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Monday, February 19 Opinion

Woog's World / A novelist mines Westport hometown memories

Ted Thompson transferred from Greens Farms Academy to Staples as a sophomore. He entered high school in 1997 as a lacrosse player and skier, and left it as a writer. Writing and directing his own play there was "a hugely transformative experience," he says. It set him on a path he follows today.

Thompson transferred once more -- from Bowdoin College to New York University, where he studied playwriting. Along the way, he began writing fiction. He earned a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa five years ago.

His first novel has just been published. "The Land of Steady Habits" combines the fundamental truth about writing -- "write what you know" -- with the demands of creating characters, setting and plot that never really existed, yet are relatable to by readers with many different backgrounds and experiences.

"Steady Habits" began as a "light and comedic" short story. But that did not work, Thompson says. "At some level, I was poking fun at where I had come from." Instead, the author needed "fully formed characters, to talk about place."

That place is the Connecticut suburbs. Anders Hill is 62, newly retired and clearly unhappy. He leaves his wife, buys a condo, and waits for a transformation. It doesn't happen the way he expects, which of course propels the book on its unexpected yet not unfamiliar course. The story line also shows Thompson to be a keen, insightful writer -- the latest in a long line of authors who have mined our town in an attempt to find Big Truths about America today.

"Westport was kind of" -- he pauses -- "an ideal place, in a lot of ways," he says. "It was also the only place I knew. There was tremendous opportunity, plenty of encouragement, terrific schools. I realize now how much all of that -- living in a community that values education and the arts -- how much that formed me."

Thompson says that, to form their own identity, teenagers everywhere must reject part of where they grew up. "To expose the truth, you have to look at the ugliness." He did that by reading "suburban literature" of authors like John Updike and Richard Yates.

"They said the unsayable," he notes. "That excited me at the time." As he's grown older, Thompson realizes that the dark side of suburbia is only part of the whole.

So how much of Westport is in "The Land of Steady Habits"?

"In terms of sense memory, everything," Thompson says. "The house I grew up in, long summer nights barbecuing at Compo Beach, the way the Post Road looks at a certain time of winter -- that stuff informs the reality of my imagination."

Culturally, though, he needed to "get away from facts," in order to create a new reality.

Booklist said, "Filled with heartache and humor, this assured, compassionate novel channels the suburban angst of Updike and Cheever ... with pitch-perfect prose and endearingly melancholy characters."

Interestingly, the protagonist is several decades older than the author. How does a millennial write convincingly about an aging baby boomer?

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On his personal blog, Thompson explains that when he began the book, he was getting out of college and looking for a job. His parents were retiring and moving away. That confluence of events got him thinking -- okay, worrying -- about what happens in between.

Looking back, he says, "I was trying to figure out how to be an adult, how to be responsible to others without ending up marooned in a place where I resented them for it. So much of adulthood seemed, from that perspective, like a subjugation of yourself, like a long series of compromise. Being a good person continually seemed like a willingness to take one for the team. And it was all too easy for me to imagine ending up, at the end of all that, angry and lost and willing to fail the very people I had sacrificed for. I suppose that was what I most feared. I could see myself becoming that. So Anders was the embodiment of that fear played out through my imagination."

Thompson understands that his writing descends from "a long line of commuter literature." He saw a reference recently to a "Merritt Parkway novel." Much of that was written, he says, "by mid-20th century men uncomfortable with domestic life."

Thompson himself is happily married. He also lives in Brooklyn.

Will the suburban son ever return to Westport?

Thompson pauses again. "If you asked me five years ago, I'd have said `no way.' Now, more and more, I'm drawn to it."

Accompanying him on a book tour recently, his wife rode Metro-North through Connecticut for the first time.

"This is really nice!" she said. Like her husband, she can see his childhood home through fresh, new eyes.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at: dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.