Coach House asks Thom Vernon a few questions about The Drifts

Coach House Books asks author Thom Vernon a few things about The Drifts:

CH: Why did you choose to set your novel in rural Arkansas? And would we really find an Avery’s there with such a motley cast of characters?

TV: Oh, lord, yes. I have sat in that diner sopping up biscuits and gravy with one hand and stopping my mouth from dropping open with the other. But that’s the thing, it’s not difference there. It’s who they are. And if it is different, it’s ‘local colour.’ I come from very colourful people and they infected my imagination. Go, Razorbacks!

CH: Is there one of your main characters with whom you identify most closely? Who? Why?

TV: If we were to take Julie’s anger, Charlie’s indecisiveness, Dol’s desperation and Wilson’s heart, that’s me. None of them are particularly ‘nice’ – all of them are assholes in their own way. That would be me.

CH: One of the closest bonds in the book is between Charlie and the calf. What made you decide to highlight this relationship? Is PETA behind it?

TV: PETA is behind everything. I have a particular affection for animals, need I say more? I didn’t think of it until well after people started grilling me but ‘the calf’ has been a vessel of meaning since ancient times. The sins of the village were loaded onto their backs, as with goats, and driven beyond the borders (Latinos, Gays, Trans, blacks, women … ). They were sacrificed. Isaac was a calf, right? God banned a certain Golden Calf in Exodus, right? Animals are trouble all around and no one knows that better than PETA. Also, resistance appeals to me. When I was writing and that calf fought back, it was like Nature, an animal self fighting back against demonization.

CH: You tackle a lot of difficult subjects in The Drifts: abortion, infidelity, health care, factory closures, transsexuality, among others. It’s very brave, especially in a first novel, to take on such big issues without letting them weigh down the book. How did you manage to keep it so delightful to read?

TV: I’m cheeky. Plus, the characters are fighting like hell and that always keeps things humming along.

CH: Without health insurance, and maybe even with it, Dol can’t afford gender-reassignment surgery and is heartbroken over it. Would Obama’s recent changes to health care in the U.S. change this for real-life Dols?

TV: Oh, please. I wish. In a word, no. If only we had ‘socialist’ health care like you heathens in Canada. Fasten your seatbelts for a little lesson in trans healthcare thanks to the National Center for Transgender Equality. Dol would be in the same pickle. The U.S. healthcare system has been changed in just a few respects: no denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions, young people can stay on parents’ policies until they’re twenty-six, no more lifetime coverage caps. That said, Healthcare is a profit-making venture. Everyone is mandated to buy health insurance. Talk about golden calves! Thirty-three million people without coverage have been handed over to the salivating insurance industry (who only limply protested the ‘reform’) with no cost or premium controls – on a platter. The tea partiers are, alas, partly right.

Seventy percent of trans people experience discrimination in their workplace and in the doctor’s office. These people can appeal to the limp American anti-discrimination statutes. Since most affordable U.S. healthcare remains tied to a job, Dol’s option (singular) is to come up with the cash to pay for his surgery on the open market. Good luck with that, working at Avery’s. Once she has transitioned, she will not be denied coverage. But insurance companies can deny transition-related healthcare altogether, if they see fit. That’s why the scene with the Insurance representative – and the heterosexual marriage Wilson proposes – is so important. Coverage is that whimsical. Insurance executives argue that transitioning can lead to other medical expenses. This is why many, many (even in Canada) take up sex work. It pays a lot better and you don’t have to wait tables until you’re seventy-three to pay for transitioning. The fact that denial of transition-related health care causes depression, addiction, violence and a myriad of other expensive health-related conditions is never mentioned. Trans people have been sacred cows for centuries and, in this age, we’re sacrificing them.

CH: Charlie’s chapters have no punctuation. Why?

TV: The gory answer is that straight white males, typically, have very little constraints on the way they view the world. I’m perceived as one of these types so I get the benefits but get to go even further afield, if you know what I mean.

Punctuation constrains, shapes and modifies. The least of Charlie’s concerns are the world’s ‘rules.’ If we look at a period as a command to stop, a comma as a pause, quotation marks as a nod to the reader’s needs – Charlie’s got bigger fish to fry. I don’t know that I would write straight white males this way in every book, but it was important to me to find a textual way into Charlie’s point of view. You can thank, but not blame, Cubby [Hubert] Selby for that.

CH: You’ve done a lot of work in theatre and film, both on the stage/screen and behind the scenes. How does writing compare with working with Seinfeld? Has your acting and arts education work helped?

TV: What a great question. It’s all of a piece. Jerry is one funny mofo. Being handcuffed to Indiana Jones was more eye-opening, and sexy(?), than coffee. Don’t tell Harrison Ford that. There, I’ve done all of the name-dropping I intend to.

As an actor and writer, my whole goal is to be as truthful as possible. That only sort of means not lying. As a writer and actor sometimes, the internal and external jockey for first place. I knew how Wilson lumbered through the world physically before I knew about her heart and mind. Julie’s anger and bitterness presented itself to me first and, after that, the specifics of her story exploded, the way she holds her hands, grinds her teeth and so on. She scares me way more than any gangster I’ve met. Arts education has let me work side by side with a lot of people (gangsters, jailed youth, sex workers, addicts, etc.) that the rest of us keep down with a boot on their throats. Acting and writing has been liberating for me; I hope to create spaces where others might discover their own, unique tools of liberation.

CH: Do you want to tell us a little bit about what your next project will be?

TV: You’re a sucker for punishment! The story that’s elbowing its way into my consciousness at the moment – and which I have left to answer these questions! – is a Toronto high school tale: I met death and sex through my friend Tom Meuley. Like The Drifts, I think of it as queer literary fiction. Battling for second place is a memoir and another novel: the memoir is of a former Ciudad Juarez homicide detective I’ve met. Before fleeing Mexico, he got ‘too close’ to the truth as he investigated the murders of hundreds and hundreds of women there. His refugee petition has been denied, thank you very much. And another literary novel about statelessness, exile and displacement in the context of Walter Benjamin’s last years within a contemporary story of queer exile; if The Drifts is about internal displacement, this one compounds the problem with external displacement.

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Set in rural Arkansas during a terrible blizzard, The Drifts follows the stories of four characters: Julie, unexpectedly expectant at forty-six; her husband, Charlie, who had an affair with his best friend Wilson, who's now in love with Dol; and Dol, a divorced transsexual father of two.
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