Saturday, January 9, 2021

Chris Harding Thornton

Chris Harding Thornton, a seventh-generation Nebraskan, holds an MFA from the University of Washington and a PhD from the University of Nebraska, where she has taught courses in writing and literature. She has worked as a quality assurance overseer at a condom factory, a jar-lid screwer at a plastics plant, a closer at Burger King, a record store clerk, an all-ages club manager, and a PR writer. Pickard County Atlas is her first novel.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title was a weird journey. The working title was Reclamation, which is one underlying theme, but there are more, and readers will find their own, so that felt too reductive. Pickard County Atlas came to me solely because maps from county atlases appear at key moments in the story. Only after the publisher didn't push for a different title did I think it actually fit. The main thing it conveys is how connected the story is to place (a fictional county in north-central Nebraska in 1978, just prior to the 1980s farm crisis). In the book, the place is described as a "cusp" where the Nebraska sandhills begin, and the three main characters are on cusps of their own. The first character we see is a sheriff's deputy named Harley Jensen, who has a tragic past he's carried with him for four decades. Then we meet Pam Reddick, who married too young, has a three-year-old, and feels suffocated by poverty. And then there's Rick, her husband, whose older brother was killed by a farm hand in 1960, leaving the Reddick family a wreck. The body was never recovered, but just prior to the book's opening, Rick's father has a headstone dedicated to his lost son, and that's all it takes for the characters to start falling from their respective cusps. So, the place, era, and characters are intertwined, and I think the book maps that interconnection.

What's in a name?

For the characters, I mainly chose names that were emblematic of the region and eras in which people were born. "Otto Ziske" is probably my favorite. Large swaths of Nebraska have people of German and Czech heritage, so I combined those two with him. As for the main characters, Harley wasn't the most popular name of its time, but it wasn't that uncommon, and there are so many Jensens in parts of Nebraska that you can't swing a cat without hitting three or four. Pam and Rick were names that seemed both tied to era and slightly nondescript, which was important to me--the notion of writing a book about people who wouldn't normally have a book written about them.

For places, I used a mix. Pickard is a name from my family tree, while the Wakonda, a creek, is a phonetic English version of a Native term (several tribes use it). It's often translated as "Great Spirit." For some, that connotes a supreme being, but it also carries more nuance than that; it doesn't divide physical from metaphysical, it encompasses the interconnected spirit or energy of all things--I don't know if English captures it well, even if it tries to in that phonetic version.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Teenage-me wouldn't be too surprised. Granted, at seventeen, I was itching to graduate and get as far from home as I could, only to turn around years later and write a book immersed in my sense of home. But I'd also been born with eleven living grandparents (four grandparents, six great-grandparents, and one great-great-grandmother), and I grew up around nine of them (two lived out of state). They're what caused an early obsession with Nebraska and pre-Nebraska history, which permeates and informs the story. Many of the darker elements of the book wouldn't be surprising, either. I was (am) a little on the goth side, which was also partly influenced by one of those grandmothers. She was an encyclopedia of morbid local tales.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

In this book, the ending. Early on, I knew the fates of the characters would converge, but I had no idea what would happen when they did. I had to write my way there to find out, which I think was important. Not knowing kept me going. Then, when I finished the first draft, all the events were in place, but the ending was still wrong somehow. My agent, Emily Forland, thought there might be a missing chapter. Once she pointed it out, I don't think it took an hour to write, and I knew that was where one character needed to go. Then, during more revision with my editor, Daphne Durham, I sensed I was copping out on two other characters. I was making pretty sentences and avoiding what the characters needed to feel. I had to take the characters' endings one at a time and not as they happen sequentially in the story. Where each needed to go was too much to deal with, emotionally, in one swoop.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

This is a funny question. My mother read it and definitely saw herself in a character. I think (I hope) I finally convinced her that none of us are in the book.

Having said that, I am also totally in the book. I've never been a forty-seven-year-old sheriff's deputy or a mother or father, but every character is a fragment of myself (often doing terrible things to the other fragments--I'm not sure how healthy that is). I write to empathize with other people, to grasp at why they do what they do. But empathy is never equivalent to being. I can only write from the frames of reference I have (which comes up in the story). I believe each of us sees the world through an individualized and constantly changing lens shaped by our body's chemistry in combination with each experience we have. I think we share things, we have mirroring experiences, and we have more connectedness than we consciously realize, but there's almost always that frame, or lens, we see the world through. I do think that can be transcended; I think I've had a few moments when I've caught a glimpse of that. Most of the time, though, I think the best I can do is try to widen my scope through reading and listening to how other people experience the world.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Film and television are huge. My sense of plot comes mostly from films--The Departed is a favorite--and fairly recent TV series, like The Wire, Downton Abbey, True Detective, Sons of Anarchy, and Mayans MC. I was late to the game on The Sopranos, but it's great, too. Tonally, the Coen brothers are an influence. The only movies I've ever watched a second time immediately after finishing the first have been Coen brothers films. David Lynch's Fire Walk with Me, as a standalone piece, setting the Twin Peaks series completely aside (which is difficult, I know), was also formative. Easy to watch? No, but incredible. And then I've been influenced by the imagery of too many filmmakers to name--Wong Kar-wai, Paul Thomas Anderson, Fellini, Kurosawa--that list would go on for days.

Music has always been huge, too--my dad played guitar, my great-grandparents always had the radio on, and my grandmother would burst into song if you said the right word (e.g., if you said, "coat," you'd hear, "Get your coat and get your hat / Lay your worries on the doorstep"). I started college as an opera major, and then I worked in independent music in one capacity or another for years. I listen to every genre, I think, but in this book, rock and country are prominent. In early drafts, each main character had specific albums they listened to. It was overboard, and I pared back, but each time I needed to reenter a character after taking a break, I just listened to the music they did. I also suspect music is why I toil over a sentence for three hours--I need a precise number of syllables for rhythm.
Visit Chris Harding Thornton's website.

--Marshal Zeringue