This reading group guide for Do Not Deny Me includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Jean Thompson. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
With humor and razor-sharp perception, Jean Thompson offers a fictional primer on how Americans live day to day in this new story collection. These twelve stories introduce you to characters that are instantly recognizable in their predicaments, foibles, and sensibilities. With situations that are fresh and relevant, Thompson sensitively and boldly exposes the truths beneath the surface of our “ordinary” modern reality, examining the newly dulled spots of what was once a bright, collective vision—the shiny, happy American Dream. With her wise and witty voice, Thompson winks at fate, and eases the prospect of facing it.
Questions for Discussion
Enhance Your Book Club
- Book titles can often help to reveal a story’s meaning, and this is similarly true for short stories. Examine the titles of these twelve stories and discuss how they relate to their story’s theme or provide illumination. Why do you think the author chose to use the story title “Do Not Deny Me” as the book’s title? Does it have a different meaning as the title for the story and for the collection?
- In the story “Soldiers of Spiritos,” in what ways does Professor Penrose feel alienated and slowly pushed out of his career in literature? Why do you think the idea of writing a science fiction novel appeals to him? In what ways are he and Sarah Snyder similar? How are they different? How does the “old guard” and “new generation” clash in “Soldiers of Spiritos?”
- What competitions are acted out in “Wilderness?” What do you think happened to Anna after the story ended?
- The inclusion of “Her Untold Story” later in the collection gives us a unique opportunity to explore the point of view of Lynn, a secondary character in “Wilderness.” Did Lynn’s life turn out the way you imagined it?
- In “Mr. Rat,” Matt’s ex-girlfriend says that it takes a tragedy to make him notice and care about another human being (p. 62). Do you think this is true of people in general? Is it true of Matt? Did you find the end of this story predictable?
- In “Little Brown Bird,” Beate senses that “things that were not what you wanted them to be” in her neighborhood (p. 85). What else is not the way Beate would like it to be? What is the little brown bird, “right there the whole time,” in this story? When did you first spot it?
- In “Liberty Tax,” Mrs. Crabtree remarks that maybe she and her husband—and, by implication, others in their situation—are just stupid. Do you think that is true? Why or why not? Are you sympathetic enough to justify Bobby’s solution? What would you do in Mrs. Crabtree’s position? Why do you think she never reveals her first name?
- “Smash” describes a man undergoing an unusual post-accident experience. What happens to our narrator that makes him “finer than fine,” and “newer than new?” Compare the effect his accident has on him with the effect the workman’s accident has on Matt in “Mr. Rat.”
- Interestingly, in the title story “Do Not Deny Me,” Julia seems to reject the possibilities of the unseen spirit world more once she does believe and experience it, especially when she opens herself up to her own psychic gifts. Discuss how this story examines rejection of the real versus rejection of the unreal. What finally prompts Julia to move on?
- In the story “Escape,” from what are Hurley and Claudine each trying to escape? How do you feel about their solutions? Do you sympathize with either, or both, of these characters? Why or why not?
- “The Woman at the Well” is written in a second person point of view that is tied to Teresa, a regular suburban white woman who made a terrible mistake and landed herself in prison among people she describes as animals in “an obscene barnyard” (p. 218). What effect does this technique have on your reading experience? Why do you think the author made this decision?
- Many of the younger characters in these stories struggle with loss, while many of the older characters are struck by the notion that life has passed them by. Identify these themes in the various stories and give examples of how different characters deal with their feelings. What do you think about their reactions?
- In stories like “Treehouse,” “Mr. Rat,” and “Liberty Tax,” the author touches on the idea that a man’s identity is wrapped up in, even synonymous with, his job. Discuss how this is or isn’t true for Garrison, Matt, and Bobby. How does this belief drive their actions?
- Thompson has received critical praise for her rendering of female characters. In Do Not Deny Me, she often writes from the point of view of male characters. Did you find these characters more or less realistic than her female protagonists? Explain your opinion using examples from the stories.
- Themes of distance, disconnect, and a longing for connection are prevalent in this story collection. Consider how characters like Garrison (from “Treehouse”) and Ted (from “Wilderness”) each try to make a space for themselves, breaking from their realities to find something else. What do you think they, and other characters, are looking for? What does it mean that some characters, like Sophie (from “How We Brought the Good News”) end up right where they started while others, like Lynn (from “Her Untold Story”) embrace their future and, as in Lynn’s case, run toward it?
- Some of Thompson’s characters make or have made choices that most people would judge as shady at best. However, without that conflict, there would not be much of a story. Consider “Mr. Rat,” “Liberty Tax,” and “The Woman at the Well.” What is it about taking the wrong road that makes stories like these so compelling?
