James Whitfield Thomson, 67, makes a splash with debut novel
James Whitfield Thomson had been mentored by the great Andre Dubus and worked among pedigreed professors. But in all honesty, he says, it was a little Parade magazine article that really changed his life.
The article, which he read way back in 1987, was a survey of elderly people looking back on their lives with either satisfaction or regret. “And one thing almost all of them said, whether they were satisfied or not was, ‘If I had to do it over again, I would take more risks,’ ” Thomson said in an interview from his home in Natick, Mass. “That really stuck with me.”
Years later, contemplating the high points and low points in his own life – helping build a highly successful company, losing his mother, father and siblings by the age of 46 – Thomson decided it was time to take a risk. He left the company and became a full-time writer.
“It was a good move for my head and psyche. I just had to wait another 20-plus years to get published,” Thomson said with a laugh.
But what a debut it has been. Thomson’s first novel, Lies You Wanted to Hear, is the top fall book for its publishing company, Sourcebooks, the latest book club pick for Redbook magazine, and a hit among big-name novelists such as Margot Livesey and Jodi Picoult, whose coveted blurb is on the front cover. His book tour will bring him to Gibson’s Bookstore on Monday evening to talk about the tapestry of truths and lies that make up our lives – as well as a great piece of fiction.
The idea for the book came from a Boston newspaper article about a man who had been arrested for kidnapping his daughters 20 years earlier. “I really didn’t like the guy at all, at least the way he was portrayed in the newspaper, but the concept really struck me,” Thomson said.
From that kernel, Thomson created two characters, two basically good people who get caught up in a series of bad choices, each spinning out from the other until there’s no way to mend the damage. “I just started with these two characters meeting, and they kind of revealed themselves to me,” said Thomson. “They’re just regular people with flaws and traits.”
The book tells the story of Lucy, a restless, risk-taking woman who persuades herself to settle down with a man she doesn’t truly love, and Matt, an earnest, devoted man who seems to see life only in black and white. Their ill-fitting marriage is essentially built on the lie Lucy tells Matt – the lie he willingly believes – that he’s the only man in the world for her.
“I do believe in most relationships there is one person who knows they are loved a little bit less,” Thomson said.
After Matt is finally and cruelly stripped of that lie, his own self-deception begins. Increasingly convinced that Lucy is an unfit mother, he kidnaps his own children and begins a new life with them. Lucy is left alone – and readers are left wondering whom to root for.
“My goal is to start fist fights in book clubs,” Thomson said.
As the tragedy unfolds, it’s easy to see how truths can be built upon lies and lies built upon truths.
“For me, one of the cool things about Lucy, is that for all she screws up, she never lies to herself,” Thomson said. “There are many times when Matt seems unable to do that.”
Along with the theme of lies, the book gracefully tackles other unwieldy topics, such as the mixed blessing of hanging on to hope. At one point in the story, Lucy finds the courage to attend a support group for grieving parents, only to be rebuked by a member of the group whose entire family was killed in a car accident.
At first rattled, Lucy rejoins brilliantly. “I’m sure you wish you could trade places with me because I still have hope,” she says. “And you’re right, I do. . . . But here’s my question? How long am I supposed to keep hoping? Two years? Five years? Twenty? Give me a number, Winnie. How long do I have to wait till I can be as sad as you are?”
The book is filled with such tart takes on the human condition, along with more gentle illuminating moments. It has a sense of fullness and urgency that perhaps only a 67-year-old first time writer can impart.
As far back as he can remember, Thomson wanted to be a writer. In college, he dreamed of being a poet and produced one “really long bad poem.” After college came Vietnam: Thomson joined the Navy to avoid infantry duty and served three years on a supply ship. After a short detour into academia, he helped his neighbor start a company and build it to a successful 300-employee business. He married, had five children and put them through school.
All the while, Thomson never lost the urge to write. In 1989, a friend invited him to a writers group led by Andre Dubus, the now-deceased short story writer and novelist and father of New York Times bestselling author Andre Dubus III. Dubus invited him to bring something he was working on the next week and offered him some positive feedback. “Andre just had this kind of generosity about him toward anyone who was struggling to become a writer,” Thomson said.
Thomson remained in the group for five years and became good friends with the author. But it wasn’t until several years later – the Parade magazine article rattling around in his mind – that Thomson finally got up the courage to follow his heart.
In this case, his heart seems to have told him the truth.
(James Whitfield Thomson will be at Gibson’s Bookstore on Monday at 7 p.m. For information call 224-0562 or visit gibsonsbookstore.com.)