Thom Jones writes of war, boxing, sickness and sorrow with a blunt air of familiarity and a cyclone of words. His characters — much like the author himself, who suffers from epilepsy and diabetes — have been pummeled by the world, but they refuse to be knocked out. His three short story collection — The Pugilist at Rest, a National Book Awards finalist; Cold Snap and now SONNY LISTON WAS A FRIEND OF MINE (Little, Brown, $23) — showcases a supreme writer in the throes of a thinking man’s agony.

We spoke with Jones recently about his life, his stories and his passion for words. He will be signing and reading from his new collection at Off Square Books on Monday, January 25, at 5:30 p.m.

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DR: Not so long ago you were christened a literary star. What was that like?
Jones: You used to hear these stories, overnight success. Out of nowhere. Who’s this guy? Some a*** who lives in Washington. Every time I pick up a magazine the motherf***’s there. Who is he? He’s some guy, some janitor or something. Once every five years a new writer will emerge like that. The idea is that it happened overnight. In truth, I paid my dues. It took a long time. I was writing those same stories 20 years ago, but they were just too much in those days. It wasn’t until the Baby Boomers became editors that my voice was acceptable.

DR: Did that sudden attention affect your work?
Jones: No, not really. I was just reading a Flannery O’Connor book about writing short stories and novels. Flannery’s one of my heroes. She was talking about how you’re writing for the good of the piece. You’re not writing for glory or fame or any of that. It’s a very spiritual thing. You’re looking for meaning in your piece. It’s a quest, almost for God. She was saying in that form (short story) it’s different from the novel, like the 100-yard dash as compared to the marathon. Things have to be a lot more dramatic in a short story, and they have to happen fast, and there’s not room to fudge or write a bad line or lose your reader. And when it’s all over, the person better go, “That did something for me.” That’s what Flannery did for me. I thought, yeah, she just expressed what I felt but couldn’t articulate.

I remember when I was teaching at Iowa, someone said define a short story, and I said, I can write ’em but I can’t define ’em. It’s just something I do. I like to put my characters in a lot of metaphysical trouble: How did I get on this planet? What am I supposed to do? Is there a God? What’s the point?
I had a seizure one time, and just before it happened you have an aura, and it seemed like I understood the whole deal. When I came back and tried to write about it, it was like saying yes to the universe because it’s essentially good and glorious, but we see through the glass darkly and don’t normally apprehend it in our everyday life. It’s an affirmative thing. It’s not necessarily about religious dogma. That was the feeling I had. All I am is a conduit. God gave me a gift I’m supposed to use, but it’s not like I’m taking credit for it, like I’m a better person than the guy with the green thumb or the guy who can fix automobiles. In fact, the gift has been a trial because I’ve had a life that wasn’t necessarily what you’d call a happy life. Happiness was never in the cards. It was just a search to figure this all out. Now suddenly I don’t have to work, I can just write. That’s pretty good. But my health is f**ed. I don’t know how much time I got left. So I’m pretty interested in writing something better. Trying to do the best I can, hope that the next one will be better.

DR: We keep hearing about the novel you’re working on. What’s it about?
Jones: Oh, the novel. It’s about Africa. It’s the characters from Cold Snap: Ad Magic and the baboon. And Dr. Koestler and all those people. It’s a true story. I read Larry Brown’s last novel and I saw this monkey in it. Larry is totally a great writer. I thought his monkey was better than my baboon.

DR: Did your epilepsy come the same way it came to your characters, by getting knocked in the head too much?
Jones: Oh yeah. I took a lot of punches. I was in the ring when I was seven years old. And even when I got the epilepsy I didn’t stop. I couldn’t stay away from the gym. There are so many interesting characters in the gym. That was the thing that probably prevented me from writing because I spent all my free time working out.

DR: What about your Vietnam stories? Did you ever make it over there?
Jones: Oh no, I was epileptic before. If I hadn’t been, I’d be a dead man because everybody got killed but one guy in our outfit. At the time I didn’t understand it. It’s kind of like Flannery says, it’s part of the cosmic play. I was destined to do something else. I felt really ashamed of having epilepsy. I had to go home and work in a factory. I felt like a total loser.

DR: Literature and philosophy pop up a great deal in your work. It must mean a great deal to you.

Jones: They say it’s true of an epileptic. They become obsessed with these things. I read enough about it to know that other ones have done it. Flaubert was an epileptic, so was Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. All these people are pretty spiritually inclined. It’s not that they necessarily write about God, but I think all fiction writers basically have seen the dark side of the world.

When I used to read books in Aurora, Ill., I’d go, There’s a whole other world out there I’d never imagined. Somerset Maugham writing about the South Pacific and I never heard about it. It would transport me out of this blue-collar, nasty little life I had and it saved my life. I thought, God, I don’t know what those people had to do to write those books, but I suspect it was a very steep price. But if I could do that someday, for somebody else, that would be the best thing I could do. Writing is something that occurs with your conscious mind and your subconscious. It’s kind of a mystery how it comes out on the page. Whenever I sit down and write it just pops off my fingers, like somebody else is doing it. As long as I can hold on to that. I think you have so much time when you have it. I’ve seen other writers blow it with drinking and women, just like boxers do. They have it for a while and then it’s gone. Some manage to hang onto it for a while. As long as I hang on to it I’m gonna do my very best to write truthfully in terms of my vision. It’s a great honor to be able to do it. I take it very seriously. That’s why I try to keep in shape, so I can live long enough to do it and not let the diabetes knock me out. –JK
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