One of Our OwnInterview by Brandon Tietz
I don’t know how the hell Richard Thomas sleeps at night.
A husband and father of two in pursuit of his MFA, he’s an art director, accomplished short story writer (3:AM, Dogmatika, Colored Chalk), and a moderator in the Chuck Palahniuk Writer’s Workshop, reading well over 100 pieces per month for the anthology project (just so you don’t go thinking all he does is diffuse flame wars). As if that wasn’t enough, Richard’s also been working on his neo-noir debut called Transubstantiate, an ambitious first effort that fans of the genre and Lost will be sure to enjoy.
Like I said, I don’t know how he sleeps, but with this first book under his belt, it looks like the late nights are about to pay off…and no one deserves it more.
On the eve of Valentine’s Day, I got to talk with Richard about all things Transubstantiate, his new press, Otherworld Publications, and how he got published. We talked shop and a little bit of shit. And, of course, no Cultie on Cultie interview would be complete without invasive questions about Batman, guilty pleasures, and what Richard has planned for the most romantic commercial holiday of the year.
BRANDON TIETZ: Moment of honesty: I had to look up the definition of Transubstantiate, and my friends give me funny looks when I “covertly” use it in a sentence. Save everyone else some time and tell us what this title means and how it relates to the book.
RICHARD THOMAS: That’s funny. Well, it all started with the Max Barry Intensive at The Cult. We were given the assignment to write four introductions to four novels that we’d always wanted to write. Anything at all. So, I think I did a horror intro, science-fiction, neo-noir, and one literary. I wanted to title each of the sections with a word that was really unique and that maybe I’d never heard before. "Transubstantiate" was one of those words, “vainglorious” was another. I poured over the Internet, lists of unique words, all kinds of stuff. That was how I came across Transubstantiate.
BT: I like it, man. Kind of reminds me of Dermaphoria [Craig Clevenger] as far as titles go. So how long did it take you to crank this one out, start to finish?
RT: Well, total, about three years. I took the six week Intensive, so that got me six chapters. Then I tried to keep pace like that. So you could say I either wrote it in fourteen weeks or a year and a half.
BT: What was that process like? The reason I ask is because the format of this is pretty damn ambitious. You've essentially got seven leads going in a steady rotation. That, and you're jumping time periods.
RT: It was tricky, that's for sure, and I don't know if I'd try it again. I never intended for it to be seven characters but it just kind of happened. I was working a freelance gig--I'm an art director by day, and every day on my lunch hour I'd run down to the cafeteria, grab a sandwich, and then come back upstairs. I had an office with a door (A DOOR!), not just a cubicle, and so I'd close it and write. Max Barry did another thing for me, a little reverse psychology, telling us to write no more than 500 words a day. It freed me up. No more pressure to hit a minimum. So each day I'd write 500, maybe 600, 700 words if I was rolling. And each day I'd do a different character. Monday - Jacob. Tuesday - Marcy. And so on. It just worked out. I'd think about those characters in the morning, and by lunch time I was ready to channel it all. The time periods, I just felt this pattern, every three chapters, a need to break it up. The first time, Chapter Three, was probably the need to give some back-story, to answer a few questions before it got too far along. I'm a big fan of “Lost” and I felt that I'd lose the readers if I let it go without giving up some information. Also, I was inspired by people like Stephen King and The Stand, his ability to have a lot of characters, even Under the Dome, his new book, does it really well.
BT: Yeah, I definitely felt some King with this. Initially, it was having a Roland character (The Dark Tower just makes that name stick out in my mind), but something about your syntax and the way you handle a large cast pushes that tone even further. Let's talk about Lost for a second, though. I'm a huge fan of this show. What can people expect to see in this book "Lost-wise" since it’s part of how you’re promoting it?
RT: Well, there are some obvious parallels, I think. There are seven people in my book, (Six if you don't count Assigned), like the 'Oceanic Six'. There is the island setting. There is confusion, conspiracy, a sense of something extraordinary going on, the time travel and teleportation, special abilities of certain people. And the slow reveal of details over time. There are also themes of good vs. evil, and redemption. Lots to chew on, I think. My book will be out before Lost ends, I think, so it should be interesting to see how similar they are.
