Katherine Tomlinson, editor of Dark Valentine magazine, has been a working writer since she was 16. She worked for city magazines coast to coast (and in Hawaii) and her freelance work has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout North America. She has written for television and feature films as well as webseries. Her film adaptation of Killing Suki Flood is in pre-production. She is a contributor to the great series Drunk On The Moon, based on Paul Brazill’s brilliant invention, Roman Dalton, the werewolf detective, to which I also contribute with Getting High On Daisy.
Katherine met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about Valentines and Noir.
Do you think most Valentines have a heart of darkness and why is Noir embedded in Romance?
Since the holiday we celebrate as “Valentine’s Day” began as the feast day of a martyred saint, I’d say, yes to that.
I’m not sure that Noir is embedded in Romance, not the way that Romance and darkness are entwined in a Gothic tale like Dracula, but lust is certainly a component. Too many people confuse lust and love. And of course, the word “love” has been devalued and redefined by pop culture to the point that it’s now synonymous with “obsession.” When I was a journalist, I interviewed a lot of celebrities who’d had frightening encounters with fans who “loved” them. Lust and obsession make for a dangerous combination in real life, but are absolutely necessary for noir fiction.
Who are your literary influences?
I was a journalist before I wrote fiction and I was pretty serious about that career path by the time I was in high school so I read a lot of nonfiction as a teen. I was (and am) a big fan of John McPhee, who is one of those people I call “literary alchemists.” He can take the most mundane subject and turn it into prose so fascinating you don’t even realize you’ve just read an entire book about an orange grove in California (Oranges ) or a street market in New York (Giving Good Weight). I read a lot of war reportage, memoirs of men and women back from the fronts of a dozen different conflicts.
My father was in the army, so war was not an abstract concept in my family. Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a kind of gonzo romp through the Viet Nam war, is still one of the best books I’ve ever read about that misbegotten military adventure. Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War (Jarhead) is also riveting. I admired David Halberstam, Frances FitzGerald, and Gloria Emerson. I read a lot of history and also popular science, especially the books by Tracy Kidder, who wrote The Soul of a New Machine. I really admire non-fiction writers whose prose reads like fiction. Among my favorite writers are Erik Larsen, Sebastian Junger, Ben Macintyre, and a Washington Post writer named Michael Leahy, who was based in Los Angeles back when I worked for Los Angeles Magazine.
As far as influences on my fiction—it’s a little more complicated. Both my parents were voracious readers—my mother read mysteries, my father read history—and I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on. My family lived in Germany and France when I was a child, so television wasn’t part of my life until I was around 12 or so and it never really became a habit for me. Still, somewhere along the way I saw The Twilight Zone. I’m sure my love of twist endings was influenced by Rod Serling.
The only thing my parents didn’t want me reading was comic books but they didn’t care if I read the good stuff or trash otherwise. I ended up reading both. I was in honors English classes, so I read the greats of American literature and then I moved on to the English writers everyone is expected to know and in between I read mysteries and gothic romances and science fiction and fantasy and horror.
Lots and lots of horror. A lot of what’s now called “Speculative Fiction.” Anything by Tanith Lee or Stephen King or Harlan Ellison. I’d finish Pride and Prejudice and pick up The Stand and then read a Louis L’Amour western I’d found at the used book shop for a quarter. It was all good. And it was a great education for someone who ended up a genre writer. I can deconstruct a literary work with the best of them (I was once hired to write a study guide to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness—you can find it on Amazon.com.) but I’m probably never going to write a story like “The Swimmer,” you know?
Still, along with my geek creds and the genre reading, I also have a lifelong love of Shakespeare—the precise way he used language, the gorgeous words that are now obsolete, the way he used his dialogue to develop his characters. I keep waiting for a Shakespeare Noir anthology to go along with all those fairy tale noir stories I’m starting to see.
What did Kurtz mean by his closing words in a novella that was later considered the leitmotif of war and global acquisition and do you think the subsequent interpretation of Conrad’s book was accurate or merely part of propaganda?
Ah, I see I’m going to have to prove I know how to talk the talk.
All right, let’s say it’s a trick question, because I don’t necessarily think that what Kurtz meant by his oft-parodied last words in Heart of Darkness is the same thing that Conrad meant. And I also don’t think that Conrad necessarily meant for his readers (or his characters) to know either.
There are a lot of theories about what Kurtz’s last words—“The Horror. The Horror.”—mean. One of the themes of Heart of Darkness is ambiguity—or more precisely, obscurity in the sense of the opposite of clarity—so I don’t think there’s any one right answer.
I do, however, disagree with those who think that Kurtz was some sort of “deathbed conversion” in which he suddenly saw all the horror that the company had brought down on the Congolese. Looking at the character through my own 21st century sensibility, I see Kurtz as an agent of what we now call the “One Percent,” the people who believe that the world’s riches are meant for them and them alone, and that leaving them in the hands of others is simply a waste, “leaving money on the table,” you might say. Kurtz is variously described as “going native” and “going rogue” but for me, he’s simply trying to consolidate his power and secure his position. At the end he’s not looking at the havoc he and his masters have wreaked, he’s mourning the bad choices he’s personally made.
