20 Questions with Mourning Goats
INTERVIEW FIFTY FOUR
And we have a new winner in the fastest turn-around time for questions! Questions were sent at 4:56pm and returned to me at 7:07pm. I asked Richard a little bit about his "secret" to success, but after seeing how fast he got this back to me, I found that it's just because he works his ass off. Definitely one of my favorite interviews, thanks again, Richard!
1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"
I see a lot of black shrouds and there is definitely a low, guttural moan—surreal, strange and oddly touching.
2. Medallion Press just bought an anthology you've been working on with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer, what's it like working with the man who got you started in writing?
We’re all really excited about this project. Mostly, I feel honored that I was able to step in and help get this ball over the goal line, yeah? So many wonderful people have been involved with this, the authors have written such amazing stories, and it all started with Chuck, right? I have to say that CP is the main reason I’m writing today. I was in a funk, my career as an art director and graphic designer fun and paying the bills, but not fulfilling. Like many, I saw Fight Club, and then came to the Cult, and then read all of his work. It was a slap in the face, a wake up call. To work with Chuck, to have my name alongside his, it’s really an honor. I’m humbled by his generosity and his work inspires me. It’s just a dream come true, really.
3. You received an MFA from a low-residency program (as did I), what do you think about low-residency programs as well as the teaching of creativity?
I really had so much fun—to be around “my people” like this, to read and write, to talk about great books. Part of the reason I went to Murray State University is that Holly Goddard Jones was teaching there, and Dan Wickett, Matt Bell and Aaron Burch had just visited—all great minds that have gone on to heavily influence my writing career. Back then, the MSU program was reading Knockemstiff, by Donald Ray Pollock, and I thought that was awesome. I was reading it, too. Being a part of that program I read so many wonderful authors, some, people I’d never read before. I got into Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, and Mary Gaitskill, to name just a few people.
I had a job, and a family, so a low-res program was the best option. I had some great teachers, and Dale Ray Phillips was my thesis advisor. The man was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and was an encyclopedia of information. Tell him you were working on a story about swimming pools and he’d rattle off three other stories, and tell you to go read them. The creativity, the community, it’s all what you make of it. You get out of it what you put into it. I wish they were more accepting of “genre fiction,” that they would talk more about how to be a commercial success, to actually make a living at it, and I wish they knew more about what’s going on in contemporary literature, but otherwise, I had a blast.
4. You took a class from one of the Mourning Goats Interviewees, Craig Clevenger. What was it like learning from someone you admire so much?
That was another pivotal moment in my career. I’d read both of his books, and took his class to see if I had any ability at all. If he told me I sucked, I would have quit. He liked my work a lot, even compared it to an idol of his, Steve Erickson, and I have to admit, I was surprised, and really moved by his support. In fact, the one story he personally encouraged me to send out, was “Stillness” which got accepted in Shivers VI (Cemetery Dance) where it was published alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub—another dream come true. I owe Craig a lot. Palahniuk, Clevenger and Baer, they have all been major influences on my career, in a number of different ways.
5. What's your writing schedule like these days? Do you write every day, do you think it's necessary?
I don’t write every day. The last year has been a ton of management—getting Disintegration to my agent and out to publishers; sending off my thesis stories; editing two anthologies. But I also rewrote my first book, Transubstantiate, as a YA title, and I’m part of a collection of novellas called Four Corners, and I’ve been writing as a part of the various WAR battles over at LitReactor.com. I write when I find time, when a story comes to me, when I’m moved. I write for deadlines, anthologies that get my attention. For example, when Michael Gonzalez announced the whole Cipher Sisters anthology at Thunderdome, I KNEW I wanted to write a story, so I kept that brewing in my head, simmering for weeks, and then the story “Dance, Darling” came spilling out. First time I’ve used German in a story. (Yes, the story got in!) What’s necessary is to do what works for you, whatever that is.
6. The more interviews I do, the more I realize how many tight-knit groups of writers there are all over the world. What do you think about the support system of the writer in general and in your world?
It’s so important. We need that network, a support system, for when we fail, and for when we break through. Not all of our spouses and kids and co-workers really “get” what we’re doing. For me it’s been The Velvet, The Cult, Cemetery Dance, LitReactor, and of course, social media like Facebook and Twitter. It’s silly, I suppose, but when I have a big announcement, and I see the people that comment, that click “like,” these authors, editors and artists that I really respect, it’s touching. It really is.
7. You're very active on social media, do you think that self-promotion these days is more important than ever?
I do. You never know where you’re going to be discovered, you need to get the word out, build your audience. I don’t try to shove it down people’s throats, but I’m always thrilled when I find a new fan, when something I write really resonates with somebody, when it inspires people to write, or submit their work, or just push through an obstacle. I have my mentors, my rabbits to chase, the Stephen Graham Joneses and the Matt Bells of the world. We’re all struggling to get our work published, and it’s my dream to be a writer, a teacher, an editor, and a publisher. When you’re as small-time as I am, you need every means of promotion you can get your hands on, and the time I spend on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, etc. it’s very important—it really helps to get my name out there. And then, it’s a matter of the writing being good. That’s all I can hope for, to get somebody to read a story, and hope I impress them, entertain them, take them to another place and time and do something that impacts them emotionally.
