by Jeffrey Thomas
Horror/SF author Jeffrey Thomas was kind enough to make time in his busy schedule to chat with me about his life and views as a writer. Looking untanned and ill-rested, Thomas greeted me in the mirror of his bathroom, while brewing a cup of ginger tea, burning a stick of incense, and playing a CD of Natacha Atlas, all presumably in an effort to impress me with his coolness. I asked Thomas about some of his projects past, present, and future, and how he manages to juggle working on his books, a day job, and writing scintillating if self-indulgent essays.
ME: Thanks for talking to yourself today.
JT: (Gazing at his reflection warily.) Sure.
ME: Of course, other writers have probably used this witty self-interviewing gimmick before you…
JT: (Starting to move toward kitchen) Okay, look, I didn’t come to the bathroom for this…
ME: Wait, please – okay, we’ll get right into the questions. On the topic of cliches, a large portion of your body of work takes place in your milieu of Punktown, but hasn’t that sort of world been done before? A future mega-city, flying cars? I mean, from THE JETSONS to BLADE RUNNER…
JT: Look, it isn’t really about the flying cars, is it? Whether I’m writing about a futuristic society, or a serial killer, or working on the thousandth zombie novel this year (and it’s January), it’s about what you (er, I) bring to it of yourself. Your own signature, idiosyncracies, eccentricities, obsessions, style, personality; the smell of the incense you were burning as you wrote, the lingering aroma of your ginger tea, the echo of the songs you were playing. Your DNA should be wired right into the words. Otherwise, instead of giving birth to a baby, you’ve manufactured an android that might walk and talk like a book but has no memorable features and nothing in its soul.
ME: Sort of like the replicants in BLADE RUNNER, which you seem so influenced by, hmm? (Knowing, accusatory smirk.)
JT: Look, I wrote my first Punktown story two years before that movie came out.
ME: Dick’s book was out long before that.
JT: I didn’t read it until after I saw the movie! Jeesh! I hate being accused of stealing ideas from other sources. At Amazon.com, my original A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET novel THE DREAM DEALERS has been accused of ripping off the movies BATMAN FOREVER and STRANGE DAYS, neither of which I’ve seen. At various times, in various interviews, it’s been hinted that I’ve emulated authors like Thomas Ligotti and Michael Marshall Smith, who I hadn’t even read at the time (but have greatly enjoyed since). It goes back to the previous words about striving for originality. Not only do readers and reviewers instinctively work to draw comparisons between your fiction and the stuff they’ve encountered before, but writers do this ourselves throughout the process. Even before we begin. I want to write a vampire story with the tone of SALEM’S LOT. I want to write something incorporating Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. I want to do a thriller in the vein of Thomas Harris. But whether you go into it mimicking the voices and mannerisms of the stories you’ve enjoyed, or you make the story so much your own that the spark of inspiration becomes drowned out in your own fire, is the critical difference between original creation and factory mass production.
ME: Boy, you don’t shy from mixed metaphors, huh? “Drowned out in fire?” Anyway, I think I see my point. For instance, what you’re saying has been said before, ad nauseam, but you’re saying it in your own way, however tortured your prose might be. Okay, next question, Mr. Originality…
JT: I swear, I’ll walk right now if you don’t…
ME: Hey, without me to take the wind out of your sails once in a while you’d sail your boat right off the edge of the ego map.
JT: (Under his breath) Talk about tortured prose.
ME: You write novels, short stories, blog entries, plus you hold a third-shift job, are father to a teenager, and a husband. How does a writer juggle these aspects of his/her/my life? Are the most productive writers overage fan boys who don’t have a girlfriend and live in their mom’s basement and don’t have a life so they don’t have anything better to do with their time besides writing more misogynistic slasher novels and masturbating, while you’re sleepwalking through your pharmaceutical manufacturing job at night and trying to do something all literary and shit in the scant few hours you have to yourself?
JT: Jeesh, where did that come from?
ME: You tell me.
JT: Well, I think all serious writers find that conflict to be their primary nemesis (even before rejection slips, overzealous editors, skimpy advances, nonexistent royalties, etc.). If writing is just a hobby to you, then you squeeze it in where you can. But if you’re serious, you have to make the time, even if you crowbar it into your day. Huh – that’s easy for me to say, but not always for me to accomplish. I can’t stick to a writing regimen, though I know some writers do, working for such and such an amount of time every day. For me, it depends on errands I have to do, practical matters I have to attend to, email correspondence with friends and family and editors, deadlines for blog entries, and so on and so on. I do my best to crowbar open some time, but sometimes I’m just too tired, man, or the muse simply isn’t there for me. Hello? Hel-lo?
