The Horror Tree Presents… An Interview With Richard Thomas
Selene – Welcome to the Horror Tree, and thank you for agreeing to an interview. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Richard – Thanks for having me. I’ve been writing for 14 years now, mostly speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction, and horror—but I came up writing neo-noir and thrillers. I’ve published three novels, four collections, over 170 stories, and am currently working as a writer, editor, teacher, and past publisher. I ran Gamut magazine for a few years, as well as Dark House Press. I’ve been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. I tend to write dark fiction, leaning into maximalism, and lately into the new-weird, as well as hopepunk.
Selene – You have a long and varied writing history. How did you get your start?
Richard – I have always loved reading and writing, since grade school. But along the way I fell into a career in advertising as an art director and graphic designer. I woke up one day, after seeing the movie Fight Club, and realized it was based on a book. So I tracked down Chuck Palahniuk’s website (The Cult) and started hanging out, reading everything he’d written. It got me excited to write again. I took some classes, including one with Craig Clevenger, and he encouraged me to submit a story from class, “Stillness,” saying he thought it was very good, something special. I sent it to all of the wrong places, but eventually to Cemetery Dance where it was accepted for Shivers VI, alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub. That was my first pro sale, and got the ball rolling. I took more classes, and then got my MFA, and just kept going.
Selene – From what I’ve read, your work seems to shift between crime, horror, and even dark fantasy. What about the horror genre draws you, and what is your favourite genre to write?
Richard – Most of my work is hybrid these days, but it does tend to land either in more realistic horror or speculative supernatural. I like a lot of the new-weird and cosmic horror that is happening these days, and so that draws my attention as well. I like to write stories that are immersive, that take you to another place and time. I want to scare you, but really, I’m okay with unsettling you, disturbing you, getting you to think, and then to have the story stay with you. More hope has worked its way into my prose of late, and so my stories tend to have more justice, more vengeance, endings that right wrongs, the journey worth the trip, though sometimes the horror DOES win. I think people read horror for the same reasons they ride a rollercoaster—they don’t REALLY want to die, but they like the thrill, the risk, the tension, and the release. I try to create visceral experiences.
Selene – The requisite “writer question” –Where do you get your ideas? In particular, are there any interesting “inspirational” stories about Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Richard – My ideas come from everywhere—shows and films, the news, weird things I find on the internet. Often it’s something that I think about for a while, chew on, and try to find a unique way into the story, a new angle. I get inspired by A24 Films and Black Mirror and my peers who are doing edgy, weird, innovative work. In my fourth collection, Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC), there were so many influences—everything from the work of Stephen Graham Jones and Brian Evenson, to the aforementioned A24 Films (Hereditary, Under the Skin, The Witch, Enemy, etc.) to Black Mirror. My novelette “Ring of Fire” which closes the collection was directly influenced by Moon, Ex Machina, Under the Skin, and Brian Evenson’s novella, The Warren. And also the story of the 100th Monkey (Google it, trust me it’s intense). My 1,501-word story, “Undone” was a direct response to the Stephen Graham Jones story I reprinted at Gamut, “Faberge”—both stories are one sentence.
Selene – Have you ever had a story that had the elements or seemed like a strong idea, but you just couldn’t make it work? What do you do with those ideas? Were there any stories you left out of Spontaneous Human Combustion, and why?
Richard – Oh sure, I have stories fail all the time. I’m feast or famine. Usually it’s me struggling to find the voice, the angle, trying to do something different. I’m more of a one idea or one emotion author, writing from a place of discovery, as a pantser. When I was putting together SHC I definitely left out stories that I felt were weaker, or didn’t fit the theme, or were older. It’s basically my most recent work, almost all of the stories written in the last five years. They all lean into that hopepunk vibe I was mentioning earlier, with a few letting the horror win. The others that are less hopeful, they tend to be more classic horror or even new-weird, unsettling.
