A Conversation with John Milliken Thompson

A Conversation with John Milliken Thompson.
Q: How did you come across Commonwealth v. Cluverius, the case that would form the basis for The Reservoir? When did you decide that it would be a great subject for a novel?
A: I’d been intrigued with Richmond for some time, so I went there looking for a story from its rich past, imagining that the Civil War and earlier periods would be the most fruitful. Looking in Virginius Dabney’s history of the city, I read a paragraph on the case that caught my interest. The more I dug into the case and the period, the more fascinated I became. Transported back in time, I wanted to bring readers along for the ride. My original idea was to write a non-fiction book that would present the courtroom drama and the psychologies of the main characters. After a few months, however, I decided that fiction was the only way I could really understand the characters and their motivations.

Q: How do you feel about the character of Tommie? Are you convinced of his guilt or innocence?
A: Tommie intrigued me from the start. Here you have a smart, well-spoken young man with a lot of potential to do great things, or at least to live comfortably and become a pillar of his community. He yields to temptation, as we all do from time to time, and then compounds his mistake by not owning up to it and confronting it head on. I think what makes his case different from the murder-of-the-week that we see all the time on TV is that he is himself unsure of his own guilt. The mystery of this whodunit lies in discovering what “it” is and why it was done. It’s clear early on that Tommie is guilty of something–we try to discover what that is by peeling back the layers of his complex personality. The final layer is the puzzling and mysterious nature of history, which can only be told by the survivors.

Q: How did writing historical fiction differ from your previous experiences writing nonfiction? Did you draw inspiration from any other fiction writers?
A: This book has been the most absorbing and satisfying writing experience of my life. Writing nonfiction taught me how to do the kind of research I needed for The Reservoir, and it got me interested in American history. The challenges of fiction are very different–having the story rely far more on one’s imagination than on the facts is both freeing and terrifying.

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment was an early favorite book of mine. You can’t read something that intellectually compelling without coming away inspired, influenced, and changed. Both Raskolnikov and Tommie think themselves extraordinary people, but where Raskolnikov is driven by an idea, Tommie is possessed by desire. Dreiser’s An American Tragedy was a huge help as I tried to figure out how to transform a true story into a novel. He created a masterpiece that at the time was criticized for being too long and having a protagonist who was too ineffectual. I wanted to avoid those issues, while creating something original. I was able to keep the length down by assuming–thanks to television–an audience familiarity with police procedures and courtroom business, except where local and historical details differed from today. Other influential writers, for various reasons, include Fitzgerald, Keats, Capote, D. H. Lawrence, Styron, and Robert Penn Warren, to name a few.

Q: As a lifelong Southerner, how important was it for you to convey a sense of place in the novel?
A: Geography has always mattered to me, and I think it would no matter where I was from. Landscape and history are inseparable–a sense of place only deepens the field on which your characters go about their lives and struggles.

Q: The novel is set in 1885, about twenty years after the end of the Civil War. How do you think this impacts the atmosphere of the novel?
A: The war is a nearly constant background noise in this novel. Tommie’s generation is the new, postwar generation, but for the older folks–his parents, the lawyers, and many others–the war was the defining historical event of their times; the war shaped who they were in the 1880s. Richmond was in ruins after the Civil War; two decades later it has begun to emerge again as a major industrial and economic center. But, it would be many more years before the Confederate capital could claim identity as something more than a proud loser. That explains to a large degree why this trial and the way it was prosecuted and reported were so important to the locals.

Q: How long did it take you to write The Reservoir?
A: The short answer is three years, including a number of revisions. The long answer is that it took about twenty-four years. That’s how long I’d been writing fiction up to that point. I wrote several books that didn’t pan out, but all that time and effort were not a waste–when I finally came upon the right story at the right time, I had enough experience and patience to see it through.

Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m very excited about my new novel-in-progress. It’s set a little farther south and a little later in time–I’m finding the turn-of-the-century period won’t let me go. It’s a transitional time, when things were unsettled and uncertain. The main character is a girl who grows up in a large family and endures some very hard events; there’s some comic relief, though the main tone right now is elegiac.

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