Richard Thomas was the winner of the ChiZine Publications 2009 “Enter the World of Filaria” contest. His short story “Maker of Flight” was chosen by Filaria author Brent Hayward and Bram Stoker Award-Winning editor Brett Alexander Savory. It has since gone on to also win at Jotspeak, beating out over 200 entries. His debut novel, a neo-noir thriller entitled Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications) was released in July of 2010. He met me at The Slaughterhouse, where we talked about identity and transgression.
Do you think there is too much focus on genre in the publishing industry?
That’s a great question. Part of me thinks yes, that we need to just focus on work that is quality fiction (or poetry or non-fiction) and not worry about labels. But then again, part of me feels like the best way to get your work in front of the right people (fans, agents, and pressess) is to put a label on it, so that people know how to find it.
For example, if you’re a fan of horror, you know that Stephen King is a writer that creates dark fiction. You have certain expectations about his work. But if somebody were to write a novel that was indeed horrific, but not call it horror, how would you find it? Is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road horror? Or it is literary fiction? What about William Gay’s “The Paperhanger?” It seems like the literary elite, the academics, they want to claim whatever work is good, whatever writing excels, gets attention, wins awards. If the language is there. It’s confusing, I’ll admit. But I do know that I’ve called my work “neo-noir,” a sub-genre of hardboiled and noir. I’ve also called it “transgressive.” So people have come to expect dark, contemporary fiction with a bit of anarchy and chaos. In film, you’d probably just call it drama. But isn’t there a big difference between the drama of David Lynch and Martin Scorcese, between David Fincher and Steven Spielberg?
You have all of these circles, these groups of fans. Horror fans will get together at their convention, as will crime writers, both noir and thrillers, and of course, there is always AWP for the literary minded. I think that each group of fans, they fight for their people, their authors. They don’t care so much about the label, only that they love reading Peter Straub or Dennis Lehane or Jonathan Franzen and they like to hang out with like-minded people. AWP is always interesting because they have panels on this very subject, with people like Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, and others defending the work of authors that write straight genre, and even the right to include everything from vampires and werewolves to the supernatural and magical, in their fiction. A good story is a good story—tense, dramatic, inclusive, emotional. In many ways the gaps are closing, with authors populating the pages of The New Yorker with science fiction, fantasy, and horror—but for some reason only certain voices are allowed these transgressions, and have somehow been elevated to literary status. George Saunders, Joyce Carol Oates, Jennifer Egan—three authors that I enjoy—they’ve found a way to make it work. And that gives me hope.
Do you think the E Book has revolutionised the publishing industry and do you think it is a good thing?
Definitely. And in many ways. First, unless you found a title at a used bookstore or garage sale, where could you buy a new or gently read book for $1? And, the ability to take your books with you wherever you go, that’s a big plus. AND, the ability for the common man to get his book up on Amazon or Smashwords without a press or agent, that’s probably made a lot of dreams come true. BUT, I do think that a lot of very average novels are getting published, either by self-publishing, or eBook only presses, or other places. It’s tricky. I actually tend to make more on an eBook sale then I do on a paperback sale. Some presses are paying 50-80% of the eBook sales price. So if you price it right (and that’s the tricky part, yeah?) you could net anywhere from .50-$4 or MORE per title. Most traditional presses pay anywhere from 10-25% of the net price of a paperback.
I’m still a bit old fashioned. I like my books to be in print, to touch them, hold them, to look at the covers and spines, as they sit in my library. I collect books, including foreign editions of titles, and you just can’t do that on an eReader. The Japanese covers for Stephen King, for example, are just amazing. It’s a very tactile experience, and one I hope we never lose entirely. When the iPod first came out I didn’t get that either, until I realized I could take my entire music library with me wherever I went, and it was in a very small device.
I don’t want the publishing industry to lose the intimacy of print books. I love walking into a library, or a big bookstore, or especially, a cool used bookstore. I love hanging out at Myopic Books and Quimby’s in Wicker Park, a hip area just west of downtown Chicago. You can’t eliminate that experience. Or, I guess, you CAN eliminate it, but that would be a shame.
There is something cold about the whole eBook thing. But it does seem to be getting books in the hands of people, even if it takes .99 prices or even a FREE title.
For example, my first book, Transubstantiate. It’s a neo-noir, speculative thriller. Kind of Lost meets The Truman Show with a dash of The Prisoner. This was my first book, and I sold it to a new, small press and they didn’t quite do everything they said they would. Sales were not what I wanted them to be. But we just did a giveaway last weekend, and I was SHOCKED to see that 1,700 people downloaded the title when we gave it away the eBook for FREE. Will anyone read it? I don’t know, but that’s still exciting, great word of mouth. It also translated into 60+ eBook sales over the following few days. No idea on print yet, but that’s probably better than any previous quarter I’ve had, as far as eBook sales on this title.
