Rummanah Aasi
  I reviewed and enjoyed reading Life in the Slow Lane by Thomas M. Sullivan last year. I had quite a few questions for him after reading the novella. Thomas has an extensive educational background. He has more degrees under his belt than I could count! He is a long time teacher who quite familiar with the murky and lightly regulated world of private vocational education. He has worked for companies that either dramatically fell apart or that were investigated by the federal government for fraud. His novella, Life in the Slow Lane, takes a closer look at private Driver's Education that is far from professional. I hope you enjoy this interview and participate in the giveaway (details below)!

Rummanah: Welcome and thank you for stopping by my blog, Thomas. Given your educational background, the last thing I imagined you doing is being a Driver’s Education teacher. Why did you choose this profession?

 Thomas: I sort of fell back into teaching after trying other things. A few years prior to the job I graduated from a two-year program in a computer related field but couldn’t find work in Portland. So I went to work as a cartographic draftsman at a government agency in Salem (the capitol). The environment there was really grim, so I decided to return to teaching (I had previously taught software to unemployed and job-injured adults in retraining for a number of years before moving to Portland). 

Rummanah: And now, you’re a writer. What made you turn to the writing profession?

Thomas: Our scheduling for student lessons was so erratic that I’d end up with hours between lessons. So I’d drop into a coffee shop and jot down accounts of funny things that happened during the day. Over time my “material” piled up and I decided to shape it into a book-length account of being a driver’s education instructor. So it wasn’t really a conscious decision but rather a way to make the best of a largely dysfunctional (but always entertaining) situation. 

Rummanah: Now that's what I call using your time wisely! Did you have any other memories from the Driver's Education company that you wanted to put into your novel, but didn’t?

Thomas: Fortunately, I was able to tell the whole story. From what I’ve heard, a lot of authors end up with editors that need to feel in control and radically rework a book to make it safer and more marketable. On this count my editor was wonderfully cooperative, which is a real blessing (small presses rock!).
Rummanah: That's great! As a teen what was your most memorable driving memory?

Thomas: Our family had two used cars, a Mazda and a Camaro with this monstrous stick shift that looked like it belonged on a flatbed truck. One day I was driving home in the Camaro and went to downshift to climb a big hill. For some unknown reason I thought I was in the Mazda and was shifting from 3rd gear to 2nd. But on the Camaro the same spot on the shifter was actually Reverse. When I shifted and let off the clutch the car screamed, slammed to a stop, and started to smoke. Perhaps teaching drivers ed became a future form of penance for that destruction. 

Rummanah: *Laughs* If I ever did that, my parents would never let me get near a car much less drive one! How would you describe your writing style?

Thomas: Firstly, “accessible” – I try to write as if I’m talking to someone and telling them a story, not trying to impress them with smart-sounding words and complex sentences. My hope is that this makes reading my work quick and light. Secondly, “irreverent” – I write from the position that every institution and every belief in life needs to be open to reasonable inspection and questioning if we want to avoid stagnating or morphing into a closed society. 

Rummanah: I think that definitely comes across in Life in the Slow Lane. While there is humor in the book, I could still tell there was a serious problem with that driving school. On that note, what would you like your readers to take away from your book?

Thomas:  Primarily, that we can learn a lot from the easy-going wisdom of kids, who haven’t been tainted by greed or the need to control or an overwhelming drive to feel successful. In my book there’s a stark contrast between the way the kids respond and the way the adults respond when things go haywire, and I think it’s instructional. The kids shrug it off and move on, the adults bicker and blame (probably myself included). That was the remarkable thing about being around kids day after day – what struck me was that they exhibited an accepting lightness and that seems to evaporate in middle aged adults. I’m not denigrating American parents, who now have less security and support than ever before and should probably be demanding more, I’m only saying they can learn from the young.
   Secondly, I’d like people to consider (especially now in an era of budget challenges) the wisdom of privatizing essential functions like education or water systems or highways. I’d like to believe that my experience was unique, but I don’t think it is. Privatizing is always presented as the best way to gain “efficiencies,” but you run the risk of entrusting crucial necessities to companies that (by design) care primarily about maximizing profit. Private enterprise works for most things, but it’s not a panacea for everything.

Rummanah: I hear you loud and clear on that, but I can't help but notice a common critique of your book is the social commentary you included in the middle of the book. Some readers thought it was a bit offensive. What was your purpose of adding that commentary there?

Thomas: I wanted to encompass the whole range of my experience and not be limited to funny, feel-good stories about being in a car with teenagers. I also felt that the nature of the time and setting of the story were factors in the dysfunction permeating the situation. My story takes place mid-decade, when the housing bubble was raging, suburbs were booming, reckless greed was in, and people were buying big houses and huge SUV’s. At the time, it seemed to me that the drive for wealth and power were crowding out other more important (in my opinion) concerns. And I was sitting in the middle of all this. The town I worked in celebrated a sort of “free-market-triumphalism.” My employer was a perfect example of “profit-above-all-else,” like Enron. So, the general mood of the cultures surrounding me felt aggressive and selfish and unsettled. So the social elements seeped into my story and shaped it. And the prevailing mindset impacted the effectiveness of my company in meeting its true responsibility, the one that really mattered, which was teaching kids.
    I suspect that my comments on religion were the primary thing people found “offensive”. But my story does beg the question – how does one claim openly to be a dedicated Christian, but then run a company that is basically predatory and concerned primarily with profit? 

Rummanah: I see. Thomas, if you could offer any advice to aspiring writers what would it be?

Thomas:  Try to find a voice and style of your own and trust it. This can be hard since a lot of traditional venues for writers want things that are familiar and comfortable, which tempts one to change their voice and style to “fit in.” But these restraints that kill innovation are now driving new opportunities to arise. The web is really opening up possibilities, with online journals, audio magazine, e-publishers, blogs, etc. So my one bit of advice would be: don’t change what or how you write, change how you try to get your work out there.

Rummanah: Thanks for the advice! Do you have any other projects that you’re working on at the moment?

Thomas: I’m finishing a collection of humorous non-fiction essays that I think could be called “flash-nonfiction.” A number of these have appeared online. If anyone wants to take a peek I have a link to a few on my website.

Rummanah: Thanks so much for stopping by and answering my questions!

Thomas: Thank you so much for this opportunity. I’m really starting to appreciate the book blogging community and have found some great books that I would never have found through traditional channels. So thanks for that too! 

Readers, Thomas has kindly offered to give away an electronic copy of Life in the Slow Lane. Here are the giveaway rules:
1. You must be 13 years or older.
2. Leave your name/alias along with an email in the comments so that Thomas can send the ebook to you. 

This giveaway is open internationally! You do not have to follow my blog, but if you like what you see here then it would be greatly appreciated. Giveaway ends 11 pm EST on 1/11/11. The winner will be notified via email and announced on my blog 1/12/11. Good Luck!

5 Responses
  1. Maggi Says:

    The book sounds very interesting!!
    steveandmaggi at yahoo dot com

  2. Sounds cool and great interview. Looking forward to seeing more of Thomas' work.

  3. Una Says:

    I am intrigued, please enter me in the contest! This sounds like something my book club would like to discuss.

    mollys-vai AT sbcglobal DOT com

  4. MZMollyTL Says:

    Finally, an *international* eligible contest! Has Thomas heard about People for Education - it's an Ontario, parent-based organization supporting public education. They put out an annual report of the state of education in the province and they have a lot of clout. I'm wondering if there are equivalents in your neck(s) of the woods.
    gntlinto AT yahoo DOT "see" "eh"

  5. I'm trying to get some international giveaways underway. Stay tuned. :)

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