Interview: Lee Thomas

Lee Thomas is the Lambda Literary Award and Bram Stoker Award-winning author of the novels Stained, Damage, and The Dust of Wonderland, and the critically-acclaimed short story collection In the Closet, Under the Bed. In addition to numerous magazines, his short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Darkness of the Edge, Supernatural Noir, Horror Library, Vol. 4, and Inferno, among others. Current and forthcoming titles include the novellas The Black Sun Set, Crisis, and Focus (co-written with Nate Southard). Lee lives in Austin, Texas, where he is working on a number of projects. Lee’s website.

The first thing I read by Lee was his story in A WALK ON THE DARKSIDE, “Anthem of the Estranged.” I loved it. Then before I’d ever sold anything I had the pleasure of reading slush for the Horror Library and was the first to read and recommend Lee’s fantastic story “Flicker” for HORROR LIBRARY, VOL. 4, and the editors, in their good taste, purchased it.

I loved The Black Sun Set and sent it to my buddy Shaun who enjoyed the hell out of it as well. Then recently I got to share some pages with Lee in A HACKED-UP HOLIDAY MASSACRE. What fun! Again his story, “Ghunt,” was one of my favorites alongside work by Jack Ketchum, Joe Lansdale, and Marie Green.

And I remember reading something Lee said last year and since my first novel came out about that time it made a lot of sense. He said something like we all dream of selling that first book and we like to believe that’s the goal but it’s just “The Starting Line.” Yep.

Thanks to Lee for spending some time with us and thanks to everybody who reads and shares! Go check out some of this guy’s work!

Me: Over the last ten years you’ve built a respectable body of work. How has your view of yourself as a writer changed in that time?

Lee: Well I used to see myself as a hobbyist. I wrote because I loved writing and I’d write novels the way other folks played fantasy football or knitted scarves. With no intention of doing anything with the books, I wasn’t particularly concerned with quality, originality, commercial appeal or anything beyond getting the story on the page. I didn’t have to know what I was doing because if it made me happy, I’d satisfied my audience. As a working author, quality and originality and broader (if not exactly commercial) appeal become considerations. Of course, my work still has to satisfy me, first and foremost, but these days that’s a whole lot harder to do. The more I read and the more I write, the more critical I become. Part of that is the need to challenge myself, but another significant part of it is realizing that at some point the story is going to leave my happy bubble and make its way into the world. People, strangers, innocent bystanders, are going to go out of their way to read it, so it had better be tight. Of course, writing is still enjoyable, but it’s not the fun and games it once was, and it shouldn’t be. As a working author, you have to develop a critical eye. You should have an abusive relationship with your muse. There should be screaming and throttling and throwing shit, because every story idea is not necessarily a good story idea and every story direction isn’t going to lead you to El Dorado.

Me: You have a new novella TORN coming out from Cemetery Dance. Can you tell us about the process of writing it?

Lee: Several years ago, I got it in my head that I wanted to do novellas about all of the iconic horror creatures and possibly put them together one day into a single volume. Generally speaking, I’m not compelled to write about the classic monsters–vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc., – but they were certainly an important part of my formation as a writer, and they’re a hell of a lot of fun, so I thought a series of novellas would cover that ground. I started with PARISH DAMNED, which was my look at vampires, and then I did a ghost piece that blew up to novel length. Next was CRISIS, which was a riff on zombies. The publisher that bought it went through some hard times and the book was orphaned, so I put it up on Kindle as an ebook. TORN is my take on werewolves. I wanted to bring something new to the lycanthropy game, and TORN does that. It’s definitely an action piece with a good amount of nasty violence, but the human factor is equally compelling. I was really pleased with the way it turned out. I believe Cemetery Dance is already shipping copies to subscribers of the novella series, though the official release is March, 2012.

Me: Where do you see yourself going next? Do you have a plan or just take it one thing at a time?

Lee: Yeah, the second thing. Ha! The novel I’m finishing up, which should be done in the next few days, is a noir/dark fantasy piece set during Prohibition that’s very different from my earlier books. But then, THE GERMAN was different from the books that came before it. It can be hard to plan when you don’t know what you’re next book is going to look like, content-wise. I know the next book will have a contemporary setting, because I’ve done a couple of historicals back-to-back and I’d like to do something in the now. Beyond that… shrug.

