An interview with Jessica Thummel
Our 2016 Dundee International Book Prize winner returns to Scotland next week, for a week to write, and to take part in the Edinburgh International Book Festival. We’re looking forward to welcoming her back, and took the opportunity to quiz her on her award-winning book, how and why she wrote it, and what she’s planning to do next week…
Who is Jessica Thummel? Tell us more about you.
I was born in 1982 and was raised in Dodge City (Kansas), a town notorious for its wild-west past, though now a veritable island surrounded by farmland and cow pasture. I never felt trapped by it until I became a mother at sixteen. At eighteen, I moved to Denver and started writing fiction, and with the exception of three formative years in North Carolina, I still live in Denver and write full-time.
What is the story behind writing The Cure for Lonely? When did you start writing it and how long did it take?
I began the book in 2007. In the decade since, I have written, finished, and scrapped three entire drafts while trying to get the voice and story right. For a book that is about seventy-thousand words, I probably created a half-million words, hundreds and hundreds of pages, trying to find Sam and his story. It can feel like a lot of responsibility, creating a character. He had to be right. I had to really hear Sam as a human—not as any label or idea. He had to be real.
What drew you to write about Sam and his journey as a transman?
I’m always drawn into a story out of personal curiosity. I started writing The Cure for Lonely because I wanted to understand what it meant to feel like a gender. I’ve never felt like a gender. And I wanted to know what that was like.
Once I have that wonder, my characters will arrive and it’s like they appear out of the fog and knock my doors and rattle my windows. So, it wasn’t so much that I was drawn to Sam, but that he came to me. And, of course, after he did, I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
The film rights have been optioned: who would direct, who would star?
Director Tom Ford. He has an eye like Hitchcock. I hope whoever stars in the film would be a trans actor, someone we haven’t seen before.
I probably created a half-million words, hundreds and hundreds of pages, trying to find Sam and his story.
Talk us through the title.
For me, it alludes to a lot of things in the book—the drug study, the quest for love, the ability to accept and move through grief—but most specifically this is as story about acceptance, both self and social . Loneliness, for many, is the worst feeling. But it is inescapable if we can’t accept ourselves. Corny as it sounds, once we learn to love ourselves, we are never lonely.
The List Magazine found the book captivating, and your characterisation very compelling: what is your relationship to your characters and how did you capture their voices?
It’s really a moment of magic for me. The same way reading introduces you to a new character, to their quirks and life and spirit, how it lets you live in another skull, that’s what writing does for me. It’s otherworldly–as if I’m just a vessel containing all these voices and a tragically fixed amount of time to write about them. At least, that’s what a first draft feels like.
Do you plan? What does a good writing day look like?
I don’t do a lot of planning. I certainly do a lot of editing and revision, which might look to some like extra work that could be eliminated, maybe, by planning. I find that when I plan, the characters don’t appear.
A good day of writing fluctuates based on what else is happening in my life, but I generally love long solid chunks of time alone—four or five hours—where I can write and pace and gesture, sometimes wildly, without anyone watching.
What are you looking forward to most on your return to Dundee?
It’s really hard to narrow my anticipation down to just one thing. I’m really looking forward to exploring the city. Some health issues made my last visit difficult, and so I’m hoping to see some gems that escaped me. I’d also like to visit Crathes Castle in Aberdeen, as I am a descendent of Alexander Burnett and find the whole Green Lady ghost legend quite fascinating. Also, being American, any architectural evidence of medieval history has gravity, as almost nothing here is nearly as old.
I am also certainly looking forward to my event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I will read from and discuss The Cure for Lonely.