Author Interview: Thomas Sullivan
When an industry requires a regulation stating that no company “shall be operated from a bar, liquor tent, or phone answering service”, you know your new job teaching teenagers is going to be strange.
Life In The Slow Lane recounts a year the author spent teaching driver education for a cut-rate company in Portland, Oregon. The business playbook for this family-run operation was similar to that of BP -- use something until it breaks, apologize effusively, and then don't change. However, the company became the largest operator in the state primarily because the other companies were worse.
Set in a boomtown suburb being overrun by subdivisions and new Starbucks stores, this story is a microcosm of a mid-decade America shifting from business integrity to growth and profit by any means possible. It is also a darkly comic warning about the pitfalls of privatizing essential community functions in an attempt to save money. Yet, at heart, Life In The Slow Lane is a celebration of the humor and perseverance of kids who manage to forge ahead while the cars they use wither and die.
About the Author:
Thomas Sullivan’s writing has appeared in Word Riot, Lost Magazine, and 3AM Magazine, among others. A former resident of Portland, Oregon, Thomas now lives in Seattle and is currently completing a book of humor essays.
To read an excerpt or view more of Thomas Sullivan’s published writing, please visit his author website at www.thomassullivanhumor.com
OTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
1. When did you decide to start writing?
During the summer I taught drivers education. We had very erratic scheduling, so I would end up with a few hours between lessons and little to do. So I started jotting down notes on funny stories (like the girl who couldn’t practice at home because Mom wrecked the car in a hasty exit from the Starbucks drive-thru). Then I decided to tell the whole story, and the longer book emerged from those chunks of time.
2. What is your genre and why did you decide to write a novel in it?
My book is nonfiction/memoir. I mostly decided to write about teaching drivers ed because it’s something most of us go through as kids but don’t revisit as adults. So I figured both adults and young people who had finished drivers ed a few years earlier would enjoy returning to that world for a while (without the threat of being in a car wreck).
3. Were you worried about the word count of your work?
Not too much. My book came in at 58,000 words, which at 170 pages seems about right for getting a glimpse into a weird, funny world without dragging on for too long.
4. Do you have any writing quirks and what are they?
I have two, both of which are gratefully minor. I have to be in a music-free environment since I’m always drawn to music and it steals my concentration (this old dog will probably never learn the new trick of multi-tasking). And I have to write by hand first, with a specific type of pen. If Bic ever stops making the Precise V series of rolling-ball pens I am toast.
5. If you can describe your novel in one word, what would it be and why?
“Whatever.” Let me explain this strange choice. I think the explosion of YA books like the Twilight series is telling us something. For too long we’ve been focused on helping kids by pushing for high SAT scores, prominent college enrollments, success in sports, and achieve-achieve-achieve. But we haven’t been helping them understand their emotional response to the world or teaching anything about self-esteem in a consistent way. So when you ask a young person something and they respond “What-ever”, it seems like a sign that we’re missing something quite important. I say this because kids in my car would often open up to me in utter confusion about having so much expected of them. Not all the kids, of course, but many. Much of what parents demand of kids is presented as being in their best interest, when in truth it’s driven by parents’ need to feel like they’re being good parents. So hopefully my book cuts through some of the mystery behind the “Whatever” response.
6. How did you decide on the title and what does it mean?
When we taught driving on the interstate (Lesson #5) we usually stayed in the slow lane on the right side of the freeway. We’d be driving the speed limit while cars flew by us on our left (I now know exactly what driving interstates will feel like when I’m 90). Even on regular main roads we were frequently honked at or passed. It’s strange to be moving slow when everyone else is in such a hurry, so in some ways the title is about choosing to move through the world in a less frantic and harried way.
7. What do you hope your readers will get out of reading your novel?
The humor and resiliency of kids is amazing. Whenever cars died or the office screwed up a schedule, the kids were the first to laugh about it and simply move on. So primarily I’d like readers to gain an appreciation of the lighthearted wisdom of kids. Secondly, the company I worked for would have never been needed if parents and school districts just paid a bit of taxes to keep drivers ed as an in-house function overseen by the public. The people I knew who worked for programs run by public schools didn’t experience the cost cutting, understaffing, and resultant chaos that I did with a private company. So, I’d like readers to question what might be lost if their town privatizes drivers ed and hands over control to someone whose interests are primarily those of profit.
8. Tell us a little about your road to publication.
I first published small excerpts of Slow Lane in web-based journals and audio-journals like Word Riot, Prick Of The Spindle, and Soundzine. After gaining some confidence through the positive feedback from these venues, I began submitting the full story to e-book publishers. I connected with Uncial Press (my current publisher, who is based in Oregon) and then with Cool Beat Audio, a small Florida-based company that plans to release an audiobook version of my story later this year. So, I’ve been fortunate to have a winding path to publication that connected me with smaller, alternative publishers.
9. What advice can you give other aspiring authors out there?
1) If editors comment on your work, only listen to those who have something positive to say, and then don’t take their advice too seriously unless a pattern develops. Editors are somewhat like parents – you should only listen to them if they genuinely care about you and your dreams.
2) Embrace the “E” world fully and widely (ie web-journals, e-books, audio magazines, online book bloggers). As a 43 year old quasi-dinosaur I was skeptical at first, but I’ve found that the “E” world is much more excited by newer voices and real stories by regular people than the traditional print world is.
Thank you so much, Thomas, for such an inspiring interview. I truly appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. Life In The Slow Lane: Surviving A Tour Of Duty In Driver Education is currently available at:
www.diesel-ebooks.com (Microsoft & Adobe editions)
www.amazon.com (Kindle edition)