Dreaming Neo-Noir: An interview with Richard Thomas

Not every writer can make the claim of having been published in an anthology alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub.

Then again, Richard Thomas isn’t every writer.

The author of Transubstantiate has seen over fifty of his short stories published to wide acclaim in just a few years, with not one, but four of those stories nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011 alone.

Few authors have successfully walked the fine line between literary fiction and genre fiction the way Richard Thomas has.

His name is a proven heavyweight among the new generation of fiction authors, and has become synonymous with Neo-Noir—a genre that’s seen an explosion of talent over the last two years.

Transubstantiate, his stunning debut, introduced readers to a fresh hybrid of sci-fi and noir, and shined a spotlight on Otherworld Publications, which has since published some of the most cutting-edge novels that dark fiction has to offer.

When he’s not working on a novel or new short prose, the author lends his writing talents to the popular Storyville column at LitReactor, in addition to reviewing today’s hottest fiction for The Nervous Breakdown.

Richard takes a few minutes out of his more than hectic schedule to discuss his recent work with Solarcide, and we couldn’t be more appreciative.

The Interview

In addition to appearing in Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub, you have a story in the upcoming Slices of Flesh anthology (Dark Moon Books), which also features a story from horror legend Jack Ketchum.

Seeing that you seem to strike gold when you write horror, have you considered or are you planning to embark on the journey of writing a full-fledged horror novel?

First, thanks so much for having me. I’m honored to be here.

As far as Shivers VI and Slices of Flesh, I really just think I got lucky—right place, right time. If you look back at the history of the Shivers anthologies, this collection has some of the biggest names ever. Not that the previous five didn’t have fantastic authors, but yeah, next to King and Straub, two authors that I grew up reading and loving? I was pretty blown away. And it’s kind of ironic that I ended up in Slices of Flesh too, since I actually wrote that story in an intensive at The Cult WITH Jack Ketchum. And he had nothing to do with the Dark Moon Books anthology, as far as selecting stories or approaching authors. I was thrilled to get in—there are some great names in that one in addition to Ketchum—Ramsey Campbell, Jeremy C. Shipp, Tim Lebbon, and many others.

I do write straight horror now and then, but usually at somebody’s prompting. I was the winner of a contest over at Café Doom for One Buck Horror, and that was pretty exciting. Trying to create tension, trying to really scare somebody, that’s hard work. I don’t know if I’ll ever write a novel that’s simply horror. I look back at the earlier work of King, for example, and if you take out the “boogeyman” books of his, such as Salem’s Lot (vampires) and Cujo (rabid dog), a lot of his books were more about a character, a setting or a situation. Books like The Shining, The Long Walk, The Stand—those are my favorites of King—that and the Dark Tower series. I have thought long and hard about a way to write something like that, though. A place where the technology is advanced, maybe 500 years in our future, but it fails, so we’re forced to revert to a time much like in the old west. Can’t seem to get a handle on that yet, though.

Stories about tough situations—that’s what I like to write when I get into stories and novels that I call “neo-noir,” which to me is really just contemporary dark fiction (new-black). I guess when I think of horror I keep thinking of the classic ways that we deal with the horrific. So if I ever do write a “horror” novel, I have to imagine that it would be a modern day story, something where the fears of life in the year 2011 are what would be terrifying. I doubt it would have zombies or vampires. Although I have written a vampire story, “Transmogrify.” The novel I’m shopping right now, Disintegration, is all about my worst fear—losing my family, seeing them die in front of me, and how I’d deal with that tragedy.

You received a Pushcart Nomination this past year for your story “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave,” which appeared in Metazen, and congratulations on that achievement.

That story, like “Splintered” from PANK Magazine, sees you experimenting a bit with your style. Does the fact that these stories work so well encourage you to take even more chances as a writer, and why do you think it’s important for a writer to experiment, even after establishing a known voice? 

Great question. I did play with format on purpose with those stories, and it was something really exciting for me to do. Part of it was being inspired by stories that I’d read, and I wish I could remember them now—I know Blake Butler was doing some list stories for awhile. Part of it was getting a little bored with myself, feeling like I was starting to crank out the same old “Richard Thomas” stories where something bad happens, there’s a hot chick in it, maybe some sex, and somebody gets hurt or killed. Another part of it is the recent influence of my MFA program on my writing. It has really gotten me to read a wide variety of literary authors, everyone from Cormac McCarthy to Mary Gaitskill to Flannery O’Connor. All of those factors influenced those two stories.

