Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Telling a Story That Works: Part Two of Stephen Thomas in Conversation

Share |

Yesterday I posted Part One of my interview with Stephen Thomas about his book, The Jokes, out this March with BookThug. The Jokes is technically a book of short stories, but to call it a book of short stories simplifies the complexities of its form. Stephen and I talked more about the form yesterday, going into depth about the writing process and my response while reading. Today we get more into the content of The Jokes and where the concept began.


ST: In writing these pieces I actually was just trying to figure out how to tell a story that "worked", because even though I'd written a lot of fiction before, I'd completed relatively few stories that seemed to me to have "worked", so I was going wherever that "worked" feeling led me.


JT: Do you feel you discovered what "works"?


ST: Um, I mean I discovered a lot of boring stuff about the mechanics of storytelling. I guess I got really into the idea of a short story as a machine every piece of which is connected to every other piece. And so with stories of these length, you can literally be like, this word is connected to that word over there, and this word is connected to that word, and THIS word... wait, it's not doing anything, it needs to be cut. So I got very finely tuned about it.


JT: Yeah I can imagine that working so short, it'd definitely make that process even sharper.


ST: Ya, I mean, not to say that every other writer in like every other medium and word count doesn't omit needless words also or try to [at least].


JT: I think that this idea of something working is interesting... because you're right that on a basic level, we can look at the mechanics of writing, but then there's also that thing that we just can't name... some things just work and others don't. I think it's the same for humour, for jokes.

Your book is titled The Jokes, so you'll probably get asked about it a lot. I've heard you describe the book as not being jokes, not being humourous. But there is some humour there, I think, and definitely playfulness.


ST: There was definitely, at the start (of writing them) especially, overlap with how jokes work, like employing endings that felt a little like punchlines.

JT: And some of the set up you were drawing on from jokes, typical _____ and _____ walk into a bar type of thing.


ST: Yeah, I think that's my elevator pitch when I'm feeling most self-deprecatory or think it'll come off as funny. "Jokes that aren't funny". Especially at the start, as I said, I used those [structural elements of jokes] as writing prompts.

Actually the longest one was a 6 page one that was exactly "a man walks into a bar." It didn't work at all though, and then that thing on The New Yorker got published, and I was like, “K sweet problem solved.”


JT: I can't imagine the book with a 6 page one in the middle.


ST: Ya it was really horrible, it used like, weird accents and eye dialect and had like talking horses and cowboys and Abraham Lincoln, a very different tone. Maybe I’ll post it on FB some day.

One thing that people are sometimes interested in is the transition from the more "formal"/experimental style to the more emotional style. I worked on this book for a long time, about 5 years, and that spanned my mid/late twenties to my early thirties, and there's a real kind of transition that I think is common during that time. I started the book as a real sort of bratty intellectual super invested in like, metafiction, and being really into that tradition. But as I was writing the stories, I noticed that the ones I liked best were the most emotional and "real" ones.


JT: Yeah there is, I think, one story that has Stephen Thomas in it where it was a bit more overtly metafictional, but you're right, most were "realer".


ST: At the start it was a "joke", at least to me, that I was "writing in a nakedly emotional way". Later on when I looked at what I had written, I realized I actually liked to write that way. And so I started writing ones that still started with the joke premise but then got like, real or emotional or ecstatic. A lot of the more metafictional/ironic earlier ones didn't actually make the book.


JT: I think that's one of the things that's difficult, but also really awesome about writing... because we do it over such a long time it changes and evolves as we do.


ST: The time it takes to write a book is a really weird amount of time to try to create a cohesive thing.


JT:  Do you feel you lost anything in changing the medium from mainly online to print? BookThug is pretty good about keeping author vision intact but there can be changes when considering a different audience.


ST: I mean some of them were published in print -- in Hobart and Little Brother, but yeah. It was mostly online. Honestly I don't really know. I was talking with Derek McCormack a couple weeks ago, asking him for advice on first book stuff, and talking about writing my second book, mostly whining about how hard it was, and he was like, "When you picture it on the shelf at Type Books, does that give you the energy to work on it?" and then we both sort of realized I'd never published a book before or had that experience, so I really didn't know what it would be like. I guess what I’m saying is I’ve had things published in print before, but I’ve never had a book out, and I've never read my own book in print, so I don't really know what to expect -- no idea how it will be received by

readers reading it in between two covers.

I hope they like it though.


Preorder The Jokes from BookThug or attend the launch this spring to get your own copy!




The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Jess Taylor

Jess Taylor is a Toronto writer and poet. She founded The Emerging Writers Reading Series in 2012 and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. She's released two chapbooks of poetry, And Then Everyone: Poems of the West End (Picture Window Press, 2014) and Never Stop (Anstruther Press, 2014). This October, her first collection of short stories, Pauls, was published by BookThug. The title story from the collection, "Paul," received the 2013 Gold Fiction National Magazine Award. Jess is currently at work on a second collection, a novel, and a continuation of her life poem, Never Stop.

You can contact Jess throughout the month of February at

Go to Jess Taylor’s Author Page