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Humans On Display In 'Hall Of Small Mammals'


Writer Thomas Pierce has included no penguins in his new short story collection. It's called "Hall of Small Mammals." But the mammals he does showcase, besides humans, of course, tend to be highly unusual - part prehistoric, part ahistoric, magical even.

Thomas has a vivid imagination. We first noticed some years back when he worked at NPR on a journalism fellowship. In his first story of the collection, we are introduced to an older woman called Mama. She has a grown son named Tommy who is anything but dependable.

THOMAS PIERCE: So one night she's throwing this party for some cousins, a wedding party. And her son is supposed to be there. He's totally let her down. He has not shown up. He's late.

And then when he gets home, he comes in his work truck. He works for a show called "Back from Extinction." It's this kind of reality show meets science. It's a show in which they clone dead or extinct animals and bring them back and you get to watch that magic in his television show. And he's the host of the show.

So here he is at home. He takes her out back as a way of kind of apologizing and also he reveals this small, this dwarf woolly mammoth, this brought back to life woolly mammoth. He tugs up his quilt and there it is. And she, you know, she thinks what is this, you know?

MARTIN: As you would...

PIERCE: As you would, of course.

MARTIN: ...If someone brought a woolly mammoth into your backyard.

PIERCE: Absolutely.

MARTIN: So the next story I'd like to talk about is the one called "Videos of People Falling Down." This is vignettes of moments of literally that, people falling in various circumstances.


MARTIN: And each small story builds and connects to another. And I mean, there are several different characters in this but I want to pick out one in particular, Adam Fitzgerald.

PIERCE: The little boy on the Slip 'N Slide.

MARTIN: Yeah, that, the little boy on the Slip 'N Slide. So walk us through what happened to Adam Fitzgerald as a child.

PIERCE: Sure. So Adam Fitzgerald is the slightly pudgy boy who is at a birthday party and there's a Slip 'N Slide, which - that's always fun. But he's not prepared. He hasn't brought his swimsuit. So he's in his whitey tighties, you know, which is already embarrassing.

And so he's on the slip and slide. He's having this wonderful, miraculous slide. He gets to the bottom. He stands up. And then the kid who's sliding behind him knocks him down. He knocks the legs out from underneath Adam. And he has this terrible fall and chips his tooth, I think. And it's really embarrassing.

It's caught on film. And it ends up on one of these television shows, these "America's Funniest Home Videos" type show. This happens when he's young. His mom signs a consent form, you know, and says sure, yeah, put this - I give you permission to use this video. She has regrets about it later.

He grows up to discover one day - someone sends him this link to an online video. And it's this montage of people falling down. And there he is. There's his little boy self falling down.

MARTIN: There are other falls - a local news reporter falls during a live shot, a famous author bites it on a treadmill, several others. And they end up as part of an art exhibit.

I mean, is there a larger message in here about what we do with all this stuff that's everywhere online?

PIERCE: Yeah. I think it was an exercise in empathy. I wanted to - I mean, these clips are three to four seconds long. So I wanted to expand, you know. I wanted to look beyond these three or four embarrassing seconds and try to find the real people, the people whose lives exist on either side of those three or four second clips.

I mean, I think that, you know, this is a story about people at moments of weakness. But I think it's at moments of weakness that we begin to see ourselves more clearly.

MARTIN: Do you ever get the urge to keep writing these stories through? I mean, I realize that this is a specific art form, the short story.


MARTIN: But have you ever had to fight a desire to keep writing, to keep writing the characters?

PIERCE: Yes. Yeah. It's hard for me to stop a story. It's hard to know when to stop, when a story is finished.

MARTIN: So how do you know?

PIERCE: Yeah. That's a tough question

MARTIN: Don't tell me you just know.


PIERCE: No, I don't. I'm trying to get better, too, about letting go. At some point you just have to say, this story is finished and I can do no more for it. I like getting to an ending and feeling like you realize the story has been writing around something. There's this hole at the bottom of the story and you could tumble right into it. So I try to reach that moment.

MARTIN: How did writing this collection change you as a writer? Did you learn something about your style when you look back at all of these pieces put together?

PIERCE: When I first started writing stories I wrote what I hoped would be considered Southern fiction. And I was probably trying a little too hard. So I've slowly come to see that I don't have to try that hard, that I am who I am.

You know, I used to have a very - when I was a little kid - this very squeaky, sharp southern accent. And somehow I lost it, for better or worse. For worse, I think, maybe. I would say the stories, maybe, are a lot like my accent now. There's this slight Southern accent to the stories. It's kind of inevitable. I don't have to do much and that's going to be the case.

And that's something that I did learn as I was writing these stories, too, I'd say. I can let go.

MARTIN: Thomas Pierce. The book is called "Hall of Small Mammals." He joined us from our member station in Charlottesville, Virginia. Thomas, thanks so much for talking with us.

PIERCE: Thank you, Rachel. I really appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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