I like writing list stories, and have done a few of them. For one of my stories, “Interview” (Troubadour 21) I wanted to drop in bits of a grocery receipt throughout the story, so that by the time you get to the end, it’s a rather sinister list. I mean, duct tape by itself doesn’t mean anything. Neither does a shovel or lye. But as they added up, it became heavy, or I hope it did—same thing with the story for Metazen. Part of it was about me wanting to challenge myself—can I actually write a story that is twenty reasons to stay, and one to leave? It was a response to the questions that I imagined the character in the story hearing on a daily basis: “Why do you stay with her?” or “Why do you put up with it?” or “How can you still love her?” It was actually a difficult story to write, very painful, just imaging what that must be like, to lose a child and see your life fall apart, your wife fade away, your love dissolve until the best thing you can do is to leave. I like the echo it created by repeating the word “Because…” over and over again.

The story at PANK, that was about me wanting for a long time to write a “choose your own path” adventure story, but in a contemporary way. I used to read those stories as a kid, and I wanted to pair that with the many movies I’ve watched over the years that touched on the idea of fate or time or truth (such as Memento, Blade Runner, and American Beauty.)

It is definitely encouraging for me that they were so well received. Most of the time when I finish a story, I have no idea if it’s any good. I mean, I might think that is doesn’t suck, or that maybe there’s something new and different in the form, like with these two stories, but until I started sending them out, I wasn’t sure if anybody else would dig them. I would definitely tell authors to play around and try new formats, break out of the same old opening line narrative hook, conflict, and resolution. Whether you are starting to establish a new voice, or feel like you have a handle on your own POV, for sure play around, try a different genre, try a different format or form or structure. I’ve been chewing on an idea where the story is nothing but three grocery receipts (don’t steal this anyone) so that over time the products this guy buys reveals the life that he’s lived, his deviant behaviors, his joy and tragedy and humanity. Haven’t figured it out yet, though.

Your new story, “The Handyman,” is appearing now in the first issue of Conjectural Figments, and is a gruesome piece at times, yet quite engaging as you introduce readers to a character who appears handicapped on the surface, but is actually advantaged in a lot of ways as he seems to pull off being all things to all people he visits. He brings as much pain as he does pleasure, while his work can be described as “normal” as much as “abnormal.”

Conjectural Figments categorizes your story along with three others as Transhumanism. Was this label or the idea of Transhumanism conscious in your mind when you created your character for this story, and how do you think your story in particular speaks to Transhumanism in the 21st century? 

Thanks for the kind words, first of all. Yeah, transhumanism is something that CF wanted for this first issue. I wasn’t even sure what that was. So I talked to the editor over there, Andrew Post, and he gave me some thoughts and ideas about what it meant to him. Mostly it made me think about Blade Runner, one of my favorite movies of all time. The other thing that popped into my head was the song “More Human Than Human” by White Zombie. It didn’t seem that far fetched that the abilities of something that I watched as a child, the Bionic Man, would be possible in the near future. I imagine in time that these things will be more prevalent very soon, as many already exist—mechanical hearts, artificial limbs, nanotechnology. I find it hard to believe that in my lifetime, really, since my childhood, so much has happened. When I was a kid, we didn’t have cable tv, no internet, no home computers, no cell phones, no fax machines or scanners or printers, etc. Who knows where we’ll be in another hundred years?

“Victimized” is one of your most popular stories, which originally appeared in Murky Depths. Since then, you got your feet wet with self-publishing by releasing a longer edition of “Victimized” through Amazon as a digital purchase.

How has the response to the self-released edition of “Victimized” been for you, and how has it changed your perception, if at all, about the never-ending debate on self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, or even print vs. digital?

Great question. Murky Depths was great, and I’m so depressed that the print side of them has gone under. They were doing some really unique things. But they only wanted up to 5,000 words. The original story was almost 7,000. So I decided to publish the full version as an eSingle at Amazon. It’s sold okay, couple hundred copies, nothing major.

My goal with this story, like it is with all of my work, is to just get my work in front of as many people as possible, and if possible, the right people—my people. Not everyone loves my work—I know that, it’s too dark for some. But the people that really get into it, they seem to enjoy most, if not all of my work, if the like any of it. It’s hard to find that audience, to build up a following over time. If it was easy, we’d all be rich, right?

