Contrasting the Dark with the Light
Richard Thomas interviewed by Gregory Frye.
Richard Thomas is catching a lot of attention with his debut novel Transubstantiate, a neo-noir thriller mostly set on a mysterious island where nothing is as it seems. The place is inhabited by prisoners who are supposedly part of a rehabilitation experiment, meanwhile most of the global population has been wiped out by plague. The survivors, both on the island and off, truly live up to the label of noir, black, nihilistic. Thomas’ book seems to have come to the front at a time when a lot of readers and writers are starting to ask what neo-noir is all about, how is it defined, and where can we take it.
3:AM: One of the first things I noticed about Transubstantiate is that it is fast-paced. Each chapter is divided into seven parts, different characters, and you peel away at the plot like layers of an onion. Never giving away too much at once, constantly luring the reader forward. This makes the book very friendly to anyone who might have a short attention span or a busy schedule, which basically means you’ve written a dystopian thriller to suit the 21st Century reader. How aware were you of this dynamic while writing and how much work did you put into the book?
Richard Thomas: When I realized that this was going to be seven first person perspectives, I knew that I had two choices: I could write each person, Jacob or Marcy or Assigned, in these long passages, maybe two to three thousand words, and really dig deep into them or I could write short bursts of 500 to 700 words at a time. It came down to a couple of things.
I was concerned that if I wrote it more like The Stand by Stephen King or other epic novels, that by the time you got back to the first character, in this case, Jacob, so much time would have passed, maybe 15,000 or 30,000 words, that you’d have forgotten where the story started, and who that person was. It also would have forced the story to move forward in these huge chunks, and I didn’t want that.
Another part of it was that I was writing this story for an online class, at The Cult, with Max Barry. He told us to write no more than 700 words a day. A little bit of reverse psychology that really freed me up to not feel like I had to hit the 1,000 words a day minimum, or whatever I set up for myself. Also, I was really busy in my life, working, family, etc. The only time I had was at work, where I would run downstairs to the cafeteria (I’m a freelance art director) at my client, and grab a sandwich, run back up, and write for an hour. Each day was a different person: Monday was Jacob, Tuesday was Marcy. And so on. So, throughout the week, I knew who was up next, and where the story had stopped the day before, and I had 24 hours in between to think about what I wanted to do. So by the time I got to the computer I was ready to let it pour out.
So, all of these things contributed to the fast pace of the book. I liked that it was fast bursts and that people could jump in and out, and that it was only about 3,500 or 5,000 words per chapter, so that you got back around to Jacob again in no time at all. I wanted this to be a slow reveal, over time, constantly asking questions, and answering some of them, making you pay attention, but in the end, hopefully, giving you most of the answers. There was a book, Blackbox by Nick Walker that I had recently read, and I think that was an influence on me as well. It had 15 characters I think. So to me, doing seven, wasn’t that big of a deal. I will say this though. I probably won’t attempt this kind of POV again any time soon. If I do a sequel to this book, and it is set up so I can, it won’t be for a while. Disintegration, my next book, which I just finished, the first draft anyway, is one person, one POV.
3:AM: I understand that you wrote a little bit after college and then put writing aside for like 15 years. In what ways is this period of not writing serving you now as a writer? On the other hand, I also wonder how things would have shaped up for you had you kept at it.
RT: Well, in some ways, you have to live life, to write about it. Now, I didn’t go out and kill people, but I did my share of running around, got into trouble, chased a lot of girls, and had my fun. I got my heart broken, got in fist fights, and learned a lot about who I was and who I am now. Those experiences, they help form you as a person. All of that time I was still reading, and going to see films. I’m a big fan of the Chicago International Film Festival, and used to go all the time, and see tons of movies, independent and foreign films, wild stuff. I don’t think I was ready to write back then. My priorities were all out of whack. My writing, what I did, was pretty bad. I think, for me, it had to happen this way. Now, maybe if I’d discovered certain voices back then, earlier, maybe Palahniuk and Baer and Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis, well…maybe things would have been different. But my eyes weren’t open, I wasn’t in a place where I could succeed. I’m in a place now where I have much more appreciation and respect for those that came before me, those writers that I’ve gotten to know, and study with, now, in the past four years. I’m very aware of the literary world out there, I’m much better read, the classics, and my contemporaries, and I think I’ve found my voice as well. But yes, if I knew then, what I knew now? Boy, I wish I could get those 15 years back. That’s a lot of time, a lot of missed opportunities. Thanks for bumming me out, Gregory.
