Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Chapter One

For the past six weeks I have been interviewing a variety of flavoursome writers for my Literary Smorgasbord. The Smorgasbord began as a vague idea one Friday evening. By the following Thursday the first interview had been posted and it has rolled from there.

The only thing I decided on from the start was that I wanted to feature a really great mix of writers. So far, I’d say that’s a mission accomplished.  But before moving on to the next set of interviews, I thought I’d have a bit of fun looking back at what has become Chapter One of the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My first guest was poet, Stephen Keeler. I met Stephen when I attended one of his classes here in Ullapool – The Thrill of the Thriller. I don’t think we ever really got to the nub of what that class was about but it was a lot of fun. In his interview, I asked Stephen at what moment he had first defined himself as a writer.

One sunny school day in 1958, in Mrs Butterwick’s class when she asked us all to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote, “I want to be a writer.” and could think of nothing else to write.

The ritual humiliation of the young Stephen Keeler by Mrs Butterwick duly followed.

You know that saying about school being the happiest days of your life? I think whoever said it couldn’t have gone to school.  Either that, or they went on to have one truly miserable life.

Stephen introduced me to the local writing group, which was where I met YA author, Cyan Brodie. Cyan, or Phil as I know him, has become a good friend over the years and can always be relied on when I need an honest crit.

I also met Alison Napier through the writing group. We only met a couple of times before she moved to Perth but our friendship has blossomed through the medium of Facebook. Alison’s interview had me howling with laughter, though I had to decline when she offered a photograph of a fish supper as her portrait.

Alison owned up to a chaotic approach to her writing. At the other end of the scale, with a much more measured and defined way of working is Drew Hipson. As Drew works within a framework of deadlines and publishing dates for his magazine, All Mod Icon, that’s hardly surprising, but I would hazard a guess that when he is working on his memoir, Le Depart, he does so in the same disciplined way.

I take a similarly disciplined approach, mainly because it’s the only way I can be sure of writing anything. As it turned out, Drew and I have a few other things in common, including a love of great graphic design, Charles Bukowski’s writing, and the music of The Jam.

All Mod Cons by The Jam.

All Mod Cons by The Jam.

You know how it is when you really get something? When you know it, understand it, feel it? It was like that for me from the moment I first listened to The Jam’s third album, All Mod Cons. The profound anger at the heart of the lyrics resonated with me. There was plenty to be angry about back in 1978. Problem is, while a few things have changed for the better, there is still a lot to be angry about in 2015. All Mod Cons plays as fresh today as it did then, and it resonates still.

Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot for The Maltese Falcon.

Humphrey Bogart in a publicity shot for The Maltese Falcon.

I was a fan of film noir long before I even knew there was a name for the kind of movies I liked.  The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Ace In The Hole – I couldn’t get enough of them.  Everything about them, from the moral ambiguity, existential struggle, and cynicism, to the cracking dialogue and often stylised delivery, sang to me, and of course I eventually graduated onto noir books.  It was no surprise then that when I came across the term neo-noir, I immediately wanted to know more.

Neo-noir author, Richard Thomas, does a great job of explaining what it’s all about in his Smorgasbord interview, but for a real taste of it I recommend reading his book, Disintegration. It blew me away.

If ever a person blew me away, it was Orla Broderick. The woman is a force of nature. The kind you meet and then think, what just happened? Earlier this year, an impassioned call for action from Orla resulted in previously empty bookshelves in Women’s Aid shelters across the country groaning under the weight of books sent in by authors and publishers. Way to go, Orla. She also has a good line in nun stories.

In 2014, Orla won a Scottish Book Trust New Writer Award. When she performed onstage for the Award Showcase in January, the recipients of the 2015 Awards were in the audience. Stephen Keeler was one of those recipients. And so it comes full circle.

I can’t wait for Chapter Two of the Literary Smorgasbord, which is going to kick off with a very different flavour of writer – a stand-up comedian.

Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord: Richard Thomas

If you have ever been anywhere near a writing group or book festival of any kind, you will know that writers come in all shapes and sizes, from big, robust circles, to tiny, stabby stars. They come in different flavours too, from cool, classic vanilla, to eyeball-exploding, triple-hot chilli sauce. Some of the nicest people around are writers, but some of them truly are mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Thrillers With Attitude has undertaken to meet up with a few of these weirdly-shaped and strangely flavoured writers, some well-established, others emerging, so that you, dear reader, can find out more about them without endangering body or soul.

