AN INTERVIEW WITH… JEFFREY THOMAS

Jeffrey Thomas is the author of such novels as The American (JournalStone), Deadstock (Solaris Books), and Blue War (Solaris Books), and short story collections such as Punktown (Prime Books), The Unnamed Country (Word Horde), and Haunted Worlds (Hippocampus Press). His stories have been reprinted in The Year’s Best Horror Stories XXII (editor, Karl Edward Wagner), The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror #14 (editors, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling), and Year’s Best Weird Fiction #1 (editors, Laird Barron and Michael Kelly). Thomas lives in Massachusetts.

You are a prolific writer. Would you like to give a rundown of your work for those readers who aren’t familiar with it, yet?

I think what would distinguish my fiction the most, whether it be in the novel or short story form, is that I don’t like to be tied down to one category. I write horror, science fiction, and hard to classify work that’s best considered weird fiction, but very often I blend these genres together. I just don’t like to feel constrained by the limits of genre. And so, hopefully I’m unpredictable and offer readers plenty of surprises.

Short stories and novels: do you prefer writing one over the other, or do you enjoy switching up between the two?

I do enjoy writing both, so it would be hard to say which form I prefer. I switch up the two when it comes to my own reading, as well. That being said, I do think that in general, horror’s best delivery system is the short story. I think it goes back to bedtime fairytales with scary witches and trolls, and before that, myths with dangerous dragons and giants, and before that, spooky tales told around a crackling fire. Short doses of fictional fear maybe help us accept the anxieties of the real world; the overwhelming awareness of our mortality.

There is clearly a lot of research and world-building in the background of your writing. This said, is the plot something you plan in advance or do you consider yourself a ‘by-the-seat-of-your-pants” kind of writer?

I think of myself as an organic writer; that is to say, I do like to let the story take root and branch forth naturally, rather than work with a hard chapter-by-chapter outline. Not that I haven’t used that strict approach; three novels I wrote for a big mass market publisher required that I create a detailed outline first, which they read and approved before giving me the green light to proceed. For some stories I have pages and pages of notes to refer to, that help guide me, and of course there are the notes I carry around in my head. But often, as I say, I just wing it…and this can backfire, of course. I just finished a novel that took me thirteen years to complete, mainly because a few plot points bogged me down until I could work out how to go forward. Several characters I had planned to kill off wouldn’t allow themselves to get boxed into a lethal situation, they were too smart for that, so I had to let them live! That’s organic writing for you. Similarly, it took me about nine years to complete my new novel The American. Again, I got stuck on some plot points, and some questions about one of the main characters. I don’t mean to say I worked steadily on these two novels for thirteen and nine years respectively; what happened was, I would walk away from them for a long time to work on other things instead. But I knew they were too good to give up on, that I would have to come back to them eventually and do them justice and see them to fruition.

Your novel The American is mainly set in Vietnam, with a Vietnam veteran at the centre of it. Your short story collection The Unnamed Country is set in a fictional Southeast Asian country loosely based on it. Do you have a real life connection with that country, or it just happens to be a good place in which to set your stories?

In 2003 I fell in love with a Vietnamese woman in the United States, which sparked in me a fascination with her country of origin. Though that love affair sadly ended, my love affair with Vietnam has not. One other thing that caused the writing of The American to go slowly at times was, as you pointed out, I often put a lot of research into my work. Even though I’ve travelled to Vietnam twelve times to date, and therefore have abundant personal experience to go on, I still needed to research a lot to make sure my observations were accurate, that every detail no matter how small was as authentic as I could make it. With The Unnamed Country I took a much different approach. I was able to express my fascination with Vietnam, but making the setting a fictitious country gave me the freedom of not having to be bound to reality; I didn’t need to adhere to that daunting obsession for accuracy.

The world of Punktown is a setting of a lot of your work, a bit like Arkham for Lovecraft or Derry for King. Do you want to tell us more about it? Is it based on anything?

Punktown is a far future city on another world, colonized by countless sentient races in addition to human beings. Like you say, I’ve set many a novel and short story there. I guess you can say Punktown is composed of all my impressions of – and wariness toward – big cities I’ve visited or read about in real life, distorted through the lens of fiction into some kind of exaggerated, nightmarish hybrid. It’s a versatile setting for all kinds of dramatic events; you know, just like real life cities! Nearly all my Punktown stories stand on their own individually, so that you can enter into that world at any point without feeling lost. A person could read as few or as many of these stories as they wish.

