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Author Q&A: Woodlief Thomas ’96

Little Rock native’s novel influenced by his experiences of New Orleans

CONWAY, Arkansas (November 14, 2022)—The 2022 novel Just Off Elysian Fields (Del Sol Press) is the work of Hendrix alumnus Woodlief Thomas ’96, whose travels, teaching, freelance writing, and study of sociology during his time at Hendrix helped lay the foundation for his first work of fiction. The tale is told by several residents of post-Katrina New Orleans, a city Thomas experienced first through a three-year Teach for America assignment, then by extending his teaching career there for more than a decade.

Thomas, a Little Rock native who moved back to his hometown before completing Just Off Elysian Fields, spoke recently with Amy Forbus ’96 of the Hendrix Office of Communications. Excerpts from that conversation follow.

When you were Hendrix student, what did you think you wanted to do as a career?

Well, it definitely didn’t have anything to do with writing. And it didn’t really even have anything to do with teaching, either. I was just studying sociology and thinking about social work.

I applied to Teach for America because I didn’t really know exactly what direction I wanted to take, and after three years doing that, I applied to some MSW programs and was all set up with one, but I was traveling that summer and I realized that I wanted to just keep traveling for as long as I could. So instead of social work or teaching, I did odd jobs, like working on a fishing boat in Alaska, so I could keep on rambling a bit longer and see more of the world. I knew I wanted to help folks in some form or fashion, but I still didn’t know how I wanted to go about it.

And then you took the teaching turn?

And what a turn it was. It ended up being like 16 years.

Did teaching lead you toward writing?

I would say that traveling led me towards writing more than anything. When I came to Hendrix, I wasn’t a reader of fiction. But after college, I spent time on buses and all these different modes of transport that are really slow, taking whatever cost less. And I spent a lot of that time reading.

While I was traveling, my reading and writing took off, aided by my sociological education at Hendrix. I was examining the world, trying to figure out “What’s going on here that’s not going on in the States?” It opened up new ways of seeing for me and I wanted to write about it all.

Was there a particular point when you thought, “I’m going to write a novel”?

Oh yeah, definitely. I was writing nonfiction; all my first publications are essays, some of them about travels and a lot more about New Orleans. But I found myself realizing that writing nonfiction frequently put me in ambiguous ethical positions. I felt pressured to make changes to create a “better” story. Problem was, I take the non- in non-fiction very seriously, and I would sometimes be asked to put in information that contradicted my own experience in order to develop tension. Like let’s say I’m writing about Cambodia and they want me to talk about how dangerous it is, throw in some info about poisonous snakes and homicide rates and political violence and whatnot, but while there I didn’t once feel endangered, and in that piece I’m trying to write about something else altogether. Experiences like that made me stray away from nonfiction.

When I first moved back to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, I was living on Dauphine Street, and I found these interesting people living around me. In the book, the character Antoine lives on Dauphine in the same building I lived in. Maybelle, another character, lives on Governor Nicholls Street, in the house where I lived the longest when I was in New Orleans. Human behavior in New Orleans is different from anywhere else. Ultimately, I decided that nonfiction couldn’t fully capture the world around me there.

New Orleans is such an outdoor-centric place. So much of the life there occurs outside; watching everything pass by and the rhythm of my neighborhood, the Sixth Ward… the things I saw, some of them were very dark and violent, but more often beautiful and wonderful. So many things I saw there stretched my mind… New Orleans stretches the understanding of what is real. There is that mystical element in Just Off Elysian Fields.

To me, the book echoes a lot of Southern fiction: the shifting narrative perspectives, the thread of desperation that runs through the characters.

Yeah, it is definitely, distinctly Southern, partly because the South is where I’ve lived the majority of my life, and also another element: The book is violent, and the South is a violent place. New Orleans is terribly Southern. But it’s also very, very American, and very Caribbean, in many ways it’s everything, and that’s what a lot of the story’s about. It’s everybody’s in-between, including the ghosts in the book—back when I lived there I would not have been surprised in the slightest if a ghost had just walked down Governor Nicholls and sat down with me on my stoop and shared some wine—and that’s where the shifting perspectives come in. There are so many different wild perspectives that converge, and that’s why I think third person [narration] wouldn’t really work well.

In the acknowledgments, you mention retired Hendrix sociology professors Stella Čapek and Jim Bruce. How did their influence shape the novel?

They opened my eyes to the idea of structural violence—violence that occurs every day, walking down your block. It doesn’t necessarily involve blood, maybe not even tears, it’s just structures in society that create conditions that make it very difficult for people to thrive, and also to be themselves, which is a huge part of what Just Off Elysian Fields is about. The protagonist, for instance, just trying to remember pre-trauma, multiple traumas, who really is he, because all these terrible things that have happened have calcified him into this one understanding of himself, which is not really where he started. It’s obvious he has been run down by the things that can bruise a person, these structures that crush people, but it’s not obvious that it’s happening.

Right. It’s not flagrant.

Exactly. Like violence to the spirit, as opposed to the body (though that obviously happens as well). These characters are looking through the veil of civilization, in particular American civilization, a hyper-capitalist civilization—looking through that and seeing how many of the structures keep that system going to crush people up.

A recent social media meme reads, “Don’t judge people for the choices they make when you don’t know the options they had to choose from.” I thought of Antoine and some of your other characters.

Yeah, that’s accurate. [The characters] are offered very few avenues towards prosperity. Teaching all those years, and living in my students’ neighborhoods, I saw some of the conditions that a lot of my students and students’ families were living in and the inner turmoil that these conditions create. It’s not documented a great deal; that’s why I think it slips underneath the consciousness of many people. What I took from Čapek and Bruce was a deeper analysis of the institutions that create structural violence and what it can do to people.

With all the pressures in life that crush people, we can forget all the beautiful things that we’re made of. So I imagined Antoine scraping himself together and doing something really beautiful and heroic.

I wanted to do social work or something like it to address that kind of violence, and I guess I’ve done it, but in different ways. Teaching and writing, for example.

Now that this novel’s published, are you pleased with it?

Yeah, but the publisher was clear that I should not expect a great deal from a book of literary fiction. It’s hard for this type of story to be financially successful. I mean, it’s definitely not James Patterson-type stuff.

Not every novelist can be a James Patterson, from the financial perspective.

Without a doubt. And I know a lot of people find this novel relatively grim, which I don’t. I feel like it’s more authentic than my experience with nonfiction. Sometimes when I was doing the revision, I’d hear back from my editor, suggesting I change something that I didn’t really feel comfortable changing.

I could write things that are less bleak, more sunny stuff, whatever. But that’s not really what I’m worried about. It took 15 years to write this book and get it out into the world, and it’s true to its original concept. I’m happy about that.

And you’ve been doing long-haul truck driving along with writing in recent years, right?

Yeah, it seems antithetical to the writing life, but it actually helps me have more control over my schedule. I can do it for a while and then take time off. When I’m home, I’m home—with my family and my writing. And there’s time to think out on the road. Maybe someday all that thinking will coalesce into a self-help book or something like that [laughs].