Interview: Richard Thomas, editor of The New Black

I covered the phenomenal anthology THE NEW BLACK, a few days ago, and its editor, Richard Thomas, was kind enough to stop by and submit to an interrogation answer a few of my questions (and share some pretty awesome news of things to come)! Please give him a warm welcome!

richardthomasCongratulations on your new project, THE NEW BLACK! You’re an author as well as an editor, but have you always wanted to write? Will you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?
Thanks, it’s been very exciting putting this anthology together and launching Dark House Press.

I’ve loved to read and write for as long as I can remember. Dr. Seuss was one of those childhood wonders that just opened up your mind and imagination. I won a spelling bee in fifth grade, and a contest for most books read in sixth grade.

I read everything from the Hardy Boys to Judy Blume to Watership Down. I loved reading and writing in high school, as well as college. I read popular fiction like Stephen King and Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein, John Grisham and many others. In college I discovered the Beats. And it was after college that I got into more experimental authors such as Chuck Palahniuk, and other transgressives like Brett Easton Ellis, Craig Clevenger, Will Christopher Baer, and Stephen Graham Jones. But it wasn’t until I got my MFA, a few years ago, that I started to enjoy the literary voices, too, everyone from Denis Johnson and Mary Gaitskill to Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy to George Saunders and Haruki Murakami.

I’ve only been writing seriously for about six years now. I started taking classes when Craig Clevenger came to The Cult (the official Chuck Palahniuk website), which I discovered after the movie, Fight Club. I then took classes with Monica Drake, Max Barry, Jack Ketchum, and Stephen Graham Jones. Adding in my MFA lessons, and my background is pretty varied. But I’ve always been drawn to dark fiction.

thenewblackWhat prompted the idea for THE NEW BLACK and how did you go about choosing stories? Will you tell us more about what goes into putting a collection like this together?
I’d been thinking about putting together an anthology for a long time. I’d been talking to Pela Via, an author and editor, and it was exciting watching her put together Warmed and Bound, an anthology of authors who hung out at The Velvet, the website for Clevenger, Baer and Jones. I saw how much fun she had, and decided to approach a few people about doing an anthology, including Curbside Splendor. When they announced the imprint, Dark House Press, I said, “Instead of just an anthology, why don’t I run the press.”

But TNB is a special project, something I’d been thinking about for years. It was basically all of the authors that I’d been reading for the past five years not just a story here and there, but novels, their entire body of work. It started with the Velvet trio (unfortunately I couldn’t get to Baer, even though his agent was very nice, and tried hard for me) and then expanded out to the unique dark voices I’d seen at various AWP conferences. It was essentially this new movement of dark fiction authors, those that were blending literary fiction and dark, speculative fiction—fantasy, science fiction and noir. I saw so many people speak on panels, and read at live events, everyone from Brian Evenson to Lindsay Hunter, Matt Bell to Joe Meno, Roxane Gay to Roy Kesey. And even though they were not the same voice, they all felt like family to me—familiar, welcoming, and intense.

The stories in THE NEW BLACK are described as neo-noir, but how do you define neo-noir?
I guess at its most basic definition it just means “new-black” which is where the title comes from, obviously. Laird Barron writes about it so eloquently in his foreword, be sure to read it future anthology buyers, but I’ll try to do his words justice. To me, neo-noir is less about evolving out of crime, and noir, than it is out of any dark fiction—horror, fantasy, whatever. It’s not writing the old conventions, it’s finding a way to make them new and fresh and contemporary. So it’s not the classic horror tropes and monsters, it’s not the same old world-building and technology, it’s not detectives and dames and gams. If it takes anything from those genres it’s the atmosphere of noir, the mood and tone, the tragedy and eventual climax, and consequences. It’s quiet horror and soft science, it’s taking the best of literary fiction, those smart voices that don’t dumb down the narrative, and aren’t afraid to get a little poetic and lyrical, and blending it with the exciting storytelling and page turning narratives of genre fiction, of popular fiction. It’s the kind of writing that I want to read, and that I try to write.

