Writer's Ed with W. Scott Thomason

W. Scott Thomason is the author of “Driver’s Ed,” published in Volume XL of the Roanoke Review. A native of Winston-Salem, Scott talks about his love of Southern Fiction, his experience growing up in North Carolina, and his path toward becoming a writer. His fiction has been published in Broad River Review, Flying South, The Lindenwood Review, The Louisiana Review, and The Sierra-Nevada Review. He teaches at Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia. Find him on Twitter @wsthomason. Alexandra Reynolds speaks with Scott below. 

Why did you decide to write about the imagined aftermath of the Goldsboro Incident?

I started writing a story about two sisters who were driving around. I had names, but I didn’t have much else. They were driving around and going to yard sales. There was a certain dynamic between them, a sort of tension that comes through in “Driver’s Ed,” but there wasn’t any kind of real tension or friction in the narrative. It needed something from the outside. I ran across an article on the Goldsboro Incident and a redacted report. You know, I grew up in North Carolina and I did a Master’s degree in American History, and I’d never heard of the Goldsboro Incident so I was quite fascinated that this hydrogen bomb had essentially come within just a fraction of annihilating half the state where I grew up. 

The next day I read George Saunder’s “Sea Oak” for the first time. The story hit home. With the Goldsboro Incident, if the switches had failed, everything for me could have been a lot different, and obviously much more so for the people who live there. I was thinking about things like – for one my wife’s parents moved to Wilmington, in the eastern part of the state, much later than the Goldsboro Incident. Had the bomb gone off, would they have been able to move there? Where would she have been born? Would we have ever met? You know, you start thinking about these kind of things, and in a way, it’s very selfish. “Sea Oak” connected to that reaction because the characters had this normal, if not difficult, life. They have it hard, and there’s a zombie, but they make it normal. That clicked with me because I think that would have been the reaction had this hydrogen bomb gone off. People really crave normalcy. 

“Sea Oak” gave me a bridge between Lucy and Mickey and Goldsboro. If the bomb had gone off, I don’t think we would have had this post-apocalyptic war zone. It wouldn’t been Mad Max like everyone always thinks. I think we as humans try to make things normal and we usually justify doing what he have to in order to make it work. Then I started thinking, there would have been survivors and I don’t think those people would have been treated very well because there’s a fear of contamination. The victims would have had visible scars, and it would have been a reminder of what had happened and what we had done to ourselves through the weapons. On a national level, I think we particularly hate being reminded of pain and our past failings. So when you combine that with Lucy and Mickey’s world, I found something that was rich to work around. It’s normalcy. It’s not just the U.S., it’s not cultural, it’s not political, it’s a human experience. I put all that together to see what would happen if Lucy and Mickey went around post-nuke countryside instead of the yard sales.  

“Driver’s Ed” is a story about driving. The girls run errands in their parents’ car, but they also move toward a real understanding of their world and of disaster. What drives you to tell stories? 

One thing I like about this question is that it made me realize that driving appears a lot in my stories. I’m not sure why that is, but maybe it’s because a story is a moving thing. In a way, I’ve always used stories as a way to explain the world. Even as a kid, I remember I would tell stories a lot to other kids. It was a role that I always had. I think stories capture specific moments very well, they capture human experience better than many other things. A brain scan can tell you what your brain looks like when you are in love, but it can’t tell you why that love matters to you. Maybe you can chemically explain the sensation, but that doesn’t satisfy you when you’re going to the ends of the earth for that love. A story can do that. I think stories can do things that numbers, data, statistics, studies, charts, and graphs can’t do because they can tell us about the subtleties of life and the things that make us people. Maybe I’m driven to tell stories to understand being human, but that may be too high-minded. I think it’s more to understand myself and my own experiences.

Narratives about catastrophes and dark alternate realities fascinate readers and this genre of literature is thriving today. How do you explain our cultural interest in catastrophe? 

You know, I think a lot of it has to do with the 21st century. We’ve had a lot of catastrophes so far. 9//11, the tsunami, Katrina, earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, the oil spill, Fukushima. Almost every year of this century so far it seems there’s been a major disaster. Plus the wars, the conflicts, the killings that occur daily. I think people like stories because it helps them deal with their anxieties about these things. You can’t do much about a hurricane or a tsunami. You can run if you’re lucky and that’s all you can do. Catastrophes that we make ourselves, I think they still feel bigger than us. We like to think that they’re made by governments and power brokers and that we’re individually not involved. That sounds good, but I don’t think it’s all that accurate. It feels good and I think feeling carries a lot of weight. We lose a lot of control in these situations, so I think stories that deal with disasters and catastrophes are grounding in a way, particularly for young people who are coming of age when all these tragedies are happening one after another. They are going to leave some deep marks on people who had to form their identities in this period. I don’t think we can really pinpoint where those marks are going to be. We certainly can’t do it through a study or a graph or a chart, but maybe a story can help someone pinpoint those marks themselves. 

