An Interview with Jeffrey Thomas,
Jeffrey Thomas' work has appeared in such magazines as Dark's
Art Parlour, Gorezone, The Silver Web, Space and Time, Deathrealm,
Terminal Fright, and The Urbanite. Widely recognized
as a master of emotive dark fantasy, Thomas has had stories selected
for awards anthologies such as The Year's Best Fantastic Fiction,
Quick Chills, and The Year's Best Horror Stories. Twenty
of his works have received honorable mentions in various volumes
of The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror and his fiction
has been recommended for the Bram Stoker Award, the Theodore Sturgeon
Memorial Award, and the Pushcart Prize.
His latest book, Punktown, has just been released by my
publishing company, Ministry of Whimsy. It consists of 9 tales
set in Thomas's noir-ish SF/dark fantasy Punktown. Thomas has
his own website devoted to Punktown, http://msnhomepages.talkcity.com/TimesSquare/necropolitan/
Thomas is also a much-published illustrator and the publisher/editor
behind Necropolitan Press. Thomas lives in Westborough, Massachusetts.
The following interview was conducted via snail mail.
His latest book, Punktown, has just been released by my publishing company, Ministry of Whimsy. It consists of 9 tales set in Thomas's noir-ish SF/dark fantasy Punktown. Thomas has his own website devoted to Punktown, http://msnhomepages.talkcity.com/TimesSquare/necropolitan/
Thomas is also a much-published illustrator and the publisher/editor behind Necropolitan Press. Thomas lives in Westborough, Massachusetts.
The following interview was conducted via snail mail.
You've often described yourself as a solitary person, a writer who quite genuinely most enjoys the actual process of creation above all else. What most inspires you to write?
In one way, I write short fiction because I've had better luck placing it than I have my novels! I actually went something like fifteen years between writing short stories, during which time I only wrote novels and poetry. But I started getting intensely interested in short fiction right after having discovered the work of Lovecraft and Clive Barker (whose short work I prefer to his novels), and my discovery of the myriad publications of the small press shortly thereafter cemented it. Though it started out as a form I was settling for, now I truly feel that the horror story, at least, is most often better served by the short story ... it's truer to the origin of the horror story: that spooky tale told 'round the campfire that made the fire all the more comforting and one's cold hunched back all the more vulnerable to the darkness behind. The short story form is thus akin to conversation, to song; it's closer to the myth, the fairy tale, the bedtime story ... For me, creating a story is a mode of expression for the kid who never overcame his great shyness, and affirmation for the insecure teenager who needed convincing of his self worth ... to win some feeling of self esteem ... [and,] of course, there is just the pleasure taken in doing something you (hopefully) do well, the greatest reward being in the act itself ... working those muscles, working up a good mental sweat, having the doors open and the good stuff flowing freely ... it's when I feel best about myself, the only time I feel I am what I should be.
Please describe how you write--do you do long-hand drafts, for example. And what process do you go through in editing and revising your rough drafts?
Until about the time I discovered the small press in the late 80's, I wrote entirely by hand--ball-point on lined pads--and had to pay others to type up my stories for me. Needless to say, I didn't do much heavy revising ... just a lot of crossing out and inserting balloons. Having a word processor makes revising, inserting, deleting, shuffling so much easier. Still, at first when I got my word processor, not only did I barely revise, but I think I may have even printed out and submitted stories without having read them fully through, or at least having given them a final polish. (Somehow, though, I've placed nearly all those stories, and even count some of them as my favorites; guess I trusted my instincts better and worked more intuitively, then, when I flew without a net.) Now I will read a story through carefully and give it a final polish with an eye for redundancy, clarity of phrasing, etc. But rarely have I ever drafted an idea first. Jotted a few notes, maybe, but I almost always dive right into it, and sink or swim. It's more spontaneous to me that way, more like life, and I truly try to live inside my stories. Thomas Hardy used to plot out his stories like a spider spinning a web, but the man was trained as an architect. And he would revise a book over and over again through its renewed printings. It's all in one's style, what one feels comfortable with, but my dad is an artist and he told me you could just work and work on one painting all your life, fiddling and picking, but that you should know when to stop and move on to the next painting, before you kill whatever's fresh in that one.
What part of being a writer do you most dislike?
Trying to sell a story; more specifically, rejections. (Then, having half the magazines and books you sell to never even appear.)
What makes you angry or emotional?
