Thursday, October 27, 2022

Q&A with Ernest Thompson




Ernest Thompson is the author of the new novel The Book of Maps. A longtime screenwriter, playwright, and songwriter, his award-winning credits include On Golden Pond. He and his wife, Kerrin Thompson, have established a prison writing program called Rescind Recidivism.


Q: What inspired you to write The Book of Maps, and how did you create your character Brendan?


A: Inspired is the word. The story was inspired by, as opposed to based on, a cross-country road trip I took with my young son 20 years ago. True of the father character in the book, I was keenly aware of the significance of the journey, showing my kid the America I knew but discovering secrets and truths I hadn’t been ready to assimilate in the past and learning, too, through his eyes.


What I couldn’t have predicted was how profound the experience would be in solidifying our bond but also in challenging the relationship we’d had up until that moment as a boy began looking at life through a wider lens and seeing the world, and his father, in a different light.


When I read the book now, I no longer see Ernest and August; I see two characters who came to life on their own and are more different from than similar to their nonfictional counterparts. I say to the writers who attend my Write On Golden Pond workshops, “Where are you in your story? Don’t leave your soul and fabulous foibles and complications and voice out of the telling of the tale.”


Brendan, like many of the characters I’ve written, from Henry Fonda's in On Golden Pond, to Robert Downey Jr.’s in 1969, is an amalgam of various aspects of myself, albeit a tad less evolved and way more reckless. My son and I may have stopped at some of the same points of interest on our trip but I somehow managed to keep us more or less out of trouble.


Q: Can you say more about why the novel is set in 2002, and about how important setting is to you in your work?


A: See above but, more than that, I wanted to write about a time in America that, even in the shadow of 9/11, seems innocent compared to the division and anger raging in our country today.


In theory, a father-son story could happen anywhere, some of the same revelations and secret truths could be revealed in the writer’s back yard, but there’s something so inviting and intriguing and even romantic about a road trip. As the lake in On Golden Pond became a character unto itself, so does a broad swath of the United States in The Book of Maps.


Q: Do you have any other favorite road trip novels?


A: On the Road by Jack Kerouac; Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck; Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon. I read each at a seminal moment in my life; all three have stayed with me.


Q: How did your work as an award-winning screenwriter, director, and actor affect your writing of this debut novel?


A: Whether I’m writing a three-minute song or a 90-minute play, the bible for a TV series we hope will run for years or a film, I follow the same map, as it were, and apply what I consider to be (and teach as) the basic tenets of affective storytelling: Emotion, Character, Plot, Dialogue, Message.


And Humor. If a writer can make his or her audiences or readers laugh, he or she can take them anywhere, into the scary woods or to places on the map of the human psyche they may not (know they) want to go. The Book of Maps, in addition to being deeply poignant, yearning and even perilous, is crazy funny. I have to keep asking the engineer to turn off his mic as I record the audiobook, he’s laughing so hard.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: In film, the slightly-overdue sequel to On Golden Pond and a very timely indy called Parallel America, both of which I’m directing and acting in; two new plays taking circuitous routes to New York, Ask/Answer and Some Parts Missing; a slew of new songs; and, coming out a year from now, another novel, Out Clause.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Because I’ve been teaching for nearly as long as I’ve been a functioning contributor to the arts, I love encouraging others to pursue their own creative dreams, modest or massive. I firmly believe that all of us have talent, regardless of the form it takes.


Go on any playground anywhere in the world and you’ll see little kids playing Let’s Pretend, making up characters and stories and dialogue. Sadly, that uninhibited freedom gets diluted by unhelpful teachers or parents who’ve forgotten the virtue of letting loose our better angels and facing down our demons.


I’ve proven over and over that, with the gentlest prodding and positive reinforcement, magic can happen, whether it’s for writers who attend my workshops or inmates in the Rescind Recidivism prison writing program I’ve started with my writer wife, and I hold myself up as an example, the debut novelist at 72.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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