Interview With Author Richard Thomas

BIO: Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of three novels, three short story collections, 150+ stories in print, and the editor of four anthologies. Visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.

Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!

My name is Richard Thomas, and I’ve been writing about 11 years—mostly speculative fiction: fantasy, science fiction, and horror but also thrillers, magical realism, transgressive, etc. I’ve penned three novels—Transubstantiate, Disintegration, and Breaker. I’ve also put out three short story collections—Herniated Roots, Staring into the Abyss, and Tribulations. I edited four anthologies—Burnt Tongues, The New Black, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and Exigences. I ran Dark House Press and Gamut magazine, and have been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards.

What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?

Great question. I often put my own feelings, experiences, and philosophies in my books and stories. For Disintegration, for example, I took a class with horror master Jack Ketchum (RIP) and he said to write your worst fears. For me, that would be seeing my wife and kids killed in front of me—that that was the impetus for that story. For Breaker, I’ve always been curious about serial killers—if they are created by nature or nurture or both. My stories quite often utilize my family, things I’ve seen, places I’ve been. In fact, I just wrote a Storyville column about that very subject.

What inspires/inspired your creativity?

Usually it’s something I’m fascinated about, something that gets me thinking, that has emotion, and heart, as well as danger. For example, my novelette, “Ring of Fire” (which is currently recommended for a Bram Stoker award) I was given the seven deadly sin of lust, and then adding in the horror genre, I wanted to avoid Hellraiser, and anything misogynistic or rapey. I was inspired by movies at A24 like Ex Machina and Under the Skin—what it means to be human, adding in a layer of the #metoo movement, and then seeing where it took me. I knew my protagonist had to be a bad man, but that element was essential for the evolutionary leap that drives the narrative—he was the catalyst for change that I needed. But how to show him in a way that didn’t alienate the reader? Tricky. And then, of course, there is the concept of the 100th monkey.

How do you deal with creative block?

Ha, that’s a good one. I’ve been blocked on this new novel I’m working on—The Thing meets Needful Things with a mix of soul eaters, wendigo, and indigenous myth. The way I’m getting through this block is to keep doing research—reading, going out into the world, film, etc.—until I find my way into the narrative. Same thing for “Ring of Fire,” which I just mentioned. You have to figure out what YOU have to say. What are you an authority on? What can you talk about? I can’t turn this into a military horror story, and I won’t write the Inuit POV, that’s not my place, but I can speak to the cold (Chicago), and fear, and trying to protect the world from evil.

What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?

Not enough meat on the bone—a story that’s too thin, characters without emotion or depth, a story that doesn’t go anywhere. Pacing is also something I see done wrong a lot, by my students and others—slow down, unpack, let us sit IN that emotion for a bit. And then, writing something you have no business writing. Being cliché, expected, using tropes—you need to be original, innovative, and surprise us along the way.

Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?

It’s definitely tricky. I have a Storyville column on that too, and for me it’s hinting as what the story is about without giving it all away. It’s the tip of the spear, thrust into the tip of the iceberg—your story ready to be revealed, but not just yet. I sometimes pull a line from the story, other stories utilize a broad emotion (Disintegration—falling apart, Transubstantiate—to change) to hint at what’s coming. Sometimes I’ve used obscure words (such as “Hiraeth”—a deep, wistful, nostalgic sense of longing for a home; a home that is no longer or perhaps never was) to get people curious. For covers, make sure it’s GOOD art, hire a professional and once again, hint at the atmosphere, setting, mood, tone, and genre without giving it away. I’ve been lucky to work with some very talented artists on my books and collections, as well as at Gamut and Dark House Press—Luke Spooner, George Cotronis, Alban Fischer, Ben Baldwin, Daniele Serra, etc.

How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?

I try not to let it bother me but I do still cling to a line from a reviewer about my novel Disintegration—calling the prose purple. That hurts. But only for a second. I have a style and people love it or hate it. My work is not mainstream, in that I don’t water it down and write safe stories, I take chances, and sometimes that means people don’t get it, or want something more conventional. I can look at the body of my work and see that the majority of reviews are positive. I’m okay with that. The only thing that bugs me are the reviews from people that I know didn’t read the book, and gave it a low rating. Find a different hobby already, LOL.

How has your creation process improved over time?

It’s gotten faster. I know when it’s working and when it isn’t. I’m a feast or famine kind of author. When it’s working, I’m creating and editing all at the same time—narrative hook, inciting incident, internal and external conflicts, tension, setting, dialogue, character, rising to a climax with a resolution, change, and denouement. With 150+ stories published, I know what I need to do, and then just need to do it really well.

What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?

I think the best is hearing from readers all over the world that the loved something I did—especially years later. The worst is when I can’t get the process going, and struggle to create—because I set the bar high, it’s just hard to do something innovative, fresh, and with impact. The most surprising is usually the story itself—sometimes I have no idea where a story is going, or how it got there. The end of my novelette, “Ring of Fire” was this entire hard shift to an epilogue that I did not see coming, but it really worked, I think, that whole section a long denouement.

Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers?

Do you balance the two and how? Good question. Both. I’ve found that if I can satisfy my own desire—to scare, to arouse, to inspire, to move people—then I have a good chance of serving my readers well.

What role do emotions play in creativity?

I think they are crucial, to your creation, as well as the experience of reading a story or novel. If we can’t get our audience to feel anything, then we have failed. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s apathy. In order to hate, you must first feel something, usually love. We need to be able to manipulate our readers, and get them to feel what we want them to feel. The three hardest things to do, as far as emotion, when it comes to writing is to make somebody laugh, to scare them, and to turn them on. It’s all so subjective. What makes one person laugh, another will think is stupid. The end of Blair Witch scares the crap out of me, and I’m not sure why, but for some, it’s dumb. And what turns us on? Don’t get me started. We all have our own kinks, a wide range of emotions and desires.

Do you have any creativity tricks?

It has to be personal. If you can tap into what drives YOU as a human being, then you have a chance to do something special. You must write to stimulate the body, mind, and soul. We want to tap into the physical plane, our emotions, and our insights. You have to put it all on the page—blood, sweat, and tears. If you don’t pull your punches, you have a shot.

What are your plans for future books?

Funny you ask. I’m doing research right now for my next book—some mix of Alaskan, arctic horror, a mixture of The Thing, Needful Things, and The Ritual, with a bit of wendigo, indigenous Inuit people, and soul eaters. I’m watching movies, taking notes, and digging deep as we speak. AC Wise’s story, “Harvest Song, Gathering Song,” is another influence, as well as the work of Brian Hodge, Stephen Graham Jones, Livia Llewellyn, and Brian Evenson.

Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.

LOL, sure. I’m an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts. I taught a horror workshop in Transylvania a few years ago. I saw a man plummet to his death from the St. Louis Arch and have never been the same. I was abducted by aliens as a child, and feel that they are coming back. My friend Martin (RIP) visited me at the foot of my bed after he died—and he was not happy. I was president of my high school choir, and had a major role in Grease. I’ve spoken to God, have seen time rewound and played back, and have left my body. I love to tell stories. Only some of these facts are true.