One of the good surprises about attending book fairs and conferences is making the acquaintance of authors previously unknown to me. I met the May Author of the Month, John Thorndike, at The Dairy Barn author event in Athens, Ohio, in December of 2023. Thorndike, who lives in Athens, grew up in Connecticut, graduated from Harvard, and earned an MA in English from Columbia before spending two years in El Salvador in the Peace Corps.

His first novel Anna Delaney’s Child, is about a woman whose nine-year-old son dies in a car crash. His other works include the novel The Potato Baron; a memoir, Another Way Home, about raising his son after his wife became schizophrenic; The Last of His Mind: A Year in The Shadow of Alzheimer’s, a memoir of the year he spent looking after his father;  A Hundred Fires in Cuba, a historical novel set in Havana, where a young American photographer must choose between her stable Cuban husband and her first love, Camilo Cienfuegos, the father of her child and now a hero of the Cuban Revolution; and The World Against Her Skin, a biographical novel about the author’s mother, starting on the day she left his father for another man.

Janet Irvin: Welcome, John. Thanks for joining me in the author’s corner. I would like to start where you began. How did your formative years in New England contribute to your future writing?

John Thorndike: My family read constantly. That’s what galvanized us: books and magazines. My father worked at Time, became Managing Editor of Life, and later started two hardcover magazines, American Heritage and Horizon. My mother, before her med school years, held editing jobs at Stage and Vanity Fair. Our living room was filled with books. As I grew older, novels would appear on my bedside table, artfully chosen by my mother. My parents were somewhat like Annie Dillard’s characters in her novel The Maytrees: “Together they read about 300 books a year. He read for facts, she for transport.”

JEI: What did you study at Columbia and Harvard that sent you on to Latin America? Or was there another catalyst for that decision?

JT: Growing up I read little about Latin America. The immediate catalyst for my move there was the war in Vietnam. I was opposed to the war and about to get drafted, so after a year at Columbia University, I joined the Peace Corps. I’d guess that a good half of my compatriots in our Central American group were escaping a war we didn’t believe in. But that was merely the impetus that landed us in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and so on. Once there, the fascinating culture, music, and literature of those countries snared many of us—though few as thoroughly as myself. When I married a woman from El Salvador, the deal was cinched!

JEI: A rich history that may have prompted your foray into writing. So, in your novels, what theme or themes predominate?

JT: Let me quote part of a rap song written by my son and a friend of his when they were in high school:

  Now I don’t care much for broken hearts, emotions and feelings,/ but when it comes to love, that’s part of the dealings.

That first line has stood ever since in my family for a focus on emotions, how we express them, how we hide them, how that interior life rules us beyond all outward forces. And feelings, of course, are easily paired with my interest in marriage, families, children, and the elderly.

JEI: When did you decide to shift your writing focus to nonfiction? Why?

JT: My first two books were novels. I started work on a third, but it wasn’t running smoothly. My son had gone off to college, the nest was empty, I missed him fiercely and talked about him often with friends, telling stories about his youth. One day the writer Natalie Goldberg stepped in front of me, took my hands, and said, “John, you have to write this all down.” That led to my first memoir, Another Way Home, about Janir and his schizophrenic mother.

Some years later I moved in with my father, whose memory was disappearing. It had never occurred to me to write something about my dad, but what was happening to his brain was so amazing that I began to record everything, which eventually led to The Last of His Mind, a book about his Alzheimer’s.

Since then I have returned to fiction, with a novel set in the early years of the Cuban Revolution, and my latest book, The World Against Her Skin. Though technically a novel, it’s largely based on my mother’s life. From the day I started writing it, I granted myself two freedoms: to take anything I wished from my mother’s history and to invent whatever else I chose.

Fifty years ago the critics would have crucified a writer for such a practice. Today it has become common. J.M. Coetzee, Mary Karr, Michael Chabon, and Karl Ove Knausgaard: these and many other writers have played with the tremulous line between fact and fiction. Paul Theroux says of his recent novel Motherland, that it’s about sixty percent autobiographical and forty percent fictional. What freedom we have now, to be able to weave the two together.

