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Author Talk: October 24, 2018

Jean Thompson’s latest novel, A CLOUD IN THE SHAPE OF A GIRL, is a moving family saga about three generations of women who struggle to find freedom and happiness in their small Midwestern college town. In this interview, Thompson explains why she named the three sections of her book “Lilacs,” “Sacrifice” and “The Girl of My Dreams”; talks about her decision to set the novel in a university town, and the role that the university played in the characters’ development and relationships with the town; reveals which of her three female protagonists she feels she knows best; and attempts to answer what she calls “[a] question for the ages.”

Question: The three sections of the novel are entitled “Lilacs,” “Sacrifice” and “The Girl of My Dreams.” How did those part titles occur to you, and how do you think they fit together?

Jean Thompson: “Lilacs” provides a way to frame the different time periods of the story and to cue the reader that I’ll be transiting among them. (One character is cutting lilacs, another is planting them, etc.) “Sacrifice” focuses on family dynamics, and the roles the women play --- and are expected to play --- in keeping things going, often at the expense of their own desires and ambitions. “The Girl of My Dreams” is the epilogue that harkens back to the novel’s first generation. And, without giving too much away, it underlines the idea that Grace will be, finally, somebody’s dream girl, loved and valued.

I also chose epigraphs for each section that are meant to evoke the historical past: the inscription on the 1929 Loredo Taft statue, the World War I poetry of Richard Dennys, and the 1911 song.

Q: On page 131, concerning Grace, you write: “She disliked her father’s anger and impatience as she disliked these things in herself. But neither did she wish to be her mother, who carried her complaints around in a basket and kept collecting more of them and was endlessly willing to be hurt.” Do you think that children necessarily gauge themselves against the models of their parents?

JT: Certainly. There are traits we inherit from them and behaviors we learn from them. Part of growing up is the necessary work of separating ourselves from our parents and learning to be our own person. Although there are those times later in life when the mirror ambushes us with that old resemblance, or we hear something that came out of a parent’s mouth come out of our own. Nobody gets away clean.

Q: On page 150, you write, “You could make the case that the whole world actually was [out to get them], in certain ways, and especially for women of Evelyn’s generation.” Do you think the world has lightened up on women in the years between Evelyn’s generation and Grace’s? Yes or no, and in what ways?

JT: Yes and no both. Shall we count the ways? Every time I see coverage of girls’ and women’s sports, I quietly celebrate, since during my growing-up years, there was neither coverage nor encouragement. More educational and career opportunities. More female doctors, professors, engineers, politicians and CEOs where few existed, although there is underrepresentation and resistance, not to mention raging misogyny. More economic and personal freedoms in everyday life.

On the other side of the scale: persistent pay inequities, attacks on reproductive health services. And the depressing catalogue of slights, dismissiveness, insults, threats and assaults, which never cease and seem so deeply rooted in our culture of pernicious entitlement, narcissism and violence.

Q: Why did you choose to focus your narrative on three generations of women, rather than three generations of men or a mix of the genders? What about these three women specifically captivated you as subjects? Which of the women appeared to you first? Who do you feel you know the best?

JT: To answer the last question first, I expect I know Grace the best if only because she takes up the most pages, and I follow her through so many different events. She’s also the character whose story is still ongoing, so there is a different energy to her, and an optimism --- though Grace herself does not spend much time feeling optimistic. To answer the rest: it’s simply easier for me to sustain female characters over the course of an entire book. Although from time to time I make myself write from the point of view of male characters, if only as practice in a kind of literary ventriloquism. I was interested in how different generations of women came to terms with the world and their places in it, and how that world might have both changed, and what had not changed. I don’t think I could have written about men’s aspirations and ambitions with the same authority.

Q: On page 180, you describe a knowing look that passes between Laura and Grace, an acknowledgment of “what would be required of each of them.” What role in each of their lives does nonverbal communication play? What is significant about this particular moment?

JT: Grace and her mother have a considerable history of non-communication, or missed communications, or actively avoiding communication. Things that one wished to say to the other but were never voiced, due to awkwardness, a wish to avoid conflict, etc. Fears are often dismissed, and feelings denied. But for this one moment, at the start of a life-altering crisis, they know each other’s minds.

Q: What role does feminism’s second wave, coming during Laura’s adolescence and at the cusp of her adulthood, play in your characterization of her? What about the third wave as it relates to Grace’s characterization?

JT: Having lived through a number of waves by now, I tend to lose track of them, or perhaps they blur and smudge together. I would say that Laura retreats from anything strident or militant in her life choices; it’s simply not her nature. Third wave feminism often seems incoherent to me, a kind of anything goes rubric that allows for all sorts of behavior, as long as one is suitably wised-up about it. I’m not sure it provides much real guidance. Certainly Grace feels very much on her own in trying to navigate the world.

Q: To a certain extent, each of the characters is trapped in the university town. Why did you choose to place a university at the center of the town, exerting its gravitational pull? How do you view the role of the university in the characters’ development and relationships with the town?

JT: I live in a university town and have for many years, so it was an easy and organic decision. For Evelyn, the university embodies the scholarly calling she was not allowed to pursue. She resents her husband’s prominent university career and the social pressure to support him. Laura is more docile; education was only a process to complete rather than anything transformative. Now, ironically, she works for the Alumni Association. For Grace, the university represents the bewildering universe of possibilities, and a reminder of her frustrated unmet aspirations.

Of course, I could have set the novel anywhere, but the setting reinforced the story line of memory and history in a couple of ways. There’s a push-pull of both comfort and impatience at being part of a self-contained community where you’re a known quantity, and your own personal past is likely to surface at unexpected moments. Also, the university serves as a repository for institutional memory, for commemorating events and people who have gone before, as witness to its memorials and its archives.

Q: How are the flowers discussed in the gardens bookending the novel (Evelyn’s garden and the memorial garden) particularly meaningful? Why did you choose to surround the characters with flowers, listed by name?

JT: Certainly the lilacs are meaningful. They are planted by Evelyn, and come to be associated with her history and memory as they are passed down to the later generations. They are mentioned as having a brief, transitory season, like spring itself, like life itself. There’s also a nostalgia for the “old” lilacs over the new and supposedly improved varieties, and so another harkening back to the past.

As for the rest of the flower varieties, I indulged myself in the pleasure, experienced by anyone who has ever looked through a seed catalog, of imagining just what I’d want in a garden of my own, if I had unlimited resources, space and expertise.

Q: On page 216, Grace wonders, “Wasn’t your life supposed to mean something?” Do you think each of the women’s lives “mean” something? Or are they just here?

JT: A question for the ages! And it applies as equally to men as to women. I claim no special wisdom here, but I think we would all wish our lives to have meaning. Lucky are those who can come up with a straightforward purpose in life, be it art, worship, service to others, etc. For the rest of us, I like what the Dali Lama says: the purpose of life is happiness.