Debut Author Snapshot: James Whitfield Thomson

Posted by Goodreads on December 9, 2013
James Whitfield Thomson James Whitfield Thomson is a kick-in-the-pants reminder that it's never too late to reinvent yourself. He published his first novel at age 68, after more than 20 years of workshopping, rewriting, and rejection. The result is his debut novel about love gone wrong, Lies You Wanted to Hear. The character-driven work takes a close look at the emotional breakdown of a marriage to determine what could lead to an extraordinary event—a divorced father who kidnaps his two young children, believing that the safest choice is to live as a fugitive rather than allow their mother to raise them. Thomson offers a nuanced portrait of both sides—the hardworking Boston cop Matt who ditches respectable life for the sake of his kids, and Lucy, the privileged beauty caught in a spiral of postpartum depression and drug use who can't shake the obsession she has with her bad-boy first love, Griffin.

A former sales executive and Vietnam veteran, Thomson is now working on his next book. He shares some of the Boston settings and stories that inspired Lies You Wanted to Hear.

"Original Boston Globe articles created the idea for the novel, but the real-life case did not figure significantly in the story." (Source: James Whitfield Thomson)
Goodreads: You began writing in earnest at age 43 by studying with Andre Dubus. Twenty-four years later your first book is published. How did you stay motivated?

James Whitfield Thomson: I wrote one short story when I was 40 but didn't write another till I was 43. I'm pretty sure I didn't write a single one worth keeping for at least another two years. There was so much I had to learn. One thing that kept me motivated was the encouragement of Andre, who died in 1999, and also of Leslie Epstein, who's a close pal. Along the way I had several agents who thought my work was good enough to try to sell and really stood by me as the rejections rolled in. Of course, there were a handful of friends whom I trusted who kept telling me the work was good—and getting better. Most important my wife Elizabeth never stopped believing in me, though I think there were times when she thought I was crazy to begin yet another book. Still, at bottom, I had the inner drive and belief in myself that comes from goodness knows where. I used to tell people, "I know I'll be discovered someday. I just hope it happens before I'm dead."

This doesn't mean I never got discouraged. I did many times and tried to give up writing, but I always came back to it. I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was a lack of imagination. I didn't know what else to do with my time.

"Copley Square, where Matt first sees Lucy crossing the Square, and they meet in the lobby of the hotel with the red awnings. The broad sidewalk in the foreground is in front of the Boston Public Library, where I imagined the mimes performing." (Source: Wikipedia, user Infrogmation)
GR: What inspired your plot choice of two children kidnapped by their own father? What did you learn about parental abductions in the course of writing?

JWT: I was inspired by a series of articles in The Boston Globe in the spring of 1998, in which a man was arrested for kidnapping his two daughters 19 years before. The man seemed like a bit of a charlatan—someone who called himself "doctor" when he had no degree and claimed he'd taught at Harvard Law School when he'd only taken one course there—while his ex-wife was portrayed as a sympathetic woman who went on to become a university medical researcher after her children went missing. Still, the man had raised two accomplished young women who stood behind him completely and refused to even meet their mother.

I knew that was the basis of a good story, but only if both the man and the woman were essentially good people, two individuals who had once loved each other and both loved their children. I tried to get a novel going at the time but didn't get very far. It took me eight years to return to it.

There are about 200,000 "family abductions" in the U.S. every year. Most, thank goodness, are fairly short in duration, but a small number are never resolved. It wasn't until the early 1980s that these abductions became a crime in Massachusetts. Before that it was simply a family dispute, which police departments basically ignored. Even today law enforcement officials don't have the resources to pursue these cases. Of course, nowadays the Internet allows people to publicize such abductions and marshal resources to try to find the missing children.

"Harvard Square in the 1970s where my character Lucy met Griffin. The phone booths would be on the right side of the famous Out of Town news kiosk that still sits in the middle of the square." (Source: Postcard, Cambridge Historical Society)
GR: As with many divorces and custody battles, it is very difficult to choose a side. Was it challenging to keep a balanced portrayal of Lucy and Matt? Did you grow to be more sympathetic toward one or the other?

