What’s immediately striking about Thomas Pierce’s debut story collection, Hall of Small Mammals, are its wild, unforgettable conceits. In “Shirley Temple Three,” a long-extinct dwarf mammoth is cloned for a TV show, then dumped off in a small Southern town with Mawmaw, the show host’s mother. In “More Soon,” the body of a man’s brother is shipped all over the world because of worries over a mysterious contagion. In “Videos of People Falling Down,” the lives of a host of characters—a local-news reporter, a right-wing Listserv manager, a cheesy pop singer—converge and intertwine through the shared humiliation of having been filmed while falling. But Pierce’s characters never feel secondary to his plots. They are resoundingly human, with their bundles of worries, joys, dreams, and burdens, their beliefs, theories, and suspicions, their wanderings and wonderings.
Pierce and I first met in 2000, as students in a high school summer program in South Carolina, our shared home state. Even then I was impressed by his charm and intelligence, and his lively, slightly askew sense of humor. In 2013, my magazine, Gigantic, published his story “Time to Get Radical,” a funny and unexpectedly moving catchphrase-driven monologue that in around twelve hundred words manages to capture the highs, lows, and in-betweens in the life of one semi-religious auto-parts salesman someplace down South.
This interview took place over a series of e-mails and a shared Google Doc, along with two in-person meetings—in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, and in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he now lives.
You worked for five years at NPR as a blogger, reporter, and producer. How has this experience informed your work?
In radio, you’re always aware that you have to win the listener’s attention. You’re wrestling them away from their breakfast or their drive or kids. So lesson one is to be interesting and engaging. You also learn quickly that the best sentence to read over the air is usually the simplest one—complex ideas don’t necessarily require complex sentences. Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful, confusing sentences, too, but I also value clarity—and radio helped me in that regard.
You may only have ninety seconds to tell a story on the radio. When you write a radio script, there’s software you can use with a little clock in the upper right-hand corner that tells you the piece’s length in terms of time. This helps you to remember that what you’re creating will occupy a portion of a person’s day. One of my short stories might steal forty-two minutes from your life. I want to use your time wisely.
Do you ever experiment with writing fiction using that software?
No. When I’m in the middle of writing a story I never ask myself if what’s on the page is interesting or engaging. I never wonder if I’ve gone on too long. At that stage, I’m incapable of worrying about the reader’s time—or anything else either. Finding the story, for me, it requires a lot of mindless wandering. I’m not sure I could write a story using that radio-script software. It would be too distracting—like going through life with a little clock in the upper right corner of your vision, a clock that tells you how long you’ve been alive—or even worse, how long you’ve got left. Can you imagine? On second thought, I bet we’d all be much nicer to each other if the minutes were always counting down, down, down.
George Saunders once compared fiction to a toy racetrack, with the story being the series of little mechanical gas stations that fling the reader forward. Any other pleasures of the story, he says—theme, character, moral uplift—are dependent upon getting the reader to finish the story.
I’m inclined to agree, and I suppose there are all sorts of ways to accomplish that flinging. A memorable voice, escalations of plot, wild ideas and observations, beautiful sentences all the way to the horizon. Being interesting, at a very basic level, is sort of the point of telling a story in the first place. When a friend tells you he’s got a story for you, what he really means is that he wants you to shut up for a minute and be patient because what he has to say will be worth it—worth it, presumably, because it will be of interest to you. And if you aren’t enjoying his story, you might be thinking, He’s just sort of rambling on, or, Nothing’s happening, or, It’s not going anywhere, or, even worse, What’s the point of all this? I suspect readers are a little more forgiving than listeners are. I know I am. Writers can tell interesting stories about anything—about magazines we didn’t subscribe to that keep showing up at our door, about an allergic reaction to blueberries, about a broken toenail, anything. But if you’re going to shut your friend up and tell him a story, it’s good manners to make something happen.
Most of my stories begin with what might be called a “situation.” This word is stuck in my brain, in part, because of that Talking Heads lyric from “Found a Job”—“Judy’s in the bedroom, inventing situations.” A situation, in this context, concerns both character and conceit. The two are twisted up together. A double helix, the story’s DNA. A conceit alone is ultimately lifeless. It’s all head and no heart, in other words. A character brings the heart and is ultimately more important to me. I should add that when I say I have a character at the outset, I may only have in mind a certain sort of person, an emotion, a particular bundle of questions and concerns and memories. Ideally, the conceit will test or challenge the character in the right way, will investigate those feelings and questions.
Do you ever see your stories as trials for their characters?
I’ve never thought about the stories as trials, per se, but it strikes me as true for more than a few of them. I don’t think my characters are being tried in the same way that, say, Job is, but I do think many of them have been plunked down into unusual or even absurd ordeals. With a trial, at least as I’m thinking about it here, a character might be pitted against, or at the mercy of, something large and faceless and untouchable—a state, a system of belief, a bureaucracy, God, the universe, existence itself. Something diffuse or nonterrestrial. For instance, my story “More Soon.” A man named Bert learns his brother has died overseas from a mysterious illness, and the powers that be won’t allow the body back into the country. There’s little Bert can do about it directly except to stay tuned and hopefully make peace with his brother’s fate. I’m channeling my inner preacher here, but I’d say trials are something to be endured, and the manner in which we endure them reveals us. To paraphrase one of the books we read our daughter before naptime, Oh no, mud! Can’t go under it. Can’t go over it. Got to go through it.
Almost exclusively the stories in Hall of Small Mammals are set in the South. How has the region informed your approach to fiction?
The honest answer is I’m not exactly sure. I suspect I’d still be writing fiction if I’d been born elsewhere, but I’d be writing with a slightly different accent. The South is what I know, so it’s easy for me to set stories there. Maybe I should note that you and I grew up along the I-85 corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte, which historically was full of textile mills and peach farms, though today a lot of what you see along the interstate are big manufacturing plants and suburbs and outlet stores and what I call church-malls, not to mention the famous peach-butt water tower in Gaffney. The people and the landscape have changed some over the last few decades—but not altogether. It’s a culture in conflict with itself, no doubt about it, and I’m sure aspects of that conflict have imprinted onto us—or find expression through us. My imagination does seem rooted there.
You’ve expressed a complicated relationship to certain writers associated with the South—Flannery O’Connor and Barry Hannah, among them.
I wouldn’t necessarily say “complicated.” I love and admire them both, though in all honesty I probably haven’t read enough Hannah to have any sort of proper relationship at all. The other day, when we were chatting about O’Connor, I was griping about one or two particular stories, about what I’ll call their neatness, but I told you then if anyone ever asked me about her in an interview, I’d only say I love her. Well, the moment has come. I love her!
Needless to say, the South is a large place, with many voices and with a long tradition of wild and fantastic fiction. Sometimes I do wonder how I fit into that. Maybe the trick for any new Southern writer such as myself, living in 2015, is not to cling to old ideas of what constitutes Southernness, to stay away from archetypes, stereotypes, all types, really. If I’m writing about a character at dinner, maybe I shouldn’t put him at a meat-and-three but at the Applebee’s or a Thai restaurant. Maybe a character has a Robert E. Lee portrait over her mantel but maybe she also goes to hatha yoga classes every morning and drinks iced almond-milk lattes or whatever. What I’m learning, slowly, is that I don’t need to impose any ideas about the South onto my stories. The South, at least as I experience it, will bubble up on its own.
James Yeh is a writer and a founding editor of Gigantic. His stories and other writing have appeared in or are forthcoming in Tin House, the Believer, Bomb, and Vice, and he is a frequent contributor to NOON.