It is what it is, and I just want to make the most of what I have in front of me right now. And I try not to step in front of too many buses. I hope that I have time to go after these things now, and believe me, I am. My MFA program, finishing the first draft of my next novel, getting my stories out there, editing and publishing other writers, going to AWP, all of that. It’s an exciting time to be a writer. But I imagine a lot of writers have said that same thing.
3:AM: How far are you into this MFA program? In what ways is it equipping you as a writer and how would you compare/contrast the MFA course with serious online workshops like The Cult or Write Club?
RT: I’m three semesters into my MFA program down at Murray State University in Murray, KY. I live in Chicago, and that’s a nice little drive down there. You pass this huge cross, must be, oh I don’t know, 50 feet into the air, gleaming silver metal. I also pass Metropolis, IL where they have the Superman museum, that’s pretty cool too.
My MFA has really gotten me back to the basics. They aren’t as big on genre writing, the tricks and trappings of mysteries, crime, horror, fantasy, SF, etc. but they were open to my work. The stuff I submitted, one of the stories was ‘Stillness’ which is horror, neo-noir, and the rest of my stories were similar. Craig Clevenger and Monica Drake were kind enough to write reference letters for me, along with my old professor from Bradley University (Peoria, IL) Dr. Edgar Chapman. He turned me on to Blade Runner, so I owe him for life. They’ve gotten me to focus on the plot, the narrative hook, not using gimmicks, but just strong writing, language. It’s been a blast, really. My undergrad work is in advertising, so I’m really not as well read as I should be. I’ve enjoyed reading people like Cormac McCarthy, Ron Rash, and discovering new voices (some to me, some to the world) like George Saunders (I love his work), William Gay, Holly Goddard Jones (she was at Murray when I got there, then left), and I’ve been more open to reading The New Yorker, The Paris Review, the annual Best American Short Stories collections. I’ve learned a lot.
My professor there, Dale Ray Phillips, he’s a real hoot. He’s a cranky old guy, hilarious, southern, but he’s a genius, really, was nominated for a Pulitzer. He knows so much, every short story ever written. He’s really helped me to elevate my game, improve my language. If I ever want to write like Brian Evenson or Cormac McCarthy, Stephen Graham Jones, Benjamin Percy, these guys that can blend the genre with the lit, then this is how I’ll do it.
The things I’ve learned at The Cult, studying under Craig Clevenger and Monica Drake and Max Barry, it’s been invaluable. I’ve probably learned more practical things, and gotten more confidence from those six week sessions than anything. The MFA is a more academic approach, and they don’t teach you as much as guide you, tell you what you’re doing wrong, and get you to read a lot more. It’s all been really helpful, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of the great writers at the Cult, and my peers and professors down at Murray. It’s a mix. And I think for me, it’s the perfect blend. I’m so amazed by everyone that has stepped up and supported my work, helped me to become a better writer, and encouraged me to keep going.
My dream is to cobble together all of these things – write novels and short stories, teach at the university level, and edit and publish others (like I’ve done at Colored Chalk and Sideshow Fables). Stephen Graham Jones is really my idol, in that way, doing what I’d love to do someday. It’s tough to make a living at it, but I’m hesitantly optimistic about the whole thing. I can say that for years, in the world of advertising, I’ve hit these limits, these ceilings, and then couldn’t get beyond, or above it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s my attitude, or luck, or the universe guiding me to something else. But the minute I started seriously pushing this other direction, towards writing, I’ve had luck, I’ve found some happiness, joy in my work and the process, the promotion, the sharing and community. Every little bit of success from my novel, to the 20 plus stories I’ve published in print and online at places like Dogmatika, Word Riot, Opium, my contest win at ChiZine, my story getting into Shivers VI, when I was trying to get into their magazine, Cemetery Dance, and then King and Straub being in there? It’s glorious, really, it’s just amazing, the things that have fallen into place. I’m lucky, and grateful, and really excited about what the future holds.