I’m not J.A. Konrath, I’m not Stephen King, so my stories, even my novels, they’re only selling in the hundreds, not even thousands of copies. That’s the next level, where I want to be. I was happy to see people pick up “Victimized” and to keep downloading it. I mean—it’s only .99 cents. Of course, I’m also surprised when I give it away for a day and then thirty people will grab it. I mean, guys—it’s only .99 cents! HA. But I understand, they may be taking a risk, never heard of me, or maybe they just don’t have any cash at all to spare, I get that too. Mostly I’m just grateful that people want to read it at all, always grateful to have an audience. I don’t think that I’m a big enough name to really succeed by self-publishing. I think I need to grow my audience, land an agent, and a bigger press, and then see where I am. I’m not in a situation where I can just write for a living, I still have to work a real job. In time I hope that writing, editing, teaching—that it’ll all add up to something that can sustain me.

Both “Victimized” and “The Handyman” are among the darker selections from your body of work.

That said, you have a great deal to offer as an author, as your style of storytelling is quite diverse, and often it’s the emotional core of your characters that resonates with readers vs. any “violent” elements or action.

What would you say to new readers, or to attract new readers who aren’t familiar with your work, but are generally turned off by violence? 

Thanks. Yeah—the violence—that’s something that I got away from in my MFA program. My professor, Dale Ray Phillips, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He’s very smart. He told me that he didn’t want any dead bodies, no gratuitous sex, and no twist endings in my thesis work. It was tough at first, until I realized that those elements of my fiction were turning into crutches. So I took some time off from that.

One of those stories, “Terrapin Station,” was accepted by Pear Noir! and ended up becoming my first Pushcart nomination. It’s the story of a man who has walked away from a corporate life, and carves little turtles on a bench in downtown Chicago by Grant Park. He connects with the world around him—a bike messenger, some secretaries that walk by, and a little boy that is dealing with a father that left him. It’s sad, but there’s an element of hope at the end.

So, I’m trying to write more “literary” stories right now. I’m actually shopping four of my stories: “Moving Heavy Objects” about a son confronting his distant father; “Sugar and Spice” about a father dealing with his daughter coming of age; “Garage Sales” about a recently divorced mother and the emotions of a new life with her son, trying to find herself again; and “Chasing Ghosts” about a couple that is struggling, the husband paranoid that his wife is cheating on him (as she did when they were dating) and how that may destroy their marriage, whether she is actually running around or not.

Heck, I even wrote a Christmas story this past October, about the lengths that a man goes to in order to save his family from a brutal winter storm. I know, me writing a Christmas story.

I think my stories will always have a touch of sadness in them, some element of danger or regret. And I’m sure I will always write the dark, violent stories that many people may associate with my work. I just find that no matter what I write, it ends up turning dark, into some sort of tragedy, but I’m trying to find a way to let the light in. I’m experimenting a lot these days, just wrote a few stories that are magical realism tales, the first time I’ve done that. Both are stories that are dark, maybe what you’d call “Grimm” tales, but at the center there is a core of love, of romanticism, of nostalgia. I find that really touching and sweet and compelling. So far, the stories have gone over well, one of them already finding a home. So, I’ll keep playing around. If you like my work, but want something that isn’t as violent or dark, just stay tuned, keep hanging around—I’ll have some stories for you soon. I’d like to be able to show my mother something I’ve done, one of these days.

You appreciate literary fiction as much as genre fiction, and that approach has worked out well for you—it shows in your work, and adds depth to your voice.

For advice to emerging writers, why do you think it’s important to read and study both sides of the fence between literary fiction and genre fiction, especially if a particular writer is already set on going in one direction or the other? 

Thank you, I really appreciate that.

You learn so much from every genre. It doesn’t matter if it’s Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, Stephen King and Peter Straub, or Toni Morrison and Jonathan Franzen—they all have gifts to offer you. Now, that doesn’t mean you’ll like every “acclaimed” author out there. I’ve given up on plenty of authors that are either critically touted, award winning, or financially successful. Just find work that moves you. I’m just lucky that I got the time to study a range of authors in my MFA program, in addition to the genre writers that I grew up reading, as well as so many talented independent voices that are just emerging right now. Read as much as you can. Authors aren’t put into anthologies year after year, they aren’t taught in universities because they suck. But that doesn’t mean I’m rushing out to read Shakespeare, either. You can learn how to create tension by reading crime and horror writers. You can learn to write about emotional truths by reading literary authors. You can learn about settings, language, and cultures by reading fantasy and science fiction. Don’t close off your mind to anything. Find some people that you know and trust, and see what they’re reading. Goodreads.com is a great place for that. Heck, if you like what I’m writing, I do book reviews at The Nervous Breakdown, come see what I’m talking about. Just be open to suggestions. I used to read the same authors, over and over, and was very closed off to new work. But I’ve found so many great voices by taking some chances, by picking up new books by people I’d never heard of before. Hit the library, save a buck. But get out there for sure.

