Ernest Thompson: The Book of Maps - Part One
LAKES REGION, NH: Arriving at the home of Ernest Thompson, I steer down a long driveway to a picturesque Lakes Region New Hampshire farm with a barn and beautiful vistas. Kerrin Thompson greets me. She is a lovely, kind woman and married to Ernest. She is a writer as well. Ernest, Kerrin, and I settle in a sunroom for our conversation about his upcoming debut novel, The Book of Maps. As soon as I knew it was a ‘road trip’ novel, he had me hooked. It is loosely based on a trip he and his son, August, took twenty years ago.
For those who remember what an atlas is, this father and son road trip uses an old book of maps to direct them on their journey from California to New Hampshire. I searched my bookcases for my old atlas and, alas, had sent it to the recycling plant. Unfortunately, GPS has become the way to travel to unknown locations, and the joy of placing your finger on the red line of a highway and tracing it to your destination has long since gone away.
Ernest Thompson is everything you would imagine a Hollywood actor would look like. He is tall, tan, handsome, and easygoing. While he may have started as an actor, Thompson turned to writing and directing and gave us one of the most beloved works of writing, On Golden Pond, which initially started as a play.
The Book of Maps is, surprisingly, Ernest Thompson’s debut novel. He has written plays and movies and now turns his talent to fiction. We speak on a warm August day about the book, the plays, and the countless movie stars with whom he has worked. He is the first Oscar winner I have ever met, and I ask if I can see the trophy. And, yes, they are as heavy as everyone says.
I love the cover. I love the font.
“The publisher wanted this cover to be special. He publishes a lot of Indian writers and non-fiction. I think this is his biggest novel. He wanted it to be fantastic. He hired this woman, and at first, she went off in the wrong direction. I said we don’t need people at all [on the cover]. It’s about the road. She found that photo which was perfect. She chose the sepia tint.”
This is your debut novel.
“Why not debut at 72?”
Wikipedia.org references an article from The Independent. “Debut Novel,” says debut novels are often the author’s first opportunity to make an impact on the publishing industry, and thus the success or failure of a debut novel can affect the ability of the author to publish in the future. I think you’ve got that handled. You and the father from the book, Brendan Ball Tibbett, were both born on November 6, 1949.
“Did I mention I have no imagination whatsoever?”
Why 2002? Why that year?
“Again, see above; that was the summer that my son and I took our trip. It turns out that it’s a period piece. My publisher is saying it’s a fin de siécle novel, an end of the century, and if you look back at great books from the early 1900s, that’s a thing a sort of a beginning of the new era. I wasn’t aware of it when I was living it, and I wasn’t aware when I was writing it. The more I wrote, the more I realized what an innocent time it was by comparison. It was in the shadow of 911, and I think people thought that’s the worst that could ever happen. Turns out that wasn’t the worst that could ever happen. Look where we are now. So much of what was occurring in the news, and I sprinkle stuff in.”
Would you describe The Book of Maps?
It’s easy to say it’s a road book, a road story. I was doing an interview recently, and it occurred to me that critics and other geniuses love to distill a work of literature into one word. On Golden Pond had for years been known as a story about forgiveness. I bought that. The father is difficult. The daughter has to forgive him so she can get on with her own life. The wife is constantly forgiving him for being him. We were just in L.A. a few months ago because they’re doing a revival of The West Side Waltz (A play by Ernest Thompson.)[Katharine] Hepburn also played on Broadway. And then I did a movie with Shirley MacLaine playing that same role. I went back and looked at it and did some significant changes to it early this year. It’s really about acceptance. It’s a movie worth checking out with Shirley, Liza Minnelli, Kathy Bates, and Jennifer Grey. The play became so much more relevant because of the pandemic. It’s about three women living alone in New York and learning to be able to accept how different they are so they can begin to come together. I think The Book of Maps is about redemption if somebody wants a one-word theme. That guy Brendan Ball Tibbett, he’s got to grow up in a hurry. I have a feeling, and whoever knows what’s going to be attractive to people. I think it’s going to be attractive to women because men look like such lost causes. This is a guy who has to stumble enough times until he hits his head and realizes I got to do better. I gotta be a better father. And I have to be a better man. That’s my favorite line in the book at the end of the last chapter before the epilogue where he says, maybe that’s how you become a better father, a better lover, a better teacher, a better filmmaker, is to learn to become a better man. That’s what the whole arc of the story is his growing up at 52. I think that’s really interesting because it’s so easy for me to write bleak characters. But I don’t like those stories myself, where there is no hope, and I have this silly little catchphrase. I don’t like to get involved with projects, my own or others’ if they don’t have heart, humor, and hope. In On Golden Pond, Norman Thayer has a major heart issue. You think he’s going to die.”