BT: June 18th. Are you excited? And by the way, I feel pretty damn cool having read this so many months before the actual release.
RT: Glad that you liked it, Brandon. Yes, 6.18.10 with the pre-orders starting 4.1.10 (YES, I know it's April Fool's Day). I am excited. And exhausted. I know what Chuck meant on his tours when asked, "What's your favorite book of yours?" He always says "The next one.”
BT: So what are you expecting for that day? Do you or the publishing house have any sort of projected sales goal in mind?
RT: It'll be an intense day. I have really high hopes. I would love to sell out the signed/limited of one hundred hardcovers in less than twenty-four hours. So if it sells out before it's even really out, the signed/limited, I mean, that would be great. Then the paperback. I don't want to sell five hundred. I want to sell five thousand. This could mean getting an agent, maybe some notice, a bigger press or maybe selling film rights. All kinds of crazy things. But I have a lot of good people around me, not only to help me promote this, but to keep me humble too. The Cult, The Velvet, Write Club, everyone on Facebook, all of my past editors, tons of talented and giving people. I'm lucky.
BT: Hell yeah, you're one of a handful of people who can stroll through The Cult pitching a book and get universal support. That's a good position to be in.
RT: It helps that I've been there awhile. I've done four Intensives: Craig Clevenger twice, Max Barry, and Monica Drake. All three were instrumental in my success, in my growth and confidence today. I'm a moderator at the workshop, and have put in a lot of time, reading over a hundred, a hundred-twenty stories every month for the anthology. People know me, and I try to be social, try to help others, share my experiences, so we can all learn. I try not to be a pompous ass too much. Good people, and so many talented writers in the workshop. All of the other mods: Kabol and KC, as well as VP, Mirka, Dennis, Kirk - they've been supportive of my work for a long time.
BT: So while we're on the subject of the illustrious workshop, how did you originally get the position of moderator?
RT: After I passed the background check, paid my fees, got licenses and then took down Mark Grover in mud wrestling match, I was in. I don't have the upper body strength of Kabol, and KC is like almost seven feet tall, so I'm like third or so in rankings. Kidding.
BT: Oh, you're kidding? Because KC said I had to beat him in a boxed-wine drinking contest to get in. That’s a lot of Franzia, my man.
RT: Oh, right. Sorry, yes…box o’ wine.
BT: (laughs) He’d never touch the stuff. He’s bottles all the way. I know that much.
RT: See…that was a test. You did your research, grasshopper.
BT: So how’d you get the spot?
RT: They asked. I think they saw I was serious, I took several Intensives, and was getting published, won a contest, was having some luck. And I was a nice guy, for the most part, was staying out of trouble on The Cult. I was honored. It's a cool gig, lots of responsibilities, but I enjoy it a lot.
BT: You're reading over a hundred pieces a month in consideration for Chuck's Anthology. Basically, you’re the first step to getting nominated, so you have to read absolutely everything…good and bad. What would you say is the most common mistake you see writers making?
RT: Good question. Showing vs. telling is a good one, I see lots of people still telling us that somebody is beautiful, instead of showing us beauty. Lack of setting, not using all five senses. A plot, with a conflict, building to a climactic ending. The basics, really. Tense shifts. And rushing to post up stories that obviously aren't ready.
BT: Yeah, that last one especially. I think for some people they really started to look at the end of the month as a deadline of sorts. And then in their rush to put it up they ended up giving us something that wasn't completely polished. Hell, sometimes they didn't even spell check it.
RT: For sure. I also like some tension. Revealing character through their actions, their clothes, their apartment. So many opportunities to show us people, three-dimensional people, not stereotypes. And put your own stamp on it too, make it unique, your own.
BT: Yes, and that's probably one of the biggest misconceptions about this particular workshop: that we're trying to breed Chuck clones when that couldn't be any further from the truth. Even when I see people doing transgressive minimalism, I'm at least seeing an attempt to put their own spin on it.
RT: Let Chuck do Chuck. I mean, you can see the people that I've read in my work, King and Will Christopher Baer for example, but I don't try to sound like them. I try to sound like Richard. That's been one of the hardest things for me, trying to find my voice. But I think now, when people look to my work, they have certain expectations now, and that's pretty cool.