There is a lot of darkness in THE NEW BLACK, but there are some stories that are so poignant that they drove me to tears, and there are a few glimmers of hope. Is it a challenge to find a balance of dark and light in a collection like this? Do you think it’s necessary to temper such darkness with “lighter” stories?
I hate to say thank you for the tears, but yeah, that’s the kind of reaction an author wants, right? You want laughter, you want that gasp, you want tears, you want that sick feeling in your gut—anything but a shrug of the shoulders. I like for people to feel a little spent when they get done reading my fiction, and that’s the same way I feel about the authors I publish. I know we were talking a little bit on Twitter about it, and maybe I’ve gotten soft in my old age, but anything to do with children, right? Stephen’s story, “Father, Son, Holy Rabbit” it just crushes with me with that gesture at the end, the love, what few men would be willing to do for their son. And then Paul Tremblay’s quiet post-apocalyptic tale, “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks.” And, man, Lindsay Hunter’s “That Baby.” I think those three stories all made me cry. Kyle Minor’s “The Truth and All Its Ugly,” that’s another one, the ending. God.

afterthepeopleI don’t think every neo-noir story has to have a tragic ending, there is a glimmer of hope—there is always the chance for redemption. I do think there are some moments of lightness in this collection, and it is important, to not just hit the same note. Without spoiling anything, even Stephen’s story, there is good news at the end there, right? Although…I have always loved The Twilight Zone, and those endings, you know, where the watch breaks and everybody is frozen in place and the guy screams, “NO!” and you know it will be that way forever. There are few of those horrific moments in here as well. There is loss and grief, there is horror, there is surrender—there are lessons to be learned, cautionary tales and fairy tales and everything in-between.

What do you look for in a good story? Is there anything that will make you put a book down, unfinished?
I think it always starts with the voice. I just did a guest-editing gig and too many submissions were just flat, unoriginal, didn’t take any chances, and felt way too familiar. The ones that really SANG were hypnotic, they were confident—and behind the poetry and lyricism was a story, I cared about the people, I loved them, I hated them, but I felt something. You can make somebody care in one sentence (such as Hemingway’s supposed story, which I paraphrase here, “Baby shoes for sale: never worn.”), in a paragraph, in 500 words, so if you can’t do it in 3,000 in 5,000 then you just haven’t figured it out yet. Sympathy and empathy, revealing character through action and their words, the setting, the mood, all of it adds up. The best examples I can give you are the 20 stories in this anthology. These are all home runs in my book.

I try hard not to put books down, but as I get older, and have less time, I don’t hesitate to put a book down that doesn’t make sense, or takes too long to get to the meat of the story, or feels like something I’ve already read. You can get my attention with a few words, you can pull me into this moment, this inciting incident, this tipping point, a crossroads, if you’ve done your homework, and are listening to your protagonist, and putting it all on the page. Take the risks, pull from your own tragedies and moments of glory, and spill it all out, right?

What are a few of your favorite authors? Are there any that have particularly influenced you in your work?
Ha, I’ve probably listed them all here already. I grew up reading Stephen King, and have probably read more of his work than anybody else, and I do not apologize for that. I think he is a master storyteller. I’ve read most of Chuck Palahniuk’s work, but the last few books haven’t been my cup of tea, but everything from Fight Club, Survivor and Choke up to Haunted and Rant were just amazing. As far as influences, the Velvet trio are the closest to neo-noir, especially Baer, to what I write. Stephen is just somebody I love to read, he can write any genre, and we’re publishing a collection of his later this year at DHP (titled After the People Lights Have Gone Off—SO GOOD). Clevenger only has two books out, but man, I pick them up all the time, so brilliant. All of the authors in this book have influenced my writing, all of them. For some it’s only a few stories that floored me, for others a couple of novels, and for a few it’s everything they’ve ever written. Brian Evenson has reinvented horror, Matt Bell (especially with The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods) with his dark magical realism, Nik Korpon and his urban crime, Benjamin Percy with his rural nightmares, Roxane Gay who is unafraid of any subject—all of them have taught me something. Craig Davidson is an author, also in that same gritty realm, and I’ve been reading him since Rust & Bone (the collection) as well as The Fighter. And our third Craig, that’s Craig Wallwork, his story “Dollhouse” still scares me to death if I think about it too much. He and I came up together, with Nik Korpon, and both of them are really blowing up. I learned a lot from both of them.

