An Interview with Joyce Thompson, author of The Blue Chair and other novels

Joyce Thompson, writer
Joyce Thompson

Not long after I mentioned her 1977 novel, The Blue Chair, in a Reader Recommendations post, Joyce Thompson emailed with thanks for the notice and reported that she’s busy working as a writer of fiction again, after a long stint as a technical writer for Microsoft. She graciously agreed to answer a few questions about The Blue Chair and about some of her more recent works.

What was your reaction when you found a post referring to The Blue Chair as a neglected book?
Better neglected than forgotten! Over the many years since its original publication, I’ve gotten correspondence from readers who can’t forget the book, or heard the occasional voice in the wilderness proclaiming it a must read. Most recently, someone found and pinged me on Facebook to say, Now that I’m the age that Eve Harmon was, I’m struck by how much of The Blue Chair has come true.

The Blue Chair was your first novel. How did you come to write fiction?
My kindergarten report card says, Joyce keeps us amused with her stories.
For me, storytelling is the key to the kingdom, the journey and the test and the joy. Stories find me and I engage with them. I’ve also written stage plays, produced, and a few screenplays, paid for but not realized on film. I used to think of myself as a poet. But prose fiction is the most durable, most pliable container for a storyteller. Sometimes it requires you to reinvent the form so that your story can be told.

And The Blue Chair was not my first novel. I’d written a much more realistic novel right out of college, part of teaching myself the form. Seymour Lawrence, who then had a star editor imprint at Delacorte, read it and gave me a lot of great notes. He even called me a couple of months later to see how my rewrite was progressing. But I had no idea how to rewrite a novel then, so I waited for the next one to come along. That was The Blue Chair. Nobody asked for rewrites. Lawrence did, bless him, make me understand that I needed to tame my lyrical impulse in order to write good prose. That lesson stuck.
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At the time it was published, The Blue Chair was considered science fiction. Looking at it now from a distance of almost forty years, does that label still fit?

Insofar as the social premise is based on the assumption that science will advance, and those advances will affect humans in unforeseen and irremediable ways, sure. I think I was a lot closer on the pure science than the technology. People consume text on screen, I got that right, but in 1975, I was imagining microfiche on steroids, not the digital revolution.

What does resonate today is the premise itself: That in the course of looking for a cellular level treatment for cancer, science has discovered a way to extend human life indefinitely, an innovation with serious implications for the ability of the planet to support a species that does not replace itself and die. In the novel, only white first-world citizens are eligible for immortality, this only if they choose not to reproduce. Those who do reproduce are limited to two children per couple; once they reach the age of 70, they’re entitled only to palliative, not life-prolonging medical care. The rationing of health care and state intervention in the cycles of life and death doesn’t seem so far fetched anymore.

I would add that I consider myself a “literary” writer who likes to put a genre engine under the hood. Fiction is my way of exploring the other—in terms of race, age, gender, class, sexual preference, soma, soul. That’s novels—the form for exploring what you don’t understand but want or need to. Short stories, for me, are the form for writing about what you do understand, what you know in your bones. My stories—two collections published—are more conventional, more drawn from my own real experience than my novels are.

The Blue Chair is set in an America where the privileged (white) people are cared for by an underclass of (dark skinned) emigrants and have the possibility of attaining immortality. To what extent would you say that some of what you anticipated has come true?

The premise was that people could escape the chaos and deprivation of the Third World by indenturing themselves to the First (imperialist) World. In the novel, American blacks are citizens with full rights, but too often mistaken for indentured immigrants because of the color of their skins. That’s all pretty much come true. What I didn’t foresee in 1975 was the Reagan/Clinton one-two punch, the infusion of drugs into communities of color and the mass incarceration of young black men, coincident with the rise of for-profit prisons, that we were, in effect, building our own Third World, from our own citizens and in our own neighborhoods.

Was your characterization of the security state in which TThe Blue Chair is set in any way a reaction to things you saw going on in the Seventies, such as Watergate?
The security state was pretty much a 20th century paradigm, a meme of the tendency of governments to control their people through surveillance, oppressive bureaucracy and domestic military policing. It’s kind of an inescapable historic and literary theme. I just put my own spin on it.