BT: It's definitely good advice to live by: don't be the next anyone. Be the first you.
And read. A lot.
RT: Definitely. You should read all of the masters in your genre. If you write horror, you better read Lovecraft, King, Clive Barker, Peter Straub, early Dean Koontz, and the modern masters. Find the dark fiction voices that are being published in The New Yorker, the names I've mentioned already. You can't steal from them, but try to understand WHY they are successful. Read fiction in magazines - Esquire, Playboy. Read small presses - pick up Tin House, The Missouri Review, The Paris Review, any publication that can help you to write better.
BT: Whoa, I didn't think you liked Koontz.
RT: I really liked his early stuff, Whispers, Phantoms. I liked the “Odd Thomas” books, but I've kind of stopped reading him. King, I'll always read, and his latest, Under The Dome was fantastic. Not so in love with Koontz anymore. But you can't deny that he is successful, he sells a lot of books, so you have to ask yourself - why? Do you hate Koontz?
BT: All I know is that you had that bookstore scene in your novel towards the end where you give Koontz the big anti-plug. I LOL’d pretty hard.
RT: (Laughs) Shit. I may have to cut that. I mean, not every book has to be a challenge. I read John Grisham, I love the F. Paul Wilson "Repairman Jack" series. I like the “Preston & Child” series, too. Not every book has to be House of Leaves or hell—even Stephen Graham Jones' book All The Beautiful Sinners (a fantastic book, probably top ten all-time for me). It took me two reads to understand, it just gets better every time. Cormac McCarthy's books can be tough, for me anyway.
BT: My vote is you leave it in. Take the funny when you can get it…even if it’s a small slight on someone. I think Koontz will understand.
RT: (Laughs) I think every author knows their place. I don't think I'll be winning a Pulitzer for Transubstantiate, but hell, I'd be honored to be nominated for a Stoker. It's a wild ride, and hopefully it will keep the readers attention, run them through the emotional wringer. I'd love for my audience to finish the book, and put it down and go: "Damn. That was intense." That's all I can ask for: a little escape, and a good time
BT: I think those are perfectly reasonable expectations for a debut. You never really know though until you put it out there for the people to read, but I definitely think it's got a little something for everyone.
RT: Thanks—and hey, to go back to Koontz real quick, I was a fan for a long time, and have read probably 20, 30 books of his. To have that relationship with an author, and to have them put out books that feel kind of phoned in? Well, it's tough. You feel a bit cheated. I guess with Koontz, I expected more. I expected him to evolve, and I haven't been feeling that for awhile with him. But hell, when I'm writing my 40th book, or however many he's done, maybe I'll struggle for inspiration too.
BT: (laughs) Okay, now that bookstore scene makes more sense. Let’s talk about noir for a second.
BT: Now when people think noir—especially if they’re on The Velvet, the name Will Christopher Baer usually pops up. What would you say your approach is to the genre that differs from him?
RT: Well, I call it neo-noir, which is simply French for “new-black.” My interpretation of it is pretty wide open, that is just needs to have a certain tone, a feeling, and language. It doesn't have to subscribe to the classic noir rules. I don't think that neo-noir even has to end in tragedy. You can look at the Baer trilogy and there is hope in there. We have a lot in common, Baer and I, but he's much better at it than I am. His word choices, every sentence feels like he spent forever on it. He's really somebody that I respect a lot. That's why I'm trying to be patient with Godspeed. If I ever get lost, and can't find my voice or the right tone, all I have to do is pick up any of his books, and I'm immediately back in that world. The speculative things that I put in Transubstantiate are probably something that he wouldn't do. But Disintegration, my next book, is probably a lot closer to what Baer does. He's a poet, and I've written almost one hundred poems, so I can appreciate the word choices. I may put down a sentence every couple of pages that is on the level that he is, and I know it. I go "That line, that'll get noticed in workshop". The difference between him and me, when it comes to neo-noir fiction? He's the master, and I'm still a student.
BT: Geez man, how the hell did you get this humble?
RT: Reading and brutal honesty.
