Q&A With Jean Thompson

  • July 12, 2011

Jean Thompson discusses Midwestern farm life and her new novel, The Year We Left Home, with the Independent.

Interviewed by Erin Elliott

Small towns in the Midwest are changing as small family farms give way to large agricultural businesses.  It seemed that all of your characters were affected by the changes, and that some navigated it better than others.  Which characters do you think of as successfully navigating the changes, and why?

When you talk about the disappearance of small family farms, you’re really talking about history in slow motion, because it’s been going on for a long time, certainly since the Great Depression, and any other period when crops didn’t bring in enough money for farmers to pay off loans or meet operating expenses.  Even in the last few decades I’ve watched local small towns built around grain elevators or railroads disappear from the map.  And these days, the cost of equipment is huge, along with fuel, fertilizer, and other necessary commodities.  Of course I’m talking corn and soybeans farming of the big time Midwestern variety.  I’m always cheered when I read about small organic or specialty farms that plow with ox teams, or some other castoff method made new again.

It’s hard to say who among my main characters adjust to change better, or worse.  They aren’t farmers themselves, but rather the descendants of farmers, and the decline reaches them as a kind of secondary wave.  But Ryan invests in attempts to revitalize his town’s business district, out of a sense of what “home” should mean.  Even if his efforts are idealistic and have mixed success, he’s at least taking action, which I think is hopeful.

One of your characters comments that “they could barely keep three kids on two salaries when his parents had raised four on his dad’s job alone.  The math of the world had got screwed up somehow.”  Has the world changed that much, or do we all just want more than previous generations had?

Has the world changed that much?  I came across a stack of my dad’s old W-2s from when he first began supporting a family, back in the 1950′s.  He made two thousand dollars one year,  and I don’t remember us doing without.  We owned a house and a car and a television.  I’m not an economist and I can’t theorize. But it does seem as if we’ve been living through the seven fat years of the Bible, or maybe closer to seventy, as the huge engine of American prosperity geared up after World War II, and our new, disposable incomes required more and more goods and services. Maybe now it’s time for the seven lean years.

I grew up in the Midwest, and I laughed out loud at Torrie’s declaration that she won’t “hang around here my whole life and pop out grandkids and I don’t think the world ends at the state borders and I don’t live and breathe the gospel according to Martin Luther.”  How did you come up with that classic bit of peculiarly Midwestern teenage rebellion?

I come by my Midwestern teen-age rebellion honestly, since I largely grew up here myself, although the family mores and expectations were less religious than those of the Erickson’s.  My parents wanted their children to turn out well, that is, to become educated and prosperous and not cause them undue anxiety.  The verdict is still out.

Norm and Martha, elderly relatives of the family, seem to represent the values of an earlier generation of Midwesterners.  Ryan says of them “How hard they had worked, and how stubbornly, every day of their lives, for their little bit of ease, little bit of pride.”  Have your characters lost something fundamental that earlier generations of Midwesterners had?

I think there’s a danger of romanticizing the lives of any earlier generation, particularly those early farm families who endured great privations and had very little in the way of comfort.  The passage you quote is at the very end of the novel, and I think Ryan is both repelled by those lives, and rather in awe of them, and that ambivalence (towards family, heritage, community, “home”), makes up the entirety of the book.  You can never really lose what you acknowledge and pay tribute to, even if you wouldn’t want to relive that past yourself.

When we first meet Norm and Martha, they dance at the end of a wedding reception, and the younger generation present seems confused by that act.  I interpreted that as an inability of the children to understand the quiet satisfactions in Norm and Martha’s life.  Was that your intent with that scene?

I wanted Norm and Martha to gain some dimension here, to step out, literally, of that staid and joyless portrait I’d drawn of them.  Everyone at the wedding is surprised, but I imagine everyone is on their side, and cheering them on.  Quiet satisfaction?  I wanted to give them a rather noisy satisfaction, at least on this occasion.

Near the end of the book, Ryan purchases Norm and Martha’s old farmhouse.  Was that a way for him to try to tap into their strength?

I suppose you could say that.  It’s a literal coming home for him, even if he doesn’t intend to live there, and a tangible symbol of life as it was once lived in those parts.  Buying his parents’ old ranch house wouldn’t have had quite the same resonance.

Are there other stories and novels of the Midwest that influenced you or that you particularly enjoyed?

Only one comes to mind, and that’s William Gass’ story, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”, with its lists and catalogues of small town life, its absurdities and cruelties.  The story is both a lament and a mockery, an account of a failed love story that the narrator himself gets tired of re-telling, lest he turn into one of his lugubrious elderly neighbors.  It’s quite wonderful.

You’ve written both short stories and novels.  Do your novels start as short stories?  How do you know that you have the raw material for a whole novel?

For me, novels begin as the impulse to write a novel, and short stories as the impulse to write a story.  Form is more important than content, at least in the beginning.  There are certainly times when a novel doesn’t pan out, like a once-promising deposit of ore in a mine, and when a story never gains altitude.  Then it’s time to start over.  But I’ve never grown a novel out of a story, or shrunk a would-be novel into something shorter. And the choice between forms is usually dictated by my own restlessness, and desire to do something different than the last time around.

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