The Blue Chair was published as a paperback original by Avon Books, which had up to then been pretty much exclusively a re-publisher of works first published in hardback. How did their choice to release your book come about?
The Blue Chair’s first person protagonist is a 70 year old woman poet in a dystopian future society, who is able to re-experience her life by sitting in her blue chair. Ten editors said lovely things about the writing and their personal experience of the book—and also said they didn’t believe it would sell. The 11th was a young editor at Avon and The Blue Chair was either the first or the second book she got to choose herself—risk fiction. She grew up to be Susan Moldow, now President of the Scribner Publishing Group, with a long and brilliant career in publishing. At that time, she worked under Bob Wyatt’s wing—he who brought out affordable English translations of the all the emerging Latin American novelists of the time. I felt like I was in good company.

Paperback originals are ephemeral, but the first press run was huge, there was a substantial second printing adding up to over 100,000 books out there in supermarkets, bus stations and bookstores. A couple of years later, Avon reprinted the book in their Bard line, which kept it in print longer and in better company than would otherwise have happened. Checking WorldCat today, I see it’s the only one of my six published novels that doesn’t currently have any library life.

In the mid-1990s, you took a break from writing fiction and joined Microsoft as a technical writer. How has that experience changed your perspective as a writer?

In the mid-90s, I was raising and supporting two kids by myself. I was having a wrangle with my then-publisher about the second book of a two book contract and teaching fiction in a not-very-exciting MFA program. A friend invited me to do something new in another part of the forest. I went for new—not technical writing but writing creatively and collaboratively for new media. I worked on various teams at Microsoft for 3 ½ years, then stopped commuting to Redmond and started my own business. That’s when I discovered I could talk to engineers and translate them into language regular people could understand. I’ve never written manuals but I’ve helped bring 20 years’ worth of emerging technologies to market and public attention. That experience has given me an inside view of the vast changes in culture, consciousness and communication those technologies have driven. The novel I’ve just finished, A Wake for Paper, is about three generations of writers in one San Francisco family, living out those tectonic shifts through the recent recession. Grandpa’s a poet/professor, the parental generation are journalists, the youngers a coder/hacker and an online blogger, respectively.

Harper Collins published Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu, a memoir about dealing with your mother’s Alzheimer’s and your initiation into Santeria, in 2003. Are you interested in doing more autobiographical work, or are you planning to stick with fiction?
How to Greet Strangers, by Joyce ThompsonI loved writing Sailing My Shoe, which I did in the year after my mother died. If I’m lucky enough to live an interesting life for the next ten or twenty years, I might have another memoir in me.

Has the reception of your 2013 novel, How to Greet Strangers: A Mystery, encouraged you to write another work featuring your lead character, Archer Barron?

How to Greet Strangers, like The Blue Chair, is a story and character that took hold of me and demanded to be written. Archer is a black drag queen disengaging from Santeria and an accidental detective in the mean streets of Oakland, where I’ve lived for the last 15 years. Like The Blue Chair, it’s a book that keeps readers up all night and mainstream publishers say they can’t sell. In its small press edition, it was a finalist for Lambda Literary’s Best Gay Mystery. The ALA called it “an important addition to any fiction collection.” The second volume of Archer’s story, Cops and Queens, is done. Did I mention that I’m looking for someone bold enough to publish them right?

Here’s hoping this post catches the eye of an interested publisher. Thanks, Joyce.

Reader Recommendations: Good Books in Cheap Covers

A few readers have contacted me to recommend neglected books by women writers for me to consider as part of my theme for this year, and some of the most interesting suggestions have in common the fact that they were all issued as cheap popular paperbacks, and a few as originals. So let me dive into my favorite section in the bookstore, those shelves full of paperbacks from the days before anyone had dreamed up the concept of trade editions.

