Priscilla Thomas is an Indian-American writer, teacher, and coach living in New York City. You can find her work in Ferine Magazine, Nerdy Book Club, and most recently in the TESOL Encyclopedia (Wiley 2018). Her first book, Gathering, is now available on Amazon.
Priscilla, thank you for agreeing to this interview. Your passion for books has not been a secret. What literary pilgrimages have you gone on? What books have been the most influential in your life and your works as an author?
It’s just occurring to me now that while I love to travel and I get out of my city as often as possible, I don’t think I’ve ever set out to follow the footsteps of a favorite author or book. I think I’d start with a cross-country road trip based on American Gods. Neil Gaiman’s books have influenced my work and the way I see the world, as they seem to descend from a tradition of magical realism that shaped me as a younger reader. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short stories were fascinating to me and as a kid my early writings were shameless, exploratory rip-offs of No One Writes to the Colonel. I took comfort in imagining the world this way, that a seemingly normal life was interwoven with the fantastic and one ordinary day, a person could confront the impossible. (It’s what I loved about Roald Dahl, too. I think The Witches will always be one of my favorite books.) I think Toni Morrison’s books were transformational for me because they showed me how these fantastic moves could feature in a real, difficult world. There’s a beautiful “what if?” that allows for magic even in stories firmly grounded in reality, like Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward and Roxane Gay’s story collection, Ayiti. The books that have impacted me most strongly always have this in common: whether they are humorous or poignant or gut-wrenching or fanciful, they tread the lines between dreams and reality, and they use fiction to tell hard truths.
Your debut book, Gathering, is unique in its message and its delivery. Please tell us a bit about the book and what led you to write it.
Gathering was conceived as a collection of moments. I’m still surprised that I wrote it. I don’t think I ever really believed I would write a book, even as I was revising Gathering for the millionth time. I love writing, but some of my favorite work to do is coaching and developmental editing with other writers, and I was working with a beloved friend, Erin Brown, on her book, Sovereign. At some point during one of our many conversations about writing and voice and the stories we have to tell, we discussed my “someday” plan of writing a book. I felt, like I often feel, that I didn’t have enough – enough writing, enough experience, enough followers – to decide that I had made it “someday.” Erin is one of those people who can help you see a door where you could have sworn there was a brick wall, so we became a cozy writing community of two and held each other accountable through the production of our books.
I also did not think that Gathering would be the book I wrote. My life as a writer began with fiction, maybe because I was a very inventive liar as a kid. Not a good liar, but creative. That grew into story writing and fiction was my passion and identity as a writer. When I began teaching high school students, I stopped writing for years, and when I started again, I was blogging. These blogs and essays and slices-of-life became my primary work as a writer, although I didn’t take them as seriously as they deserved. Around the time that Erin and I began working together, I was writing stories on my Instagram account – prose poems that delved into memories or unfurled moments of time – and I really loved them, but I didn’t think they could be a part of the book. I was struggling to find my way back to fiction and so frustrated when my husband reframed my thinking entirely and pointed out that I had a wealth of writing in these captions. It all started to click, and those snapshots became the bones of Gathering, and the longer essays filled in very naturally. I never expected it to be my first book, but I’m still so happy with it.
Gathering sounds as though it might have been challenging to write. What was the most difficult scene you wrote? What did you edit out of this book?
I decided to be honest in this book and to publish it under my given name, which presented a challenge because of my family. I’m voluntarily estranged from my family of origin but I would not write this book without discussing abuse. That was difficult. Returning to memories of my childhood and accepting that I would share those vulnerable moments with the world was a little terrifying. I mean, I’ve been on the Internet. Not everyone is kind in response to your honesty. It was also difficult because of consent issues. I consulted with an attorney to be sure that I was not crossing any legal boundaries with what I published, and that resulted in some pieces that I really loved not being included in the final draft. Two of those pieces have found homes, after revisions, in other publications, and I’m glad of that.
What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling?
I often ask my students to respond to quotes about writing and reading as groundwork for our class. Two favorites of mine are Joan Didion’s “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and an excerpt from “The Speed of Darkness” by Muriel Ruskeyer: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.” Reading, writing, and the sharing of stories have always guided me and taught me and brought me closer to others. I think of this every time I tell one, even mundane snippets of my day (and I apologize to everyone who knows me well and has to endure my looping, flowering stories just to get an update on my life or an answer to a question).
You have written for a long while before finally penning this book. Do you view writing as a kind of spiritual practice? What has writing done for you over the years prior to deciding to publish a book?
Writing was the first way I connected with people when my life was too scary and complicated to let anyone get close. Publishing stories and posts on my website and LiveJournal as a teenager created the threads that would form a solid lifeline to others. The abuse I endured from a very young age had devastating effects on me emotionally and mentally, but writing saved me in many ways. Those connections and friendships I formed kept me afloat, and my writing afforded me opportunities that my academics alone could not, like a summer at Columbia University where I imagined my future for the first time, and a chance to stay in college after failing out after my first semester. Without these opportunities, I would not have found my way forward, and it was writing that got me there.
What can we expect from you in 2019? Anything else you would like to add?
Erin Brown and I are working on a course for writers to explore different genres and styles, soon to come. I’m excited to be doing that work with a talented and thoughtful partner. I have some essays and stories forthcoming and I’m at work on a collection of short fiction.
It has been a pleasure, Priscilla! Please tell us where fans can find you online.