I love meeting new people.
And when the new people are writers with short story collections about to come out, well, all the better, right?
I first met Richard Thomas on LitReactor, when the great WAR competition was just getting started. He was sort of like...the dad, it seemed. I heard Richard was a great writer, with all kinds of publications under his belt. He knows his shit, people said. He gives great advice.
They weren't wrong. He alone is the reason I know how to properly indent a Word document, and for that I'll always be in his debt.
But that's not all.
Richard is a great writer. His stories have been among my favorites of the competition. When I invited him to come hang out on the blog, he sent me a copy of his upcoming collection, Staring Into the Abyss (March, 2013, via Kraken Press). I've been reading it near-nonstop since yesterday and let me tell you...it's awesome. Creepy at times, sad at others, it feels very honest, very open, like a good friend telling you all his deepest and darkest secrets.
Read on to learn more about the collection, horror-writers-as-Eagle Scouts, and why Richard knows his work will survive on bookshelves for years to come.
LR: I feel like I’ve gotten to know you a bit over the past few months, mostly via your short stories at LitReactor and now via Staring Into the Abyss. And…they’re often quite dark. I have this impression, therefore, that you’re a dark kind of guy. That said, I know how misleading stories can be—people may think the same of me, all dark and brooding, but in real life I’m more Amy Adams than Winona Ryder. So, introduce me to you, please. Richard the person, not Richard the writer. What are you like, day-to-day?
RT: It’s kind of funny, I think Stephen King or Peter Straub, one of them said that horror writers are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. One theory is that by getting all of our angst and vengeance and frustration out on the page, we release that tension in the real world. So we don’t let it build up. I think that makes sense.
I’m a husband and a father of twins, and I work in advertising where I’ve been a graphic designer and art director for almost 20 years (yes, I’m old). I do spend a lot of time on the computer, writing and editing and submitting. But I do get out of the house. You’d probably be surprised that I’m an Eagle Scout (the highest rank in Boy Scouts) and that I am also a classically trained singer (tenor). I love to play golf, tennis and softball. And of course I love to read, see films, and I’m a bit of a foodie.
I’m most intrigued by sub-genres like neo-noir, transgressive, and grotesque fiction. I like those moments where we get to see what people are really made of, those tipping points, crossroads, where there are no more secrets and we reveal our inner sinners and saints. There is something cathartic about watching a person struggle through a conflict.
LR: I love that some of your stories focus on real-life monsters, or people driven to do monstrous things, rather than the fantastical creatures of many other dark writers. To that end, are you often inspired by real-life events?
RT: I do pull as much as I can from the real world. One of the stories in Staring Into the Abyss, “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” at Metazen (which was nominated for a Pushcart prize) was inspired by a photo of a woman with her breasts bared, holding a porcelain doll. It must have been in the 1920s or so, it was very creepy and strange. I also use my real life for settings—you may or may not notice that there is a certain apartment I’ve used over and over again in my short stories, and it’s also the focus of my second novel, Disintegration. Sometimes I’ll reach into my memory and use toys that my kids had, or moments from my own past, I love putting those little details in a story because I know they were real. It might be a Matchbox car (blue 1967 Camaro), some advice my father gave me as a child (“As far as sex, Dickie, be like the trains and pull out on time.”), or the way a person looks, dresses or acts. But I try not to cling to anything that might detract from the story.
LR: Your story, “Stillness,” first appeared in a collection (Shivers VI, Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King, my literary hero, along with many other horror heavyweights. Therefore, you are also now my literary hero and a horror heavyweight. How did it feel, the first time you saw the table of contents, with your name and the master’s?
RT: I was floored. I seriously almost started crying. King is one of my idols as well, and I can’t think of anybody I’d love to publish alongside more than him. But Peter Straub was a close second. And I was lucky enough to publish with Jack Ketchum in Slices of Flesh, a collection of flash fiction from Dark Moon Books. I waited a long time to see that TOC from Cemetery Dance. They kept telling me it was going to be huge, and they didn’t disappoint me. I really am honored to be in that collection. It was a story that Craig Clevenger really encouraged me to send out into the world, one of my first big breaks. I know that if ANY of my work is ever going to survive, be kept on a bookshelf someplace, it’s in the signed/limited copies of Shivers VI, because of King and Straub and the rest of the talented authors who are in there with me. I’ve gotten to know a lot of those guys over the years, and in fact, Kealan Patrick Burke just blurbed Staring Into the Abyss, along with Lisa Morton, two Bram Stoker Award-winning authors. So very cool.
LR: Ok, hold up a second. Is that a choose-your-own-adventure short story? “Splintered?” Really? I love that. I also love stories that play with form and structure. What made you decide to tell a story in that format?
