The Bookshelf: Portsmouth Author Tom Paine on Fiction, Teaching Creative Writing, and Nature

Feb 5, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Portsmouth author Tom Paine. Reading stories by Tom Paine is, in some ways, like uncovering the human heart behind some of the world’s most dramatic events. Whether he’s describing a scene set during the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, or wars in the Middle East, or the Occupy Wall Street movement, Paine writes in a way that humanizes the familiar broad headlines.

Tom Paine’s new collection of short stories, A Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns, features people on the verge of losing their minds, with these familiar events in the backdrop. Paine teaches in the MFA program of the University of New Hampshire and his stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, Glimmer Train, and other publications. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Paine's bookshelf, listen to his conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.

Tom Paine's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.   Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. "There are some books one keeps by the bedside table, and this is one of them. Finding an author who speaks to you is as hard as finding a good friend. But Moore finds the soul in everyday life. He made it okay to be an everyday mystic, jaw agape, and allowed me to think I am okay as I am in this hustling, chilly, mercantile world. He's a genius."

2. The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving. "John Irving is it. He once wrote a letter to me about my first book, and it is one of the high points of my writing life. It was a long letter, and showed me what it is to help those trying to pursue a life in the arts. He didn't have to take the time. This was the first novel I absolutely loved. I outlined it, copied, it, tried to write a novel like it. You have to love books to be a writer. You have to love A book as a young writer. He also let me know it was okay to have joy and humor and plot in a literary book."

3. Good Poems edited by Garrison Keillor. "I have many poet friends who find these poems sort of vanilla. And while these poems do only capture a sort of upright slice of life, I'm all for emotional clarity. Give me something. Please. I'm hungry for your poem. And these do feed me…"

4. You've Got To Read This, an anthology of short fiction. "An anthology of stories chosen by literary writers, it has been for some time sort of the canon for MFA writers. Writers have pretty good taste. And it introduced me to 'Spring in Fialta' by Nabokov. Which few of my students at the University of New Hampshire like… but they have to read it (ha ha).  No one writes like Nabokov when he lets it rip."

5.  Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. "I didn't grow up in a family of readers. Or thinkers. Or progressives. Or artists. Money was all, and it was best not to think, or speak up. So Vonnegut was my real father, or at least fathered my young soul into a humanist awakening. I wrote him a letter at 21 and said, 'I ate your book.' I figure he'd understand…the hunger. He saved my soul, if not my larger life. A book can do that, I learned."

Many of these stories do feature characters under incredible emotional stress. What is it about this moment in someone’s life that compels you to write about it?

I’ve always been attracted to drama, and when I first started writing fiction, I felt sort of out of place, because a lot of short stories are so—nowadays, since Chekhov and Joyce—are extra quiet. I grew up in Rhode Island, and if you’re from Rhode Island, every day you pick up The Providence Journal, there’s some incredible, insane drama. And I grew up in a family that had a lot of drama. So I was comfortable with drama. So when I read those really literary stories, I thought: This isn’t me. This isn’t what I know of life. Drama is storytelling. So when it came to stories, I started writing really quiet ones at first, and it wasn’t instinctual.

What do you mean by “quiet”?

Well, nowadays, you can write a literary short story that is very interior, where it’s about someone’s consciousness and slow, quiet movements of the heart. Naturally some of those stories are about people with slow, quiet movements of the heart who are leading slow, quiet “New York” lives. Those weren’t people I knew. Those weren’t stories that attracted me. Plus, I was a journalist, and I like the world’s events.

What did you cover as a journalist?

I was a freelance journalist. I started off as a business journalist and mostly did freelance stories, feature stories, and ended up having, through serendipity, a newspaper in the Caribbean, on the island of St. John, where I pretty much covered everything I could get my hands on.

I seem to be building a better understanding of what you meant by quiet. I’m thinking of a story like, in this book, “Bagram,” where you see the protagonist’s suffering, but you also see how physical he is. He’s outside building a swing, or he’s jumping into the water out of compulsion, or cooking pancakes. There’s so much movement and action that distracts him as well as us from the pain he’s feeling.

