Our latest guest is Richard Thomas, a talented writer of transgressive neo-noir fiction, graphic designer, advertising art director, LitReactor columnist and most recently, editor-in-chief of the Dark House Press – among others. With an impressive bibliography (Transubstantiate, a novel, and Staring Into The Abyss and Herniated Roots, two collections of stories and many more stories that have appeared in literary magazines, anthologies and online) and his theoretic writings on writing at the LitReactor, he is the authority in literature that makes us proud to be able to ask him a couple of questions. Find him at What Does Not Kill Me.
Hi, Richard – tell us a bit about yourself.
Well, I was born in St. Louis, Missouri and then did my undergraduate studies at Bradley University, in Peoria, Illinois. It was there that I really discovered my love of the written word. I’ve always been a big reader, since I was a child, but I really started writing in college. It wasn’t until about 15 years into my career as a graphic designer and art director that I woke up and realized I was unhappy, unfulfilled. I grew up reading Stephen King, and then the beats in college, but it was Chuck Palahniuk that got me excited, after I saw Fight Club, the movie, and his work got me to the trio of Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. That introduced me to neo-noir fiction, and I realized it was what I wanted to write. I took a class with Craig, and he said I had a lot of talent. He encouraged me to send out my story “Stillness” which was eventually accepted in Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) where it was published alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub, amongst others. That really was my rebirth as an author.
You are a very creative guy, you have worked in graphic design, advertising, you write and edit fiction…where do you feel the most fulfilled?
Definitely with my writing, that’s the most fulfilling. I love telling stories, building worlds, and I feel like I have a chance to do something special, every time I sit down to write. There is an opportunity to entertain people, but also, to enlighten them, perhaps to make them feel a little more joy in their life.
What is your opinion about advertising?
It seems like a necessary evil, much like Amazon. I think it can be manipulative and predatory, but there is also a lot of great creative work going on out there, and people do like to be informed. I put part of that onus back on the consumer, buyer beware, and all of that. Do your due diligence, and know that they are trying to get you to buy something. I am often disgusted by the consumerism and shallow behavior of so many people. I think that’s why I turn to the art—even in pursuit of a career, for some reason, it feels more noble. I know it isn’t curing cancer, but still.
How does your typical work day look like? (It must last more than regular 24 hours! :))
It really depends. If I’m working on site for a client, my days are pretty boring—get up, have coffee, get the kids off to school, then drive to work. I spend most of the day at my computer, designing, then I come home, have dinner with the family, do homework with the kids, and then maybe a little television or reading. If I’m not on site, or it’s the weekend, I’m scrambling like a mad man, writing stories, reading submissions for Dark House Press, writing my columns, reading for book reviews, reading for pleasure, editing stories and manuscripts, all kinds of social media, getting blurbs, approving creative, you name it. 2014 is going to be one hell of a wild year.
Tell us about LitReactor, where you are a regular contributor – you submit your stories to the writer’s workshop, you publish articles on writing and you are also an instructor of the short story mechanics. How have your activities there contributed to your writing and you as a writer, an artist?
Well, I started out at The Cult, and then that all moved over to LitReactor. So there was definitely a time when that was an invaluable part of my process, the same with Write Club, a private workshop I’ve been a part of for years. But at some point I think I’ve become fairly independent, and as hard on my writing as anybody else can be. I know what I want to do, and have a pretty good gut reaction to writing that is working, and writing that isn’t. But it’s a great community at LR, for sure. For a long time I felt that I didn’t have anything to say about writing, that I wasn’t an authority of any kind, just out there struggling in the trenches like everyone else, so I didn’t feel comfortable writing about process, craft, or the industry. I think finally getting my MFA, it really helped me to feel like maybe I could at least talk about these things, just share my experiences and see if that resonated with anyone. We’re all our here doing the same things, right? But I don’t really consider myself an authority on anything. The things I’m teaching in the LR classes are what I’ve learned in the many classes I’ve taken, not just in my MFA program, but also with other authors such as Clevenger, Max Barry, Monica Drake, Jack Ketchum, Stephen Graham Jones, etc.
What is your opinion about writer’s workshops you attended?
Aside from LR, there’s been The Cult, as well as Write Club, and of course in my MFA program. I think having that network, having somebody to bounce ideas off of, having some people you trust, that can really help an author to find their confidence, and to hone their craft. Over time you’ll have to find your own voice though, and sometimes that means fighting for different aspects of your writing. One of the hardest things to do in a workshop is to know what advice to take, and what advice to ignore. It’s tricky. But in time, you’ll figure it out. You get out of the workshops what you put into them, and if you can find a handful of authors you can trust, similar voices, it can really help, for sure.
What about your other social media channels – LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook? How important are they for you and your art?
