My Degree of Separation from David Sedaris

June 27, 2009 • Posted in blindness, radio, Uncategorized, writing by

Do not deny yourself--read "Do Not Deny Me" or any of Jean's books.

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.

National Public Radio aired a glowing review by Alan Cheuse last Monday, and this week Jean’s in… People!

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!

Laurie On June 27, 2009 at 11:49 pm

You’ve certainly piqued my interest; Jean’s writing sounds wonderful. I’m going to order her book. Great walking with you Wednesday.

Cheryl On June 28, 2009 at 1:52 am

I remember meeting Jean while walking with you in Champaign. A lot has happened to both of you since that memorable day sitting on a barstool in Esquires. Hope you have another memorable time on your barstool at the Hope Leaf Bar in July.

MaryEllen Schneider On June 28, 2009 at 12:46 pm

You hooked me with the mention of David Sedaris and reeled me right in with the comparison to Alice Munro.

Just put “Do Not Deny Me” on my Shelfari “Plan to Read” shelf and requested it from the ChiPub. I love it when I find a book that has under 50 readers on Shelfari and then I can watch the numbers rise. I feel so in the know.

Thanks, Beth!

Mike On June 28, 2009 at 7:07 pm

By all means go get “Do Not Deny Me.” But be advised you’ll want to read the others, so you might as well go ahead and order them up right away. Jean’s one of the reasons I’ve come to love short stories. I was lucky enough to take a class she taught, and gained an appreciation for the form and the talented people who turn out these gems.

marilee On June 29, 2009 at 12:21 am

Great blog. I find it so interesting to hear an author’s writing path. You never know who you might meet at the local establishment! Congrats to Jean!

Laurie On July 2, 2009 at 12:06 am

Mike, I love short stories, too. I took a for-credit class during my undergrad days called Exploring the Short Story. It got me hooked. I’ve already ordered “Do Not Deny Me,” but I’m sure I’ll get the rest after I read this one.

A succession of extraordinary days « Safe & Sound blog On August 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm

[…] Jo Ann Beard and Ursula Under by Ingrid Hill, and I especially recommend The Year We Left Home by my friend Jean Thompson. I finished State of Wonder by Ann Patchett yesterday –fantastic! Today I’ll start Turn of Mind […]

The Humanity Project and other light topics | Safe & Sound blog On April 19, 2013 at 10:02 am

[…] in Urbana this week, I had a great lunch of Thai food with Jean Thompson. Beth has written here at the blog about Jean, our dear, one-of-a-kind friend. Jean was a mentor to Beth while Beth worked at writing and […]

Mondays with Mike: Long story short | Safe & Sound blog On February 17, 2014 at 7:17 am

[…] executed and polished gem. Beth’s written about one of our favorite writers (and a great friend) Jean Thompson. And I can’t recommend her enough—if you were looking for a short story starting point, try […]

She poured out her heart | Safe & Sound blog On June 17, 2016 at 9:56 am

[…] written posts about our writer friend Jean Thompson many times before – everything from the one I wrote about how she introduced herself to me decades ago from the barstool next to mine at Champaign’s Esquire Lounge to the one Mike wrote […]

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