In a world dominated by social media, is having a website still relevant for an author?

I don’t think it’s anywhere near as relevant as it was prior to the advent of social media. Same with blogs. Another writer might disagree, but all I can say is I myself seldom visit other writers’ websites or blogs. I do, though, frequent Facebook to find out about exciting new books, and to interact with other authors, readers, and indie publishers. Not to mention it’s a good place to promote one’s own work. I did, however, recently cancel my Twitter account. I got too caught up in politics, and too disgusted by the toxicity there. It stressed me out. If I ever return there, I will stick to reading and posting about creative matters.

Can you tell us about your beginning in the writing world?

Well, I fell in love with writing as a kid. I began my first novel at ten, completed a novel at fourteen. For many years, though, my efforts all went straight into the closet, so to speak. As an adult, I started submitting novels to publishers, with no success. Then in the late eighties I discovered the small press, and a whole world opened up to me. I began publishing short stories there, and slowly built up a name for myself, so that in 2000 my first two short story collections appeared. One of these was my first collection of Punktown tales, Punktown, publisher by none other than Jeff VanderMeer. I’ve had many books published since then, even abroad in foreign-language editions. Also, with it being so easy to self publish these days, when my books go out of print and the rights revert to me I rerelease them in new editions, myself.

You are a 2003 finalist for the Bram Stoker Award and a 2008 finalist for the John W. Campbell award. Can you tell us something about those experiences?

Of course it was exciting to be a finalist for those well-known awards, especially since I did no campaigning to get people to nominate or vote for me. I do tend to look upon awards rather cynically, though, knowing that a lot of it has to do with selling oneself or one’s friends, and publishing world politics. I may have another song to sing, though, if I ever get nominated for something again.

What, if anything, is missing from the horror scene?

Nothing. Anything you might want is there if you look for it, beyond the obscuring walls of Stephen King and Dean Koontz books. (And nothing against those people, but there are vast treasures to be mined beyond them.) If you want quiet horror, extreme horror, classical horror, modern horror, literary horror, experimental horror…it’s out there, it’s waiting. If you want diverse voices in horror, from women or people in the LGBTQ community or from POC, make some effort and look, and you can find them. There’s endless variety. Do not be afraid to explore indie presses. Though I know it can be hard to find pearls in the mountains of self published manure, there’s that area to search in, too.

How much power do you have over your editing, book cover, marketing, and do you have anyone helping you with it?

All that depends on the individual publisher, of course. Some invite more input than others when it comes to choosing cover art, who to send review copies to, and so on. Sometimes I’ve been able to suggest cover artists, or particular pieces of artwork I’ve found online; sometimes the publisher will put me in touch with an artist so I can talk to them on the phone about ideas I might have. In terms of marketing, unfortunately too many small press publishers don’t make a lot of effort with promotion. I understand they don’t have large budgets with which to purchase magazine ad space and such, but it doesn’t cost anything except a little bit of time submitting digital copies to reviewers, submitting books for awards consideration, setting up book giveaways, things like that. A lot of that the author is expected to do on their own, and it kind of frustrates me and makes me wonder why some publishers are even in the game.

In The American I think you did one of the most original things I ever read about a villain, by having the villain in love with H. G. Wells’ work. What other authors were an influence for you growing up?

Usually as a kid I didn’t read multiple books by a single author, but all it would take was one book by an author to really bowl me over. For a few examples, at ten I read Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet (the basis for Planet of the Apes), at age eleven Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, at age fifteen Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, at age sixteen William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, and these all had a huge impact on me. Even back then I had eclectic tastes and didn’t read in only one genre.

Which one between horror and science fiction is the one that has a more analytical look at society?

It depends on the individual work, but all in all I feel science fiction has had more to say over the years about society, culture, race relations, technology, politics, our capacity for progress and our inclination toward destruction. Science fiction is a great medium for social commentary. My Punktown work has been a vehicle for a lot of commentary of my own, but I try to integrate it in such a way that things don’t get didactic.

How difficult is it to write sci-fi without it being intertwined with other genres?

I actually think the majority of writers don’t try to blend other genres into science fiction, and instead maintain a kind of genre purity, but that’s fine. Nothing wrong with it! There is certainly science fiction that pulls in a little or a lot of the elements of horror, crime fiction, fantasy, or romance, and so on. I don’t feel genre-blending in science fiction would represent the norm, however. The same being true for horror. I think most genre fiction can be neatly filed into this or that labelled box. Personally, as I’ve said, I like to read and write stuff that blurs those boundaries.