Welcome then, to the Thrillers With Attitude Literary Smorgasbord.

My guest this week is author, Richard Thomas.

Hi Richard, thank you for agreeing to take part in the Literary Smorgasbord. Please tell us a little bit about yourself – what were you like at school?

I was always an outgoing kid, involved in sports, an avid reader and writer since grade school. Later, in high school and college I tended to be the guy that crossed over, hanging out with jocks, artists, intellectuals, etc. I’d like to think I’m a bit of a Renaissance man. Or as some may say, “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Tell us about the evolution of Richard Thomas, the author.

Been seven years of writing, taking classes online, getting my MFA, and reading all the time. I’m constantly filling up the creative well, so I never feel empty, and that means music, television, film, art as well as books. Early on I didn’t have much faith in my work but when I took a class with Craig Clevenger, he encouraged me to send out a story I wrote for that class, Stillness, which ended up in Shivers VI alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub. That gave me the boost of confidence I needed. Every time a new story gets accepted, I have a little bit of proof that I’m succeeding, evolving, doing well, retaining my voice. It took a lot for my novel, Disintegration to get out—three years of writing, editing and workshopping, a year of small press rejections (40+), a year to find an agent (100 passed) and then another year hitting the big six, getting really close, finally landing at Random House Alibi, where they’ve been just great. It’s a tough business, but it’s very fulfilling.

When did you first describe yourself as a writer?

Interesting question. The first couple of years I was publishing I didn’t call myself a writer. I think maybe about year three or four, with a few dozen stories out there, my MFA completed in 2012, and when my first novel dropped, I probably felt okay saying it then.

Your latest book, Disintegration, is described as neo-noir.   I’m a big fan of noir, but this was the first time I’d heard the term neo-noir – it sounds exciting.   Can you explain what the term means and how you came to be writing in this style.

It just means new-black, but to me that’s the sweet spot between classic noir and classic horror, the key being the word “new” meaning you have to do something different—a new monster, a new format, new language, something to separate what you’re doing from what’s been done the past 100 years. It takes the mood and tone of noir and adds in the terror of horror, as well as the tension of crime and mystery, but it can also include the world-building of fantasy, and the technology of science fiction, the regional lore of Southern gothic, etc. The first anthology I edited, The New Black, is a great example of that range of neo-noir, and Laird Barron writes a fantastic foreword that explains the history really well.

Disintegration took six years to write.   That’s a long time to be living with a book inside you, Richard.   I’ve got a few questions about that – why did it take so long; were you working on anything else at the same time; and finally, do all of your books have such a lengthy gestation period?

It was mostly the process of getting it published. I wrote the first half over my first semester at Murray State University with Lynn Pruett. Then when I switched to Dale Ray Phillips (you have to have at least two professors there) he asked the class first day if they’d continue to read my novel based on the first page. Nobody said they would, including him. He said it wasn’t, “thesis material,” which just means not good enough. I put it aside for a year and a half to write literary short stories under his guidance (the guy was nominated for a Pulitzer) and it was well worth the time. Then it was submitting to small presses, then to agents, then to the big six. We got really close a number of times, including losing a board vote by one vote. I did write other short stories during that time, it helped me to not go insane. I’ve got over 100 published to date, and I know I wrote a lot during that time of waiting, and failing, and submitting, and hoping. I wrote the second book in the Windy City Dark Mystery Series this past December, in about 25 days, so no, it doesn’t usually take me six years.

Are you inspired by any writers in particular?

Oh God, so many. Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones really inspired this book, Disintegration, the style and voice. Stephen King is the author I’ve read the most, over 50 books, he’s a great storyteller. Chuck Palahniuk woke me up, showed me what you could do. And then in my MFA program I read authors like Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Cormac McCarthy, William Gay, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, and Toni Morrison—they all influenced me. Really, every author I’ve published in The New Black, Burnt Tongues, Exigencies, and The Lineuup—they all inspire me.

What are you working on right now?

Editing The Breaker, the second book in the Windy City Dark Mystery Series, for Random House Alibi.

What is it about?

