It's a raw, wintry day and, hemmed in by snow-covered mountains and heavy gray clouds, Salt Lake City seems hushed and subdued, as if this latest cold front is yet another reminder that even big cities can feel insignificant and oddly transient in contrast to the rugged vastness of the West. But if most might find this landscape and this climate inhospitable, if not downright unsettling, Melanie Rae Thon, born and raised in smalltown Montana, is delighted to be here. After more than 20 years as a student and a teacher in the Midwest and the Northeast, Thon, who's been hailed one of the "Best Young American Novelists" by Granta, feels that in Salt Lake City, where she's a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Utah, she's finally returned home. "My attachment to this part of the country is like a part of my anatomy," she says. "I had wonderful students and colleagues at Ohio State"--where she taught most recently--"but I felt as if I'd had one of my arms or legs amputated."
That attachment to the Western landscape is deeply evident in much of Thon's fiction, particularly her latest novel, Sweet Hearts, a darkly atmospheric account of a troubled adolescent boy's struggle to overcome the legacy of violence and emotional chaos he's inherited from his mixed Native American and white heritage. Set in the mountains of northwestern Montana, near Thon's hometown of Kalispell, the novel explores the human consequences of generations of uneasy commingling between the two different groups of people who call the region home. Referring to her family's mixed ancestry, Marie Zimmer, the novel's deaf narrator, sees herself, her sister and her sister's children as literal embodiments of a treacherous culture clash. "We are the place where enemies meet," she observes. "We are the place where everything happens." Consequently, she concludes, "There is no safe place in this story."
For Thon, that inability to feel safe or secure comes in part from the Western landscape itself. "You can be hypothermic and die in June where I grew up," she observes matter-of-factly. "The land is rugged and extreme. We're still discovering the West--it's not settled or tame." But, she believes, this kind of insecurity also breeds a deeper understanding of one's connection to the world outside oneself. In the relative isolation of smalltown Montana, she explains, "you have a sense of sharing responsibility for every living thing on the planet. It's easier to have that sensibility when you can get away from people, and where you know you can't dominate the landscape; you have to cooperate with it to survive."
Asked how her own experience of the West compares with outsiders' perceptions of it, Thon replies that she often sees the region being at once "romanticized and dismissed." Sweet Hearts, with its richly nuanced portrayal of a community whose relationships--and history--are fraught with difficult complexities, certainly belies such facile interpretations. Thon herself represents yet another facet of the modern West: dressed comfortably in earth-toned cotton and fleece, with her cropped hair simply styled and scarcely any makeup, she projects the down-to-earth casual friendliness the area is known for. Despite the gray gloom outside, her apartment is both bright and cozy, its white walls, high ceilings and spare furnishings creating a sense of spaciousness, while a gas fire lends both physical and visual warmth. Thon's home, in a sprawling modern complex, is in the heart of one of those hip, vibrant neighborhoods next to universities all over the country. In addition to numerous coffeehouses, used bookstores and funky boutiques and thrift shops, there are such ubiquitous urban landmarks as Barnes & Noble, Old Navy and Ann Taylor right across the street.
It's the perfect environment for a writer who thrives on the intellectual community of a large university, but finds her inspiration in the world of rugged mountains and wide, empty spaces so clearly visible from her living-room window. A teacher for much of her adult life, Thon has held tenured or tenure-track positions at Syracuse University, Ohio State and now Utah, as well as instructorships at Emerson College, Harvard, the University of Massachusetts and Boston University. Many writers take up teaching because it provides a steady and reliable paycheck, but for Thon it's also a labor of love and an ongoing learning process, an opportunity to experience a "shared desire to understand experience and render it truthfully and compassionately, and to figure out what we as people really believe."
That philosophy is undoubtedly an outgrowth of the process through which Thon herself became a writer. "I wasn't much of a reader when I was young," she says. "But I was physically active. My life was very experientially based." While she d s recall a number of books that were pivotal to her early intellectual growth--among them Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Sylvia Plath's p try and a children's book called The Ghost of Dibble Hollow, which she describes with a fond smile as having "a wonderful, redemptive ending"--her impulse to write grew more out of a thirst for knowledge and adventure than a love of narrative or language. "For me, writing is the greatest discovery," she says. "So much of writing is a sense of excitement and curiosity and finding out something I didn't know before." But while it can be exhilarating, that process isn't always easy: Thon has found that "you have to be scared, to go to places that don't feel comfortable, because that's when you're going to be surprised by the world or startled by yourself."
"It often takes a catastrophe to make people reach across barriers of religious and cultural difference."
On a more literal level, her journey as a writer began during her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, where, she says with a laugh, "I told people, 'I am a writer,' which was ridiculous, since I didn't have the first clue what that would mean in my life." Nevertheless, it was at Michigan that she found her first mentor: George Garrett, who was a visiting professor, "recognized a spark in my writing that got him interested, and he was very encouraging." Much later, she reports, she asked him to read one of her stories and, after a year's wait, received a 40-page response from him, which again encouraged her to pursue her vision.
