It’s Meet the Author Monday! Each week we meet a new author and get to know a little about them, their writing process, publishing experience, and tips for other writers. Today we’re talking to James Ladd Thomas, author of Lester Lies Down.
About James Ladd Thomas:
James Ladd Thomas is a fiction writer who was born in Dothan, Alabama, and lived the first half of his life in Alabama. He has published several short stories in literary journals, including Hawaii Review, RE:AL, Berkeley Fiction Review, First Class, Dead Mule, littledeathlit, Finding the Birds, and The Wax Paper. His two novels, Ardor and Lester Lies Down (Vine Leaves Press), were published in 2012 and 2022 respectively. Thomas taught Freshman Comp for 30 years, the last 25 years included teaching fiction workshops. Since his retirement in 2017, he spends his days reading, writing, watching movies, playing golf, and walking his daughter’s dog, Adele. He also enjoys jumping in the ocean.
Lester Gordon is an odd man on the lower end of the autism spectrum.
He falls for his next-door neighbor. He marries his next-door neighbor. He has three children with his next-door neighbor. What a dream.
Then she dies from cancer, leaving him with three children under the age of twelve. So, he sells his family’s car wash to become a hospice nurse, just like the one who comforted his wife and family. Everything is great until he attends patients by himself. What a terrible mistake.
Meanwhile, one of his sons is interested in drawing nude women and being a bookie for the neighborhood kids. An old friend shows up looking to escape a couple of goons running after the money she stole from an Oregon marijuana farm. And white dogs keep showing up.
He’s full of anxiety and fear and making stuff up as he goes.
Humorous and certainly a bit absurd, Lester Lies Down explores cultural justice in the Deep South, as well as mortality, the value of love, and the need for compassion for people who are different.
Author Interview with James Ladd Thomas:
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- Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I would say both. When I’m working on a piece of fiction my mind is completely focused on the work, 100% immersed in the story as I write, but it’s also bubbling below the surface when I’m not actually writing. I tend to write just a few (3-5) hours in the morning, just can’t keep the focus for more than a few hours. Stepping into a creative world exhausts me, living in those scenes without thoughts of the outside world. For me, I need to experience those scenes as I create them, step into the minds of the characters so that I can create those experiences. At the end of the day my mind is just worn out. However, the other side of working on a piece of fiction is that I feel energized, just on fire from the creative process of writing fiction. The energy level is running hot. It’s a unique experience. Also, I feel like I am at peace with the world when I’m writing. I am worn out, energized, and at peace with the world, which explains why I still enjoy writing fiction nearly 40 years after I first began.
- Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
One year at a writers’ conference, I believe it was Bread Loaf, lots of people were talking about making the readers the focus of your writing. Knowing your audience, your readers, is extremely important, according to this line of thinking, so that you can give the audience what they want. I find that idea foreign, so far removed from how I approach the writing process. I don’t think this is wrong, rather I think you must find what works for you. I always told my fiction workshops that there is only one rule for writing fiction: there are no rules. As soon as you create a rule then you can find wonderful examples where the rule was broken. For me, I’m trying to write what the story gives me. I let the story, the characters, the scenes create their own path. I do not think about what the readers want, just notsomething I have in my head.
- Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I began my first book of fiction, a novel, while I was in grad school at Auburn University during the late ‘80s, finally finishing it in the early ‘90s. My next book was a collection of short stories that I wrote during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. I wrote another novel during the mid ‘00s. All three of these books stood on their own. My fourth book, ARDOR, another novel, was written during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. I did incorporate a few of my early short stories into ARDOR. When I began my latest novel, LESTER LIES DOWN, I wanted to use a few characters (Lester and his kids) from one of the chapters in ARDOR. In ARDOR the wife and mother had recently died, so I knew the story would be about Lester and his kids coping with her death. That’s the only idea I had in my head when I began the LESTER novel. A few chapters into the novel there is a scene where Lester is walking through a patient’s greenhouse (Lester decided to become a hospice nurse because of his wife’s experience with hospice) when he turns to step down a row of plants and there stands Ardor. Just bam, there she is, completely unplanned. I didn’t know if Ardor would be in just one scene, one chapter, or just scenes involving this particular patient. She is a very interesting character, so I wasn’t surprised when she became a major character in the novel. She is full of spunk, full of ambivalence, and crazy energy. I’ll always be grateful for Ardor being in that greenhouse. I have started writing my next novel, just a few scenes, but there are a few characters from LESTER LIES DOWN, most importantly Ardor. Looks like these three novels will be an Ardor trilogy, not by design, just how the stories unfolded. For me, writing is an organic process, unfolding as the characters interact.
- What does literary success look like to you?
I think most people when they begin writing think of success as publication and making money. I’ll never forget the euphoria of having my first piece published in a now defunct magazine called ALABAMA ENGLISH. It was an interview with the Alabama writer Mary Ward Brown that I wrote for a class at Auburn University. The professor recommended that I send the piece to that magazine. Holding a copy of the issue of that magazine with my piece turned my world upside down. A writer needs confidence, and publishing that piece was a giant leap for gaining confidence in my writing ability. I believe it was published in 1990. I didn’t publish anything else until a tiny magazine published a short story in the late 1990s. I have published nearly two dozen essays, short stories, and novels, but I still feel euphoric when a work is accepted for publication. Just over the moon each time, that feeling of “wow, someone thinks other people should read what I wrote.” That is success for me. Now, I would love to make lots of money, but the commercial aspect is a shot in the dark. You can make good money if a book sells lots of copies, but the big money can be made from selling the screen rights, very possible but not likely. The bottom line for me is that literary success is writing a good story that is published.
- Have you read anything that made you think differently about fiction?
I have read many short stories and novels which have influenced my own writing. However, Faulkner’s AS I LAY DYING completely shattered how I viewed fiction. Up until I read that novel, I believed there was a “right” way to write good fiction. A good piece of fiction should do this, this, this, and this. That book, man oh man, just wow, to tell an incredible story from these little blips of dialog and thoughts. I thought, “Here is a literary genius.” Faulkner is the one who taught me that there are no rules for writing fiction. You can try anything and everything, but you must be able to tell a good story with what you do.
- What inspired you to start writing?
I have said this before, but John Irving’s THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP inspired me to think of becoming a writer. He wrote about the world in the same way that I saw the world. Garp’s world was a world I knew, and Irving created that world with such humor and heart. I thought, “I can write stories like this.” I read that book in the early 1980s. Forty years later and I’m writing fiction because of that novel by John Irving.
- What advice would you give a new writer, someone just starting out?
That anyone can become a writer if they like to read, write, and have a passion for both. And you need to read more than anything. Find the type of writing you enjoy then read all the good works in that genre. Read, read, read! If you truly have a passion to become a writer, then you’ll stick with it for many years to come and you will improve. Most people start out with a full head of steam, but when improvement and publication are slow to come then they give up, find other things to do, and allow life to derail their goal of becoming a writer. I began writing fiction in 1985, didn’t publish any fiction until I published a short story in the late ‘90s (after several hundred rejections). Thirty-eight years after I began to write fiction, I still have a passion to read and write. I’m writing the best fiction of my life.
- If your book was to be made into a movie, who are the celebrities that would star in it?
Several readers have told me that they can see both ARDOR and LESTER LIES DOWN as movies. At first, I didn’t know how to take that, but I do see it as a compliment. People say the scenes have a screen feel, and the dialog rings true. The only character I have given any thought as to who would be good in the role is, of course, Ardor. Right now, I see Riley Keough as Ardor. She is a wonderful actor, has played strong female characters with lots of spunk, and she certainly has Southern roots. She would be a fantastic Ardor.