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William Thrift has spent most of his life in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, but has traveled extensively in the US and abroad. Upon graduation from the University of South Carolina, he spent many years as a corporate regional manager. He currently resides in Columbia, South Carolina. He has always had a penchant for writing, but has recently garnered accolades for his fiction, placing 2nd Runner-up in the 2011 and 2012 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for his short stories: The Summer of My Faith and And The Sun Sets On Walker Street. Two other works were also finalists in the Faulkner Society’s 2013 and 2014 competitions. His short story, Squirrel Stew, was awarded 2nd place in the 2013 South Carolina Writers’ Workshop’s Carrie McCray Memorial Literary contest and was subsequently nominated for the Pushcart Prize. In his spare time he enjoys writing songs, singing, and playing the guitar for musical ensemble, Smokin Van, under his nom de musique, Smokestack Willie. He cooks at home with his wife, Ginger, and serves as secretary of Columbia’s historic Cottontown neighborhood. Find out more at www.williamthrift.com.
I liked what was called the dolphin dive (the maneuver resembling the arc that a dolphin takes when it’s swimming and breaks the surface). I would stand in chest-deep water and jump up and forward with my arms stretched over my head as though I were diving off a diving board. My arms and head would plunge in, followed by my torso, hips, and legs until I was well underwater.
I loved swimming completely submerged. At the surface, I had to judge when to turn my head and take in air. As uncoordinated as I was as a child, I inevitably gulped water as well as air because I was very bad at moving my head, arms, and legs in concert. Underwater, I had only to swim. I liked the commitment involved in swimming along on the bottom of the pool. I didn’t have to remember to breathe, because that was not part of the equation.
I excelled at the dolphin dive and disappointed my instructors by holding my breath and swimming below the surface. I was made to do drills aimed at helping improve my surface swimming, but I just didn’t take to it. I didn’t like all the splashing and noise. I didn’t like the fact that my technique was critiqued loudly, and to the delight of my fellow swimmers.
I rarely won any races swimming at the bottom like I did, but I didn’t care. It was quiet there. I was alone under the water. I could get away from the crowd and explore the seams and drains. I found coins and retrieved sunken items. I imagined I was the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I would barely break the surface for a breath of air, and then slip back down. I would sneak up on people and grab their legs. The warbled echo of their shrieks thrilled me. Having done the deed, I was off to deeper water. I sat in the curvature of the corner and watched divers break the surface overhead in the deep end. I pumped my hands upward to keep myself submerged: a silent, submarine meditator leaking bubbles from my nose.
“Did you have fun at the pool today?” My mom would ask me on the way home.
“Sure.” I said with the nonchalance of a five-year-old. It was exquisite! I thought.
Introduction (excerpt from Winners and Victims)
When I began to write seriously (which is to say regularly and with intent), a book I’d only recently read came to mind – Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Volume One. I considered myself something of a homemade artist, much like he must have been early in his career; and in the spirit of imitation, a bit of his story stuck with me. He related spending hours hanging out in a friend’s apartment in New York awaiting nightly café gigs; and he amused himself by reading newspapers and books, and by keeping abreast of current events in the news. He absorbed this information and then squeezed it back out – filtered through his ornery mind and adjusted for form – in the verses he wrote. Some of his songs were seized by the anti-establishment of the day as cynic anthems to unrest. His witty songs became part of a larger movement of protest to which he later shrugged (in his allegorical way).
Following his lead, I began to consider current topics like celebrity and terrorism that happened to be running in the twenty-four-hour news cycle (a phenomenon that has now become the bane of our existence). From these musings I was able to craft a story about a cipher of a photographer who happens upon a lone-wolf terror plot targeting celebrities in LA. I slaved and worked until I had a full-length novel that carried the narrative in the proper arc with appropriate twists and a handful of multi-dimensional characters. I then spent several months developing synapses, and sending portions of the novel to various agents and publishers – nearly fifty in all. I received the obligatory rejection letters from some, from others never a word. There were no nibbles on the lines I’d cast, so during the inevitable introspective second-guessing phase, I began to re-evaluate what I’d written and realized how truly amateurish it was (in execution only – I still believe the story is compelling). It dawned on me that authors may try to hone their craft by starting with shorter length narratives (short stories) rather than jumping into the massive undertaking that is a novel.
So I visited the library, got some books on storytelling, narrative, structure, grammar, etc. and began to re-educate myself in the literary arts. I learned a lot through those months of reading, note-taking, and exercises. One of the lessons was that, although I had spent six years fumbling through college and been exposed to a wide range of literature, I hadn’t learned enough to effectively translate that knowledge into a viable art form. I thought the BA English credential I had earned would be sufficient to enable me to produce a worthy novel. I was wrong.
