A Writer's Fiat: An Interview with Sally Thomas
One of life's great pleasures is spending time with a kindred spirit discussing literature and the creative life in general. Through the miracle of the internet, I was recently blessed with the opportunity to have a virtual 'sit-down' with the Catholic poet and novelist, Sally Thomas.
Thomas' acclaimed works have appeared in such prestigious journals as Dappled Things, the New Yorker, and Plough Quarterly. She is the Associate Poetry Editor at the New York Sun. Her novel, Works of Mercy, was published earlier this year by Wiseblood Books.
If you are not yet familiar with her work, I am delighted to remedy that situation right now! Brew a cup of your favorite warm drink and settle in for a conversation filled with wisdom and prayerful insights on different aspects of the Catholic creative journey.
SKP: What would you most like readers to know about your personal journey as both a writer and a Catholic?
ST: Well, maybe mostly that they're both ongoing journeys. I've been a writer all my life; I've been a Catholic since 2007. But both of those things --- and I think of the faith as the world in which everything else happens, including the writing, so it's not like these are two poles pulling in opposite directions --- both things involve daily conversion. It's not as though you just get there, and there you are. I have to say fiat to God daily, and I have to say fiat, daily, to the work of writing, which probably helps me with the other, larger fiat.
SKP: You have an extensive and impressive background in poetry. Did you always plan to delve into short stories and longer fiction as well, or was that an organic off-shoot from a love of using words to explore the human condition?
ST: I've always been a reader of fiction. In fact, as a reader, I've always gravitated more to novels than to anything else, even as I've read and written poetry. I love story, I love character, I love the sense of worldmaking that happens in fiction. Now, poetry can involve those things --- my friend Marly Youmans, for example, has a whole fantasy-in-verse coming out from Wiseblood sometime this winter. There are verse novels. And so on. But there's a lot of pleasure and latitude to be found in writing prose.
As far as planning to write one thing or another goes, I'm not sure I've really planned to do anything that I've done. Things just nag at me to write them, so I do. Sometimes the "appetency" I feel --- a great word from Samuel Taylor Coleridge! --- is a hunger to make music in rhyme and meter. What I hear is a line that I know is poetry, and immediately my mind wants to supply the next line. But sometimes the "appetency" is different. I start to daydream about characters and the things they could do and say, and the world in which they could live and move and have their being. That too might start with a sentence. Works of Mercy began with the sentence which still opens the novel. It was clearly a line of prose, and clearly a voice, and I needed to write another sentence, and another, and another, to set whatever was going to happen in motion. I didn't know what it was. But I knew that if I kept writing it, I would find out.
I did start publishing short fiction about ten years ago, again because stories just nagged at me until I wrote them. But it really wasn't a large vision I had had about how my career (and I use that term loosely!) was going to go. Again, it was just largely a matter of saying fiat.
SKP: You are also a seasoned homeschooling mother and mentor. What led to your decision to home-educate, and what were some of the biggest challenges and rewards of that decision?
ST: That's another thing that really wasn't planned. The short version is that our oldest child was having a rough time in school, and the problem really seemed to be more a problem of fit between her and institutional school, than a problem with that particular school. We had no idea how long we'd keep doing it. For years we just said that we were taking it year by year. Gradually the number of years added up to seventeen, at which point our two youngest children graduated and left home, and we were done with that whole project.
Challenges: My own executive-function skills, which have never been great. Just finding a way to keep our whole educational enterprise in the road was its own sometimes-overwhelming process.
Rewards: The time spent with my children, and the time they spent with each other. As adults, the four of them are very close and involved with each other. The great reward really is hearing them laugh together when they're all at home, which only happens at Christmas now, but is the best thing ever.
SKP: Did you ever experience tension between answering the call to glorify God through your art, and the managing of your obligations to family? If so, what are some practical tips for balancing the demands of those two spheres? ST: I think everyone who is any kind of artist experiences some kind of tension between the artistic vocation and everything else. Just practically speaking, most people can't do the art thing all day long, whether it's because they also have to make a living, and practically nobody makes a living at art, or because of the needs of a family, which don't wait, or because in terms of energy there's only so long you can sustain the artistic work. Flannery O'Connor wrote for two hours in the morning, then she was tapped out. Some people really do write all day, or paint, or sculpt, or write music, but I know far more people whose natural inclination is a lot less hyperfocused than that. On the other hand, I know a lot of people who know how much they hyperfocus, and who are always trying to figure out how to balance things so that their work or family demands don't get swept under the carpet. Anthony Trollope, who worked as a civil servant in the British postal service, wrote his very many novels in increments of fifteen minutes out of each hour of the working day. That was a life-changing little factoid for me, and I wish I'd known it a lot sooner than I did.