In “Driver’s Ed” you create distinctly Southern voices for Mickey and Lucy, residents of post-nuke Carolina. I particularly enjoyed the rhyme, “Richmond in the north / Florence in the south / East of Raleigh the teeth fall out your mouth.” Do you prefer to write Southern Fiction? 

I’m glad you really liked the line. Truthfully, I almost cut it a couple of times. It sounded hokey, but then I realized that even though it was hokey, I needed something that a kid would say. That’s how kids would handle the situation and it served a useful purpose because it let me use Mickey’s voice to establish the boundaries of this new state without having to somehow incorporate that in some other way, like if they stopped to look at a map or something awful like that. At first I didn’t like it, but it really did grow on me. 

I do write Southern fiction, basically exclusively, because it is really all I know how to do. I think it’s not a good idea to portray a place if it’s not going to be genuine. I lived in the Midwest for a couple of years, but I can’t capture the experience of growing up there. I don’t have those underpinnings. I know about the South. I’ve studied the history and I know its contradictions. It’s full of beauty and tenderness. It’s steeped in horror and awfulness. The history is dark and manipulated, but it’s out on display and never out of mind. It weighs on people. The South is the only place I know well enough that I feel I can portray it in an accurate and genuine way. 

I love writing in first person and I love creating a strong voice. I have to be able to hear the voice to be able to do it. I know what a nine year old southern kid sounds like. I don’t know what a nine year old from Philly sounds like even though I live in the area now. But I can hear Mickey, and more importantly I can hear her long enough to sustain a story. One of the most Southern or at least Northern Carolinian things in “Driver’s Ed” is the importance of cantaloupe. Growing up, cantaloupe was on the table every night in the summer. People want their cantaloupe, they want a good one, and they want it ripe. If you’re the kid in charge of getting one, you better not drop it. 

How did you come to be a writer? 

I’ve always been a writer and a story teller. Writing is what I wanted to do when I was growing up. Other kids wanted to be lawyers or astronauts, but I always thought being a writer would be really cool. I also wanted to study history and I went in that direction in college. I was too scared to take a writing workshop as an undergraduate. After a few semesters I found myself vested in another direction. I did my BA in History, my MA in History. I adjuncted, I did some administrative jobs. When my wife and I were in Illinois, I got back into fiction and writing. I got into literary fiction in a serious way. I had no idea what I was doing. I bought some anthologies and I pieced things together very slowly and probably very poorly. After five years there, I had some stories that were passable. I sent them out to MFA programs and I settled on McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. That’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I really settled into myself there. I didn’t seriously pursue writing until I was in my thirties, but that was a good decision because I had meaningful experiences to draw on. You have all this time to write and community to do it in while you’re doing your MFA, but if I had been twenty-three years old and straight out of undergrad, I think the experience would have been wasted on me. 

How did you learn to drive?

Learning to drive was a lot like writing for me. I didn’t do it on the same time scale as my peers. I didn’t run out on my sixteenth birthday to get my license. The truth is, like writing, I was too scared to do it. I don’t know exactly how it is now, but in NC in the early nineties there were no limitations on a 16 year old driver like there are now. You took a semester of driver’s ed in high school. It was mainly filmstrips. Then you took a test at the DMV and if you passed, you could drive anywhere with any passengers at any time. That’s a lot for a sixteen year old. I wasn’t ready for it so I didn’t get my license until I was eighteen. 

I learned to drive when my dad took me outside of Winston-Salem, where I grew up. He took me into the country. I loved these drives. It was very open and there weren’t many cars. In the story, the feeling that Mickey describes about how everything moves past her and she is moving past it, and how she can think of anything she wants, that’s the experience I had. It was a bonding experience with my father, an unspoken one that I have held on to. Many years ago, I took my wife out there to show her, but it’s all been turned into subdivisions. So there’s a taste of the idea that a story can capture a moment that has gone away because of what’s been built around it.