I am very honoured to have the extremely talented author Richard Thomas over for an in depth interview. Richard is the author of three books, Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications, 2010) a neo-noir, speculative thriller, and two collections, Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press, 2012) and Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press, 2013). He received his MFA from Murray State University in 2012.
He was the winner of the ChiZine Publications “Enter the World of Filaria” contest. His short story “Maker of Flight” was chosen by Filaria author Brent Hayward and Bram Stoker Award-Winning editor Brett Alexander Savory. It has since gone on to also win at Jotspeak, beating out over 200 entries. This short was based on the novel Filaria by Brent Hayward, published by ChiZine in 2009. He was also the winner of the 2011 Cafe Doom / One Buck Horror contest, for his short story “Wicker Park Pause.” He has been nominated for five Pushcart prizes, as well as awarded a writing residency at Writers in the Heartlandin 2011, and participation in the Flying House co-op, resulting in a grant from Poets & Writers magazine, in 2012
Hello Richard, how are things with you?
Good, so busy. I have several major announcements coming up, not even including my short story collection, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press) that is coming out soon. I’m involved with an anthology I edited with Chuck Palahniuk (Burnt Tongues) that should be announced today, and I may be an editor-in-chief for a small press soon—all good news.
Could you please give the readers a little bit of background information about yourself?
I’ve only been writing five years, but basically I woke up one day, and realized I wasn’t happy. I had been an art director and graphic designer for 15 years, and had really forgotten about my passion for writing. I took an online class at The Cult (chuckpalahniuk.net) with a neo-noir author named Craig Clevenger, right after I discovered the writing of Chuck Palahniuk (and the movie Fight Club). Craig liked my work and encouraged me to submit a story I’d written in his class, “Stillness.” I started sending it out and it was accepted in Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub. That really got me excited, was a real breakthrough for me, so I started taking it seriously—writing more, getting my MFA, editing and publishing, etc.
How can a clearly very gifted author be a fan of The Smiths?
Ha, really? No love for The Smiths? I think bands like The Smiths and The Cure, they tap into that darkness that draws me in—misery loves company, you know. When you are depressed and suicidal, you want music around you that nurtures your pain, that lets you slip into it, and embrace it, so that eventually, you can climb out of it.
Why horror, and what does the term horror mean to you?
Funny, I don’t think of myself as a horror writer. I write dark fiction, what I call “neo-noir,” which is just French for “new-black” but it’s not just limited to horror. It’s this new genre-bending style of writing that blends the best of fantasy, science fiction and horror with the best of literary fiction. It covers magical realism, the transgressive, the grotesque—all in a way that not only taps into that darkness, but uses it to teach, to embrace, to bond. There is emotional truth in our struggles, our failures. I see horror as almost formulaic, there is the terror and there is the disgust, but it’s so much more than that, or at least, it can be. I grew up on Stephen King, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz. But I think some of the authors that are really pushing the genre, authors like Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, even Southern Gothic authors like William Gay, they’re building on that tension, elevating the language, doing so much within the genre.
What do you like the most about horror, and what do you like the least about the genre?
I love how it’s evolving, how there are so many different voices and settings, more women writing horror—it’s not just a werewolf, a haunted house, a demon. It’s really morphing into more than just a cheap thrill. I hate that horror, or any genre, so often repeats the same settings, the same dynamics, and is reduced to this formula—you get a lot of that with crime and noir as well—here is the crime, now solve it. We can do better. And we are.
You also describe yourself as a writer of neo-noir, how does this differ to classic noir?
I touched on that a bit already, but classic noir has certain rules—there is not only a voice and language, but a detective or cop, a woman in trouble (a femme fatale) and a crime to be solved. And that’s great, I love a good mystery, I’ve read lots of great noir, but neo-noir allows you to stretch that story. You don’t have to have a cop or detective, in my opinion, or even a woman in distress. I do think the tone, mood and settings are similar, there is definitely a conflict that needs a resolution, but we’re more open to slipping into the fantastic, the horrific, and the surreal.
There has been a lot of blurring of the edges around genre fiction of late. Do you think the pigeonholing horror and crime is a good or a bad thing?
I agree, there has been a lot of genre-bending and blurring going on, and that’s a good thing, I think. I see both genres evolving. With crime, just look at the work of Donald Ray Pollock, Frank Bill, Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Benjamin Whitmer. They’re writing crime, Southern and Midwestern Gothic stories and novels, but they are built on the structure of crime and noir, Big Jim Thompson, rural tragedies, so much great writing. By expanding the expectations of horror and crime, you can get more people involved. Gillian Flynn, Sara Gran, and Chelsea Cain, they are doing things that are pulling in a wider audience, not just women readers, but appealing to men and women, gritty stories with an ear for the literary.
