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Richard Thomas: Loves Kids and When People Die

"AREN'T THEY BEAUTIFUL?" Richard Thomas asks as he turns around his family portrait so they can stare at me. Wife, kids. Matching argyle sweaters and crisply pressed khakis.

 "Yes, they are." I say, looking around. Richard's office is plush but quaint. He led me in, shut the door, a little too swiftly. Closed the blinds. Showed me my seat, all the while wearing a smile that would be right at home with a door-to-door missionary.

"Good. I love my family very deeply." He says. "Can I get you a snack?"

"No, thanks." I say looking down at my pad of paper. Each question for this prolific writer scratched on there with my ugly penmanship.

"Well, I'm starved. Excuse me, please."


Richard sits at his desk, opens a drawer. Pulls out a foot-long knife still slathered in viscera. By the way the goo runs along the edge, it killed recently. He runs his tongue up and down the surface, cleaning it. A single drop of blood falls on his ink blotter, and he uses the backside of his tie to wipe it away.

By now I'm used to this type of behavior, but I keep looking back and forth between him enjoying that filthy implement and his family portrait. All muted colors, clean lines and bright smiles versus a vibrant red and a coppery odor.

Finally he finishes and gently wipes his mouth clean. Smiles at me. I stare at a bit of flesh stuck between two teeth as I ask the first question. Yes, this is my life now. But seriously, this is Richard Fucking Thomas.

Define noir for the masses, please.

Well, noir is French for black, and most people know it in terms of film noir. I write what I call neo-noir, which is French for new-black. In film terms, noir was a set formula, a detective or cop, a woman in trouble (femme fatale), something to be fixed. It's more complicated than that, but you get the idea, cynical attitudes and sexual motivations. So neo-noir is the contemporary version of that. You don't have to have a crime, or a detective, or a woman in distress. Mostly, in my opinion, it's a feeling—the setting, the vibe, the mood. I think of directors like David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, and David Fincher. Contemporary dramas that are not horror, but horrific. Strange and dark filled with sex and violence, moments that unravel, and people that fall apart. Dennis Lehane is probably the biggest name in neo-noir fiction today.

I’m shocked to learn that the French have a written language. I know they have words for ‘snails’ (food) and ‘filthy, long-haired armpits’ (women) but ‘noir’? I need to learn more about my craft and stop sniffing glue. Also, as a header on your blog I see you've got transgressive as the "genre" you write in. Why that particular category? 

 It's something that relates to my work as well. My idea of transgressive it an uprising, anarchy, chaos. It's man vs. man, man vs. society, all of that. There are rules, and my characters don't like to live by those rules, whether they are rules set by man, government, the bible, or nature. Chuck Palahniuk is a big transgressive author.

When I talk about my first novel, Transubstantiate, for example, I call it a neo-noir, speculative thriller. The speculative is a larger umbrella that covers anything that asks a question (that speculates) but usually includes fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I call my second novel, Disintegration, a neo-noir, transgressive thriller. The thriller part usually means that there is action, the story keeps moving, it's "thrilling," which goes to pace, mood, and plot.

What parts of Richard wind up in your stuff?

Quite a bit, actually. I'm always pulling from my real life. I've used an old apartment for many of my stories, and especially, the entire novel, Disintegration. It was in Wicker Park on Milwaukee Avenue, just south of Division Street. I use old girlfriends, including violence and sex that has happened to me in the past. I've used things that happen to me in the suburbs, my kids, and even my wife now and then. I have a story in my thesis that is basically set in my childhood home and the story is centered around my father. But, you know, these things are universal, right? We've all had our hearts broken, and we've all taken a hot girl home (or two). You tap into those emotions and experiences that bubble to the surface and then you follow your characters off the edge of the cliff.

I bring home hot chicks all the time. Occasionally one escapes, but I have a back-up plan when that happens. What’s been the biggest cliff you’ve followed someone off? 

Probably Disintegration. I had no idea how dark the book would get. I had a feeling it would be my American Psycho. It's probably my greatest fear, the loss of my family. I would certainly fall apart. I had a scene late in the book where my unnamed protagonist is getting revenge on a girl that screwed him over, maced him, and robbed him. The murderer gets jacked, right? So he's hunting her down, and she of course returns to a bar she frequents and he accosts here there, takes her out into an alley and is prepared to rape her. That was a strange moment.

I didn't want to rape this girl, because at that point, I WAS that character, and whatever came of that scene, it would be me fantasizing, me projecting what a rape would be like. And that's a horrible situation. I stopped and thought about how this one scene could really change the way people reacted to this book. It was his bottom, for sure. And in that moment, I let my character tell me what to do, what felt right. It was pretty intense. You'll have to read the book to see what happened.