ME: Huh? Say something?
JT: Sigh. Anyway, I wish I could live off my writing (I don’t ask for a private jet, just to make enough money to pay my bills!), so I begrudge my blue collar job, but I don’t begrudge the time spent with my son or wife, of course. In fact, I see it the other way – I’ve often felt guilty about all the time I’ve spent writing. How many more books could I have read to my son instead of writing books that sometimes not too many people may have read? Yes, I need to nurture and nourish myself, and writing does this for me, but has the sacrifice been worth it? Would I have been a better family man if I had taken a second job or poured my energy into pursuing one well-paying job, instead of squeezing what little money I could from writing fiction? Just how selfish should I allow myself to be? How much should I sacrifice of one or the other of me – the writer me, and the husband/father me?
ME: Wow, how many me’s are you? Hey, let’s divert the subject a bit before you get all weepy on me with that self-loathing of yours.
JT: I don’t loathe myself.
ME: Well, I do. Anyway, you mention your wife, and you’re always quick to point out that she’s Vietnamese. In your blogs, message boards, emails, etc., you bring up your travels to Viet Nam at the drop of a non la (Vietnamese straw hat). What’s up with that? Are you trying to show off what a lovely, lovely lady we’re married to?
JT: Hey, hands off my wife, Jackson.
ME: Easy, man, easy. Really, though – are you showing off about how worldly you are? The super-interesting writer boasting to all us folks in Smallville about your exotic life?
JT: Well, first off, you do have to promote yourself as a writer. I’ve found that some publishers will put your book out and that’s pretty much the extent of it. No advertizing, no review copies, no promotion; makes you kind of wonder why they even bother. Of course, other publishers are quite the opposite! I’m not knocking all publishers, or even any publisher, since I’m grateful for all of my books whether they’ve sold well or moderately (I don’t want to have to find that second job, you know). Still, you have to promote yourself by any means, even if it gets a bit obvious and obnoxious.
ME: Like this interview?
JT: Precisely. You have to make your presence known, get some notice, on blogs, message boards, Myspace, conventions, whatever. If trying to come across as interesting makes people interested in reading my books, great! But I don’t mean to make things sound so calculating. It
has more to do with my personality, the trait that makes me a writer: the need to communicate my enthusiasm to people, to make them share in the things that excite me, so that we share in the experience. Babbling on about something that has stimulated me – like visits to a foreign land, marrying a person of another race and culture, being the father of a fascinating and delightful autistic child – is just my way of expressing myself, very much the same thing as when I say to a reader, “Hey, let me tell you about this crazy place I’ve invented called Punktown!”
ME: Do these true life experiences find their way into your fiction, or are you too busy hanging around on message boards to actually work on a story now and then?
JT: Yeah, the irony is that the promotion effort does take away from the actual creative time. But yes, of course my true life experiences find their way into my stories. And yet, I still haven’t written a story about an autistic child, and I’ve set a short story or two in Viet Nam but haven’t been able to devise a Viet Nam novel yet. I guess it’s just the way my mind digests the world; I’m a fiction, not a nonfiction, writer. Things get warped into distorted shapes. I’ve written about special children, but made them misunderstood monsters or mutants to heighten the pathos or to make the reader more unsettled and challenged, or just because I like monsters and mutants. I’ve written about men falling in love with alien women, demons – again, heightening for dramatic effect the experience of being involved with a woman of a very different culture. And my impressions of Viet Nam are finding their way into the science fiction novel I’m working on right now. Well, that’s me. It returns us yet again to what I said at first about our idiosyncracies, our private obsessions, the things that make my fantastical city different from another fantastical city. It isn’t the flying car so much as the guy in the flying car; where he’s going, and why.
JT: I just can’t rely on this muse of mine.
ME: Huh? What are you talking about? You couldn’t come up with a subject for this essay and look how I bailed you out!
JT: Do you think the interview bit distracted them from the regurgitated platitudes?
ME: Aw, who cares. While we’re in the bathroom, let’s finish our business and get back to our real writing.
JT: Now you’re talking…
ME: Yeah. To myself.
JT: Well, that’s what it’s all about, right? You write for yourself, as if speaking into your own ear, and if someone else listens in and likes it, then…
ME: I thought we were finished. Any final thoughts?
JT: Buy DEADSTOCK, my new SF/horror/Punktown novel coming out in March.
ME: Subtlety is your bailiwick.
JT: And modesty is yours.
ME: Thanks. And thanks again for taking time out from your busy schedule to participate in this monologue.
JT: I’m entirely welcome.