So, I have this strange love/hate relationship with the eBook. It seems like a necessity, like being on Twitter and Facebook, and I think it will certainly be a large percentage of sales in the future. I just hope it remains one part of the equation, the experience, and not the whole enchilada.
Man, now I’m hungry.
Is there a particular event that has changed you and influenced your writing?
Great question. I think a couple things really changed the way I thought about writing, the way that I wrote, and my place in the world of literature.
First, I read Chuck Palahniuk. He really made me feel like there was new work going on in the world. I saw the movie Fight Club, which lead me to his body of work. I started with Survivor and Choke and was hooked. I plowed through everything he wrote, and was blown away by his unique perspective. I haven’t been a huge fan of his stuff since Rant, though. I did like Snuff, but I miss the work that is more like his earlier writing. He lead me to a bunch of other transgressive authors, like Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger and Stephen Graham Jones.
The second thing was probably reading those three authors. Call it neo-noir, or transgressive, but it was the literary equivalent of watching the films of David Lynch, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. I was blown away. Reading the Baer trilogy really helped me to develop my own voice. My next book, Disintegration, is the closest I’ve gotten to the world of Baer, and also, that of Clevenger and SGJ.
The third was taking a class at The Cult with Clevenger. I was a big fan of his work, and decided that if he read my work and told me that I didn’t suck, maybe I’d start writing again. I’m 44 but have only been writing seriously for about four years. I took a long break when I fell into the world of advertising as a graphic designer and art director. Studying with Craig, I felt like maybe I had some talent. And when I started pushing in that direction, towards writing, good things started to happen. One of the stories I wrote under Craig’s tutelage was “Stillness,” which he pushed me to send out. It got rejected a few times, maybe ten or more, but was eventually taken by the people at Cemetery Dance (Brian Freeman and Richard Chizmar) for Shivers VI. It wasn’t until the book came out that I realized that Stephen King and Peter Straub were in it—two of my literary heroes. I was blown away. I felt like I had broken through, a little bit. And I started to take my work seriously after that. A novel, a few contest wins, fifty stories published and four Pushcart nominations last year, and writing has taken over my life. In a good way. It’s exciting and fulfilling unlike anything I’ve ever done.
Tell us about your next novel.
The one I’m shopping right now is called Disintegration. It’s a neo-noir, transgressive thriller. It’s a tragedy for sure, probably one of the darkest things I’ve written, but it isn’t without hope or love. Hell, Romeo and Juliet was a double suicide, right? It’s a combination of Dexter and Falling Down. A man loses everything, sees his family die in a car accident right in front of him, and starts to fall apart. He is off the grid, lost, and he starts doing odd jobs for this guy named Vlad. That escalates into him killing people, the worst of society (pedophiles, rapists, drug dealers) but over time he starts to question everything, what he’s really doing. Is it noble work, righting the wrongs that random violence inflicts on the world? Or is there more going on.
I’ve got a sample chapter up at my blog, if you want to take a look. I’ve got one offer on it, and some interest from some agents—I’m waiting to hear back from a few other presses as well. It’s my baby, though, and I’m a little protective about it. It’ll take the right person to produce it, to get behind it, and maybe I’ve found that person, that press, maybe not. We’ll see. I’m reminded of the bleak feeling I had at the end of Requiem for a Dream, or even the shock and pain of the Seven. It’s a wild ride, and I think entertaining on many levels—pure page turning excitement, psychological drama, and surreal, layered settings. I set this in my old neighborhood here in Chicago, Wicker Park, so there are a lot of landmarks and places that feel really rich and alive and tense—to me, anyway. I’m excited to get it out there, to see what people think.
Do you think when people lose the points of reference that give them an identity it is easy for them slip over into crime and if so what does that tell us about our perceived notions of crime?
Definitely. When there is no history to attach to your actions, nobody to answer to, people are more likely to act on primal urges—sexual, violent, and otherwise. I think that’s why I was so fascinated in the character study that was my novel, Disintegration. The protagonist, he has no name. I mean, he HAS a name, but we don’t hear it, nobody ever says it. That’s just one more way that he detaches from society, from the rules and obligations that normal people have to live by every day.