The Legend of Blackjack Sam, by Lee Hoffman (1966)
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Bruce Durocher II wrote to recommend this, a comic Western from Lee Hoffman, who was better known as a science fiction writer, but who cut her teeth in the 1960s with a series of Western novels, both silly and serious. Her 1967 novel, The Valdez Horses, won the Spur Award as Best Western Novel from the Western Writers of America. Blackjack Sam, however, was inspired by Ace Books editor Donald Wollheim, who provided the title and left the rest up to her. Well, she started by expanding the title out to, “Being an Absolutely Accurate Account (More or Less) of the Violent Events leading up to the Notorious Showdown at the O’Shea Corral, involving Red Injuns, Proddy Gunslingers, Gambling Gents, Purty Gals and Sundry Other Citizens, and including for the First Time a Genuine Eyewitness Account of said Outrage by a Petrified Participant Therein.” That already gets us to page 3.

Hoffman gets off to a great start, with Sam coming at us through a bedroom window: “When I went out that window, I lost both buttons off the back-flap and there was a bad draft.” It soon becomes clear that if Sam is legendary for anything, it’s bad timing. Had Yiddish been popular on the frontier, he would have been easily recognized as a schlmiel. The Legend of Blackjack Sam is a fast, funny romp, full of wimmen and bushwhackers and old coots. I’m sure it gave some lonely traveling businessmen a good laugh as they sat up reading in some motel somewhere between Omaha and Alamagordo. And paid the rent for Hoffman, who went on to write several others with titles like The Truth About the Cannonball Kid.

Vice Avenged: A Moral Tale, by Lolah Burford (1971)
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Mary Halloran wrote to recommend Lolah Burford’s “revisionist” bodice-rippers, particularly her first, Vice Avenged: A Moral Tale. Burford dedicated the novel to one of the giants of the romance novel, Georgette Heyer, but cautioned that “Here is an eighteenth-century fairy tale, frankly unserious, frankly unrealistic, for a realistic, serious Age.” Frankly unrealistic indeed! It’s basically about a rake — a Mohock, to use a contemporary term from eighteenth century England — who rapes a young woman of good family on a bet and then suffers the consequences. He writes to her father, admitting what he’s done, and in return, Father makes him marry the girl and then has her brothers kidnap and take the groom off to a private imprisonment in France. After various adventures, the rake returns, takes up the girl and their young son, and all ends well. It’s rather arch and intentionally artificial, as if Burford wanted us to know all along that her tongue was set firmly in cheek. At the time it was published, it was considered rather good, but to me, it was neither fish nor fowl: not original enough to be truly memorable, not conventional enough to satisfy most serious romance novel fans. Burford wrote a number of books after, and from the looks of them, each moved a little closer to the standard elements of mainstream bodice-rippers.

Miss Bannister’s Girls, by Louise Tanner (1963)
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After the release of Eric Meyer’s Uncle Mame, I thought I was pretty up to speed on the circle of satirical books about New York’s society dames and denizens penned by Edward Everett Tanner II under the pseudonyms of Patrick Dennis and Virginia Rowans, but I didn’t know that his wife — a bona-fide dame herself — had written her own. Miss Bannister’s Girls is the group portrait of the class of 1940 from Miss Bannister’s School (basely on “Miss Chapin’s School for Girls and Kindergarten for Boys and Girls,” which Mrs. Tanner attended and which still operates today as the Chapin School). In spirit and approach, it’s very much the sorority sister to Harvey Smith’s The Gang’s All Here, which I mentioned here back in 2009: mocking its subjects from an insider’s perspective but without going so far as to lose friends. The pokes are gentle, none so hard as to leave a bruise.

It would be hard not to also draw a parallel with another group portrait of a class of privileged East Coast society girls, Mary McCarthy’s huge best-seller The Group. Like McCarthy, Louise Tanner was a Vassar grad (’44 to McCarthy’s ’33), but there the resemblance between their works ends. McCarthy loved not just to stick the knife into her subjects, but usually couldn’t resist giving it one last twist. And her girls are so darned earnest and serious there’s barely a smile to be found in the whole book. To be honest, to me it now seems painfully dated. In contrast, Miss Bannister’s Girls is still a hoot. McCarthy was considered daring for featuring a lesbian among her classmates. Tanner’s token gay is out there and loving it, living in a Connecticut farmhouse full of pictures of “big, splashy Negro girls stripped to the waist” and recovering from an injury suffered while playing Falstaff on stage. One of the cover blurbs on the Macfadden Books paperback edition says the book is “Dipped in the same acid bath” as McCarthy’s. If there’s any acid here, it’s lactic. Miss Bannister’s Girls is comic, coy, and completely charming.