See the above. The endings of Disney movies move me to tears. It's that little kid inside me again. Once on CNN I saw a very brief clip of a little black girl, a toddler I think, who had had a heart/lung transplant, and she was just shuffling along looking like she'd been tortured but she had this beautiful smile on her face, and I remember just bursting into tears. And I was glad; it was during a bitter, cynical time in my life (well, an especially bitter, cynical time) and it reminded me I was still human. What angers me is that a toddler would have to have a heart/lung transplant. Every article in the newspaper angers me. Everything angers me. I'm one angry dude. I hate stupidity, and injustice, and having to work eight priceless hours a day for soulless evil motherfuckers with Mr. Rogers smiles who don't deserve to suck air ... oh, don't get me started.
What do you most fear? And how does that work its way into your fiction?
I'm most afraid of losing my loved ones, especially my son and my wife. When I was first married, I would occasionally wake up in the middle of the night with this despair that my wife would die some day. Hell, before I met my wife, I went through the same thing when I got my new dog! And when my son was born, I'd have to check him every night to make sure he was breathing. It's obviously a sign of great insecurity, but it's also a sign of great love. Aside from that, I fear everything the way I hate everything. I don't think you can convey fear and horror well, or as well, without feeling it intensely yourself. That's why King and Lovecraft are so effective. King's afraid of the dark, afraid to stretch his feet out to the end of the bed lest something should grab them. Lovecraft had an aversion to music, the ocean, cold, foreigners, and so on and so on ... and this helplessness and feeling of loss of control over one's world and one's self can't help but influence and inform one's work either directly or unconsciously. Again, I think it's that connection to childhood, when the imagination is so bright and fears so keen. I think people who write fantastical work tend to remain very sensitive to their childhood ghosts, be they beautiful or terrifying.
When an author "gets" to you, what, typically, is the reason?
It can be an especially beautiful passage of prose (Kathe Koja just pummels me with these!), an especially high-flying feat of imagination, an especially biting observation, an especially moving or tragic development in plot. The creation of an especially alive character, like Hardy's Tess.
What book has had the most devastating effect on you and why?
Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, for the above reasons (okay, maybe not the high-flying imagination part; it isn't a "genre" piece). He made me both empathize with Tess as if I were Tess, and fall in love with her as if she were a real woman. I reflected at the time of reading it that I was more concerned for the Fate (Fate has a capital F in Hardy's grim universe) of this fictitious character than I was for the real flesh and blood persons who I read about in newspaper stories. Well, hey, the writing was better. This is the power of fiction. I felt guilty for this greater concern, when I reflected on it, but I needn't have; the fiction was still exercising my human emotions, as they were activated when I saw that little girl on CNN. I ached for this fictitious woman, and I raged in anger at the injustices of her society and those who hurt her. Also, Tess is a gorgeously written novel; Hardy is one of the great poets in addition to being one of the great novelists (and one of his dusty old rhyming poems can move me more intensely than a dozen huge, modern novels combined). Tess is philosophical, existential; the plot would have been a soap opera in other hands, so it proves to me that a writer's voice and heart can be far more important than the bare plot of a story.
The question of a favorite writer is perhaps overused, so let me instead ask you what writer has had the greatest impact on you, positive or negative.
Hardy again. William Peter Blatty had a great impact on me, again because The Exorcist-- my favorite horror novel--was not only effectively plotted, but inhabited by breathing characters and written by a man who thinks and feels very deeply and dares to write art at the same time that he entertains the masses (as Hardy and Dickens did when their classics were serialized in magazines). I've mentioned Lovecraft, and fifteen years before him, my short stories were most influenced by Ray Bradbury.
What do you think made you turn to horror as opposed to some other type of literature? (Your SF is very often horrific as well.)
As a boy I loved both horror and SF movies, but I think I preferred SF movies and SF in my play, in my toys, my reading. And, eventually, even in my writing. But when I began to submit my first novels, they combined SF and horror--a tendency of mine, as you point out--very heavily, and an agent or two suggested I not cross genres (guess they never read Lovecraft or Frankenstein), so I started writing novels that were more purely either horror or SF. Genre does come into it, here, I'm afraid. I had the notion, the dogma, of genre forced upon me, in a sense, as most of us do when trying to make it to the bookracks. Anyway, by the time I encountered the small press about ten years later, I had developed more and more of an interest in horror. Thus, from that point up until very recently I was writing more horror than SF. Now I feel comfortable writing in either genre, or returning to my earlier interest in combining the two. As to "why", in the sense of what impels me to express the emotion of horror, return to the question about fear. Exercising a sense of control over one's anxieties, venting one's demons, or then there's just the delight in communicating any emotion to your readers, getting them to react in some way. (Return to the "joy of creation" question; another part of that is anticipating, as you write a scary passage, that it could actually scare, that a sexy passage could actually arouse, that you could actually make a reader angry or laugh or weep). I'm not too interested in technology and SF seems more tech oriented than interested in other cultures, civilizations, etc. right now. But fear ... that never goes away.
