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5:23 pm
Sun April 21, 2013

'Humanity' May Get Second Chance In Jean Thompson's New Novel

In Jean Thompson's latest novel, The Humanity Project, humanity isn't doing so well and could use some help. Sean is a wayward carpenter whose bad luck with women turns into even worse luck: He's addicted to painkillers, and he and his teenage son Conner are facing eviction. Linnea is the teen survivor of a school shooting who travels west to California to live with a father she barely knows. Mrs. Foster is a wealthy woman who's taken to living with feral cats, and whose "Humanity Project" just might take a chance on people who thought they were out of luck. Their stories weave together as the characters intersect in a grippingly wry and often mordantly funny book. Jean Thomson joined host of Weekends on All Things Considered Jacki Lyden to talk about her new novel.


Interview Highlights

On the novel's two young protagonists

"[Linnea] goes from being ... mildly disaffected, to ragingly dysfunctional. ... The events of the [school shooting that Linnea survived] is something that hangs over the book as a kind of question — 'What really has happened there? — because she herself is not very forthcoming about it. ... Conner is a ... couple years older than Linnea ... living with his father. Conner is, because of his father's difficulties, which are medical and economic, is really forced to get off the path he was on. ... He has to start working. He eventually supports them through petty thievery. You have two younger characters who life has been blown off of course by events that are not of their making."

On the theme of economic unhinging

"Economic dislocation is certainly one of the things that I wanted to address in the book. I mean, that sounds really dry, but, the idea of the world that is just kind of beyond our control or understanding in these various ways - the economics that have been so hard on so many people. It's hard to wake up some mornings and look on the sunny side."

On Mrs. Foster, the wealthy widow, and her "Humanity Project"

"It is her vaguely conceived notion on how to "do good" with her considerable resources, and she is motivated, in part, I think, by doing something nice to spite her deceased husband, who was kind of a professional grump. So, her idea is to set up a foundation to benefit humanity. Into this very large speculative idea come the characters who have to figure out what she means and how to carry it out."

Raymond Carver's influence

"When I was a younger person writing, everything in fiction was about fashionable experimentation, and there was a lot of vogue for, oh, turning narrative upside-down and on its head and shredding it and reassembling it. Then, at some point, there was this kind of explosion that came from the writing of Raymond Carver: 'Oh, look, ordinary people speaking in ordinary ways. What a concept!' "

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

You're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

In writer Jean Thompson's latest novel, "The Humanity Project," humanity isn't doing so well. Sean is a wayward carpenter whose bad luck with women turns into worse luck - painkiller addiction and home eviction. Linnea is the teenage survivor of a school shooting who travels west to live with a father she barely knows. Mrs. Foster is a wealthy widow who has taken to living with feral cats and whose humanity project just might take a chance on people who thought they were out of luck but shouldn't.

All these stories interlock and reweave as characters meet and intersect in a grippingly wry and often mordantly funny story. Jean Thompson, welcome to the show.

JEAN THOMPSON: Thank you, Jacki. Great to be talking to you.

LYDEN: Briefly, Jean Thompson, introduce us to a couple of these characters. Two of the protagonists are young. Linnea survived a school shooting. Maybe tell us a little more about her.

THOMPSON: She goes from being - I think it's been described as mildly disaffected to ragingly dysfunctional. And the events of that shooting are something that, you know, hangs over the book as a kind of a question - what really has happened there, because she herself is not very forthcoming about it. She is sent west to her father who has not seen her since she was 2 or 3 years old.

And he's a kind of feckless, overeducated, underemployed guy, you know, who is not equipped for fatherhood but who is now forced to confront his long-neglected responsibilities.

LYDEN: Linnea, I think, is the youngest of your main characters, and she plays off of another young person, and that's Connor, who's the son of this really feckless, unlucky carpenter Sean. Tell us about Connor.

