Professor Toby Thompson: On Metroliner, Bob Dylan, and the Art of Creative Nonfiction
Professor Toby Thompson casually leans against the chalkboard in 312 Bouke, reading to himself while students in his “Beat Writing/Writing Beat” class listen to the first part of Allen Ginsberg’s recorded reading of Howl:
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
Thompson’s class focuses on the narrative style of writers from the “Beat Generation” like Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs as a way to inspire students to voice the concerns of their own generation through a style of creative nonfiction. But Thompson’s work goes much further than the confines of a classroom. He had his fifth book published last year and will be reading excerpts from it tonight in Foster Auditorium (102 Paterno) at 7:30 p.m.
Thompson’s latest book, Metroliner– Passages: Washington to New York, gets its name from the high-speed train that ran between the two cities from 1969 to 2006. The work comprises a series of profiles, memoirs, and insight into the life of re-urbanized America, where the social landscape drastically evolved over Thompson’s lifetime.
“A lot of it has to do with my interest in the white middle class’s return to the city from suburbia,” Thompson said. “I’m of that generation whose parents moved to suburbia in the 1950’s. They wanted to escape the city. What began to happen in the late 60’s and early 1970’s is that my generation had this enormous hunger to get out of suburbia and to get back into the city, where there was a lot more excitement, cultural activity, etc.”
Metroliner acts as an East Coast companion to a book of Thompson’s published a year earlier called Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West. While the Western narrative derives from his time living in Livingston, Montana, Thompson recalls the abandoned neighborhoods of New York and D.C. in Metroliner. These were times when you could readily rent a loft in the city and and rehab an entire building for next to nothing. By the 1970’s, baby boomers were the new city dwellers.
A number Thompson’s profiles in this book include interviewing notables like Tom Brokaw, Carl Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, and Jackie Gleason. But this book tells more about Thompson than it does of his profile subjects. Many of the topics and people in Metroliner fit into the city theme, written in a universe to the tune of Thompson’s eloquent narrative style.
“I would say creative nonfiction is a story that is factually accurate but uses the techniques of fiction to tell the story– that is scene-by-scene construction, dialogue, point of view, and status details or physical details– the way you would in a short story.”
Thompson had just finished earning his master’s degree in 1968 from the University of Virginia when he struggled as a young writer to get his fictional pieces published. In the pit of uncertainty about his future, Thompson thought of an untold story concerning the early life of Bob Dylan, formerly Robert Zimmerman from Hibbing, Minn.
“Dylan was like this huge figure at the time, but he was in seclusion,” Thompson recalls. “So I got this idea to maybe drive out to his hometown and see if I could find a story.”
Toby managed to get a hold of Dylan’s uncle, another Hibbing native, who told him that the folk singer’s father died a month earlier. Thompson asked if anyone had ever traveled out to Hibbing to interview people that knew Dylan for a story. The uncle answered no, claiming the town always wondered why nobody ever had.
“It was like this story that was just ready to be told about Dylan’s boyhood,” Thompson said.
After venturing out to Hibbing, Thompson talked to locals to learn more about this small-town life of Dylan’s that was kept hidden from the outside world. He spoke with classmates, neighbors, and people of the community that knew Dylan. He even met the songwriter’s high school sweetheart, Echo Helstrom, whom Thompson described as a wild girl who used to ride on the back of Dylan’s motorcycle, saying that, “She really understood him better than anybody.”
Thompson left Hibbing to return home and write the story, which appeared as a six-part series in the Village Voice. From there, everything seemed to fall into place. Thompson accepted one of his 12 book offers and published Positively Main Street: An Unorthodox View of Bob Dylan in 1971, which was republished as Positively Main Street: Bob Dylan’s Minnesota in 2008.
Through the 1970’s, Thompson continued to freelance for “slick” magazines like Vanity Fair, the New Yorker, and Esquire that would pay more than $6,000 for an article. In this time, he released two more novels: Saloon (1976) and The 60’s Report (1979).
Thompson joined Penn State’s English department in 1985 as a professor in creative nonfiction. Originally thinking he was only going to teach for a year or two, Toby became “seduced by the regular paycheck” that he never had as a freelancer. Thompson continues to teach at Penn State to this day as he puts the finishing touches on a novel that he hopes to publish in the near future.
“I’m 69, ya know. I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet.”
As for advice to young writers seeking a similar path to his, Thompson urges them to be smart, clever, and new when thinking about the issues of today’s society.
“Find a story about your generation that hasn’t been told yet and write it in a way that’s good and I can almost guarantee you that that story will get published,” Thompson reassured me. “The trick is to come up with the right idea.”