RT: Yeah, it IS a choose-your-own-adventure story. I remember reading those as a kid, and thought they were so much fun. I was so excited to have PANK take that story. They do such great work, and Roxane Gay (one of the editors there) is so amazing, she just got a story in Best American Short Stories 2012.
I was writing some different formats at that point in my life, just playing around. I know I’d just read a series of list stories by Blake Butler. I wrote another story called “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” that was essentially a person responding 20 times to the questions he kept hearing, after the accidental death of his son: “Why are you still with her?” and “Why do you stay?” and “Why don’t you leave.”
I thought “Splintered” would be fun, a bit of a departure, and I wanted to push it a little bit beyond the traditional structure, so it’s not just “Go to page 4” but, if you choose this direction, “You remain a doormat.” I don’t write much meta-fiction, but I guess this as close as I get.
LR: I see that you’re teaching an upcoming class over on LitReactor, all about trimming the fat from your stories and killing your darlings. Is this your first time teaching? How many words would you cut from my goofy, conversational interview questions?
RT: First, I wouldn’t cut a single word!
Second, yeah, I’m excited to teach over at LitReactor.com. I’ve been a long time member of The Cult, and when the workshop moved to LR, and that site evolved, I went with it. I write a column there as well, called “Storyville” which is all about the craft and process of writing. I’ve covered everything from sex and narrative hooks to dialogue and breaking your reader’s hearts to horror and submissions. The class will be a lot of fun, because I love the idea of helping authors make their work better, learning to recognize mistakes, what isn’t working, and giving them the tools to evolve as artists. You know, the whole, “Give a man a fish he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” thing. These tools will equip my students with the knowledge and insight to cut and trim, restructure, and evaluate their own work, so they can send their stories out into the world with confidence.
I’ve done a little bit of teaching. I did a continuing adult education class on writing over at the Libertyville High School, as well as a class called “ Dark Fiction: Horror Writing” at Story Studio Chicago. I just got my MFA last year, so I’ve been looking for a teaching gig ever since. It’s a lot of fun, something I really enjoy doing.
LR: The interior design of Staring Into the Abyss is lovely, with some pages white-on-black text, and others the more standard black-on-white. Did you have input into that design? What did you think the first time you saw it?
RT: Kraken Press is a really unique company. The main reason I took a chance on them was to work with George Cotronis, a global artist that has created stunning surreal art for many top-notch magazines, journals, websites, and video games—you name it. I absolutely love his style. His cover, as well as the art for the FREE eSingle of “Transmogrify” that we’re going to give away in a few weeks, are just amazing. They are dark, but vulnerable—sexy and yet disturbing. He’s really amazing. We talked a lot about the design and layout, lots of back and forth, and I’m really happy with the finished products.
LR: Are you an outliner, or a seat-of-your-pants kind of writer?
RT: I’m definitely a seat-of-my-pants kind of writer. I love exploring a theme, writing the scenes that come to me, exploring a philosophy or emotion or situation. My second novel Disintegration (which my agent, Paula Munier at Talcott Notch and I are currently shopping) is all based on that one word—the idea of falling apart, losing the ones you love, fracturing and fragmenting until you don’t know who or what you are any more. I get bored if I force a story in a certain direction. I need to be surprised like the readers are surprised.
For example, there is a scene in Disintegration, a rape scene, that I knew was coming. My unnamed protagonist is tracking down a woman that tasered and robbed him. I knew it was going to be violent, but the whole time I was very aware of the consequences of writing that scene, what it might do to my audience, how it might alienate people, and the fact that it might define me, be the only thing people talked about, when it came to this book. In the end, I just followed my instincts, and we both found out where our bottom was—my protagonist, as far as what he was capable of, and myself, as a writer, what I’m willing to risk, and put out into the world. And the ending of Disintegration was a surprise for me as well.
LR: Favorites time! Favorite character from a book you read as a child?
RT: That’s a tough one, maybe Gandalf?
LR: Favorite book?
RT: I’m going to cheat and name a few that were very influential to me as a writer: The Stand by Stephen King, Kiss Me Judas by Will Christopher Baer (really, the whole trilogy), Survivor and Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum, and American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis. Each one of these authors, and these books, really taught me something different—storytelling, atmosphere, emotion, tension, and so much more.
LR: Favorite movie?
RT: Yeah, I have to cheat here too. If I had to name one, it’d be Blade Runner, but I’ll also add in here Seven, Fight Club, Memento, Mulholland Drive, Amelie, and American Beauty.
LR: Favorite band/album?
RT: Three bands have really stuck with me over the years: The Smiths, The Cure and Radiohead. When in doubt, it’s one of these three that I listen to.
LR: Last question, I promise. Is there any question you’ve never been asked in an interview, but have been dying to answer? If so, go ahead and answer it here.
RT: Can I hug you?
Sure. Bring it in. I won’t bite.
Thanks, Richard, for stopping by! I had a great time!