In Jean Thompson's latest novel, The Humanity Project, humanity isn't doing so well and could use some help. Sean is a wayward carpenter whose bad luck with women turns into even worse luck: He's addicted to painkillers, and he and his teenage son Conner are facing eviction. Linnea is the teen survivor of a school shooting who travels west to California to live with a father she barely knows. Mrs. Foster is a wealthy woman who's taken to living with feral cats, and whose "Humanity Project" just might take a chance on people who thought they were out of luck. Their stories weave together as the characters intersect in a grippingly wry and often mordantly funny book. Jean Thomson joined host of Weekends on All Things Considered Jacki Lyden to talk about her new novel.
On the novel's two young protagonists
"[Linnea] goes from being ... mildly disaffected, to ragingly dysfunctional. ... The events of the [school shooting that Linnea survived] is something that hangs over the book as a kind of question — 'What really has happened there? — because she herself is not very forthcoming about it. ... Conner is a ... couple years older than Linnea ... living with his father. Conner is, because of his father's difficulties, which are medical and economic, is really forced to get off the path he was on. ... He has to start working. He eventually supports them through petty thievery. You have two younger characters who life has been blown off of course by events that are not of their making."
On the theme of economic unhinging
"Economic dislocation is certainly one of the things that I wanted to address in the book. I mean, that sounds really dry, but, the idea of the world that is just kind of beyond our control or understanding in these various ways - the economics that have been so hard on so many people. It's hard to wake up some mornings and look on the sunny side."
On Mrs. Foster, the wealthy widow, and her "Humanity Project"
"It is her vaguely conceived notion on how to "do good" with her considerable resources, and she is motivated, in part, I think, by doing something nice to spite her deceased husband, who was kind of a professional grump. So, her idea is to set up a foundation to benefit humanity. Into this very large speculative idea come the characters who have to figure out what she means and how to carry it out."
Raymond Carver's influence
"When I was a younger person writing, everything in fiction was about fashionable experimentation, and there was a lot of vogue for, oh, turning narrative upside-down and on its head and shredding it and reassembling it. Then, at some point, there was this kind of explosion that came from the writing of Raymond Carver: 'Oh, look, ordinary people speaking in ordinary ways. What a concept!' "