Reconsidering a Father: An Interview with Deborah Thompson
June 12, 2014 § 2 Comments
Stephanie G’Schwind, editor of the new anthology Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers & Fatherhood, talks with contributor Deborah Thompson, whose essay “When the Future Was Plastic” explores the conflict she feels about her father’s pioneering research in plastics. At the end of the interview you will find a link to an excerpt of the essay.
Stephanie G’Schwind: “When the Future Was Plastic” is such a great example of creative science writing, blending science and research with a personal narrative. I wonder, of course, how did this essay originate? Did it start with your concerns about the role of plastics in the environment? Or did you set out to write an essay about your relationship with your father?
Deborah Thompson: The opening scene of an earlier draft of the essay depicted its origins. It started when I mentioned to a colleague that my father had been a plastics chemist, and she said something like, “So he was one of the ones who got us into this mess.” I was shocked to hear my father identified as the bad guy. But I also realized that I had a hard time defending his life’s work. That encounter disturbed me for weeks, and so I started writing the piece to try to figure out how to be both proud and ashamed of my father and everything he represented. I ended up cutting the scene but keeping its impetus. As I researched and wrote, I realized that his story was part of a much larger story about the place of science in U.S. culture—and that my changing relationship with him and his life’s work was also a part of that story.
SG: You spent a few years studying chemistry as an undergrad before switching to literature, so science is not a foreign subject for you. But how much research on plastics did you have to do for this essay?
DT: I started researching this essay by looking up the molecular structures of the chemicals my father had patented, but as I began tracing my father’s research history, I realized how little I knew about the history of plastics production. Interestingly, some of the most useful sources of research here were antiques collectors, who understand the historical significance of new polymers like Bakelite, melamine, vinyl, and nylon, and could recognize the kinds of products such polymers made possible. It was shocking to realize how much has changed in just a couple of generations. Less than a century ago, the few plastics that did exist were a rare luxury, and most of the plastics that we use today were not yet invented. Today it’s impossible to live without them. The word “plastic,” as it was first applied to these new materials, meant “malleable”—they could be molded, shaped, and manipulated in all kinds of crazy new ways—but the story that surprised me most was how much plastics have changed us. At this point, we’ve internalized plastics so much that we can find traces of them inside our bodies. The hardest part of the essay for me, and the part that took the most creative work, was trying to imagine a world before plastics. It made me feel closer to my father to realize how different his childhood was from mine in very material ways. Imagining the pre-plastic world helped me empathize with those early polymer chemists and understand their excitement, even as I could also saw they couldn’t: that such a cultural project would lead us to things like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other environmental disasters.
SG: The premise of this anthology is that many of us experience a sense of distance between ourselves and our fathers. And, like many of the fathers in this collection, yours has passed away, so the relationship remains essentially fixed. But did writing this essay reveal to you anything new about your relationship?
DT: I’ve written a series of essays on my father. Each time I think I’ve gotten our relationship figured out, I realize there’s something more I need to grapple with, and something more to learn from him. What’s really surprised me is something that should have been obvious: one’s relationship with one’s father evolves even after he’s dead. My father died almost 20 years ago. (In fact, it was two days before the Oklahoma City bombing.) I was in my early thirties and at the beginning of my career, with little sense of historical perspective. I’m now closer to the age he was when he died than I am to the age I was when he died. Some of my dearest friends now are older than he was at death. I have a very different sense of history now, and how our lives are part of a historical process. If my dad were still alive, I would be able to have very different, more complex, more adult conversations with him now. In a sense, writing about him has been an attempt to stage those conversations.
SG: Always a concern for nonfiction writers is writing about other people, particularly family members. Even though your father can’t read this essay, did you still imagine what his reaction might be if he could?
DT: I’d like to think that he’d find the essay fair, and that he’d appreciate the invitation to see himself in a new way. One of the joys and frustrations with creative nonfiction is that it imposes a narrative structure on a life that always exceeds, if not resists, such a structure. Any essay you write about a person always leaves things out, things that may form the crux of a different essay and a different narrative framing of that person. Maybe that’s why I have to keep writing about the same people over and over again. This essay may give the impression that plastics were what my father was all about. But of course he was about so much more than that. Other essays have revolved around other cruxes: his love of dogs, his faith in science, his evolving approach to nature, and his “show, don’t tell” communication style. No one narrative could capture him, or anyone.
Above all, perhaps, my father approached all aspects of his life with a scientific curiosity, which trumped ego every time. I’d like to think that I inherited that scientific curiosity from my father, and that it informs my writing. So even if he were uncomfortable with my re-framing of his life’s work in plastics, I would hope that he’d appreciate the essay’s project of exploration and discovery.