Q&A: Thomas Pierce

Article by ben

The emotional state of the aspiring writer can be a rocky one, careening from jealousy to encouragement, from anger to admiration—and sometimes those reactions come in equal measure at the same moment.

Consider, for instance, my initial encounter with Thomas Pierce. I first saw his name in The New Yorker, and whenever I encounter an author in those pages with whom I’m not familiar, I immediately run to the contributor page to find out who this person is. Doing this, I learned that Thomas Pierce was a student in the MFA program at University of Virginia.

A student? I had recently graduated from my own MFA program and was nursing my wounds: failed projects, piles of rejections, etc. So who the hell was this student landing a story in The New Yorker?

As soon as I started to read, I understood why: the story was called “Shirley Temple Three,” and it was quiet and strange at once. Pierce wrote as though he was in no hurry—an admirable quality in a young writer. Man, I wanted to poke holes in this dude’s work, but I just couldn’t. Why was this student in The New Yorker? Because he was damn good, that’s why.

It’s especially encouraging to see this debut story collection published by Riverhead. People always say short fiction is dying out, but you know what? Here we are, at the beginning of 2015, with HALL OF SMALL MAMMALS, Pierce’s marvelous collection. Let’s just go ahead and call this the year of short fiction, shall we?


Brazos Bookstore: I’m sometimes curious about why you choose to start and end your stories where you do. For instance, I imagine most authors would start “Shirley Temple Three” with the arrival of the mammoth, yet you start it with something far quieter—a woman alone. How did you make this particular decision? And does it say anything about your process as a whole?

Thomas Pierce: When I first sat down to write this story I had no clue a mammoth would be involved at all. What I had in my head was fairly simple: a mother who was disappointed by her son’s failure to arrive in time for the party she was throwing. I had a pretty good idea of who they were and what they each represented, but I wasn’t sure how, dramatically, I was going to explore their relationship over the course of the story. Enter the mammoth. Later, I did briefly consider revising the structure and introducing the mammoth earlier, perhaps as early as the first paragraph. That’s a viable strategy in a story that involves anything weird or fantastic--to weave in that element as soon as possible, to ask the reader to accept the terms from the very beginning, to tip your hat and say, This is not our world but please continue. But since this is, first and foremost, a story about Mawmaw and Tommy, I felt it was important to begin and end with them, and I like the idea of leading the reader into this alternate, slightly skewed universe by small degrees. I leave little breadcrumbs, luring you into a less and less recognizable place. You learn first that Tommy is a part of a strange television show. Then you learn that the show brings back extinct animals. Then you learn that he’s taken the show’s truck. And then you learn about the mammoth.

BB: Some endings seem so quiet that they almost don’t seem like endings at first. Consider “Hot Air Balloon Ride for One,” which never sets up a clear problem to solve and seems to end almost randomly, sans epiphany. A story like that is fine because of its quietness, its “organic” feeling—but is it hard to end?

TP: Believe it or not, I found this story to be one of the easiest to end. The reason for that might be related to what you call its “quietness.” In a story like “Shirley Temple Three” or “The Real Alan Gass,” I think there’s more pressure to deliver on the conceit. To complete the conceit, in other words. But with “Hot Air Balloon…”, when I reached that moment between Fiona and her father and his story (or non-story) about the falling bird, I knew I’d hit the right note and that I could stop. Beginning a story, I very rarely know exactly how it will end, but I do usually have in mind a certain mood or note. It’s a feeling I hope to create. And so when I write and revise, I’m often just tinkering with different combinations or juxtapositions of images, scenes, sentences, words, et al, in order to achieve that feeling. Sometimes it can be very hard to locate it, but with this particular story I somehow found myself there without too much of a struggle. I think what I liked about this ending was the symmetry it brought to the story: the two relationships between fathers and daughters; the one bird, in a sense, completing the other’s trajectory but contra time.

BB: My favorite story here might be “The Real Alan Gass.” Have you ever hunted down other Thomas Pierces? What would you like to ask another person with your name?

