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As I’ve often pointed out in this series, the most satisfying aspect of social media networking is getting acquainted with fellow writers working in either a similar field or that share similar sensibilities. The bond spans cyberspace and while not exactly intimate (we authors tends to be stingy with our private creative space), it is often comforting to know you’re not alone out there. Only in there, deep inside that place where all the ideas form and coalesce and eventually reach the surface.
Once out there in the wild, wicked world, it’s all about personality and promotion and all that crucial stuff that goes with publishing and publicity. For some that’s a burden, for others it’s a breeze. But in any case it’s edifying and enlightening to discuss the contemporary industry in all of its foundational flux and authorial angst with someone who knows the business from all sides of these evolving equations.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Richard Thomas, though you can’t keep him. The literary community needs him back…
I relate to your work artistically on at least two levels: your frequently employed “unreliable narrator” and its common designation as “transgressive” fiction. Can you elaborate on what these niche terms (which I’ve linked) mean to you on a personally creative level, irrespective of academic definitions?
I’m glad that my work resonates with you. When I think of neo-noir and transgressive fiction, I almost always think of an unreliable narrator. They tend to go hand in hand. Part of the reason it’s personal to me has to do with my origin story as author—it all came out of me seeing the film, Fight Club, which was based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk, as I’m sure you know. That was when I was about 40. I’m now 50. The transgressive voice of Chuck really got me excited to write again. That novel was incredibly unreliable. His work brought me to other similar voices—such as The Velvet authors Craig Clevenger, Will Christopher Baer, and Stephen Graham Jones. Baer’s Kiss Me, Judas is the epitome of neo-noir. For a long time I wrote mostly crime, mystery, thrillers, and neo-noir. Then I started getting more into horror and the supernatural—fantasy, science fiction, the unknown, Lovecraftian, etc. I love the idea of truth, but also perception. I love to see change—the inciting incident (the moment in time after which things will never be the same) and how the protagonist deals with the internal and external conflicts, leading to a climax, resolution, change, and denouement. Those are powerful journeys—whether I’m writing or reading. Transgressive fiction to me is all about rebellion—pushing back against the norm, and the taboo subject matter that often comes with it.
In addition to being an acclaimed, award-winning writer of neo-noir/horror/speculative fiction, you’ve also long been a high-profile editor and teacher as well as columnist/journalist with a focus in these specific literary fields. What drives your inner angels and demons with such prolific passion?
Ha. Well, thanks for the kind words. I think part of it is starting later in life. Not really getting serious about writing until I was 40. That built-in sense of panic, about not having time. And then it was a good 3-5 years of studying, taking classes and THEN my MFA, pushing me to elevate what I was doing. I love writing—the ideas, the emotion, the craft of writing, the typing of the story, trying to hang on to the imagery as the films in my head unfurl—it’s all very satisfying. With teaching I love being able to share what I know—from my early classes with Jack Ketchum to my MFA to my own journey through writing, submitting, getting rejected, breaking through, and chasing my own dream markets. It’s all very exciting. Running Gamut and Dark House Press was a blast, but it was a lot of work. In the end, I’m proud of the books we put out at DHP, getting several Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson nominations along the way. I was so bummed when Gamut didn’t make it, because I thought we really had something special there. (There’s a small chance I can resurrect it.) The voices from all over the world, the women stepping up and showing everyone that of COURSE they can write in any genre, the illustrations from Luke Spooner, and the recognition we got as well (18 stories and poems long-listed for Best Horror, for example). I think if I had $10 million dollars I’d still write, still teach, still edit. I just love doing it, seeing people grow, evolve, and have success. And I love telling my own stories. It’s a thrill, especially when people respond to my work. That means a lot.
In your uniquely informed estimation, is print media inevitably going extinct?
Well, you’re talking to a guy that JUST came back from a local library sale with my kids—eight books in my stack alone. I don’t think so. Unless we run out of paper, kill all the trees. I love holding a book in my hands. I thought that eBooks might take over, but turns out that people, no matter the technology available, still like the tactile sensation of holding a book, smelling it, reading the type, being close to it. I know, I’m being weird—but there’s something very personal and private about how authors and readers interact. So for me, the sensory experience is still part of that.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
Wow, where to start. In some general terms, outside of books, I’d say the surrealists, as far as art. Love everyone from Dali and Escher, to Magritte and Picasso, to Kahlo and Cindy Sherman. Musically, it was getting into the alternative scene back in the 1980s, so for me that was The Cure, The Smiths, REM, U2, and the Beastie Boys. Lately, with movies, it’s been the films of A24 as well. So much excellent horror, neo-noir, and science fiction in movies these days--Enemy, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, The Witch, Hereditary, etc. I grew up reading popular authors—Stephen King, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, etc. Then going through high school and college is was all of the assigned reading, and then the Beats, the gonzo journalism of HST, etc. I’ve always enjoyed horror, but fantasy and science fiction as well. Getting my MFA really changed things too, pushing me to get out of my comfort zone, reading authors I might not have picked up on my own—JCO, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, John Cheever, etc. Since then, I read a lot of indie authors. Aside from anyone I’ve already mentioned, I’ve definitely been influenced by Brian Evenson, Livia Llewellyn, Benjamin Percy, Lindsay Hunter, Laird Barron, Damien Angelica Walters, Donald Ray Pollock, Amelia Gray, Craig Davidson, Kristi DeMeester, Matt Bell, Mercedes Yardley, Sarah Read, etc. Really, anyone I published at Gamut or DHP—they’ve been an influence on me, some more than others. I’d say that even my current students of the last couple of years, have seeped into my work—authors that are breaking out, like Daniela Tomova, Carina Bissett, Shaw Coney, Repo Kempt, Ian Vogel, etc.
What’s next for you?
I have more stories coming out this year and in 2019. That’s where most of my focus has been, outside of the classes I’m teaching (Contemporary Dark Fiction, my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop, and my new class—Novel in a Year). Need to write a new book for sure. Just had a story, “Requital,” in the Lost Highways anthology. I also have a shared novelette that I wrote with Damien, Kristi, and Michael Wehunt, entitled “Golden Sun,” out in Chiral Mad 4 soon. I have a story in Cemetery Dance early next year, very excited to partner with them again, entitled, “Battle Not with Monsters.” Another one, “Saudade,” in the PRISMS anthology as PS Publishing next year as well. A 1,200-word one-sentence story “Undone” in the Pantheon anthology, Gorgon: Stories of Emergence. And then, what may be my most challenging work to date, and maybe the best thing I’ve ever written, “Ring of Fire,” a novelette in a TBA anthology about seven deadly sins (I got lust). I’m on deadline for a few new stories, and then of course there are few white whales I’m still trying to harpoon--F&SF, Clarkesworld, The Dark, Nightmare, Apex, Shock Totem, Black Static, Lightspeed, etc. In this day and age, I’m pushing myself to be more original, to innovate, to surprise my readers, while giving them what they expect from the various genres I write in, all leading up to a satisfying experience—something that stays with them.
Thanks for helping me end this series on such a positive, inspirational, and just plain cool note, Richard, cheers and onward!
Good night, John Boy.
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels--Disintegration and Breaker (Penguin Random House Alibi), as well as Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections--Staring into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); and one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 140 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance (twice), Behold!: Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Bram Stoker Winner), PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad (numbers 2-4), and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, has received five Pushcart Prize nominations, and has been long-listed for Best Horror of the Year six times. He was also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at Lit Reactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.
New Orleans, LA