Me: What advice can you offer new writers?

Lee: I am nobody’s role model. Seriously. I think writers are a diverse and complicated group and most of the “one size fits all” advice sounds good and might help the masses, but it can also be incredibly discouraging to a singular mind who has their own drummer to beat. Quite frankly we need more of those folks in the business, so I’m not going to chase them off by insisting they eat their Wheaties and write every day. My advice: Do what works and keep doing it.

Me: Is writing a want, a need, or a compulsion for you?

Lee: Yes.

Me: Lol. Who are some of your biggest influences? Was their impact on you so influential that you’d be a completely different writer if you hadn’t read them?

Lee: My biggest influences in genre are Peter Straub, Clive Barker, and Stephen King. I was fortunate to have these three writers emerge during my youth (or relative youth in regard to Barker). Those three define contemporary dark fiction as far as I’m concerned, and I can’t imagine what I’d be writing if I hadn’t escaped into their stories all of those years ago. Later in life, around the time I started publishing, I began reading Jack Ketchum, and he too has had an impact on my current work. I could list influences all day, because there is such a rich history to draw from, but my early influences were those three guys. From them, I worked my way back to Matheson, Bradbury, Lovecraft, M.R. James, Machen, and a pantheon of other brilliant minds. And that’s just in genre. Around the time I was reading Straub and King, I was also reading Truman Capote, the plays of Tennessee Williams and others of the Southern Gothic school, so they are equally responsible for the shit that comes out of my head.

Me: Do you prefer writing or reading short fiction over the longer forms?

Lee: No. Not really. I wrote novels before I wrote short stories, so I used to have a preference for the longer works, but these days, I’m just looking for a well-written and interesting story and form doesn’t really play into it.

Me: Hot seat question… How do you feel about the .99 cent Kindle craze? For or against? Reasoning?

Lee: It’s a double-edged sword. First though, we should define what we’re talking about. Established authors are in a different position than emerging authors. So it might be best to discuss what this all means to the new folks. Plus, if an author is selling short stories for a buck a pop, cool and groovy. They get a thousand downloads and they’ve made about a pro rate for that story, depending on word count and such. Obviously, the same isn’t true for novels or even novellas. I would think that if writers are making long works available at that price, they are going to have to put in hardcore promotion hours to get any kind of reasonable payout. Or they are merely using the low cost to generate buzz. In the abstract, it’s a legitimate marketing strategy if it leads to a readership that will eventually pay a reasonable amount for the work. I mean Metallica built a reputation by encouraging fans to copy and distribute cassettes of their early demos, and they’re doing okay. Ha! There can be no doubt how effective a bit of artistic tease can be. But you know those hundreds of other bands that did exactly the same things Metallica did? No… me neither.

I’ve done it, with the novella I mentioned, CRISIS, just to test the waters. It went fine, but it wasn’t a bounty by any means, mostly because I didn’t do jack to promote it. Still, whether it’s .99 or free, the fact is when something is that cheap, it’s perceived as disposable. So a reader can load up their Kindle with a few dozen titles and may only read a fraction of them. A writer CAN build a legitimate fan base that way, some have, but most won’t see any genuine, long-term benefit to their careers because the product has been acquired but it hasn’t necessarily been consumed. Their stories are part of a digital library; it doesn’t mean they’re being read, and if they aren’t read and affecting the reader, driving him or her to pick up more of that author’s work, then it’s a bit of a pointless exercise. Further, if readers can get material free or dirt cheap, they may balk at paying what a story is really worth when the time comes. They’ll keep reading the free stuff, regardless of quality, because their affinity is to the unit cost, not the author. And the issue of quality is a major one, because many of these titles haven’t been edited by professionals, or even vetted through competent first readers. As a result, authors stand the real chance of losing readers who find themselves frustrated by poor grammar, typos, and/or storylines that are inconsistent or lack logic.

So on the up side, it is a practical marketing tool that offers a slim, though real, chance for burgeoning authors to build their readership. On the down side, a writer still has to shout through all the noise out there to get readers to notice them, and they’re driving the perceived value of stories down in the process.