He was a man who wanted to be a god and when his subjects turn on him, he is vexed by the situation. His sense of entitlement can’t grasp the rejection. His dying vision is filtered through the lens of his own personality. He has a vision of the coming chaos without his guiding white hand at the tiller and speaks a prophecy. I don’t think he was crazy at all, I think he was pissed at the lack of appreciation being shown to him, especially since he viewed himself as superior to the natives.
So that’s what I think Kurtz meant. But I think Conrad meant the words literally. And despite some modern-day criticism that paints the author as a racist, I think his anti-colonial, anti-imperialist message is pretty clear. And he clearly holds individuals to account for their actions, mindful that we all have the capacity for evil in us, and that what might be seen as righteous behavior is actually the behavior of someone who has not yet been offered the right temptation.
Is the interpretation of Heart of Darkness valid or propaganda? Depends on your definition of “propaganda,” I would say. Is it misleading to reveal the cruelties of colonialism, particularly in the Congo ? I don’t really think you can argue that. But no literary work exists in a vacuum. That is why I’d teach the novella as part of an inter-disciplinary unit in which students also read history for context. I would have them read Adam Hochschild’s searing King Leopold’s Ghost first and then near-contemporary works like Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Congo” and Mark Twain’s scathing satire King Leopold’s Soliloquy.
What do you make of the rise of E Book?
What I make of the rise of the ebook is … a second income.
Although I’m working on a novel right now, what I have to sell at this point is my short fiction. Traditional publishers aren’t looking for collections of short fiction from unknown writers. There’s just no profit in it for them. But ebook publishers are eager to showcase writers who aren’t yet household names and that’s good news for readers as well as writers.
Would I like to have a three-book deal with Simon & Schuster? Sure. Would I like to sell as many ebooks as Amanda Hocking? Yes, please. Which circumstance is more likely to happen to me? Which situation offers me more validity as a writer?
For die-hard defenders of traditional publishing, it’s a “perceived value” issue that’s based on a flawed premise—that any traditionally published book is going to be better than any indie published book. But once you ask a die-hardist to define “better,” their arguments fall apart. “Better writing,” they’ll say. Really? So all the print books with one and two-star reviews are better than the Kindle books with five-star reviews? “Better editing,” they’ll insist. I beg to differ. One of the ways legacy publishers seem to be saving money these days is by skimping on the copy-editing. (Or is there no one in New York who knows the difference between “you’re” and “your?”) “Better covers,” they’ll finally offer in desperation. To which I reply, “Not necessarily.”
Writers working with traditional publishers have very little say in cover design. Historical romance writers in particular often see their work packaged with covers that don’t actually reflect the period in which their novel takes place. The website Smart Bitches Trashy Books is always ragging on cheesy covers. Indie publishers have total control over their covers and the results are often fantastic. (Compare the cover of G. Wells Taylor’s Bent Steeple with Karl Edward Wagner’s Where the Summer Ends and tell me which one is “better?”
I’m not the first to compare what’s happening in the book industry to what’s happened to the movie industry but it’s an apt comparison. My “day job” is working as a freelance story editor for movie production companies. I read a couple of scripts a day and many of them are fantastic. Many of them are better than any movie you saw last year. And many of them will never sell because the big movie companies can only make so many movies a year and they’re going to go with the sure thing, the movie that makes sense economically. (As my old boss, actionmeister Joel Silver used to say, “They don’t call it show art.”) When indie filmmakers came along, they were marginalized at first too. And then audiences started taking notice. And suddenly indie filmmakers had their own film festivals. And suddenly a romantic comedy like My Big Fat Greek Wedding that cost $5 million made $369 million. And how many big-budget movies tank every year. (John Carter, I’m looking at you!)
So, to bring it back to ebooks…I am happy to have a way to get my stories in front of people who might enjoy them without having to do the dance of submission (both literally and figuratively). As someone says in the movie Honeysuckle Rose, “I did it for the love, but I was not above the money.” My stories have been out there making money for me since 2010. I’d still be waiting for that book contract if I’d gone the traditional route.
What is your greatest fear?
Blindness. I am diabetic and before I was diagnosed, my retinas were damaged by internal bleeding. My vision will never be 20/20 again but thanks to an experimental drug, my sight will not deteriorate further. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to get into the drug study, my life would be profoundly different right now. I worry about what will happen when the study ends next year. The drug costs $2500 a shot. I am dosed every month. I don’t have health insurance.
I also worry about nuclear conflict in the Middle East, but when it comes to the kind of fear that comes upon you in the middle of the night and leaves your heart pounding, it’s all about me.
Tell us about your novel.
Three years ago I wrote a story for Astonishing Adventures Magazine called “Tired Blood” about a vampire so old he had developed dementia. The heroine of the story, Kira Simkns, was a reporter whose beat was paranormal crime. I fell in love with Kira’s world and kept coming back to it in short stories.
