10 Questions: J.R. Thornton (Beautiful Country)

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J.R. Thornton could have been the next Roger Federer. Instead, he set his sights on a pursuit that is less athletically challenging, but no less demanding: Writing.

Thornton’s debut novel, Beautiful Country, is a coming-of-age novel that author Niall Ferguson, author of Civilization, describes as “[i]n many ways the quintessential ‘Chimerican’ novel for the millennial generation”…

Pittsburgh’s fearless features reporter Rege Behe recently talked Pittsburgh with Thornton – and for a brief, wondrous moment, the Littsburgh crew was inspired to imagine David Foster Wallace’s Enfield Tennis Academy as written by Michael Chabon.

While Beautiful Country isn’t that particular fantasy realized — for one, it’s set in Beijing — it sounds fantastic (“an exceptionally gifted young writer” — Mo Yan, 2012 Nobel Laureate in Literature) and we’re excited to check it out!

More interviews…


What comes to mind when you think about Pittsburgh?

Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh and long drives to tennis tournaments. I lived for a time in New Jersey and as a junior tennis player I competed in the USTA’s Middle States Region (which includes Pennsylvania). A friend and rival of mine growing up was Pittsburgh native, Bjorn Fratangelo, who later went on to be the first American to win the French Open juniors since John McEnroe did it back in 1977.

What books are on your nightstand?

Right now I’m reading a few books. The Plague by Albert Camus, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era by Michael Mandelbaum (I was a history major in college, so I find that sort of thing interesting), and a collection of poems by W.H. Auden. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve never read much poetry, but I’m trying to get into it because I think it will make me a better writer.

Is there a book you’d like to see made into a film?

Definitely. There are several actually. I would love to see A Confederacy of Dunces finally get made into a film. Ignatius Reilly is such a great character, and I can think of several actors who would really nail the role.

I’m also a huge fan of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, and would absolutely love a really good film adaption of those. The 2005 Hitchhiker’s film starring Mos Def and Zoey Deschanel really didn’t do the books justice, and I think there is a lot of potential for a much better remake. One of my favorite books of all time is Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen, and I think an adaption of that could be really cool – especially if it were done by someone like Jeff Nichols (Mud) or Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective).

And finally – I think they really need to make a movie about Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and their mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the architect of the Holocaust. It’s an absolutely remarkable story of courage and sacrifice, that begins with Kubis and Gabcik parachuting into enemy territory and ends with them (along with a few other conspirators) holding off seven hundred and fifty SS soldiers in a six hour gun battle. Laurenrt Binet wrote a great novel about it a few years ago titled, HHhH (ed: HHhH movie now in the works!).

What are your writing hours?

I find I work best when I have long stretches of time to work uninterrupted. In an ideal world I would wake up early and write from say 7/7.30 until lunch time, take a break for lunch, and then write for another few hours.

Do you have a good luck charm or ritual you keep while writing? Favorite article of clothing, favorite meal, snack you keep close?

Not really. It’s nice to write by a window with a good view, but I’m not too picky about that sort of thing.

Were there any specific books that inspired you to write?

When I was little I would fall asleep listening to stories from Greek mythology on audiotape. I wouldn’t say that those inspired me to write per say, but they definitely were the genesis of my love of stories and storytelling.

What was your favorite book as a child?

When I was a child I would go through phases where I became obsessed with an author and would read pretty much everything they ever wrote, so it’s hard to pick out a single favorite book. Those authors included: Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, Bernard Cornwell, Brian Jacques, Enid Blyton, Arthur Conan Doyle and Douglas Adams. I also loved the Phantom Tollbooth and, of course, the Harry Potter series.

If you could go on a writing retreat anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Tough question, but I would probably say somewhere in Tuscany.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, has it happened to you and what did you do to relieve it?

I don’t really believe in writer’s block. As long as I can get myself to sit down at the computer and start writing I never really have a problem with that. I found that once I started writing everyday my whole mindset changed, and I started thinking like a writer. I started noticing the idiosyncratic things people did, their personal tics or their manner of speaking, because I needed those kinds of details for my characters. Once I started thinking like that, it became really easy for me to generate ideas for stories. Sometimes things as simple as: the name of a store I happen to pass by, or something I overhear someone say, or a sentence I read in a newspaper article, can give me the idea for a story. I always have five or six story ideas floating around in my head at any one time, so I’m never at a loss for things to write about.

Of course some times I’ll have to stop writing the story I’m working on, take a break and go for a walk to think it over and figure out what happens next. But I see that as a continuation of the writing process. Even though I’m not physically putting words down on paper, I’m still building the story in my head.

If you could call up any fellow writer (dead or alive) for writing advice, who would that be and why?

That’s another tough question as there are several writers I would love to have that conversation with. Hemingway would be awesome to talk to… but I have a feeling his advice might come in the form of a cryptic Hemingway aphorism (something like: “The only truths in life are death, love and the horror of war,”) and I don’t know how helpful that would actually be.

I would love to speak to F. Scott Fitzgerald as I have huge admiration for the quality, beauty and elegance of his prose. I have been trying to improve that aspect of my own writing by reading all of his novels and short stories and seeing what I can pick up from him. I’ve also been trying to learn more about how he developed his craft in general by reading his letters and journals, but obviously it would be amazing to have that conversation directly from him.


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