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Gamut Kickstarter: An Interview with Richard Thomas

02/22/16

I met Richard Thomas when we selected him as a participant in the 2012 Flying House show – a writing and art collaboration project my husband and I host in Chicago each year. In his application, Thomas submitted two short stories he described as surreal – or was it magical realism? – or maybe neo-noir? He was still, I think, finding the space he would fill in the literary world. He was already a great writer, and a fantastic participant in our show, and also one of the hardest working writers I had ever met – but that was also seven award-winning books ago, 100+ published stories ago, before he became an editor of four anthologies, a columnist, an Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press – you get the idea. He works hard. And, now, he knows exactly what his literary pursuits entail.

As of February 1, Thomas has launched a Kickstarter campaign for Gamut, an online magazine of neo-noir, speculative and literary fiction he hopes to unveil in January of 2017. He wishes to support voices that aren’t getting enough recognition, especially edgy fiction that straddles the fence between genre and literary fiction. If you’ve followed any of his columns, you know Thomas doesn’t write for free, and doesn’t think you should either, so he plans to pay a great rate to his authors – both solicited and not – and he also wants to include columns, non-fiction, art, flash fiction, poetry, and maybe even a serial memoir or novella. This excites me. But let’s hear a little more from Thomas himself…

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Hey there, Richard. I know you’ve probably been talking up your new lit mag nonstop lately, so let’s start somewhere different. When I first read your work, like I said above, it was as part of an application, which meant I was reading blind and it wasn’t until later that I heard your take on your writing. At the time, I thought it was interesting how you described your work as speculative, when I would have called it literary. Maybe I don’t know enough about speculative fiction – so what is it? 

Hey, Megan! Thanks for the kind words. I know speculative fiction covers a number of genres (such as fantasy, science fiction, and horror) and that it typically isn’t grounded in reality, but based on characters, settings, and elements that are created out of human imagination and speculation. For me, that also includes magical realism, and possibly other genres, such as transgressive, and neo-noir. And then of course you have literary horror and classic horror, and everything in-between, the same with fantasy and science fiction. I mean, what exactly do you call Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian or The Road? This can’t be just straight literary fiction. You could call them westerns or post-apocalyptic, or even thrillers. What about Joyce Carol Oates and “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” There are some supernatural elements in there as well, hints of a demon or devil, ESP, cloven feet maybe? And really, that’s what I’m most excited about as an author, editor, teacher and publisher. I love authors that straddle the fence between genre and literary fiction, taking the best from both. I want compelling narratives, that keep me turning the pages, a sense of wonder, as well as the thoughtful, insightful, more philosophical elements. An author like Benjamin Percy, for example, can publish in both The Paris Review and Cemetery Dance. Or people like George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, even Toni Morrison. 

Fantastic. For me, your description elevates my idea of genre fiction into the literary, and I had probably been a bit biased against genre fiction in the past, thinking of them as “fast reads” or formulaic (even if I love me some genre every now and again). I think speculative writing is becoming more popular, just as fan fiction and vampire fiction and Pride and Prejudice with Zombies fiction is growing in popularity. Do you agree? Have you encountered any of this snobbery along the way while writing crime/horror?

Oh there are snobs for sure. And there are genre fans that hate literary fiction, too. I mean there is innovative work being done in all genres, and really back writing in every genre as well. I see a lot of nose wrinkling in academia, but then again, there are programs that embrace it, such as UC-Riverside, which I just visited as a guest author—a fantastic MFA program there. Seton Hill has a Popular and Genre Fiction program, as well. I mean, I think it’s important to study the classics, to read Cheever, Carter, JCO and Nabokov. But there’s a lot to learn from reading King, Grisham, and Rowling, too. I see more and more speculative fiction easing its way into the Best American Short Stories anthologies, into The New Yorker, and other places. With certain genres, there are definitely expectations—with horror you want to be scared, with mystery you want to solve something—and that’s fine. I understand wanting an “easy read” for sure. But the novels and stories that move me the most, they find that sweet spot between dense and fast-paced, between emotional and gritty, between lyrical and entertaining. For MFA programs to ignore genre fiction is—I think it’s irresponsible. Look at The New York Times best seller lists—you know what’s on there? Mystery, romance, horror, fantasy, science fiction, YA, and literary. 

I agree with you. That sweet spot between “dense and fast-paced, between emotional and gritty, between lyrical and entertaining” is what I call being immersed in a good story. And the easier a writer can make their world seem to the reader, the better writer he or she is. What is it about this kind of writing that made you want to write in this genre?

Well, I grew up reading Stephen King, and he’ll tell you he’s a great storyteller, but not exactly a lyrical author. I think I sought out a range of voices, such as early Ray Bradbury leading me to William Burroughs and on to Chuck Palahniuk. I like to be surprised, I like to be moved, and I want to be hypnotized by the characters, the story, and the voice. When I first discovered Palahniuk, he got me to some neo-noir authors—Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. I loved how dense they were, how lyrical, but they weren’t boring or expected. They weren’t formulaic. When I write, I want to pull you into the story, to be the protagonist, experiencing what he (or she) is going through. I want to scare you, make you laugh, turn you on, enlighten you, and leave you spent. I want you to go hug your kids, lock the doors, and then stare out into the darkness wondering what might be possible, both the tragic and hopeful, the vengeful and mystical. I used to read a lot of mysteries, but over time, in a series, it’s all the same thing. If you pick up Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, I guarantee you’ve never read anything like it. The perfect blend of the horrific and the fantastic, the mix of light and dark, lyrical and visceral—it’s just amazing. 

