5 Over 50: 2017

From the November/December 2017 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Laura Hulthen Thomas

Age: Fifty-one.
Residence: Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Book: States of Motion (Wayne State University Press, May), a collection of vividly rendered stories set in small-town Michigan that follow characters broken by economic hardships, betrayal, and conflict in the mess of real life.
Editor: Annie Martin. 
Agent: None.

The day my dream editor, Annie Martin at Wayne State University Press, called to reject the manuscript of States of Motion was the day I decided to give up on fiction. The no should have been business as usual. A writer like me works for many years before hearing yes to even a single story. My long stories shatter nearly every literary magazine’s word-count ceiling, so acceptances are rare. That this editor had read my collection at all felt like a one-hit wonder. I’d contributed to her press’s anthology, so she was a sympathetic, generous reader. Her rejection felt like the end of the line. Besides, real life was throwing one of its tantrums. My husband had lost his job in the recession. Our closest friends, too, were losing their jobs and homes. Writing fiction seemed…well, unaffordable. The editor extended a kind invitation to resubmit the manuscript when the stories did more than coexist. I wondered whether my life as a writer could continue to coexist with my life outside of fiction.

Several months after I stopped writing, I called my great-aunt Joan, who was dying of cancer. She’d always led a quiet life in her small New Hampshire town, but on the phone she recalled a grand adventure. In the spring of 1939, when she was five years old, Joan traveled with her mother on one of the Queen Mary’s last voyages before the ocean liner was retrofitted as a World War II troopship. A terrible storm outside New York almost swept Joan overboard. “The waves were sloshing the decks something wicked,” she said. “Then suddenly Mother lifted me up and held me out to the storm.”

“Wait,” I said. “By ‘held out’ do you mean she dangled you over the railing?”

“Oh, yes. The clouds were black and folding over each other like snakes. The ocean was crashing into the hull. The waves seemed to come right up to my ankles.”

As a protective mother, I was aghast. Who was this reckless great-grandmother I’d never met? A woman who decided to take her continental tour alone, with her five-year-old daughter in tow—when the continent in question was approaching war?

This was a woman who didn’t merely coexist with her life and times.

I saw then that abandoning my work was just a safety railing. I set aside the collection to write new fiction about Southeast Michigan’s troubles. I invited my dearest writing buddies to an inspiring DIY retreat at a cabin on Lake Huron. Years later, when my stories were no longer coexisting, but conversing, I resubmitted States of Motion to the dream editor. 

The book came out just before I turned fifty-one, well after the hope for dreams you might achieve matures into the acceptance that you just might not. I have found, however, that not publishing earlier in life has been a gift. By hearing yes only rarely from editors and readers, I discovered how to say yes to my work, today, right now. I no longer seek the writer I should be, but the writer I am.

Several days after my great-aunt told me of her greatest adventure, Joan passed peacefully. Before we hung up for the last time, I had asked why she thought her mother had thrust her over that railing. “Laura, she just wanted me to be able to see,” Joan said. How courageous of my great-grandmother to show her daughter the terrifying beauty of risk, even when no one else is on deck to share the view. 


(Photo credit: Ron Thomas)