Jon Chaiim McConnell’s new speculative novella, thrum, (Eye Cult Attic 2021) is an experimental work that exudes both organic and synthetic chaos, abandons formal notions of best practices, and creates a world we can still relate to. thrum is particularly relevant now, as humans and technology continue to coexist in the face of challenges from COVID-19’s wreckage.
A graduate of Emerson College’s MFA Program, Jon Chaiim McConnell writes with wit and versatility, in both short-story and essay form. His fiction has been published by SmokeLong Quarterly, Requited, Timber, The Knickknackery, and Moon City Review. He also served as the fiction editor for Split Lip magazine and Redivider.
I interviewed McConnell over a series of emails. His enthusiasm for thrum is as electrifying as its language, and his eagerness to dive into a thorough discussion of his craft makes the speculative all the more approachable.
The Rumpus: Simply, “thrum” is defined as a “continuous, rhythmic humming sound.” It’s also the title of your book. When did this word first appear in your life? Have you routinely used it in your daily vocabulary? What prompted you to write a book around this word?
Jon Chaiim McConnell: I wouldn’t say it was in routine use, and the word itself was actually a late bloomer in the drafting process. But the more I magnified the sensory details of this phenomenon I was trying to describe, the more the threads of the story would cohere around it. I realized that what was happening was that I was letting my writing tics take prominence instead of trying to write away from them, or round them out. I was lucky, too, because as soon as I realized that, I could then “locate” the book. I could point to something like C by Tom McCarthy, a book I love that’s built in its own way between narrative and sound, and know I had my permission slip to write thrum.
Rumpus: What are these writing tics, exactly? Why would you want to round them out in the first place? Why would you need a permission slip?
McConnell: I would say that the hyper-focus and repetition of a single word is a tic—whenever I do things for rhythmic or sound purposes that don’t necessarily make direct narrative sense.
As for rounding the tics out, I think I used to assume that indulging them would be a distraction for a reader. Almost as if no matter what strengths a writer had and what direction they were approaching fiction from—like, imagine all fiction writers on a spectrum around a center—I thought that the ideal was to always write towards that center, no matter what point you began from.
It took the challenge of writing my first book-length work to dispel that notion, because the sections that I didn’t feel wholeheartedly enthusiastic about were the sections that always felt half-finished, no matter how many drafts I went through. Writing against my instincts had deflated my excitement for the work, so I stopped doing that.
So, I guess the permission slip was kind of retroactive, identifying that the little lesson I had come to for myself seemed to also be present in this other work. I had found or manufactured evidence that I made the right decision.
Rumpus: Were there some portions of thrum that required more deliberation? In writing thrum, what specific techniques, if any, did you find yourself using that’s been a constant in your prior works?
McConnell: I’m definitely very careful about this exact thing in all of my writing, varying sentence length in order to guide the rhythm and the breath of a reader. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the first things I consciously took from another writer (Alice Munro, in this case), and I do my best to apply it at every level. I want my sentences to vary from each other, then the paragraphs, and then the chapters and sections, too.
Specifically with thrum, I thought it was important to keep this in mind in order to counterbalance the different sections against each other. I wanted a reader to have a chance to reset: first, in case they didn’t like one of the three types of styles, they could know that style wouldn’t overstay its welcome; second, to maintain separate sets of stylistic signposts for a reader to recognize. That way, no matter where or when I took a reader, they hopefully wouldn’t get lost. I knew if I wrote the sections all the same way that there would be a danger of that.
As far as prior works, I think the most important technique I’ve ever developed for myself is compressing my drafts, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my writing has only been reliably published after recognizing the need to do this. And what I mean by compressing my drafts is literally taking a paragraph and rewriting it as a sentence. Taking three pages down to half a page. It probably seems fairly obvious to a lot of people, but it took me years to realize that I needed to plan to do this instead of just serendipitously arriving at identical realizations each time I sat down to a next draft. I had taken the “make your first draft bad on purpose” advice to heart, but the idea that compressing, say, fifty pages into ten would result in all of the good bits being literally five times closer together had eluded me. And then suddenly it seemed like nearly every sentence in a row was working the next time I read it (surprise!). Not to say it’s as simple as a math equation, but it kinda is. Knowing that I want to write this way ahead of time has saved me a lot of unnecessary words.
Rumpus: When I personally hear the word thrum, I think of gestation, the rhythms a fetus is exposed to. Changes in temperature, the passing of food, the crossing of hormones over the placenta. I understand that you recently became a father. Did this have any impact on thrum’s development?
McConnell: Almost all of the book would have been finished before my daughter was born. And while going in and rereading, the father-daughter interactions became a fun game to identify where I was really predicting how I would act with her and where I was just drawing from tropes. I can’t say it had much conscious impact. I think what you’re picking up on is this fascination I have with medical technology, the idea of how much engineering has to go into even a machine’s simplest interaction with a biological structure. The architecture of trying to get a handle on these natural processes.
Rumpus: Your writing beautifully captures the symbiotic relationship between nature, humans, and robotics. Do you have any sort of engineering background? What experiences inform such precision in your writing?
McConnell: I do! A failed one. I flunked out of computer engineering in college before I switched to writing. And yes, that’s a perfect example: the makeshift construction over a literal sinkhole that’s opened up in the kitchen, knowing that you can’t interact with it on a one-to-one material basis or build anything of permanence but that a function still needs to be completed, even temporarily.
It’s the process that fascinates me, the loose ramshackle nature of even the most sophisticated medical technology, where for instance, “Take the blood out, clean it, and put it back in,” is a dialysis machine, juxtaposed with the seriousness and necessity of how those things are created. Cosmic irony, I guess, the scale of our solutions versus the scale of our problems.
