A Life of Books with JoAnne Tompkins, author of What Comes After

JoAnne Tompkins, author of What Comes After, had a career as a mediator and judicial officer before writing her debut book. In her first novel, she explores a familiar situation: an idyllic town turned upside down by a the shocking death of two teenage boys.

The book, however, is about more than the mystery. It’s about how the families can put their lives back together and how the town can trust again. It’s a meditation on optimism in the darkest of times.

Below, the author answers Debutiful‘s A Life of Books Questionnaire.

Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood? 

My mother grew up on a sheep ranch and rode horses with a rifle at her side in case of rattlers or bears or menacing men. The first books I remember reading and adoring were my mother’s cherished books by Mary O’Hara: My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead, Green Grass of Wyoming. I devoured these books. When I think of them, I am back in a cozy nook of my childhood home on a sunny afternoon, picturing my mother as a wild young girl. 

Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too?

I would love this! But, I’m not sure how much they would resonate with children today. I’ll have to read them again!

Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?

With young children, I do think it is important to curate what they read, because they can’t know what they are getting into. Sensitive children can be quite traumatized if they stumble into material that is too adult. Each child is different, of course, but generally once a child hits thirteen, I would be unlikely to censor any well-written literary material unless I felt the child had a particular vulnerability. 

Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?

I tried to read Anna Karenina at least three times as an adolescent and each time gave up. I read it again in my thirties, and adored it! That was true for all the major Russians. I think I found the Russian names confusing, and I didn’t believe some Russian man, who lived so long ago, could know anything about life that would be useful to me! Obviously, I was wrong about that.

What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?

I adored Wallace Stegner in my late teens: Angle of Repose, The Spectator Bird, Crossing to Safety. I remember being blown away by these books. When I went back to read them decades later, I still admired them, but I was not as drawn to them. In part, I think this was due to a feeling of a certain male-oriented view of the world that I’m more sensitive to. 

Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book? I am always reading Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro. It’s interesting to me that a few reviewers have mentioned Marilynne Robinson in connection with my work, so I’m sure that she influenced me. I also adore George Saunders and though I suspect no one else feels his influence, I know that it is there in terms of the more mystical aspects of the work.

What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine? The first time I felt that was when I read Michael Odaantje’s The English Patient. It is so beautifully written, so gripping with adventure and romance and suffering and major world events. Just a gorgeous work of art. And when it comes to short story form, I felt that way when I read George Saunders’s The Tenth of December. It is so inventive and original and brimming with humanity!

What books helped get you through quarantining and social distancing during 2020?

I found myself reading a lot of Pema Chodron’s books on Buddhism to keep me centered in this intensely disturbing year. As for novels, I fell in love with Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, by Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk, an original, brilliant, funny and wise book. And a mystery to boot. Another book that I found beautiful and strangely soothing was Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. 

And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words. 

Cougar haunts surgeon. 

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