She Poured Out Her Heart is an excavation of a decades long friendship between two women with different life paths—Bonnie is a crisis counselor with a string of boyfriends, Jane is a suburban stay-at-home mother. Their bond is durable yet complicated, reflecting the jealousies, uncertainties and general messiness of real life. One critic aptly described She Poured Out Her Heart as “a nuanced study of marriage and friendship, fidelity and deceit, and our lonesome search for meaningful connection.”
She Poured Out Her Heart is a literary page-turner, full of sentences that are well-crafted and sparkling with insight into the human condition.
We are happy to speak with its author Jean Thompson, a National Book Award finalist.
Kelly Sarabyn: Jane loses her virginity at a fraternity party to a boy she has just met. After they have sex, he asks her what her name is, and she gives him the wrong name and then takes off. Do you think this ability to have sex without emotionality is a reflection of contemporary mores, or more specific to Jane’s introverted and often self-contained personality? As Jane leaves, she thinks, “She might have felt bad for Tim, still waiting for her to come back, but decided he really didn’t have anything to complain about.” Do you think our societal reaction to this sentiment is still based on the genders of the parties—if it were a boy sneaking away from a girl he had just had sex with would we tend to judge him more harshly? Does Jane’s indifference to Tim seem more benign because she was driven more by curiosity than a desire for sex?
Jean Thompson: There is much that is specific to Jane in this episode. Namely, her fears of sexual inadequacy and sexual inexperience, and her purposeful, if rather awkward and self-harming, attempt to rid herself of her bothersome virginity. And there is much that is specific to this particular setting, that is, hook-up culture fueled by alcohol. Jane has a vision of the party as resembling a lake of struggling, copulating fish, a biologic imperative that cancels out affection, emotion, and for Jane, even identity. (In fact the name she gives the boy is that of her unpleasant roommate.) I don’t wish to be judgmental about either character here, but perhaps we can judge the corrosively casual nature of such encounters, which can’t be all that good for either gender. If nothing else, they lead to a lot of unsexy sex.
KS: For a long time, Bonnie bounces from one drama-filled relationship to another. Bonnie’s motivations in dating this way aren’t necessarily clear, even to herself, but I found this description of her interesting, “[O]ften enough love, or keening lust, or mad impulse overwhelmed her …. and of course she scared the crap out of most guys.” Do you think Bonnie, unconsciously or not, loves so intensely that she ends up sabotaging the very possibility for its growth? Does her intensity strike you as romantic, or childish (or both)?
JT: Bonnie is an extremist, an all-or-nothing personality. This does not make for tranquil, balanced living. ‘Intense’ is a good way to characterize her. She’s also not immune to vanity and silliness and too much risk-taking. I do think there is a romanticism about her that is not the best or most enduring way to approach life. You could argue that romanticism always risks its opposite, which is disillusion. She is intelligent enough to realize this, and to sense that pursuing every impulse will not serve her well going forward. As Lord Byron put it, the sword outwears its sheath and the soul outwears its breast. No more a-roving by the light of the moon.
KS: Bonnie is raised by her stepfather, who is a successful artist, and her mother, whose primary occupation is supporting Bonnie’s stepfather and his career. Bonnie has no conscious desire to replicate their relationship model, but do you think, to some degree, she is searching for a man who incites as much devotion in her as her stepfather incites in her mother? Does coming from a blended home color her approach to relationships?
JT: One review of the book called Bonnie’s family the Rosetta Stone of her behavior, and I like that. I think that like most children of alcoholics, she rejects her parents’ lives and choices, and sets out to find a partner (or partners) who are entirely different than the man (men) she grew up with. Only to find that they are always pretty much the same. I don’t think that growing up with a stepparent is necessarily damaging—many people do so without ill effect—but her biological father’s instability and Stan’s grandiosity do not make for healthy role models.
KS: Jane marries and has children young, when she is in her mid-twenties. Even before this, she isn’t exactly a happy person—there always seems to be some uncertainty and anxiety about her—but raising small children while her husband works long hours seems to overwhelm her, and render her, if not miserable, discontent and lost. Do you think, in her case, having children young was a mistake? Why didn’t she consider returning to work as a way to reengage herself with the world? Or do you think her detachment was inevitable to her personality, somehow?
JT: Jane is an unconventional personality who ends up in a conventional life because it is the path of least resistance. I don’t think she’s too unique in that; many people struggle to meet societal expectations and make compromises to fit in. The responsibility for raising children often overwhelms her, though she does her dogged best. Her children are just beginning school by the end of the book, so it’s not unrealistic that she would stay home with them until now. No spoilers here, but she will find new and unexpected ways to engage with the world, both in her personal behavior and with a new career. She’s a late bloomer who has to achieve a certain self-knowledge before she can move forward.
