I know Jim Thomsen via the Seattle literary circuit, since he’s a vital member of that thriving community, still based in his childhood home of Bainbridge Island, though he has been known to fly the coop once in a while, on the road earning a living, chronicling his adventures, and storing up grist for his creative mill.
Jim has not only read but snapped stunning black-and-white photographs of the Noir at the Bar Seattle live reading series I organize and host. The local scene just wouldn’t be the same without him. So stop leaving, dude!
But while he’s still handy, I shot him a few questions...
You are not only an accomplished author, but a professional freelance editor. Is this something you derive satisfaction from as an artist yourself?
I'm actually not a very accomplished author. To date, I haven't completed a novel to my satisfaction, though I have several manuscripts in various states of completion. I've written and published a handful of short stories in places like Shotgun Honey and Pulp Modern, however. But, I'm almost 53, so I'd better get my shit together on that score, and soon.
I enjoy being a manuscript editor, as the work resides at the one intersection between what I'm interested in and what I'm good at. It is not only satisfying to help other authors fulfill their dreams of putting quality novels out into the world, but to be able to see how helping others improve their craft has helped me improve mine. When I first started writing, I was a wild talent, with an ability to spin a phrase and come up with funky story twists but no real sense of story structure and craft. That's taken a long time to come along — particularly what to leave OUT of a story, like exposition, backstory and describing surroundings in a given scene — but I feel like I'm finally there. Now I just need sustained time and headspace to finish a novel — which will be a perpetual challenge given how the work that pays the bills tend to dominate both.
Your black and white photography of various subjects, including fellow writers, infuse your social media circles with cool noir imagery. Does this beautiful, often bleak perspective permeate your vision as a writer, too?
They do! As someone on the autism spectrum I'm a loner by nature and by choice, drifting along the periphery of any given social scene, and I tend to look at things from an outsider's point of view. So in, say, a conference workshop, all eyes are on the speaker, while mine are noticing the pattern of shadows that the chairs around me are making on the floor next to people's feet. It's just how I'm wired. As a reader, I've always been drawn to stories of Everymen and Everywomen who are forced by circumstance to dig down deep and find their inner badass in the service of their own survival, and that's what I like to write as well, and I think there's a little of that in my photographs — that lone wolf's sense of beauty amid bleakness.
I read and write crime fiction not to escape FROM reality, but to escape INTO it. I think that idea is front-and-center in my photography. It is all about possibilities within realism.
What in your view is the relevance of noir culture in today’s society?
We are doing nothing in this world but getting more polarized, which means there are more self-identified outsiders than ever. So I think there's more opportunity than ever to tell the stories of outsiders going up against systems and power structures — with the goal of not just surviving, but thriving, and holding on to some sort of moral code that hopefully makes as much sense to the reader as it does to the character. I'm not interested in outsiders who deal with power structures by doubling down on their self-chosen weaknesses and hopelessness by "blowing shit up" the way Trump supporters have. I want to write about people who tunnel through the darkest darkness to find their way to a light in which they can live. One of my novels features a guy who could have been an incel — someone who doubled down on his rage as a way of deal with his sense of powerlessness — but fought through that fuck-it-all instinct and found a path to fulfillment that drew a distinction between people who deserve to be taken down and people who just don't like him. He's no knight-errant, but neither is he so self-involved that he can't see beyond himself. He may not find his better angel, but he does find that the idea of having a better angel is enough to keep him going. I can't think of a more 2018 story than that
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
It all starts with my namesake, Jim Thompson. Even though his best books don't believe in better angels, they do believe in the power of peripheral people to stand up for themselves, and that's where all my favorite stories start. Stephen King's books burned into my brain like cattle brands during a lot of long and lonely nights in Christian boarding school, and few writers better understand what it is like to be ugly and unwanted and wanting to break down the fences between them and the beautiful people by any means possible. Stephen Dobyns's Charlie Bradshaw series helped me see how a peripheral, largely disrespected person could be an effective force for righting wrongs within the strictures of a detective novel. When I feel I've gotten off track in my own writing, authors I turn to for a subliminal booster shot of confidence and craft uplift include Peter Abrahams, Charles Williams, John D. MacDonald, Lynn Kostoff, Laura Lippman, Carl Hiaasen, Newton Thornburg and Robin Yocum.
What’s next for you?
I've got a longish short story on submission with Switchblade magazine, something I think is a clever subversion of hitman tropes. We'll see if they agree. Right now I'm doubling down on my various gigs — everything from manuscript editing to corporate copywriting to bookselling to housesitting — to finance a low-rent fall and winter in Florida, where I hope to work no more than half-time and hammer out some serious stories. Time's a-wastin', and at 53, there may not be as much of it to waste as I think. Fear has always been a great motivator for me.
Hey kid, I just turned 55. Keep on burnin’, churnin’ and learnin’. Cheers.
Jim Thomsen has been a manuscript editor since 2010. He has provided developmental editing, line editing, copy editing and proofreading services to more than three hundred author clients since 2010. Before, he spent more than twenty years as a reporter and copy editor at newspapers all over the West Coast. He is based in his childhood hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, and can usually be found wielding his red pen in the island’s coffee shops, pubs and cafés. When not editing, Jim can be found writing and reading hardboiled crime fiction, and taking “Noir Where You Are” photographs for his Instagram page.