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August Thompson on his debut novel Anyone's Ghost photo

Anyone's Ghost opens with a gut punch: it took three car crashes to kill Jake. August Thompson's electrifying debut begins with 15-year-old Theron moving from LA to New Hampshire after his parents' split. Working at the local hardware store, he meets Jake, his charismatic manager who quickly becomes the center of Theron's world—the way cool older people become near-religious idols when you're 15. Their summer unfolds in a haze of weed and Metallica, forging a bond that's passionate and devastating.

Years later, Theron is navigating young adulthood in New York City when Jake reappears. Thompson captures the raw intensity of their connection with poetic precision. Anyone's Ghost is an addictive novel about desire, masculinity, and the lasting mark of our first loves. Read my conversation with the uber-talented August Thompson below.

I DM’d you after I inhaled the book to say I love how you compassionately grapple with masculinity without condemning it. Is this an accurate read? (You can say no.)

I think I’d say yes more than no, if that’s an answer. My take is that this is a book about the many forms of love we feel towards people of different genders and how conventional masculinity restricts a lot of boys and men from expressing their platonic adoration and/or their queerness. 

That said, there are also things that I find really beautiful about fraternity and just generally being a guy? I’ve managed to wrangle a group of compassionate, moral, loving male friends and I have bonds with them I don’t with anyone else. Many of the best nights of my life have been at metal bars with my guy friends, talking very quickly about movies. 

It’s very easy to write from the perspective of masculinity as purely evil, but I think it’s a shortcut in a way. To avoid something investigating that is nuanced in the service of creating more straightforward, sometimes obvious, drama.

There’s a lot of music in this book, which I loved. If Anyone’s Ghost were a song, what would it be? 

It’s referenced in the book, but I think it would be “Orion” by Metallica as much as the song the book is named after—“Anyone’s Ghost” by The National. Maybe some kind of Girl Talk-esque mashup, though that sounds terrible, sonically. And also referencing that makes me feel very old. 

So your main character’s name is Theron David Alden. His parents call him Davey but he starts going by Theron. Your name is August, which is Theron-esque. So I have to ask, because I’m an immature gossip, were you originally called something like Davey? 

I have always been August outside of 2nd grade, when I tried to go by Gus. It didn’t stick. I really hated having a “unique,” or whatever, name growing up. I have endured an endless onslaught of uncreative jokes about having a sister named July, etc. I think I kind of wanted the inverse of Theron: to not have my name stick out. 

There’s a lot of name stuff in the book that I don’t expect people to pay much attention to, but it was important for me to have characters who were laying claim to what they’re called. Jake is short for Jackson, Lou is short for Louvinia, Theron turns away from his nickname. Young people trying to find any agency at all. 

But in short: no. Always an August. 

Relatedly, I assumed while reading that Jake (the love interest) was based on a real person. But you told me you didn’t have a Jake. Where did he come from? 

In some ways, Jake is a composite of a lot of real people—as is true of so many fictional characters, I think?—that I kind of fell in love with throughout my life. There’s a lyric by The National (I swear I’m not sponsored by them) that I adore and am haunted by that goes, “I’m secretly in love with everyone I grew up with.” 

So Jake is a bunch of people of all genders who I wanted to be when I was younger, whose aspects, positive and negative, I wanted to emulate or enjoy. 

I was especially focused on boys I knew, men I know, who have a kind of death drive to them. I’m so rarely in the moment that I’m obsessed with people who seem to always be here, willing to sacrifice their future, their bodies, for pleasure and presence. 

If Anyone’s Ghost is adapted, who do you see playing Theron and Jake? 

I really wish I could resurrect River Phoenix to play Jake. Both because he’d be perfect for it and because it would be rad to have one of the greatest actors ever still among us. As for Theron, I’m open to suggestions. 

You got your MFA at NYU where you were taught by some hotshot writers. What’s the best writing advice you received there? 

Joyce Carol Oates told me you can’t know what a book actually is until it’s finished, which helped me write all the way through and not worry if the book was working or not, to just explore, put as much blood as I could on the page and see what it ended up being. 

Where’s your dream writing retreat?

Get me in a lighthouse up in Maine. 

What are your most overused words or phrases? 

Oh god, what a piercing question. I write about light and hands often. I’ll get caught on words—“obscure” can be a big one, same with oblong. All my obs. But I seem to shuffle through my attachments. By the next book it will probably be some new pet. 

If you were a literary critic, what would you say about your own writing? 

I’d say, “God this kid talks about lights and hands a lot.” 

What’s a book that made you want to write? 

I mainly read Fantasy and adventure books growing up and I remember thinking how cool it would be to write something like the His Dark Materials series. I still feel that way, frankly. 

But I had two teachers in high school who showed me things like Slaughterhouse V and the work of John Steinbeck and Fitzgerald and I think that was really expansive. I still read a lot of literary fiction growing up, but something clicked reading those books where they made me feel less alone, and I wanted to try to write something that might make other people feel less alone. 

If you could get a drink with any fictional character, who would it be? 

Philip Marlowe. I’d like to really make a night of it, and he could always put them back. A night of chain-smoking and saying things like “dame” would be fun. 

Are there any books that Anyone’s Ghost is “in conversation with” as they say? 

I’m never wholly sure how to figure out what my work is in conversation with, but the books I thought about most when I was writing were A Visit From the Goon Squad, Ferrante’s Quartet, Giovanni’s Room and Endless Love by Scott Spencer. 

What’s your relationship to self-promotion? You’re a Leo, right? A Leo named August! Maybe you’re born for it. 

I am a Leo named August and I think my Leo-ness and August-ness have been helpful in that I can talk with people and am often at-ease-presenting—the interior reality is all anxiety, but people don’t know that, usually— though I’d probably prefer to be excused from the self-promotion part of the process and left to write and go on walks and see movies. 

I don’t mind talking to people about my book, but I do find taking myself seriously to be embarrassing. I’d rather try to be goofy and vulnerable and a little bit catty—that’s my natural register. That’s the most fun. 

What author’s (dead or alive) persona is aspirational? 

I think outside of drinking himself to death, Fitzgerald had a pretty fantastic life. I’m not arguing the morality of his actions, but on paper it had the kind of glorious excess I find attractive. 

Roger Ebert is one of my great influences and I admire that his persona was one of a fan. To truly love things for what they are, not as they could be. That’s a beautiful way to be. 

And then there are people like Donna Tartt who get to wear sunglasses inside or Joyce Carol Oates who gets to be so ardently herself, indifferent to perception, seemingly, and that seems very satisfying. To be free of the desperate need to be liked—what a concept. 

Favorite recent read? 

The Memory Police for the creepiness, Worry for the humor. 

What’s one word to describe what you’re working on now? 


image: August Thompson