3:AM: You’ve mentioned Philip K. Dick and Blade Runner. What other dystopian influences do you have, and why is it a prevalent theme for you?
RT: I’ll just say that Blade Runner is one of my favorite movies. It’s top ten for sure, and quite possibly my favorite movie ever. It’s based on the novel by PKD Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. It’s also a good example of early neo-noir in film. This sub-genre, which came out of classic noir, in film and literature, is a more contemporary dark fiction, which relies heavily on tone, mood, setting, and overall perspective. From the voice-over work of Harrison Ford, which is reminiscent of the openings of so many classic noir films and detective stories, to the loner ex-cop, to the dismal setting, it’s just a beautiful and emotional film.
I’d also mention the Stephen King septology (and yes that is a word!) The Dark Tower. I love the mix of futuristic technology gone astray with old school western settings, and the use of fantasy, science fiction, and of course horror. I’m also a big fan of King’s The Stand as well as Robert R. McCammon’s Swan Song, and Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. I don’t know if you’d consider Lost dystopian or utopian, but it was a big influence on this novel as well.
I’m starting to get more into steampunk, and may try to do something with that sub-genre in the future, maybe after Disintegration. We’ll see if I can figure out how it works. I won a contest at ChiZine, with a story called ‘Maker of Flight’ based on the novel Filaria by Brent Hayward (a fantastic book by the way) and that gave me a taste of what you might be able to do with steampunk.
With my work, it all comes back to the idea of character. What I like to see is when people struggle, when they fall down, when they crack, and are in a difficult situation and how they deal with it. That’s all through Transubstantiate, these flawed people, who have made mistakes, and are given a chance to show who they really are. It doesn’t make you a bad person if you kill somebody, if you are put in a situation where it’s defend yourself, or die. Or maybe, if somebody hurts your wife or daughter, if somebody is raped or molested. I struggle with that idea, what I might do if anything like that ever happened to anybody I know or love, and I’ll look into that more in Disintegration as well. So a dystopian setting is an ideal place to take a person out of their normal setting, to be reborn in a sense in this “new world” (or Brave New World, if you’d prefer). I think that’s why I’m drawn to dystopian settings. Plus the fact that you have a chance to make up some new rules, create some new ways of living of surviving. Are you a fan of PKD and Blade Runner?
3:AM: I’m a huge fan of PKD and Blade Runner. I’ve been reading a lot about PKD’s life and am amazed that more people don’t talk about him. He really walked the razor’s edge between misunderstood genius and insane. His essay ‘How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’ really knocked me on my ass. But then I learned he was always coming up with peculiar existential theories and at times doubted his own sanity. He’d be a great character in one of his own books, which he’s done actually. What are your impressions of the man?
RT: About the same. They say that genius borders on insanity, so I’d say he straddled fence. But when your work and life deals with things like drug abuse, paranoia, schizophrenia and transcendental experiences there’s bound to be some slips and gray areas, as far as reality. There is a fascinating bit about him in Waking Life, a movie I really love, this animated (rotoscoped, actually) film by Richard Linklater that ends with a scene about PKD and reality that really kind of blew my mind. I need to go read more of PKD’s stuff, but a lot of his work that has been adapted into film has worked for me. Blade Runner, obviously, as well as A Scanner Darkly (another animated, rotoscoped flick by Linklater, obviously he’s a fan of PKD as well) but also Total Recall, Minority Report, and with less success, in my opinion, Next and Paycheck. There aren’t many minds like that of PKD.
3:AM: What is it about the dark, do you think, that attracts a lot of writers? Transubstantiate has got some darkness to it, and you mention your next book will be even darker. I know a lot of the stuff I write is dark, maybe too dark sometimes. But then again the world’s axis spins on conflict.
RT: I guess it comes down to the fact that I like seeing people in conflict, challenged, and when you’re at your lowest, you reveal who you really are. It’s easy to be nice and happy and generous when everything is going great. But who wants to read a book about a guy who gets up, kisses the wife and kids, goes off to work, had a good day, works hard, has success, comes home, has dinner, spends some time with the kids, and then has sex with his wife. Boring. I mean, sure, there are a lot of beautiful stories about everyday life, and happiness. But hell, even the Harry Potter series had lots of death. I was going to say Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was a happy family tale, but no, that’s not right, it’s all about him dealing with his parents and more death.
