September 27th – Jim Thompson

“There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot – things are not as they seem.” 

Jim Thompson

Jim Thompson was born September 27, 1906 in Anadarko, Oklahoma Territory (a year before Oklahoma officially became a state). Thompson’s early life was the thing of novels. His father was a sheriff, but rumors of embezzlement forced the family to move to Texas. Thompson wrote from a young age, and in his teens published a few short pieces. While working as a bellboy he made extra money (a lot of extra money) running bootleg liquor and drugs to hotel patrons. Thompson relied on whiskey to keep himself up and lay himself down, and the liquor took a toll on him by the age of 19 when he suffered a nervous breakdown.

After being discharged from the hospital he set off to West Texas to work in the oil fields. He lived as a hobo and itinerant laborer, being arrested multiple times for public drunkenness, assault and vagrancy.

 He continued to write articles, and attended the University of Nebraska for a while, but dropped out by 1931. 

Then, in the early 1930s he became the director of the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in the state of Oklahoma. Louis L’Amour worked under him, and Thompson wrote a few guidebooks on Oklahoma, such as Tulsa: A Guide to the Oil Capital.

Tulsa Guidebook from James M. Dourgarian on Biblio.com

His first novel, Now and On Earth was published by Modern Age, New York, in 1942. It, along with his second Heed the Thunder (1946), was not commercially successful. During this time Thompson spiraled into his dependance on alcohol, being hospitalized 27 times for alcohol-related incidents (he was in his early 40s). His medical bills caused financial strain on his family despite any money coming in from writing. 

He then switched to crime fiction, publishing Nothing More Than Murder in 1949. The novel was his first literary success, and went on to sell more than 750,000 copies in paperback. 

In 1952 he signed with Lion Books to create a new line of paperback originals to fill the market between pulps and hardcovers. Thomson wrote 12 books in 18 months between September 1952 and March 1954. 

Finally finding his niche in paperbacks, Thompson wrote at a furious pace in the 1950s, creating some of his best work. He was dubbed the ‘Dimestore Dostoevsky.’

The Killer Inside Me, published in 1952, was the first of 26 paperback original crime novels written by Thompson between 1952-1973. This novel is credited with portraying the blameless American psychopath that now resonates throughout US culture. His 1953 novel Savage Night, (1953) is considered one of his best.

Only three of his books were published in hardcover, and there are very few signed copies on the market.

Although popular in France, Thompson’s books fell out of print in the United States. During the 1970s. a series of strokes made him unable to speak, and cataracts caused him to lose his vision. Unable to write, he starved himself to death. Thompson died on April 7, 1977, at the age of 70 in Los Angeles. He told his wife just prior to his death: “Just you wait. I’ll be famous after I’m dead about ten years.”

Lesson From Thompson

Thompson was right – although his novels had all fallen out of print at the time of his death, many have been reissued, and his popularity has continued to grow over the years as he is recognized as a by both writers and readers for his portrayal of the criminally insane. It’s easy to say that perhaps he shouldn’t have lost heart in his own writing, and that he should have drank less, but the world is often too much for people who can see and feel to the enormous depth needed to put dark realities onto paper. It’s not too late for us though. Don’t lose heart. Drink less. Keep writing.

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