JWT: In some ways keeping this balance was the hardest part of writing the novel. I kept reminding myself that these were not bad people, just people who made bad choices. I feel like the portrayals are fairly well balanced, but readers often take sides quite strongly in favor of one character or the other. Personally I am not more sympathetic to Matt or Lucy. They both make some awful choices and talk themselves into doing terrible things. As a novelist, I see it as my job to tell the reader what my characters did and how they justified their actions to themselves. I'll leave the judgments about them to my readers.

GR: How would this book and its characters be different if you'd written it as a younger man?

JWT: As a younger man I don't think I would have had the wisdom to see how complex my characters' lives were and what difficult choices they had to make. Young people are, by nature, idealistic—at least I was, and I tended to see the world in black and white. Now my view is much more nuanced. It's not that I no longer believe in right and wrong, but I can see how people talk themselves into positions that, on the surface, seem to them to be undeniably right without realizing how self-serving their decisions may be. There's a line late in the book when Lucy says, "The older I get, the more I realize the answer to most questions is: All of the above." She could not have said this when she was younger, and neither could I.

GR: What's next for you as a writer?

JWT: I have a novel called The Jukebox King that takes place in 1962. It's about a family of four in Pittsburgh, where I grew up, and the complex relationship between brothers and between fathers and sons. It's somewhat autobiographical in a way that Lies was not. I love the story, but I think I'm a much better writer than I was when I wrote it 15 years ago, so I've found myself drawn back to it.

At the same time there's a story about a married couple that keeps nagging at me, two people who love each other deeply but run into trouble when God gets in the way. That's as much as I want to say about it. I am pretty superstitious about not talking about work in progress.


Comments Showing 1-17 of 17 (17 new)

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message 1: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Love this interview. My kind of book , wish much success.. can't wait to vet book


message 2: by Richard (new)

Richard Wise Well, a a 68 year old writer with a couple of books behind me, I can relate. My next book takes place in Boston as well.

Good luck

Richard Wise


message 3: by Brenda (new)

Brenda Good luck to both, I plan on a new adventure myself being over 65 I just need. To be brave and make an attempt.


message 4: by Susan (new)

Susan Brusco It sounds like a good book. I hope it is a success for him.


message 5: by Beverly (new)

Beverly this resonates with me!


message 6: by Marilyn (new)

Marilyn Sellar Will certainly want to read this!


message 7: by Frederick (new)

Frederick It's an excellent read, the friends I've recommended it to all agree. I don't think many if any will be disappointed with it.


message 8: by Anne (new)

Anne Bongiovanni One week after finishing Lies I still find myself thinking about Lucy and Matt and longing for another JWT title to pick up right now.
JWTs richly nuanced prose fosters an intimacy between the reader and characters that I'm hard-pressed to compare with other works. To say the characters are "well-developed" is an absurd understatement. Though sculpted with words, Lucy and Matt pulse with the breath and breadth of humanity.


message 9: by Scentamuyascin (new)

Scentamuyascin i would like to hear about what's trending on that book "jukebox king"


message 10: by Scentamuyascin (new)

Scentamuyascin i would like to hear about what's trending on that book "jukebox king"


message 11: by Basma (new)

Basma Said It sounds like a good book....


message 12: by Carolyn (new)

Carolyn Taylor-Watts Basma wrote: "It sounds like a good book...."

A wonderful interview about what sounds like a wonderful book. I definitely want to read it.
Carolyn Taylor-Watts


message 13: by Aron (new)

Aron Steck Great book! really gives you lots to think about and very entertaining. I couldn't put it down.


message 14: by Ahmed (new)

Ahmed Alameer back to top


message 15: by Mina (new)

Mina De Caro (Mina's Bookshelf) I loved LYWTH and won't miss the next one!


message 16: by George (new)

George Fahey At sixty-four with a few short stories published many years ago and still at it, it was was pleasant to hear about a man who stuck with it. Thanks to all wives out there who believe in their husbands!


message 17: by Sofia (new)

Sofia Marcano Sounds like a book I could get into. My kind of book. Thanks for sticking to it James


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