At 67, Writer’s Debut Novel Wins Plaudits From Critics
Natick, Mass. — Emily Dickinson wrote her poems in a second-floor bedroom overlooking her beloved garden. Ernest Hemingway developed his spare style, writing in a Parisian bistro watching life swirl by.
For 20 years, James Whitfield Thomson has been writing short stories, novels and a memoir in a cozy nook on the second floor of the Morse Institute Library with a view of the fire station across the street.
Published late last year, his debut novel, Lies You Wanted to Hear, was worth the wait.
The 67-year-old Natick resident has written a compelling story of a recognizable but flawed couple, bound by bad choices and devotion to their children that explores the consequences of their of self-deceptions with insight and irony.
After numerous rejections over the years, Thomson has earned outstanding reviews, accolades from major publications and strong sales approaching 20,000 copies.
“I guess I’m a late bloomer,” joked Thomson. “I didn’t act on my desire to be a writer until late in my life.”
Regardless of when he bloomed, several major novelists have praised Thomson for examining the complex and conflicting psyches of his husband and wife protagonists with searing honesty.
Bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult called Lies You Wanted to Hear “compulsively readable and stunningly written.” Thomson’s novel, she wrote, “shows how the tiniest fissure in a relationship might become a canyon. I’m still not entirely convinced that these characters are fictional. That’s how much they lived and breathed on the page.”
Born in Pittsburgh the son of a dry cleaner, Thomson followed a meandering path that took him to Harvard, Vietnam, academia, parenthood and a successful business career before the reawakening of long-dormant literary aspirations.
After graduating from Harvard University where he majored in English, he served two tours in the Navy as navigator of a 465-foot-long supply ship off the coast of Vietnam before returning home to earn a doctorate in American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. But following a year teaching at the University of Miami, he soured on the academic life.
“Academics weren’t happy people. It was a lot of smart rats fighting over small cheese,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to be in that rat race.”
Thomson joined an ultimately successful startup, Equitrac Corp., as its second employee and retired 13 years later when his literary aspirations drew him to a quiet carrel in the Morse Library.
Over the last two decades, he wrote two other novels and a memoir that weren’t published and several short stories published to strong reviews.
During that time, Thomson joined a writers group mentored by short fiction master, Andre Dubus II, who gave him crucial advice he credits for his novel’s success.
“Andre told me to ‘get my characters talking and in motion and see where they took me.’ ” Thomson recalled. “He told me, ‘If your characters don’t surprise you, they won’t surprise your readers.’ ”
In alternating chapters, Thomson has written his novel in the voices of his principal characters, Matt Drobyshev, a straightforward Boston police officer, and “sexy and enigmatic” Lucy Thornhill, who fall in love after a blind date, marry and have two children.
The story is driven by a fateful choice about those children that changes their lives in irrevocable ways.
From 2006 to 2011, Thomson wrote his novel in the library. Once finished, he spent a year looking for the right publisher before settling on Sourcebooks Landmark which has already published two editions of 22,000 volumes.
Redbook magazine selected it as its “December book pick” and People magazine and Marie Claire labeled it a “must read.”
His mentor’s son, Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, described Lies You Wanted to Hear as “a rare novel that delves equally and fairly into the hearts and minds of both sexes but that’s what (Thomson) has done in this riveting debut.” Dubus predicted, “No spouse or parent who picks up this book will be able to put it down. Nor will anyone else.”
Asked why he spent so many years writing in the library when he lives in a stately Victorian-era farm house, Thomson joked his wife Elizabeth “wanted me out of her hair.”