Marian Thurm’s tenth book, Today is Not Your Day, reads like a warning to girls dating in Manhattan. The title story is about a thirty-year-old who shatters her kneecap seconds after her fiancé asks for the ring back. What ensues is a heartbreaking psychological trip toward the inevitable end of their relationship. In “Sparkle,” she writes: “Women—his ex-wife, Callie, and the girlfriends thereafter—had usually mistaken his handsomeness for goodness and also for the promise of happiness.” The other stories also involve characters that are smarter than the decisions they make concerning matters of love.
Thurm began her career at twenty-three as Gordon Lish’s editorial assistant at Esquire, back in the seventies. Along with answering his phone and reading the slush pile, one of her tasks was to make Xerox copies of Raymond Carver’s edited stories. (While carefully handling those pages, she couldn’t help wondering why so many lines had been crossed out.) One day, she mustered up the courage to ask an author passing through Lish’s office for his editor’s contact at the New Yorker. The author fumbled and wrote down the name of an editor, though not his own. It was, as it turned out, the right name for Thurm. She sent her story to Frances Kiernan, the name that had been given to her, and, miraculously, it was published in the New Yorker just a few months after she left Esquire. She was twenty-five years old, and it was her very first published story.
In addition to four story collections, six novels (two under the pseudonym Lucy Jackson), several decades as an esteemed writing instructor, her novel The Clairvoyant being named a New York Times Notable Book, and having work included in The Best American Short Stories, Marian is also one of the most encouraging teachers I’ve ever had. I was in her fiction workshop at the Yale Writers’ Conference in 2014 and have been her coffee date several times since. Marian likes to catch up with her students at the Stargate Diner on the Upper East Side, which is where I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions about Today Is Not Your Day.
The Rumpus: With these stories the reader gets the sense that she’s in the hands of a master craftsman, someone very meticulous and who has practiced the craft for a long time, yet all your characters and voices are very young. Was that your intent? And how many years do these stories span?
Marian Thurm: The first one was published in 2002 in the Greensboro Review, but one was published, in different form, back in the eighties. Except for another originally written in the eighties, the rest of them are fairly new, written within the past seven or eight years. The most recent one was “Kosta.” There’s a fascinating story that goes along with it. It was, in fact, based on someone I had met only once. He was a friend of a friend, and I just couldn’t get the stories he told out of my head. I was so taken with what I believed to be his deeply tragic life and tragic history. There are many small details that are true to life in the story, but the relationship between the young woman and the middle-aged Kosta was completely fictional. After he died, I discovered that nearly everything he’d said about himself was a lie. And so the way his behavior is excused in the story—the young woman’s sympathy for him stems from his tragic history—is all based on lies that were passed along to me, the author. It’s amazing to me that there are great, unpublished storytellers out there who are really wonderfully accomplished liars!
Rumpus: Is that how you go into a story? You hear something interesting and work towards it?
Thurm: I would say that’s probably true of every story I’ve ever written, but in this particular case, I was so taken by this man’s claims that his parents were born in Prague, and were Jewish physicians murdered by Stalin’s henchmen. I had dinner at his apartment and one of the most fascinating details was that the building he lived in was a commercial one and that his bathroom was the ladies’ room! I asked to see it because I just couldn’t believe anyone could live this way. And I just knew I was going to write a story about him and include that particular crazy detail.
Rumpus: My favorite story in this collection is “Hasta Luego” about a guy who becomes a manny (a male nanny) after making some bad life choices. That one felt very real to me.
Thurm: Thank you. That’s actually one of my favorites. The little boy who goes into the car dealerships was absolutely my son, who’s now thirty-five. When he was two, he had an extraordinary memory and could identify dozens and dozens of cars by what he called their “symbols.” Thirty years later I loved being able to write that scene in the car dealerships. In real life, the car salesmen thought Sam was a genius! He actually knew the difference between a Maserati, a Ferrari, and a Lamborghini, and he could pronounce the names perfectly when he was two years old! He’d see them on the street and could point out any car.
Rumpus: The details were perfect, like how you wrote that the girlfriend believed her sexuality was “fluid.” That’s such a modern way of talking about it.
