1987. A hot, humid day in Champaign, Ill. Mike and I are perched on stools at the Esquire Lounge. My folded cane sits atop the bar, forming a rigid white line that separates my beer glass from Mike’s. The discussion? How can I get to the pool on my own to swim laps.
The stranger sitting next to me interrupts. Her name was Jean, she said, and she couldn’t help but eavesdrop. “Are you talking about getting to the pool on campus?” she asked. I nodded. Newly blind back then, I didn’t have a Seeing Eye dog yet. I could hardly make it to the mailbox down the street. How was I going to get to the bus stop on my own? Not to mention the locker room, then to the edge of the pool to swim?
“That’s easy!” Jean said. She was a swimmer. “I drive over to the campus pool every other day. I’ll just pick you up and take you with me.”
And that’s how I met Jean Thompson. During our drives to the pool, I found out she was a writer. She taught creative writing at University of Illinois. Jean was a natural-born teacher, really — she knew when to set me free, let me try taking the bus and handle the pool on my own.
I’ve been swimming on my own ever since. I’ve been Jean’s friend ever since, too. And what a generous friend she’s been to me. Jean was encouraging when I got to work on my own book, Long Time, No See and generously offered to critique my first draft. Smart gal that she is, Jean didn’t hand her critique over to me on sheets of paper. She sat down at home and recorded them onto a cassette. That way I could access the notes on my own. It was Jean who taught me how to use dialogue, and Jean is the one who explained what those three magical words “show, don’t tell” mean when it comes to writing.
In 1999, Jean’s short story collection Who Do You Love was a finalist for the National Book Award. Usually only novels get that sort of recognition – rarely do short story collections become finalists in the fiction category. Jean became an instant celebrity, especially in Champaign-Urbana. I was pitching Long Time, No See to publishers at the time, and Jean offered to drive me over to University of Illinois Press and walk me in. Everyone inside recognized Jean and congratulated her. They couldn’t help but notice me, attached at the award-winning elbow. University of Illinois Press accepted my manuscript. Long Time, No See was published in 2003. One of the blurbs on the back cover is written by Jean Thompson.
It’s been twenty-plus years since Jean and I met on those barstools. In that time:
- she’s had five more books published, which makes nine books in all.
- a number of her stories have been published in The New Yorker.
- One of her short stories was selected for Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules, a collection of the “short stories David Sedaris loves most.” Other notable writers in David’s collection: Alice Munro, Tobias Wolff, Lorrie Moore, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Jean’s most recent short story collection — Do Not Deny Me — is getting rave reviews all over the place. The Chicago Tribune published a favorable review on May 23:
Move over, Alice Munro, this gifted writer now sits in my mind near the throne of the short-story queens and kings of old. [Thompson] is a master of dialogue, character, pacing and plot, and—anyone who loves the form will have to cheer about this…the dialogue—pitch perfect.
Jean still lives in Urbana, but she’s coming to Chicago on July 15 to participate in a reading series at Hop Leaf Bar. I plan to get there early and find a seat right at the bar. Because, of course, you never know what wonderful person might belly up right next to you!