Saturday, October 14, 2023

Q&A with Thomas A. Dodson


Photo by JoHanna Dorris



Thomas A. Dodson is the author of the new story collection No Use Pretending. He is assistant professor and librarian at Southern Oregon University, and he lives in Ashland, Oregon.


Q: Over how long a period did you write the stories in No Use Pretending?


A: About 10 years. I was researching, writing, workshopping, and then revising and publishing about a story a year during that time. Doing the MFA at Iowa gave me the opportunity to finish the book.


Q: The writer Margot Livesey said of your writing, “His vividly imagined characters seldom act in their own best interests.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: Well, Margot is an amazing writer and teacher and an insightful reader of fiction; she's right to observe that the characters in these stories act against their own best interests.


They drink too much, hold back when they should be truthful (or disclose too much to the wrong people), take on things that they're probably not ready for, are driven by loneliness to dive into relationships with other unstable people or make demands of strangers.


One of my favorite writers, Mary Gaitskill, titled one of her story collections Bad Behavior. That makes sense to me because I've always felt that you need at least one character behaving “badly”—taking up too much space, acting out their trauma, saying things that others are going to disagree with or be bothered by, taking inadvisable risks, etc.—to really have much of a story at all.


If everyone in the story is behaving rationally, and as we think they ought to, in line with our moral and political standards and so forth, well, that's probably going to make for pretty dull fiction.


I've also always loved this thing Chekhov says about flawed characters in stories and the need for the writer to resist delivering any sort of heavy-handed moral message about their behavior: "You would have me, when I describe horse thieves, say: ‘Stealing horses is an evil.’ But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it’s my job simply to show what sort of people they are.”


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: With No Use Pretending, I’m thinking of the ways in which we seem to always reveal ourselves despite attempts to keep up facades. Or, as Denis Johnson puts it: “There’s nobody who can disguise himself. Eventually we’re all outed in one way or another.”


I like to think that the characters in these stories pretty much all get to a point where they can no longer maintain the disguises they’ve constructed for others and/or for themselves.

I’m also thinking of the idea that art doesn’t have to have a “use-value.” It doesn’t need to sell anything, improve society, educate, or anything like that to justify itself. It can be of no practical use and still matter.


Also, making up stories and characters is, in part at least, pretending to be someone else in a different situation for a while, for the writer and hopefully for a reader who is engaged with the story.

I think the phrase is also used sometimes to address someone who is trying to hide—like hiding under the covers pretending to be asleep—and, not necessarily in a harsh way, but with compassion—telling them “hey, I see you under there. Sorry, but it’s time to wake up. You have to get up and face the world now.”


Q: How did you decide on the order in which the stories would appear in the collection?


A: I tried to put what I thought were my strongest stories first and last. The middle three stories all depart from realism and are more about myth and myth-making, so I wanted those together.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I've started on a novel project I'm calling “The Tower of Abraham,” about a community of people who take over and make a home in an unfinished, abandoned office tower in downtown Boston.


It's based loosely on this place in Venezuela, Centro Financiero Confinanzas, also called Torre David, which people took over and turned into this amazing community in the 2000s/2010s 


In my story, the Tower community will be under threat, with the local and state governments poised to forcibly evict the residents.


The characters will each be working through what the place means to them and how to respond, whether to act solely based on what they perceive as their individual interest, for example, or in solidarity with the residents who won't or can't leave.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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