 Do you come from a literary background?

Yes, indeed, in the sense that both my parents were poets who saw their work printed in local newspapers. My mother also used to write a newspaper column, as did my sister Wendy. My brother Scott Thomas is a very well respected horror writer. He’s not the Kill Creek Scott Thomas; he’s been publishing his work long before that. An example of Scott’s work is the brilliant weird fiction novella The Sea of Ash from Lovecraft eZine Press.

One question I wanted to ask you while I was reading The American: are you a big movie buff?

Oh yes. I think most people are these days, right? It’s just a matter of what types of films appeal to us, and again my tastes are eclectic. Favorite movies of mine would include Taxi Driver, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Vertigo, The Birds, The Exorcist, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, Alien/Aliens, Drive, Blade Runner, Pulp Fiction, The Deer Hunter, Forbidden Planet. Oh, I could go on and on. And I’m sure my love of films has inspired my writing just as much as my love of reading.

When you write short stories, do you know that they will feature in one anthology, or do you write a short story and then which ones to put in a given anthology is decided at a later moment?

For some years now, most of my short fiction was written for a particular anthology, at the invitation of a publisher. Usually these anthologies revolve around a certain theme. A few years later I might gather these previously published stories into a collection. Once in a while I may write a short story just because I was inspired to do so, and I’ll seek a home for it later, but it’s nice to have publishers come knocking on my door instead of the other way around. It means I see fewer rejection letters, which is always a good thing!

Are you quite good at balancing life’s demands and writing?

It depends on how you look at it. I don’t write according to a schedule, at a certain time of day and for a certain number of hours, as some writers do. There are times when I am so inspired that I do write almost every day, but more often I can go long stretches without writing at all. I’m not as prolific as I was in my younger years, but then again I write more slowly now because I am more methodical, and polish things more obsessively. I am also a father of two children, and I have to put them before my artistic pursuits. Fortunately, I took early retirement in December of 2019 so I have more free time in which to focus on the various aspects of my life. But even when I was employed, I would find time to write…even if I had to stay up too late at night, or write at work when the boss wasn’t looking! Hey, I can’t deny my nature.

How difficult is it to disentangle horror from religion?

Probably harder than a lot of horror writers and readers are consciously aware of. Religion is so ingrained in us culturally, even in people like myself who don’t practice a religion. The notions of good and evil that, as in the Bible, are personified into light and dark supernatural forces in conflict with each other – evil embodied into malevolent beings like demons, vampires, and such. I love William Peter Blatty’s novels The Exorcist, Legion, and The Ninth Configuration, despite him having been a devout Catholic whose work persuades us to believe in a God. However, when I write directly about religion, as in my novel Letters From Hades, although I present Hades as a real place and follow the “lives” of the Damned there, my aim is more to satirize and criticize religion.

As you will know, Amazon has basically the monopoly on both e-books and self-publishing. How bad is that and is there anything that “normal people” can do about it?

There are other outlets, such as Smashwords and Barnes and Noble, but most definitely Amazon dominates the e-book market. It can be frustrating how they sometimes tweak their model so that they win more of the profits, and the writers less. Still, I don’t want to complain too much, as most of my sales these days are for the Kindle and I’m grateful for it. I myself don’t like to read from a screen, however; I vastly prefer a physical book in my hands. If people feel put off by Amazon’s e-book monopoly, they are always free to purchase printed books instead! And as for self-publishing; again, I’m grateful to Amazon for making it possible for writers to produce nice-looking print-on-demand books, without having to pay for expensive vanity press print runs of books as in years past.

What is next after The American? What is next in your future?

In December of 2020 a new short story collection of my work called Carrion Men was released by Plutonian Press. I think it’s a particularly strong collection from me, with a loose theme about lonely middle-aged men feeling disenfranchised from society, sometimes from their own physical bodies. Much angst and body horror follows! Meanwhile, as I discussed earlier, I just completed and submitted a science fiction novel that blends elements of space opera, military SF, and cosmic horror. Wish me luck in getting it sold! And while you’re wishing me luck there, a screenplay I wrote based on one of my novels has been circulating with some well established directors, and I hope someone snatches that up, as well!

Would you like to give us some of your contacts?

I no longer have a blog or website, but as I mentioned, I’m very active on Facebook and can be found here:

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