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Interview-Douglas Thayer

November 5, 2009

Kimberly Smith: In The Tree House, you use a lot of Mormon terms. Do you write specifically to a Mormon audience, or do you try to help those who aren’t LDS understand the LDS culture?

Douglas Thayer: No, I do not put things in that would help a non-Mormon understand the culture. I write simply out of my Mormon background about Mormons; that’s the only thing I’m interested in writing about. If non-Mormons want to read it and can understand it that’s just fine, but I don’t put in clues; I don’t try to help them understand. In fact, I actually write for my children and my grandchildren, for when they are adults. I hope that someday they’ll read my stuff, and they are all LDS so they will understand the culture I write about. I want to write from the center of Mormon experience. I’m not interested in writing about what we call non-Mormons, or gentiles. I want to write right in the center of Mormon experience in the early twenty-first century.

KS: So it’s not necessarily to a specific audience, but it’s about your experience or the Mormon experience.

DT: Well, it has to do with my experience, although the stories aren’t autobiographical. There’s some autobiography in them. Like in The Tree House, I was raised in Provo and went to Germany on a mission. But I did not attend Provo High School, go to Korea, or fight in the war.

Hanna Thayer: How do you base your characters in The Tree House on real people?

DT: Well, for example, there’s the Weeper. When I was younger, there was a man in Provo who had gone insane. I understand he had a PhD in mathematics but kind of went off the deep end. He would walk around Provo smoking a cigarette, then he would just sit in the gutter and weep—crying, sobbing—then he would recover. So in my book I turned him into the Weeper and said that his problems came because he fought in the World War II. Jack, the cook and the pie-maker, was based on my father, who cooked in restaurants. I mean, he was based vaguely on my father; my father was the idea for him. Another character, Mrs. Meyer, is based on a German music teacher I had in Provo. You get an idea, you take a little bit here and a little bit there, but you imagine a lot, you create a lot, and that’s why they call it creative writing. You take five people and something from each one of them and then you put them together and you’ve got a character. You might do some of that, but part of it, a good part of it, is just your imagination. I never had a missionary companion named Sturmer. I’ve never had a missionary companion that was even remotely like Sturmer. But I created him. And I think I did a pretty good job.

KS: Your writing style is very distinctive. Are there certain authors or writers that you read who have influenced your work? Who are writers that you admire, and are there any that you really try to emulate as you write?

DT: There are some writers that I admire. I admire Hemingway, I admire Faulkner, I admire Flannery O’Conner, I admire Fitzgerald, but I don’t try to write like they write. People tell me I have a kind of Hemingway style. I like the way Hemingway writes….

KS: But it isn’t a conscious effort on your part to write like Hemingway?

DT: Well, no, I try to write very carefully. Flannery O’Conner and Hemingway both say that you have to write in terms of the sensory perception of your reader; what you write has to be concrete. In fact, I read something today in my 318 class: “Fiction operates through the senses,” this is Flannery O’Conner, “I think one reason that people find it so difficult to write stories is that they forget how much time and patience it requires to convince through the senses. No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel the story, isn’t going to believe anything the fiction writer really tells him or her. The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality; what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted and touched.” That’s what I try to do, and it’s not easy to put words in terms of colors and sounds and smells and flavors.

HT: I’ve noticed that you write both short stories and novels. What is the difference between writing a novel and a short story and which do you prefer?

DT: Well I think I’ve kind of graduated. Some people spend their whole lives writing short stories, but short stories can be terribly insignificant, when you think of the amount of stories that have been published. They are published in a journal somewhere and that’s it, they’re gone. Some of them are anthologized but very, very few are anthologized. So I think I’ve graduated to the novel, although I just finished a new collection of short stories. A short story obviously takes less time, but typically I’ll be working on five or six short stories at the same time. I’ll work on one for a month or two and put it away and come back to it several months later. If I’m writing a novel I’ll spend two or three years writing it, getting it almost finished, and then I’ll put it away for a year or two and come back to it. That’s what I did withThe Tree House. I spent three years on it, put it away for a couple years, and came back to it. A novel is just much more complex. You’re handling dozens of characters, whereas in a short story you’re going to deal with the protagonist and maybe two or three others. And then thematically, it’s much more complex; it’s not just a longer short story, although some short stories become novels. I don’t believe much in talent. I think people have aptitudes as far as writing is concerned, and then it’s just hard work. I mean I used to put my early stories through fifteen or twenty drafts. I don’t do that now, now they go through eight or ten. Novels are much more complex, and in many ways more interesting. You can certainly say more and develop your themes more fully. The Tree House, much to my surprise, is an anti-war novel; it’s also about love and the capacity to love.