8. Navigating your Facebook page, there are a lot of publication announcements. Do you do anything other than write or is it a pretty 24/7 focus?
Oh, sure. I do other literary things—editing, teaching, advice columns, and book reviews. And then outside of all of that I’m a father and a husband. I love to read, see movies, play golf and tennis, softball—I do exist in the real world.
9. You recently "harpooned" one of your "white whales" in writing, with a story in Midwestern Gothic, where else would be a dream for you to publish?
Ha, just got that in the mail today. I was holding it in my hands and looking at it, and then I set in on the shelf. I’m sending a copy to my professor, Dale Ray, down at Murray. I wrote that story, “Garage Sales” under his guidance. So many places, where to even start? Plus, I write across so many different genres. I won’t hold my breath about The New Yorker, Tin House or The Paris Review, but I’d love to get into The Missouri Review, Cream City Review (short-listed there as we speak), Hobart, Juked, Barrelhouse, Caketrain, GUD, Copper Nickel, Ploughshares—and those are just the literary places. As for horror, I still haven’t gotten into Cemetery Dance the magazine, or Shroud, Shock Totem, and that damn Shimmer. Fantasy & Science Fiction is one I’d love to get into, Clarkesworld, too, Fantasy Magazine. I got close with Ellery Queen, they’re a big name, as well as Hitchcock’s—not to mention smaller places like Needle.
10. Your goal after getting the MFA was to teach, in the Chicago area, is that what you're doing now? Is that still the goal?
My goal is definitely to teach, and I’ve finally started getting in-person interviews. I’ve taught some shorter classes, a day at Story Studio Chicago, and a two-week class at LitReacotr.com. It’s brutal out there. I feel like I’ll have to take that MFA and cobble together something that is a mix of writing short stories, novels, and columns, as well as editing, teaching, and publishing. It’s all connected, and I love doing all of it, but yeah, if I could make a living just writing? Wow, that would be amazing.
11. I saw you got an agent last year, what do you see as the best part of having an agent, other than saying you have an agent? ;-)
Ha, yeah, that is a bonus. Paula is getting me in front of people that I couldn’t get to on my own. Without an agent you just can’t get in front of the big six, and their imprints. Hell, you can’t get to a good number of independent presses either. We’ve gotten so close. It’s come down to board votes, losing by one vote. Paula really believes in my writing, my voice—she thinks I’m special. And I know that sounds stupid, like I’m talking about my mother or something, but isn’t that what we all want? She gets my voice, the reason I write the way I do, the heavy settings, the lyrical prose, the layers of language, emotion, metaphor, love, lust, darkness, death and rebirth. She gets it all. And that's who I want representing me. The biggest problem with the big publishers is they want a guaranteed success—they want to sell books, so in many ways all that they want is a book with a broad appeal. My writing does not appeal to everyone. But I’m okay with that. I’d rather be closer to Palahniuk, Baer, and Cormac, than Grisham and Patterson.
12. You're working with Shya Scanlon, another Mourning Goats Interviewee, at The Nervous Breakdown. What do you do there and how do you like it?
Shya is great—he makes my writing so much better. He’s an ideal editor, and one hell of an author himself. I loved his novel, Forecast. I’ve worked with several editors, and it has been painful at times. I’ve had to rescind my review before. But Shya gets it, he lets me speak about the books and authors I enjoy, and say what I need to say—and then he steps in with his scalpel and trims the fat. He’s amazing. I keep reviewing books at The Nervous Breakdown because of the authors I profile, and my relationship with Shya. He’s just that good.
13. In 2011 you were a residency at Writers in the Heartland, seven days in a house with 9 other writers, what came of it and how did you get involved?
That was a lot of fun. Aside from my MFA, I’ve never done anything like that. We wrote a lot, and then wandered the cornfields at night, smoking clove cigarettes, howling at the moon. We’d sit in the hot tub and talk about writing. We’d walk around the pond and get lost in the overarching branches of the trees.
I wrote about 30,000 words while I was there—a novella originally titled The Outskirts (now called The Golden Geese) which is being shopped by my agent as part of a bigger project called Four Corners, with Nik Korpon, Caleb Ross, and Axel Taiari; a long short story, “Chrysalis,” which was just accepted at Arcadia, out this May; and the first 7,000 words of my third novel, Incarnate, which has been stalled for a while. It was a great week. And I’m still friends with a few of the authors and poets from back then.
14. You've only been on the scene a few years and it seems like you're connecting with all the right people. What do you think the biggest "secret" to your success is? Other than the obligatory hard work?