Where does your stuff come from? A lot of your short work seems to have some deep, personal touches to it. A lot of relationships that burn bright and then end abruptly. Is that just where your mind goes? 

I've always been drawn to those inciting incidents, those tipping points, where things go from normal to something entirely unique, unexpected and possibly, unpleasant. I think Flannery O'Connor called that the "grotesque." It's that one time in college when you're driving home drunk and you hear a thud as you run over something, but you just keep going.

I like to put my characters in these tough situations and see how they get out of them (if they can) and how they do that. Are they noble or cowardly, a hero or a punk? And even if you never have these intense moments in your own life, I know that a lot of readers like to experience these things, to live through the vengeance of a man wronged (Batman) or to see bad guys punished (Dexter) even if they'd never do that in the real world.

Do you really only eat Raman as the noodles? Not as soup? Do you cook the thing in water and then empty out the liquid?

It's the only way, my man. I like the punch of the flavor packet, something I can chew on, not soup. That's how I roll.

I read you're exploring YA? Do tell. 

My agent had a few big publishers mention that they were looking for YA, and after reading Disintegration, that they'd like to see something from me that was gritty, but for a younger market. So, with Transubstantiate going out of print, Otherworld Publications folding due to the owner getting sick, I thought I'd take a stab at rewriting that book as a third-person YA title. So far it hasn't been that painful. Just pulling out most of the sex, toning down the language, and easing up on the violence. The story is essentially still the same, a few characters a little younger. We'll see.

That’s kind of like making a cartoon out of RoboCop, isn’t it? Which they did, by the way. You can find it here. It was fucking terrible. How can you go from shooting a guy 18 billion times execution style, stabbing fools in the jugular with a 12” USB spike and mutating a dude with toxic waste and then splattering him across a car windshield…how can you go from that to a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at children 6-12 years old with life lessons and hugs and kisses? I’m not saying the YA version of Transubstantiate will be terrible, I’m just a little floored folks are seeking ‘gritty’ for YA. At some point, doesn’t the line between young adult and adult blur to the point of nonexistence with things like that? I admit I’m not a YA connoisseur or anything, but I interpret YA as writing for people who are still ‘young’. 

I was telling a friend about a girl I knew in high school that was in an abusive relationship. She got decked pretty good right there in the hallway and I remember her as she was in the arms of her friends. She was crying and was saying things like “I never should have gone back to him,” et cetera. 

So I said, “poor girl,” and my friend immediately wanted to argue, saying she needs that life experience to pick better men later on. As harsh as it is, I can agree with that, I just hate to see it happen to a 15 year-old gal. What level of grit do you think they want, and how much is too much for young folk? Do they need abusive relationships now—at least in their fiction—to do better later on? 

When I say YA, I don't mean tweens, or even high school, necessarily. There is a whole niche of stories that and novels that are aimed at the 18-25 crowd. I'm sure there's a name for it. I haven't read the Hunger Games yet, but I've read the whole Harry Potter series. Partly it's having young protagonists. I keep thinking of a movie like Leon, with a very young Natalie Portman. It's adult, but there are young characters, and you just pull back a little bit on the sex and violence. So far, I can tell you, I don't think Transubstantiate is suffering for the revising I'm doing. It will always exist as Transubstantiate, but whatever we call it as a YA title (so far I'm calling it Seven Deadly) I think it has a chance to be a fun read. We'll see.

I don't think I need to shock teens, but I think high school, which is 14, they can handle a lot. I mean, look at the titles that I was reading in high school between 14-18: Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird. Those are some pretty intense stories, right? It's up to the child, the teen, the young adult to read whatever they can handle. I was reading Stephen King in high school, for sure, books like The Shining, which scared me to death.

OK, so no torture porn for 8 year-olds. But in all seriousness, thanks for clearing that up, and you’re right. I was reading some heavier stuff at that age as well. Fahrenheit 451, The Inferno and some Stephen King. 

You're very involved in the writing community with multiple blogs, reviews, teaching classes, constantly pimping Duotrope and various other resources, doing local stuff with artists, etc. Why such a high level of involvement? Altruism? Does it make you a better writer? 

 I guess I just don't see a different way to be an author. It's an extension of myself, how I see the world. I grew up in a middle-class home, but we never needed anything. I was a Boy Scout (Eagle Scout rank, thank you) and I played sports all through high school, did theater and was in the choir. I've always enjoyed being a "joiner" or part of a larger community. I owe a lot of my success to the people that have supported and encouraged me. I've only been doing this seriously for about five years. When I have that network, it does help me, to not feel alone, which is how I write all of my stories and novels. It helps me to feel like I can bounce ideas off of others, get somebody to read a draft if I'm unsure of something. I have gotten to the point where I usually know if a story works or not, but I'm still evolving, trying to break into so many different markets that are really elusive.