I’m glad you saw that, and as we’re talking, I’m thinking more about your question about quiet. And I suppose every writer writes from themselves. I’m a very active guy and I’m, you know, always in motion. I’m not your average sort of literary-literary guy who is pensively thinking of things in a closet. So I think that there’s a reflection, perhaps, of my own psychology in many of my characters.

Do you find inspiration in the news?

Absolutely. More often I find horror and shock and dismay. I don’t know whether it was genetic or some psychological development but from my earliest years...I’m an environmentalist. My first attraction was to poetry, and I think I surprised my family, which was not in any way a literary family, when around 7th grade I started writing poetry, and a lot of my instinct for poetry was nature-based, and based on beauty. I only had one real supporter in that, an alcoholic uncle who also loved poetry, and he would call me up drunk and recite it to me.

What you were describing just then reminds me of the protagonist in “Oppenheimer Beach” who is a lover of nature and is with his son who will not put down the iPad and appreciate what is around him.

Yeah. So I started out as a boy loving poetry, and the love of poetry came from the love of nature and beauty, and I don’t know where this came from because it wasn’t in my family, to feel that strongly about poetry, about words, and about nature. But it came out of me. I just sat down and started writing.

“Oppenheimer Beach” is my favorite story in this collection and I appreciate your liking it for that reason, I think, partly because the main character is me. The middle of that story is just these diary entries about the main character, the man, remembering what it was like growing up in New England and going outside in the morning and staying out all day, as I did as a boy. The summer was my favorite time. I’d say, “See you, Mom,” in the morning and wouldn’t be back until the evening. So those memories of exploring nature are the deepest part of me.

That story, as you point out, has a conflict between a Dad who has the opportunity to travel the world and he takes his son out of school and he convinces his wife who is really dubious on it that they should see nature sort of one last time. Admittedly, the title of the book, The Boy’s Book of Nervous Breakdowns—he’s kind of going down. But he wants to show his son nature, and the son, like many children, including my daughter, is in love with handheld technology.

And there’s a scene that maybe—it’s so funny, I want you to read this scene, just to give people a taste of the kind of humor that you have throughout this book. Could you read that scene?

Sure.

“Okay,” Magnus said, without raising his eyes. “Hey, the app seems to know I am ‘outside’ right now. It just changed the figure to nine percent of the time for ‘outside.’ That’s amazing. Because I’m just outside the screen door, about three feet from being ‘inside.’ So how can it know that unless the GPS is a lot more accurate than they say? Or maybe the iPad is using sensory data, like the kind of light. Indoor light from bulbs is at a total different frequency than the stuff from the sun. But maybe this cottage isn’t even a known structure? I mean it looks pretty new. If that’s the case, all the time I spend in this cottage would count as ‘outside,’ but that means I have been ‘outside’ since we came last night, and that would mean I must have been at like 2 percent or even 1 percent for ‘outside’ time before. Wait a minute, I can check how much I was ‘outside’ at the time we got on the plane in New York.”

“Hugh?” said Alfhild. “Did I hear you just crack another beer?”

“Ask Magnus,” Hugh said. “He has an app that keeps track of his father’s suicidal despair.”

He just seems so forlorn about technology. I must confess I feel that way sometimes.

When this first came out, I was with some other writers and a first-time author found out that I wasn’t on Facebook and I didn’t have a Twitter account, and to my astonishment, she was actually angry at me, and she was furious. She just could not believe that I was so un-American as to not be trying to sell my book on Facebook and Twitter.

Well it’s almost—maybe a jealousy thing, because so many beginning writers are told to get on social media and market yourself because that’s what publishers want to see. But maybe it's unnecessary, because here you are, three books in, no Facebook.

Well, yes and no, Peter. My first two books came out before the curve on Facebook and Twitter and arguably the woman who was mad at me might be right, because that’s definitely the word you get. You need a platform.

So if you were starting out now, do you feel you’d be forced to have a social media presence?

