Mackenzie Kiera – Richard, so nice to speak with you. I believe you and I originally met at UCR’s low residency MFA program. So nice to see you here at StokerCon 2017. Tell us what you’re reading these days?
Richard Thomas – I’ve been reading a lot of stuff for the classes I’m teaching. That’s been taking up most of my time, haven’t had a whole lot of time to read just for fun. The Best Horror of the Year anthology, edited by Ellen Datlow, which is really cool because one of the stories in there, “Wilderness,” came out of the Exigencies anthology I edited, and it’s by my friend Leticia Trent and her whole story went on this journey when we were starting Gamut. I asked her if she had anything and she said yes, she had something that had been previously rejected and she sent it to all the top magazines and she’d lost some faith.
MK – Absolutely, it’s hard.
RT – Totally, so I told her to send it to me. She sent it over and I immediately knew I wanted it. It’s just one of those stories where you read the first line, first paragraph and think, “Okay, if it can keep this up then I definitely want it.” I even led off the anthology with that story. In the end it’s all subjective, but I really loved this story and I really believed in it. It was also nominated for the Shirley Jackson award.
MK – So, read the short story “Wilderness.”
RT – Yes, absolutely. Read this story. We all doubt ourselves as writers, and I loved it from the start, couldn’t understand why it kept getting rejected, so, it was really wonderful to see it climb as high as it did and get nominated for the Shirley Jackson award. Made me feel like my intuition and aesthetic was sound and that’s important considering what I do for Gamut. But yes, it’s good to always read The Best Horror of the Year. Every year, as a writer, I want to see what’s out there, feel like I’m in the loop. And check out other annuals, too, such as The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by John Joseph Adams, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, edited by Paula Guran, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction, edited by Michael Kelly. These are all excellent books.
MK – Absolutely.
RT – Some of the other stuff I just got done reading for the class I’m teaching is all contemporary dark fiction. And that spans some time—China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. It’s pretty dense and really dances between science fiction, fantasy and horror. That book has been out for like, twenty years but it really kicked off the whole “new weird” movement. It’s a brilliant book and there’s so much going on, but you don’t have to have a science degree to read it. That’s a book I have really fallen in love with.
Also, All the Beautiful Sinners, by Stephan Graham Jones. One of my favorites. That’s more of a psychological thriller, it’s very slippery and surreal, but it’s also kind of at the heart of neo-noir, a genre I really love to read and write in. The biggest neo-noir name might be Dennis Lehane, such as Shutter Island or Mystic River.
MK – Both of those. Yes.
RT – But there are other voices, lesser known that are great—such as Craig Clevenger and Will Christopher Baer. In my class, we also studied Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation. It won the Nebula and Shirley Jackson award, and it’s part of the Southern Reach trilogy. It’s really tense and there are so many things in there. Oh! Also, Bird Box, by Josh Malerman.
MK – That book is amazing.
RT – Right? It’s hypnotic. I read it over Thanksgiving when it came out and I literally could not put it down. It’s so good. I’m sitting by the fireplace just sweating and I mean, when’s the last time you read a book and you just could not put it down?
MK – Best kind.
RT – Then, to go back and read it through a critical lens for my class—I just have such an appreciation for what all of these authors are doing on a sentence by sentence level, even the word choice and imagery, it’s just inspiring because I want to keep pushing myself to evolve as a writer and, while I have my style, you still need to grow. I like to read these things to keep me going and even the older books, like Perdido. That’s why I always read Tor and Nightmare Magazine. That’s all contemporary.
MK – The critical eye that you use when you’re teaching, do you also use that for Gamut?
RT – Yeah, when it comes to submissions I get or when you solicit from somebody it has to work on a couple different levels. It has to surprise me, but also, can’t be so weird that I just can’t understand it, it has to be accessible. Maybe it’s too scientific, or too smart for me. But if it’s doing something different, that always makes my ears perk up. Then, if it works? It’s sort of like a blend of the old and the new, which I talk about all the time, how can you write a book that’s familiar enough that readers understand you, but also be unique enough that they haven’t seen it a million times. So, how can you be accessible, but also, break the formula. That’s what I try to read. Intellectually, you want to be stimulated by what you’re reading, but it also has to have feeling behind it. You want to be able to relate, in some way. It’s why I don’t read a lot of series. By book ten, I tend to know the author’s tricks. Unless it’s Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.
MK – Or Game of Thrones.
RT – Absolutely. But that is so character driven that I’m in. I love all of the characters and I want to see what’s going to happen to them. So, I’m always trying to battle between what’s familiar and expected, versus what’s different and surprising. When I was younger, I’d rather read book twenty by Stephen King than read an unknown author. And that is a really narrow view and a shallow way to look at it, but as I’ve matured, getting my undergraduate degree, and my MFA, I’ve changed all of that and now I’m much more open. I just want to read something that’s great. I’m way more willing to take a chance. I remember reading Toni Morrison in my MFA and thinking, “What am I going to like about her work? What do we have in common?” And then I read Beloved and it crushed me and I thought, “I have to stop thinking this way. I have to change the way I think and write and edit.” That was several years ago. Now I am just more open to what I read on a global level. I still need to read more outside of the US and you know, at Gamut we’ve bought stories from people all over the world and that’s one of the great things about being online, is we can find them and they can find us and they can read Gamut regardless of where they are. Those points of view may be a little to the left, a little to the right but they’re bringing with them so many different experiences, and yet not so different that you feel uncomfortable chasing it.
MK – Totally. Well, a while back, you yourself were unknown and so you have to say at one point, I was unknown and someone took a chance on me so now I need to read unknowns.
RT – Absolutely. Read unknowns. Take that chance.
*This interview originally appeared on Dwarf + Giant