So I guess the main thing is to know yourself and to know what's important, and to prioritize, and also to know that writing, particularly, doesn't mean just doing nothing else all day long. I did write a lot more in the handful of years when my oldest children went to school, I have to say. Homeschooling, and the all-day relentless demand of that on top of normal mothering, made it hard to do anything else, especially since for most of that time I didn't know about Trollope and his fifteen-minute increments. Eventually I got somewhat better at time management, and eventually I also realized that I couldn't live without sleep. In the years when everyone was home, and life was really all family all the time, I was glad to be a poet, because I could do something tiny --- change a word in a line --- and feel that I'd done something.
I do know young mothers now who are writers who are managing to do remarkable things. Jane Clark Scharl and Tessa Carman, for example, are two poets and mothers who have done a stunning translation of The Dream of the Rood together, which appeared in The Lamp magazine some months ago. I am in awe of them, because when I had young children, I was not making things like that happen.
On the other hand, I was pretty satisfied, a lot of the time, just to be in the company of my children. I think that's okay, too. It's okay to let the field lie fallow for a time, and to let whatever is in front of you be satisfying to you. I did have some existential crises, but I don't think it has to be all existential crisis all the time. Years ago, before I even had children, I read an essay by the poet Pattiann Rogers, who said that when her sons were young she hadn't written much. She noted that for years and years, she had found her relationships with them so nourishing that she hadn't felt the need to write. Then the big wheel turned again, the sons grew up, and the hunger to write revisited her. I thought about that a lot when my children were small.
SKP: It seems much mystique surrounds the art of poetry. Do you feel poetry suffers from a misconception that it is hard to access for the average reader? As the Associate Poetry Editor of the New York Sun, what are some insights about the state of the art of poetry in the American literary scene? I think people often feel that poems are shrouded in impenetrable mystery, whether that's actually true or not. A lot of people seem to have been scared off poetry by their high-school English teachers, whose way of talking about poetry (whatever that was) made students feel dumb and locked out --- locked out of the poems they were supposed to be reading, discouraged from making any kind of personal connection with the poems, for fear of getting it wrong.
Now, some poems and some poets genuinely are difficult. And there are conventions in some contemporary poetry which engages in all kinds of postmodern interrogations of language and breaking-apart of forms, that can make those poems really hard to track for a reader.
But what I think poetry largely demands is attention. You can't read it like fiction, where you're just working your way to the end of the page, the end of the chapter, the end of the book, to find out what happens. You can't read it in the same way that you read a news article, for information. There are conventions for poetry that it's useful to know --- that you might have to read carefully over many lines to track the unfolding of a sentence, for example. That in addition to syntax, you're also paying attention to patterns of rhythm and rhyme. That you're not looking for a meaning, in the way that you read a news article to find out where the hurricane made landfall. In a poem, language is not there necessarily to convey information, though usually something is happening intelligibly on a literal level. But in a poem, words carry resonances of meaning and association that amplify how the poem might mean for a reader. And it's important to read a poem again and again, and at least once out loud, to steep in those words and pay attention to what associations they call up, and how those associations might make sense with other suggestive words or images in the whole picture of the poem.
At the New York Sun, we're largely publishing older poems that are in the public domain, five days a week. What we want is to revive that old habit of reading a poem in the course of reading the paper, and of being familiar with poems generally. If poetry has been edged to the margins of our culture, then it's our mission to edge it back again into people's field of vision. We are deliberately foregrounding poems that access the traditional devices of rhyme and meter, because the music of a poem is what makes somebody remember it. And we are occasionally soliciting poems from contemporary poets who work in traditional forms, because that's certainly not a thing of the past. It's a tradition, but like any tradition worth having, it's alive. People are engaged with it today, enlarging and carrying it forward.
