Thomas Sullivan is a Seattle based writer with a very colorful work history. His jobs have included teaching at a school that got shut down for loan fraud and a job retraining adults for a company that came apart due to what he describes as, “a Mommie Dearest style standoff between the mother/daughter ownership team..” His book, Life In The Slow Lane: Surviving A Tour Of Duty In Drivers Education tell the tale of his brief stint as a driving instructor.
Eliza: What inspired you to write Life In The Slow Lane?
Thomas: I had a lot of down time during the day due to scheduling mishaps, cars dying, and kids missing their lessons. So I decided to write short essays about the funny and strange things that happen when you teach driving. I also heard lots of stories from the kids, who were at that great age of 15-17 where everything is funny somehow. And eventually I decided to tie it all together into a book-length narrative, starting with the day I answered a Craigslist ad for “Driving Instructor Wanted” and running through to the day that the brakes failed on my Driver Ed car (an ancient Chevy Malibu).
Eliza: Why do you think driving is so intimidating to some people?
Thomas: I noticed that a fair number of people view the road as “their space” and they get irked when you are “in their way”. We got honked at frequently by impatient people even though we drove right at the speed limit. Our response, of course, was to slow our car down a bit. So I think the intimidation is less from the mechanics and more from the surrounding intensity. For new drivers it can be intense, so we always started in quiet neighborhoods.
Eliza: What was the weirdest thing you have ever seen a student do?
Thomas: We’d do a Final Drive Test, a sort of mock driving exam, at the end of the program. I’d just point out turns but let the student do the rest. So one day I was out with a very competent kid. We came up to a solid green light and my driver slowed to a stop, waiting for cars to pass so he could turn. But at the last minute he went for it. He turned right in front of oncoming traffic but then had second thoughts and stopped again. Now, the teacher (me) has a brake, but not a gas pedal. Two cars were barreling toward us. So all I could do was yell “Go, Go, Gooooo!!!” Hands down the scariest thing in my life. The kid had drunk a huge can of Red Bull before we started, so maybe that was the cause.
Eliza: Given some of your experiences in business, why do you think working is considered a noble thing in America?
Thomas: Maybe it’s the Protestant work ethic thing, but we seem to value putting in the mega-hours or feel like we’re supposed to. But I think the work-life balance thing is slowly shifting. The other day I read about a tech company in San Francisco that pays a full time wage but only lets people work 4 days a week, 32 hours. And they have zero turnover.
Eliza: What makes the Seattle literary scene unique?
Thomas: It’s very diverse, with lots of writers, independent booksellers, writing programs, and a great library system. But I think it’s the commitment of the larger population to reading that sets Seattle apart. People in the city really value literature. The Seattle City Council recently endorsed a bid for Seattle to join an international network of cities devoted to literature, sponsored by UNESCO. But the biggest thing is having one of our librarians turned into an action figure. That is a totally cool distinction. You push a little button and she “shushes” you. I’ve heard that Minneapolis is a lot like Seattle regarding books, but they don’t have an action figure librarian.