Let's talk about Punktown. How did the place arise in your imagination and how radically has it changed since you first conceived of it?
I conceived of Punktown in 1980, just before I was advised not to mix genres. I wanted to create a world where I could mix any genre, all genres; I had this kind of sudden brainstorm to create a backdrop against which I could practice all manner of satire and social commentary--Punktown would be Now, only more so ... it would be Then. A kind of grotesque caricature of society, but done in a phantasmagorical style, like a Bosch painting with all its intricate detail and symbolism (though the meaning of much of his symbolism is now lost to us). Or, like Alice in Wonderland. Punktown is my Wonderland, my Oz, my Hardy's Wessex and my Bradbury's Mars.
As for its name ... well, of course, it was the time of punk. But I worked in a boot factory then, and actually did a great deal of my writing at work when I'd caught up on my duties. I wrote my first Punktown novel almost entirely at work. At that time there was that song called "Funkytown"--I think that's its title--and in the noisy plant, I thought they were saying "Punktown", at first. It stuck. (Later on, in a bogus map in an issue of "The National Lampoon", I found they had come up with a "Punktown", too! But Punktown is the nickname its denizens use, as its actual name is Paxton.) Initially, Punktown was a single book in three large parts which would be self-contained stories but for the very last scene. I invited my brother Scott (interviewed elsewhere in infinity plus) to write the first part, my friend Tom Hughes to write the middle, and I wrote the last section. Later we wrote a second book in the same way, and started on a third. I finished my novel-length section of that one, but Tom and Scott never finished their portions. Scott's, in fact, was going to be a collection of short stories rather than a short novel ... but he only ended up writing one of these, a cool bullet-riddled tale called "Veterans". None of these early projects has ever been typed up and submitted, however.
I've continued to write Punktown novels over the years, never again in collaboration. There was another three-sectioned book, though entirely written by me, called "Head", and then there are my two favorite Punktown novels -- "Everybody Scream!", which takes place in the course of one day in a Punktown carnival, following many little plots that begin to all weave together (if Punktown is a cosmic microcosm of our world, then the carnival served as a symbolic microcosm within the microcosm), and "Health Agent", a gritty noir-like police thriller. Eventually I wrote Punktown poems, Punktown short stories ... Scott and I have even filmed feature-length Punktown video movies with elaborate (for us, at least) makeups and special effects. I've placed a good number of my Punktown short stories now, though as I say I have yet to prepare a novel manuscript for submission. In the title story--a novella--of my self-published collection "The Bones of the Old Ones" I actually combined Punktown with Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, to good reviews ... ahem. In any case, Punktown is my all-purpose fantasy world where anything can happen--again, just like real life. I can write a Punktown love story, gangster story ... there are millions of stories in the big city. I have almost never reused characters, and don't strive to map out or link up the history of Punktown, taking my cue again from Bradbury's very different mix of Mars stories. Not, by any means, to knock very elaborately constructed dream worlds like Tolkein's, but I like to keep Punktown one great amorphous Everycity.
Punktown has changed a lot over the better part of two decades. It wasn't quite as big, as towering, in my initial conception. My own increasing city experiences helped build it up. Originally it was more Worcester, Massachusetts than Boston, Massachusetts; eventually it became more New York, and then some. I conceived of Punktown before I saw "Blade Runner" or read Dick's source novel, but things like "Blade Runner" helped me to enlarge upon the city, spread it out and up. But I view the changing face of Punktown as reflecting the passage of time, its constant growth. This is illustrated in my three "Head" stories, which all revolve around one building in Punktown, and the people who live there over many years. In that book, little details change over the years ... weapons become more sophisticated, a depression occurs, the money standard changes. A terrible earthquake buries whole sections of the subway system, sealing them off and turning them into mysterious labyrinths. And yet a new vast underground city is built beneath Punktown so that it grows not only up but down. More and more races from other worlds and even other dimensions immigrate to settle in this Earth-colonized city on the planet Oasis.
What does Punktown do for you as a writer that a more traditional setting does not?
As I say, anything can happen in Punktown. I can make and break all the rules in this fantasy playground. The puppet show can be much more extravagant, less constricted by genre expectations. Right off the bat I'm in an alien world, and that helps keep me in an inventive mode.
In many of your Punktown stories you display a compassion for your characters generally at odds with much of contemporary horror. Do you feel it is necessary for the author to show compassion in order to feel compassion?
It's sad that this is something one might perceive as different, unusual. I can't imagine why so many horror writers seem to disdain their characters. How can they bear to spend time with them? Why throw an elaborate party and invite all these people you don't like? Again, I try to live in my characters' skins ... I don't want to live in the skin of some four-hundred-pound chainsaw-wielding in-bred cannibal psycho. Not to say--at all--that I want my characters to be cowboys in white Stetsons. But I want them, however flawed, even if mightily flawed, to at least be human beings (even if alien) one can identify with. I think it's the same thing I said regarding fear. If the writer feels the fear, he/she is more likely to convey the fear. If I feel compassion for a character, I am more likely to inspire compassion. You can fake it, go through the motions, but I think the reader can tell the difference. Much modern horror is so mean-spirited and pessimistic that it would seem uncool, corny, to do it otherwise--but I disagree. You can paint with the darkest colors but still imbue the work with some humanity. One would be hard pressed to find a movie grimmer than "Dawn of the Dead", but it is not mean-spirited, for all its exploding heads. Romero clearly cares about his characters, no matter how tragically they die, and when at the end a living biker gang comes and slaughters the helpless zombies who up to now have been perceived as the monsters it's a thrilling show of compassion that we and the protagonists are horrified at their slaughter, and we realize that the undead are no more consciously evil than a shark is evil. That Romero could make the zombies so very scary and yet also so tragic proves him to be a very compassionate practitioner of horror.
There is also an element of beauty in your work. Do you believe horror and beauty can be effectively combined?
The quickest and best way for me to indicate how beauty and horror can be blended is to direct one to a painting by H. R. Geiger. They are supremely ghastly and repulsive, and utterly gorgeous. Again, as with compassion, there is no reason to separate beauty from horror, yin from yang. The beauty can make the horror all the more horrifying, as the innocence of the child in "The Exorcist" makes her possessing demon all the more heinous. Beauty can be found in a dead crab washed up in the surf, or a ray of afternoon sunlight glowing on a row of abandoned factory machines thick with dust and grease. Unexpected beauty, melancholy beauty, terrible beauty. A great white shark is beautiful. I think graveyards are tremendously beautiful. My mother used to walk us through our local cemeteries in strollers, take us to play there, even have picnics there, as if they were playgrounds. I kissed my wife for the first time in a graveyard. I sound like a goth now; a round of absinthe for everybody!
Which of your short stories most perfectly displays, to your mind, those qualities you most strive for in your fiction?
I'd have to say "The Reflections of Ghosts", from my "Punktown" collection, as it hopefully achieves that balance of beauty and horror, and compassion, you mention. I was very rewarded when that story, after its initial appearance in "The Silver Web", received an honorable mention in St. Martin's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and a recommendation for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award--thus, being recognized as both a horror story and a science fiction story. As an artist, I enjoy writing about artists, another attraction to this tale. And then there's the element of romance ... Oh, and sex. Mutants. It's got it all.
Your brother Scott is also a writer. Have you both always wanted to be writers, or did one follow the other's lead? And how much overlap do you see between his work and yours? Do you often share ideas?
Scott (the younger of the Flying Thomas Brothers) and I started out making our own comic books as kids and later horror movie magazines patterned after "Famous Monsters of Filmland" (I credit this with my adult ventures as a publisher). Scott and I have been immeasurably important in each other's growth; in youth, our visions were totally intertwined, so much of our creativity a collaboration. We also enjoyed a totally amicable sibling rivalry, a friendly one-upmanship that only helped to make us more and more inventive and work harder at what we were doing. We have shared, probably subconsciously stolen each other's ideas, even in adulthood, and there is still overlap in our visions, though at the same time, as we have gone our own ways as adults, we have forged independent visions. Scott's best work these days are his tragic and beautiful fantasy stories set in his dream world of choice, called Westermead. I've barely dabbled in fantasy, and have remained a citizen of Punktown. We've been talking about collaborating on a short story, which we've never done. We are violently supportive of each other's work. We've appeared in many of the same magazines, often in the same issue -- I recently illustrated a story of his for Lore--and our greatest gratification as writers to date has been that we both appeared in DAW Books' The Year's Best Horror Stories ... the same volume, no less; a fact which editor Karl Edward Wagner made much of.