I guess there’s just more to work with in a tragic setting, in a dysfunctional family, in a dystopian setting. I will say that Transubstantiate, without giving it all away, does have some hope at the end there. People do die, but there is hope. I think you said the right word there – conflict. That’s at the heart of any good story, and there can’t really be much conflict, or risk, in an ideal situation. I knew that with my next book, Disintegration, that I’d be dealing with same dark material, but I think I’m still asking universal questions, seeking out those truths. But it may be my Requiem for a Dream, or The Girl Next Door, or The End of Alice. We’ll see. There’s still some light in this book, some humor, some sex and lust and depravity. It’s not all violence. That would be too much of one note. I try to avoid that. We’re complex emotional beings, and even in the midst of the most horrific situations there are other emotions – sadness, remorse, guilt, hope, fear, rebirth, redemption, peace.
3:AM: Right. And I think good contrast goes hand in hand with conflict regarding literary merit. If you were going to teach a class on contrast what would be some of the underlying points?
RT: Great question. For me, it’s a balance, everything you do, it’s a dance, it’s musical. You need to feel the beats, grab that inner poet. I’d talk about the contrast between a slow scene, where you pick up every detail and every sensation, no matter how surreal, and then move on to something fast paced, action, moving forward literally and metaphorically. You’d want to play with emotions, contrasting the dark with the light, the sad with the hopeful, whether you’re writing about a serial killer or a soccer mom. They both find joy in things. Probably not the same things, but then again, Serial Killer Soccer Mom, hell, that would be pretty cool too, yeah? I call dibs on that. I’d also look at contrasting things like weather, and time of day – you can’t have every scene at night. Be aware of your seasons, as I did in Disintegration, moving from fall (the descent, the falling, the downturns) to winter (death, cold, ice, numb), from rain (emotion, crying, loss) to snow (purity, innocence, nobility). And in simple things like language, the mixture of longer sentences with fragments, dialog with narrative, setting with plot with character, always seeking a balance, a distribution. In time, when writing longer pieces, moving from short stories to novels, it starts to become intuitive, simple logic. But I’m always growing and learning, experimenting. I just read two fantastic short stories that were just devastating, they really broke me down, by an author named Katie Jean Shinkle, and damn if her language didn’t really make me stop and think about trying what she’s doing. But it may not be my thing, I may not be able to write like her, tap into that emotion like she did. But we’re always reinventing ourselves.
3:AM: How has the publication of Transubstantiate changed your approach to the craft, both mentally and logistically? Anything different about how you’re taking on the second book?
RT: As far as craft, well, I knew that I immediately wanted to write something that was solid neo-noir. It is all about tone, mood, setting, voice, POV, etc. I didn’t want to play any tricks, have a twist ending, etc. Although, the ending I got was not what I expected, but that’s another story. This one I wrote a lot differently. I didn’t have the same office to work in, so I’d send the family away one day a month, and write all day. This was in my MFA program, by the way. I’d write about 7,000-8,000 words a day. I got to about 35,000 words by the end of the semester and then put it aside for almost a year to work on short stories. It was a conscious choice, one I had to make. I wanted to study with my professor, Dale Ray Phillips at MSU, he’s been nominated for a Pulitzer, did I say that already? And our focus was reading and writing short stories. And I’m glad I did that. But then I had a week open, between semesters, between freelance gigs, and I said that’s it I have to finish this book. So much else had been going on with Transubstantiate, and other stories, that I didn’t have the focus for Disintegration.
It was a whole different feeling. I wrote all day, spent a lot of time with my character, my protagonist, who we’re just calling Narrator, for now I guess, he has no name. I mean, he does, but we don’t ever get it. He’s off the grid, a new life, it’s all gone to hell, disintegrating. I wrote 40,000 words in that week and finished the rough draft. I’m really happy with it, probably my best work to date, and I can’t wait to get back into it, finish it up. I need to expand some scenes, slow them down, unpack a bit more and straighten out some plot points, some motivations, but it’s really going well.
