Interview with Linda Bloodworth Thomason

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Linda Bloodworth Thomason is best known for Designing Women and Evening Shade. She and her husband, Harry Thomason, formed their own production company in 1983  called Mozark Productions, named after their two home states: Missouri and Arkansas.  Thomason grew up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

SLR: You’ve had so much success writing for television.  What made you decide to write a novel?

Thomason:  I wanted to try a new genre.  Something different. I wrote it with the idea in mind to make it into a movie, too.

SLR: You’re a master of the sitcom genre. How did you find the process of writing a novel compared to the process of writing for the screen?

Thomason:  I found it a little easier, to be honest.  The characters were always there just waiting for me to show up and work.  In a novel, characters don’t complain about their wardrobe, show up late, or demand higher salaries.  It was nice.  Plus, there was more time to develop the story.  You know, a good sitcom is like a good short story.  There are so many bad sitcoms out there that the genre doesn’t have the reputation it deserves.  A good sitcom has to accomplish a lot in a short amount of time—just a like a good short story. So, with writing a novel, I enjoyed letting these characters develop more slowly.

SLR: Any surprises?

Thomason: I was surprised to see how the characters took off on their own.  I’ve been a skeptic of novelists who have said that they didn’t have control over their characters, or that their characters took on a life of their own.  I was always a little suspicious of that, but now I can see what they were talking about.  It sounds crazy, but that’s what happened!

SLR: Has Liberating Paris been a story you’ve wanted to write for some time, or was it the idea of writing a novel that came first?

Thomason: I developed the characters first, then the story. I wanted to write a story that did a couple of things. I wanted it to show a close knit group of southerners who live in a small town and are as sophisticated, open-minded and beautiful as anyone in Manhattan. They do exist. I know plenty of them, but somehow the rest of America has defined the South as something less—they’re wrong.

I also wanted to show the beauty of these small-town relationships.  I think that anyone who goes off to a large city like L.A. or New York to pursue a dream, yet still has a core group of friends from a small town to draw strength and support from, has a gift like no other.  It’s really something special.

SLR: Anyone who has read my review knows I enjoyed Liberating Paris. It has everything: romance, turbulence. I laughed hard and I cried a little.  I have said that your greatest strength is the richness of your characters.  What can you say about them?

Thomason: Southern culture is full of eccentric and romantic people. Relationships between southern men and southern women, on the whole anyway, interest me the most.  I know I’m generalizing here, but from my own observation it just seems like there’s a stronger dynamic in romantic relationships between men and women in the south.  I find it very interesting.

Also, you know there is a lot of friction in the South, and interesting people come from friction.

SLR: Can I assume that you have a group of friends similar to those in Liberating Paris?

Thomason:  Yes. I have six girlfriends from my childhood, and we are still very close. We have grown together over all these years. By that I mean that we have gone on to pursue our own dreams, but we have stayed very close.

SLR:  I don’t want to say anything that might spoil it for those who haven’t read it yet, but in Liberating Paris, I was surprised that Milan grew to have such depth.  I wasn’t expecting quite so much complexity from her.

Thomason: That’s very astute of you. When I first started writing this book, I didn’t like Milan.  But as time went on, I couldn’t help but like her. Some of the traits that I’ve seen in people who grow up in a hard life, then marry into an easier one, are traits that I really admire. I realized that these were traits that would naturally be a part of Milan.

SLR: Like what, exactly?

Thomason: Like the way Milan took care of people without fussing about it. She just did what had to be done. She managed her kids this way, she took care of Wood this way, and she even took care of Carl Jeter this way.  Others tried to get Jeter things he didn’t need.  Things that made them feel better about his accident leaving him a quadriplegic, but Milan was practical and quiet and did what needed to be done. She knew he needed companionship, he needed sex, and she was so practical in finding a way to get this for him.  She was also discrete. A trait I see among southern women more than any place else.  There was no other way to develop her character than to have her exhibit  grace, beauty and discretion.  As the story developed, Milan began resembling my own mother, whom I adored.

SLR:  Did you write the liberating ending with the thought that there are plenty of people in the south who are liberal, progressive, open-minded and worthy of representation, or did you write it hoping to inspire open-mindedness—both, neither?

Thomason: Both. I always hope for a more open-minded America, but you know there are plenty of what I like to call “purple people” in the South.

SLR: Purple people?

Thomason: Yes. Blue state people who live in red states.  There are more of them than you might think. I’ve had a lot of women come up to me at book signings, and whisper to me that they agreed with me on many of the points made in Liberating Paris. But they live in such conservative communities, they don’t talk about it much.  America can only become a more tolerant country if we begin by being tolerant in our own backyards.  There are people in the South who believe this, and they need a voice.

SLR: Who did you read when you growing up? Who influenced you?

Thomason: When I was a kid, I really didn’t read all that much. Too rambunctious I guess.  I began reading more in high school. My favorites are still some of the classics—Truman Capote, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Harper Lee. It doesn’t get any better than To Kill a Mockingbird.

SLR: She’s a good example of great things coming from the South, wouldn’t you say?

Thomason: Absolutely.  I mean, some of America’s greatest authors come from the South.

SLR: When you left Missouri for California, before writing for M*A*S*H or creating Designing Women, what did you do?

Thomason: I went to California after earning an English degree at the University of Missouri.  I taught in one of the most violent Los Angeles  schools, Jordan High School.  And it was the most frightening and the most inspiring thing.  These kids lived in this horrible, tough environment, under such poor and dangerous conditions, and every day they cleaned themselves up, put on the best clothes they had and came to school. Day after day.  It really reminded me just how much kids want to learn.  And if they could do that, I could too.

SLR: Do you think you will write another novel?

Thomason: Yes. I haven’t decided if it will be a sequel to Liberating Paris, or something different.  We are in the process of making Liberating Paris into a movie right now.

SLR:  Can you tell me who’s playing whom for the movie version?

Thomason: We don’t have all the casting completed, but Billy Bob Thorton will play Brundidge, Dwight Yoakum will play Carl Jeter, and Michelle Pfeiffer has just agreed to play Milan.  There’s still a lot to do.

SLR: Thanks so much for talking with Southern Literary Review.  You are an inspiration to all southerners who fight the unflattering stereotypes, and we appreciate strong voices like yours that come through in shows like Designing Women, and now in novels like Liberating Paris. Thanks!

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