“The reason he doesn’t die is because when I was a young man, I saw Dr. Zhivago. Omar Shariff is on the trolley, and he sees Julie Christie walking through the snow, and he gets out to run after her. He falls, and he has a heart attack, and he dies. She never turns around. I thought, well, that’s not good. I just felt uncomfortable. Norman Thayer is not going to live forever. He may never come back to the lake, but at the end of the play, we’re left with hope. She’s saying next year we’ll play Parcheesi, and we’ll go fishing, and Billy will come, and I’ll make cookies. Brendan Ball Tibbett could be a complete dick, and it would be fun to write that character, but I don’t think it’s satisfying. I think that’s one of the things that’s compelling about the story is that in spite of him, he’s a good father in spite of himself.”
Brenlyn is a great son, and I loved his character. That made all the difference in dealing with him and his father’s behavior. He witnesses these things.
“I always find myself as an audience member and a storyteller wanting to be able to help the characters. If only Norman had hugged his daughter when she walked in the room, there wouldn’t be all that follows. Don’t call her a little fat girl, just give her a hug. Then you root for them. I think that’s part of why Brenlyn is created the way he is because he’s our representative in the story. He’s saying to his father; dad, come on, let’s go. He is disappointed by his father, but he has to learn to forgive him and accept the guy’s shortcomings.”
What does it take to make somebody love you even when you’re imperfect?
“That’s a subjective personal question different for every single person. I like that moment in the book when his soon-to-be ex-wife says that you have to prove that you’re lovable. He looks around at all the people in the lobby, and each person has to step up in some way. There’s an old couple who come in, and he says what if I passed a notebook around and everybody wrote the truth? Would she write, ‘We’ve been together fifty years, and you’ve been pissing me off, and I disliked you since 1957.’ The old guy says, ‘Well, you’re not a barrel of clams either.’ You always have that spittle on your chin. It’s there now. But at the end of the chapter, I have him wipe the spittle off. She touches his hand as he does. Maybe he’s worthy of love, and maybe she is too. I think that’s what Brendan can look at and think, so I got work to do. I think for every relationship, it’s different.”
“I had an aunt die a few weeks ago. She was 99. My father’s last living sibling. Her daughter is closest in age to me of all my many cousins. We were communicating just the other day. She was going to clean out the house in Nelson, New Hampshire. She said I just walked in the house. I’ve got my garbage bags. Where do I start? If I were you, I’d start by doing the U-turn and walking out, closing the door, and never going back. I said, but you’ve got to do it and know that I’m proud of you. And I love you. She wrote back and said, ‘I’ve never heard I love you in this house.’ Because her parents weren’t of that religion, nor were mine.”
Many people were raised by parents who didn’t do that kind of thing.
“So, what makes someone worthy of loving? Being able to change. Being able to demonstrate that there’s hope for you, for the person you are. I had a first cousin, once removed. This character in the book is named Mildred, the old, retired schoolteacher. I’ve already told Shirley MacLaine that she’s going to be playing Mildred. The reason I was mentioning that about Mildred, the character of the long-time schoolteacher, is in my real life, there was a Mable. She had a sister who lived in L.A., Elizabeth, who also was a life-long schoolteacher. And Elizabeth didn’t marry until she was 48. She’d married a retired L.A. cop. He said, ‘Well, I’m 55, and you’re 48; we’ll have thirty years together,’ and he was true to his word. He died at 85. When I visited the hospital when he was going down, Elizabeth, whom I had grown very close to, said, we’ve been together 30 years, and he’s never said I love you, but I know that he does. I’m thinking I want to go and wake the guy from his coma and say, [there’s] one last thing you need to say to this woman. Did he prove he was lovable? I guess so. They spent all that time together. He gave her a life she wouldn’t have had.”
Would you talk about “the farty briefcase he never didn’t have with him? You don’t have a briefcase. You have something else.
“I did have a binder full of stuff. The first lyric I wrote is in there, I wrote when I was eleven is, ‘They call me the devil cause I’m dressed in black, they call me the devil cause I’ve got the knack, Beelzebub, Beelzebub.’ I have scraps, and I don’t know why I keep them, except they’re part of me, part of my DNA. Brendan, not to spoil it for anybody else, defines himself by that satchel. When it goes missing, he doesn’t know how to define himself anymore, which is very revealing. As time goes on, he realizes he doesn’t need that to define himself. It’s almost liberating.”
Would you explain the rituals when they enter a new state and why playing is so important to them?
“It starts with the overgrown boy who is the father. My son and I did the same thing. We made up names. Who knows, maybe that will be a thing now when people on road trips will come up with new names every time they go into a new state. It is the playfulness that I think is key – not taking oneself seriously and measuring up. Some people never grow out of that extended childhood which is probably enviable in some ways. Some of us do but don’t let go of that playfulness.”
At the beginning of the book, Brendan and his estranged spouse exchange words. “We’re allotted a finite number of words in our lives and so many sentences to bend them into; why not give them color and shape and musicality? That was Brendan’s philosophy. Why not piss other people off? And anybody who didn’t know what knights-errant meant should renew her library card.”