KS: Jane occasionally disappears into her own mind, into “a white, white room” with “only the beautiful floating white.” She describes the experience as “unearthly” and “transporting,” and often longs for it, especially when she is stressed. Is this something you have experienced? Or did you make it up? It wasn’t clear what caused this state of mind, but Jane thinks “there was something deeply, deeply pleasurable in these episodes of non-Jane” and she returned from them “with regret.” Was her pleasure merely a reflection of escaping her life, or was there something inherently pleasing to her about this empty, detached state of mind?
JT: I think Jane is a would-be mystic and her episodes of detachment and timelessness are, in a sense, visions—states in which ego is left behind and there are glimpses of transcendence. It’s nothing I’ve ever come close to and so, like much else, I had to imagine it.
KS: Bonnie and Jane have been best friends since college, for over a decade, despite the differences in their personalities and lifestyles. In many ways, they complement each other; in other ways, they don’t seem to understand each other. When Jane’s husband Eric and Bonnie start their affair, it seemed, while not right, almost understandable from Eric’s perspective. Jane had been unhappy and withdrawn for so long; Eric must have been lonely and longing for affection, and Bonnie was there. But I found it harder to understand Bonnie’s motivations. Eric was someone she felt connected to. But is that enough of a reason to sleep with your best friend’s husband? Did her willingness to embark on the affair uncover an existing rift in the friendship? Is Bonnie’s sense of loyalty simply not strong enough to counteract her intense desire to love and be loved?
JT: Is ‘it just happened’’ a good enough answer, or excuse? I stage-managed the circumstances of their initial encounter with some care. There is Jane’s breakdown, Bonnie’s needing to stay in the house with the children, the lateness, and the shock they are both feeling. It’s true that there has been a sympathetic connection between them, even flirting, and Bonnie thinks that it’s not an ‘accident’ because in a sense you could foresee it. But accidents need proximity and timing to happen, and I provided those. The question you raise about loyalty actually comes into play after their initial, ‘accidental’ tryst. And the answer seems to be that loyalty loses out. Not an attractive thing to admit about oneself (or one’s character), but I hope we find it believable. She has a notion that things are not going entirely well in Jane’s marriage, even before Jane’s breakdown. So she doesn’t entirely see herself as a homewrecker. I know, one more big fat excuse for bad behavior.
KS: Bonnie and Jane, after being friends for so long, are like sisters. Bonnie is single, and perhaps in part because of this, she seems to be the one who makes the greater effort, visiting Jane in the suburbs and doting on her children. In a way, Jane’s family becomes her adopted family. Is this feeling of familial love part of the impetus for sleeping with Eric, like she hopes, on some level, she can take the role of wife in their configuration rather than the role of aunt?
JT: Yes, I think so, although not in an overt, scheming way. Part of her competitiveness with Jane is that she can be the cooler, fun, and part-time version of Mom, as opposed to poor old stressed out, droopy Jane, who is Mom from eyes open to eyes closed. And if Jane were to magically disappear, I’m not sure Bonnie would function very well as a Jane replacement, that is, a doctor’s suburban wife and mother. There are obviously a lot of things she has not thought through.
KS: Both Bonnie and Jane seem to struggle with self-knowledge. As their lives unfold, Jane seems conflicted between wanting solitude and wanting her family. Bonnie seems conflicted between wanting a serious relationship and wanting intense affairs. Who do you think is more self-knowledgeable? Who do you think is more committed to trying to know the truth about themselves?
JT: I tried to be even-handed in dividing the book between the two women, and giving each of them equal weight and interest as characters, so I hesitate to make such a choice. Both Bonnie and Jane bump up against the boundaries of their own characters and puzzle over their own motivations. Bonnie’s process of achieving self-knowledge is at least noisier and more histrionic; Jane’s is almost entirely interior. So maybe Bonnie is at least more fun to watch, as a reader.
KS: The title “She Poured Out Her Heart” seemingly could refer to either woman, in opposite ways—Bonnie tends to pour her heart to other people, and Jane seems drawn to the detached feeling of an empty heart. It might also refer to their relationship. What did it refer to for you?
JT: Although it could apply to either, or both, characters, I also think of it as the peculiar state of exhaustion I felt after pouring out the entirety of the book!
KS: This book is such a nuanced portrayal of two women and their friendship. I was curious how much you had in mind when you started the book—did you already have their lives and relationship mapped out, or did it arise organically as you wrote their stories?
JT: I never know very much when I start out. Not the details of characters or the particulars of their circumstances. I began with the notion of a pair of characters who would be friends, but very much unlike, and that was my primary impulse. From there, one situation leads to another, one detail suggests a further one. Characters open their mouths to speak, and you don’t know what they’re going to say. Then you begin making choices, and those choices dictate other choices. I do believe I saw the affair coming, though Patrick was a wonderful surprise from start to finish. Don’t ask me why I called him into being. I’m afraid my motives would not withstand scrutiny.
Jean Thompson is the author of Who Do You Love: Stories, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction, and the novels City Boy and Wide Blue Yonder, a New York Times Notable Book and Chicago Tribune Best Fiction selection. Her short fiction has been published in the New Yorker, The Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize and many other places. She lives in Urbana, Illinois.