Facebook and Twitter are really amazing. I’ve been able to connect with so many authors, and have so many great conversations, especially on Facebook. I’ve made a lot of friends, and it’s a fantastic way to talk about the issues of the day, to promote your work, to support other creative people, etc. I don’t think I’d have nearly the audience that I have right now if it wasn’t for social media. And the bonus is that these places don’t cost you any money, just your time, same with GoodReads. I know that people have discovered my writing via social media, and have even approached me to come speak at their schools, or to help edit their writing, so many great opportunities. Not to mention that I’m always finding something to laugh about. The humor and kindness on social media really helps to break up the seriousness, the loneliness of being a writer. So often it’s just you and the computer, banging away, with nobody around. To have that network, it’s really valuable, I think. Done right, it can be a big part of your evolution as a writer.
Who are your literary heroes? How do they inspire you?
I grew up reading Stephen King, and I’ve read just about everything he’s written. He’s really shown how you can have a career as a writer—he comes from very humble beginnings. He also has shown how the current voices in horror can be expanded. It’s not just vampires and demons, quite often the horrors we experience are our neighbors, ourselves. I’m constantly inspired by the authors that are out here in the trenches with me—the authors that defend genre fiction, and then add in the influence of literary fiction to create smart, captivating, and lasting narratives. These are the authors I’m publishing at Dark House Press, people like Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Benjamin Percy, Craig Davidson, Matt Bell, Roxane Gay, Craig Clevenger, Lindsay Hunter, Paul Tremblay, Letitia Trent, Kyle Minor, and so many others. They inspire me by showing how you can expand the genres we know, and then take them in new directions, embracing the best parts of every kind of writing.
There is a special quality in your writing, where you just can’t flip through from the beginning to the end – there are parts that just need you to stop, reread and rethink, “what the hell has just happened here?” How would you describe your style?
Well, thanks. I usually call my writing neo-noir, which just means, “new black.” It’s everything I was just talking about—embracing my roots reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror, and adding in the influence of literary fiction, to create new stories that aren’t typical, aren’t just aiming for the lowest common denominator. I try to write stories, and novels, that can exist on at least two levels—the first being entertainment, page turning stories where things happen, action moves forward, characters get in trouble and the conflict is resolved in a satisfying way. The second is in more subtle ways, the layers of setting, imagery, symbolism, emotion, and foreshadowing that hopefully add up to some sort of lasting impression. I want my audience to have fun, to be aroused, to be scared, to be tense, but when it’s over I want them to think about what they just read, and if what I wrote can seep into their lives, then I’ve done my job. In tragic writing, the way I see it, you can come out of that darkness and say, “Thank God that wasn’t me” or “That was intense” and be okay with it, the rollercoaster ride, get a thrill out of it, but then put the book down and go back to your calm, normal life.
Do you do a lot of research or do you write right from your head?
I do research if it’s a topic I don’t know much about, which could be anything from firearms to what kind of flowers and plants would grow in a jungle to what kind of things would a farmer see in an almanac that might warn him of a really bad winter coming (such as caterpillars, spider webs, acorns, etc.). But most of the time I start with an idea, an emotion, and write from that moment. I try to start at a crucial moment, the “inciting incident” where things have gone off the rails, “in medias res,” in the midst of things. I don’t typically plot, I prefer to create people, characters, and then follow them to see how they will react to the current situation. If I’m honest, and true to who they are, then the reaction should fit—the hero stays and fights, the coward flees. Or, maybe you flip that, and see what happens. But I don’t write with a plot because it feels like I have to force a story in a certain direction. I like that sense of discovery.
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, as far as my own writing, my agent is shopping my second novel, Disintegration, a neo-noir thriller about a man who loses his family and falls apart, kind of Dexter meets Falling Down. I’m also shopping a book called Four Corners, which is four novellas written by myself, Nik Korpon, Axel Taiari, and Caleb Ross—kind of this Sin City thing. And I’m sending around my third collection of short stories, called Tribulations. I’m also submitting my last two stories from my MFA. Not writing anything new at the moment, my third novel, which was called Incarnate, and may now be called Hiraeth, has stalled at about 8,000 words. But I do have a story, “Chasing Ghosts” coming out in Cemetery Dance magazine in 2014, and I’m thrilled about that.
I’m also doing a lot of editing, with three anthologies coming out in 2014—the first book from Dark House Press (where I’m Editor-in-Chief), entitled The New Black, kind of a “best of neo-noir” from the past 5-10 years; Burnt Tongues, an anthology of transgressive fiction that I edited with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer (Medallion Press); and an anthology of edgy literary stories by women for Black Lawrence Press, entitled The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers.
In addition to those editing gigs, I’ll be publishing three other books at Dark House Press—Echo Lake by Letitia Trent, a Southern gothic thriller; After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones, a collection of literary horror; and The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, the first book in the Joshua City trilogy, by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement. I’m really excited about all of these books.
What advice would you give to a young writer?
Find your voice, and read constantly. They kind of go together, right? Whatever genre you write in, read it, all of it—the masters, the new emerging voices, short stories, novels, etc. And then read other genres as well, to see what you can learn from different voices. Somewhere along the way, you’ll figure out how your voice fits into all of that, and then you can start making your own body of work, writing the stories that you want to write.
Thank you, Richard!
Thanks for having me, I’m honored to be here, I really enjoyed the questions, and I hope my answers will help somebody else to go after their dreams, as well.