Claret, Sandwiches and Sin, by Madelaine Duke (1964)
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Len Finch recommended this odd work by Madelaine Duke, who originally published it under the pseudonym Maxim Donne. It’s a satirical science fiction-cum-secret agent story, set in the distant future of 1979, in a world dominated by white, mostly European, and exclusively male, capitalists. While the boys play nation- and world-running, Mrs. Connie Munster and her ladies quietly — even graciously — go about arranging the assassinations of those in danger of taking the game a little too seriously. A wealthy philanthropist who goes around funding hospitals and opening children’s schools, Mrs. Munster manages to collect a Nobel Peace Prize while discussing the next hit with her ladies over, yes, claret and sandwiches.

I found it an intriguing but not particularly well-written book. Naturally, any dystopia set thirty-some years ago always has a certain retro charm about it, but the characters and plotting were just too stiff to bring out the comedy. The farce was false. But Duke herself seems more interesting than her book. Born in Switzerland and trained as a chemist, she somehow got involved with the Allied effort to round up German scientists after the end of World War Two, an experience she wrote about in her first book, Top Secret Mission (1954). She went on to write books about other spies, including Slipstream (1955), about her brother, Anthony Duke, who worked as a “false” double agent, and No Passport: the Story of Jan Felix (1957), about the work of S.O.E. agent “Captain Hilton” (Hans Felix Jeschke). She then turned to fiction, with novels with titles like Ride the Brooding Wind (1961), before taking a couple turns at science fiction. A few years after she turned out This Business of Bomfog (Bomfog stands for “Brotherhood-of-Man-Fatherhood-of-God”), which also took shots at the notion that the world was somehow better off with men in charge. After these flopped, she turned out a series of mystery novels featuring physician-turned detective Dr. Norah North, in which, in the words of one encyclopedia of mystery fiction, “Duke overloaded on plots and then had difficulty coordinating their conclusions.”

The Blue Chair, by Joyce Thompson (1977)
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This was recommended by pseudonymous emailer “greadership,” who called it “a dystopian novel that ranks with the best of Ursula Le Guin.” The Blue Chair was, somewhat unusually for that time (I can say this because I was regularly scouring the shelves for new paperbacks back then) as an original Avon paperback, and it was Thompson’s first book.

The story in The Blue Chair would probably resonate with readers now much more than it did when first published. It’s set in a world in which America is run by white people waited on by people of color from the Third World. Medical science has advanced to the point where immortality is possible, but to keep its possible complications from spiraling out of control, it’s also made available only to a selected portion of the population. Poet Eve Harmon is not eligible, since she had two children instead of one, but her son Jason is high enough in the power structure to bend the rules for her and her husband John is a senior researcher working on new ways to extend life. But Eve is not interested in fighting for that option. Instead, she spends her hours sitting in her comfy blue chair as her cancer spreads, allowing herself to pass in and out of a mental fog that takes her back through her life and relationships. The ironic message of the book is that Eve gains the greater satisfaction and joy from accepting the end of her life than do John or Jason from knowing theirs can go on forever.

Thompson continues to write today, most recently publishing Sailing My Shoe to Timbuktu: A Woman’s Adventurous Search for Family, Spirit, and Love, an autobiographical account of her development and movement away from the conventional life as housewife and mother for which she was raised. It’s also worth reading as comparison with The Blue Chair in that it deals with her own mother’s death after a struggle with Alzheimer’s.

As always, my thanks go out to those offering these suggestions and my invitation stands to anyone who wants to recommend some long-forgotten or underappreciated book or author.