Thurm: I can’t remember what inspired me to write that particular part of it, but I think the inspiration for the story began when a friend told me that her father had moved into someone’s house and was acting as a babysitter/nanny for someone else’s children. I was so taken by that story, and for me, I guess, there was real sadness in it. Someone will tell you one little detail, just a single sentence, and it will evoke something that you just can’t ignore.
Rumpus: The title story hit me the hardest because I, too, broke my leg in New York and my novel is about a guy who breaks his legs and his wife doesn’t show up at the hospital. How did you come up with the title story “Today Is Not Your Day”?
Thurm: I saw some guy walking up Third Avenue across the street from where I live, and he was wearing a T-shirt that said: I can only be nice to one person a day and today is not your day. I loved that shirt! I knew I was going to put it in a story, and so I immediately wrote it down in my little notebook. A couple of years earlier, I’d fallen and shattered my kneecap and decided to write a story about it. I thought about the what-ifs. I’d been with my husband for many decades, but when you’re incapacitated like that and you’re not the kind of person who feels comfortable asking favors of people, it’s so awful. Like when you can’t get out of bed for a few weeks and have to ask your husband to please pick up that bit of cat fur from the floor that’s driving you crazy. [Laughs] I thought about how infinitely difficult it would be for someone if she fell and injured herself the very moment her fiancé was breaking up with her. I just thought it was an interesting premise for a story.
Rumpus: “Sparkle,” about the woman who abandons her twin daughters and leaves them for her sister-in-law to take care of, was most upsetting to read. Who was Sparkle?
Thurm: You asked me how many years these stories span—well, that story was originally going to be in my 1988 collection called, but for some reason, I wasn’t happy with it, and so I deleted it from the book. The story was probably first written in 1986, but I completely rewrote it not so long ago. I’m always deeply grateful to people who tell me their stories. This was someone whom I hadn’t seen or been in touch with for many years. She’d told me about a relative who had left her children with her ex-husband and how outraged the family was by that abandonment. I think she mentioned how the relative had lived “life one” and “life two” and now she was living “life three.” When I originally wrote the story, there were no cell phones, and people were writing letters to each other, putting stamps on them, and mailing them—it all sounds so very old-fashioned now. So I had to put quite a few details into “Sparkle” to update it. Now it has the words DVR and Blu-ray player, but when I’d written it long ago, the characters had a VCR—funny, right?
Rumpus: Most of the men in these stories act badly. They cheat or fall out of love. In “Manicure,” you wrote: “Men are like parking spaces—the good ones are already taken and the ones that are left are handicapped.” Do you worry about characters being likable?
Thurm: It’s interesting you raise that question, because every now and then I’ll read a book and I’ll say to myself, “I can’t believe there’s not a single sympathetic character here. What was the writer thinking? I can’t believe the publisher was willing to publish a book where these characters are all so utterly unsympathetic.” I remember reading somewhere that you, you as the author, have to love something about every one of your characters before you can write about them. They have to have at least some redeeming qualities so you’ll lovingly create a portrait of them even if they’re seriously flawed. But, yes, I do worry about that, but maybe I just care so much about my characters that it’s difficult for me to see that other people might say, This one’s obnoxious and I could care less what happens to him. I do think about it and certainly hope that in every story or novel I write that even if one character isn’t entirely likable, at least there’s one the reader has real sympathy for.
Rumpus: I think a lot of women writers get pegged as writing domestic stories, but yours are all very edgy.
Thurm: I wouldn’t say that was necessarily my intent, but my dark sensibility usually leads me there. I’m always on the lookout for details and I’m a big eavesdropper, which most writers need to be. I love overhearing dialogue and I always write the very best of it down. I’ve been writing on a napkin here, but I usually have a notebook. I love the bizarre and edgy. Once I was sitting on the subway and a woman opposite me took out a mirror and began tweezing her eyebrows! On the subway! I love those kinds of details. I wanted to say to the woman, “What are you doing? Shouldn’t tweezing one’s eyebrows be done in the privacy of one’s home?” Apparently the answer was no. Another detail I’m making use of in the novel I’m working on now: on a more recent subway trip, a very large woman was sitting with her legs spread way apart—they always tell you you’re not supposed to sit like that and need to leave room for your fellow travelers—and she was eating a three-course meal from her lap! I wanted her to move her legs together so I could sit down. I’m pretty small and can fit neatly into a small space, so I said, “Excuse me, can you please move over a little bit?” And the woman said, very imperiously, “After I’m finished with my dinner.” Of course I’m going to put that nuttiness into my new novel! The edgier the better!
