Interview with Author Jeffrey Thomas (Punktown, Letters from Hades)

May 03, 2016

Jeffrey Thomas Interviewed by Dark Regions Weird Fiction Editor Brian M. Sammons

When someone asks me to name an original author that follows the beat of their own drum, there are a few names that come to mind, but the writer at the top of that list is always Jeffrey Thomas. Now I have read stuff by him that could fall into different genres: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, weird, and the Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos, to name only a few. But for me, while I have never read a story by Mr. Thomas I haven’t liked, he’s at the top of his considerable game when he’s playing in his own unique, wonderfully surreal sandbox: a little place called Punktown. Punktown is his futuristic setting that encapsulates all of the previously mentioned genres, and then some. It allows the author to write with wild abandon about anything, and everything, he wants without bumping up against the harsh boundaries of easy categorization. To describe Punktown could be a daunting task as it is so all encompassing, or it can easily be done with a single sentence: it’s a place where anything is possible, whether you want it to be or not. Jeffrey Thomas is an amazing author, and a pretty darn fine guy, too, so I was very happy when he agreed to this little interview.

BMS: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. Dark Regions Press and I have long been fans of your work as we have published quite a bit of it over the years. But I am sure there will be some that read this never having read a Thomas tale, and I so hope this inspires them to change that. But for now, let’s begin at the beginning. Before authors began to tell stories they were readers, so what were some of your earliest literary loves? Who inspired you and made you want to keep reading?

JET: An enthusiast of reading of course embraces a lot, but there are always particular books that have extra impact. Sparked by the films that were based upon them, when I was 10 I read both Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, my first experiences in reading in their entirety novels written for adults. With their memorable characters, immersive settings, gripping plots, and the strong social commentary both featured, they definitely inspired and instructed. Later standouts, in my teens, were ERB’s John Carter stories, Matheson’s I Am Legend, Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, and Blatty’s The Exorcist. All of these books remain favorites of mine.

BMS: Do you have a favorite book? One you have read multiple times? If so, what would that be?

JET: I’d be hesitant to choose a favorite. If forced, I might say Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but I’d rather resist thinking along those lines. One book however brilliant can’t encompass my diverse tastes in fiction or the enormity of my passion. I’ve reread a few books, but our time is brief so I’d rather read books I haven’t before.

BMS: Was there always a love for the weirder genres that you would later write in, or did that come later?

JET: I’ve loved science fiction and horror since my earliest childhood. My mother liked to relate how, when I was a toddler, I sat mesmerized in front of the TV as it played The Mummy with Boris Karloff. My love of old horror films, B movies, Creature Features, those Ray Harryhausen epics and the great old SF films like Forbidden Planet had a lot to do with where I am now. I recall my excitement watching the very first airing of Star Trek. All of that fantastical, imaginative stuff resonated with me greatly. It only follows that my reading would align with these entertainments, and that so would my own efforts in creative expression: drawing and later writing.

BMS: Do you recall when you first thought about putting pen to paper and telling your own stories? Was there a “Hey I can do that” a-ha moment, or was that an itch that was always with you, wanting to be scratched?

JET: It just came about organically, probably because I was raised in a very creative household. My father was an artist and both he and my mom wrote poetry, not to mention the artistic leanings of my siblings (horror writer Scott Thomas is my younger brother). It started with me making my own comic books, but eventually that morphed into writing stories. I made some abortive attempts at novels at10 (inspired by the aforementioned Boulle and Dickens novels), finished my first novel at 14.

BMS: Could you tell us something of your writing process? Do you do it every day for a set amount of time? Do you have a preference as to the time of day when you write? Do you write in long-hand first and then type it out when you’re finished? Do you plot everything out in advance or have a more general outline and see where things take you? Has your process changed at all over the years?

