You’re in for a treat this week, I promise you. I take great pleasure in introducing a writer I highly admire. Thom Atkinson tells real stories, stories with change, choice, conflict, and consequence, plus structure and style. His stories are so simply good they hurt, they spell-bind, they make you want to copy his plain-spoken style. Thom also happens to be a funny and friendly man, so I knew he’d have something entertaining to say about “The Joy of Story.” I was right. Here it is:
I’m a little nervous talking about “The Joy of Story.” As a matter of fact, I’m more than a little nervous talking about writing in general, because, even though it’s what I’ve been doing most of my life, there is a superstitious alchemy to it which I don’t fully understand and don’t want to mess with. And I hope I never fully understand the process, because that would suck much of the joy out it for me. But I can tell you a little about that mysterious alchemy and how it happens to manifest itself in my peculiar brain. Think of it as the story of a story.…
My most successful story to date is called “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills,” and it’s about a young man who runs away from Ohio because he may, or may not, have caused an accident which cost his co-worker a hand. I should probably mention that his face is horribly disfigured from a meth explosion, his pickup breaks down in South Dakota, and a Native American family adopts him and takes him to see the Crazy Horse Monument. Everyone back home calls him Grimace after that purple thing in the old McDonald’s commercials and the Indian girl who takes him to Crazy Horse has a poorly-repaired cleft palate. It’s harsh and brutal and beautiful—so yeah, it’s a love story. It was published in The Sun magazine (#439), received two Pushcart Prize nominations, won an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award in Fiction, was taught in English 11 & 12 AP classes in San Diego, and prompted a slew of comments from readers and other writers.
How did it happen? You tell me. I’ve been working on a short story collection, Standing Deadwood, and the stories are all free-standing, but also linked by common characters, geography, shared history, etc. Grimace is a secondary character in several of the stories (his real name is Paul). For reasons too complicated to explain, I’d been taking one of my sons to an inventory job, which involved an insane schedule and driving long distances at all hours. So one night, after months of sleep deprivation, at 3:00 in the morning, Grimace knocked on the inside of my skull, woke me from my fitful sleep and demanded his own story. He literally came to me in a dream. I covered three yellow Post-It notes in tiny scrawl and headed out the door for a two hour road trip to pick up my son.
I know that much of the detail in the story came from a trip we took out West a year earlier, that we did see Crazy Horse, that we were in a grocery store in Rapid City, and that there were two Indian girls who may (or may not) have been sisters. And I’ve worked on my share of broken-down pickups. It’s not that I remember specific details, it’s that I cannot not remember the details. So basically, and mostly unbeknownst to me, Grimace and all of those mental snapshots from that trip out West got dropped into a burlap sack, beaten with a heavy stick in some dark corner of my mind for month after month, and when I emptied that sack onto the page, I got “Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills.”
Any questions? Yes, you there in the back.
Thomas M. Atkinson is an author and playwright. This summer, he was the 2013 Ohio Arts Council/Fine Arts Work Center Writer-in-Residence in Provincetown, MA, awarded each year to one writer from the state of Ohio based on "exceptional merit." His story, “Red, White & Blue” was a finalist for the Danahy Fiction Prize at Tampa Review and will be appearing in their next issue (47/48). His short story, "Grimace in the Burnt Black Hills," received two Pushcart Prize nominations after appearing in The Sun magazine, and won an Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence award in Fiction for 2012 and was taught in English AP 11 & 12 classes in San Diego.
His short fiction has appeared in The Sun, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, The Tampa Review, The Moon, City Beat and Electron Press Magazine. His short play, Dancing Turtle, (based on his awarding-winning short story) was one of six winners of this year’s 38th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival and will be published in two different anthologies: Off Off Broadway Festival Plays 38th Series and Piper Plays: Smart Plays for Young Actors.
Some of his full-length plays include: Clear Liquor & Coal Black Nights (Playhouse in the Park), Copperheads (Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati), and Cuttings (ETC, Theatre Conspiracy, Culture Park Theatre). He has won numerous honors and awards for both fiction and drama, including four Ohio Arts Council grants. His first novel, Strobe Life, is currently available on Amazon for Kindle, and he has just completed his second novel, Tiki Man, and Standing Deadwood, a collection of short stories (he needs a good agent if you know one). He lives in southwest Ohio with his wife and two sons.