Who are some of your favourite authors? And how much of an influence have they been on your work?
Well, I grew up on King, have read everything he’s written. But it was really discovering Chuck Palahniuk that woke me up. His early novels especially, really got me excited to read and write. That brought me to lesser known, but very powerful neo-noir, transgressive voices like the aforementioned Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, and quite possibly my greatest influence, Will Christopher Baer. What these guys do is allow their narratives to have layers, to have depth—settings that pull you in, characters that they peel back like an onion, stories that are poetic and lyrical, with compelling plots and strong emotions. They really have pushed me to try harder, to make my work more than just an easy retelling of a moment. So many other great literary authors, too—Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, and Mary Gaitskill. My MFA helped me to see what those literary giants did, why they are so loved and read, paired with the wider appeal of the commercial, genre fiction I grew up with, and the people who are in-between those two, the contemporary voices that blend the best of both worlds. That’s where I’m trying to write, and grow, and evolve.
What motivated you to first take up writing, and has that motivation changed over the years?
I’ve always loved reading and telling stories. I loved mythology, and the world building and fantasy of Bradbury, Heinlein, and Tolkien. You could go anywhere and do anything. It took me a long time to gain confidence in my writing, but it’s so much fun now, the idea of just tapping into a scene, an emotion, even one word. My second novel Disintegration is all based on that one word—what happens when a man falls apart, loses everything, and disintegrates? What does he become? I love exploring the character of people, seeing what they do in tough situations. Maybe that’s the psychologist in me (I minored in Psychology) but I find it fascinating, these character studies.
Has your fiction got a purpose other than to entertain?
I hope so. Beyond inspiring people to live their lives, ending a story and saying to themselves, “Thank GOD that isn’t me, and my life isn’t so screwed up!” I hope to tap into the emotional truths that we all struggle with—love, hate, loss, hope, fear, family, career, being insignificant, being seen, feeling like you matter, being responsible for your actions. I prefer to pull people into my stories and have them experience it first hand. I don’t want this lofty voice recounting an adventure from years ago, from miles away. I like to be up close and personal. I want you to experience strong emotions, I want to scare you, arouse you, make you cry—make you glow with gratitude, you name it.
You took a creative writing class early on in the genesis of your writing career. Do you think writing can be taught? Or do these classes only hone the inherent talent that a writer has?
Yes, I think you can be taught to write better, to understand the basics of the dramatic story structure, to improve all of that, but inherently you have to have some sort of gift—maybe it’s an ear for dialogue, an eye for the truth, lush settings, layered characters—you have to bring some unique combination of history, perspective and voice to the page. If you aren’t passionate about writing, if it doesn’t resonate with you, if it isn’t important, the work will probably be flat. For some people, no, it can’t be taught. For others, they can be taught to write better, and they can evolve from an average writer to a good writer. And for a small percentage, they will soak up everything, they will read and learn and evolve—and they will be truly special.
How long did it take to first get published?
A couple of months for my first short story, a couple of years for my first novel, I think. You can place a short story online or even in print without too much effort, if you have a modicum of talent. Selling a novel, that’s hard. I got lucky with my first book, but in the end it didn't do that well—the press failed me in a lot of ways. But I learned a lot, got my voice out there, and some people really embraced it. I just got an agent last year, and I’m optimistic we can sell my second book. I have a couple of short story collections, Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press) out in 2013, and Starting Into the Abyss (Kraken Press) out in the next week or two, and people are responding positively to those stories. If I had any advice for new authors, start with the short form and work your way up to a novel. There is nothing more crushing than failing at a novel, spending YEARS on it, only to have a horrible book. My first book was terrible, and it could have really killed my spirit. So, yeah, I’ve only been writing five years, and have 75 stories online and in print, three books, and a few contest wins, nominations, etc.
What would say was the single most important lesson you learned during the early years?
I think you really have to find your own voice, and stick to it, believe in it. I can’t be King or Straub or Palahniuk. I have to be Richard Thomas. In time, I found out what that meant. My mom wants me to write funny stories, or lighter stories—my wife wants me to write something romantic and sweet. When I try to do that I end up with something that is sweet or funny to me, but definitely not to them. I’ve embraced my strengths and weaknesses, and now people who know my work, they could tell you what a “Richard Thomas story” is, what makes it compelling. And that’s a good thing. I’m always trying to read, and learn, and grow, to write new genres (just did my first YA title) and that keeps me interested. But I embrace my voice.