Absolutely. And it’s a little strange for me not to. As of eight hours ago, someone else was telling me I needed to get on Facebook and Twitter. I think I would have to. On the other hand, I’ve recently been walking and running on Wallis Sands Beach in Portsmouth, and I head out there at the end of day, and I walk or run until the stars come out. Recently I was thinking of some sort of musing or book that would be, A Year Under the Moon, which would be a lousy working title, but the idea would be, each night as I walk along, there’s only three or four people on the beach, and it’s the most gorgeous beach, and the stars are out, and just standing there, I’m starting to feel more and more what I should be feeling, I think--what’s been felt for 2,000 years, or hundreds of thousands of years that human beings have been walking under the stars. Partly I’m forcing myself to do it, and partly I’m happy. The feelings are growing stronger, the joy in the stars over the app, over the handheld device.

That’s one of the things I’ve learned over the years as a writer. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad to be a writer. I mean, I’m very lucky to be teaching writing, and writing, because it enables me to live a life that is seeking to grow internally, to grow in my heart and my soul, and to bring that muse of what I discover by trying to grow that interior life to the page, like the character you’re just speaking of in that story, “Oppenheimer Beach.”

You know, I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years, and I look back on my first book…I think John Updike said that books on the shelf look like tombstones. They are from another life and you open them up and you don’t recognize who that person was. I’m in an art form, like a painter, or a person who writes songs, and I have an opportunity to have a feedback loop between the created thing and the passage of time in my life and the passage of emotional experiences, so you are like an onion, you know, you’re stripping deeper. And hopefully, for me, that makes the new stories…even this book, which has just recently been published, feels old now, because a lot has transpired in the past couple of years, and I’m different, and I think my imagination and my heart and my soul, which are mandatory components of creativity, are different. And that’s exciting, you know?

I didn’t know when I entered this career that it would be less what’s on the page and more who I became as I experienced life and witnessed life. That would become so important, a part of the process.

It’s more about the state of being than the end result.

Yes, exactly. A change in the state of being, a continual internal growth in the level of your sensitivity. To go back to nature, your level of sensitivity to the stars and to beauty, and your responses to that, and making those responses be deeper and richer. And as they become deeper and richer you can be more strongly a person who is impassioned and outraged perhaps by the destruction of nature or the loss on a personal level for people.

To tie this into teaching, for example: When I first started teaching creative writing, it was often about the writing itself, the craft of it, the structure of sentences, the music of a sentence, the characterization of a character. By accident, to my surprise, I found that if I’m going to teach someone to become a more creative person, I have to help change them internally, that they’re on their own. Not to be too Oprah, but it’s true: a writer is only as good as their heart and soul and power of their imagination, and it’s all tied in together. So as I teach, I’m really teaching people how to be themselves and, you know, I mentioned the beauties of the world earlier. Before I started teaching, I didn’t quite realize how few, few, few people, young people, have someone look at them and try to figure out what’s unique to them. What’s their unique selfhood? What are their unique creative possibilities?

When I first came to the University of New Hampshire, I was teaching an undergraduate class, and I teach fiction but we involve writing poetry, too, and at the end of the class, a big New Hampshire man was standing in the doorway of my room and I said, “Yes, sir?”

He said, “What’d you do to my daughter?”

And I was like, “Um…I…nothing, I hope!”

He said, “Well, she’s changed. And it’s your fault.” Well, she didn’t say it was my fault.

And I said, “Come in and let’s talk.”

He was a guy from the middle of New Hampshire. He hadn’t gone to college. And he said, “My daughter’s off antidepressants.”

I said, “Well, I’m glad for that.” But I still didn’t quite know where this was going.

He said, “You had a lot to do with it.” And I’m not saying this in a self-aggrandizing way. He said, “What did you do?”

I said, “Well, sir, your daughter has the most incredible sensitivity for words and other people. She’s a beautiful writer. As a teacher of writing, my job was to reflect back to her what I sensed in her of her individuality, of her capacity to feel life and to respond to it with words.” She might have been a musician, but she happened to be a writer. I said, “All I did was reflect back to her who she was.”

He said, “Well, something changed in her, deeply.”

