Q & A with Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas: the man’s a machine! Look in Wikipedia at the name Richard Thomas and apart from some references to the Waltons, a priest, a musician and a politician (yes, I did look), you may well find that this name means “I don’t know when to stop”. I mean, seriously, he has a string of short stories, interviews, articles and what-not against his name, and as if to underline his penchant for productivity, he even made sure that his two kids were born at the same time!

So, who is that man? Well, he’s a fellow writer – another novelist I had the privilege to get to know over at Write Club. He too has managed to wedge his foot in the door that leads to book sales; his book Transubstantiate published by Otherworld Publications has recently been released.

And why I have I drawn your attention to him? Simple – we can learn a thing or two from this writer and I thought it would be a good idea to pick his brains a bit. Anyway, enough with the procrastination, here’s what he had to say.

SWB: You have at least 6 characters taking the stage in Transubstantiate, each with a unique voice. Can you tell me a little bit about that? How do you keep each of them distinct and consistent?

RT: It wasn’t easy. These narratives, as you know, developed out of the first exercise I had at The Cult workshop I did with Max Barry. So, those four came out of the idea that I’d write four openings to four different novels – fantasy, horror, noir, and literary. I think right from the beginning, that helped to create the voices, mood and setting for each of those. The passages ended up being Jacob (Chapter 1), X (Chapter Two), X (Chapter 5), and Gordon (Chapter 3). Once I had those four, and Marcy developed out of the X Chapter 5, I added in Marcy’s son, Roland, and then Assigned, the ghost in the machine, and then Jimmy. In the beginning, Jimmy is the only one on the mainland, so his POV, his setting was different for a long time. Part of what kept them consistent, was going back and re-reading the previous chapter to remind myself of the voice. I kept picturing each of them, and in my head I could see the actors I’d picked for each of them: Jacob (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Marcy (Ali Larter), Jimmy (Viggo Mortensen), X (Rodrigo Santoro), Gordon (Daniel Craig), Assigned

(HAL 9000), and Roland (Shia LeBouf). Also, they are based on the seven deadly sins, so that helped to keep them separate and distinct as well.

SWB: Were there any parts of the story that you had to edit out that you were really attached to?

RT: Actually, nothing that I can think of. I debated on some of the more fantastical stuff, with Bast, the white snow beast, and Raymond the chipmunk. In the end, no, I kept it all. Hard to believe

SWB: I’m an obsessive plot outliner myself, but how do you build your stories? Do you let the characters drive everything or do you keep them on a tight leash? Or do you have a secret recipe?

RT:  I do not plot. And for this book, I find it kind of hard to believe that I kept it together (or maybe I didn’t).But I did a lot of re-reading, reminding myself where I left off. So I always knew where every character was (in the story, emotionally, geographically, and in time). I use the whole “headlights of the car” metaphor, and only see as far ahead into the darkness as those lights will allow me. I find it much more exciting when I don’t know what is going to come next, and I simply start with a character and a certain history, experiences, baggage, and have them act as they should. For example, in Transubstantiate, I’d expect Gordon, the assassin, to react differently (often with violence) than, for example, Jacob, who is a bit of a wimp, a reluctant hero. And then I play against type, having the killer find soft, gentle moments, and have the weakling struggle to find that inner and outer strength.

SWB:  Which part of Transubstantiate did you enjoy writing the most and why?

RT:  Wow, great question. I don’t think I’ve been asked that before. I really enjoyed writing all of this book, because each character is different. I got to be a killer, a woman, a boy again, a machine, they were all a lot of fun. I think Assigned was at times the most difficult, but some of those scenes were really rewarding. Actually, now that I think about it, the end. I loved the ending, my fingers could hardly keep up with my head, the voices spilling out of me. I didn’t know where it was going, who would live and who would die, and it was intense. When things fell in place, I knew it was right, the way Gordon acted, his thoughts and decisions, and the final words, in the epilogue, that really was the exclamation point. It all felt right, felt done. It was a great feeling, my first novel, first successful novel, I think.

SWB:  Tell us about the days where you felt demotivated (every writer has that at some point right?) How did you keep the words flowing?

RT:  That’s tough. There certainly were times like that. For me, I really fell in love with my characters. You get a bit of a God complex creating these worlds, these people. They’re all just thinly veiled depictions of ourselves, right? Our family, old lovers, people we hate, jerks, assholes, women that have screwed us over. It’s all in there. We get to exact revenge, we get to right wrongs, and we get to live in the heads of these people for years, as we create them. I was sad when this book ended, because I was, in many ways, ending that relationship there. That’s why, I think, there could really be a part two, the way I left it open. I kept a regular schedule, every day on my lunch hour I would write behind a closed office door, Monday was Jacob, Tuesday was Marcy, etc. So by limiting my involvement, only 30-40 minutes, by the time each day rolled around, I was really eager to put down my thoughts, to continue the story, and see what happened next. Because I felt that whole “body without organs” experience, being in “the zone” so often with Transubstantiate, I felt like I was having success, it was working. I think most of us KNOW when we’re writing crap, and when we’re writing something special. It can be one line, a scene, an idea, but we know when it feels right, and since this was the first novel I wrote that felt that way, I was always excited to get back to it.

SWB:  For budding writers just starting on the road, what’s your strongest advice?