I knew there was a longer tale in there, but I was intimidated by the thought of writing a novel since my sweet spot for stories seems to be around 1500 words. Still, I kept fleshing out my ideas, creating characters like a vampire history professor who only teaches night classes, and a werewolf clan that runs a security company.
I developed a backstory for Kira, deciding that her mother had been turned into a vampire while she was pregnant, which made Kira what I called “a misbegotten.” I decided I would call the novel, Misbegotten, and kept writing short stories set in my urban fantasy version of Los Angeles.
I collected some stories set in that world and released L.A. Nocturne: Tales of the Misbegotten. The reviews were good and almost every one said, “I want to see the novel.” I did too, but instead of buckling down to finish it, I kept writing short stories. When Christopher Grant published my story “Sex Crime,” (about a succubus sex worker) on A Twist of Noir, the story got fantastic feedback and again, a call for the novel. I published another collection of Misbegotten stories in March (L.A. Nocturne II) and then promised myself I wouldn’t write any more Misbegotten stories until the book is finished.
I’m closing in on 50K and hope to have it finished by September. Joy Sillesen of Indie Author Services whipped up a cover for me as an incentive. It’s already up at her site, along with the cover for the upcoming Drunk on the Moon anthology. It’s a lot of fun and I think fans of Urban Fantasy will like it because I’ve worked hard not to recycle the same old tired tropes. There are no sparkly vampires or tattooed werewolves but there are goblin gangsters and murderous mer. I’m having a lot of fun with it. I just need to FOCUS.
If you were to give advice to yourself as a younger woman what would you say?
Don’t go out with Vincent.
No. Wait. That’s a story for a different interview.
I think I’d say, “Don’t get so caught up in making a living you forget to make a life.” I’m a full-time freelancer and in the freelance world, it’s feast or famine. When there’s work, I find it hard to turn it down. I love L.A. but it’s a very expensive city. I’ve managed to develop a balance between earning a living and finding time to write my own stories but it took me much too long.
Do you think cynics are men and women for whom their romanticism has failed?
No, I think most cynics are people who never believed in anything in the first place. I tend to agree with Oscar Wilde that cynics are people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Crime fiction probably couldn’t exist without cynical characters, but in real life cynics and their relentless negativity are just energy vampires. People whose map of reality is defined by cynicism are often the staunchest defenders of the status quo they so disdain because they’d rather complain about it—or feel superior to it—than take action to change the situation.
I’m also not that crazy about cynicism’s second cousin—snark. I love a good snark like writer Dakota Cassidy’s hilarious live-snarking the Miss America pageant on Twitter. Dakota’s a former beauty queen and isn’t being mean. Catty yes, but not mean. It’s the people who seem to feel the need to be the smartest person in the room who annoy me. We’ve all seen book reviews that are more about the reviewer scoring points than about the actual book.
Romanticism will fail you.
Bad things happen to good people.
Life isn’t fair.
Get over it.
Graham Greene said writers have a piece of ice in their hearts. What do you make of his observation?
So we’re all in thrall to the Snow Queen until the sliver of ice melts?
I’d say his observation was true. I think inside every writer is an observer that never quite engages completely, that’s always evaluating experience in terms of “material” in a way that would sound shockingly cold-blooded if admitted out loud. Christopher Isherwood famously said, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
I’d like to think I observe things with a more conscious attitude but I’d be ashamed to admit the number of times I’ve seen or heard something awful and thought, That would make a fantastic story.
What’s a nice girl like you doing writing such dark fiction?
First of all, compared to Matthew Funk and W. D. County, two writers I admire tremendously, my work is light pink with sequins on it. But this is a question that I’ve been asked before, usually by someone who’s just found out I don’t like movies advertised as “intense.” (That’s usually code for extreme violence or extremely unhappy subject matter and either way, I’m not interested.) “But you kill kittens in your stories,” they say. (Of all the things I’ve ever done in any of my stories, killing a kitten in an episode of NoHo Noir got me the most grief.)
My family takes my writing in stride, probably because they know I’d never kill a kitten in real life. My brother did once ask me if a story was autobiographical. I’m not sure whether he was relieved or appalled to find out it was not and that I had made it up. My aunt, a Methodist minister, reads everything I write and takes the sex and the violence and the profanity in stride. Sometimes she even leaves good-humored comments. I appreciate that.
I think writing dark fiction is my way of processing life in order to stay sane. I have a friend who’s in a near-constant state of outrage over any number of things, all of which are outrageous. I admire his passion but worry about his emotional state of mind. I’m afraid he’s going to stroke out one day over some idiotic thing a politician has said. Life can infect you with sadness or madness or rage. Writing is a way of purging that infection. At least, it works for me.
Thanks for the conversation Richard, I’ve enjoyed it!
Thank you Katherine for a brilliant and informative interview.
See all Katherine Tomlinson’s books here
Follow her on Twitter @storyauthority and @nohonoir