On May 15th, at our 6th annual Literary Debutante Ball, One Story will be celebrating 10 of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we’re chatting with Ted Thompson, the first of our debutantes to hail from our sibling publication, One Teen Story, and it happened in the most innocent way. Not long after his debut novel, The Land of Steady Habits, came out, Ted wrote a short story called “The Beasts of St. Andrew’s.” When his agent read it and said it was a very fine piece of young adult writing, this was news to Ted (who didn’t know he was writing YA). And when the story subsequently came across our desk at One Teen Story and we read it and loved it and offered to publish it, we had no idea that Ted had recently published his first novel with Little, Brown.
The Land of Steady Habits is not a YA novel. (You might flip to almost any random page to confirm this, such as the one where the main character, a husband and father in his early sixties, smokes PCP with a friend’s teenage son.) It’s a very grownup novel about a not-so-grownup man who has decided to turn his back on his marriage, his home, his life—only to find himself clumsily second-guessing his every move. We spoke to Ted about what it was like to write, revise, and publish a book about a character coming unhinged.
Where were you when you found out The Land of Steady Habits was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
I found out the novel would be published on my 30th birthday. That may seem a little too tidy to be believed, but it’s how it happened. The problem was that I had been out the night before with some friends trying not to think about the fact that my book was on submission, and celebrating my impending birthday with a regrettable amount of boozy frozen drinks, so when the call came I was in no shape to celebrate the big news. In fact, I almost didn’t pick up the phone! I was still in bed, feeling awful. I think I faked my way through the call well enough, though I doubt I sounded as enthusiastic as I should have. It really wasn’t until the next day when I could process what exactly had happened. And I think I’m still processing it.
The main character of your novel, Anders, decides in his early sixties to dismantle his life. Part of the fun of reading the book is that we get to watch this dismantling layer by layer. As the creator/conductor/overseer, were you rooting for Anders the whole time, or were you also wincing now and then?
I can’t actually remember my earliest impulses with this book, but it’s probably safe to assume that when I started working on the book I thought I would be rooting for Anders’ destructive impulses. But it only took twenty pages of writing it to understand I was way more interested in the role that regret played in his life, and the fact that he’s continually drawn to the very thing he’s just rejected. So I’m not sure I winced for him so much as felt for him and his competing impulses. I suppose I’m always interested in a character’s shame.
Can you tell us a little about how different The Land of Steady Habits is from the manuscript your agent originally sent to your editor?
Oh gosh, it was a lot different. The major thing was that the novel was originally told from just one character’s point of view. It was all Anders, and we had no access to anyone else. So it wasn’t until I was nearly a year into my edits that I decided to try a major rewrite. I was stuck, and beginning to despair, when I thought “What if I just changed the rules of the novel, the basic physics of how the whole thing is put together?” To me, it wasn’t until I did that–opened up the point of view to other characters–that I was able to find the book’s structure.
Darin Strauss and others have compared this book to John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Did that comparison surprise you? Would you list Updike among your major influences? And are there—just maybe—more chapters that might emerge one day in the story of Anders Hill?
They surprised me in that the comparison is both flattering and lovingly exaggerated. Darin was a teacher of mine and will be my mentor at the Debutante Ball, and his kind words were helpful for marketing the book. But while I admire the Rabbit novels to no end, the comparison is likely the most apt in terms of subject matter (that is, a domestic novel focusing on a male character of a certain social class with destructive impulses). It’s a tempting thought, writing more about these characters long after the events that this novel covers. I doubt I’d jump into that project anytime soon, but I suppose it’s best to never say never.
What are you looking forward to most at the Debutante Ball on May 15th?
I was fortunate enough to attend last year’s ball and I’m still thinking about the potency of that gin cocktail. So that’s one thing. But mostly I’m looking forward to meeting the other debutantes and celebrating how supportive One Story is to young writers (and also enjoying the fact that none of us has to give a reading).