After graduating from Michigan in 1980 with a degree in English, Thon enrolled in the creative writing program at Boston University, receiving an M.A. in 1982. She remained in Boston for 11 years, waiting tables, writing and teaching part-time--"Adjunct instructors are paid so poorly, I had to waitress in order to afford to teach," she notes wryly--until, in 1992, a friend suggested she was more than ready for a tenure-track professorship. Not surprisingly, given that she'd already published a novel (Meteors, 1990) and a collection of stories (Girls in the Grass, 1991), both to considerable critical acclaim, she was immediately hired as an assistant professor at Syracuse.
In conjunction with the publication of Girls in the Grass, Thon met Andre Dubus, the writer to whom she refers most often when speaking of people who have inspired her. Seeking blurbs for the volume, Don Lee, editor of Ploughshares, sent it to Dubus, who called Thon to express his admiration. "I was stunned," she recalls. "I said, 'This really means a lot to me, because your work has had such an impact on me,' and he said, sounding surprised, 'You like my work?' What unbelievable humility!" Other literary friendships Thon has found particularly sustaining are those with Caryl Phillips--"He's more famous than I ever expect or hope to be, but it's always been a friendship of equals, born of deep respect for each other's work"--Fred Busch, whom she got to know while living in upstate New York, and longtime friend Alice Lichtenstein, whose first novel, The Genius of the World, has just been published. Thon also feels she's been lucky in her choice of a literary agent. "I often tell my students that to hope for stability in the publishing world is unreasonable, but that you should try to find an agent who understands your goals as a writer." Irene Skolnick contacted Thon and offered to become her agent after reading the story "Iona Moon" in 1988; the two have been together ever since. Which, notes Thon, "is great, because I've moved around a lot in terms of editors"--a fact she attributes mostly to high turnover in the publishing industry. She may, however, have found a more permanent home at Houghton Mifflin, where Janet Silver, for whom she has nothing but praise, has published her two most recent books.
Thon's been on the receiving end of plenty of praise and acclaim, too, from the Granta award, which came in 1996, to a Whiting Writer's Award and fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ohio Arts Council, among others. She's also twice had stories included in the prestigious annual Best American Short Stories. If she has yet to gain the high profile of a bestselling writer, it's still clear that a lot of other writers and literary cognoscenti have recognized Thon as an author of considerable note.
Her fiction is already being taught in college classrooms, and that, she says, is one of the greatest rewards of writing. "So much of the work you do as a writer is isolated," she points out, so she finds opportunities to discuss her work with an audience "exhilarating," particularly because she thinks authorship is always a shared project. "The writer only d s half the work," she says. "The reader d s the rest. And I feel that any interpretation that comes from a passionate engagement with the work is valid."
Jokingly suggesting that "everybody should teach Sweet Hearts," Thon notes that while one of her goals is to become more accessible, the kind of fiction she admires most tends to invite interpretive struggle. Citing John Wideman's story "Fever" as an example, she recalls that "when I first read it, I understood maybe 10% of it--but that 10% was still 17 times more than I would get from other stories." Thon is particularly inspired by Wideman "because he's so daring in form and his work is so lyrical"--qualities that are also evident in Thon's own fiction, which often abandons traditional narrative trajectories to plunge readers into the landscapes of her characters' minds. "I'm not trying to represent characters' external voices," she says, "so much as I'm trying to understand the most intimate associations these people have, through memory, desire and sensation."
What these characters, particularly in Thon's more recent work, are most often vexed by are the implications of the ways they've chosen to live their lives, in particular, the effects of their actions--or failure to act--on the lives of others. Thon reiterates one of the central themes of
Sweet Hearts when she says, "We bear the responsibility not only for what we do but for what we fail to do, and for what we witness. When we witness somebody being mistreated, we share responsibility if we don't try to assuage this anguish." Speaking of the fate of her novel's young protagonist, Flint Zimmer, who has spent much of his life in reform school, she addresses the all-too-human desire to find comfort in a kind of willful blindness: "If we exile people, put them away from us and refuse to acknowledge our part in what happened to them, we can feel safe." But for Thon, "salvation is not about escaping or forgetting." Instead, it occurs when people work hard to understand and confront the past, and when they are able to respond with compassion even to people who have hurt them. "We don't heal ourselves as a society by ostracizing people or locking them in distant institutions," she maintains.
Like Thomas Hardy, another writer for whom she has great admiration, Thon is persistently concerned with exploring social inequities and the experiences of those who live marginal lives because of these inequities. She also identifies faith as an important theme in her work, particularly "the struggle to articulate one's own faith in the modern world, where people are often separated from communities of faith and daily ritual." On a personal level, she says, "I'm struggling to understand the Christian belief that Jesus died for our sins, giving us access to forgiveness. I imagine Jesus dying again and again; his spirit returns, and through the suffering of others, some people are inspired to live better lives."
That's the hope Thon's fiction ultimately extends. "We're so alienated in the modern world, where faith and experience aren't shared. It often takes a catastrophe to make people reach across those barriers of religious and cultural difference." However slowly, tentatively or painfully, many of Thon's characters have made that move toward seeing past their ostensible differences with others and finding a deeper and more sustaining common ground. Contemplating the tough emotional terrain of her most recent novel, Thon remarks, "I'm fascinated with the way conflict and solace come together in Native American history." It's an apt way to describe much of her own work as well.