A number of your stories feature “real life horror,” do you use these sorts of stories to give your subject matter more gravitas?
Good question. I’m not sure. I simply write what interests me, what I find compelling. I took a class with Jack Ketchum and he told us to write stories that make us uncomfortable, take risks on the page, show no fear or hesitation. And that’s the kind of thing that really scares me—violence that follows me back home to roost on my doorstep, the loss of family, abuse and neglect, the horrors of the strong overpowering the weak—rape, murder, etc. I try to write from my own experiences, and then take that one step into the darkness, off the edge of the cliff, that moment we all think about when the phone rings at three in the morning—who died, where are my kids? I think of Stephen King’s story in The New Yorker, “Harvey’s Dream,” what a powerful tale, the tension, the building knowledge. I think of the opening paragraphs of Holly Goddard Jones’s story, “Parts,” as the mother watches her daughter dive into a swimming pool, that eternal fear of the parent, as the girl takes too long to surface. Those are the things that terrify me, but sure, I write about demons, golems, and vampires, too.
Are you more comfortable writing horror or noir?
Hard to say, that’s why I settle into neo-noir, I think. I’m drawn to the darkness, the way that people reveal their true character in those moments. You’ve seen the movies where the politician holds up the child to protect himself from the gunman (was that The Dead Zone by King?) or the way a coward finally reveals his inner hero to defend the girl he loves. When I was getting my MFA, my professor, Dale Ray Phillips (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) told me that for him, my short stories were to have no dead bodies, and no twist endings. He encouraged me to stop relying on the crutches that were sex, violence, and ambiguity. It was really hard. I had to stop and think about what I was writing, I really had to dig into the emotions and experiences of the people in my stories and try to find something original to say.
Your debut novel Transubstantiate is set in a post apocalyptic world after an experiment in population control has gone wrong. What made you chose this method of destroying civilisation?
Ah, that’s probably just me being lazy, an homage of sorts to King’s The Stand. When we think about the end of the world it’s usually one of three things: asteroid, virus, or war. I think all of the bird flu and panic that was happening back then, the idea that we might not even be getting flu shots for the right strain, that freaked me out. I could see the government try to reduce the population, help the elderly die quicker, some sort of “the death of the few for the good of the many” secret project that goes wrong. It’s one of those things, a pandemic, that you can see getting out of control really fast.
As with most good apocalyptic novels, the story is driven by and focuses on very strong characters. How did you come up with your main personae dramatis?
It came about from a couple of different projects. I was taking a class with Max Barry, and his first assignment was to write the opening page of four different novels, four different genres. So I did horror, noir, fantasy, and literary. Those ended up being four of my characters—Jacob, X, Marcy, and Gordon. In fact, the first chapter of the novel is Jacob’s assignment. I also found some old notes, and realized that I had loosely based the seven characters on the seven deadly sins. And then later, I actually “cast” the movie in my head, assigning each role to an actor, so I could see them, anticipate their actions. Those three things really drove the story.
How much of you are in all of your characters, are they all shards of your psyche?
Well, I think it’s all me, right? These moments, these people, they are how we see ourselves at our worst and our best, our greatest hopes, and our worst fears. So, yeah, I think a lot of myself is in these stories. Who hasn’t wanted to get back at somebody, the idea of vengeance can be attractive, but the reality of it can be rather brutal and unsettling. What is more important to you, the characters or the plot? Well, since I don’t actually plot, I’d have to say characters. But it’s always about the people, I think. I need to sit with them, be them, embrace the things they are going through. I can remember at the end of Disintegration, writing the final words, as my wife and kids were about to hop in the minivan to hit the road. I’d been with my antagonist for so long, years now, and when his story ended I started crying, thought I might throw up. It was just that powerful to me, I’d lived his life, and all of the horrors. It was rough. Is there any importance in the book’s title? Transubstantiate just means “to change.” So each of the characters in the novel, they are looking to change, to evolve, they are looking for a second chance to prove they are more than their histories, their failures—and the crimes they committed.
You describe your latest novel as a neo-noir, transgressive thriller, we now know what you mean by neo-noir, what do you mean by transgressive thriller?