A Conversation with Jean ThompsonYou’re well known for your short fiction, and Do Not Deny Me is your fifth collection of short stories. Tell us a little bit about your experiences writing short fiction versus novels—what challenges and joys are a part of the process for you.
- Several characters in Do Not Deny Me step outside their comfort zones to find new experiences, such as Garrison who decides to build a treehouse with little construction experience, or Lynn who takes up running in her forties. Think of something you’ve never tried before, preferably something you’ve always wondered about, and do it. Start a new hobby or tackle a one-day project; visit a part of your city that you’ve never been to before; try cooking a new kind of food. Consider the reason you’ve held off doing this thing, and discuss with your book club how doing it now makes you feel. Does the experience change how you relate to any of Thompson’s characters?
- Thompson’s characters, like real people, are forced to make decisions in extenuating circumstances that don’t always provide neat solutions—in fact, sometimes they’re downright awful. Choose one of these stories from the book and imagine what the protagonist might have done if he or she made a different choice. If you’re feeling ambitious, rewrite the ending of the story and share it with your book club.
- Jean Thompson is the author of several other short story collections and four novels. Try reading a few stories from another collection to see how her portrayal of her characters and their lives is similar to or different from those in Do Not Deny Me. You can learn more about the author and her work by visiting her website: www.jeanthompsononline.com.
I've written more short stories than novels and so probably have more ease with them. I've heard it say that novels are really one big long story, and have the same needs as stories—for tension, dramatic action, and closure—only in extended form. Novels, even brief ones, demand that you move in with the project, so to speak. It's sustained work for a period of time. Stories require less commitment but just as much patience. You have taught creative writing at the University of Illinois, Northwestern, and Reed University, among others. How has teaching affected your own writing?
It's possible to have conversations about writing and literature in the classroom that feed your own writing in productive ways. Sometimes the very challenge you've been wrestling with in your own work gets articulated or examined and that's fortuitous. There is some exceptional student work that can get you excited all over again about the enterprise of writing, just as, I must admit, really, bad writing can make you despair of it. But it's a luxury to be in the company of those who believe that fiction matters and is worth doing well. You have been heralded as the “singer of ordinary people” and “poet of . . . unglamorous lives” (Booklist). How does every day life interest you? How do you think you got this reputation?
Everyday life interests me because it's pretty much the only life we've got, most of us, and because I want to believe that within the everyday lurk all the ingredients for tragedy and comedy. I mean that we are all worthy subjects of study, like a drop of pond water seen under a microscope. I remain hopelessly fascinated by the real and recognizable world, and have never felt the need to explore the lives of anyone merely wealthy or notorious. Your last collection of stories, Throw Like a Girl, takes dead aim at the secret lives of women. In Do Not Deny Me, your characters include women and men of many different ages, experiences, and abilities (including a stroke victim and one with supernatural power). How do you breathe life into each character and lend such credibility to the situations in which they find themselves?
Everyone I know can breathe a sigh of relief: I don't base characters on actual people, but rather on a more general and distilled observation of human behavior. These days, my characters are an outgrowth of a particular story situation, rather than being the basis or reason for a story. And of course, craft enters into the process, since it’s more artful to work against a reader’s expectations. For instance, Fay, the psychic in the title story, “Do Not Deny Me,” is not a glamorous otherworldly presence, but a seemingly-ordinary middle-aged lady who works in the Department of Motor Vehicles. And Hurley, the stroke-disabled character in “Escape” is someone you can feel sorry for, yet he is also cantankerous, profane, and even downright mean.
A writer needs at least the rudiments of empathy—I suppose we all do—in order to render characters who are quite unlike oneself. There's always the sense of pushing the boundaries of your own experience and trying to imagine someone else’s, of wondering how someone might behave, given their background, circumstances, and motivations. I'd like to think of it as exercising a kind of muscle, one that might help me to better understand our mysterious fellow-humans. The settings for many of your stories often take place in an ordinary town in the middle of America. A couple take place in the great cities of Chicago and New York. How important is setting to you? Do you feel that readers of Do Not Deny Me will take particular note of its American motifs?
Setting energizes me and is often a jumping-off place for a story, something concrete with which to begin a story. Eventually you hope that story takes over from the setting or that story builds on whatever mood, color, or fact exists in its locale. Some might say that your stories are a bit dark. But there is a sense of humor that runs through them. Can you tell us about how you show wisdom through humor?
I suppose that humor is a way of refreshing or reexamining a situation, giving it an unexpected shading. I'd like to think that a lot of my humor is really irony, pointing out a subtext or incongruity that isn't readily apparent. What do you like to read?
I love a great many writers, all with equal, promiscuous enthusiasm: Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Durrell, Flannery O'Connor, T.C. Boyle, Alice Munro, Dan Chaon, Charles Baxter, Leo Tolstoy, John Cheever, Raymond Carver, and on and on and on.