I haven’t read Perdido Street Station, and now I will. What you say about pulling your reader into the story is right-on though. In your book, Disintegration, especially, I felt your protagonist pull – demand, force, coerce – me into his world in such a great and powerful way. A visceral way. A visual way.

Thanks. When I finished that book I broke down and started crying. I thought I might throw up. I’d BEEN him for so long, this unnamed protagonist. I guess you’d call it “method writing,” having sat in that place for so long, taking the advice of Jack Ketchum, and writing what scared me the most—seeing my wife and kids killed in a car accident. It was pretty intense. It also helped that it was set in Wicker Park, where I lived for ten years, in my old apartment, and old haunts. I could picture the rooms, the aqua stove, the people on the street—I could hear the Blue Line “L” train go by.

That takes some guts. Also – I’m pretty sure we were neighbors once upon a time. Small world.

I’ve noticed when your books are in the final stages of editing – or your anthologies – there’s quite a bit of hype around the artwork that will be included. More so, I think, than I’ve seen outside of the horror/crime/mystery category. Do you agree? Do you think that this is because this particular genre is so closely tied to the physical, visual world?

I do think the fantastic, the horrific, the magical, begs to be seen, and to be drawn. Whether it’s Neil Gaiman or Lovecraft. I think my personal attraction to art in the anthologies I’ve edited and published comes from two places—my desire to give my readers something more, the illustrations adding to the experience, and my background in advertising for twenty years as an art director and graphic designer. I want the books to look nice, to be fun, to be well designed—you should pick them up and hold them, turn them over, enjoy the imagery, all of the elements. I’m a very tactile person. I’ve also seen so many horrible covers, especially in horror, that I knew I wanted to use original photography and illustrations on all of my books. It’s important to me.

Does this have anything to do with your interest in including artwork in Gamut?

Definitely. It’s the same way at Gamut—there will be original drawings with every story. Luke Spooner will be doing that—he’s done most of the interior work I’ve published at Dark House Press. I can say, “Draw me a crib,” and it’ll be the coolest, creepiest crib you’ve ever see. And we have other perspectives, too, from George C. Cotronis, Daniele Serra, Bob Crum, and Jennifer Moore. They’ve all done cover art or other projects for me at Dark House Press. 

So…we’ve uttered the word, Gamut. Tell us what you are most excited about – the first thing you want to tackle – once your Kickstarter is funded (because I hope it will be!).

The stories! I have a list of reprints that I’m dying to get to, work I couldn’t publish in other places. These are my favorite authors, so I want to go get those dark tales and share them with the world. And the new work, man, I really have no idea what they’ll turn in, which is really exciting! I know a story from Livia Llewellyn or Laird Barron or Damien Angelica Walters will be something special. It’ll be new, just for our readers, and I can’t wait to share these with them. I’m being a bit of a patron (or maybe I should say fanboy) here, too, supporting the voices that matter to me, that inspire me, that push me to be a better author. 

Nothing wrong with that! It’s so important to support and encourage the writers we love.  

For sure. If people didn’t support me, encourage me when I was just getting started, I’d never have written anything. Craig Clevenger really pushed me to send out a story I wrote in a class of his, entitled, “Stillness.” I didn’t have any faith in it, but I sent it out. Of course, I sent it to all the wrong places at first, but eventually it landed in Shivers VI alongside Stephen King and Peter Straub. But I needed that initial push, that support. 

You’re a writer. You’ve edited a bunch of books. You’re more than qualified to start a lit mag, and you’ve told me you’ve been working toward this for years – so what’s standing in the way? I’m thinking you’re going to say money. Is it money?

Money, yes. That’s the big one. But really, I wanted to start this project WITH people. I didn’t want to do it alone. This isn’t about me, it’s about being a part of the landscape of excellent publishing that’s already going on—at Tor, Nightmare, Cemetery Dance, Apex, F&SF, Clarkesworld, Shimmer, etc. I’ve been inspired by editors like Ellen Datlow, Ann VanderMeer, Paula Guran, John Joseph Adams, Michael Kelly, and many others. Not only did I want to surround myself with talented authors, but I wanted the original patrons and supporters to be a part of this as well. I want them to suggest people to me, to have an open discussion, and I want them to send in their work. With a vehicle like Kickstarter people are invested—literally. And whether it’s $30 or $130 or $1,030 this is where we all come together to create something new, and exciting, and interesting. A few places have closed, recently, and others are no longer taking submissions, so it seemed like the right time to step up and take this chance. We’re going to pay ten cents a word, which is more than most, and we’re going to embrace dark, weird, literary stories, which sometimes have a hard time finding a home.

Irvine Welsh, Chuck Palahnuik, Marcus Sakey – they’ve all backed you. A mile-long list of authors have given verbal agreements to write for your magazine. A host of editors and artists have signed on to help once the magazine is up and running. It has to feel great knowing this dream of yours is about to come to fruition – or are you too worried to enjoy the love?!  

You know, Megan, if I wasn’t bipolar when I started, I probably am now. As we speak it’s day two, and we’ve raised almost $8,000. I’m both thrilled with that and also disappointed. I go back and forth. One minute I think we can’t do this, the next I think this is definitely going to work out. So, yes, I am pretty worried, but if everyone who says they want to change the industry, everyone who says there aren’t enough paying markets, actually steps up and contributes, we should be able to make this happen. I don't want people to do this for me, I want them to do it for the authors who are going to write the stories, for the artists who will draw new work, for the writers who will now have a new place to submit and get paid—and for themselves, to create a new magazine for entertainment, enlightenment, and fulfillment.

I can’t wait to see how your Kickstarter project works out – and even more so how the launch of Gamut goes. Thank you for the interview, Richard, and best of luck!

Thanks, Megan, I really appreciate the continued interest and support. Means a lot.

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