SLR selected John Milliken Thompson’s The Reservoir as the August Read of the Month. The book has received extensive praise among literary circles and the author is being recognized as “one to watch.” SLR contributor Philip K. Jason recently interviewed John Milliken Thompson about this exceptionally crafted novel and his journey as a debut novelist. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
SLR: You’ve written several nonfiction books for National Geographic. Is there a connection between that part of your writing life and The Reservoir?
JMT: Yes, though writing assignment pieces is quite different from writing a novel, nonfiction writing has taught me a tremendous amount about both research and crafting the language. Some writers contend that freelancing can inhibit more imaginative writing, but it’s really a matter of exercising different sets of muscles. Admittedly, turning from sprinting to running a marathon takes dedication, but I think any writer can do it if he or she wants to.
SLR: How would you describe your writing habits?
JMT: People have told me they think I’m very disciplined, but I don’t think of myself that way. I just approach writing as a 9 to 5 job. When I’m working on fiction, I try to spend several hours a day with it, reserving the afternoons for editing, research, and so on. I usually revise whole scenes or chapters at a time, first by reading the old version, then putting that aside. I always sound out everything in my mind, whether I actually vocalize it or not; it’s usually more of a whisper. My outlines are more like lists–ten or twelve broad plot moves, say, and then smaller lists within scenes as I write.
SLR: Often, present tense narratives don’t work, in part because everything that comes to the reader has already happened. What led you to use the present tense from the time of Lillie’s body being discovered through the narration of Tommie’s arrest, trial, and sentencing?
JMT: It was a process of trial and error. My earliest draft was all past tense, but as I worked on developing the story’s through-line, I felt it needed some physical urgency that it lacked. The use of the present tense also turned out to be an aesthetic that helped me show the distance Tommie had traveled between the comfort of his old self and the panic of his current situation.
SLR: A provocative background element in developing Tommie and Willie as foils has to do with the death of a younger brother, Charlie, and how each reacted to it. Was that death a fact in your source material? How do you hope your readers will react to that information regarding Charlie’s death?
JMT: I vaguely remember the mention of another brother in the source material. As I began creating the brothers and their relationship, I saw that there was something important from their past, a loss that helped explain why Tommie felt free of the responsibility that so burdened Willie. Not until near the end does Tommie start assuming his share of the guilt for that early tragedy, a tragedy which has made Willie stronger and more honorable.
SLR: At one point in The Reservoir, Tommie “comes clean” and tells Willie what might be a confessional version of the story. Willie asks, “. . . why didn’t you tell me or somebody before now?” Was this material in your sources? How did you find Tommie’s voice for this near-monologue? Can we ever trust Tommie?
JMT: What I found in the research was that Willie was a frequent visitor to Tommie in jail, and I tried to imagine what they talked about. I had to really work on this section to get it as close to Tommie’s inner voice as I could and still give it a bigger narrative play. It’s unlikely, of course, that anybody will sit down and talk for this length of time, but my hope was that readers would see it for the story-within-a-story convention that it is, and go with it. As for trusting Tommie, we can get very close to knowing everything he knows–about as close as Willie gets, and maybe a little more. That’s all we get of most people, and sometimes it’s all we get out of ourselves, because how often are we really brutally honest with ourselves? And how many people can we trust to tell the truth and act in a predictable way all the time?
SLR: You discovered and made use of much information about daily life in late 19th century Richmond. What kinds of information jumped out at you as particularly telling or flavorful?
JMT: I loved the fact that Richmond smelled and sounded so different back then. Walking and riding horseback amid the acrid smoke from the ironworks, the roaring of the falls (now gone, because of skyscrapers), the constant grind of carriage wheels through dirt and mud, the shrill whistles of factories and ferries, and so on, was a much different experience than walking down a Richmond sidewalk today.
SLR: With the advance praise for The Reservoir, you’ve been busy with the book promotion part of the writing business. What’s your take on this responsibility?
JMT: I think it’s an important part of seeing a book through. I hadn’t realized just how time-consuming it was going to be–a couple of months of pretty full-time work, and several months of lighter work on either side of the launch. As my editor told me, you don’t want to look back and wish you’d done more to get the book in the hands of readers. Of course, there’s an endless amount of work you can do, and you have to decide what’s most important at what time.
SLR: What next?
JMT: I’ve been working on another novel since before I sold this one, and I can’t wait to get back to really concentrating on it. It’s also historical and Southern, but very different from The Reservoir.
Thank you, Mr. Milliken. We are excited to share this novel with our readers, and we look forward to your next release.