BT: Maybe you can have a talk with Joseph Suglia at some point.
RT: (Laughs)...Don't get me started. But yeah, that and I get rejected constantly, still haven't gotten into a lot of the top places. Cemetery Dance, the story coming out in Shivers VI, Stillness that was a 1% acceptance rate. I've been reading so many authors that are considered masters, that I am starting to see what a great story is. Discovering people like George Saunders, Tim O'Brien, even Flannery O'Connor I put off for YEARS. The Mona Simpson story Lawns blew me away. The William Gay story The Paperhanger. Kate Braverman's Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta. These guys are showing me how to write dark, and be successful, be literary, get published and push the envelope. If you want to see how to write a short story, read The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories (edited by Tobias Wolff) and The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories (edited by Ben Marcus). Essential reading. I'm so late to read these people.
BT: I'm still trying to dig up a copy of The Contortionist's Handbook that doesn't cost $40.
RT: I'll send you a copy, Brandon. I've got two-three copies of each of Clevengers, Baers, and Stephen's [Graham Jones] work.
BT: You're the man! Very cool.
RT: No problem. Sorry, I'm looking at those books right now. Dorothy Allison's River of Names is intense. [Mary] Gaitskill's A Romantic Weekend is about S&M. She wrote Secretary which was made into a great movie. Denis Johnson's Emergency. These two books are worth every cent.
BT: The Richard Thomas interview is becoming a plug for a ton of authors. You're like a literary pandora.com.
RT: These are the people that inspire me. I feel like my best work is still ahead of me. I might read a hundred stories at the Cult, or for my MFA literary journal, and you find a few great ones. I can honestly say that the stories I've listed here are some of the best ever written. Clevenger is a great guy, I push his work because he pushed me. He said send out Stillness, that it was ready…it was perfect. He compared my work to Steve Erickson, one of his idols. So, even though Stillness got rejected about ten times, by some of the best, it found a great home with CD. And I suggest Clevenger's work because he kicks ass. Bottom line, he's a great writer. He's also been very generous with his time, signing books I sent him, sending me foreign copies for free, so very cool. I met Stephen Graham Jones at last year's AWP [The Association of Writers], he's been a huge help, I'd love to have his life of teaching, writing, editing. He's a genius, seriously.
BT: That's probably the best spot any writer can be in, not just doing it, but helping other people do it, too.
RT: Pay it forward, brother.
BT: So is that what you're looking to do after you get your MFA?
RT: Well, I'd love to teach. At a nice university, if possible. Getting this book published is a step in the right direction. Everyone at MSU said that if you can publish a book, it'll mean a lot when you go to teach. I'm doing my first class in April, a continuing education class at a local high school. And man, I am STOKED. Writing can be a very lonely job, even when it's a labor of love, so a bit of encouragement can go a long way. I want to keep writing novels, publish more short stories, teach, and edit. I have some editing projects in the works, and if things work out with that, man, I'd really be thrilled.
BT: That sounds like a plan, man. I want to talk about your publishing house for a bit, since you mentioned the book. Otherworld Publications, which is a new house...how did you hook up with these guys? I think we have a few aspiring writers who would like some insight on how this kind of thing works.
RT: Well, I was sending out the book, had it at a couple of cool houses, was getting some near misses and really positive rejections when I heard about OWP. I knew Lynn [Calvert] a little bit, we were going to do a panel together at the Louisville Creative Center but it fell apart. She was very friendly, smart, knew the business and was publishing. She had a lot of energy and ideas, so when they launched, I sent them my book. They loved it and wanted it to be their first. I was thrilled, and suddenly freaked out. All this talk, and now it was happening. There are a lot of positive reasons to go with a new, small press. Their excitement was the first thing. They have a lot of great ideas. We negotiated the contract to really do the best things for all of us. They want me to succeed, and if that means eventually moving on, so be it. They're very supportive, and I'm very optimistic that we can do great things with my book.
BT: So is there some pressure on you being it’s the first book for both you and the publishing house?
