by Annie Scholl
Growing up impoverished in Frankford, a neighborhood in the Northeast section of Philadelphia, author Joseph Earl Thomas rarely wrote or read.
“I gleaned information regarding story from other aesthetic forms like video games and from paying attention to people around me,” says Thomas, 34, whose book, Sink: A Memoir (Grand Central Publishing, 2023), is an account of his childhood, spent in poverty, abuse, and violence.
When it came time for college, Thomas chose to major in biology.
“There were no models for what I wanted to do,” says Thomas, now the father of four, including twin boys. “I wasn’t familiar with any of the other ways you could build a life and actually enjoy the thing you were physically doing. I didn’t have an example of that.”
Thomas graduated from high school at 17 and worked in a series of jobs before joining the Army at 19. He decided to go into the military to get medical training for a career in healthcare—and to help him pay for college one day.
After the service and after earning his undergraduate degree in biology, Thomas was accepted into the physician assistant training program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. While taking a summer African-American literature course at nearby Saint Joseph’s University, his career plans changed. A Saint Joseph’s professor suggested Thomas had what it took to engage in a writing life and told him that some MFA programs would waive tuition and provide a stipend.
“That was news to me,” he says.
Thomas learned about this possibility just when his education funding from the Army was running out—and so was his interest in a healthcare career. Thomas describes himself as floundering and “intellectually dissatisfied” in the Drexel physician assistant program. By this time, he also had two young children and felt he was spending more time on his education than his family. Taking his professor’s advice, Thomas applied to the MFA program in prose at the University of Notre Dame. He was accepted and received a full-tuition waiver and a stipend.
After receiving his MFA, he went on to enroll in a doctoral program in English at the University of Pennsylvania. He expects to complete that program in 2024.
Thomas has received fellowships from the Fulbright program, the Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA) Foundation, Tin House, Kimbilio for Black Fiction, and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In 2022, he was named the third Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards fellow in creative writing and publishing—an award sponsored by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
An excerpt of Sink won the 2020 Chautauqua Janus Prize, which celebrates an emerging writer’s work. Thomas’s other work has appeared (or is forthcoming) in such literary journals and magazines as the Virginia Quarterly Review (VQR), n+1, Gulf Coast, The Offing, and The Kenyon Review. He’s currently at work on a novel and a collection of stories.
Thomas talked with The Sunlight Press from his home in Philadelphia.
What makes you happiest in terms of your professional life?
Good writing mornings. Finally getting down a good sentence is so satisfying—never mind an entire good paragraph. I think this is why I could never quit writing—because I have not gotten to anything else that is as satisfying as that to me.
What kinds of jobs have you held over the years?
Oh, so many. I was a waiter. I worked at a place called Atlanta Bread. We used to bake bread and work the morning executive crowd. I was simultaneously a manager at GameStop. I also worked in the lawn and garden section at Home Depot. Maybe my longest adult job was working as an EMT for an ambulance company. I also worked as a sort of certified nursing assistant at Einstein Hospital in Philadelphia and as an emergency medical tech.
How does the work you do now compare?
It is simultaneously much easier and more difficult. I’m trying to be on the academic job market and go to conferences and get the work out there, and then there’s my desire to make work that I’m proud of, which is extremely difficult and takes a long time. So I think, mentally, it’s much more difficult. I don’t work my body as much as I used to, but I overwork my mind so much that it’s hard to sleep sometimes—and much harder to have a coherent thought that I have any confidence in. I keep going and going, and spiraling, and then coming back and revising, so it’s time consuming. It requires more patience of me, but it also allows me to be home more than any other job would. And I have to be thankful for that, even though my kids think that I’m never working, or that I don’t have a job anymore. It’s complicated and there’s an invisibility to it. No one that I grew up with had an “intellectual” job, or a job that required you not to destroy your body but required you to think.
What does your writing practice look like?
I primarily write in the morning. On a great day I get up between 4:30 and 5:00, before the kids, because if I don’t, I think the day is already over. I’m already doing parent things and I’m never going to do anything else that requires maximum focus, because it’s very difficult for me to switch back and forth. I’ll usually read something for a little bit and then go straight to the page. When I have to go places for the book tour, I try to write a little bit, even if that’s on my phone.
