Fantasy melds with nonfiction in Joseph Earl Thomas’ Janus Prize-winning ‘Reality Marble’

For 10 years, Joseph Earl Thomas has been working on his memoir.


Though yet unpublished, Reality Marble begins with a scene from Thomas’ early childhood — in it, he’s scribbling drawings of sea monsters, shipwrecks and deserted islands onto a black notebook that he hides under an Easy Bake Oven.

In Reality Marble, the young Thomas is named “Joey,” and eventually his sketches of maritime mishaps morph into stories, which are themselves refracted through a lens of beautiful, lyrical prose.

Thomas writes: “A survivor might stand there in a yellow raincoat, weeping under acidic droplets falling from a dark sky, shaded by Joey’s god-like thumbs and the side of a sharp pencil. Starving, the survivor would watch sea creatures gorge themselves on the ocean’s bounty. A sea monster would drag an orca from the water, sometimes a baby, and slam its body, brain first on the rocky shore over and over again.”

“The book has a lot to do with the relationship between fantasy and nonfiction, or some people would say, fantasy and subjectivity,” said Thomas, an author, Fulbright Fellow, Ph.D. student and the 2020 winner of the Chautauqua Janus Prize. “I had to write through that problem or conundrum. And wrapped in that is the narrative that has a lot of these other things that we deal with — violence, sex and race.”

Thomas said he’s very interested in “how we might think about, and then work through thinking about, those ideas as a kind of relationship between fantasy and nonfiction.”

At 3:30 p.m. Friday, July 31, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform, Thomas and Reality Marble will be featured with a virtual celebration and presentation, in recognition of being awarded the third-ever Janus Prize — an award that honors an emerging writer’s single work of short fiction or nonfiction for “daring formal and aesthetic innovations that upset and reorder literary conventions, historical narratives and readers’ imaginations.” The prize is funded by a donation from Barbara and Twig Branch. Thomas’ work was selected from 16 finalists by guest judge Hilary Plum. 

“The book takes very seriously my own kind of subjectivity as a child, but observes it from a third-person perspective,” he said. “So I’m writing about myself as another person in order to make clear this shift that has happened — a shift that one can’t return to, really.”

When writing Reality Marble, Thomas said one of the most important techniques he used was making sure to “get out of (his) own way.”

“I needed to back away from the hyperintellectual standpoint that I might use to approach things  now, as a graduate student with a college degree,” he said. “Instead, I had to think back to what these experiences were when they happened and how they happened, and to kind of value them in and of themselves before using my adult self to intervene.”

Thomas said he was “surprised and overjoyed” to learn that he won the Janus Prize.

“I try not to get too ahead of myself,” he said. “Like a lot of writers, all of the work that you do when everybody is like, ‘whatever,’ about it, will eventually start to become part of a broader conversation.”

Tags : Janus PrizeJoseph Earl ThomaslectureReality Marble

The author Chris Clements

Chris Clements is reporting on literary arts during his third summer with The Chautauquan Daily. He has previously written previews for the Interfaith Lecture Series and Sacred Song Services and covered literary arts digitally in 2020. Chris is a second-year grad student at The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he is a Master of Fine Arts candidate in creative writing, specializing in fiction. He’s passionate about all things related to literature, music and film, especially author David Foster Wallace, jazz singer Cecile McLorin Salvant and the films of Paul Thomas Anderson.