“That’s how I interpret our responsibility as writers. It’s not just to report but to challenge, and why not? I’m kind of on record now via Brendan as being that person. Everyone who knows me will testify that I’m pretty exacting in how we protect the English language. I drive people crazy by saying, it’s really not chomping at the bit, it’s champing at the bit, and I’m going to explain to you why that is. Some people will say, well, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to know that. In the movie On Golden Pond, there’s a climactic scene when Jane Fonda’s character has returned from Europe, and she goes with Hepburn’s character’s encouragement, to have this showdown with her father, and it takes place in the lake [with Henry] in the rowboat. She wades in to talk to him. She says, I just think you and me have been mad at each other for too long. And, I said to the director, ‘She’s the daughter of an Ivy League college professor.’ She would never say me has been mad at you. And he said, between you and I, no one will ever notice. I thought I see what I’m up against. I spend a lot of my time trying to be helpful to other people.”
You’re right. She would never have said it that way.
“Most people don’t know the difference. It drives me crazy. What recourse do I have but putting it down on the page? Maybe, it’s possible that a reader will look at this and think, ‘I don’t know that word. I could Google it. Oh, that makes sense.’ It may not become part of that person’s vocabulary, but it represents to me an invitation to broaden our scope a little and why not? In a way, it’s still part of the playfulness on Brendan’s part, but it’s also the stern taskmaster that he is for everybody else but mostly for himself. What’s my better way of telling the story?”
Libraries … “a temple of a different order, a place of worship indeed,” I love a library. The librarian makes a deal with Brenlyn to allow him to take the book, and Brendan leaves his Rolex as collateral. Talk about libraries.
“I was brought up in libraries. I have a great respect for the craft, the institution, but I also think what Brendan thinks, that they’re chapels. I love where it says that he hears the music of every writer, and I list a whole bunch. I just love that everybody has a different sound. To me, it’s the most invigorating place in the world to be in a library. It’s a little contradictory because it’s supposed to be the quietest place in the world. Brendan taught the kid about libraries as soon as the kid could put enough words together to make a sentence.”
I love this line as well. “It’s astonishing Homo erectus could ever walk upright considering the weight of the human heart.” Where did it come from?
“Well, there’s a precedent to it in the book where he talks about the 18-ton obelisk at the Custer battlefield. He said there’s really no measure of guilt, [or] responsibility. It’s a motif throughout the book. When Brendan is so distraught by the jeopardy, he put his son in because it’s all his fault. He pulled off the road in Blue Earth in the first place. If he hadn’t done that if they just breezed on through, and it wouldn’t have put the kid in more peril. If he hadn’t chosen that particular moment to say oh, by the way, your mom and I are getting a divorce. All of that adds up to an awakening for Brendan that he’s got to do better. The agony he feels, to me, that’s just the perfect metaphor. What’s the heaviest organ? The heart. It just is so sodden now with regret and grief. I just thought it was the right way of saying it.”
You call Brenlyn, Blynk. Why Blynk?
“The father didn’t like Brenlyn. Who would? But his wife had insisted on Bren and Lyn. I’m sure it was just one of those little pet names that Brendan kind of contrarily calls him Blynk because it pisses his wife off. Near the end, she calls him, and he says is Blynk home? And she says, no, Brenlyn is not here. It’s a reinforcement. People have their own pet names. And it’s fun to say Blynk.”
I have the Lynsay question. Lynsay has sex with Brendan before they part. I found that out of character. If I were divorcing somebody, I wouldn’t want to have sex with him.
“If you go back and do the DNA tracing, that was really the foundation of their relationship, the sexual part. At one point, it says, she took a road trip with him once upon a time, too. When they weren’t pulling off the highway and going at it like foxes, they were fighting like foxes. She was 23 years when they began their relationship, and that was how it was defined.”
“At first, it’s possible to think that Lynsay is the problem because she married the wrong guy. It’s clear that’s the case. But I think that she turns out to be the solid character of the book. She didn’t do anything wrong other than marrying the wrong guy. I would be fascinated if you knew ten people who read the book; you’d probably have ten different opinions or theories about why she would sleep with him on the last night. Was it a message? Was it a power play? Was it a final goodbye, a slap in his face? Was it a yearning for the connection they should have had? Because that’s what it says. He was the lover she always wanted. And she was what she should have been for him. That’s what happens in marriages. In a lot of marriages, it doesn’t quite go parallel after a while. Then you’ve got problems. It’s sad, but in a way, it’s a final message to him.”
“It’s a precursor to what the court is going to say. One of you is going to get 51 percent [of Brenlyn], and one will get 49 percent. In a way, she’s saying, ‘I’ve got the last hand here. I’m going to play it as I choose.’ But, underneath, I think she liked the guy. There was an attraction there. I think it’s telling that it could have been a fight, the last moment together. But, instead, there was love to be made.”
Next: Part 2 – On Golden Pond, and so much more.
Ernest Thompson’s Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay of On Golden Pond. Photo by Beverly Stoddart.