Thanks for that, you’re a very generous Goat. I think it’s a couple things. First, I have no fear. I have no problem asking any author for a blurb, or advice. I just track them down. But it’s not about the name—I have to have a genuine love for their work. So whether I'm talking to Peter Straub or Tim O’Brien, Brian Evenson or Dan Wickett at Dzanc, I just speak from the heart, and find common ground. I also do my best to support other authors, big and small. The books I review at TNB are almost entirely independent small presses, or if they are bigger presses, it’s that first or second book, that breakthrough. You’d be surprised how easy it is to connect with people if you just aren’t a dick. Plus, like you say, I try my best to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t just stargaze and talk about things I’ve never done. I’m out here in the trenches with everyone else, suffering, crying in the dark, hoping and dreaming, glowing when I break through, grateful when the kind words and acceptance comes. I’m constantly floored that Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger, Karen Brown, Joey Goebel, Craig Davidson, Donald Ray Pollock, Scott Phillips, Rob Roberge, Kealan Patrick Burke, Lisa Morton, C. W. LaSart, Damien Walters Grintalis, and Max Booth III have all blurbed my work. Every time I sent out a manuscript and ask for a blurb, I worry that they’ll pass, and many people have, but when they come back with generous words, it’s just so amazing.
15. What's your favorite and least favorite part of giving readings?
I hate the nerves, the way that I get sick to my stomach, even if I know the crowd, even if I’ve read that story before. I love it when I finally settle in and find my voice, when the crowd slips away, and I’m there, in my story, wherever it is, and I’m sharing that vision with them, and they react—they laugh or gasp, they go silent, heads bowed, a tear in their eye, and then the applause. I just want to share with them what I’m feeling, and when we connect, it’s really quite intimate.
16. I saw that you released one story, “Transmogrify,” on kindle, as a teaser for your short story collection, Staring Into The Abyss. What success have you seen come out of this? It's a brilliant idea!
Thanks, that was George’s idea over at Kraken. He’s an amazing artist, but this publishing is a new thing to him. I think I’m the second book he’s put out. It seemed like a smart thing to do. I don’t know if it’ll translate into sales, last I heard we had several hundred downloads of the free story. But when you’re an unknown author on an unknown press, you do whatever you can to get the word out. The free eBook, the microsite, the blurbs, the Tweets, Facebook, Goodreads, the book trailer, etc—you just throw it at the wall and see what sticks. We’ve gotten good reviews so far, mostly 4 and 5 stars across the board. I know it’s not a perfect collection, what is, but there are a few of my favorites in this group of stories, so I’m excited to get it out there and find new people with my work.
17. Staring Into the Abyss comes out this month (April 2013), you have one sentence to sell it, what do you say?
“Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”—Nietsche
18. Did I read that you were a designer before being a writer? Do you think that that kind of creativity changed the way you see things and in turn, the way you write?
Yes, I’ve been a graphic designer and art director for almost twenty years. It’s still what I do for a living, my full-time work, how I pay my mortgage. I do think it informs my writing, and visa versa. It’s all connected—writing, television, film, music, art, dance, etc. There is beauty and horror in all of it. I do see things in visual terms, my stories are almost always short films in my head, and there is always color, the five senses, it’s visceral to me, something real. I think that’s why at the end of my second book, Disintegration, I started crying, thought I might throw up. I’d been this man, this monster, for two years. It had drained me of my own spirit and emotion and left me an empty shell. I filled up again, but for a moment, it was intensely overwhelming.
19. Who are some newer authors you'd like everyone to know about? Or anyone currently blowing your mind?
Oh, man, where to start? I feel like I talk a lot about the male writers I read, since I grew up reading genres that were dominated my men, but lately, it’s been the women that have really been destroying me. In addition to the names I’ve already mentioned earlier in this interview, here are some women that I really love to read: Roxane Gay, Lindsay Hunter, xTx, Amelia Gray, Ethel Rohan, Monica Drake, Amber Sparks, Jac Jemc, Mary Miller, Paula Bomer, Claire Vaye Watkins, and so many others. They all take risks, they all bring a lot of emotion and power to their stories, and they continuously surprise me.
20. What's next for Richard Thomas?
Well, Staring Into the Abyss releases soon. I just had that story, “Garage Sales” come out in Midwestern Gothic. Up next is “Chrysalis” in Arcadia out in May, and you know about the anthology with Palahniuk, Burnt Tongues, in August of 2014. I’m also editing an anthology for Black Lawrence Press (The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers) out in late 2014. You’ll see ALL of the women I just mentioned in that anthology, such an amazing collection of edgy, contemporary fiction—I was so lucky to get them all to say yes and contribute to this book. It’s basically 25 of my favorite stories from the past five years. Beyond that, there are other things in the works, but only time will tell how they turn out! Wish me luck.
And thank you, Goat. These were some excellent questions, you obviously did your homework, and I really appreciate the support and respect you’ve given me here, it means a lot.
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