burnttonguesHave you read any good books recently?
To be honest, not really! I’ve read or put down probably six books that were just okay, good, but nothing special. But maybe I’m just tired these days. Matt’s book was one of the last ones I read that really blew me away. I’m currently reading Antonia Crane’s memoir, Spent, she has as story in here, and wow, it’s amazing. She’s another perspective, not afraid of a little heat, gritty and raw, but so much heart. Same with Rebecca Jones-Howe, we’ll be publishing a collection of hers next year, Vile Men. Samantha Irby’s book of essays, Meaty, that was a wild ride, I laughed so much, but it’s also so sad and touching. That was late last year. Before that it was Lindsay Hunter’s collection Don’t Kiss Me. I’d read a grocery list by her. Oh, yeah, Peter Tieryas, his book Bald New World, out soon—Philip K. Dick meets Haruki Murakami, really loved that, so unique and funny and strange. Reminded me a bit of China Mieville, too, an author I really love.

But part of what’s great is being surprised, finding new voices. I had never read Micaela Morrissette, who is in The New Black, until I read her story, “The Familiars” in The Weird (edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer), and she just blew my mind. I’ll seek out her work forever. And Richard Lange, read his novel Angel Baby last year, really good, which made me seek out more of his work.

What’s next for you?
2014 is a big year, everything seems to be hitting at once.

The New Black is out on May 13th, and then I have two other anthologies I edited—Burnt Tongues, with Chuck Palahniuk and Dennis Widmyer (Medallion Press) in August, and The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) in October. I’m also editing a second anthology for DHP in 2015, entitled Exigencies, all original neo-noir fiction.

As for publishing, this is our first title for Dark House Press, and then it’s Echo Lake by Letitia Trent, this really hypnotic southern gothic thriller, in July, and then Stephen’s collection in September. For 2015, it’s the first book of the Joshua City trilogy, The Doors You Mark Are Your Own, by Okla Elliott and Raul Clement—which is just brilliant. Then it’s Rebecca’s collection, Vile Men. We have a few other things in the works, a novel to announce, and possibly another anthology edited by a big name in crime and horror, for 2015 and even 2016.

With my own writing, I have a story in Cemetery Dance right around Halloween, called “Chasing Ghosts” and that’s really a dream come true to finally break into that magazine. Can’t wait for that to come out. I’m in the middle of negotiations on what could be three different presses for four different books, but I can’t talk about it all yet.

I can say my second novel Disintegration, a mix of Dexter and Falling Down, is one of the titles. Hopefully I can announce those exciting projects soon.

It’s really a joy, all of this, to surround myself with so many talented, passionate and generous people. This is kind of what I always wanted to do, and I just wish I hadn’t waited until I was 39 to wake up and realize it. But you know what they say, right? When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

Keep up with Richard: Website | Twitter

The New Black is a collection of twenty neo-noir stories exemplifying the best authors currently writing in this dark sub-genre. A mixture of horror, crime, fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, and the grotesque—all with a literary bent—these stories are the future of genre-bending fiction.

Table of Contents:
Foreword by Laird Barron
Stephen Graham Jones, “Father Son, Holy Rabbit”
Paul Tremblay, “It’s Against the Law to Feed the Ducks”
Lindsay Hunter, “That Baby”
Roxane Gay, “How”
Kyle Minor, “The Truth and All Its Ugly”
Craig Clevenger, “Act of Contrition”
Micaela Morrissette, “The Familiars”
Richard Lange, “Fuzzyland”
Benjamin Percy, “Dial Tone”
Roy Kesey, “Instituto”
Craig Davidson, “Rust and Bone”
Rebecca Jones-Howe, “Blue Hawaii”
Joe Meno, “Children Are the Only Ones Who Blush”
Vanessa Veselka, “Christopher Hitchens”
Nik Korpon, “His Footsteps are Made of Soot”
Brian Evenson, “Windeye”
Craig Wallwork, “Dollhouse”
Tara Laskowski, “The Etiquette of Homicide”
Matt Bell, “Dredge”
Antonia Crane, “Sunshine for Adrienne”