You may see the name Toni Morrison and think, “Yuck, I’m not reading her.” Her novel Beloved had some of the most brutal and yet touching moments I’ve ever read.

In “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave,” and then in “Say Yes To Pleasure” from this summer’s bestselling Warmed and Bound anthology, you write of male characters struggling with their regrets where their partners and relationships are concerned. There’s a lot of male guilt in your stories, actually.

Is there anything from your real life that’s helped you understand or driven you to explore the guilt that men carry in a relationship, or is it simply a matter of this subject fascinating you as an author when creating characters? 

Well, I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes—I’ve screwed up relationships, lost jobs, stolen, lied, killed. Who hasn’t? (Just kidding on that last one.) But for me it’s not so much about what I’ve done, that would be too limiting. It’s about the idea of putting a character into a tough situation and seeing what they do. A coward will run, a fighter will raise his fists, but you may only see what people are really made of when you corner them. There has to be a conflict. In “Twenty Reasons to Stay and One to Leave” it’s very simple—do I stay or do I go? How can I go, he asks himself, after all we’ve been through together? And eventually he asks, how can I stay, when I’m a reminder of all that we’ve lost? It’s the same thing with “Say Yes to Pleasure,” with a protagonist that has made a horrible mistake, an accident that cost a kid his life. He tries to find a way to fix it, when there is really nothing he can do. When he falls for the woman, when emotions like love, and lust, and betrayal all get mixed in there—well, who knows what will happen. Maybe there will be justice, and maybe there won’t.

On the flipside, you can write a female character quite well. In “Victimized,” for example, your character Annabelle makes the shift from “Anna” to “Belle,” thus no longer being a victim. She turns the table around, actually, and it’s apparent through this story and others that you respect the strength of women.

Is it victims of abuse in general, or specifically women suffering abuse of any kind at the hands of men that draws you to the idea of justice for certain abused characters in your stories? 

Well, some people might say that I can’t write women very well at all. But, thanks.

I do try to write women now and then because I don’t want to limit my voices to just men. It gets boring. But I probably did write a few too many “femme fatales” over the past five years. I guess that I was inspired by Jude, a tough female character in the novels of Will Christopher Baer. I like the idea of tough women, of female characters that are more than just tits and ass, and secondary characters. But I’ve probably reduced too many of them to exactly that, even if I didn’t mean to. Annabelle is a complicated person, I thought, and her past, her childhood, I imagined that the abuse, the neglect—it would add up, effect her. Then pair that with a slightly futuristic setting where victims are able to enter the ring and confront their attackers? Man, that sounded like a cool way to go about getting some justice. And it expanded from there. I never knew where it was going, but the ending felt just right when I got there.

Part of what I’m trying to do with my new work is not reduce women to stereotypes. I hope that I did that in some of my literary stories, with the women in primary roles as fully developed people (like in “Garage Sales”) or as secondary characters (like in “Chasing Ghosts”). I am trying to get better, and at least I’m conscious of it. I’d like to think that all of my work is getting better, that I’m learning and growing. We’ll see, right?

There’s a lot of anticipation around your sophomore novel, Disintegration. Can you drop a teaser for us on the plot or any characters, and when do you think we’ll see a release? 

Thanks. Sure. I’ve got the first chapter up at my blog, if you want to read it. Basically it’s kind of a mix of Dexter and Falling Down. A man loses his family, sees them crash and die right in front of him, and falls apart. While in the midst of that downward spiral he meets a man who offers him lodging and a job. It starts out as simple work, taking packages here and there, but quickly evolves into some much more sinister. He feels that the world is without justice, and the only thing he can do to make up for the seemingly random deaths of his family, is to start killing the drug dealers and pedophiles and rapists that wander around the streets of Chicago (specifically in the Wicker Park area where I lived for ten years). In time, things get complicated. There is a woman in his life, but we aren’t sure she’s real. He slowly starts to care again. There’s a dominatrix that he falls for. And of course, that’s when the few people he opens up to again start disappearing, start dying—and he may be partly to blame.

