Checking in with John Milliken Thompson


What were you doing when we called?

I was actually correcting a blog that I’ve been working on, a guest post about my novel for a book reviewer. They just want to know about my book. Aside from that stuff—how I wrote the book and why—the topic is usually sort of open. 

Which of your works are you most proud of?

Local novelist John Milliken Thompson’s first novel The Reservoir is out on Other Press and is available at bookstores across town.

The Reservoir was the most fun, and absolutely the most rewarding. I came across a criminal case that took place in Richmond in 1885 after the body of a young woman was found floating in the old city reservoir. At first I thought I might write about it in a nonfiction book, but I started looking into it and then decided it would best be treated as a novel. In a nutshell, it’s a romance wrapped inside of a historical crime novel. The action surrounds a country lawyer and his brother. It builds to a big trial and there’s some dark family secrets that are revealed along the way. It’s about human weakness and lust and betrayal and revenge. And justice. We’ll add that in there as well.

Tell us about your day job.

I’ve been writing full-time—oh, gosh, maybe 18 years now. A long time. It’s been a struggle, a lot of it, just because freelancing is always feast or famine. You never know what’s around the bend. If you wind up with work for three or four months, that’s pretty good. So it’s not a job I recommend to many people. But after a while there’s nothing else you can do, so you just kind of do it.

What is your daily routine?

If I’m doing something creative I try to spend a few hours doing that in the morning, because it’s exhausting and I need to be sharp for it. And then I do research and editing and that sort of thing in the afternoon. If I’m working on an assignment like a travel story I’ll try to just work eight hours a day, and go straight through until I’m done. It’s hard for me to switch between fiction and nonfiction. So If I have an assignment and it takes a month or so, I just knock that out and get back to my fiction.

How do you prepare to work on something?

I come in to my office in the morning, turn on the computer and play a game of Free Cell. It’s a very neutral activity, looking at the screen and slowly getting around to the idea of writing. I try to limit it to one game, though, and afterward I feel like there isn’t anything else I can do to procrastinate. And so I read what I just wrote the day before and then I just start writing.

What is your first artistic memory from childhood?

It would have to be music, hearing the blind jazz pianist George Shearing. He was playing a little nightclub down in Raleigh, where I was living. I was probably 9 or something and my dad took me and my brother to a matinee. As a boy, I’d never heard anything like this guy, especially not in Raleigh, which was fairly small at the time.

Items you let yourself splurge on?

I’m sort of a cheap bastard actually. I buy the occasional gelato. And milkshakes, too. That’s about it.

Locally, who would you like to collaborate with?

I’d like to collaborate with Art Wheeler. He’s a great jazz musician, a local genius that not too many people know about, because he keeps his demand high by not playing a whole lot. He lives a kind of monastic lifestyle and works on his music all day. But he’s a very interesting character and philosopher, and I guess being obscure and never answering your phone sort of feeds into that.

What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?

I would be a concert cellist or violinist. Or a jazz pianist, like Keith Jarrett. I play a bit, but it’s not suitable for public. The family just sort of tolerates it.