I guess that’s why I always try to look past people that are mean, and rude and generally selfish, in the real world. I say to myself, “They must have something going on.” But then again, there is a raw, savage side to myself that I always keep tucked away, just a nugget of coal in the center of my being, just in case I need it. I think that’s why I like the vigilante aspects of Disintegration, and some of my other work, such as “Victimized” about a woman that was molested as a child and has turned into a predator, but somebody that we like to root for because it’s hard to see her as anything other than a victim. Same thing with Dexter, I think. We understand what he’s doing, and even if it would disgust us in the real world, we root for him to kill these horrible people. He, much like my unnamed man in Disintegration, is almost noble in his violence.
The psychology behind violence, behind sex (healthy and otherwise) is something that’s also fascinating to me. There is a bit of bondage and S/M in Disintegration as well. The idea of a dominatrix liking to be in control, at her job, and on stage, but in private she’s screaming out “Punch me in the face when I come.” Is that her surrendering, or her still calling the shots?
We can’t help what gets us off, and sometimes the “taboo” is what pushes you over. Do you surrender and trust, do you allow that knife to slide down your back, your inner thigh? Who is in control, and how do you merge into one pulsing, liquid explosion? I mean, what motivates us? You could say money, or fulfillment, but most people want to share that success with somebody, with lots of people, with someone special, with peers, and with friends. In the dark, we all just want to feel needed, and feel that we have something unique to offer. Maybe that’s a steady job, wearing a suit and tie, dinner at nice restaurants, driving an expensive car. Maybe it’s tattoos and bourbon, playing pool and getting rough in an alley, teeth and bruises and something right on the edge of chaos.
I don’t know. It all seems connected, and what I like most is putting my characters, these people, in tough situations, to see how (or if) they get out of it. What are they made of? That’s much more interesting to me, those transgressions, the suffering, the fight to survive.
Do you think there is no such thing as a straight sadist, rather people addicted to sado-masochism who change positions of domination and submission depending on situation and role?
Well I have to admit that I haven’t gotten THAT question before. I guess I’d say that overall I think we are who we are. For the most part, I think we never change. Obviously we grow up, are in certain environments, and suffer or thrive, evolving into adulthood. But at some point, I think we just aren’t fluid. So, if you are a selfish person, you’ll most likely always be that way. If you have an addictive personality, it will always manifest in one way or another. I think that even the most dominant of personalities has moments of weakness and needs, in order to be human. And the most submissive has ways of rebelling.
As far as sexuality, that seems to be a more elastic trait. Lots of women experiment with other women in college and never do it again after. But then again, there are definitely some fetishists that need that one freaky thing to get off—feet, or pain, or domination, or submission, or something very specific. I also imagine that there are exceptions to every rule, so there are probably people that are complete sadists as well. Not sure how long they survive, but they probably do exist. Some people are so fractured and damaged that they’ll never be whole again, so their lives are not complete, but way off balance, running from one mania to another, or one depression to another. I’d like to say that I’ve seen things that shocked me, and I have, but then again, we all hurt, we all need, we all dream, in one way or another.
The term reality is often used often without meaning. Do you think reality is discontinuous and the universe we inhabit increasingly coded due to technology and excess information?
Huh. Reality, that’s a tricky one. I’ve seen enough strange things in my life to question our reality, I can say that much. I’ve left my body, had time rewind, felt that I was in the presence of a higher power, all kinds of moments that altered how I see time, and life, and eternity. I think in many ways our realities are customized to our histories and our needs. There are times when I’m writing, and I fall into the zone, become a body without organs, and time becomes elastic. I also think that technology does effect how our lives unfold. When I was a child I’d run around my neighborhood, be gone all day, and my mother would ring a large iron bell that was mounted on a pole and I’d come charging down the hill for dinner. We didn’t have play dates I’d just go over to Matt’s house or wander over to whoever had a trampoline or a pool. These days it’s very organized, planned out, everyone is a potential pedophile, and the internet and gaming often replaces true human interaction. I don’t know if we’re evolving or if we’ve become stagnant, or are regressing. I’d like to think that things are getting better, but I’m not sure what that word means. My reality is a ever shrinking circle within which I place those people that I love. And at the same time, a thin layer of myself is being stretched out over the world as I try to expand my global empire of words and images and emotions. I’ve been moved by the work of Philip K. Dick, and films like Blade Runner and The Matrix, that question reality. But some days I think a little cottage in the middle of a grassy field on an island in the middle of the ocean, might be the way to go. I waver back and forth.
What do you make of Deleuze and Guattari’s observation in Anti-Oedipus that ‘It is not the neurotic stretched out on the couch who speaks to us of love, of its force and its despair, but the mute stroll of the schizo. Lenz’s outing in the mountains and under the stars, the immobile voyage in intensities on the body without organs’?
