Thomas Calder’s debut novel explores fraught relationships in contemporary Asheville

DARK HUMOR: Thomas Calder’s debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is ultimately an uplifting book, but goes to some dark — and darkly comic — places along the way. “I find dark things funnier than slapstick,” he says. “There’s something rewarding about finding a good deep laugh in the middle of a family unraveling.” Author photo by Cindy Kunst

After finishing high school, Asheville-based author (and Xpress Arts & Culture editor) Thomas Calder had a plan.

“My goal when I was 18 was to have two bestsellers by the time I graduated college,” he says. “Obviously that did not happen.”

Though Calder didn’t etch his name alongside famous literary wunderkinds like Zadie Smith, Carson McCullers and Michael Chabon in his early 20s, he’ll join their ranks as a published novelist when The Wind Under the Door debuts on Tuesday, March 23. Set in contemporary Asheville, the story centers on 40-year-old collage artist Ford Carson, whose budding romance with the beautiful, tempestuous Grace Burnett becomes complicated by the return of her estranged husband, JR, and a surprise visit from Ford’s teenage professional surfer son, Bailey. While the setting and many core character traits have remained the same since its inception, much of the story has changed over the years.

Ready to start

Calder’s first attempt at writing a book began in his freshman year of college. The story was what he calls “a really bad knockoff of Catch-22.” At the end of his senior year, he started work on another piece he describes as “Catch-22 meets The Sopranos.”

His current novel originated as a short story, written in graduate school at the University of Houston. After reading it, his professor, the acclaimed author Robert Boswell, told him, “These two characters [Ford and Grace] aren’t done with each other.”

“I love Boswell’s work … so that always kind of stuck in the back of my mind,” Calder says.

“I was really interested in exploring two people who are trying to reinvent themselves without ever actually reflecting on who they were or what caused them to want to reinvent themselves in the first place,” he continues. “And so part of the story examines what occurs when individuals ignore their own flaws and past missteps. … Which is to say, you just keep creating the same issues over and over but in a different context.”

Beyond Ford and Grace, Calder feels that all of the main characters are dodging their pasts and engaging in minimal self-reflection — a common trait among humans that often leads to pain. With Ford, that character flaw is perhaps most evident in his art, which involves visually interpreting a song or album via collage.

After an alcohol-aided meet-cute at the Grove Park Inn bar, Grace commissions Ford to craft a piece that channels a track by the fictional band White Elephant, whose EP is an homage to T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. While plenty of creative thoughts flow from that assignment, he’s far less inspired when it comes to Bailey’s birthday present, a collage rooted in Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs.

“Through [Ford’s] work, he’s exhibited where his priorities are: with her as opposed to the son,” Calder says.

The blending of real-life and imagined musical groups is likewise reflected in the book’s various settings. While numerous details on the Grove Park grounds are faithfully rendered — down to the room where F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly attempted suicide — and savvy readers can narrow down the inspirations for Ford’s River Arts District studio to a few likely finalists, other locations in The Wind Under the Door’s Asheville are fictional.

Mountains beyond mountains

The inclusion of other places from Calder’s past — among them Houston and the Florida cities of Cocoa Beach and Dania Beach — inspire further speculation regarding the story’s autobiographical nature, but Calder insists such efforts are a dead end. The considerable difference in ages between the characters and the author, his wife, Tatiana Rivest, and their 2-year-old daughter, Eula, discourages much comparison, though the novel’s examination of parenthood has taken on new meaning for him as its publication day approaches.

“I started writing this before being a parent, but I ended it being a parent. So some of this stuff hits a lot harder now,” he says. “The parent-child dynamic — it’s just an interesting dynamic, whether you have a functioning one or a dysfunctional relationship.”

Though he takes off weekends to be a family man, Calder writes Monday-Thursday evenings for around 90 minutes each day, and is already about 30,000 words into a first draft of a new novel, which takes place in the 1930s. All of that work is, of course, in addition to his full-time job at Xpress, where his articles have helped inform his fiction — to an extent.

“Reporting and getting around the city has introduced me to elements that I probably never would’ve seen, that don’t necessarily come up in the novel but certainly gives me a better sense of grounding and confidence in my location for the book,” he says. “But otherwise, I think of them as two totally different beasts. It’s like running track versus cross-country.”

WHAT: Thomas Calder, in conversation with Leah Hampton (via livestream)
WHERE: Malaprop’s,
WHEN: Wednesday, March 24, 6 p.m. Free, but registration required


Below it the official trailer for The Wind Under the Door. Asheville videographer Kevin Fuller filmed the local shots. 


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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