Despite feeling as if I’d just wasted a year and a half, I plodded ahead, writing what I knew, drawing on personal experience, and letting my creative-self influence the machinations involved with producing a work of art. Typically, the early stories were either too personal or way out there. For example, I enjoy science fiction, so I tried a story based upon the idea that anything that can be thought can exist (Broca’s brain). I presumed that somewhere out at the edge of the universe, there was a vast field of swords (broadswords, I imagined) floating in space. Someone in my backstory envisioned that the swords were there and convinced mankind to send a contingent of people across space and time to visit them (for no purpose other than to make the trek – a metaphor of life, I mused). I actually got a rejection letter for the story from a Science Fiction contest, advising that it wasn’t right for their publication, but to “keep at it,” as there was some potential in my writing. I was at once dejected and encouraged by this letter, so I kept at it.
When It Comes Home is one of my early attempts to convert a news item into viable fiction. I had read a story out of Japan about a business executive who discovers a squatter who has been living in a closet in his home. I always thought that there must have been more to the story, so I invented it – turning the real story on its head. I remain proud of this story although it didn’t garner any interest as a submission.
Franklin’s Flower was another of my early stories. Having recently moved back to Columbia, SC, from Atlanta, I had the opportunity to rekindle a friendship with college buddy and fellow-author James D. McCallister (“Don” to me) – an avid Grateful Dead fan. It was in college that I enabled my affinity for music to manifest itself into art form by learning to play the guitar. I wrote a few songs of my own in those days, which amounted to nothing more than some ribald and raucous entertainment between bong hits. (I’ve since cultivated this hobby, writing and recording coherent and thoughtful songs under my nom de musique, Smokestack Willie.) Don was always something of a voice of reason to our group of nouveaux hippies back then, so while engaged in a bit of reverie, I linked the teacher-image of him to a real-life student teacher I had encountered in my fourth grade stint in the experimental open school, Elizabeth Elementary, in Charlotte, NC. I don’t remember his real name (it may have actually been Franklin), but I remembered his vulnerability. I also recalled being infatuated with Franklin’s female student teacher counterpart. Stir in a healthy dose of music (The Dead’s Franklin’s Tower being a distinct inspiration), and you get a prankster’s tale that turns into a love story. Although it was submitted, Franklin’s Flower remains unpublished until now.
Thinking of victims, Random Victim, Random Act is a story about a young victim who could have chosen to act in various ways that would have affected the outcome of the story. His choice of action resulted not so much in guilt as it did in an aversion to the criminal he encountered. As an early experiment, the initial story was heavy on action and light on message (a condition which I tried to remedy in re-write). The story hasn’t been submitted or published anywhere since its revision. But I am proud of the outcome, so I included it here.
In 2010, while working as a writer for Columbia Home & Garden magazine, I had a bit of creative non-fiction (See A Boy Grow) published in the South Carolina Writers Workshop’s Pettigru Review, which drew directly from my experience of learning to read and then entering the first grade. This inspired me to craft a fictional story based upon some of my experiences as a teenager in The Summer of My Faith.
As a kid in high school, I had a crush on a good friend’s older sister. She was a super-smart, sarcastic blond who rarely gave me the time of day, but the prospect (and affiliated imagining) was enough to fuel the notion of my ideal future mate. I disinterred those feelings, teasing out threads and ideas to their natural ends. I worked and re-worked the characters and scenes until I had achieved the best fictional rendering of the story. I enjoyed writing the ending – it still makes my chest swell to think of the potential beyond the errant balloon ride, much like the future-thoughts of my crush and me that used to visit me back in that simple time – only potential and never realized.
The Summer of My Faith achieved Second Runner-Up in the 2011 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society’s Faulkner/Wisdom Competition. This marked the first time my work had been so recognized in an international contest (there had been hundreds of entries). I was beyond thrilled, and immediately set about booking passage and lodging for Ginger and me to New Orleans to attend the awards dinner.
In 2012, I entered a piece of fiction in the South Carolina Writers Workshop’s annual Carrie McCray contest titled The Dead and The Living. While writing magazine features for Columbia Home & Garden, one of the writing techniques that I employed was citing the classics – mythology, literature, folklore – in order to generate empathy between the reader and the local entrepreneur I was covering. So I thought of a story influenced by Joyce’s The Dead (arguably the finest from his Dubliners collection). Joyce himself allowed classic and historic references to seep into his stories, tantalizing the literati, and further securing his place in the hall of literary kings. Thinking that I could do worse, I let my protagonist (Stewart) mumble some of Joyce’s words at the beginning of the story. But snow falling was about the extent of my thievery. From there, the story does a pinball’s dance among my own memories, taking creative license where it served the story. I sewed the thoughts together with Stewart’s trek through the woods, and punctuated the story with Stewart’s sobering realization.
The Dead and The Living garnered an honorable mention in the fiction category of the 2012 South Carolina Writers Workshop’s Carrie McCray Literary contest, propelling me onward with excitement.