SKP: Your recently published novel, Works of Mercy, (Wiseblood Books) is receiving glowing reviews. I’d like to learn a little more about the influences that went into this specific book. For example: Robert Southwell’s work, Mary Magdalen’s Funeral Tears, is a persistent presence throughout the life of the narrator, Kirsty Swain. I’m curious: in your mind, did her story grow around the original seed of that specific work, or did you match his words to her needs later?
ST: A lot of things probably indirectly influenced this novel! I have some --- I guess I'd call them archetypal, maybe? --- novels that are always present in my mind for one reason or another, and have been, for me, the models of the kind of novel I would most want to write. Edwin O'Connor's The Edge of Sadness occurs to me as an example, mostly because I thought that if I were going to write a first-person narrative, I would want the narrative voice to be as flexible and malleable as the voice of Father Hugh Kennedy in that novel. Father Hugh is very funny, especially when talking about his curate, who emerges as heroic in the course of the novel, but in the beginning, Father Hugh, who is wrapped up in ironic distance, is ironic about him, too. The whole novel tracks Father Hugh's development into someone who can be restored to a fuller presence in the vocation to which he has been called, and as the story progresses, the pathos that's possible in that same voice is remarkable, as that narrator moves into greater vulnerability and self-knowledge. I really wanted to be able to write a voice like that. The narrative voices in Alice Thomas Ellis's The Summerhouse Trilogy were very present to me, too.
I'm not sure how Kirsty Sain first started talking about Robert Southwell, in some early draft of Works of Mercy, but once she did, I found I had to read more of him. I was familiar with many of the poems, of course, but in reading about him, and casting about for things he had written that might be significant for Kirsty, I did happen on Mary Magdalen's Funeral Tears and read it. It's a remarkable text, through and through, but there were phrases that stood out to me, like all that Sorrow is the sister of mercy business, that seemed as though they could be important for Kirsty. At the time I didn't entirely know why, and I had to read the text multiple times (it's not that long), just to have Southwell's whole thought in mind, while Kirsty was thinking her thoughts and recounting her story.
SKP: Creating a novel of this psychological depth demands a lot from a writer. Were any parts especially challenging to write from an emotional standpoint? ST: I've heard people say that they cried writing certain passages in their own novels, particularly deaths of characters. This was not my experience at all. Beyond a certain point, I knew that there was going to be a death --- nothing else could break things open in the world of that novel in the way that grief would do, and I knew that things had to be broken open. But I didn't know who, or how, or anything like that. Obviously I had some leading contenders as soon as the characters really began to take shape. But the real challenge was in discerning all that, and then figuring out how to write it in a way that would be not maudlin or overwrought, but true to the grief that the characters would feel and the ways that they would respond to that grief. To me it was an artistic challenge, not really primarily an emotional one. I also knew that what I was creating was an emotional effect. In one sense the question was how to construct what the reader would experience, which I guess is to say, to figure out how to manipulate the reader in the right way. That's a terrible term, manipulate, but I had ideas about how reading the emotionally intense passages in the novel should feel. Not that I wanted to jerk people around emotionally, or dictate how they feel --- just that I wanted the gravitas of the things that happen to be felt and experienced.
I felt kind of emotional about things later, and I might find that I'm really emotional when I read certain passages aloud. But that wasn't the experience of the actual writing. SKP: Are you planning to write any more novels? Again, though I would love to, plan is what God loves to thwart! Unless it's His plan. So . . . fiat. SKP:Do you have a favorite daily prayer or routine that specifically aids in your writing process? ST: My prayer life is honestly pretty garden-variety. I usually make a Morning Offering --- and I know that one of the things I'm going to do, one of my works, is going to be writing. I read the Mass readings and try to meditate on them and hold them in my mind. My husband and I pray the rosary together at night. When I've taught writing to high-school students, I've sometimes thought about how writing, or any art form, is given to us as a means of growing in virtue, and I've begun classes with a little meditation on and prayer for a particular virtue: diligence, say, or patience, or humility. For one class, I tracked down all the various saints who could be invoked at patrons of writers or poets --- St. John of the Cross, for example --- and every week we'd ask one of them for his or her intercession. But for myself, on a daily basis, I don't tend to do that. Just the basic prayers, because I know I'll do those. Anything elaborate very quickly becomes something I don't do!
Note: I plan to post an in-depth review of Works of Mercy soon, so please stay tuned!---SKP.