JEI: And how much richer our stories are for this license. Perhaps you can answer this for aspiring writers… how much time do you dedicate to researching your novels? What about revision?

JT: The research usually starts before I begin writing, and continues throughout. When I realized what was happening to my father’s brain, for example, I looked for personal accounts by dementia caregivers. I wound up reading every Alzheimer’s memoir I could find, perhaps thirty in all. (Today, twenty years later, this wouldn’t be possible. Instead of thirty personal accounts of dementia, there might be three or four hundred.)

Revision is perhaps ninety percent of my writing. I pour out the first draft of a chapter, and the next day I start editing it. I go over it again and again. All told, I’m sure most paragraphs are weighed, shaken, and adjusted at least a dozen times. My goal: to read the finished manuscript without the least twitch. Yes: ten percent writing and ninety percent revision.

JEI: Who would you identify as your most influential mentor?

JT: The book of books for me is James Salter’s Light Years. I read it first in 1988, and that same copy has lived ever since between my headboard and mattress. I used to fear that Salter’s style would invade and take over my own—but no chance of that. He’s too good, too inventive. I can’t match him and neither can anyone else. Yes, I’m altogether evangelistic about this book.

JEI: Do you have a writing group or a circle of friends with whom you share your ideas and/or your writing?

JT: It’s been years since I met regularly with a writing group. Now I have friends and other writers I trust, and over the course of a book I may offer them chapters, and eventually the full MS. They have straightened me out many times. But I’m always aware: they could be wrong! Two of them might disagree entirely on some topic. Then I have to find my own way—or ask someone else, who will have their own subjective response. The bottom line is clear: not everyone is going to like your work. We all disagree, all the time, and there are plenty of well-received books I can’t stomach. Yet how vital has been the response of my counselors.

JEI: You mentioned you plan a sequel to The World Against Her Skin. Can you share the current progress of the manuscript?

JT: Yes, I’m deep into the sequel. I’ll call this one about eighty percent fiction and twenty percent biography, as I invent the years my mother never had in life. I’ve been working on the novel for two or three years, and perhaps in one more, it will be done.

JEI: What is the most consequential act an aspiring writer can take to further their career?

JT: Promotion, pitches, and publicity all help. A thousand websites will guide you on this, and you’re currently on one of them. (Janet Irvin’s recent blog post on writing and business is quite enlightening.) But the primary job for all of us is writing. For me, it’s the daily immersion in my current chapter. Every morning, if I can swing it, I clear the deck, open the file, and work my way in. It’s not always easy. I need to get the flywheel turning and usually read over an earlier chapter or two. Revisions again, which help me enter that invented world.

JEI: What is the most fascinating place you have lived? the most challenging?

JT: In 1970, just days before our son was born, my wife Clarisa and I moved to southern Chile. Inspired by the back-to-the-land movement, we wanted to live an elemental life. For $1200 we bought a hundred-acre farm with a primitive house. We moved in when our son was a month old. There was no running water, electricity, or telephone, and we had no vehicle—though later I bought a horse-drawn carriage that I used to carry the eggs from my 200 chickens to the market in town, ten kilometers away.

We planted a garden. We harvested apples and cherries and dihueñe mushrooms from the forest floor. We milked two cows and made cheese. Over one eight-month period, we bought only four foods: wheat, cooking oil, salt, and yerba mate, the local stimulant tea. This was the fundamental life we had wanted to know. In many ways, it was like going back a century, to a simplicity that has enlightened me ever since. To this day, walking through my local supermarket, I’m stunned by the bounty, the abundance, the unending choices.

I welcome choices now, but I’m glad to have spent those years with so few distractions. Our son was our focus, along with the potatoes we ate for lunch and dinner, the horseback rides we took on Sundays to visit distant neighbors. No telephone, no television, no watches, some books. That life has leavened all my years since with its attention, as Thoreau put it, to “the true necessaries of life.” Or as the Greek philosopher Diogenes once said, after a tour of an Athens market, “How many things there are in the world of which Diogenes hath no need.” To this day, I look back at those two years in the Chilean outback as the most instructive of my life.

JEI: Thank you, John, for this fascinating look at your actual and writing life. Readers can find out more about John Thorndike and his work at https://www.johnthorndike.com/