And that’s the thing I noticed of having half of my life teaching writing, is that that’s what most people don’t have anymore. Especially young people. They don’t have someone mirroring to them who they really are.

I was brought up and the mirror I got was: You better be successful.

And perhaps the mirror people have now—and again, going back to those shiny devices people are looking at—people aren’t told who they are but what they should be, and they have these crazy unattainable ideals of perfection that they see on social media.  

Absolutely. One of the things that looking over the shoulders of people looking at Facebook and so forth, I see pictures of their friends all around the world doing fabulous things, having fabulous times. It’s been said before by other people, but I get a little depressed myself looking at that, and all that exteriorization of life—fabulous people doing fabulous things and nice pictures—it does take you away from…you know, a rock is beautiful. And I say that to exaggerate my point, but a rock can be beautiful, and the degree to which a young person feels that they or the lawn in front of their house, that they can feel emotionally some pleasure in that, that’s a plus. And that should be going up throughout life and not down.

You write about the American armed forces. Did you serve in the military?

No, but in college a number of my friends had it in their heads that they should become—and they did—Marines. In my junior summer, they convinced me that I, too, should be a Marine, so I went through officer candidate school for ten weeks and graduated, got offered a commission, decided they really didn’t have a place for a pacifist vegetarian, but the net result was that my friends were in the first Gulf War. I was a journalist at the time. You know, all writers have to make money, and nobody is standing there when you graduate saying, “Hey, I’ll give you some money for your short story or your novel.” So I was a journalist and a copywriter, and my friends came back from the first Gulf War, and they had all these stories that weren’t reported on. And I was very young in Vietnam, but we saw it on TV, and the reporters were there, jumping from helo to helo. And the people coming back from the first Gulf War…my friends were telling me stories I’d never heard, so the journalist bells and whistles went off in my head, so I interviewed [them] endlessly, trying to build some sort of narrative, and that was the Gulf War narrative, The Pearl of Kuwait.

Tell me a little bit about how these stories form. Do you write a draft and then pound that draft into submission, as some writers do, or…how does a draft evolve?

I wish I had a quick answer. Some of the stories I wrote in two sittings. I just sat down and wrote half the story, got someone in trouble emotionally, because I do like plot, then finished it up. There are these sort of rules that one intuits about how to write a literary story, and I think some of the things I try to drag in, like the Fukushima disaster, or just generally dragging in real-life cataclysmic events, is unusual in short fiction.

I’m always fascinated by the so-called “rules” of fiction. Are there any that you insist upon with your students, or is it a no-rules ballgame in your classroom?

Well, it’s interesting, because, in the ‘70s, there was—there is a way to write a short story since Chekhov and Joyce, but in the ‘70s, people, like in all art forms, began to throw out the rules.  If I didn’t have some rules, if you will…look, I’m a creative person, so I’m always ready to throw out the rules, so I’m talking out of both sides of the mouth—throw out the rules, keep the rules—but as a teacher of undergrads and graduate students, I have to teach something. I feel like I want to teach something, and the rules do help. Fundamentally, one of the things I push that another teacher might not push, is I start out the term wanting to tell stories.

I grew up in this large, Irish-Catholic family in Rhode Island and at Thanksgiving, at Christmas, there was a lot of drinking, a lot of yelling, a lot of telling stories, one to trump the other, and the more interesting story held center stage. I love hearing stories, so I try to emphasize at the beginning of the class, tell me a story. Which goes back to what I was saying about finding the person’s selfhood, their inner life, because if you tell a story about your life, you’re telling about yourself, and your self is illuminated. So that’s the fundamental rule: Tell me something that happened to you and we’ll try to build off that.

I do love an epiphany. And maybe it’s because I went to a monastic boarding school in Rhode Island and was taught by monks, but you can’t really escape that mysticism and that sense of the soul and the spirit, but nowadays stories, literary stories have an epiphany, and what that means is, someone changes on a deep emotional level, or they have a realization that they’re in love, they’re not in love, that they’re going to miss their father when he passes. They have some realization that otherwise would be in a poem, perhaps, like the last paragraph of a good literary story is like a poem. I find that a joy to teach.