An Interview with Scott Thomas
by Forrest Aguirre
Sibling dynamics are fascinating to me, being the father of four children. Brothers and sisters shine in different areas, each a unique human being. Author Scott Thomas, brother of author Jeffrey Thomas (interviewed elsewhere in infinity plus), understands this well. While some might see the timing of Scott's most recent work, Cobwebs and Whispers, as his literary chance to emerge from the shadows of his brothers Punktown collection, readers might be better served by viewing the brothers as a binary star system, both stars beautiful and brilliant, yet fundamentally different.
Scott Thomas's work has appeared in several small press magazines, including Flesh and Blood, Penny Dreadful and Elegies, among others. His writing voice echoes that of the turn-of-the-century English ghost story, though his fiction is not so easily pigeon-holed. He has dabbled in science fiction, historical fiction and the visual arts. Indeed, Scott Thomas may thought of as a modern Renaissance Man.
I interviewed him via email in August of 2001.
Forrest Aguirre: Your stories take place primarily in either New England or the United Kingdom. You seem to be able to create, at least in my mind, a distinctive feel between the two - that is I know when I'm reading "in" New England and when I'm reading "in" the UK. The distinction is subtle, however. How do you pull this off?
Scott Thomas: Well. Forrest, I think that in order to transport the reader to either of these locations, I myself have to possess a firm sense of where a particular story is taking place. If I can put myself there, conjure the atmosphere, transport myself, so to speak, I can better evoke it for the reader. It comes down, largely, to imagination, embellished, at times, by research.
Once I'm in the spirit of a piece, I try to convey the setting with a flavor that will make it feel like Britain or New England. The dialog would be an obvious factor and for me, seeing as mood is crucial, I'll paint in details, sensations or images to reinforce that certain sense of place.
While I'm a New Englander, slightly more than half of the stories in Cobwebs and Whispers take place in England and one is set in France. The others are based in New England, but for "The Beast on the Plain" which happens in Wyoming.
FA: Dialect seems to be a factor here in creating the atmosphere. How does one make it sound "natural" and not forced?
ST: I guess for me, it's sort of like acting, getting into the characters and speaking the way they would speak. Yes, it's almost like taking on a role in a way. In all my dialog, whether it's a contemporary piece or set in the past, accent or not, I try to be realistic about it.
I like the mannered British way of speaking and, in terms of technically recreating it, I've been an observer. I've looked at the way country folk speak in Thomas Hardy's writing, how people talked in Dickens and M.R. James' works. I've listened and absorbed from countless sources in movies and television. I also have a book on the English language which goes into great detail about the nuances of dialect from various regions of England. I researched the particulars of Cockney for a character in "The Cathedral at Humberfield", so as to make his dialog as convincing as possible. It was fascinating, but in the end I actually had to water it down some to make it intelligible to non-Cockneys!
FA: Your love of nature is obvious. Some of your passages read like Sigurd Olsen, Aldo Leopold or August Derleth (in his Wisconsin naturalist phase, that is). How have these or other naturalist writings influenced your own style?
ST: I'm sorry to say that I haven't read any of those you've named. I was unaware that Derleth had been a naturalist. That's interesting. The works of England's Edwardian naturalist Edith Holden hold a great appeal for me. She was wistfully enthusiastic in her love of nature and her artwork was lovely; gentle watercolors that captured her subjects both realistically and almost magically. She's certainly had some degree of influence on me.
Sadly, Edith Holden drowned in the Thames while collecting chestnut blossoms. A death both hideous and poetic, I think.
In a case like this, it's hard to distinguish how much influence she's had as opposed to how much I naturally (no pun intended) resonate with her, being kindred on some level. Though her works were very much in mind when I wrote both "Crow Apples" (I borrowed the diary format) and "Touched with Broken Clouds".
FA: Not long ago, you shared with me the fact that "Hunter of Gulls" - one of my favorite stories from your collection Cobwebs and Whispers, incidentally - was a product of whimsy. Is this typical of your work, this being struck in the face by your muse, or do you take a more systematic approach?
ST: There's no set pattern really. I find the creative process to be a mysterious thing. Sometimes I'll get that sudden spark type of idea (from who knows where?!) and other times it's an impression or an image, or a single line, maybe. It's strange because I'm not bombarded daily by ideas, but if I sit down to write something, it's as if I'm tuning in to this latent resource and a story will start to form, will come to me and take shape. I recently internally likened it to moving the dial of an AM radio...the fuzzy bits coming in, more or less, out of the amorphous static. Then it's largely instinct, pieces coming together or a sense of motion, like music (although I can't write music, unfortunately!).
I don't mean to suggest that I sit down and the writing just pours out of me; much of what I just said refers to the way story ideas originate. The actual writing can be slow and meticulous, though I find that when I'm using a first person voice, the process moves more swiftly than when I'm using third person. There are occasions when a story seems to just flow out, and I like when that happens.
FA: Recently you completed a story set in medieval Japan. I also know of your penchant for historical details (what small arms were in use by the British army in any given era, for instance). How do you pursue historical knowledge for a story? Is it haphazard, or do you tend to immerse yourself in research for a given piece?
ST: How much, if any, research I do for a story will depend on the particular story. I don't want to burden a reader with too much history, so as to distract from the stories' greater purposes, but I like enough details to make the setting convincing. I'll use touches rather than immersion. Yes, it really does vary. For me the research isn't simply the gathering of information, but something of a tuning in process. Usually, if I'm researching at all, I'll tend to over-research and then pare down what I'll actually use, because, as I said, it's largely a process of situating myself in a period.
Again, the resources I turn to will depend on the story...I may just want to find out about a type of carriage or clothing from a particular year, something about early photography or weapons. I'm fairly familiar with the monuments of prehistoric Britain, so that has come in handy (plus I have wonderful books to turn to, if need be). I have an interesting variety of books that have proved useful, some that used to belong to my Grandmother, like one about life in the 1700s, in the town where I grew up. I have handy books on the history of firearms, folklore, old houses. Robert Service's poetic study of World War One, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, helped give me a sense of things for my story "The Harvest of War". A book on the techniques of a country veterinarian in 1909 proved an inspiration and a practical reference for my story "The Puppet and the Train".
You mentioned my recently written ancient Japanese story. "Door to the Unborn Sea" was a larger than usual research expedition for me. I used the Internet and a number of books my mother has let me adopt. I read some of Miyamoto Musashi's A Book of Five Rings, a samurai's fighting guide, which was popular with yuppie cutthroats in the 80s (for business strategy - how sickening). It was a very thorough research experience, but, again, I paired down and used only a fraction of what I'd gathered. For that one I also bought some CDs of traditional Japanese music which I played during the writing.
FA: So do you play Celtic music when writing stories set in the UK or early American music when writing your New England stories?
ST: I don't have much early American music at the moment, I'm afraid, but I have a good collection of traditional music from the British Isles. More often than not I will deliberately play something that will comfortably accompany whatever I'm trying to write, if not inspire it. Whatever the location, I'll often have the music of Italian composer/violinist (of the 1600s) Arcangelo Corelli playing, if I'm writing about the past. It's incredible, evocative stuff. I think that he embodied the high point of what humans can do with creativity. A blind Irish harper, Turlough O'Carolan, of roughly the same period as Corelli, also reached those heights with his compositions and his music makes for fine writing company. The traditional interpretations and original works of Robin Williamson have great power for me, as do other wonderful Celtic performers. Steeleye Span did some very cool things with English folk tunes.
There are times when I will write in silence, of course and sometimes what I play isn't as important as is its ability to stir the creative juices. And...much of the time, I'll put a CD on and not even really hear it, once the writing takes over my mind.
FA: How would you respond to those who would accuse you of being stuck in a literary time warp? Is there a modern sensibility to the stories of Scott Thomas?
ST: I'll answer the second part of this question first. In regards to Cobwebs and Whispers (all the stories are set between the 1700s and World War One), I'd imagine that as a writer writing in the 21st Century, there must be an unavoidable measure of contemporary sensibilities at play. While some themes or impressions might be universal or timeless (to toss out some clichés), the issue of technology, that I've taken on in a number of stories, like "Joseph Warren's Invention" and "The Puppet and the Train", certainly relates to our current state of technology worship. But mostly, I wanted the stories to take the reader away from our manic, loud, plastic world to a quiet, old, slower place.
Further...in terms of modern sensibilities, the majority of the short fiction that I've written isn't set in the past. I do have a novel-sized collection of unpublished stories (Westermead) that is set in a fantastical realm similar to our past 1600s, though, and I love setting stories in past times. But, to answer the other part of the question, much as I would enjoy being associated with period pieces, I wouldn't want it to be an obscuring label either. I write contemporary work and even things set in the future. A few months back I wrote some stories set in Punktown, the dark, futuristic city created by my brother Jeffrey (we plan to join forces on a collection of Punktown tales).
FA: The influence of Dylan Thomas and MR James seems huge in your work. What contemporary authors do you enjoy?
ST: Well, I have to apologize to anyone that I don't name, but it's largely a matter of scope and familiarity... I haven't gotten to a fraction of what I'd like to, reading wise. What I read is mostly from the independent press - and then, not even enough of it. Some remarkable writers, in my eyes, would be my brother Jeffrey, who's always been an inspiration, and the likes of Jeff VanderMeer, Wilum H. Pugmire, Michael Pendragon, Mark McLaughlin and you too, Forrest!
FA (blushing): Thank you. Your works tend to be short, poetic and pack a punch. Any thoughts about doing longer work such as a novella or novel?
ST: I'm comfortable with the short story. Was it Poe that said the short story was the perfect form for horror? The Perfect Form - say, wasn't that a movie? Or was that a Playtex living bra commercial? Now watch infinity plus get sued because I mentioned a trademark! Oops - sorry!
Actually I've written my share of novels, going back to the 5th grade. It's been about ten years or so since the last. It seems confining to me to think of committing so much to one story. I prefer to read and write short fiction. That aside, I just may write a novel or two in the future.
FA: Your brother, Jeffrey, has gotten quite a bit of attention with his collection Punktown, with one story being reprinted in Datlow and Windling's Year's Best Fantasy and Horror collection. How is Cobwebs and Whispers being received thus far? Do you boys ever go to fisticuffs over this sort of thing?
ST: Jeffrey's Punktown has been a magnet for praise and it's entirely worthy. It's a brilliant, haunting masterpiece. So far as Cobwebs and Whispers goes, I'm happy to say that it's been received very well. Knock on wood...I have not heard a single complaint...quite the contrary!
Jeffrey and I are very supportive of and receptive to each other's work. We celebrate each other's successes.
FA: Speaking of you and Jeffrey, issues of family, love and marriage permeate your work. Is there anything biographical about your tales in this regard?
ST: I suppose there are odd bits of the autobiographical interspersed here and there, though largely, my work displays me in its essence more than its particulars. One may know me very well from reading my work, but not because I write about personal incidents. There are a few exceptions, like a couple of stories that came out of the divorce from my first wife.
FA: But it seems fairly obvious that you have put some time into thinking about these issues. I am touched, at times, by your emotional frankness in this regard.
ST: Thanks, Forrest! I suppose there is a lot of honesty in my work, honest emotion. As for those issues...family, love, marriage...all the haunting, melancholy elements of drama are there. The tragic, the beautiful, the promise of life and its great sadness. Irresistible colors to paint with! Maybe there's something more to it than that - introspectively elusive things I'm compelled to write about, explore, express. Those three things you mentioned are pretty heavy issues. Damn, that sounded pretentious. Here, I'll make a silly face to lighten things up!
FA: I'm fascinated by the seeming double life of authors of dark work and often wonder myself why I write what I write. I've found you to be a warm, caring person - concerned, compassionate, etc. So where the heck do you come up with some of the sick stuff you write? Take me into that dark cave in your brain. How did it form there? More importantly, how do you peer in, interface with and draw such vile water from your abyssal well?
ST: Thanks, Forrest! Takes a compassionate person to recognize one.
A perplexing question! It's fascinating for me to see how very nice my horror writing friends are and yet they create these dark or bloody or hideous things. Maybe we're an especially sensitive lot and this is our way of processing the ugly, frightening things in the world, or, conversely (in a supernatural or spiritual vein), confronting the mysteries of life and death.
I have myself recently wondered why I am compelled to write about terrible things. I am very, very concerned with beauty and yet here I am, a horror writer! A curious duality...it is truly strange. Monsters and ghosts held a great fascination for me as a child, but I've been a fearful (at least anxiety-ridden) creature forever, so maybe some cross-pollination of those elements formed this inclination...? I was readily drawn to horror as a child - horror movies, magazines, books, television shows like The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, Night Gallery, etc.
I think I'm basically a good hearted person - I rescue bugs, even bees and wasps with my bare hands and carry them outside - and I despair over the tragic state of the world, the injustice and rage and cruelty, the greed and ignorance, our destruction of the planet. Sometimes I think a good heart looks upon the ugliness and sadness of the world with an all too painful clarity. Maybe this is why I have a fascination with the horrors of humanity. I even save clippings, sort of a misanthropic collection of proofs that I call my Vile File, that demonstrate what wretched monsters humans can be. Things from the newspapers and such.
So yes, I am intrigued and bewildered by the darkness, but I think in some ways, my stories are an escapist's turning away from the true horrors to the safe horrors of the supernatural. I'm not going to go so far as to conject upon whether supernatural horror is a stylized synthesizing of real life horrors, but only that for me, reading or writing a ghost story is a fine way to hide from a pop-culture society of yuppie-style non-ethics, crime, superficiality, contemporary fad "music" and all that is dangerous and despicable in our present reality. Call me old fashioned.
For whatever reason, I have an almost instinctive ability to access those dark waters that you refer to. Some of that may be astrological (Scorpio), but you don't want me to start jabbering about that! Horrors can come to me off the top of my head. Curious. I can just summon these things out of the blue (the black, perhaps). I guess that's the real mysterious aspect of being a horror writer - the perplexing ability to interface with the beauty of creating while wearing a scary mask.
FA: Scott, thank you for letting us peek behind the mask!
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© Forrest Aguirre 22 September 2001