Monday, June 21, 2010

Family stories translate to paper

Written by Joanna Dykhuis

In a sentence, Thom Vernon’s first novel, The Drifts, is a book with “four people fighting like hell to get what they want.”

“One thing that I take from all those stories is that people, no matter what, are going to┬ádo what they have to do to get what they want, to survive,” Vernon said. “There’s a part of me that really admires that [and] makes me take notice and I just fell in love with these characters.”

Though this summation is an almost universal theme, the novel has a specific setting, time frame and history. It is set in Arkansas as a blizzard moves in, and author Thom Vernon has loaded the book with personal and local history.

Vernon, who is originally from Michigan, has family in Arkansas. It was there in the south that he reached his own conclusions about the stereotypes he had so often encountered.

“For me, it was important to show a side of Arkansas that I had experienced versus the caricature that’s always given of the south. I’ve always been very welcomed and embraced there.”

The Drifts was inspired by the stories he was told from his Arkansas family.

“My aunt would tell me stories; my grandmother would take me down [to Arkansas] and then I went back as an adult,” he said.

The stories he heard do not directly translate into The Drifts, however.

“My book is not a retelling of those stories, but [it is] inspired by the weirdness of those stories.”

Vernon did not know that his time spend listening to his family tell stories would result in a novel.

“For years I didn’t know these stories were attaching themselves to my imagination,” he says.

Apparently they have, though, and to a fun end. The four main characters in The Drifts are making serious life choices and, with an incoming blizzard, must face the reality of their situations with immediacy.

“It’s coming to a head on that night. The momentum picks up … and is avalanching.”

His love for writing was inspired through an acting career. Vernon appeared in such shows as “Seinfeld”, “Grace Under Fire” and “General Hospital”. He has written a number of short stories, screenplays and academic articles; The Drifts is his first novel.

Since finishing The Drifts, Vernon has been working on a piece about Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish literary critic and philosopher who was forced into exile during World War II because Hitler stripped German Jews of their citizenship.

Vernon moved to Toronto in 2006 in order to live with his partner, who is from Zimbabwe. In the United States, citizens who are in same-sex relationships are not able to sponsor their partners for immigration. Because of this, Vernon became what he calls a “queer exile from the States.”

“My book would be an attempt to put statelessness and the exile experience into literature … interwoven with queer exile,” Vernon said.

Thom Vernon
Schuler Books and Music, Lansing
July 29, 7 p.m.
Free, (517) 316-7495