John Thompson: Digging Up The Past

Photo: Other Press

Q&A with the author of The Reservoir — a murder mystery dating back 100+ years.

John Milliken Thompson is a Southern writer who has published non-fiction in The Washington Post and The Smithsonian, among others, and his short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals. In addition, he is the author of “America’s Historic Trails” and “Wildlands of the Upper South,” and co-author of “The National Geographic Almanac of American History.”

Photo: Other Press

Thompson’s first novel, “The Reservoir,” was published in June of this year. It tells the story of a murder mystery set in Richmond, Va., during the 1880s — and incorporates betrayal, love triangles, and social issues from this period in our history. In preparation for his book signing at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop this evening, Thompson answered a few questions about his most recent release.

Seattleite Magazine: After nearly two decades of writing non-fiction books and articles for a variety of publications, did you ever have an intent or desire to write fiction?

John Thompson: I’ve spent about 18 years writing non-fiction books and articles, but I was also writing fiction on and off during that period. Fiction was what drew me to writing and what I’d intended to write all along.

SM: Where did you initially learn of the story behind “The Reservoir?”

JT: I first came across it in a paragraph in Virginius Dabney’s “Richmond: The Story of a City.” Synopsis of the story (from Thompson’s website): On an early spring morning in Richmond, Virginia, in the year 1885, a young woman is found floating in the city reservoir. It appears that she has committed suicide, but there are curious clues at the scene that suggest foul play.

Photo: Other Press

As the identity of the girl, Lillie, is revealed, her dark family history comes to light, and the investigation focuses on her tumultuous affair with Tommie Cluverius. Tommie, an ambitious young lawyer, is the polar opposite of his brother Willie, a quiet, humble farmer. With Lillie dead, Willie must decide how far to trust Tommie, and whether he ever understood him at all. Told through accumulating revelations, Tommie’s story hurtles toward a riveting courtroom climax with a shocking conclusion.

SM: What aspects to the story behind “The Reservoir” inspired you to take it from a non-fiction piece to fiction?

JT: Even though there was plenty of material about the case, there wasn’t really enough about who the characters really were. Also, I became intrigued by the historical mysteries that remain unsolved. Particularly, what really happened one snowy night long ago at the reservoir?

SM: Can you tell us a little bit more about your experience searching for and finding Lillian’s grave? What did that add to your story?

JT: I had to make several phone calls and two visits to Oakwood Cemetery before I found her grave. Part of the problem was that she had been dug up and reinterred five years later (for unknown reasons) in another nearby family plot. It’s a small, flat, grass-covered stone that seemed to ask nothing of me or anybody, and so I felt bound to tell her story in as profound a way as I could. I wanted to honor her.

Photo: Other Press

SM: As a non-fiction writer, you must have extensive research experience — how did you handle the research for this work of fiction, although based on historical events?

JT: I probably spent the better part of a year researching the story, making many trips from Charlottesville to Richmond and the outlying counties. I relied extensively on old newspapers and court documents — and I read as much about the period as I could get my hands on.

SM: Did you experience challenges writing fiction that you haven’t faced in your previous (non-fiction) work? How did you work through those challenges?

JT: Sure, there were all kinds of challenges, large and small. Perhaps the biggest was in writing an extended, character-driven narrative that also had an engaging plot. None of my non-fiction books were nearly as long or complicated.

SM: In such a compelling story, I would assume character development is critical. How did you handle the characters’ untold motives, emotions, and actions (the aspects to each character that are fiction)?

JT: I had to do my best to think the way they would have. I liken it to taking a big gulp of air and going beneath the surface of the water – what you can see down there is like a vivid dream. I can stay down for maybe 20 to 30 minutes at a time before I need to come up, walk around a bit, then go back under.

Photo: Other Press

SM: What difficulties and successes did you experience to achieve publication for “The Reservoir?”

JT: There were lots of ups and downs. My agent sent the manuscript to several publishers, and several nice notes came back. I did a major revision and we re-submitted; it sold quickly after that. Landing with Other Press, then, was a matter of luck, and I do feel lucky because their support for this book has made me feel like royalty. No pun intended.

SM: In another Q&A, you mention having written fiction for more than two decades. What clued you into the idea that “The Reservoir” was “it” — the one that you would be able to publish and/or finish?

JT: I don’t know exactly. It just seemed to click with me from the start. Talking with other writers, I’ve found that it often happens that way – you work and work and work, honing your craft, and just hoping that all the pins will line up for you in the right way at the right time. You never know, you just hope. More than once, I’d gotten to the point where I thought I wasn’t going to write fiction anymore, and then I would try something different. Finally, I found this story.

SM: Can you share a little bit more about the novel you’re currently working on?

JT: Having one novel under my belt has swung me with tremendous momentum into my next novel. I’ve recently decided that it is, at least in part, about discovering the varying power of different kinds of love. It’s a growing-up story, also set in the South, around the turn of the 20th century.

John Thompson will be signing The Reservoir at the Seattle Mystery Bookshop on Thursday, July 28, at 12 p.m.