Department of English

Episode 9: Jerome Tharaud, Part 2

Jerome Tharaud

16 October 2020


[Caroline] Just to go back to the American West for a second, I’m an East Coaster and I admittedly know very little about the Western States, so I’m wondering: what is something about your hometown in Montana or the state of Montana at large that someone from the East Coast might not know? 

[Jerome Tharaud] Probably the most we hear about the state of Montana is when we see the Election Map and see that it’s just bright red—like “oh, there’s a whole ocean of red out there!” In my experience, these states—including Montana—are pretty complicated. There are at least a couple of “Wests” that I’ve experienced, and one is kind of like the “older West” that involves more agriculture, farming and ranching; and also extractive industries—like coal mining in Wyoming, for example…and now natural gas and oil extraction in The Dakotas and other places. That’s kind of a rural West that’s declining and has real problems because of the “boom and bust” nature of those extractive economies. But then I think there’s this “other West” that’s really booming in more of the small towns and cities. It’s more interested in tourism and outdoor recreation, conservation, new tech startups, university towns. Bozeman, where I graduated from high school, is that kind of a place. It’s been a “boom town” for decades now—lots of people coming in. It’s got beautiful scenery; it’s got ski resorts in the area.

Of course, there are problems that come with that kind of development, as far as longer-term residents who are being priced out, in terms of sprawl—are you really going to build subdivisions on this rich agricultural land? In terms of the wildland-urban interface—you know, more encounters between animals and people—how do you share that landscape? Now, how do we deal with fire—with worse fires and worse droughts in that landscape? Just thinking about the West as not one region, but as a few different regions or a region with different stories that are playing out in it—I think Bozeman is a little microcosm of that.

[Joy] That’s so interesting! I’m also from the East Coast, and I don’t really know that much about Montana. I want to know more! Kind of deviating a little bit and going on to a “fun” question, what is something you hate that everyone else loves, or something everyone loves that you particularly hate?

[Tharaud] I guess I would say smartphones. Maybe I have to specify that it’s smartphones attached to the whole network of social media and all that stuff. I often pull out my flip phone—my “dumb phone,” or as I call it, a “wise phone”—in class as an object lesson. The reason I have held out for so long is because I think a smartphone costs too much, and I’m not talking primarily about monetary costs—although I don’t particularly want to pay more to Verizon—but just, what does it cost us in terms of our time, our intention, our relationship with others, our political discourse, our democracy? I think there’s a strain of techno-utopianism in American culture that goes way back before the information age, but I think we saw it with the birth of the internet and with a lot of these “fun” devices. I just think we haven’t thought carefully enough about or been deliberate enough about which aspects of these technologies we’re going to embrace, or how to control them.

I also think that renunciation is a lost virtue, in a way—saying, “Yeah, that thing’s okay, but I can do without it.” This is mine, I guess. Eventually, I probably won’t have a choice. I’ll have to break down and get one. But for now, I’m happy with my “wise phone.” 

[Caroline] Yeah, I’ve been in a class with you and had the experience of seeing you gleefully take out your flip phone, and I do think it’s a lot like an addiction, having a smartphone. I have a very love/hate relationship with my smartphone—just, all of your messages and social media accounts are in the palm of your hand and it’s very difficult to break away. I really admire that you haven’t succumbed to the influence of Apple and Android and all these other corporations that are pressuring people to get the latest technology.

[Jerome Tharaud] Thanks. Well, I do have an iPad at home which I listen to podcasts on all the time, so I’m not that pure, but at least I do have a smaller phone in my pocket, I guess!

[Caroline] Yes, fair enough. To go back to your career as a teacher, I’m wondering if you have any advice for students—since you’ve written a book and several publications—if you have any advice for students on how to get out of a writer’s slump?

[Jerome Tharaud] So much of it is just about showing up every day. I’m a distance runner, so I kind of liken it to that. Most days, you don’t necessarily feel great when you go out to run, but if you do it every day, the chances are better that you will have a good day. I just think, if you can do it a little bit every day, even if the conditions aren’t perfect or you’re not “in the zone,” that’s the way to get better.

