Brian Thornton takes pride in both his work and his family.
Brian Thornton is yet one more writer I’ve had the honor of meeting in person, since he’s a regular reader at the Noir at the Bar Seattle live reading series I organize and host. But for anyone remotely connected to the Pacific Northwestern literary community, it would be hard to miss Brian’s voice and presence both online and in person. He’s an essential component of the local scene and a fast rising star in the wider world of genre fiction generally.
Here Brian discusses the many facets of his identities as writer, husband, and father, all intrinsically interwoven, which results in both well-informed fiction and well-rounded real world experiences.
How symbiotic these elements, it remains a delicate balancing act. Take it from a master juggler...
Your work is not only incredibly eclectic, spanning both long and short form fiction and non-fiction, but you are also amazingly prolific. How do you manage to balance the responsibilities of being a husband (to author Robyn Thornton) and father with the creative grind of writing?
"Prolific" is relative, I guess. My son was born in 2012, and the lion's share of my work saw publication before that. In fact the sum total of my published work since he was born currently consists of a single short story ("Bragadin's Skin," featured in THE BIG CLICK back in 2013. If you're curious you can read it here.). I'm on pace to reverse that trend with two very different works which will come in 2019. More on them in a bit.
It took me a while to adjust to splitting my focus on writing with parenting a new baby. Especially in light of the fact that my work schedule (I teach) is more flexible than the one corporate America consistently inflicts on my wife. So of course I picked up a fair amount of the slack in the day-to-day of our family life while our son was a baby.
Before my son was born I wrote ten books in five years. Two of them I wrote in two months. Granted, they were middle reader kids' books, and each about 40,000 words long, but I still managed to knock out 80,000 words in eight weeks. It wasn't fun, but a deadline is a deadline. I recently blogged about it over at the Sleuthsayers blog, where I've been a contributor for half-a-dozen years. You can read about it here.
I wrote all the time. After my day gig writing came first. When I was working on a book I'd get up at 3:30 AM, write for three hours, get ready for work, go to work, get home around 4 in the afternoon, and then write until 8 or so. I built my days around it. Not every day, but vast stretches of my time.
Like I said, I didn't have the commitments I do now.
But I love those commitments. I love being a husband and father. I love my life away from writing. And I knew once my son was born things like writing would perforce take a back seat for a while. I also knew that I would be able to make it a priority again some day soon.
And to be clear I never stopped working. Never stopped writing. I just stopped "producing." I've got several projects in mid-development. It was a conscious choice, betting that the headspace required to finish and polish these pieces would be available once my son was older and more independent.
It's been interesting getting back into the saddle. There have been blind alleys and false starts. But really, if you're going to "balance" this sort of thing with a life well-lived, it involves a commitment to deadlines, to working every day, and not being too concerned with luxuries such as REM sleep.
Most of your work, whether fiction and non-fiction, focuses on crime, history, and politics, often combining all three. What is it about these subjects that appeals to you as an author as well as to many readers?
I've always been a history nut. Ever since I was little. I got both my bachelor's and my master's degrees in history (and you don't get them by not reading a lot of history–so it's a given that it scratches an itch for me). Politics is a natural adjunct of that interest, as history is so often the record of what worked and what didn't in the realm of the political. As for crime, well, I chalk that up to a heavy diet of Raymond Chandler's stuff during my early teens. I never really got over that. Then along came his spiritual descendant Robert B. Parker, and then along came...and along came...and...
Well. You get the picture.
Are there any genres or topics outside your “comfort zone” you’ve considered tackling, or do you feel it’s best to remain within one’s artistic wheelhouse of interests, once discovered?
I would LOVE to write an honest-to-goodness space opera one day. And I don't believe there's any such thing as an "artistic wheelhouse." We create what we are driven to create and give voice to what roils about inside us. Hopefully our careers describe an arc, and not a dot resting in one place on some sort of celestial graph. I am not writing in the same way about the same things I wrote about when I sold my first short story to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine thirteen years ago.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
A lot of poetry and a lot of mystery. Everything from Shakespeare to Barbara W. Tuchman to Ross MacDonald.
I've been reading a lot of historical mystery lately. I'm a terribly slow reader. Were it not for audiobooks and an hour or so spent commuting daily, I might only finish ten to twelve books per year.
I'm currently working my way through Greeks Bearing Gifts, the new Bernie Gunther novel by the late, great Phillip Kerr (who died after a brief illness in March). I can't say enough about the Gunther books. They truly are a master's class in bringing a period to life (Nazi Germany and post-war Europe) and giving the reader a protagonist who is both sympathetic and yet of his time.
That is the great challenge of writing historical fiction in general and historical mystery in particular: writing for a modern audience about a by-gone era while resisting the temptation to populate your work with what I heard one writer describe as "modern characters in period costume." All too often you'll find people in these sorts of books doing and saying things that are so anachronistic they beggar belief (and might just get them tossed in jail/hanged/burned at the stake/etc.).
Kerr really nails it. So do other wonderful writers in the subgenre: Ruth Downie, James W. Ziskin, Catriona MacPherson, Susanna Calkins, Tasha Alexander, just to name a few.
What’s next for you?
I have two things in the works, both coming out next year. Both from Down & Out Books.
The first is an anthology of crime fiction inspired by the music of jazz-rock legends Steely Dan. The working title is The Hangman Isn't Hangin'. Contributors include Cornelia Read, David Corbett, Naomi Hirahara, Simon Wood, Libby Cudmore, R Narvaez and Sam Wiebe, just to name a few. It's due out in June of 2019. We're going to have a launch party/preview event for it next March at Left Coast Crime in Vancouver. Ought to be a hoot.
The second project is a "novel" structured as a collection of three interconnected novellas (sort of like what Dashiell Hammett did with Red Harvest). It's set in 1962 Las Vegas and features a mob lawyer as the protagonist. The germ of this idea was a short story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock back in 2007. Both the original story and this collection share the title Suicide Blonde. It's a stylistic homage to the writing of Ross MacDonald, for my money, the greatest of the 1960s crime writers.
Bonus question: How do you pronounce “Akashic”? JUST KIDDING. I’ve been practicing, anyway. You’ll be very impressed next time I see you…
I will keep practicing. You keep swingin’. Cheers.
Brian Thornton is the author of nine books whose short fiction has appeared in such venues as Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, the Akashic Books anthology Seattle Noir, and most recently in The Big Click. He has two projects coming soon courtesy of Down & Out Books: The Hangman Isn't Hangin': Crime Fiction Inspired by the Music of Steely Dan, and Suicide Blonde, a collection of three interconnected novellas set in 1960s Las Vegas. A native Washingtonian, he lives with his wife, the writer Robyn Thornton, and their son in Seattle, where he has twice served as Northwest Chapter president for the Mystery Writers of America.
Amazon Author Page