The Lack of “Real” Work has Given Me the Freedom to Write: An Interview with A.K. Thompson

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Why did you decide to get your first M.F.A.? And then what prompted the second?

Well, my first go-around was never actually completed. I ended up with only a “Masters” – no of the “Fine Arts” attached. Really, I guess after finishing my Bachelor’s in journalism I decided I wanted to be a “real writer.” In fact, I remember telling friends that exact thing – like being a journalist was some sort of joke. I was obsessed with Hunter Thompson, and understanding that living life was the real substance that made good writing great, I wanted to embark on some strange adventure. It ended up being San Francisco – a now defunct hippy college called “New College of California” that was started by a Jesuit Priest in his living room in the seventies. It was a nightmare – jail, married and divorced, but I did end up with a great dog named Joe, a degree and a passion for writing that kept me going.

Then I spent a few years living in my grandparent’s home – they had both passed away and their house was virtually a museum full of strange and wonderful curiosities. No one else in my family wanted to take on the task. It was perfect for a writer – surrounded by an endless supply of odd objects, books – not to mention rooms full of vintage clothing and ladies hats. My best friend and I would get really drunk, dress up in 1800’s garb and read Uncle Remus stories aloud to each other late into the night. I guess after 3 years of that it was time to move on – that and a second failed marriage. Basically I had been honing my skills as a writer for those 3 years – I learned from the mistakes I had made in California, and decided to apply to finally complete an MFA. I had been rejected by so many schools at that point that I gave the applications to my best friend, Jenny, and had her kiss them before she mailed them off. Bingo! Southern Illinois University (also my undergraduate school) took me back.

When you started the degree, what were you leaving behind? What did you envision happening afterward?

Well, like I said I was leaving behind a now empty house (we had auctioned off almost everything my grandparents had collected), and a pretty much empty personal life. My second marriage had fallen apart, my best friend was in a new relationship and I had grown tired of the Dixon bar scene. I was pretty much isolating myself – doing puzzles, of all things, long into the night while drinking beer and listening to the World Café on NPR. I wrote most of the day, hiked the dogs at dusk and that was pretty much it – I definitely needed to move on.

I should mention that during this time in Dixon (the hometown of President Ronald Reagan), I was working on contract for the local hospital writing and researching a historical non-fiction biography about the couple who started Katherine Shaw Bethea Hospital in the late 1800’s. I was literally surrounded by that era – it was totally bizarre. I knew that I could continue, with full support, to work on the biography as time presented itself while working on my degree, so there was no death of the writing project – the possibilities were endless at this point. To be honest, I told myself and my friends, “If I get just one short story published in a legitimate publication, I can die happy.” I guess that’s what I envisioned. I would work really hard and then, like magic, I would get published and eventually die. I never really thought about anything beyond one single publication…and yet, here I am.

What kind of work, other than writing, are you doing now/ have you been doing recently?

Well the most prevalent would be working with animals – mainly dogs. The first real job I got after graduation was at a humane society. I thought, “Hey, this will be perfect. I LOVE animals!” The tough part is – most animals that are brought through the doors of a humane society get put to sleep. Isn’t that a nice way to say it? At any rate, there was a lot of drama going on in my personal life and when that got shelved next to “you get to assist with euthanasia today,” I totally lost it. I cried all the time – had nightmares about all these dead dogs and I basically fell apart. My writing at this point suffered, too. I wrote mostly about the dogs I had watched die, or carted off in wheel burrows and tossed by individual garbage bag into a freezer until they could be transferred to a dumpster on garbage day, by then frozen into giant solid sleeping dog-shaped blocks. I still love and admire the folks who do this work – it is the hardest work I have ever done in my life. I’d rather dig ditches than have to process unwanted animals.

I have also worked at a dog boarding kennel, which was nearly as bad, surprisingly. These poor creatures are miserable—and believe it or not, most of them spend just as much time at home with their families as they do at a boarding facility. Rich people can afford this luxury, which is why all of my rescued dogs (and cats) have always gone on vacation with me—I may not have money to spend, but by-God the critters are going along with me, even if it means sleeping in the back of my truck with their smelly asses in my face. We have a good time.

I’ve also done a lot of construction work. Jesus I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning her name, but the wonderful poet, Judy Jordan, has employed me several summers. She’s this totally inspiring and wonderful poet who lives in the middle of the Shawnee National Forrest and is building her own Earth Bag house. I have hauled concrete, rock, mixed cob by foot—you name it, Judy has put me to work. The great thing about working with another writer is that you don’t really talk about writing that much, unless you want to I guess. We would sit and eat fresh watermelon with salt as her dogs looked on.

I’ve also done some scrapping—that’s fun, you collect a bunch of shit metal and appliances nobody wants and turn it in for cash. You meet some interesting characters doing that sort of work. My boyfriend also rehabs houses, so I’ve done painting, drywall, grouting tile, digging up septic tanks, landscaping—Jesus, it goes and goes when it comes to flipping a house.

Do you like your work? Why or why not?

My work, well I guess my work now consists mainly of whatever is in front of me at the time. Currently I am editing a Vietnam memoir by a member of the 27th Marines. They suffered heavy causalities—most of them were killed or severely injured. I think it is so brave to not only serve your country – but then even braver to write about it. George Berg is the writer; I am simply helping to put his story together.