[Joy] Especially when I write, there’s always this block I get, and sometimes I just have no way of getting out of it. It’s really nice to hear a lot of different interpretations of how to get out of a writer’s block and how to just keep that habit going every single day. It’s very admirable.

We also know, of course, that you are an English professor, which means—like every other English professor and every English major—we love to read! Is there a particular book that you would like to recommend for others who are interested in the same areas or genres of literature that you are interested in?

[Jerome Tharaud] One of my favorite novels that I haven’t taught in a while because it’s so long—it’s like 500 pages, so it’s hard to fit into a semester—is Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie. This was published in 1900. I first read it when I was a junior in college. I was in Chicago at the time, and this is a story of a girl from Wisconsin coming to Chicago for the first time. I just felt like it was so real—it was the realest thing that I’d ever experienced when she’s going around, trying to find a factory job. I think it’s a great book that’s not read enough.

For my interest in the West, I’m always a big fan of Wallace Stegner, who is the “Dean of Western Regionalists” in the 20th century and is not read as much today. Any volume of his essays, like The Sound of Mountain Water or Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs—those are great—parts of Wolf Willow are really good. For my Western recommendation, it would be to read some Stegner.

In the class that I am teaching now, my intro class, we just read a couple of chapters from Annie Dilard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The “environmental literature” part of me is just really in love with that book and how the imagery that she uses and the language are just stunning. She’s got this image where she’s on the beach in Florida, watching a storm, and the waves are rolling in, and she describes how with each wave, as it comes up against the sunlight, she sees that it’s got these sharks feeding in it. There’s this sense of almost religious wonder at the natural world at the same time she’s trying to read a lot of science and wrestle with science and Darwinian evolution. I think that’s a great one to read.

[Caroline] Since you’re mentioning Stegner and Annie Dillard as a couple favorite authors of yours, we’d like to ask who your most influential writing inspirations are. Would you say Stegner and Dillard have inspired you, or are there other authors or teachers or professors from earlier in your life who have inspired you as a writer?

[Jerome Tharaud] When I was in high school, John Steinbeck was big. Both Dreiser and Steinbeck had been journalists, so I was drawn to people who had been immersed in life and had to observe and then turn that into fiction. When I was in college, I went to France for a semester abroad, and I took a volume of Emerson’s essays with me. I’d go to a café, read an essay of Emerson, and then write some. I just felt like that spring was such an awakening for me. It was like Emerson was teaching me how to see with this kind of symbolic double vision, where you see what’s in front of you, but also see that it’s “shot through with spirit,” as he would say. Steinbeck-Dreiser versus Emerson—those are two very different approaches to reality, but I think they both influenced me a lot.

[Joy] That’s so cool that you went to France. I can imagine you in a café with your Emerson. That sounds like such a picturesque scene! Moving on, I know that you mentioned you have an iPad and you listen to a couple of podcasts. In addition to those, are there any magazines or newspapers or podcasts—in terms of that material, what do you listen to on a regular basis?

[Jerome Tharaud] I guess I think of my media consumption as being in a few different “buckets.” I’ve got the “national” or “East Coast” media that I consume—I listen to The New York Times’ daily podcasts, I read The Atlantic, I get The Boston Globe; I listen to Fresh Air, This American Life. There’s a podcast out of KCRW Santa Monica called To the Point that deals with national news issues.

Those things are dealing with national and world affairs, but then I’ve got a group of podcasts that are focused more on regional and western issues. For example, there’s a podcast called The Landscape, which used to be called the Go West, Young Podcast, but they wisely just changed it. It’s out of the Center for Western Priorities in Colorado, and it’s really focused on public lands and resource issues. There’s a podcast called The Modern West that’s out of Wyoming Public Radio. Right now, they have a series called “Ghost Towns”—historical, but also towns that are dying and what to do about that. The High Country News has been described as “The New Yorker for people who live about 7,000 feet.” It’s a magazine that covers the West broadly, with a focus on environmental and resource issues. That’s really good. Then I’ve got a few local Montana publications and podcasts that I listen to and read—Montana Quarterly Magazine, I read. There’s a podcast called Richest Hill which is about Butte and the legacy of hard rock mining in Butte. The Berkeley Pit there is one of the nation’s largest superfund sites. You go there and it’s this giant chasm, half a mile across and several stories deep, and it’s got water in the bottom of it. That water is so toxic that if a bird lands on it, it will die, so there’s all these strategies that Butte has made to keep these birds from landing on it, like lasers and sound canons and stuff like that. That’s a really interesting story. 