Rumpus: Do you ever write about non-New Yorkers?
Thurm: Certainly in my novels and stories there are people from other places, but I’ve been living here for thirty-five years, so I’m truly a New Yorker. To me, the city is the best place in the world for writers. I can be a passenger in the elevator in my building and eavesdrop on neighbors having a conversation with each other or on their cell phones—conversations that will ultimately lead to a scene in a story or novel. Amazing things go on in New York every minute.
Rumpus: All but three of these stories are in a woman’s perspective, but there are those three that are in a guy’s POV. How difficult was it to write in perspectives further from your own?
Thurm: That’s never been a problem for me. I’m always surprised when I hear people like my students or other writers say, Oh, I could never do that. I feel completely comfortable writing from a male point of view. I have a son. I have a husband. I feel as if I know men pretty well.
Rumpus: So does your family influence your stories?
Thurm: Yeah, well. [Laughs] That might be a sore subject best left unexplored. It’s very hard. Students always ask me that. I just finished teaching an undergrad class at Yale and it seems to come up all the time. It’s definitely problematic for writers. You may know that yourself.
Rumpus: You’ve taught at Yale, Barnard, the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and in the MFA programs at Columbia University and Brooklyn College. How does teaching affect your writing?
Thurm: In one of my novels some years ago I was inspired to write about a class I once taught at a school that shall remain nameless. There were some hilarious details—if I do say so myself—about what goes on in a classroom where students show up totally unprepared. I have to say I got a big kick out of writing those classroom scenes! And, too, I love spending time with students and their writing, and discovering their talent. That’s always a thrill.
Rumpus: In this collection some of your characters are professors. In “Manicure,” the main character “attacked my students’ narratives with my micro-point green pen.”
Thurm: I have my husband to thank for part of the inspiration for that story. He’s the one who said some variation of the last few words of the very first line of the story: “I was fifty-two, an underpaid teacher and the author of a handful of slender but critically acclaimed volumes of experimental stuff which I knew for a fact had been read by at least three people. Those were: my mother, my deceased father and Sherri, my ex-wife.” I don’t remember the exact conversation, but my husband and I were joking around about how hard it was to be a writer, especially one whose work “had been read by at least three people.” I just loved that line. I never forgot it.
Rumpus: How do you feel about writers writing about writers? I’ve had other teachers in fiction workshops tell me not to.
Thurm: I read somewhere that not writing about writers should be a cardinal rule. I once wrote seventy-five or eighty-five pages of a novel that was about a writer very much like the character in “Manicure” and my agent at the time said, “Who wants to read another book about writers? Forget it. Never write another book about writers.” But I disagree because I think they can be truly interesting characters. I think as cardinal rules go, that should be stricken from the list.
Rumpus: Short story writers are often asked about which story was their Carver or Cheever-like story, but there are many writers out there with a Marian Thurm story because you’ve taught so many of us for decades. What writers influenced your early work? Was there someone you admired?
Thurm: That’s very kind of you. My answer was always John Updike. I admired him so much, and was very fortunate because I was able to meet him. We had a mutual friend and so I had the opportunity to speak with him for a few minutes. It just meant everything to me. He knew that I’d had some stories in the New Yorker and he was very sweet, very complimentary. I can picture myself standing there talking to him in the Boston Athenaeum, a private library in Boston where Updike had given a reading. I count that as one of the most thrilling moments of my life, along with having sold that very first story to the New Yorker.
Rumpus: Do you even know how many of your stories have been published in literary magazines?