This series is a little different. First book is set in Wicker Park, a neighborhood here in Chicago, the second in Logan Square. Each book has a different protagonist, but the same mood and tone, all set in Chicago. It’s more like Stephen King and small town Maine novels than a traditional mystery series.

How much research do you do?

Depends. If it’s a subject I don’t know much about, such as guns, or insects, or Chicago gangs, or local flora and fauna, I do a good deal of research. I also try to use as much of my own experience as possible. Living in Wicker Park for ten years, I can add a lot of detail.

What are your thoughts on reviews – good and bad?

I love it when a book resonates with a reader, that makes my day. I try not to dwell on negative reviews, but I do read them, and if it’s something I can improve upon, I work on it, for sure.

What’s been your best writing moment so far.

Wow, that’s hard to say. Getting my MFA was pretty cool, any time I publish alongside Stephen King, it’s very exciting (done that four times now, in Shivers VI, Qualia Nous, Cemetery Dance #72, and Chiral Mad 3). When readers reach out to tell me how much fun they had reading a story or book, when it inspires them to stick with it, or work harder, or keep submitting.

What are your ambitions, writing wise?

I want to be a full-time writer, and I’m not quite there yet. I think if I can sell film rights, and several studios are reading Disintegration right now, that the kind of money I COULD GET from that would really set me up to just write. For now, I write stories, novels, teach, write a column at LitReactor (Storyville), and travel to workshops, conferences, etc. I’m getting close, but it’s still a long way from a hobby to a full-time job. If you make $20,000 a year with a writing hobby, that’s pretty good money. If you make $20,000 a year as a full-time writer—not so much.

What is your writing routine?

It varies. I don’t write every day. Mostly spurts, anywhere from 60,000 words in 25 days to 40,000 words in a week, to 6-12,000 words a day. But typically I write a story in a day or so, about 3-4,000 words, and then I spend some time editing.

How do you measure progress – pages, words, lines, time…?

When it’s done. Nothing else really matters. I wrote a 6,000-word story the other day, and it was a great day, figured out the story and theme, got a nice hook and twist in there, and the prose came together nicely. That was a success, I think.

What is the Richard Thomas writing method?

I usually start with an idea, a philosophy, an emotion, or a fear. I don’t plot. So I sit with that idea, and then I think of what I’ve done before, what haven’t I done, where I could set it, who my protagonist(s) is/are, and then I start with the most compelling scene. I pay attention to my narrative hook, and then I just work on the conflict, increasing tension, which hopefully leads to a satisfying resolution. Setting is important to me, all five senses, so I try to write dense stories that are also entertaining, easy to get through.

What inspires you to write?

I love telling stories, transporting people to another place and time, and making them go through whatever my protagonist goes through, so hopefully they FEEL something powerful.

Any advice for aspiring authors?

Read widely, and in your genre especially. Read the masters and then new voices, too. Write short stories, and in a wide range of genres, as you try to find your voice. When you send out your work, send it to a lot of places (assuming they are the right markets, applicable) not just 1-2 magazines, and don’t give up easily, stick with it. My story in Cemetery Dance got rejected 40 times before they took it. I had a story land at storySouth (3% acceptance rate) that had been rejected 100 times.

What are you reading right now?

I just read Gutshot by Amelia Gray, Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer, and Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer—all three excellent books.

Is there any one book you would like to have written?

There are two I give away more than any other—All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones, and Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer. Those two, I think.

If there was one person, either contemporary or historical, real or fictional, you could spend a day with, who would you choose and why?   

Baer is such a recluse, I really wish I got to know him when he was teaching, online a lot. So I say Baer.

A few quick questions.  Favourite book?

It changes day to day, but for now, I say Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

Author…

I think it has to be Stephen King.

Drink…

These days just a good cup of coffee, I think.

Food…

I could eat Thai or Chinese every day.

Film…

That’s so hard, but what I usually say is Blade Runner.

Television programme…

Just finished Breaking Bad a few weeks ago, so I’ll say that.

Radio programme…

Man, I hardly listen to the radio.

Music…

Usually comes down to The Cure or The Smiths. I’m old school.

It’s been a real pleasure meeting you on the Literary Smorgasbord, Richard.

Richard_138_B&W

Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the author of Disintegration. Find out more about him at whatdoesnotkillme.com

You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

LG Thomson is the author of Boyle’s Law, Each New Morn, and Erosion.