Selene – I’d like to focus on your story collection, Spontaneous Human Combustion, which was released February 22, 2022. Since there’s no actual combustion in the stories, what inspired the title? I’ve always been fascinated by the concept, because it’s freaky to think you can just be sitting there and then suddenly you’re a pile of ashes.
Richard – Yeah, the title is tricky. It’s not so much the spontaneous human COMBUSTION as it is the spontaneous HUMAN combustion. Not about the flames and fire (though there is some of that in the collection) but more about the idea of our humanity, the monsters that lurk inside us all, how we deal with that duality, and how they might come out—in our defense—or to wreak havoc. There is a parable I thought about a lot while putting together this collection, about the two wolves that live inside us—love and hate. Which one survives? The one we feed. So these stories speak to struggles, uncertainty, secrets, the truth behind it all, emotions, motivations, etc. There are hopefully layers to each story that show you the reader the depth of humanity—both the good and bad that resides within us all.
Selene – Maybe it’s a “voice” or personal stamp on your writing, or maybe my limited imagination but I found myself picturing you (or at least someone who looks like your author photo!) as the central character in many of your stories. How do you develop your characters? Have you ever based them on real people, and what did they think of their fictional portrayals?
Richard – Oh for sure, I think quite often I start with myself, or somebody close to me. That’s the easiest place to start. There are a few kids in this collection, and I have written from a female POV too. When I am developing the story I try to think about what their internal emotions, motivations, and struggles are. Some are issues and causes that ARE close to me, others are very different. I’ve never killed anybody, so you have to start from a place that you CAN recognize—love, hate, frustration, loss, desire, etc. And then build outward. I’d like to think that the voice of the protagonist in “Repent” is different than the one in “Ring of Fire”. I don’t typically build them on real people, though sometimes I do see them as actors, I do cast my stories. I do that for my novels, typically.
Selene – Just for fun, if anyone were to make a movie of one of your stories (my vote would be for “Repent”), who would you like to see portray your characters?
Richard – LOL, funny that I just mentioned casting my stories, and you ask about “Repent” and casting in general. I think for “Repent” it’s probably somebody like Joaquin Phoenix, Ethan Hawke, or maybe Viggo Mortensen. Somebody a bit rough around the edges, so they can portray the downward spiral, but with a softer side so you can see them as a father. I don’t know if I cast all of my stories in this collection. Rebecca in “Ring of Fire” felt a lot like Alicia Vikander or maybe Ana de Armas—with Mark having a bit of the Gary Oldman influence from Moon. The protagonist in “Saudade” had a Dark Tower vibe, so I kind of see him as Timothy Olyphant.
Selene – The collection’s been getting great reviews so far, but how do you deal with bad reviews?
Richard – Great question. It’s tough, you know? I mean, obviously I love getting a 4- or 5-star review, those are fun to read. And the 3-star reviews can be very positive as well. I think the ones that hurt the most are the 1-star reviews. But I know that my prose is not for everyone. If somebody says the stories have no emotion, or aren’t original, that does sting a bit because I try so hard to do BOTH of those things, and to do them well. I mean nobody likes being called a hack. So why do I even read those reviews? I’m always trying to improve. So if somebody points out something that I missed, or that I could learn from for my next story, I want to hear it. Somebody made a point that there were three stories in a row where the protagonist woke up naked somewhere, and I didn’t realize that. I went back and looked at all three, and I don’t think that’s 100% accurate, but that was a bit of repetition that I probably could have spaced out better, just didn’t see the pattern. If I’m honest, I’d rather that 50% of my readers love my work, just gush about it, 5-stars all the way through, and the other 50% just HATE IT, than to have 100% think my work is just okay. So, I’ll take the negative reviews. If somebody says it was too dense, or went over their head, or just wasn’t their style that’s totally fine, I know I’m not going to connect with every reader.
Selene – Although it’s like asking which of your kids is your favourite, which of the stories from Spontaneous Human Combustion did you like best, and why? My favourite was the poker story.