[Caroline] You just mentioned some really interesting podcasts, and I particularly like the ghost town one. It sounds absolutely fascinating, so I’ll definitely have to check that one out.

We’ve spent a lot of the interview in the American West, talking about your experience growing up there and also some western media that you subscribe to. Now, as we start to wrap up the interview, I want to migrate into the Boston area, where you are now, and ask: since you’ve been living here, what are some of your favorite places to go?

[Jerome Tharaud] I really like going out to Lincoln. If you get on Main Street in Waltham and just go on the other side of 128, you get to Lincoln pretty fast, which is where Walden Pond is. Lincoln has this great network of conservation lands and trails. I can go out there to the Codman Estate, the Lincoln Center, and park and go on a run of 10, 12, 13 miles, and almost never cross a road…and sometimes, not even see a person! Most of it is forest, but then you come to these little meadows that open up and sometimes you’ll be skirting community farms and there’s stone fences out there. I think it’s really beautiful, and it’s good for me to get away from the population density a little bi…at the same time, recognizing that that landscape seems so natural, but there’s a lot of work and policy that has gone into keeping it that way—saying that you can’t subdivide it, that all parcels have to be two acres, or something like that. Any landscape that seems pristine and natural, there’s a deeper story underneath it. But that’s definitely one place I love to go. For anybody who’s in Waltham and has a bike or a car, I would really recommend getting out there, especially on these nice, warm fall days.

There’s a favorite place that’s probably a little unusual, and for a different reason—not because I love to go there, but because of something I experience there—which is the indoor track at Brandeis. When I was in college, my senior year, the UAA Conference Meet for indoor track was at Brandeis. On the last day, the second-to-last event was the 5,000 meters. I’m in this race, and my teammate Tom and I, we kind of gap the field and we’re trading off leads every lap. At some point in the race, we must’ve been slowing down without realizing it, because there was this guy from WashU—no, from NYU—who, with maybe 400 meters to go, goes around both of us. I was like, “Man, I’m not sure I’m gonna be able to respond to this.” I was really feeling tired. There’s a place on the back stretch where I was sort of floating above myself, or beside myself, or something. It was as if I was watching myself, and I watched myself respond and go around this guy, and I won that race. The team won the meet—it’s always a good day when you beat WashU, but more important than the winning was that moment of transcendence. You spend so much time in any discipline, whether it’s writing or running or playing a musical instrument. There’s so much effort, day after day, practicing for just a very small number of those effortless moments. I think it’s cool that one of those moments happened at Brandeis, before I knew that I would end up here.

[Joy] That sounds like such a surreal experience, that sounds amazing! In addition to that, I also have driven past Lincoln, and I can also say Lincoln is gorgeous. I think fall in Massachusetts is just amazing. It’s so pretty, and I agree—the warm fall day, walking around those trails, is so relaxing. 

You talked about Brandeis and your favorite spot at Brandeis being the track field, and also about Lincoln and the trails there. I just want to ask, as a final question: what is your favorite writing spot, whether it’s outside or in your house or at Brandeis? What are your favorite places to just go and write?

[Jerome Tharaud] Probably just in my office on campus. You know, it’s quiet—I don’t have two little girls running around. I have a painting in front of the desk that I enjoy. I mean, gosh—over the last five years since I got here, I’ve spent so many days, especially in the summer, all by myself, in that office, sweating it out. I guess I didn’t always love it as I was doing it, but it was a good place to get work done. I think there were a lot of days where I wouldn’t have spoken to anyone if it weren’t for Lisa Pannella or Leah and the administration office there.

[Caroline] I think if I were ever to become a professor at a university, I would definitely get very into decorating my office, since you spend so much time there as a faculty member!

That concludes our interview. Thank you so much for talking to us about yourself. This has been great—we’ve learned a lot about you!

[Jerome Tharaud] Yeah, thank you guys! It’s fun to think about these things. Anytime.

[Caroline] Awesome, take care!