Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Q&A with Thomas Reed


Photo by Dorothy Reed



Thomas Reed is the author of the new novel Pocketful of Poseys. He also has written the novel Seeking Hyde. He taught literature, film, and writing at Dickinson College for 30 years, and he lives in Florida and New Hampshire.


Q: What inspired you to write Pocketful of Poseys, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: Cinny Posey, the matriarch of the Posey family who decides to stop eating and drinking after she’s diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, is partially but lovingly based on my mother-in-law, Claudia Stuart Grant.


Like Claudia, Cinny makes that very difficult life decision, shows great courage in carrying it out, and is determined to have her family “take a little trip together when this is all over.”


Very unlike Claudia, though, Cinny has an irrepressible yen to be naughty—even outrageous. (When my wife Dottie was reading my first draft, she more than once dropped the manuscript onto her lap and said, “You had Mom say that? You’re kidding!”)


Once Claudia had commenced her cosmic journey and we had enjoyed our more earthly one (to Aruba, with Dottie’s two brothers and our families), I kept thinking that there was a rich and moving story there to be told.


Years later, when my own mother was ailing, Dottie and I were enjoying a pre-dinner drink with the couple who were looking after her. Somehow the conversation turned to children traveling around the globe to sprinkle their parents’ ashes in places the parents had loved. As I sometimes do, I imagined a very silly vignette, one in which a son has to deposit the “cremains” in a challengingly public spot.


I mentioned the Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, and the way the Allied POWs managed to dispose of the dirt from their under-barracks escape tunnel by hiding it in their pants pockets and then letting it drop down their trouser legs once they’re outside.


John, the caregiver, laughed. “If the son had any trouble getting the ashes down his leg,” he said, “and if, say, some tourist noticed him shaking his foot all frustrated like and asked if he was okay, the guy could look up, smile, and say he was just trying to get his mother-in-law out of his pants!”


That nailed for me the tone of the story waiting there to be written. It also clearly suggested a title, what with the pockets full of Cinny and Frank Posey! Within a year or so, I was at it.


As for developing my characters, I was going for a complex extended family, entangled in a web of strains and misunderstandings that could then be resolved (mostly) over the course of their journeys.


I wanted matriarch Cinny to be a no-holds-barred charter member of Woodstock Nation, a kind of cross between Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin. Her husband Frank had to be cool with her countercultural enthusiasms but different enough that there would be enough friction between them to affect Grace and Brian in one way or another.


Grace and Brian, of course, had to be at loggerheads much of the time to give the story its central conflict. I thought that making them twins whose spats might have begun in utero was a fun way to set that up.


Brian’s bisexuality not only figures in a longstanding grievance between him and Grace (in ways I don’t want to spell out here for fear of spoiling the plot) but also complicates his relationship with his wife, Ella—and more seriously with her rebellious but also very protective daughter Sage (who, by the way, became more and more like a reincarnation of Cinny the more I wrote.)


Sage worries throughout the book that her mother will be taken advantage of by Brian the same way she was by Sage’s rapscallion father.


Grace had always aimed to follow in her father’s footsteps as a literature professor, but when she got pregnant with Chelsea, all that had to go on hold.


That intractable fact drives her central conflict with her husband Jack, who she had married in the first place only after she was thrown over by her far more intellectual (than Jack!) boyfriend at Yale: so there are two substantial reasons for life disappointment there.


Finally, Grace and Jack’s daughter Chelsea is a helpful conversational foil for Grace but is also a source of motherly anxiety, since Chelsea has just moved in with a widowed father of two who is substantially older than she is. Chelsea’s dual role as Grace’s concern but also her consoler captures what I think is the vision of symbiotic human relations the book presents.

Q: The writer Robert Olmstead called the book “Witty, dark, picaresque, and joyously contrarian.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m delighted by it! When I first decided that Pocketful of Poseys would be about funereal arrangements in what I hoped would be an honest, occasionally humorous, deeply human way, the model in the back of my head was probably Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One.


My story ended up being worlds less satiric than Waugh’s, but “witty” and “dark” were very much what I was going for. “Picaresque” always reminds me a bit of Don Quixote but also of scores of wonderful American narratives about the revelations that come with life on the road.


I don’t know that Olmstead was thinking about Huckleberry Finn or The Grapes of Wrath or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or The Lincoln Highway, but, for all of its transglobal scope, I think my book could just as well have been about a extended pioneer family moving west in a wagon train.


And “joyously contrarian”? That is both Cinny and Sage to a T! Cinny is the one who sets the whole story in motion, and her letters read at each location keep her marvelous irreverence front and center throughout.


And Sage’s wry teenage skepticism is finally a kind of acid bath from which all the other characters emerge cleansed of the accumulated grunge of life’s trials—all, in the end, as close as they can probably come to being “joyous.”


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I knew the trip and Cinny’s instructive confessions would bring everyone together in the end, but I couldn’t have predicted how central Sage’s role would turn out to be. Originally, she was going to be some kind of latter-day Valley girl—sarcastic, to be sure, but a little boy-crazy and more than a little self-centered.


I’d actually thought of Grace and Jack having a teenage son who would go along on the trip, someone for Sage to get caught up with in typical teen hi-jinx. Very early on, though, she copped an attitude towards Jack and his manly materialism, and that led to Sage’s in-the-bone-marrow feminism and her crusade against the sexual exploitation of young women.


One of the by-products of that attitude towards Jack was Sage becoming far more protective of her mother than I’d originally conceived of her as being. I’d initially thought of her as a thorn in Ella’s side, but she became remarkably tender and solicitous—and, in the process, far more interesting to me.


Her growing appreciation of Jack and, finally, his becoming for her the kind of father she never had was one of the happiest and warmest surprises in writing the book.


It’s funny, but the character of the Stevensons’ French maid in Seeking Hyde took the reins in her hands, too, and became a much richer character than I’d thought she’d be. I seem to write books where younger female characters just step up and take control. I honestly love it.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: Wow! That’s a curiously intimidating question. I suppose what I hope, most of all, is that Cinny’s courage in making tough decisions and, even more, in insisting that honesty can be both an act and a stimulant of love will come as a useful example to some of my younger readers—and re-energize others who probably already know these things but sometimes forget.


We live in a time when people are making as many mistakes as they ever have, but they’re increasingly unwilling to admit it. On the flip side, so many people have so much to offer the world but are crippled by revelations of their slightly checkered pasts.


I hope Pocketful makes a moving, even convincing, case that we should be both forthright and forgiving. Be honest, be realistic, be willing to laugh, and then get on with it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I recently finished a prose translation of the 14th-century English chivalric romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and I’m looking for an illustrator who’s clever at medieval imaginings. If you or your readers have any suggested candidates, please let me know.


Beyond that, a couple of other projects lurk in the hopper. One would be the expansion into a novella of a short story I published years back that I’d best describe as a “rock-climbing ghost story” (maybe a bit of a generic oddity.)


The other would be a novel about a retired man walking one of the world’s long hiking trails as a kind of life retrospective. I’ll leave it at that, because I don’t know how quickly I’d get to it. I don’t want anyone else breaking camp early and getting a head start on me!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Maybe just that when people sometimes ask me how it is that I come up with ideas for writing and how I get stories started, I tell them that it’s more like playing, back when I was a kid, than anything else. You just tip your head back a little, put your eyes into soft focus, and pretend—at a computer. Honestly.


Except, perhaps, instead of frolicking with playmates in the real world around you, you invent a few in your mind and then listen to how it is they like to have fun.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Thomas Reed.

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