He is a brilliant writer, too. It never ceases to amaze me how viscerally he can recall the events of his time in Vietnam in 1968. I have even caught myself reading his memoir several times, thinking, God-damn, why can’t I have written that line?! Simply because I never lived it. At any rate, I love my current work. I feel especially blessed to be working with George on this project. The working title is Grounded: Reflections of a Marine Rifleman. Look for it on shelves in the next year or so—it is great, honest writing.

How did you get involved with the field/ skill set that your current job requires?

Well, my dad grew up with George Berg. They ran together at Sauk Valley Community College in Dixon, IL. George was looking for a good editor—my dad told him about one. In one word—Luck. I am really very lucky to have the work I have now. I am also so lucky to have landed the gig to write the KSB Hospital book, which was published in May. It may have taken over 6 years to write Relentless, Envious Death: The Biographies of Katherine Shaw and Solomon Hicks Bethea, but it was all well worth it. I must say that my father played a role in scoring that work for me, too. Damn, I guess I owe it all to John Thompson. Having parents who believe in your dreams—in my case, wild writer dreams, really is important. Without John and Debbie I would probably be miserable in a gutter some place. Amen.

You’ve written some nonfiction on assignment: a book about a couple who started a hospital in Illinois, a column for an outdoor sports magazine. How does this kind of “writing for hire” feel different than your creative work?  

It is totally different. My “creative” writing is surreal—uncanny demons, animal totems, women finding dead bodies in the middle of the woods and taking them home, dogs who talk, insects that dream…the two rarely meet. However, there have been a few installments of my outdoor column, “Dirt Church,” in which I go ethereal, as I like to call it—I sort of totally rip the head off of what we think of as “outdoor writing,” and delve into the surreal experience as I would describe it in my fiction, which is actually how I really experience the outdoors. It’s hard to explain, but I do want to say this: the average Joe is not as daft as he is made out to be –when I do depart from a more traditional type of outdoor writing, and go fist-first into writing about the outdoors as I write about my dreams, the audience responds. I think we all have a similar experience of life, it’s only that writers are gifted—or cursed—to be able to put it into words that the guts of everyman can feel and understand.

Does that make sense?

What work-related circumstances do you think have given you the most freedom to write? Why?

Most certainly, the absolute lack of real work as an English teacher has given me the most freedom to write. Again, in this instance I feel very lucky to have been granted the frequent opportunity to be “unemployed.” This is one of the big questions writers face—if we’re not being paid to write, are we really writers? Well, shit yes—only of course, if you’re actually writing. Thinking about writing doesn’t count. Keeping journals, constantly writing down dreams, emailing weird passages to yourself, writing a column, drawing strange creatures in the margins of the books you’re reading, editing memoirs, READING GOOD WRITERS. All of that counts.

What I think though, that ultimately made me and gave me the most freedom as a writer was having a great mentor. I was lucky to study with Pinckney Benedict, and without academia and my MFA (from SIUC—it IS a kickass program), this relationship would never have been possible. I remember he once told me, “The best writers actually live—actually experience life.” That has stayed with me for a long time. All of my time spent squirrel hunting—hours and hours of lugging my heavy 1936 Mossberg M-51 full-stock .22 through the woods, the hours I spent hiking my dogs through A-41 pond (a declassified munitions factory in southern Illinois), time spent cleaning fish on the back deck or shed antler-hunting the wild hills of Illinois—all of that has made me a writer. Talking to the common man makes one a writer—being a common man makes one a writer. Shit, just look at Larry Brown. He got it right the first time.

Are you writing? Publishing?

Hell yes. Writing, that is. I scrawl tiny passages here and there. I keep note of my dreams and of course I write the column every month. As for full fledged creative writing, not so much—I keep re-reading short stories from my thesis and dreaming of ways to make them even weirder—trying to figure out how to excavate the uncanny valley to reveal the true soul of the work and make it so real I wish I’d never written it in the first place. I think truly great writing should haunt the writer—I’ve only experienced that once, with my short story, The Taxidermist, which was published in the anthology Surreal South 2011 by Press 53. It was the great experience of my fiction life. I’m not currently submitting anything—I know, I know, a sacrilege! But I owe it to George to do good work on helping him tell his story—as long as we’re telling stories, we’re writing.

Did you have the opportunity to work in academia after your degree? How did you respond to that opportunity?

Not really. I applied for several jobs at various levels—junior colleges, universities, online, etc., but nothing ever took. Basically, despite several publications, they still weren’t biting. Academia is a strange animal—I will leave it at that.

You sound like you’re maybe in the middle of a job search—what kind of work are you looking for now, and how do you hope it will complement your writing?  

Really I’d like to land a fellowship. It would foster more writing time as well as offer more time to get teaching experience. I do miss my students. It feels good to teach—I’m not going to lie. It’s in my blood and it makes me happy to show young people how awesome self expression through writing is—even my composition students had to endure creative writing exercises…their favorite part of the class.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA?

Surely not. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a lot about myself, not only as a writer, but as a human being—that’s what life’s aim is after all.

Do you have any other words of advice for recent or soon-to-be graduates of MFA programs? For writers just entering those programs?

Damn, get after it. Write like there is a loaded gun pressed against the back of your skull. For those who have graduated, keep going—there is no wrong direction if you are a writer—and if you are a writer, you will be a writer—you can’t dig that out of your heart, not even with the finest shovel.

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