Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Stephen Thomas

Share |
Stephen Thomas

Stephen Thomas's The Jokes (BookThug) is a collection of flash fiction stories with deceptively simple premises: family trips, first jobs, memories, conversations. And yet these are stories you can't pull yourself away from, driven by Stephen's razor sharp insights, witty observations and sneakily heartbreaking lines.

Today we're excited to be speaking with Stephen as part of our Lucky Seven series, where we talk to authors about their new books, their writing process and more.

He tells us why the pieces are called "jokes", the unexpected downside to beautiful writing instruments and about writing notes to himself as part of the writing process.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, The Jokes.

Stephen Thomas:

My new book (my only book!) is a book of very short stories that mostly start out with a broadly comic or clichéd situation and then bore down really hard into a single person’s consciousness in a single moment in a very short amount of time.

The pieces are called ‘jokes’ because a lot of them use joke-like premises to get off the ground, but as I was writing them I was also thinking of it as a funny joke that I would even write about these big, clichéd things like love and death and loss and existential crises at all. The idea of it being a ‘joke’ that I would write about serious things became a tool I used to get into territory I otherwise would have felt too self-conscious to explore.

As far as how the book came to be: I think the book is sort of a weird blue fuzz that grew out from the petri dish of my mind when I started graduate school and was being paid to write fiction for the majority of my time. Honestly that is probably too much time to work on fiction, and it kind of overloaded me, and these little ‘jokes’ were what I would work on when I couldn’t look at novels anymore. I didn’t have any expectation of them turning into anything, and in fact the first one (“Oasis”) came to me while I was riding my bike and all I just wrote it down and didn’t think about it much for a while. Then I did a few more, started sending them out, and they got published more easily than anything I’d written at that point, so I kept writing them.


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


I think there’s a tension at the heart of the book, which again, I had no idea I was wading into when I began, and the tension is between, on the one hand, wanting to entertain, to be funny, surprising, and clever, and on the other hand to express, and ideally evoke, real emotion. This is the dilemma of being an entertainer vs. being an artist, but I think it mirrors the more general life problem of taking yourself and your own problems, your own feelings, seriously. A lot of people I know—and I also do this, more than most even maybe—lean heavily on, like, a kind of shared joke discourse of ‘life is hell, I am literal garbage’, that kind of talk. And that obviously has its place, and it’s funny, and it’s comforting to know other people feel that way. But I ask myself like, what is the occasion to stop thinking of yourself as literal garbage? I feel there’s a danger of allowing your mind to set in that mold, and forget that if you want to, you can have a moment when you remember you’re going to die, you can inhabit your own body, and you can make real decisions. And there has to be space for that, and that’s the space I was trying to create with this book.

I certainly had no idea what I was doing when I started. These pieces were essentially my doodle pad, as I said. Several of them started as phrases that had struck me that I’d seen in the world, and the phrase would became an image that I would watered as I felt like it and allow it to grow as it pleased. Which couldn’t be more different from how I work on novels, which I stress out about much, much more.


Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


I talked about this a bit in this interview I did with Jess Taylor, but the short version is yes, I worked on this book for five years and it changed enormously in that time. It started as essentially a purely formalist, philosophical experiment of ‘interrogating’/‘exploring’ what a joke actually is, probably because I was in grad school at the time with a head full of theory, and as I was writing it I realized I was way less interested in the academic-y experiment-y side of it and way more interested in the emotional territory this technique of playing with jokes allowed me to open up into.


What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


In terms of space, food, rituals, instruments: I can and do write anywhere, on my phone, on my laptop in cafés or on the TTC, etc. For this book, most of the first drafts were written while out somewhere, on my phone, and later got reworked a hundred times on my laptop in total quiet in my bedroom. Food for me has no specific relation to my process, although coffee is important and I use an ADHD drug called Focalin sometimes. Rituals, none to speak of. My writing instruments are Google Keep, LibreOffice, an ancient Macbook Air I bought used off eBay, Jinhao x450 fountain pens, graphing paper, and a pad of 16”x22” paper for like, figuring things out. I also recently splurged on a German-nibbed Nemosine fountain pen that to be honest still makes me too happy to focus on writing to use.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


I used to adhere uncomplicatedly to the ‘suffer for your art’ strategy, and I do still think art is to some extent the packaging and selling of pain, but I also realized at a certain point that the thing that most helps me actually create art is to not feel like shit. So whatever it takes to do that, I do. Usually it means connecting somehow with another person.

As for coping with difficult points, I am constantly writing advice to myself, and I often print it out and blue-tack it to my bedroom walls. One that has helped me and that I’ve sent to others has been this one:


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


Oh gosh. How loaded is this question! I am tempted to fake an answer and say something like “a truly great book, nay, the only acceptable type of book, is a book of formally inventive and emotionally intense one-pages stories.” But the truth is that for me the great books are like, Infinite Jest, War and Peace, Philosophical Investigations and Fun Home. More recently, something like The Argonauts. It’s an ongoing thing. Perhaps what all these books have in common is that they all drastically reconfigured my idea of what a book could even be. I think it’s important to remember how flexible the form of the book is. It’s just a bunch of writing! Haha. But it’s a lot of writing. And the more rope you have, the more you can do.


What are you working on now?


This is gonna sound crazy but I’m trying to finish a novel while The Jokes is coming out. I’m way too busy to be doing this but I’m feeding off the energy in a good way, it’s making me feel really good about prose fiction as an art form.

Stephen Thomas is a Toronto-based writer of fiction, nonfiction, plays, and Facebook statuses. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Hazlitt, Playboy, The Atlantic‘s CityLab blog, DIAGRAM, Little Brother, The Seneca Review, The Fanzine, The Puritan and Definitely Not the Opera (CBC-Radio One). He has been awarded a Truman Capote Scholarship and Edward F. Albee Fellowship (Summer 2012). The Jokes, his debut flash-fiction collection, was shortlisted for the Metatron Prize for Rising Authors of Contemporary Literature. Learn more at

Related item from our archives

Related reads

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


Open Book App Ad