RT:  Read. All the time. Read in your genre, especially. Read the masters in every other genre – the best from horror, SF, fantasy, literary, mystery, short stories, you name it. They all have something to give you, something you can learn about. It will seep into your pores and in time, you will recognize when a sentence, a scene, a chapter is working, because you’ve been reading great fiction. And beyond that – see great films, listen to music, and live your life – have lots of sex, go see plays, get out there and play tennis, do whatever you need to do to feel alive. As for craft, start short, and find your voice. I know what my voice is now, but I didn’t four years ago. People know what to expect when they see “Richard Thomas Fiction” now. It will be dark (neo-noir) and it will be heavy on setting and emotion, it will probably be tactile and sexual, on the body, in the moment, and it will deal with broken, fractured people in situations that require the true self to be revealed. I can’t write like King or Franzen or Bradbury or Pynchon. I can only write like me. And I’m okay with that. And you should be too. Find yourself, 500 words, then 1,000 words, then 3,000 words, and then in time, when you are ready, go for the big book, the novel, 50-80,000 words. It’s a beast, but if it’s in you, let it out.

SWB:  How do you feel about critiquing? Getting good objective feedback is essential for whatever you’re writing and to help you develop as a writer, but do you look for any specific type of feedback?

RT:  It’s hard. If you can find maybe a half dozen people that you trust, whose work you really enjoy, then count yourself lucky, and work with them. I have that, in Write Club. You are one of those people, as are a lot of other people, especially the people that I’ve known the longest, those closest to my own genre as well – Caleb Ross, Nik Korpon, Christopher Dwyer, Axel Taiari, Mlaz Corbier. They know what I do well,and they don’t let me off the hook, none of you do. I’ve been lucky this year as well, to get to know MIchael Gonzalez, Pela Via, and David Bodensteiner better as well, and they’ve all had a big hand in shaping my next book, Disintegration. You have to be honest with people, give it hard and don’t flinch, while finding the gold as well. It is not easy. But it’s exciting. Seeing books that I worked on with people like Nik, with Stay God, finally come out, it’s rewarding. I know that it is a fantastic book, and to be able to help shape it, make it better, it’s very cool. I like feedback that tells me what is working, and also, where it falls short. I like to know when the emotions are working, when people are sucked into the moment, and how I can make it better. And in the end, I fight to keep my voice strong, my vision intact, while applying whatever advice I can.

SWB:  Getting a novel published goes way beyond just writing the novel, can you tell us a bit about what you had to do to breakthrough? Was there anything that surprised you about the whole process?

RT:  It’s a mixture of confidence in the face of constant defeat and luck. You have to believe in your novel (in any of your work, really) or why bother. I had to build up to Transubstantiate, and by writing short stories, and then getting them published over time, getting really great feedback and encouragement from people like Craig Clevenger, Monica Drake, and Max Barry, in those intensives, and then sending my work out into the world, and having success, that all adds up. Over 20 stories published online and in print in four years, including my story “Stillness” getting into Shivers VI with Stephen King and Peter Straub. That gave me hope, and confidence, that I knew what I was doing, and that people liked my work, total strangers. Winning that contest at ChiZine, that blew my head off, I really thought “Wow, maybe I can write.” We go through these mood swings, one day we believe that our work is really strong, the next, that we’re hacks. I was actually surprised at the extremes of the publishing world. Some people, presses, agents would blow you off, not a THANK YOU or a SORRY, WE PASS, just nothing. Others, extremely generous and supportive, even big name authors and agents and presses. It’s encouraging. What surprises me is the constant state of flux, the sense that the world, the literary landscape, is expanding and contracting around me, daily. It’s so huge and yet at times, so small. It’s intimidating, and then, nurturing. It’s a great time to be a writer.

SWB:  Every writer wants to capture a reader’s attention, what techniques did you use in your writing to achieve that goal?

RT:  I’m a big believer in the narrative hook. This is something I knew about, but was really hammered home at my MFA program at Murray State University with the Pulitzer nominated Dale Ray Phillips. That first sentence is so important. Also, I like to live in the moment, and have the reader be there IN the story, not in the head of a character looking back in time, revisiting memories. I want it to be tactile, visceral, with all five of the senses. I’m a big fan of setting, and it is really important to me to ground the story, the scenes, in reality, before it goes anyplace else. I like to slowly reveal the story, the plot, as well, so that the reader is constantly pushing forward, action happening on every page from a violent crime to a quiet moment over a cup of tea to time travel and sex. Things happen, character is revealed, and you want to keep reading. Hopefully.

SWB:  We’re learning all the time. Are there any aspects of your writing that you want to develop? Styles or challenges you want to explore further?

RT:  Yes. I’m constantly looking at the slipstream writers, those genre-benders, lit-genre writers. I want to keep the language and thought elevated, while keeping the experience and sensations grounded. Luckily, there are a lot of authors out there who stand up for genre fiction, and keep pushing the edges of it all – Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Tina May Hall, Holly Goddard Jones, Kyle Minor, so many voices. They can write with aspects of horror or fantasy in a contemporary, educated way, so that we can react on many levels to what they are doing. So, I hope that with my next book, Disintegration, that I’ve evolved and grown. I think it’s my best work to date. Also, I’m hoping to get into some sort of steampunk writing. I love the idea of taking a story so far into the future that technology fails, and society has to revert to basic means of survival – wheels, steam, fire, wind. I like what Stephen King did in The Dark Tower series. I like the surreal and magical realism and contemporary dark fiction that is being put out there. I want to be a part of that movement, and encourage others to do that too. And, I’m looking into graphic fiction, like my story “Victimized” in Murky Depths (UK) in January of 2011. It’s a great way to tell a story, and there is a whole audience out there that I haven’t gotten to yet. I always see my work as visual, even in motion, so I think it will transfer well to a graphic format.

So that’s that.

I hope you enjoyed it.

You can visit Richard’s website here, or buy his novel Transubstantiate here.

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