When you submit to markets that are a 1% acceptance rate, you're essentially winning a contest if you get in, you're the BEST out of 100 (or 200) submissions. Which is insane. But you keep going. I love sharing what I know, and trying to help others. So many people have extended me that kindness, people like Craig Clevenger, Stephen Graham Jones, Monica Drake, Jack Ketchum, Donald Ray Pollock, that I just pay it forward. I consider myself a lucky man to have so many generous friends, peers and fans.

Choir? I’m going to beat you up. I was in the marching band. Drum majors for life! You've now worked with a few different presses. What have you learned since Transubstantiate was published that you wish you would have known before it got out there?

To ask more questions, and to push harder for everything. Whether it's getting ARCs out, or making sure there are blurbs, I've had presses drop the ball so many times. Sometimes it's just a miscommunication, sometimes it's somebody not keeping their word. Do it right. Give yourself enough time. If you have a novel or collection coming out, to do it right, you need a year. That's to proof and edit it, send out ARCs for blurbs and reviews, and get everything all set up. Don't rush, I got impatient, and that was my fault.

What's on the horizon for Richard Thomas? Pimp your stuff, please.

Well, obviously my agent is shopping Disintegration, and hopefully that will get bought soon, we've gotten very close with some really cool presses, so I'm hesitantly optimistic. It's Dexter meets Falling Down, how can I lose? I think it's some of my best work. She's also shopping a collection of four novellas I wrote with Caleb J. Ross, Nik Korpon, and Axel Taiari, tentatively titled Four Corners. It has a Sin City vibe, and those guys killed it—it's so good.

I just released Herniated Roots with Snubnose Press, it's a digital collection of neo-noir short stories. It's been getting good reviews. And out this month, I'm really excited about my story "Flowers for Jessica," in Weird Fiction Review #3 at Centipede Press. They publish beautiful journals, win lots of awards, and promote some really big names.

If people could read one Richard Thomas story, what would it be? Why?

That's tough. I'll cheat and give you three because they're all readily available and are three very different stories.

 If you want a long, dark story check out "Victimized." It was originally published in Murky Depths #15, a really cool graphic format magazine in the UK, at 5,000 words, but I later self-published it as an eSingle, with the full 7,000 words. It's about a girl that is abused as a child and how in the near future she steps into a boxing ring to fight her rapist—and everything that happened in-between to shape her.

 If you want something short and more of my magical realism voice, read "Maker of Flight" which won the "Enter the World of Filaria" contest at ChiZine. It's about a man in a tower who makes mechanical birds. It's a sweet story, I've read it to my kids.

 If you want a story that might just make you cry, some of my best work I think, then read the uniquely formatted "Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave" up at Metazen, which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. It leans towards my more literary work, and I think it has a lot of power.

One last question: what theme song would play as you entered a room?

 Theme song? Probably The Cure, "A Night Like This.”

All right. Richard Thomas, everybody. I first heard of this dude on The Cult, the Official Chuck Palahniuk website. Richard had landed his book deal for Transubstaniate and they were—rightfully so—creaming about the success of one of their own. The plot was too intriguing to ignore and I couldn’t put down the book.

To my excitement I started noticing he and I had stories published at a few of the same places, albeit Richard has stories everywhere so really, I’d get picked up at a site and he’d already been there, guest blogged and won their contest.

As far as his short work goes, I recommend ‘The Handyman’. That story set off a fire alarm in my head. Don’t know why, but it was great. The three he mentioned above are fantastic as well. Also check out ‘Stephen King Ate My Brain’.

Next week--Brian Panowich, a rock star turned writer. Study up on him kids. This guy is at the front-end of one helluva career you're going to hear about someday, but you're hearing about it first with us.

Richard Thomas was the winner of the 2009 "Enter the World of Filaria" contest at ChiZine. He has published over sixty stories online and in print, including the Shivers VI anthology (Cemetery Dance) with Stephen King and Peter Straub, the Warmed and Bound anthology (Velvet Press), Speedloader (Snubnose Press), Murky Depths, Weird Fiction Review, Gargoyle, PANK, Pear Noir!, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and Opium. His debut novel Transubstantiate was released in 2010. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown and Lit Reactor. He is represented by Paula Munier at the Talcott Notch Literary Agency. For more information, visit