RT: Sure. Tons. And I thought long and hard about it. But in the end, it felt right. I think my book is very approachable. It isn't too bizarre, nor too simple. I like it a lot and for the most part, the reactions I've gotten have been positive. Maybe ten people have read it all the way through. I think part of the reason I'm pushing so hard - on Facebook, starting a group there, creating websites, all of that and more, is that I want us all to succeed. You can't please all the people all of the time, but those that have read me, or those that like this kind of writing, I think they'll really like it. If I can get this in the hands of my kind of people, I think we'll do pretty good. I hope so. Heck, as we were talking about earlier, even my wife likes it, and she's a tough sell.
BT: I definitely think you've set up a good platform. Between The Cult, The Velvet, Facebook, Write Club, etc., you're primed for a pretty decent debut here. Social networking has definitely been good for up-and-coming authors.
RT: I'm happy to see the Facebook group up to 239 members and growing. The social networking is great, we're lucky to have these tools. I'm constantly shocked at how open and accessible some authors are. I've had some great conversations with all kinds of writers - Matt Bell, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Stephen Graham Jones, Donald Ray Pollock, Peter Straub, Chelsea Cain, Craig Davidson, Benjamin Percy, and on and on.
BT: Yeah, I feel the same. I was shocked when Monica Drake read one of my stories on Lobster Cult and actually got back with me on it. That made my week. It’s so cool when that happens.
RT: For the most part, people are happy to try and give you a blurb (if they have time), to answer some questions, to talk about the issues of the day. But it also makes it tough to stand out. You have to have all of these things, Twitter, FB, blogs, forums. And then you try to be innovative, not to just have a tour, but an all-day, fourteen-stop, entire novel reading. You need to bike across the country. You need a Signed /Limited with your own blood on it. You need audio and extras, free short stories. You name it. It's tough. But I think people are more loyal these days too. If you can break though, you could have them for life. I can remember the first time I heard a total stranger say to me, "Oh, I'm always excited to see new work from you. I look forward to it." That may seem like a small thing, but I thought...wow, I have a fan. That's intense.
BT: When you're just starting off, EVERY SINGLE COPY sold feels so intimate and important. Being asked to sign something is a total trip. The first time it happened to me, I almost felt like an impostor celebrity doing it.
RT: I'm getting some of that now with the Facebook group, looking over the members and wondering who some of the people are. That's a really exciting moment, thinking that maybe your work has some appeal on a greater level than just your friends and fellow writer buds.
BT: Yeah, so enjoy it. It's only a matter of time before you're expected to sell a hundred thousand copies opening week in order to make the cut.
RT: Good Lord.
BT: So are you ready to round this thing off with the ten questions segment?
RT: (Laughs) I was waiting for those curve balls. Sure, go for it.
10 MODERATELY HARD QUESTIONS WITH RICHARD THOMAS
1) The Cult or The Velvet?
RT: Oh man, you don't pull punches. The Cult for its workshop, sense of humor, and energy. The Velvet for its information, sincerity, and the trio. Is that cheating?
BT: Yeah, it's most definitely cheating, but I'll let it slide.
2) You live in the Chicago area. Cubs or White Sox?
RT: Oh that's easy, Cubs. The harder one would be Cubs or Cardinals, since I went to school in Peoria, but grew up in St. Louis. And every time I say that I piss somebody off.
BT: Yeah, you just pissed off half of Chicago with that one. Good answer.
RT: Crap, there go my sales.
3) Transubstantiate has some pretty sexual stuff in it. Can you make up a clever porno title based on the word "coffee"?
RT: (Laughs) Okay, give me a second. What, did the sex bother you?
BT: Hell no, it didn't bother me! I read Snuff without flinching.
RT: My wife said I had too much sex in it, but then she also admitted that one scene turned her on. She'll kill me if she ever reads this. Sorry, Lisa. Do I have to use the WORD coffee or just coffee-inspired?
BT: Coffee-inspired. This should be easy. Writers love coffee.
RT: I guess Two Girls, One Cup is taken. Half and Half and Half Again? Wait, not dirty enough. Something with Venti Mocha Asses, X. Morning Wood Blend? Nothing, I got nothing.
BT: I would've taken Two Creams in One Sugar.
4) Who's the author you love to hate?
RT: Love to hate?
BT: Yep. And it has to be a real author...not someone like Tila Tequila who releases a book where someone else wrote it but she gets the credit.
