Black Lawrence Press
November 2, 2015

NaNoWriMo Feature: Richard Thomas

Welcome to National Novel Writing Month, 2015! We’re celebrating all month long with a gangbuster sale on some of our favorite novels, a consultation program for those of you with in-progress manuscripts, and this–a daily feature profiling a Black Lawrence Press author who has done the unthinkable: completed a novel.

Today’s featured novelist is Richard Thomas, editor of The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, published by Black Lawrence Press earlier this year. Today he’ll discuss his novel Breaker: A Windy City Dark Mystery, due out from Random House Alibi in early 2016.

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Excerpt

I awake to the sound of boys outside in the alley. I’ve fallen asleep on the couch again, my bedroom left untouched. It happens quite often, my body tense and riddled with electricity, trying to quiet the darkness, only to shut down and surrender to exhaustion.

I can hear the voices out the kitchen window at the back of the apartment—laughter, then voices lowering, a bottle breaking, and then a foot kicking a trash can, cursing and threats. I stand up and stretch, my fingertips just grazing the ceiling. Hungry. I reach into my sweatpants and pull out a wad of bills, wondering how many sandwiches I can get at McDonald’s, the dollar menu my frequent vice. I tried working out once, sit-ups and push-ups, eating nothing but chicken breasts, steamed broccoli, and brown rice. Didn’t lose a pound. So, screw it. I eat what I want now. At my height and build, with my pale skin and scars, it doesn’t really matter. People are going to be scared anyway—turn the other direction and walk the other way.

Except for Natalie. And I’m not sure why.

“Let me through,” she says, the little mouse squeaking in the alley, standing up to the boys.

“Listen, Gnat, you gotta pay if you want to pass through—you know the rules.”

“Yeah, what Gino says.”

Two neighbor boys, Gino and Mikey, couple of apartment buildings over—I’ve seen them around. Firecrackers, lightbulbs, rocks—they’re drawn to anything they can break, smash, shatter, or otherwise destroy. Ants and a magnifying glass, BB guns and random squirrels—the alley cats give them a wide berth.

“Guys, I’m not paying you anything. First, I don’t have any money, and second—bite me.”

I ease up to the window and listen closer. I’m curious to hear how she handles them, what they’ll do next. Better than cable.

“Mikey, you hear her? She ain’t got no money. That’s okay, sweetheart, there are other ways you can pay us.”

I hear bikes clatter to the ground, and grunts from all of them, her voice piercing the air.

“Stop it, you jerks. Get off me.”

For a moment there’s a hand around my neck, and I can’t breathe. Spittle in my face, the smell of bourbon and cheap beer, a smudge of fingerprints embedded in my flesh, cigarettes and oil, grease and rough stubble pushed up against my trembling cheek.

I lean against a potted plant that is sitting on the windowsill, purple mums that have turned to gray, and it tips over and slides off the chipped white wood, falling out the open window into the alley below. I hear it crash on the dirty pavement, curses drifting up to me. I stick my head out the window, knowing what to expect.

“Watch out, boys,” I say. “Sorry about that—must have bumped it by accident.”

I smile at the kids who stare up at me in horror, lips pulled back in snarls, the pot lying shattered on the ground next to them. Gino is still holding Natalie by her coat lapels, Mikey right beside him, squinting up into the sun.

“See, I have this problem,” I say, extending my arms out the window. Even from the second floor it feels like I can almost reach them. “I hardly fit in my own apartment. Especially at this time of the month, when the moon gets full, and I start to swell.”

They continue to stare, mouths opening in shock and wonder.

“He’s right,” Natalie says, eyeballing the pair. “I’ve seen it. Had to pull him out the door just the other day. Got stuck in the frame.”

Gino lets go of Natalie, and the two punks pull their dark knit hats on tighter, shrug their shoulders, and start easing toward their bikes.

“When’s it get full, Ray?” Natalie asks, looking up at me, smiling.

“Soon, Natalie. Soon.”

The boys pick up their bikes, zip up their coats, and tug their fingerless gloves on tighter, a bit braver now that they’ve stepped away.

“Whatever,” Gino says.

“Yeah, whatever,” Mikey echoes.

I turn my gaze back to the boys for a moment, a flutter of snow just dotting the air.

“You two are one building over, right? Twenty-two hundred, yeah? Your mothers, they’re cleaning ladies, right? Always coming in just before dark, coats bundled up, their hair under those do-rags, smelling like Windex and Pine-Sol? Is that right?”

The boys don’t say anything.

“Which one of your fathers works for the landscaping company, Jimenez Brothers or something? That you, Gino?”

The boy nods.

“Nothing wrong with working with your hands. A bit partial to using my hands as well,” I say, cracking my knuckles and massaging my tired flesh.

“Mikey, don’t think I’ve seen your father around at all. Not lately.”

Mikey squints his eyes, opens his mouth, and then shuts it.

“Beat it, you two—winter’s coming. Weatherman says we might get a few inches today. Some lake effect, maybe.”

They turn their bikes around, heading the other way, out of the alley and pointed southbound, in the direction of their apartment.

“And boys?”

They look up.

“Don’t let me catch you bothering Natalie again. She’s off limits. Find something else to do, somebody else to bully. Got it?”

They nod once and take off, Gino glancing back over his shoulder, squinting again, as if he isn’t quite sure what happened, or what he saw.

“Thanks, Ray,” Natalie says, picking up her bike, before looking up at me in the window again.

“Be more careful, okay? Those guys are bad news.”

Natalie nods and manages a small grin, brushing off her coat and stuffing her hands back into her pockets.

“Just gotta run up to the corner for some milk,” she says.

I turn my eyes back up to the graying sky, the wind picking up as the sun slips behind the ramshackle tenements and brownstones alike. The sky is filled with dirty cotton. I wasn’t lying about the storm, the snow.

“I’ve got an extra gallon, Natalie, why don’t you come up and get it—and save yourself the trip. It’s getting dark out.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

I duck my head in and close the window. I light a cheap vanilla candle in the kitchen to mask any odors that linger, a pan with bacon grease congealing on the stove—and this time when she knocks, I answer.

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Craft Notes

I wanted to tap into the idea of what makes a monster–how do serial killers get created, and can they be changed? I wanted to show Ray/Raymond as both dark spirit and flawed human, capable of both greatness, and violence. That threat has to always be on the page. His relationship with the young girl next door, Natalie, it’s very important. I’m channeling bits of The Professional, as well as To Kill a Mockingbird, and a little bit of The Green Mile, showing us Boo Radley in the contemporary world, a bit of Lenny from Of Mice and Men, the back and forth between experience and naiveté, the violence inherent in all of us lurking just beneath the surface. So this early scene shows what he’s capable of, Ray, how the world sees him, paired with the obvious gesture here to protect Natalie. Overshadowing it all is this fear, this tension, the sense that things could go wrong at any time. That’s something I consciously play with throughout the entire novel.

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Q&A

1) What is the hardest part of writing a novel? What are your techniques for dealing with this aspect of the process?

For me, I think it’s finding the idea. What’s something I’m burning to write about, what is something personal I can put on the page, what’s a book that hasn’t been written yet? I often think about it for months, jotting down notes and sentences, random thoughts, often starting a folder on my computer with photos that support my vision. For my last novel, Disintegration, I listened to the album of same name by The Cure. I had imagery of things falling apart—a teddy bear disintegrating, cities in ruin, anything that could trigger that emotion and idea. I often start with the scene that is screaming to be written the most. I think about where this story actually starts for my protagonist—is that inciting incident a moment of understanding, an epiphany, is it hitting rock bottom? It needs to be some sort of crossroads, a sense of urgency, that tip of the iceberg revealing something, but the majority of it buried under the surface of the water. It has to be a good narrative hook, a jumping off point where the reader can’t put the book down—they have to keep reading to see what’s going on.

2) What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

I’ve heard several authors and teachers talk about writing what scares you, your worst fears, to really risk something on the page. I know Jack Ketchum said that in a horror class I took with him, but I think it applies to all genres. I write horror for sure, but also neo-noir and crime, as well as fantasy and science fiction, and literary fiction, too. It has to be important, the stakes raised, it can’t be something mundane and small. It doesn’t mean everyone has to die, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, it can be the search for a father’s love, it can be the notion of simply being seen and heard, it can be a surrender, an understanding, but the audience has to care, it has to matter, the emotions strong and bubbling over. The tension is always going to be there, otherwise what conflict do you have, what change will you show us? Surviving, getting through your worst fears, it can be cathartic, inspiring, and powerful.

3) How long did it take you to complete your novel? Please talk a little bit about your journey from first word to final draft.

While I haven’t done NaNoWriMo, I did write Breaker in 25 days in December of 2014. I was on deadline, and had just wrapped up my previous novel with Random House Alibi (Disintegration) and I finally had time to come up for air and dig in. I knew I had to write about 2,000 words a day to make my deadline, and most days I hit that mark, it wasn’t too difficult, but then I’d miss a day, and the goals started to increase. At the end, I couldn’t stop it from spilling out, it wanted to be written and I could see the end coming, like a light at the end of a tunnel—unsure if it was an opening and the sun, or a train bearing down on me. I wrote 12,000 words in one day, toward the end, the most I’ve ever written in a single day, and it was intense. I was surprised by a few things—the impact, the sadness, and then the hope that was sprinkled over the last chapter, like dust motes in a sunbeam. I went back and re-read everything, working over rough sentences, making sure everything worked. It’s primarily a single protagonist, but I wrote these intermissions every five chapters, switching from first-person to third-person, a window into the life of the girl next door, and I had to make sure those worked. It was a wild month, but in the end, I was happy with the results.

4) What is your favorite writing time beverage?

Man, I’m pretty boring, it’s usually coffee. And when I drink it, it’s with milk and three sugars. I also enjoy a Sleepytime tea if I don’t want a ton of caffeine. I know, such a tough guy, right?

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Suggested Reading

These are five books that really have influenced me as a writer, or inspired me in the last couple of years. Each of them offers up something powerful, I think.

  1. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. This book, according to Jeff VanderMeer, kicked off the New Weird movement. It’s such a powerful and beautiful story, so strange, and touching, with universal themes, world building that is very cool (but not overdone), and tension that builds to a horrific ending that is tremendously satisfying. It’s in my top ten books ever list for sure. It’s fantasy and science fiction, with some elements of horror, but really it’s a story about love and sacrifice and truth. (Originally published in 2000.)
  2. Bird Box by Josh Malerman. This came out last year, and I read it the day after Thanksgiving, and I literally could not put it down. It was tense, and unique, reminding me of old Twilight Zone episodes or Hitchcock. I mean, I was actually sweating while reading it. You never see the creatures, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful. You root for the mother and her kids, and it’s a wild ride for sure.
  3. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. This is also somewhere in the science fiction, fantasy, magical realism, new-weird genres, but it’s so different. There are no names to the main characters, simply defined by their job, such as botanist. The end of it, the creature we finally see, it’s so weird, and unique, that fantastic combination of horrific and touching. I mean, I think I cried. This is part of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and it was nominated for, and won, some major awards. Loved it. Also came out last year.
  4. Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer. This is what I talk about, when I talk about neo-noir. This is the voice that started it all for me, and it’s something I go back to quite often. It’s part of a trilogy, and all three are worth reading for sure. This voice, it showed me you could be lyrical and poetic in a way that was approachable, while still moving the story along, still keeping the pages turning. I’m a huge fan of Cormac McCarthy, but Blood Meridian is NOT an easy read. Baer is probably one of the authors that has most influenced my style of writing, him and Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones, where Stephen King might take that spot for storytelling and plot. (Originally published in 1998.)
  5. All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones. Speaking of Stephen, this book is one that I give away more than any other (this and KMJ) easily dozens of copies over the years. This is an innovative take on the serial killer novel, taking the baton from Thomas Harris and the Hannibal Lecter novels, running with it into the darkness, surreal at times, filled with unique mythologies, twists and turns that keep you guessing. The opening to this book still haunts me to this day, I teach it in my classes. This book moved me so much, as well as his short stories, that I published a collection of Stephen’s stories at Dark House Press, and it made the final Bram Stoker ballot (After the People Lights Have Gone Off) last year. This is an author to keep an eye on, I read everything he publishes—and he’s very prolific. (Originally published in 2003.)

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Richard_138_B&W_highRichard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books—Disintegration and The Breaker (Random House Alibi), Transubstantiate, Staring Into the Abyss, Herniated Roots, Tribulations, and The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). His over 100 stories in print include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and the Bram Stoker-nominated Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for LitReactor and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.

Author Photo by John Geiger