But I don’t know that I have any specific experiences informing this. Though having to take calculus three times definitely taught me that I’m better suited to observing these things than working on them.
Rumpus: Can you explain your process of integration, of piecing thrum together and making sense of the structures upon which the characters rely?
McConnell: It only made sense after I decided to leave the family unnamed, which was probably fifty percent through drafting. An idea I really tried to nail down was the different senses of elastic time that can exist within the same measurement, subjective versus objective. So the sense of the unnamed family’s time would be driven by distance and disruption and feel very long, but the sense of Gwendy’s time would be driven by routine and appointments and feel more day-to-day, and then the italicized sections would be this grand, organizing, flattening force. But when everyone had names, no matter what tense or what point of view I would use, they still stubbornly tended to exist in the same “plane,” you know? And I didn’t mean for it to work like a Seinfeld episode. But as soon as the names went, the whole thing telescoped and the relationship between the structures fixed into place.
Rumpus: Is this process any different from how you approach shorter works? I first came across your work when I read “Hyperlocal,” where the protagonist’s first job out of journalism school is “to stay in the square at all times.” I feel that thrum strays outside the square. Would you say otherwise?
McConnell: I would say otherwise, to a point. I think of thrum as three short pieces woven together, and the weaving as the project of the book. But the thing where it all culminates to a single image or moment is how all of my short stories work, and I think it’s a very “short story” thing to focus on.
Rumpus: What did you have to keep in mind when weaving the story elements together? How many of your writing tics proved useful in your story weaving? Was there any part of piecing thrum together that seemed jolting or abrupt?
McConnell: I have a tic of writing mostly in sequences of imagery and not being very interested in the transitions between them. Instead of fixing that, I put together this working theory that readers will let you ignore things as long as you ignore them with confidence.
There’s a version of thrum where the threads could have meticulously interacted on the page but what I did instead was use plentiful whitespace between sections and a lot of time-skips (beginning a section with “Eventually,” or “Months later,” or something like that) in order to move freely to what I thought would be the most interesting scenes and images while implying an unspoken connective tissue. I didn’t necessarily think about what exactly I was skipping over.
I think writing past something in that way, at least when a reader is holding a book, already thumbing onto the next page, builds a sense of, Oh, this writer better know what they’re doing. It creates a propulsive tension outside of what’s literally written there, which is really all a writer needs to do, right? Convince a reader to keep going?
It still has to be resolved on the page though. I knew I had to devote a lot of energy to trying to stick the landing.
Rumpus: thrum is a novella about “…a city in a state of aneurysm.” Which one, if not entirely fictional, do you think deserves such a title, and why?
McConnell: I think by now we’ve learned definitively that every city can fit this description in the right circumstance. Specifically, what it makes me think of is when I was living in Boston immediately after the marathon bombing. When my roommate came home in shock from his job right in that area: the packed and silent pub up the street where no one could admit they needed camaraderie in that moment, the military guard at the subway stops, my boss trying to get me to “sneak” across the city during lockdown to come into work the next day. It was my first tenure living in a city, and there was a sensation of its coherence being blinked away.
Rumpus: How does your new place in Delaware inform your writing? How does it, with its idiosyncrasies, fit the description of “a city in a state of aneurysm”?
McConnell: Delaware is strange in a way that I don’t think I fully realized until house-hunting here, but it’s a lot of subdivisions of nowhere, at least in the top half of the state. There are very few center points. Almost as if it were laid out as a fractal. We very specifically chose one of the few actual towns to live in because the alternative gives me anxiety, turning off a fifty mile-per-hour highway into a residential street with no transition in between.
I think that preference reflects my writing attitude, which is a need to organize and solve. I don’t know that Delaware is in a state of aneurysm currently, but the degree with which it embraces entropy was a surprise, and so the act of writing becomes a deliberate and sheltering activity.
Rumpus: I also see that you do some screenwriting. Can you visualize thrum as an adapted screenplay?
McConnell: Yes, animated. My only actual ambition is to have an animated movie.
Rumpus: When you say animated, do you mean the two-dimensional? Would there be dialogue in this animated adaptation?
McConnell: Yes, two-dimensional, dialogue, the works. I saw the animated short Labyrinth, Labyrinthos from the 80s Neo-Tokyo anthology for the first time recently, and it’s so wonderfully slippery between its set pieces—very loose boundaries between very precise imagery. I’d love something in that vein.
Rumpus: Has your academic experience influenced thrum? Was there a departure of sorts from what you’ve been taught and accustomed to as both a reader and writer? All in all, what’s the most important takeaway from writing thrum?
McConnell: I did both a BFA and an MFA so it’s all in there, impossible to excise. If I really wanted to, I could argue that the three threads are somewhat representative of how my reading habits have changed: Gwendy’s section is from the domestic realism of the MFA, the unnamed family comes from reading almost exclusively narrative fabulism after graduation, and then the italicized sections come from the more language-y work that I’ve most recently gotten into. But I try to make it a habit to continue reading a variety of things, because I do genuinely like it all. So maybe the literal subject matter is a departure from what we were encouraged to write in class, but the care with which I approach writing is all from being in that environment and being encouraged to analyze my words for nearly a decade of my life.
As for takeaways, I hadn’t really thought of it until you asked the initial question and I had to put it into words, but leaning into writing tics instead of trying to smooth them out seems pretty solid. When I started writing thrum I don’t think I would have trusted that opening paragraph, my favorite paragraph, to carry a book, but now I know it’s the opposite: the book came out of making sure it fits.
Photograph of Jon Chaiim McConnell by McCo Media | Doug McConnell.