I don’t necessarily see any cons. I felt like I waited quite a long time to do it. The book took shape over the course of eight or nine years or so. I tried to be as careful as I could while being as honest as I could and being as serious about craft, and attention to detail and form, as I could. One of the pros for me is that most of the people in the book are still alive, so they could read or listen to it, and I could talk about it with my friends and family. That was super important to me. My children can have a firmer understanding of my own childhood as well, because they always have lots of questions. I don’t placate or lie to them. I will tell them my opinion and be clear about the fact that what I’m saying is my opinion and not some kind of universal fact.
What has been the overall reaction to your memoir from your family members?
I would say more friends have read it than family members. I’m not from a family of readers. My sister really loved it; my mother found it both funny and sad. At some points there were things that she had forgotten about that came back to her. And we’ve had a lot of conversations around the fact that she and some other folks thought I was too soft on certain people or scenes.
So many writers I know who are working on memoir worry about how their books will impact their families. It sounds like you didn’t have that experience.
For me, one of the rules that I have is that I’m never going to write something that I would not say to your face, or that I have not already had umpteen discussions about. Also, I was attentive to things that were repetitive. If something happened dozens of times, I felt more comfortable having that as one of the sets of experiences that I was moving through. If people said, “Absolutely do not write about that,” then I was like, okay, that’s not a problem.
What were your greatest struggles writing Sink?
They had to do with questions of how I depict a set of experiences or a life that is related to other lives without being hyperbolic, or heroic, or fantastical in the worst sense of the word. Some of those questions got wrapped up, quite literally, in the words. What words do we use to describe things? Some of it had to do with basic writing things like what tense to use, and how close do we get to the protagonist or other characters? And then some of it had to do with trying to pick the perspective and to stay there. It was difficult. I knew I wanted to write a book that was from the perspective of a child, and it was hard to stay there the whole time knowing what I know and am expected to know now.
How hard was it for you to embody your younger self?
I think that was the hardest part of it, not because I was in denial about who I was as a young person, but more because of the kind of expectations some folks have about genre and form, and the sense that I get from a literary world of wanting safety or comfort. I didn’t want to do any of that. A lot of places where I could have hidden or covered up harmful situations, or language, or whatever, with my adult self, I didn’t, because that felt very disingenuous to me ….
I was really invested in describing what occurs when most of the social systems and adults around you inevitably fail—due to systemic problems of the world and/or those mistakes and regrets of the interpersonal/interior manifestation, and how those always connect. Trouble is that a lot of that stuff doesn’t really matter to you when you’re a kid. All you feel is the failure or the hurt or the fact that nobody is telling you crucial information. And I wanted to stick with that and take that seriously rather than washing it away with my big words or by using some highly acceptable literary forms that I think make us feel good. I don’t know if I want to read literature, or make literature, where the primary goal is to make me feel good.
What was most challenging for you to write about?
Introducing my second grandmother, Dotty, into the narrative, at the point where I’m in middle school, was difficult. There were a whole host of conflicting feelings, memories, and aesthetic forms presenting themselves as most important, especially considering the conflicts—and the abuses—other people had with her, and her with them, outside of what I was compiling through my own psyche.
You wrote the book in the third person. Did the book just demand that point of view?
Over the time that the book was taking shape, it was written in every tense and from every perspective—first, second, third, and some made-up one that I had as well. For me, a lot of times when I write in the first person or when I read things in the first person, the adult voice takes over the narrative in ways that I don’t necessarily enjoy. This is especially problematic because I’m trying to write from the perspective of a child who doesn’t have those kinds of words or those ways of making sentences. I’m a 30-something-year-old person who knows how to explain a bunch of stuff. I think writing in the third person helped me avoid doing that to some extent. When I think about other scenes, other places, other people’s bodies, especially in lieu of education, writing that way felt more potent to me. There are plenty of theoretical reasons for doing so, but this was always at the front of my mind.
How do you want people to walk away after reading your book?
I definitely don’t want people to walk away from it being like, “Look at this magical character who’s special and dealt with these hard experiences, but through sheer force of will triumphed,” or something like that—I definitely don’t want the hero-story narrative thing, which I think is one of the few ways that we even have to talk about difficult experiences—in this country in particular. But I do want people to work through their own interpretations, or confusions, or questions for themselves. I figure that’s a lot more fun than falling back on a set of preconceived scripts and expectations, or beliefs, or ways of knowing about literature. I was trying to be careful to keep the book from being an easy explanation, or easy reading.
The Sunlight Press is grateful to Thomas for sharing his time and experience with readers.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr