Tag Archives: Horrorfind

Hitting a Nerve: A Conversation with Lee Thomas

Lee Thomas is one of the strongest writers going today. If you aren’t familiar with his work, reconcile that. Stunning writing, believable characters, and horrific…well, horror. He’s the real deal, folks. Lee was kind enough to drop by ST Manor for some tea and playful banter…

John Boden: While I have a lot of your books, I have not read them all…yet. What I have read has been wonderful. Of all the possible charms I could go on about, the rich and realistic portrayals of emotion and character are staggering. Truly. There are also recurring themes of inner struggle as well as the given outer struggles. All of it delivered with such deft edge and detail. Do you put a lot of yourself in your work? Meaning, do you tend to infuse characters with struggles and feelings you have had or have?

Lee Thomas: Yes. I imagine most writers do. A character is an author’s conduit to readers, so characters have to express feelings accurately, whether through action, speech, or thought. We all know what fear feels like, and we all know what love feels like. Granted I’ve never encountered a horrific visage of an old god on a fog-shrouded eve, but I’ve spun around in a car after losing control of it and felt that ice cold, near-paralysis in the process. I’ve waited in a hospital room while my partner was undergoing heart surgery, and I went through a spectrum of emotions about it. You use those things. Granted, that’s oversimplifying, but most adults have enjoyed and/or endured the range of emotions. They are available to us, and they need to be employed. When you’re writing, you’re not just dropping info and walking readers through a series of events, you’re trying to engage them and make them believe that what you’re sharing feels real, even though they know it isn’t. Characters are the primary way to do this. If what your characters feel reads as authentic, you won’t have readers pulling back and thinking, “Huh?”

JB: I recently read your novel The German. (I know I was late to the party on that one…all of them, sadly.) I would imagine there was a great deal of research that went into the historical aspects of that novel. It was so rich with detail. What was the inspiration for such a book?

LT: I enjoy research, though I try to keep it unobtrusive. I don’t want to weigh a reader down with a bunch of information that I might find fascinating, but which has no bearing on the story or the characters. With The German, I drew inspiration from a few places. They all hit at once within a relatively narrow window period. The first was a documentary on The History Channel, when they still did the occasional piece on history. It focused on a high-ranking German soldier who was openly gay. His name was Ernst Röhm, and it struck me as odd I’d never heard of him before. Fascinating stuff. That night I sat down and wrote what would become the prologue of the novel, and then it was out of my system, and I went back to other projects. Not long after, a week or two, I went on a day trip to Fredericksburg, a small town in the hill country out here, and they really play up the area’s German heritage. I hadn’t been living in Texas for very long at that point, but the fact it had been so heavily settled by Germans surprised me. Back in Austin, I found that there were still German music clubs and the like. So I had a protagonist and a setting (though I changed Austin to a smaller, fictional town named Barnard). The last piece was just random. I won’t go into it. It includes adult entertainment.

JB: I know you to be a music fan (a fellow “metal head”), so I feel obliged to ask: how important is music to your creative process? Some find it distracting, others can’t work without it. If you need or like music to create, what are some of the soundtrack favorites?

LT.: Music is important to what I do. Before starting a project, I’ll try to find music that might enhance the tone of a piece while I’m putting the first draft together. The first draft of The Dust of Wonderland, which was written in a compulsive haze over the course of a few weeks, was written almost entirely to NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine and the first Candlebox record. Back then it took effort, okay minor effort, to pop a CD out and throw another in to change the music. It didn’t really matter. I was so lost in the story the music barely registered. I’d occasionally think, “Head Like a Hole” must have played a million times by now, but it still sounded good so I kept going. I need dead silence when I’m editing, but when I’m writing I like to have the music blaring to mask other distractions. Sometimes I’ll rework a title from a favorite song and use it for a short story or book. I’ve done it a few times. Of course the story or book has nothing to do with the lyrical content of the song. It’s just that metal and horror share a language palette. The cadence of the words gets into my head. Most of the titles I do from scratch, but there are a few that would certainly sound familiar to the hard rock set.

JB: I am always quite interested to hear how people got where they are today. Did you always want to be a writer? How young were you when you first began that journey?

LT: I was always interested in reading, but I thought writers were the anointed few who were identified as brilliant and predestined to have writing careers. Turns out…not so much. When I was in the Third Grade, I wrote a series of illustrated “novels” based on the Universal Horror canon. My teacher caught me working on one and asked to see them all. He typed up the stories and photocopied the pictures and made books out of them for the class. Great teacher. That was the last inkling I had from educators that I might be a writer, or have any useful skills at all. When I was sixteen I wrote my first full-length novel: 400 pages of a painfully bad werewolf story that was basically a modern interpretation of The Wolfman. I wrote another when I was in my early twenties. I probably wrote 10 “practice” novels, but I didn’t think to do anything with them. Then, a friend of a friend hooked me up with a literary agency. They were legit and worked really hard for me, but my focus on characters “fraternizing,” which was their nice way of saying “the characters are doing too much gay stuff,” pretty much nailed the coffin shut for a while. I was fine with that. Writing was something I did, not a career I dreamed about. Early versions of Stained and The Dust of Wonderland were both written during that period, about 10 years before either saw publication. Then, in 2001 I took a speculative fiction course with Terry Bisson. He encouraged me to send some stories out, so I did. I sent out six stories and three or four of them got picked up. The first acceptance came from Brian Keene at Horrorfind.com. So yeah, blame Brian. Ha. One of the others went to Gothic.net, which was a pro market, and the story received some praise from writers I had heard of. It felt strange to suddenly have my work out in front of people, but it also felt pretty good. More short stories followed, and in 2004 my first published novel, Stained, was released.

JB: Being an avid reader, I find endless inspiration in the books I read. I try to get at least two books in a week. Plus all the submissions for Shock Totem. So I read A LOT. Are you a voracious reader and what sort of books do you like to read?

LT: I was a voracious reader as a kid. I picked up whatever book was lying around the house (some of which should not have been left lying around, I might add). I also made regular trips to the library, because we didn’t have much money, so I couldn’t buy comics or the books I saw at the grocery store. The library was always a good place to hang. I fell away from reading in my late teens and ever since I’ve gone in spurts. I’ll read a dozen books and then nothing for a while, usually when I’m working on a novel. A few years back I was a judge for the Shirley Jackson Awards, and I spent six months reading everything they sent my way. It was wonderful. It was also a little exhausting because I was, at the time, organizing a World Horror Convention, starting my masters degree, and meeting deadlines for my own books. I’ve read a few books recently that other authors have sent me to blurb or edit. It’ll be a bit before I can pick things up from the bookstore and see what’s new.

JB: After I finished The German, I tore through Stained and The Dust of Wonderland. I can’t help but wonder why these and so many other incredible small-press offerings have not translated into crossover mainstream success. It sometimes seems as though the small imprints are an invisible fence, and I guess it’s open for interpretation as to whether they’re to keep us in or others out.

LT: I never thought of fences in regard to the small press. Many successful writers in our genre write for both major publishers and the small press. Tim Lebbon, Joe McKinney, Gary McMahon, and Tim Waggoner are just a few of those that come to mind. Granted, I know of few small press titles that are picked up and re-released by big houses. Norm Partridge’s Dark Harvest went from Cemetery Dance to Tor, I believe, but I can’t think of other examples just now.

The small press serves a valuable service by publishing quality books that are perceived to be non-commercial. It also produces a good amount of bad books, but then so does mainstream publishing. Most of the spec-lit writers I admire these days–Barron, Ballingrud, Langan, and just about everyone who’s published by Chizine–thrive in the small press, primarily. I could list a dozen folks whose work should be mass consumed but isn’t. Over analyzing it doesn’t really help things. Commercial trends are ocean waves and you can ride them in or continue to struggle against them. What you shouldn’t do is scream at the waves and complain about them going the wrong direction, because it’s a waste of breath.

For me the quality of the work isn’t in question. I’ve had interest from editors at big publishers for all of the titles you mentioned, but when it came time for the marketing folks to chime in, the books didn’t hit the right commercial notes. The sales teams didn’t think they could sell to a large enough audience and the editors came back with rejections. Not great, but it doesn’t make me question my skills. I’d love to make high five- or six-figure advances (or more) on all of my books, but that’s only happened a couple of times. I’m grateful for it. The fact is, what interests me in regard to content isn’t always perceived as having mass appeal, as noted above regarding the “fraternizing.” I accept that, after I stomp and fume for five or ten minutes. All I can do is keep writing stories that fascinate me, and write them as well as I can. There’s already an audience for it, and in time that audience will grow.

JB: I also started your collection, Like Light for Flies, and I am just as gob smacked with it as I am the novels. Truly unique and horrific, very much reminds me of the early masterworks of Clive Barker. Where do these ideas come from?

LT: Thank you. That’s great to hear. I wish I had a quick and snappy answer for you, but the ideas come from all over the place. There’s no real process involved. My stories don’t emerge from dreams or deep transcendental states. I see a news story and think, “This is exactly like a news story I saw last month, which was exactly like a news story I read the month before that,” and I sit down and write “Testify.” I watch a brain-blasting marathon of Italian horror flicks and think, “They must lose something in translation, because they’re awesome, but most make no damn sense at all,” and I want to do that, so I write “The House by the Park.” An editor asks me to write a story about a Bruce Springsteen song, so I throw on my favorite tune of his and the musical structure becomes integral to the structure of the story, and I come up with “Nothing Forgiven.” I want to write a story about my dog and think about her as part of an adventure, so I write “The Dodd Contrivance.” Somewhere in the process of writing, themes and metaphors emerge that tie into bigger issues. If effective I play those up. If not, I leave them buried. Whatever works for the story.

JB: Thanks so much for chatting with me, Lee. I have said many times, the greatest perk of working with Shock Totem has been the experience of getting to meet and befriend many wonderful and talented writers, and that definitely describes you. Anything you’d like to say or rant on before I have our driver take you home?

LT: Oh, just the usual promotional nonsense. “Buy my books.” “Leave your reviews on Goodreads or your favorite online retailer site.” “Tell your friends!” And more seriously, “Thanks for reading my work. I hope the stories hit a nerve or two.” And thank you, John! I enjoyed the chat. \m/

Visit Lee Thomas at his website and then spend the rest of the day tracking down all of his books.

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And the September Flash Fiction Contest Winner is…

Steven Bouchard

Steven won with his story “The Whole Tooth.”

The prompt for this contest was a photo taken outside the hotel this year’s Horrorfind convention was held at. A creepy little thing, indeed!

The contest was close this month. The top three were all within a point of each other, and we had a three-way tie for Second!

In addition to Steven’s winning tale, Megan Engelhardt (her fourth top-three finish), H.L. Fullerton (July’s winner), and Amanda C. Davis (her sixth time in the top three) all tied for Second Place, and Allison Dellinger took Third Place.

Steven’s story, plus this year’s four previous winning stories, will be judged by a neutral reader, someone who is not on the staff and has not participated in any contest, and the story he or she chooses will be published in issue #6!

So a big congratulations to all the winners throughout 2012!

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Horrorfind Weekend

This coming Friday through Sunday, John, Sarah and I will be down in Gettysburg, PA, for this year’s Horrorfind convention. Shock Totem #3 authors Amanda C. Davis and S. Clayton Rhodes will be in attendance, as well as James Newman, who will also be reading from The Wicked Friday evening.

We had hoped to have a bigger presence this year, possibly seeing some of our authors on panels and the Horror Writers guest list. Unfortunately, despite for three months calling the number on the website, leaving voicemails, and e-mailing the people in charge of organizing the event, we were never able to make it happen.

I got one reply out of at least a dozen e-mails sent, and that came on August 20, seventeen days after I sent the e-mail it was in response to (and months after I first contacted them).

“Unfortunately, our author guest list & reading schedule has already been finalized and we are not taking any additional requests for readings at this year’s event.”

According to the website, there are ten authors on the guest list, eight of which are Samhain Publishing authors. With absolutely no disrespect meant to those authors or the publisher, I find that to be rather unprofessional. Of course, that should come as no surprise to anyone who reads Brian Keene’s blog.

If this sounds like complaining, it’s not. It’s disappointment. Not only were we ignored by the organizers, but our authors were as well, and I know that stings them more than it does me.

That said, I’m glad to see the fantastic Damien Walters Grintalis on the guest list. She’ll be selling pre-release copies of her debut novel, Ink. Yeah! And Ronald Malfi, who is quickly becoming my favorite small-press author, will be on hand, so I’m looking forward to meeting him if possible, and maybe picking up some of his work I don’t own. Nick Cato will be there. Mangos! David G. Blake and his lovely wife, Dawn, will hopefully be there. Plenty of other cool-cool cats will be on hand as well (I just can’t remember who at the moment).

And us! Yes, we will be present and available. And we will have limited copies of Shock Totem, The Wicked—which James will gladly sign—and a few other things our work is featured in. If you’d like to buy anything, let us know. Perhaps we’ll set up shop in the lobby or have a boot sale in the parking lot.

On Sunday we’re planning a pilgrimage up to York to visit the York Emporium, which according to John is the “coolest bookstore” he’s ever been to. Looking forward to it.

See you there?

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