JET: I sure wish I could write every day, but especially in the past few years – with my day job, and my commitment to my two children, mundane errands and so on – I find it a struggle to make time for writing. It can take months to complete a single short story. I’m now amazed at how prolific I used to be. Maybe it was being younger; now after work I often just want to vegetate in front of Facebook or a movie, and even answering emails becomes too tiring to contemplate. Sigh! But I’ll take whatever time I can get, day or night, at home or at slow periods during work. (Shh!) I used to write everything in longhand, but that was before home computers, of course. I would pay typing services, family and friends to type up my stories from my handwritten manuscripts! I never learned to type properly and consequently I use just one finger. I first bought a word processor in my early thirties, didn’t own a PC until 1999. As for outlining, it isn’t my usual approach – I prefer to let a story evolve organically, and at most will write down notes – but providing a chapter by chapter outline was required when I was invited to write a novel for BL Publishing, which became my mass market novel A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Dealers. This was again required when I was asked by the same publisher to write them a Punktown novel, which became Deadstock and its follow-up Blue War. I wasn’t sure I could write an outline detailing all the action in advance, and almost protested to that effect, but when I got started it came naturally; it was like writing a very barebones story. Then when the books were greenlighted and I could proceed it was actually liberating to know half the work was already done and I could just drive forward, from guide post to guide post, free to enjoy the scenery along the way. Still, as I say, not my usual process and I haven’t done it again since.

BMS: What was your first sale and to what market?

JET: When I became aware there was a vibrant indie press out there – all those cool, sorely missed small press zines – I started submitting and racking up the humbling prerequisite rejections, until I placed my first piece: a poem called Yoo-Hoo, Cthulhu, at 2AM Magazine, acceptance received 3/3/89. My first story acceptance was another silly piece called The Doom in the Room, placed at Eldritch Tales, acceptance received 5/12/89. My first sale to a professional publication was a story called Statues, sold to Gorezone, the sister magazine of Fangoria, acceptance received 6/11/90.

BMS: The best thing about being a writer is?

JET: Story acceptances. Good reviews, especially in critics’ columns. Having that book or publication in your hands for the first time. The groupies (okay, that’s some more of my fiction).

BMS: The worst thing about being a writer is?

JET: Interviews. Kidding. Bad reviews are probably even worse than rejections. Or so I’ve been told; I wouldn’t know, of course.

BMS: Do you prefer to write long fiction or short?

JET: I’ve strayed from novel writing over the past few years, but that has more to do with my limited time and the many exciting anthologies I’ve been invited to write short stories for. Both forms are rewarding to work in. That said, I feel the horror story is generally best told in the short form. Too often I find phonebook-sized horror novels bloated and tiring.

BMS: People love labels and titles, for good and ill. With that in mind, what kind of writer are you? If I had no idea who you were and asked you the dreaded question: “So what kind of stories do you write?” how would you answer that?

JET: That’s tough to answer, which is the unfortunate reason why labels exist. To make things easier I might say I write horror and science fiction, and work that combines the two, but lately I’ve found the designation “weird fiction” very helpful because it encompasses so much. I’ve written a series of stories that take place in a fictitious Asian country, which I call Tales From Somewhere, and so far I’ve sold two of them (to Black Static, a horror magazine, and Interzone, a science fiction/fantasy magazine). When I was working on this series a few years ago I kind of despaired about how to describe it to people, how such stories could be marketed. Now I’m comfortable calling them “weird.” Trouble is, the average reader out there might not know much about weird fiction, what might fall beneath that banner, seeing as how even among those who are familiar with the term there’s still much debate and even antagonism, as if writers who identify their work as weird instead of horror are simply snobs, which surely for me isn’t the case. I guess I’m not one for choosing the easy path.

BMS: You’ve been writing horrific and weird fiction for more than a few years, how has that genre changed, as both a fan and creator, since the time you began writing until now?