Why do you think the bottom has fallen out of the horror market?
Too many asses write it ... No doubt these formula-spewing hacks wearied even the "Baywatch"-sucking masses into apathy, which is saying a lot. Hopefully all the young adult horror will reap a new crop of horror readers, though some warn that even as they get older these readers continue devouring R. L. Stine rather than moving on to more sophisticated offerings.
What are you currently working on?
My output has been very little, of late, as I've been very involved in illustration work and more particularly, in publishing other authors in chapbooks like W. H. Pugmire's Tales of Sesqua Valley and the horror collection Terata: Anomalies of Literature, through my Necropolitan Press. Now that my son is going to school and my wife and I work the same shift again, and I'm not looking after my son alone every night, I'm hoping to work on a novel again in the near future. But I certainly wouldn't give up short fiction writing.
If you could be anything in the world other than a writer, what would you be?
A film director (a la David Lynch or Martin Scorcese; yeah, right!), or an artist, which at least I already am.
What is your favorite word?
"Fuck" is a very effective, expressive, all-encompassing and satisfying word to me; I love saying it (remember, I'm the angry dude; fuck sensitivity). I have no real favorite, but some words just taste so great. Like "obsidian". Some of us have teased brother Scott about his frequent use of "gelatinous"; I told him he should work it into every story he writes, somehow. It is a tasty word ... gelatinous ... Again, it's sad that so much writing shows an "insensitivity" to language, a rushed Spartan style more akin to script than prose which smacks of an impatience or even disdain for words. These writers would do better to write for comic books, or video games. I believe all writing, however entertaining, should be conceived of and consciously written as literature. Unfortunately one often has to look outside the genre writers to find horror written with this philosophy ... in unexpected places, as in collections by Thomas Hardy ("The Withered Arm", "Barbara, of the House of Grebe") or Yukio Mishima ("Thermos Bottles", "Swaddling Clothes"), writers we don't associate with horror. But all the hackwork makes the artistry of a Kathe Koja all the richer to the taste buds.
If the world was going to end in 30 minutes, what would you want to convey to your readers and/or your family in your last written work?
Under those circumstances, I would want to convey that although we were all to die soon it wouldn't have been a pointless phenomenon that we had ever existed. Lovecraft revised (in other words, wrote) a story for R. H. Barlow called "Til a' the Seas" in which he describes a drought which gradually kills all life on Earth, leaving us at last with one young man who himself dies by falling into a well of water and striking his head (what a comedian, that Lovecraft!). But the beautiful thing about this story is that Lovecraft tells it from afar, as if from a great height, like a dispassionate historian. Finally he moves in close, to the youth, and instead of sweeping history we get the desperate struggles of this one lone guy. When he dies, the "camera", so to speak, pulls far way again. Lovecraft says mankind's existence was thus a "negligible episode" ... "as if it had never existed" ... that humans "mattered not to distant nebulae or to suns new-born." Yet, in the last paragraph the camera rushes quickly back to the man in the well. He says, "But when the deadly sun's first rays" shine into the well, they fall upon the face of this one man in that pit he tumbled into while trying to save his own life. The key word is the first in the sentence: "But". It illustrates the power one carefully chosen, even mundane, word can possess. He is saying, sure, to the universe we mean nothing. But ... BUT ... on the other hand, this man was his own universe. His desperation, his thirst, his will to live was no less important than anything that had ever happened. He takes us from the cosmos back to the individual. So I would want to convey something of that thought. To say that I don't really believe in a big picture, because the big picture means that my dog will die, my wife will die, my son and I and this whole planet will die. The actor/director Rob Reiner once said that he is plagued with depression, and he could only remember one moment in his life when he was truly happy; looking off at some mountains, alone on a road somewhere, I believe. Granted, one would hope for more happy moments than that--watching one's child be born, the act of writing a story--but each of those brief, ephemeral experiences is as big as a universe. Eternity isn't important; only moments matter.
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© Jeff VanderMeer 13 May 2000