TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Richard: Thanks for having me.
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Richard: Seriously, about five years ago. I've been in advertising for almost 20 years and it has rarely been satisfying as a creative outlet. I loved reading as a kid, devouring as many books as I could get my hands on. That has always stayed with me. I wrote in high school and college, but really, I was more interested in chasing girls and expanding my mind.
I owe a lot of my career to Chuck Palahniuk. After I saw Fight Club, I realized it was a book, discovering the body of Chuck's work. I immediately read everything, starting with Choke and Survivor, loving them both. He really got me excited about reading again, a fresh voice. I'd always read Stephen King, I think he's a great storyteller. But Chuck got me to some other voices, edgy people like Dennis Lehane, Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, Denis Johnson, Stephen Graham Jones. It got me to these sub-genres, writing that was transgressive, grotesque—neo-noir.
I took a class with Clevenger at The Cult (chuckpalahniuk.net) and he pushed me submit a story, "Stillness." In the end, after about 20 rejections, Cemetery Dance took it for an anthology that would be Shivers VI. And I was lucky enough to publish alongside Stephen King, Peter Straub and many other talented voices. That was my first breakthrough, and since then I've had one novel, two short story collection, 75+ stories published, five Pushcart nominations, a few contest wins, landed an agent, and just got my MFA. It's been a wild ride, but I'm only getting started.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Richard: Pantser, for sure. I want to be surprised along with the audience. I just have to follow the story and characters, to see what these people are really made of. I like to start at the inciting incident. You could also call that the tipping point. I like the idea of being "in media res," Latin for "in the middle of things." I start with general ideas, themes and philosophies and see where my characters take me. The hero will be brave and the coward will be weak, and in the end I try to twist those notions, play with them, to create something compelling and visceral.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing? Are there different challenges for you when writing a short story versus a novel?
Richard: Engaging the reader. I want to pull them in, make them be a part of that moment, immerse them in the horror, the tension, the sensuality—whatever is happening. If I'm not making them feel something powerful, then I'm not doing my job. I want them to feel compassion, or I want them to feel rage, but whatever it is, to feel it deeply.
I don't see stories and novels as being much different. To me, it's just about sustaining that note (or a series of notes). Some stories just don't have the depth to be a novel, though, I'll give you that. And some novels probably should remain just a story. You have more time with a novel, but it's the same approach—hook them, pull them in, make them care, educate them, make them feel strong emotions, speak the truth, and leave them spent. I love writing novels, but they are a huge investment of time, energy and emotion. If you fail at a novel, it can really paralyze you, as a writer. Whether it's a kiss in a dark alley or a lifelong romance, the stories I write need to pack the same punch at 500 words, 5,000 words, or 50,000 words.
TQ: What were some of your inspirations for the short stories in Staring into the Abyss?
Richard: The idea of loss, I think. Or really, the idea of actions and consequences, how vivid and powerful and deep our lives are, and what happens when we make the choices we do. There is a ripple effect, a connection between us all, and how you react, how you treat others in the face of those challenges, that defines you. I find it fascinating to study these people (maybe that's why I have a minor in psychology) whether they are alone in a tower making mechanical birds, filled with the need for vengeance, or simply trying to fix what they destroyed.
TQ: In the short stories in Staring into the Abyss who was the character who was the most difficult to write and why? The easiest and why?
Richard: "Victimized" was a very tough, dark story about a woman (Annabelle) who was abused as a child, and sought revenge against that person. There were some really difficult scenes in that story, but I feel like I was able to get her side of the story. When you are hurt, you want to hurt back, vengeance. But you also retain that pain, and want to be whole, to forgive, to erase. It's complicated.
"Maker of Flight" was a story that really just spilled out of me, but I credit the excellent writing of Brent Hayward, the source material of Filaria. I could see the world, and the character, Isaac, just felt real to me. It was a lot of fun.
TQ: You write neo-noir, dark fantasy and horror stories. Are there any other genres or sub-genres in which you'd like to write?
Richard: I don't write enough science fiction. I think that's because I get worried about the science being believable. I worry I'll screw it up. I haven't written much YA, but I did just rewrite my debut novel, Transubstantiate, as a YA title. My agent is reading it now, we'll see if it works. And even though I got my MFA last year, I'd love to write more literary fiction, but it doesn't come naturally to me. I have to work hard to not kill people off, to not write sex scenes, and to avoid twists and revelations. I studied with Pulitzer nominated author Dale Ray Phillips down at Murray State University, and when he took away those crutches, I found it really difficult to write. In the end, I was rewarded for stretching myself, and I'd like to focus on more of that voice. Even if my love of literary fiction leans towards the dark sheep: Flannery O'Connor, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, and Cormac McCarthy, for example.
TQ: How would you define noir fiction? And neo-noir fiction?
Richard: Great question. To me classic noir is a formula—detective, woman in distress (femme fatale), crime to be solved. It has tension and mystery, but there's a certain tone, and language, that keeps it in the past, for me. To write contemporary noir, or "neo-noir" (which is just French for "new-black") it can't limit itself to that equation. There certainly has to be some sort of crime, or problem, or conflict, but you could say that about a lot of genres. It needs to lean to the dark side, those moments in life when things are out of control, a tipping point, inciting incident, a point of no return. But I think neo-noir can also be Southern gothic and rural, it can focus on the grotesque, be horrific, as well as transgressive. It's not as narrow as you may think. Whether it's Brian Evenson or Stephen Graham Jones, Daniel Woodrell or William Gay, neo-noir is a contemporary voice that feels as if it could happen to you today—or tomorrow.
TQ: What's next?
Richard: Well, so far 2013 has been a great year. My short story collection, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press) is out in late March. I just had stories accepted in Midwestern Gothic and Arcadia, and they'll be out soon. I'm editing an anthology for Black Lawrence Press (The Lineup) which will focus on edgy, literary short stories by women authors, as well as another anthology of transgressive short stories entitled Burnt Tongues, with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer, also out in 2014. That's enough to keep me busy, as well as my ongoing column at LitReactor.com ("Storyville") and book reviews at The Nervous Breakdown. Onward and upward!
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Richard: Thanks for having me, it was my pleasure.
About Staring into the Abyss
As Friedrich Nietzsche said, “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.” In this collection of short stories Richard Thomas shows us in dark, layered prose the human condition in all of its beauty and dysfunction. A man sits in a high tower making tiny, mechanical birds, longing for the day when he might see the sky again. A couple spends an evening in an underground sex club where jealousy and possession are the means of barter. A woman is victimized as a child, and turns that rage and vengeance into a lifelong mission, only to self-destruct, and become exactly what she battled against. A couple hears the echo of the many reasons they’ve stayed together, and the one reason the finally have to part. And a boy deals with a beast that visits him on a nightly basis, not so much a shadow, as a fixture in his home. These 20 stories will take you into the darkness, and sometimes bring you back. But now and then there is no getting out, the lights have faded, the pitch black wrapping around you like a festering blanket of lies. What will you do now? It’s eat or be eaten—so bring a strong stomach and a hearty appetite.
Read more about Staring into the Abyss at Kraken Press.
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