Me: You collaborated with Nate Southard on your Thunderstorm novella FOCUS. What did you find most rewarding and most challenging about that project? Have you collaborated with others before? Do you plan to do it again?

Lee: The most rewarding part was working with Nate. He’s a great writer with a strong grasp of pacing and atmosphere. I had the basic idea of what I wanted to do, something like EVIL DEAD in an office building, and I wrote up the first chapter. Nate took the idea and ran with it, and we went back and forth until we had something much bigger and more fun than I’d initially imagined. My only other collaboration was with Stefan Petrucha for the WICKED DEAD series of books for HarperTeen. It was a completely different kind of collaboration because of the way the books were structured. In that instance we each focused on our specific parts and put them together at the end. Then we went back and forth with revisions until we were both happy.

I don’t have any plans for a new collaboration, but I’m open to the idea. It simply depends on the project and the co-author. But it will be a while before I can take on anything new. I’ve got a few projects keeping me busy these days.

Me: I just finished THE GERMAN and loved it. Where did the idea originate? Did you have to do a lot of pre-writing? Did it all grow organically from who the characters are and the situation?

Lee: Thank you. The story emerged as most of my ideas do, from a confluence of disparate elements, all of which occurred in a relatively short period of time and somehow fit together in my head. The first was a History Channel program about a Nazi leader named Ernst Röhm. Röhm was, for several years, one of the most powerful men in Germany, commanding the SA (or “Brownshirts”), during Hitler’s rise to power. Considered a threat by Hitler, Röhm was assassinated, along with many of his officers and sympathizers, in 1934 on “The Night of the Long Knives.” Further, Röhm was openly, and vocally, gay. Prior to this program, I’d never heard of the man, but I found his story fascinating. That evening I sat down and wrote a scene, which became the prologue of the novel. The second element was a daytrip I took to Fredericksburg, a small Texas town with a noticeable German heritage. Since I was relatively new to Texas, I didn’t know how extensive German settlement had been in the state, so that gave me a pretty good idea about setting. The third, quite frankly, was a porn flick I saw playing on the television in a gay bar. It was a generic setup of somebody peeking through a window and watching the “action,” and in that, I found the novel’s pivotal event. Further, I’d been looking for a story that would let me explore the nastier human traits, stemming from the defense of personal or social identity and how this can play out from schoolyard bullying to culturally sanctioned genocide. Character, setting, conflict, and that overarching idea collided and meshed. And though there was a lot of research involved, the character voices and story came quickly. Ultimately, I did little in the way of pre-writing, and for that matter, this novel went through far fewer revisions than I’m used to doing.

Me: Do you have favorite works? Which three would you suggest new readers try?

Lee: My favorites change with the weather, but I think THE GERMAN is currently at the top of the list of readily available titles. So I’d say THE GERMAN, IN THE CLOSET, UNDER THE BED, and TORN, the novella I have forthcoming from Cemetery Dance. If folks are more inclined toward YA titles, then I’d recommend MASON, which I wrote under the name Thomas Pendleton.

Me: Anything you want to say before we say goodbye?

Lee: Thanks very much for taking the time to chat with me. Be sure to direct folks to the interviews you did with my buddies Tom Piccirilli and Robert Dunbar. And continued success with your own writing. See ya!

Me: Thanks, Lee! And there you have it. Love this guy’s writing and you should give those three books he mentioned a try!

Thanks to all who read and spread the word!

4 thoughts on “Interview: Lee Thomas”

  1. Fantastic interview. I especially loved hearing his thoughts on the .99 ebook situation. It’s true about something being considered disposable if you don’t have to earn it, in a sense. That’s old school reasoning right there, and it’s sound.

    So Lee! Man, do you mind sending me a straight-up email address for you? That would be awesome. If it’s here on your site, then I’m just blind. We haven’t chatted in forever!

    1. Thanks for the read and comment, M! Really nice to hear from you! And yes, I’d love to catch up. Here’s my email: perpetual_voodoo (at) yahoo.com
      Hope you and your family are doing great!

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