THOMPSON: Connor is a little bit older, a couple years older than Linnea, and again, the son of divorced parents living with his father. Connor is, because of his father's difficulties, which are medical and economic, is really forced to get off of the path he was on. He has to pretty much graduate from high school on schedule. He has to start working. He eventually supports them through petty thievery. You have two younger characters whose life has been just blown off course by events that are not of their own making.

LYDEN: And can I just give readers a sense of your voice here? You're imagining Sean, Connor's father. Sean's working on some drywall, and he says: You know what we are, modern-day peasants, the guys who used to live in mud huts and sleep in straw and live on potatoes. There's all this money in the world, and it never seems to get to the people who do the actual work.

THOMPSON: Well, that's Sean. You know, he's very articulate about his lot in life. And economic dislocation is certainly one of the things that I wanted to address in the book. I mean, that sounds very dry, but the idea of a world that is just kind of beyond our control or understanding in these various ways, the economics that have been so hard on so many people, it's hard to wake up some mornings and look on the sunny side.

LYDEN: You begin this book with perhaps reflections that really maybe come from that pulpit, if you will. Maybe you could read to us. You give us this third eye, this omniscient voice that is neither sympathetic nor judgmental of these people.

THOMPSON: (Reading) We were afraid of so many things: of our children who lived in their own world of casually lurid pleasures, zombies and cartoon killers and thuggish music, of our neighbors who were buying gold and ammunition and great quantities of freeze-dried food and who were organizing themselves into angry tribes recognizable to one another by bumper stickers.

We feared that our lives had been spent in piling up not treasures but great heaps of discardable and wasteful things. Television voices extorted us to buy even more, and often enough, we did, even though money seemed to be draining away from us like water in a leaky sink. And most of all, we feared a future of privation and loss.

Our politicians were no help at all. We feared those people who we believed meant to do us harm, although such fears fluctuated along with the most recent headlines. There were people who hated us with ancient, inexplicable and undying hatreds. They might look harmless enough, unexceptional, but without warning, they might precipitate some majestic destruction that we could not imagine or know. We could imagine it all too well - the fire, the choking ash, the impossibly small spaces that our bodies would be made to fit.

LYDEN: Have you thought at all this week, Jean Thompson, about current events as, you know, I'm flipping through the pages of your novel and reflected on our culture at large.

THOMPSON: My editor, who is often more elegant than I am in stating these things, says that the book is a map of contemporary culture. Unfortunately, if we're not fresh from some new newspaper headline horror, all you have to do is wait a little while, and it seems we get a new one. So you and I are talking some days after the Boston Marathon bombings when the situation is still very much in play.

I have reflected on it and wishing I was wrong, you know? I wish we would turn a chapter, and there would be peace, prosperity and nothing bad going on.

LYDEN: One of the things that redeems this book, besides the fact that you are often so funny in your language here, is Mrs. Foster. She is the wealthiest person. In the novel, she's recently widowed here, and she decides to set up something called the Humanity Project. Tell us what the Humanity Project is.

THOMPSON: It is her vaguely conceived notion of how to do good with her considerable resources, and she is motivated, in part, I think, by doing something nice to spite her deceased husband who was a kind of a professional grump. So her idea is to set up a foundation to benefit humanity into this very large, speculative idea come the characters who have to figure out what she means and how to carry it out.

LYDEN: Jean, your characters, in terms of the range they have and the kind of down-on-your-luck perceptions they've got, remind me a lot of Raymond Carver, the American author, you know, born during the Depression, worked a lot of manual labor jobs, that kind of wisdom.

THOMPSON: I think he's been influential in a way that maybe a number of years after his death people don't recognize. When I was a younger person writing, everything in fiction was about fashionable experimentation. And there was a lot of vogue for, oh, turning narrative upside down and on its head and shredding it and reassembling it.

Then, at some point, there was this kind of explosion that came from the writing of Raymond Carver: Oh, look, ordinary people speaking in ordinary ways. What a concept.

LYDEN: Jean Thompson. Her new book is called "The Humanity Project." Jean Thompson, thank you so much for speaking with us. It's been a pleasure.

THOMPSON: Very pleased to do so. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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