I first came across Stephen Thomas on Twitter. It was 2012 and I’d started doing this embarrassing YouTube show no one watched called A Chat With Jess. Steve was doing something similar while doing his MFA at The University of Alabama: he posted a YouTube show updating his Canadian friends on his new life in America. I found him hilarious and was intrigued, especially having not read any of his writing. Who was this “Stephen Thomas”?
A year or so later, we ended up reading at the same reading for Amazing New Stuff on Toronto Island. Steve was folding chapbooks to give out to attendees and handed me one: Jokes. Watching Steve deliver some of the earlier pieces from what is now The Jokes (BookThug, March 2016) was fascinating: people were hooked by these little snippets and seemed almost scared to laugh, not knowing if his pieces were supposed to be humourous or not. Considering laughs are almost too easy at literary events, this bafflement was representative of a depth to Stephen Thomas’s writing… They are pieces that can be revisited again and again and read in many different ways.
I was obsessed with The Jokes. Sometimes they reminded me of short fiction by Lydia Davis or, as Steve and I discussed in the interview, pieces of poetry, zen meditations, fables or even little prayers. Echoes from all sorts of media bounced off the lines of the book. But no matter what popped into my mind as I was reading, The Jokes were also something I had never read before, something totally new.
When I wrote Pauls, I wanted the book to be small, something someone could fit in a pocket and love and carry with them. I am jealous of Stephen because I feel like The Jokes is this book. It’s a book I want to bring with me always.
Stephen Thomas and I ended up G-Chatting for our interview so that I could go a little more in-depth with him about The Jokes. Here is the first part of our conversation.
JT: I loved your book! I found I read it a couple of different ways... At first I was reading the pieces as contained little bits and would give myself time and breathers between them. But then I went back to it and read it from the beginning all at once in a huge gulp. I found it gave the book a different feel. I felt like the pieces had a cumulative effect when I read it all together. Did you envision it being read in a certain way?
ST: I’m very curious to hear about people's readings of it. I've had many readers for a long time but not too many (yet) who are reading the finished product for the first time. I’m not sure [how I envisioned them to be read].
JT: When I took time out between them it gave each piece a seriousness. But all together it felt a little more playful, addictive. I liked both ways, but found it worked quite differently and was wondering if that's something you'd heard before, something you felt, or something that was reflected in your writing process.
ST: I guess I wanted to accommodate both ways. The triptych thing [the book was originally written as sets of three] was meant to accommodate the putting down and picking up, reading in discrete little chunks, but also the order of all of them together was thought about a LOT and so there's an intention to the progress of them.
JT: That's what I thought. I think the order works really well. You can tell that one leads to the other without it feeling forced or obvious in any way.
ST: As far as process goes, like, they were originally written one at a time and published as triptychs, mostly online, so that was the original venue I was thinking about writing them for. But then much later I started working with all of them together, and (I worked on the book for a long time, about 5 years), for the last 2 or so years I was just working on them all together, as a book.
JT: That's interesting. Do you think the length reflected the online medium originally? Or were you just interested in creating something with this unique form?
ST: I have a lot of thoughts about the form, as maybe you could guess. I originally was very much thinking of the form as in conversation with tweets and facebook statuses, which are also a big part of my life. I was thinking of these as like the "fiction equivalents" of those. And not to get all think-piecey, but I was like, "What Is The Role of Fiction Today?" and people always complain about how fake people are on social media, how you're not allowed to express sadness or complex feelings or have complex reactions to issues, and I thought, well, this is what fiction is for now, to get into that stuff. But I wanted to keep it accessible to readers who mostly now are reading the internet; hence the shortness.
That sounds all very theory-driven -- and in some ways it was, and so I'll be very curious to see if the book actually works like that in readers' actual minds -- but also, the more I wrote in this form, the more it took on a life of its own.
JT: Do you want to elaborate on this a little more on what you see the role of fiction as being?
ST: You know, there have been whole books on how the internet has changed our attention spans and all this stuff, and how social media is isolating because it provides this simulacrum of connectedness without the actual thing, and so I think fiction, which was once much more of a default art form, now has a much more specialized role to play. It's not really the default medium of storytelling -- that's largely on the screen -- and it's not really the default medium of like, witty people being witty or whatever, which is mostly Twitter and nonfiction, I think. So -- and this is obviously highly personal and subjective -- for me fiction has become a slightly more, um, religious, or spiritual place? Or just the place where you go when the world, or life, is actually not enough, and you need, like, solace. [Within] the book itself, I don’t know if this comes through? But the book is like, a little bit religious. It's more religious than I am, because I think it represents that side of me.
JT: Yeah, I definitely agree with you, especially what you said before about fiction providing a place for the complexities or heavier emotions.
ST: Yeah, I guess on that note too, like, there's a common complaint that no one can talk about important issues with any degree of subtly on the internet, because it's so easy for one sentence to get jacked by someone on Twitter and then exploited for social points for their particular team. So maybe it's slightly safer to be a little less party line and a little more human in fiction, because there's that immediate remove of "the narrator" talking and not necessarily the writer, and also the construction of "character" itself automatically adds a level of complexity.
JT: I think the religious or spiritual element you mentioned definitely comes through. I found that really
interesting about the form. Because not only are these little stories often about death or fear or human purpose... the form also carries that spiritual nature forward. I was reminded of little zen koans or puzzles. Prayers. I don't see how longer pieces could have done the same thing. These end up feeling somewhere between poetry and fiction, prayer and reality.
ST: What do you mean they carry the spiritual nature forward? People often talk about them in connection to poetry. I can see it for sure. For a variety of reasons they seem very much fiction to me, but I understand it's not normal fiction.
JT: They definitely seem more fiction to me too... I think it varies from piece to piece. I think that was what was so exciting for me. Every time I felt I got a grip on the book, something new came at me.
ST: Oh that's nice! I think that's something I was trying to balance too. Uniformity/unity vs. eccentricity/variation.
JT: I think with the form carrying the spiritual side forward, I meant that how at times they almost seemed like prompts for meditation, koans, or prayers... even in how they were structured.
ST: I can see that.
JT: Were you thinking about that as you were writing or did that just end up coming out of writing about things like death and fear?
ST: No, I don't really know any prayers or koans, except like, maybe 8% of the Lord's Prayer and if "what is the sound of one hand clapping" is a koan, I know that one.
JT: They reminded me of some zen poetry and stuff like that that's why, but I think it's just because you were talking a lot about existence.
ST: Yeah I don’t know why I got so into the sort of existential territory I got into. It's not exactly my usual territory. It seems like the act itself of writing the book maybe led me there?
Continue on to Part Two of my conversation with Stephen Thomas!
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto, Ontario. She is the host and founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines, and newspapers, including Little Fiction, Little Brother, This Magazine, The National Post, Emerge Literary Journal, Great Lakes Review, Zouch Magazine, and offSIDE Zine. Her pamphlet chapbook, And Then Everyone, was released by Picture Window Press in the spring of 2014. In October 2014, Anstruther Press released her first full-length chapbook, Never Stop. Recently, she was named “one of the best alt- lit reads coming out of Canada” by Dazed and Confused Magazine. She also received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.” Pauls is her first book (BookThug). Connect with Taylor at www.jesstaywriter.com, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/jesstaywriter), on Twitter @jesstaylorwriter, or on Tumblr (www.jesstaywriter.tumblr.com).