble through what goes on in our minds, how our imaginations lead us to react to things. These writers portray the “your own worst enemy” character so well.

One Detroit novel that was a huge influence was Middlesex and the way Eugenides brought that history alive in such an amazingly rich way and wove that into the present story. That’s an amazing piece of work.

One thing I really enjoyed about States of Motion is that the characters’ sexes are so well balanced. The first story is about girls and some boys. But, as the collection goes on, there are some really well-done men. I think you do that really convincingly. I really enjoyed Rilke, the cop, and Jerrell, and the character in “Sole Suspect,” Perry, who’s caring for somebody, as you were saying. He’s a parent to the younger person, whom he’s rescuing. The last line of that story really struck me. Can you talk about writing both women and men and differences you feel?

I don’t know that I could put my finger on any difference. I’m glad to know the men are convincing. I don’t want to be the writer who does only one and not the other. The three characters you named are all on a spectrum of guy that I find fascinating. They’re guys who probably aren’t that self-aware about how they come across. But they’ve picked up enough cues about how other people react to them that they decide they’re kind of okay with embracing that identity, even if it isn’t the identity that they hold about themselves, or ever wanted. Perry is the most obvious. He’s this grieving father, who’s the sole suspect in his daughter’s disappearance. And he says, “I can be that. That’s who I’ll be. I’ll play to that.” It’s better than despair, he decides. It cuts the pain and ends up giving him a measure of respect in the community he didn’t have before. Rilke does that to a less self-aware, intentional degree. The guy from the diner, Marlin, sort of becomes what other people think. I like the disconnect between how these men think they come across and how people perceive them, and how they end up embracing that identity.

That self-consciousness is often ignored in men, traditionally. Men aren’t supposed to be self-conscious like that. But I’m sure most men are, as everybody is. That’s what the key is. There was a line from Rilke in “A Reasonable Fear”: “Handelman shot him a look…that communicated the unproductive behavior men struggled to hide inside out of pride. Or sadness. Or the desire to remind the folks who needed reminding that good-natured reliability was not a matter of temperament, but will” (52). I think that speaks also to Marlin’s self-consciousness about being the perverted old man he is. But his self-consciousness, perhaps, makes it lighter than it could have been.

There’s that question of restraint. Not that women don’t hold things in, but, as a woman, I wonder, how much restraint do men carry around with them; how hard are they working in any given moment to stay in control? There are some everyday guys, good workers, good family men, not on drugs, not drinkers, who are pretty tightly wound and I always wonder why is that? What would happen if you unwound? How dangerous might you actually be? We talked about forgiveness being an act that you have to keep at all the time. How much of their restraint is an act of will? But that’s a cop example, such a familiar character type thanks to literature, and TV, and movies. With a character like Marlin, who’s a retired electrician, how many years has he carried restraint with him as a part of his training as a man, as a part of his fears of being a man? The ordinary guy interests me.

You have to make it a practice. You have to make it a habit.

Without going into it too much, our current president doesn’t have much restraint. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s so admired.

And look what he let loose at his rallies. When restraint is abandoned, that’s what you get. And people appear to be hungry for that.

What happens when the niceties of our political and governmental etiquette are violated? What kind of government are we left with? Male restraint and female restraint both play out in the respect we show each other in the workplace, in our family life. What happens when that starts to break down? We’re seeing that play out in a huge way right now. What happens when you just go ahead and insult Angela Merkel?

Yes. It just keeps coming from that man. So, do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers? What advice do you have for your students?

My living is to give advice about writing to undergraduates. Mostly, it’s to write a lot and read a lot. Being persistent, even when your stuff isn’t accepted. The book is not the money shot. The money shot is sitting down to the daily devotion of writing. You know this as well as I do. You have to make it a practice. You have to make it a habit. And you have to listen to what people are telling you about your writing, when you’re ready to hear it. You’re not always ready to hear it. A good teacher will give critique in a way that allows you to hear it and take it in. But, absent a good teacher, you do have to be ready to absorb what people are telling you about your work and make an informed decision about whether you respond to that critique or not, without feeling defensive or shutting yourself down. So, be open when you’re ready to be open. And if you’re not ready to be open, sit down and write some more.

Do you think that a lot of students have trouble taking critique?

I feel that students are very happy to receive critiques in the RC’s teaching model, which is one-on-one tutorial sessions, so there’s no ego involved with a class and what a class is going to think. But even in workshop, we always start with praise. We tell the author what’s working.

Just to get in there.

And then we go to the critique. A writer has to be able to listen, and the critic has to be able to phrase critique gracefully. The students do just fine. They want to be good writers. Everyone wants to be a good writer. I’m so happy to be in a profession where the intention is to be the best artist one can be.

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