RT: Oh, that's tough. I'm not a big hater. Even Dan Brown I see as having value, Koontz, we've talked about. Maybe Anne Rice. She kind of went off the deep end, and I've heard some wild stories about her being a nut. A lot of people love Thomas Pynchon, but I've never been able to get into his work.
BT: You're not going to take the easy Stephanie Meyer or Tucker Max route?
RT: Haven't read either so it's hard to say. There's room in the world for Meyer's work. Max though, not sure. Sometimes they just make me laugh. In order to hate them I'd have to care about their work. Man, that sounds harsh.
BT: Whatever...vampires just don't sparkle. That's a rule.
RT: Hahahhahahahahhaa...for sure.
5) What book can you read over and over?
RT: Anything by Baer. I love King, but he writes long books. I love all three of Baer's books: Kiss Me,Judas, Penny Dreadful and Hell's Half Acre. I've read them many, many times. I'll pick them up and dip into them if I just walk past. The opening to Kiss Me, Judas is so good. I probably reach for that one the most. Some of Chuck's: Survivor and Choke are my favorites, but the voice in Fight Club can suck you in pretty easily. But Baer, for sure, KMJ by a nose over PD.
BT: Dude, you have to pick ONE.
RT: Kiss Me, Judas. Man, you're tough.
6) What's your guilty pleasure?
RT: Bad TV. When I'm exhausted, I watch really bad TV. I mean, there's good TV like Lost for example. I like Damages, Nip/Tuck, funny shows like 30 Rock. But I watch stuff with my wife, like Gray's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives. I'm ashamed.
BT: Jersey Shore?
RT: Ha, I've never watched a show, just bits and pieces. I have gotten sucked into a Kardashian or two, even the Bitches of Orange County. There's one, what is it, like Sweet Sixteen or something? Oh my god, so bad. I blame The Soup. But I've never watched Dancing With The Stars. I am a fan of Project Runway though. I don't know what the hell is wrong with me. My image is blown.
7) Better Batman: Bale or Keaton?
RT: Bale by a mile. After seeing him in The Machinist I gained a lot of respect for him.
BT: Good God, he was on the Kate Moss diet during that one. But yeah, I totally agree.
RT: Wild movie, huh? When he turned sideways I about freaked out. Keaton's too soft for Batman.
BT: He's Mr. Mom.
8) You're a writer. Cigarettes, coffee, or both?
RT: Coffee. I tend to write late at night, but I don't function without coffee. I will have a cigar now and then. Caleb tends to have them on hand, or at a poker night with the guys, but I pretty much quit smoking cigarettes when I had the kids.
9) What's the one band you find yourself listening to when you write?
RT: It's either The Cure or Radiohead, but since you're going to bitchslap me if I put down two bands, mostly Radiohead. Good background music, doesn't distract me. Especially In Rainbows.
BT: In Rainbows is great. Radiohead, just in general, is great. I remember there was a period of about three weeks where I was listening to Like Spinning Plates on repeat like a mantra. My roommate really started to get pissy about it.
10.) It's past 1:00am, February the 14th at the time of this interview. Does Richard Thomas have some romantic plans lined up for Valentine's Day?
RT: Man, you're funny. Actually, I have a date with my daughter. She's in Indian Princess and we're getting dressed up to go out to brunch and then a dance. My wife will spend the day with our son. They're twins, six years old. Lisa and I will probably just collapse on the couch. We try to go out when we can, dinner here and there, don't really deny ourselves those times together, but nothing special tomorrow. I mean, today. Crap, I have to sign my card to her. I at least did that!
BT: (Laughs) Man, I kept you up way past your bedtime.
RT: You did, but good times. Thanks, Brandon. Go hit the clubs, tear up Kansas City, brother.
BT: Yeah, I’ll be so fashionably late I’ll get there at last call.
RT: Seriously, thanks for the interview and the support. You contribute a lot around here, and I've really been enjoying your work. 4.1.10 and 6.18.10. Transubstantiate.net and find us on Facebook. I owe the Cult a lot, so thanks Culties. Peace out.
BT: Later, man. Get some sleep.