JET: The field can’t help but be influenced by what people are reading, and when I started I think the general emphasis might have been on traditional/conservative conceptions of horror, writers emulating Stephen King, or if they felt transgressive, the splatterpunks. Though Lovecraft was an influence on some at that time, more recently there has been a greater awareness of a broader tradition of weird fiction, largely put in the spotlight by the VanderMeers’ superb and important anthology The Weird (now there is a phonebook-sized book that earns its bulk). That one volume could serve as a textbook on writing uncanny and unsettling fiction. Undertow Publications’ Year’s Best Weird Fiction series has carried the torch onward to further illuminate this literary mode. I think the rediscovery of weird – the weirdness of weird – has expanded the horizons of current horror fiction.

BMS: In addition to your ferociously original Punktown tales (more on them in a moment) I’ve seen stories by you that would fit nicely into many different subcategories. For example, what many people call “Lovecraftian horror.” What about those kind of stories appeals to you and makes you want to tell your own tales about it?

JET: When I discovered Lovecraft’s work back around 1985, I immediately connected to it. Again, it defies easy categorization: it’s definitely got the horror, but its otherworldly Old Ones are more science fiction than supernatural. His work was visionary and inspired in me a sense of awe, which was not the case with the horror fiction I’d encountered to that time. He eschewed the tired old tropes of the vampire and werewolf, replaced the witch/sorcerer with seekers of forbidden knowledge and the summoned demon with unfathomable extradimensional beings. To me the magic tomes and conjuring spells are just props; his stories reflect a more modern consciousness, a scientific awareness of the frightening insignificance of humanity in the vastness of the universe. So his work, though archaic in its presentation (not that I’ve ever minded his prose voice) felt fresh and invigorating to me. It opened broader vistas of the imagination.

BMS: Are there other genres or types of different stories you have yet to tackle but always wanted to? Do you have ideas already running around in your head that would be a departure from the norm for you?

JET: I tend to want to do more of the stuff I’m already doing, which is pretty diverse as it is, though I’ve occasionally dabbled in something close to high fantasy without ever going so far as to complete a book of that type. I can’t sustain my interest. I’m about halfway through a novel (which I’ve neglected for a few years but would like to return to) set in contemporary Viet Nam that is more of a crime story or mainstream drama than horror, though there are subtle supernatural touches.

BMS: Punktown is perhaps your best known creation. How would you describe such a wonderfully original, and weird, setting as that? What exactly is Punktown and how did you come up with it?

JET: Punktown is a synthesis of everything that excites me; a fusion of the genres I love. I didn’t set out, though, thinking: “Hey, I’m going to mash up science fiction and horror, here” because I always mixed those interests in my childhood, combined them in my play, so I didn’t think to separate them in my mind as distinct areas. To this day I don’t say to myself, “I’m going to write me a new science fiction-meets-horror Punktown story.” To me, it’s just, “I’m going to write a new Punktown story.” Punktown is what it is; Punktown is the inside of my head. There have been plenty of depictions of futuristic cities before, but this is my futuristic city, so its personal idiosyncrasies are apparently what make it distinct. One thing Punktown is not is hard SF. Though I like to write stories that introduce strange technology, it’s more about how it effects the lives of people, not the tech itself. I’m never trying to predict the future in Punktown; it’s more a carnival mirror reflection of our here and now. And there are ghosts in Punktown, extradimensional entities. In an Amazon review someone griped that I didn’t explain how my private detective character Jeremy Stake can alter his appearance, apart from him being a mutant. Sigh! Come on…it’s Punktown. So how did the setting originate? In 1980 while on a drive I just had an out-of-the-blue brainstorm to write a novel about this strange city in the future, on another world colonized by Earth people and countless alien races, where all kinds of weirdness plus satire/social commentary could be staged. That (still unpublished) novel turned into a whole series of novels and short stories, which seldom use the same characters and are always self-contained.

BMS: Has Punktown morphed and grown since you began writing about it? If so, how?