Part of what I learned from Transubstantiate was my voice, and to stick with it. It’s more noir, this one, more like Baer and early Clevenger, but it’s still me. Sex and violence, heavy on the setting, the mood, the tone, and the surreal moments. I have more confidence that I can do it. I knew it would be at least 70,000, that’s where it is now, and it’ll probably expand to about 80,000 words when I’m done. The support groups I have around me, Write Club, The Velvet, The Cult, they all give me the support and advice I need to make it happen. I’m pretty lucky to have them all. Whereas I was excited to get Transubstantiate out into the world, I was really nervous and worried about it. I don’t have that same panic with Disintegration, and I hope that my confidence and excitement and desire to get this one out there will show, and that it’ll create some buzz, maybe land me an agent, still trying to do that, onward and upward.
3:AM: How does being a family man shape you as a writer? In what ways does it affect you? I imagine some aspiring writers would allow the responsibility of a family to deter them.
RT: Ha, that’s funny. Very good timing. It actually took me 24-hours to answer this question, because I didn’t turn the computer on at all yesterday. I had a date with my wife, and we got up early and were out of the house all day, until late, and I just left the computer off. And that was a hard thing to do, I tell you.
I think it shapes me in a couple of ways. First, I have to prioritize my time. I can’t write every day like some people. Unless I’m in a situation where I can do that at work, on my lunch hour, which I really can’t anymore, my writing is at home now. So, if I want to write, I have to find that time. Sometimes it is late at night after the kids have gone to bed. Sometimes I have to book a day to write, and get the wife and kids out of the house. But I make sure that if I’m taking that time away from them, I better know what I’m doing, and be focused, and ready.
I also use my life experiences in my writing, so there are parts of my wife and kids that for sure get into my stories. I try not to be too literal when I include them in my work, my wife doesn’t like it when I “kill the kids” or portray her in a negative light. People are going to look at your work and assume a lot of things. If I show my wife (in my writing, if a character has a wife) as being a drunken bitch or the neighborhood slut, some of them may take that to be the truth, something from my own life (she’s neither, for the record). Mostly it’s pulling out the little details. I wrote a story called ‘Three Mistakes’ that’s up at Word Riot, and there are moments in there where I steal some moments from my own life, saying good-bye to the kids in the morning, little phrases that the kids may say, or toys, television shows they watch. And there’s actually a lot of them in Disintegration, too. Not sure if I can let her read this book.
The last thing, is sharing my writing life with them all. I can’t tell you how much it really matters to me that they know what I’m doing, and when I have success, they are 100% genuine, with everything they say. If they say, “Daddy, I need you to help me with this,” they mean that. If they say “Daddy, you look fat,” they mean that too. They’re at that age where they really don’t filter much. But when I go away to my MFA program for 10 days (I’m in a low-res program in Murray, KY, so I’m down there on campus twice a year, and I live in Chicago) they support that, and miss me, but give me a lot of encouragement over the phone. They write me notes. In fact, there is still a huge sign they made on the door from our house to our attached garage that I see every day when I get home. It says congratulations, we love you, all of this from when I got my first book deal. It means a lot to me. They ground me, they remind me of the emotions I carry with me all of the time, and they, all of them, my wife and kids, support me, and when I have success, they are so proud of me. The whole Shivers VI thing with King and Straub. My kids don’t know who those guys are, but they give me a hug and a kiss and get excited when I’m excited, and just hearing them call me a “writer” or “author”, asking me about the stories I write, wondering when I’ll write a novel for them, it really means so much, and it allows me to share this joy and excitement that I have with them, and that’s so important. It’s great to have a family like this to share in my love of words (we read all the time) and that is always there for me, building me up, when so much of the world out there wants to tear me down. I’m lucky.
3:AM: I’ve heard people say that the publishing business as we know it is slowly toppling, but on the other hand it seems there is resistance, a surge of energy. New and emerging writers banding together with a single goal. You’re a part of this, so what is that goal exactly? And how do you the think the publishing world has changed in the past decade?