TP: I haven’t. I do hear about other Thomas Pierces sometimes thanks to Google Alerts, which sends me an email whenever some iteration of my name is in the news, but I’ve never tried to track one of them down. Most of the articles are about people going to jail or getting an award.

BB: Reading your work, a lot of other contemporary short story writers echo in my mind—sometimes Saunders, sometimes Rivka Galchen, and you seem plugged into the same animals/familial distress that David James Poissant was plugged into last year. What contemporary short story authors echo in your brain when you write? Recommend some books, current or future!

TP: Am I plugged into something? I often feel very unplugged. There are certainly loads of animals scampering through these stories, but I’m always amused when people point this out because when I was writing the book my intention wasn’t to write animal stories so much as stories about people engaging with the mysterious and the unknown, which sometimes takes the form of a living creature or an endangered one or the fossil of an extinct one.

I’m not sure that I hear other writers in my head when I’m writing. In fact, I think my best work happens when my head is happily empty and quiet. But there are certainly short story writers I admire--including George Saunders and Rivka Galchen and also Ann Beattie, Junot Diaz, Deborah Eisenberg, Flannery O’Connor, Peter Taylor, Steven Millhauser, Sherman Alexie, Alice Munro, George Singleton, Etgar Keret, and many others. Just in the last year or so, I’ve really enjoyed and admired collections by Claire Vaye Watkins, Diane Cook, Ramona Ausubel, Jamie Quatro, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Manuel Gonzales, Rebecca Lee… This list could go on and on, really.

BB: One of my favorite stories of yours is “The Critics,” yet it doesn’t appear in this book. What was behind that choice? Do you feel pressure—internal or external—to include stories that were published—especially in BIG places like the Atlantic—versus taking a chance on unpublished stories?

TP: I’m glad to say that I felt no external pressure to include certain stories--and very little internal pressure. For every story I send out in the world, I have at least two others that I’ve finished but won’t ever use for various reasons. What I mean to say is, some of them are just plain bad. I had a handful of other stories that were arguably solid enough to include in this particular collection, though I believe the only one of those that’s been published to this point is “The Critics.” That was the first story I ever sold to a magazine actually. When I started pulling stories together with a collection in mind, for me the primary question was whether each one fit with the others. I wanted what was best for the collection and not for any single story. I wanted the stories in the book to feel like they belonged to the same universe, and I had a gut feeling that “The Critics,” though I like the story, didn’t quite mesh with this bunch.

BB: In “Videos of People Falling Down,” you write: “Already she is constructing a plot, an intricate one, with so many characters and storylines that she’ll hardly have to focus on the murder at all. She’ll be able to write all the way around it without touching the dark sticky thing itself.” Is there a “dark sticky thing” in your own writing—something you feel yourself circling time and time again without ever quite touching?

TP: That’s an interesting question! The answer is undoubtedly yes. But--how to describe that thing? Unlike the writer in the story you’ve mentioned, I never make a conscious decision not to write about something. If I’m writing around something, it’s not because I’m trying to avoid it but because I can’t adequately express it. It’s a failure on my part rather than a feat, in other words. Whatever it is, exactly, I’m sure it concerns God, the soul, the universe, our Purpose with a capital P. And beyond that…

BB: You have no idea who we’ll talk to in our next Brazos Bookstore Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

TP: What do you hope happens after we die?

BB: Speaking of which, Chang-rae Lee wants to know, “What keeps you up at night?”

TP: Climate change. I became a father about a year and half ago, and so it will surprise no one when I say I’ve been thinking more about the future--about what the world will be like in 20, 40 years. I’m in the middle of Naomi Klein’s new book about the sort of changes we need to make to our economic system, the shifts in our priorities. It’s easy to despair. Things are not looking good. We’re on the verge of a massive extinction wave. How do we prepare our children for what’s coming? (And why aren’t people freaking out more than they are?!)

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