Thurm: Several dozen, though I don’t know the exact number, but one funny thing about that very first story was that I’d sent it simultaneously to ten magazines. The New Yorker was one of those ten. This was way before the Internet, so I had to write letters to every one of the nine other editors apologizing and saying that I needed the story back because, much to my astonishment, the New Yorker had accepted it. Some of the editors didn’t even respond, but one literary magazine associated with a university that shall remain nameless wrote back and said something like, “Good for you! We wouldn’t have published your stupid story anyway!” [Laughs] He might have said ridiculous, not stupid, but whatever the insulting adjective, I vividly remember laughing!
Rumpus: How has publishing changed and how has publishing changed for women?
Thurm: I don’t think it’s changed particularly for women, but if anyone had told me in 1977 when I sold my first story that there was going to be something called e-books and the Internet and how gravely endangered the life of a writer would be because of those extraordinary changes, I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed it, though I still would have continued to write because writers just can’t help themselves from doing what they’re meant to do. It’s who they are. But these enormous changes in the publishing industry have, in certain ways, surely made things more difficult for writers. I tell my students—and it’s a simple truth–that publishing is a business! And like any other business, they are in business to make money. If your books aren’t going to help them increase their profits, in all likelihood they aren’t going to be all that interested in you. The independent publishers are different, of course, and for many literary writers they’re a godsend.
Rumpus: What other advice do you have for emerging writers?
Thurm: I think that to endure a career as a writer it has to mean pretty much everything to you. It absolutely has to, and that’s because it’s a difficult life for almost everyone except the hugely successful commercial writers out there. Being persistent, believing in the value of your work and refusing to allow anyone to convince you otherwise, is sometimes all you have to go on.
I’ll give you an example. My novel, The Clairvoyant, was published in 1997 by a small press, the first small press book I ever had published. There were a number of commercial publishers interested, but because of my previous sales figures, the book didn’t get picked up by a big house. But my agent at the time didn’t want me to publish my novel with a small press. She didn’t want anything to do with small presses and told me to put the book back in the drawer. But I was persistent, and I made her do something she didn’t want to do, which was to help me sign a very small contract with a very small publisher. And a lot of good things came of it, one of the first of those being that it was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. I got foreign sales, a paperback sale to HarperCollins, and a handful of movie deals, but had I listened to my agent and shoved it back in the drawer none of it would have happened. Sometimes agents will give you bad advice, and you have to be smart enough and sharp enough to recognize that agents don’t know everything. As I mentioned, The Clairvoyant had gotten a number of movie options over the years, and although the book was published in 1997, over the past year, beginning at the end of 2014, I had three different people in Hollywood, seventeen years later, contact me about it! Seventeen years later!
Here’s another example: I was offered $15,000 by a major publisher for my first novel. I fought vigorously with my agent at the time. She said, “Just take their offer!” But my husband was smart enough to say, “That’s crazy! This book is worth way more than that.” My agent (yet another agent) fought with me. She didn’t want to listen when I asked her to send the manuscript out to other publishers. Eventually, at my insistence, she sent it out to six more houses, and I got offers from five of them. And I ended up getting way, way more money! If I’d listened to her, it wouldn’t have happened. I’m not much of a fighter, except when it comes to my work!
Rumpus: Can you say what’s next? What are you working on now?
Thurm: Well, I’m always working on something. I’m at work on a novel now that’s a New York story and I can tell you a little bit about it, but I have to say it in a way that won’t compromise my fellow human beings. We New Yorkers inhabit a city with millions of other people and sometimes we never imagine the possibilities. It was an incredible coincidence that I ran into someone from many, many decades ago and I just happened to know a dark secret about this particular person. He was a young person in those days, but now, of course, he’s an old guy. It turns out he lives directly across the street from me and of course he has no idea that someone who knew him years ago remembers his less-than-exemplary behavior from another lifetime. That’s one of the reasons why you have to be a good, decent human being—because you never know if there’s a fiction writer living across the street! This guy will never know that my novel was inspired by him, but that’s one of the wonderful things about New York: I walked out of my apartment, walked down the street, and there he was. I remembered instantly that less-than-exemplary thing he’d done and thought I know what I’m going to do with this. So that’s a warning to everyone: be on your best behavior at all times!