Well, you may have shot this one over my head.
Aren’t we all a bit schizophrenic? We all inhabit a multitude of personalities—how you talk and treat your mother is possibly quite different than the way you treat your co-worker, or the girl you picked up in a bar late last night. We wear many masks. And in order to write, I think you have to not only tap into every personality that you’ve ever held, but also, that of every experience, history, interaction and intensity that has effected you—both real, and virtual. They say that film and television, the dreams we have, they impact us the same as if we had actually done these things. At least, I think I said that right.
In order for me to write, the best work I do is when I lose myself (the real physical, tired, aching, need to piss, hungry body) in order to find something else in my words and on the page. I need to be there, in that alley, smelling the garbage, feeling the heat that pushes off of the bricks, the humidity causing a thin sheen of grimy sweat to coat my skin. You lose yourself for a minute, for an hour.
But, psychoanalysis will also tell you that every character, every emotion, every moment we write, well, it’s all about ourselves anyway. We live out our desires, our fantasies, we seek revenge, we fulfill a need, all in the safe environment of the page (or screen). I think that’s why sometimes when I look back on a story I’ve written I say to myself, “I wrote that? I don’t remember that at all.” Because I wasn’t really there, not Richard, not the guy with brown hair and brown eyes sitting at a desk. No, I lost myself in order to find a moment in time, an epiphany, a truth.
Do you think readers enjoy seeing a character unmasked?
Definitely. And yet, isn’t that the thrill of mystery? Were you upset when you got to the ending of The Wizard of Oz? Kind of. But, I also liked that it brought it back down to earth. We want to see our heroes succeed (and sometimes struggle and fail too). We want to see the worst villains punished, in the most brutal manner. The mask, the anonymity that all plays into it. Super heroes all had secret identities, but then again, we knew who Batman really was, right? I think some things are better left unknown, it allows us to retain hope, to project our own hopes and fears onto the people, places and moments in front of us. I’m trying to think of the most fulfilling novels and films (even television series or shows as well). Do we want it wrapped up in a bow? Whether it was Lost or The Sopranos, how did those endings (open ended, right?) feel? And more importantly, will those feeling last? There almost has to be some room for time, for interpretation, for something else to squeeze in there.
I ended Transubstantiate with a bit of a showdown, and it felt right. But, I did leave it open so that the story could continue. Disintegration, that ending was very unexpected, and it didn’t wrap up anything, and it wandered out into the darkness, still unfurling across the page. But I do like stories and novels that end with everything coming full circle. Memento is one of my favorite films, and it comes back around to the beginning, even if the whole thing is told backwards.
I think we want the ride, we want all of it. Unmasking a character, revealing who they really are, I think that’s just part of the journey. I love that investigation, putting people in tough situations to see how they do. It’s a character study, but it’s also life. And I have to say that I’m often surprised.
There is a rape scene in Disintegration. And I really wasn’t looking forward to writing it, because rape is just a brutal thing, right? But I had to plumb those depths with my unnamed protagonist, and we found his bottom at the same time. It wasn’t easy, and I wasn’t sure how far anything was going to go, but it had to be written. Or at least, the scene had to be played out. Discovery, right? He found out about his depths, and I found out, as the man behind the screen, how far I was willing to take it. And that’s always exciting.
Where do you see yourself in five years, as a writer?
I have a lot of goals, some probably pretty lofty and unattainable, and others that are closer, and within reach.
I’m just finishing up my MFA, have already defended my thesis, and just need to finish my last lit class. So, I’d like to teach for sure.
I really want to place my second novel with the right press, and have a lot of success with it. I mean, I don’t need to sell a million copies, but I’d definitely like to move a few thousand, get some positive responses from my friends, peers and a wide range of publications. If that means I have to land an agent, then I hope that happens. If it means I can do it with small, cool, independent presses, then that’s fine too.
I’m always shopping my short stories, so I just want to keep pushing forward with that, and break through to some of the places that have been elusive—everywhere from Barrelhouse, Monkeybicycle, Hobart and Juked to Needle, Shock Totem, Shroud and GUD to The Missouri Review, Black Warrior Review and The Indiana Review.
And I’ve done some editing in the past, for Colored Chalk and Sideshow Fables, both defunct now.
So in five years I hope to be in a place where I’m publishing my novels and short stories, while teaching creative writing, and editing some sort of publication. That would be ideal.
Thank you Richard for a perceptive and great interview.