Richard – LOL glad you liked “Nodus Tollens,” that’s probably the story that’s closest to sounding like Stephen King, the most story “telling” IMO. I think for me it’s probably the novelette that ends it, “Ring of Fire.” I don’t want to spoil it for anyone that hasn’t read it yet, but the themes, the weirdness, the ending, the message—that all really felt powerful to me. I was surprised in a few places by what happened, and think there is a nice bit of hope at the end. I hope that story inspires people, encourages them to keep going.
Selene – Which story in Spontaneous Human Combustion was the hardest or most challenging to write? The easiest?
Richard – I’d probably say that “Ring of Fire” was also the hardest. It’s the longest, and I was approached to write it for a seven deadliest sins anthology, where I got assigned lust. I didn’t want it to be Hellraiser, and I didn’t want a whiff of misogyny or anything rapey. It also has a chorus of disembodied voices, and then a second chorus (a list) of objects. So I had a lot of research to do. I wasn’t expecting it to be this weird horror-science fiction hybrid either. It was definitely inspired by Brian Evenson’s The Warren, as well as the film Moon, and even Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. So the vibe, the tone, the intensity—I can remember writing some of the more intense scenes, and then dialing it back, and then rewriting, and then going back to read what came before, editing that, and then writing it again—I didn’t want readers to eject, I had to push them, but not offend them, not cause them to quit reading. Tough line to find, but hopefully I found it.
The easiest? Maybe “Undone” since it’s the shortest at 1,501 words and then just one sentence. It’s very much a stream-of-consciousness story, the flow so important, playing out in real time over about 15 minutes. Most of my editing was making sure that the commas, the em-dashes, the word choices all connected and that it sounded okay to the ear—the flow, the lyricism, the emotion, the tension, the setting. Tricky, but a lot of fun. I must have fretted over commas and singular word choices more in that story than any I’ve ever written. To hand off the baton from the car to the path to the woods to the ending was not easy, but I just tried to open myself up to the moment, and describe what I saw, what I felt, making sure I still had all of the Freytag elements in place.
Selene – In addition to your writing, you’re also an editor and writing teacher. How do you go about giving constructive feedback to an author? Most of us have fragile little egos, so how do you balance useful criticism that improves writing with hurt feelings?
Richard – Great question. I love teaching because it allows me to share with my students everything I’ve learned—from my MFA program, to all of my other classes, to my experience as a writer, editor, teacher, and publisher. I try to come at it from multiple angles. I think you hit the nail on the head here though—CONSTRUCTIVE criticism. I’m never negative just to be mean, or to feed my ego, or humiliate somebody. There is no place for any of that in editing and teaching. When I edit, or work with a student in a class, we have structures that are in place (such as Freytag) and so I often speak to that. This is my formula, let’s learn these aspects, and I’ll look for them in your work. I also try to get to know the writer over time so that I can embrace THEIR voice, and who they are, what genres THEY write, their style. I don’t try to get people to sound like ME or Stephen King or Shirley Jackson or Cormac McCarthy. I want to figure out who THEY are and then help them to be the best version of THEMSELVES that they can be. So when I edit and teach, I’m looking for positive things—great hook here, or immersive setting, or great dialogue as well as what’s not working for me—the internal conflict not developed, the ending not resolving anything so that there is no change, and little denouement. When you provide CONSTRUCTIVE criticism you try to help them find a path forward. When I say that I don’t care about an author’s protagonist, I talk about WHY that is happening—we need more emotion, more back story, more depth, and more internal. We need to understand their emotional state and what motivates them. I also try to listen to the author, so if they disagree with something I’m saying, I try to hear what they have to say. Were they going for a lighter story, or a different genre, or did I miss some key plot element? It’s a discussion, not a lecture, not a megaphone pointed in one direction.
Selene – You’re a very prolific writer, which you balance with your teaching (in your “spare time,” as your bio on your website says!) and editing duties. How do you make time to write and be productive while balancing everything else?