RT: Great questions. It’s complicated, and I can only talk about what I’ve done, what I’ve heard, what’s worked for me, and what I think might happen in the future. So, there’s definitely some guessing going on here.
There is still a lot of commercial success out there. The big name authors are still selling millions of copies. So, something is working. There is definitely a battle going on with the literary presses, and literary journals, to survive. You keep hearing that people don’t read. That one in four people don’t read a single book, and that another one in four read on average three books a year. Well, what they don’t say is that idiots like me are reading 30-40 books a year. It’s the battle between the academics and the commercial, lit vs. genre. You have the masses still reading a lot – but it’s King and Grisham and they’re reading Twilight and Harry Potter. The top of the New York Times best seller lists are filled with mystery, crime, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and romance. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But then you have all of these fantastic literary journals like Tin House, The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, cool, edgy places like Hobart, Juked, Annalemma, that are really only being read by writers and academics, a much smaller pool of people.
One movement that I’ve seen, and that I’m trying to be a part of, is the genre-bending work done by people like Brian Evenson, Benjamin Percy, Stephen Graham Jones, Blake Butler, Mary Miller, Amelia Gray, Holly Goddard Jones, etc. These people have really strong voices, and the language is often elevated to the point where it could be called literary, but they aren’t afraid to include elements of the horrific, the fantastic. You could look at a book like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and call it literary, or you could call it horror, science fiction, because it’s dealing with a post-apocalyptic setting, this dystopian view of the future. And his work has gone on to have mass appeal, especially in film with No Country For Old Men, as a great example. I think we need to find a way to keep writing what we want to write, and stop all of the elitist attitudes, and just enjoy the work, and champion anything that we enjoy, whether it is genre fiction, graphic novels, literary fiction or whatever entertains or moves us.
There are a ton of small presses that are really trying to be innovative, and they constantly put out great work. People like Dzanc, ChiZine, Featherproof, Flatmancrooked, Hobart’s Short Flight/Long Drive line, etc. But the public just isn’t aware of them. They are hardly aware of the big presses, and probably couldn’t tell you who their favorite author is publishing with – be it Penguin, W.W. Norton, Viking, Harper Perennial, you name it. That’s part of what I’m trying to do, get the word out, because when my peers succeed, when my friends get discovered, and get exposure, it helps me as well, we all win, all of us authors that are out here struggling, trying to find our place, and supporting independent voices, presses and journals.
The biggest changes I have seen in my time as a writer is with the online networking and electronic delivery. If it wasn’t for places like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and the ability to set up and run your own blogs/sites for little or no money, we’d never be able to get the word out. I have over 1,300 people in my Transubstantiate Facebook Group, and I know that many people have bought my book because of that presence, total strangers from all over the world. At Goodreads we gave away five copies of Transubstantiate, and we got over 1000 people to enter that contest. That translated to 200 people marking that book at “to-read”, and there were 10 people reading it there last time I checked. Those are a lot of new people finding my work. All of that time and effort that I spend with self-promotion, it does work. It’s this grassroots way of doing it, but it helps, it works. The digital formats, ebooks, those are also the future of publishing, and with the iPad and Kindle, it’ll just keep growing, this ebusiness. People need to get with it, and embrace it. Also, you’ll see more and more print-on-demand (POD) especially for the smaller presses, because they just can’t print 5,000 copies or warehouse large quantities of anything. It’s losing its stigma, this method of delivery, and as long as the product doesn’t suffer, it’ll keep growing. You can’t do as much when you use POD, you can’t design these really cool, really unique books with embossed letters, die-cut windows, specialty paper and fabrics and all of the fancy things I see being done by Featherproof and Flatmancrooked and New York Tyrant, but you can get the books out, the paperbacks, the standard hardcovers. You can still do a lot of great work with design, photography, and make the work compelling.
In the end, the more we work together, and are more inclusive, this small community of writers, editors, presses, and fans that go to AWP conferences attend readings and support the independent movement, the better chance we have of breaking through into the public eye, and not just survive, not just keep our heads above water, but thrive and grow and really create some beautiful, touching, works of art.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Gregory Frye is a struggling novelist who quit his newspaper job and moved to Athens, Greece, in 2008.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, September 18th, 2010.