“Every time I kill I get a new tattoo. I have a lot of tattoos.”

Disintegration is a dark book for sure, definitely some of my most tragic material. And there is definitely sex and violence in this one. But I think there is something to be gained from going through this experience, from following our unnamed protagonist down the rabbit hole. I mean, Romeo and Juliet, that’s a double-suicide, right? Films like Seven and Requiem for a Dream and The Machinist—they all found an audience. So, I’m hopeful that this will get out there soon. I’m working on it as we speak.

Richard, we thank you very much your time. It’s been a huge pleasure for us, and we can’t wait to see what the rest of 2012 has in store for you. We’ll be reading with much excitement!

Transubstantiate is Available at These Locations:

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Transubstantiate-Richard-Thomas/dp/0982607245/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1327090818&sr=1-3

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/transubstantiate-richard-thomas/1100075435?ean=9780982607244&itm=1&usri=richard+thomas+transubstantiate

Otherworld Publications: http://www.otherworldpublications.com/store/products/transubstantiate-by-richard-thomas/

Buy “Victimized” Here: http://www.amazon.com/Victimized-ebook/dp/B004QS98VO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1327090818&sr=1-1

Read “Misty,” a Brand New Story from Richard at ManArchy Magazine: http://manarchymag.com/core/2011/12/misty-by-richard-thomas/

 “The Handyman” at Conjectural Figments: http://issuu.com/conjecturalfigments/docs/conjecturalfigments_feb_2012

“Twenty Reasons to Stay and One To Leave” at Metazen: http://www.metazen.ca/?p=7486

“Splintered” at PANK: http://www.pankmagazine.com/splintered/

Visit Richard at http://whatdoesnotkillme.com/ or at http://transubstantiate.net/

Read Richard’s latest Storyville column at LitReactor: http://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-research-and-duotrope            ,


Richard Thomas was the winner of contests at ChiZine/Chiaroscuro, JotSpeak and Cafe Doom/One Buck Horror. He has published over fifty 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), the Noir at the Bar anthology, Speedloader (Snubnose Press), Murky Depths, Gargoyle, PANK, Pear Noir!, Weird Fiction Review, Word Riot, 3:AM Magazine, and Opium. His debut novel Transubstantiate was released in July of 2010. He received four Pushcart nominations in 2011. In his spare time he writes book reviews at The Nervous Breakdown and a column for Lit Reactor.

He can be reached at his blog, WhatDoesNotKillMe.com.

5 thoughts on “Dreaming Neo-Noir: An interview with Richard Thomas

  1. Pingback: Dreaming Neo-Noir: An Interview With Richard Thomas | Solarcide: a writers hideout.

  2. Great interview. Sorry, I’m just getting around to reading it. A quick follow-up for you Richard, could you further define what neo-noir is to you? Some of my work has also been called neo-noir, but I’m not sure quite what it means. I’ve often called my style of noir grotesque noir, which could possibly be just a further refinement of neo-noir. I don’t know, maybe I’m just a definition freak. I try to much to categorize things, I think.

  3. Hey, Caleb, thanks for stopping by.

    I looked over your definition of grotesque noir vs. what I consider neo-noir, and I don’t think they’re that far apart. I see neo-noir as just contemporary dark fiction (from the French for “new-black”). So in my head that’s everything from Dennis Lehane and Stephen Graham Jones to the films of David Lynch, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan.

    I think that NN vs GN relies more on the real vs. the surreal, or the normal gone wrong vs. the supernatural gone wrong. I kind of think Transubstantiate leans towards the grotesque where Disintegration leans towards noir. For some reason with NN I think of urban, typically, cities where crimes are committed, dark alleys, that kind of vibe. The grotesque can be anywhere, of course, but I get kind of a “nature” feel which can be the woods or outdoors, or in the hands of a talented surrealist like Murakami, still in a city, but in the cracks, wells, and trees.

    I think that a struggle involving morality (what to do and what to not do) could apply to either. There are rules (Fight Club) and a way of behaving (Dexter) but in a world that is unpredictable (Mulholland Drive) how do those rules change? Based on your post at your blog I think you have a pretty good handle on it.

    Another sub-genre is trangressive, which can also be applied to a lot of this, and to me, that just means a sense of anarchy or uprising against the rules of man/society/nature etc., refusing to stay in line.

    Thanks for the great questions!

  4. Pingback: The Nova Vault | Solarcide: a writers hideout.

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