Richard – It’s not easy. Because I have a set schedule for my classes, I know what days I’ll be teaching, and so I have certain things I have to do, often on the day of the class—re-read the stories we’re talking about, make sure my notes and edits are turned in, etc. I have certain days of the week that I set aside for writing—usually Fridays, unless I’m working on a book, in which case I might take a run at it between classes, like I did with m novel Incarnate, taking the two weeks between classes to get about 52,000 words written. When I teach my Short Story Mechanics class at Lit Reactor, it’s daily work for two weeks—every day I’m reading, responding, interacting. That could be anywhere from 2-4 hours a day. With Contemporary Dark Fiction, which meets on Tuesdays, I take time on that day to revisit everything for class. With my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop, we meet on Wednesdays, so that day is dedicated to making sure my edits and responses are fresh and done. With my novel in a year class, we meet once a month, so my deadline on getting their feedback starts at the end of each month when they turn in packets of 11,000 words each. I chip away at those, usually reading one a day, until I’m done. Most of my classes only have eight students, so it’s a manageable load, with SSM being up to 20. It’s putting things in place, and then looking for the gaps to do additional projects—editing, interviews, my writing, etc.
Selene – What writers have inspired you the most, and are there any authors or books you didn’t like and then warmed to later? Do you ever read an author that makes you go “Okay, that’s so good, I give up because I can never write anything that’s THAT good…”?
Richard – LOL great questions. Three writers that really have informed my writing are Stephen Graham Jones, Brian Evenson, and Jeff VanderMeer. They all do original work, in the contemporary dark fiction spaces, and all have amazing range—from realism to surrealism, from horror to science fiction, from neo-noir to new-weird. They all inspire me, and push me to do more with my writing—everything from immersive setting to original monsters to weird new ways of showing body horror. Those three have probably influenced me the most, but I mean, there are so many amazing authors that have changed me—Haruki Murakami, Kelly Robson, AC Wise, Mary Gaitskill, Brian Hodge, Steve Toase, Priya Sharma, Usman T. Malik, Alyssa Wong, and on and on. Classic authors, authors on the edge of things, my contemporaries and peers. So many amazing voices out there.
One voice that took me a while to get into was probably Cormac McCarthy. I struggled at first, but really ended up loving Blood Meridian and others. Pretty much all of these authors have made me feel like quitting, but I think about “Harvest Song, Gathering Song” by AC Wise a lot. That was a 10/10 for me, taught that in my classes. So much of Stephen’s work, such as “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” and Brian Evenson’s “Windeye.” I try to learn from them all, and take what I can, do my thing with it. It’s never easy, but I think as long as we can continue be inspired by those around us, we can create new stories, fresh takes, innovative tales that move people.
Selene – Is there anything else you’d like to talk about here? Thanks again for agreeing to an interview.
Richard – Two things. If you like what I’m talking about, come check out my classes over at Storyville. I’d love to work with you. And second, when it comes to your work, that weird thing you do that makes your story and voice your own? Give me more of that. Figure out what you have to say, and how you want to say it, and then lean into who YOU are as a writer, whatever that mean. We don’t need another Stephen King or Shirley Jackson or Richard Thomas—we need to hear and see what YOU have to offer, coming from YOUR experiences, cultures, perspectives, and emotions.
You can follow Richard at any of the following locations!
- About the Author
- Latest Posts
Selene MacLeod is a night operator and sometime writing hobbyist. She holds a BA in Communications from Wilfrid Laurier University and resides in Kitchener, Ontario. Her work has appeared in several horror and crime fiction anthologies, most recently Shotgun Honey, Drag Noir (Fox Spirit Books); and the upcoming Freakshow: Freakishly Fascinating Tales of Mystery and Suspense (Copper Pen Press), and Tragedy Queens (Clash Media).She’s most excited about editing a charity anthology for Nocturnicorn Books called Anthem: A Tribute to Leonard Cohen, due out late 2017.