On Golden Pond Academy Award-winner pens debut novel at age 72

  • Ernest Thompson Bruce Luetters/ 3Sixty Photography

  • CM_ErnestThompsonBookMaps1019 Courtesy—

  • Academy Award winner Ernest Thompson uses candles and light from his cell phone to go over the script with his cast and crew after loosing power from a powerful thunderstorm in New Hampshire on Aug. 21, 2011. Thirty years after the academy award winning movie, “On Golden Pond” hit theaters, its writer, Thompson directed a stage adaptation of the play in a tiny theater near where the movie was filmed. Jim Cole / AP file

  • Movie poster for On Golden Pond, artwork by Bill Gold, 1981. Signed by Jane Fonda. A gift from Douglas Copeley.

For the Monitor
Published: 10/18/2022 3:15:28 PM

Twenty years ago, Ernest Thompson took his son on a road trip across the U.S., driving through 16 states and hitting all the country’s iconic landmarks, from Yosemite and Yellowstone to the Great Salt Lake and Mount Rushmore.

At the time, Thompson knew how profoundly significant the trip was for both of them. Yes, he’d been to these places before, but now he was seeing America through his 10-year-old’s eyes, at the dawn of a new century no less. When the pair returned home, they chronicled their travels in a photo journal that still sits on Thompson’s desk.

Thompson, a New Hampshire writer and Academy Award-winner for his screenplay of On Golden Pond, says the story of their adventure sat with him for nearly two decades. In 2020, the right moment to tell it finally came around.

“I was just about to launch a movie, and I had a play I was getting ready to direct. Then, everything stopped. I don’t like sitting still for very long, so I started writing this book. I wrote it in the spring, summer, and fall of 2020,” Thompson said via phone last week.

The result, The Book of Maps, is a fictional retelling of this cross-country adventure, following a 52-year-old screenwriter and filmmaker named Brendan whose career is on a steady downslide. His chance to redeem himself is taking this epic road trip with his 10-year-old son, guided by a yellowing atlas published in 1937 called The Book of Maps.

The book, which will be released Oct. 25, is Thompson’s debut novel, though for him, the genre doesn’t matter so much. The primary differences between novels and screenplays? Structure and length. As far as he’s concerned, the only requirement of the novel is that the reader keeps turning the pages.

“As soon as I got a pencil in my hand, I started putting words down. I never discriminate. Telling stories is second nature,” Thompson said. “For me, writing prose has always been a little bit like going on vacation. I get to exercise more of the poet in me. There’s a lot of language in this book. I love being able to play with words and construct sentences in a way nobody has ever done before and make it a fabulous, wild ride for the reader.”

Thompson’s characters travel to all the same places he and his son did, though the book’s events are dramatized, with fast-moving rapids, dangerous black bear encounters, and another underlying beat of tension: throughout the trip, Brendan is waiting for the right time to tell his son he and his wife are filing for divorce.

For years, the road trip was something he and his son looked back at fondly. When Thompson began working on The Book of Maps, his son visited and stuck a note in their 2002 travelog that said, “This was the greatest moment of my life.”

It was important to Thompson that the details of the story be accurate, so he conducted a great deal of research into the towns they visited, the geography of the parks they drove through, and the context of the time itself. Back then, the world was a very different place.

“The year 2002 turned out to be a long time ago. It was in the shadow of Sept. 11. But now it seems so innocent compared to where we are now in our culture, society and politics. In a way, it was like writing a period piece,” Thompson said.

These days are as busy for Thompson as they ever were. He remains active in the theater and film industry – in 2019, he actually directed and starred in the Winnipesaukee Playhouse’s rendition of On Golden Pond – and regularly hosts writing workshops on his 200-year-old farm in the Lakes Region. There’s another book in the works, Out Clause, and with his wife, fellow writer Kerrin Thompson, he established a program called Rescind Recidivism, teaching free writing classes in prisons.

“Getting these guys to tell their truths has been extraordinary. All I have to do is show up and say, hmm, have you thought about this? Or, do you have a wife or girlfriend waiting for you, or, what about your relationship with your dad?” he said. “It’s been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life. I’ve held these kinds of workshops with hundreds of writers, but giving them a sense of worthiness, hope, and meaning has really been extraordinary.”

Much of his early career was spent in New York and L.A., but instinctively, Thompson knew they weren’t places he wanted to live. His family has owned land in New Hampshire for hundreds of years, and conveniently, it’s also a “paradise” for writers.

“I love what a mishmash New Hampshire is. I love that it’s a purple state. I love that people are strong in their opinions,” he said. “I love the weather and the seasons. I have discovered, after living here for 31 years, that the woods are full of artists. I’ve gotten to work with some incredible talents all over the state – musicians, actors, and other writers – and I’m amazed and so moved by how much creativity goes on outside the limelight.”

Thompson visits Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, to share The Book of Maps in conversation with his friend, New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Richardson, on Thursday, Oct. 27, at 6:30 p.m.

He visits the Toadstool Bookshop of Keene on Friday, Nov. 4, at 6 p.m., and Bookery Manchester on Saturday, Nov. 12, at 5:30 p.m. For more information, visit ernestthompson.us.

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