Well, a thriller to me just means that it’s a “page turner,” things are happening, action, movement, not a lot of introspection and thought. By transgressive, I mean that there is an uprising, a rebellion, anarchy and chaos. You can look at the work of Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis, Hubert Selby, Jr. and see how their characters (and mine as well) are not your average people, they are not satisfied with the norm, they do not follow the rules, of society, of man, or whatever God you worship.
Can you tell us what the book is about?
Sure. It’s a combination of Dexter and Falling Down, a man sees his family die in a car accident in front of him, and loses his mind, his faith, his love of humanity. He sees the world as lacking justice, as being unfair, and he starts to work for a man, Vlad, doing errands, living in a crappy apartment in the city, and these tasks slowly get more and more violent, until he become a hired gun, a killer. There’s a line in the novel, “Every time I kill I get a new tattoo. I have a lot of tattoos.” Do you have a publication date for it yet? My agent and I are still shopping it, so no, not yet. We’ve gotten very close with some really cool publishers, so I’m hoping it’s just a matter of time. They’ve all loved the writing, but much like BEE and American Psycho or Palahniuk and his work, it's a unique flavour, a tragedy that will have to find the right home.
You have just released your latest short story collection, Staring in to The Abyss. Is this a career round up of your short fiction?
It’s not everything I’ve written, maybe a third, but it’s the stories I had at the time that all leaned towards horror. Some of my favourite stories are in here: “Stillness,” which I mentioned, “Maker of Flight,” which won a contest at ChiZine, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave,” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize at Metazen, and my longest story to date, “Victimized,” which has gotten a lot of praise. How did you go about selecting the stories for it, and did you put a lot of thought into the running order of the stories? Some of my stories lean towards noir, some towards horror, a few towards fantasy and magical realism, and a few are straight literary. These are the more horrific. I did look at the order. I wanted to start and end with the best stories, and then mix up shorter and longer stories, and follow the darker ones with lighter stories, put in a few “tent posts,” what I considered the stronger stories. I know it’s a dark collection, but hopefully it’s not just one note.
Would you say there is a common theme that links the stories?
Probably loss, or vulnerability—what happens after the tipping point, when you’ve gone too far, already made that choice, beyond the point of no return. These are tragic stories, but I hope that they are not without compassion.
With a number of the stories you play around with the structure of the short story, “Splintered”, and “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” spring to mind. Is it important to you as a writer to push the boundaries of your stylistic comfort zones?
Yes. I can remember reading some stories by Blake Butler, list stories, and thinking that I had to break out of the standard format, now and then. I remembered those “choose-your-own-adventure” stories from when I was a kid, so that became “Splintered.” I don't write much meta-fiction, but I suppose there is a bit of it in that story. When writing “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” I kept hearing this echo, the fights and conversations that were happening at the periphery. His friends kept asking, “Why do you stay?” or “How can you still love her?” and these were the responses. I loved the repetition of the response, over and over again. It’s not something I do a lot, but I really enjoyed writing this story. How did you decide to choose these styles of writing? Where you a fan of choose your own adventures as a kid? I was, I did read them, those and the Mad Libs. It was fun to revisit my childhood, that innocence, and then of course put my dark stamp on it.
Do you have a favourite story in this collection?
I definitely have a few favourites, I mentioned them above, but picking one is tough. Several of these stories really represent breakthroughs for me, either success in placement, a contest win, or a new genre. I guess I’d probably pick “Victimized” because it is a long, dark, layered story that I think is fairly unique. The ending to that story always seemed so powerful, that knowledge and revelation, the abused child becoming the predator—sad, but inevitable. So what does the future hold for you? Novels, short stories, editing, publishing and teaching—I love all of it, it really makes me happy to write and create, to be a part of a community, to share what I know, and to help other people achieve their dreams. I’m on all of the social media, so if you want to keep up with me, visit my blog at http://www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for links to everything.
Do you have any final words for the readers of the blog?
First, thank you for this thoughtful interview, and these great questions. I can tell that you really did dig into my work, and that means a lot to me.
As for your readers, take a chance, read a new author, don’t be afraid of short stories, support those artists and writers that are out there spilling their souls onto the page. Even if you don’t have the money to buy every book, if you like our work (and there’s plenty free online) then hit Twitter or Facebook, post up some stars when you like something, just pay it forward and spread the word. It really helps. You’d be surprised—sometimes all it takes is one little bit of support to really give me the encouragement to keep writing. And I know I’m not alone when I say this.
Thank you for reading all the way to the end of this, too. I hope it inspired you in some small way to go after your own dreams.