Also in 2012, I called on my experience living in a so-called re-gentrified neighborhood in Atlanta. There is a real Walker Street in the Kirkwood neighborhood where I used to live. And there were real yuppies, old-timers, and drug dealers too. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had observed and absorbed a great deal of detail from my time in Kirkwood. The characters in And the Sun Sets on Walker Street are all based upon real people I met and observed. While the events are entirely fictitious, the story could easily have played out in real life. This story actually started as a series of vignettes about life in Kirkwood. Eventually, I cobbled together a few of them and then imagined that they all had Kwame in common. What happened to Kwame was an allegory for what happens to any victim. Often they don’t see it coming, or they are unaware of the dangers posed by others in their proximity, maybe they’re simply blinded by their own inner light. Regardless, time ticks by anyway; the roses bloom, and then they die.
And the Sun Sets on Walker Street was awarded Second Runner-Up in the 2012 Faulkner/Wisdom Competition. I was soaring at this second acknowledgement of my work, but also thinking what I might have done to get First Place.
In 2013, I began to think back to an influential time in my youth – a time marked by uprooting, catastrophic change in my family. I zeroed in on the year I spent living on Cureton Street in Greenville, SC – my sophomore year in high school. I was at the edge of my childhood. I could envision my manhood ahead, but I knew that there was some chasm separating me – the “me” that was my father’s son – from the person that I would become. Looking back, I now know that I traversed that chasm in that year. Once I left Cureton Street, I never considered myself to be a part of anyone but myself. I became separate, alone, autonomous. My psyche was set. The only thing I lacked from that point was the means to support my independence.
Of the stories that I attribute to the period of time I lived on Cureton, Squirrel Stew is the first and most fictitious. I entered it in the S. C. Writers Workshop’s Carrie McCray contest in 2013. It placed Second, but more importantly was nominated by the editors of the Workshop’s Pettigru Review for the Pushcart Prize. That’s as far as it went, but I was very honored by the nomination alone. There are not many authors who can claim that about their work.
Getting There is actually what I call very creative non-fiction, but since I’m the only one telling the story – and I took some liberties with my recollection of the events – I claim it as fiction. It depicts one of the stepping stones that I took during my year on Cureton Street. Getting There was accepted for publication in the Pettigru Review in 2014.
By this time, I had started and made notes on various narratives from my time on Cureton Street. I call this series The Cureton Chronicles, and hope to deliver all of these stories anthologized sometime in the future. One of these very creative non-fiction stories that has made it to fruition is Nobody’s Boy. I decided to try something different in 2015, and submitted it for publication as fiction (which it essentially is) in Charlotte’s Main Street Rag. I was elated when it was accepted for publication, and appeared in the Summer 2016 issue.
In 2013, I finished a story titled The Monkey of LaMonte. I must admit that I have nothing to offer as to the origin of this tale other than to say that it just sort of grew from a spark. I educated myself on lower primates. I imagined a municipal zoo as a cash cow, ruthlessly managed by a second-generation owner. Then I got inside the head of a monkey.
What resulted was the believably empathetic story of Dan and Bongiovi. The Monkey of LaMonte was a finalist in the 2013 Faulkner/Wisdom contest.
In 2014, I imagined an ersatz clique – a trio of damaged youth who meet in high school and carry on through college and into adulthood. I started by putting the trio (already into adulthood and married, but prior to having children) on a nostalgic trip to Mexico with the idea of rekindling their bond of youthful friendship that had withered of late. The trio are Weldon, Laney, and Tansy, but the anchor of this trio is Tansy. In working out the back story of each character, I happened upon the true nature of Tansy. The resulting story is actually a spur of what I plan to be a novel one day. Tansy is a victim, but she’s also a winner. She proved to have relentless optimism despite some setbacks. Her determination enabled her to define herself early in life, resulting in her strong sense of self. In the years after her story ends, one can see why she attracted people like Laney and Weldon into her orbit.
Due to the length of Tansy, I labeled the story a Novelette and entered it in the 2014 Faulkner/Wisdom contest where it was chosen as a finalist.
When I decided to compile my stories into an e-book, one of the most difficult tasks was to settle on a title for the collection. Many of the stories are derived from my youth and involve young people. But there always seemed to be a theme more prominent in scope than just age, or a certain time in life. This collection is a statement about what happens to people. Indeed, some of my works which didn’t rank among the stories here are laden (almost burdened) with action. In the mere spirit of Hemingway, these stories bear little expository contemplation, letting the reader interpret the events in their own way. Luckily, I developed a knack for merging action and elucidation to render the most honest and accurate narrative interpretation of the thoughts swirling around in my head.
Sometimes things just fall neatly into place for my characters. As the reader, you can step back and regard the finely woven fabric of their lives (my story, my creation). My characters may call it the benevolent hand of fate, kismet, karma, or perhaps God’s will. These are the times that they win. However, fate (or whatever it may be called) is just as much involved in catastrophes and ensuing damage. Some of my characters suffer in negligible ways, and some are visited with life-altering circumstances. The reader wouldn’t blame them for feeling like victims even though some of the suffering is self-inflicted. The winners and victims all have their stories to tell – the essence of life’s lessons.
WT, November 2016