JET: My initial inspiration was the city I then knew best: Worcester, Massachusetts. (Which as it turns out is also the inspiration for the fictitious city of Quinsigamond in some of the novels of the superb crime writer Jack O’Connell.) Later as I saw more of the world, Punktown undoubtedly stole bits and/or vibes from Boston, New York, Seoul, Saigon. Punktown has grown and evolved with each new tale, and will continue to do so. It’s a vast city so there’s always room for some new street or neighborhood, some new alien race.

BMS: If someone wanted a Punktown primer, what stories or books would you recommend they try first?

JET: The short stories cover a lot of ground and give a cumulative, mosaic effect, so I’d say either of the collections Punktown or Ghosts of Punktown, the latter being an especially dark Punktown book. For novels, Deadstock (perhaps my most widely read book) or what may be my favorite Punktown novel, Health Agent. Deadstock has more horror elements, Health Agent is more of a mystery/thriller.

BMS: How many authors can say that their stories have jumped from the literary to the interactive? I’m talking about games, as in the long in coming Punktown role-playing game. First how did that come about and then is there any update on it?

JET: A fan of the Punktown stories, Michael Tresca (author of The Evolution of Fantasy Role-Playing Games), told me he felt Punktown would make a great setting for an RPG. Though I’ve never been a player of role-playing games myself, it sure sounded good to me, so I gave him my blessing to start compiling a guidebook for a Punktown RPG. He interested Miskatonic River Press in the project, other cool people came aboard, and a very successful Kickstarter was launched. When Miskatonic River closed shop they handed the funded project over to Chronicle City in the UK. At this writing the final artwork is being wrapped up, so though the game has been a long time coming, it looks ready to go to press soon. The game was written for the BRP gaming system and is compatible with Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. I wrote two original short stories for the book to help provide some flavor for the uninitiated.

BMS: Could we expect any new Punktown goodness in the future? If so, what might that be?

JET: Though as I say Punktown is a reflection of my own quirky mind, oddly at the same time it attracts other creative types to enter its sandbox – I think, simply because of its sense of endless possibilities. A series of graphic Punktown stories are underway, a project supervised by a guy named Christopher Taylor who has written comics for the likes of Creepy and Eerie, so we have hopes they’ll find a good outlet. He really believes in the project, which we call Visions From Punktown. Chris has done a great job scripting the comics from my original stories. Also, in 2017 Centipede Press is going to release a massive collection of all my Punktown short stories, plus some original work, called The Punktown Omnibus. Presently it’s envisioned as a three-volume set. No matter what its ultimate form, it’s certain to be beautiful.

BMS: If I asked you to whip out your crystal ball and predict where you see the world of horror fiction in the next few years, what would be your Nostradamus-like answer?

JET: There’ll be more of the same: zombies, vampires, ghosts, witchcraft. As always, most of this work will be somewhere between unexceptional and crap, but from the gifted minority there’ll come some great stuff. On the weirder side you’ll see the ongoing exploration into more inventive concepts and imaginings, as weird fiction authors continue to feel inspired and validated not only by The Weird but by each other. No matter what the approach, it all has its roots in the past, and it all has its glowing red eyes fixed on the future. A major and important phenomenon we’ll be seeing – something that will alter the landscape of the future in unprecedented ways ¬– is a greater number of female writers, writers from the LGBT community, and writers of color creating fantastical fiction, as the field grows increasingly conscious about encouraging and welcoming their voices and perspectives.

BMS: Thanks again, Jeffrey, for the time today, and for all your wonderful stories.

JET: Thank you, Brian and DRP, for having read my stories – and for having seen so many of them to publication.

About the Author

Jeffrey Thomas is the author of such novels as Deadstock, Blue War, Letters from Hades, and The Fall of Hades, and such short story collections as Punktown, Nocturnal Emissions, Thirteen Specimens, and Unholy Dimensions. His stories have appeared in the anthologies The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, The Year’s Best Horror Stories, Leviathan 3, The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases, and The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction. Forthcoming from Miskatonic River Press is a role-playing game based upon Thomas’ universe of Punktown. Thomas is also an artist, and lives in Massachusetts.

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