Monday, October 3, 2011

Interview with R. Thomas Brown

Be on the lookout for R. Thomas Brown.

He sneaks around at his blog, Criminal Thoughts, pops up at classy zines across the web, and has a novel coming out from Snubnose Press.

His collection of short fiction, Mayhem, features stories of modern crime. Brown demonstrates remarkable range in these stories. “Skinner’s Child” takes place in dystopian future, where prisoners are reprogrammed to play by the rules. “A Cheap Babysitter” is a story of quiet desperation, and “A Serendipitous Stumble” is a sharp and funny PI story.

His stories tend to be slow burns, sometimes embracing and other times shedding the conventions of noir.

I sat down to talk writing and crime fiction with Mr. Brown at a smoky little dive bar in a forgotten city… or we emailed back and forth…

DBK: One of your stories, "Hurt," tells the story of a woman numbed by banal, modern life who is pursued by a "teacher," a man who, through violence, reconnects her with basic human feelings. "The Lesson" tells a very similar story but from the perspective of the teacher instead of the student. Why did you choose to write this story from two perspectives? How did changing the perspective alter how you told this story?

RTB: I wrote The Lesson a decade ago. That's true, by the way for most of the stories in Mayhem. I wanted to write a story about a villain who saw himself as a hero. Not the first story ever to have that premise, but I felt I found something that could connect with readers if I did it well. Many people find themselves unfulfilled by the things they fill their time with. So, I took that notion to an extreme and imagined someone who felt a calling to break people out of the trance like existence.

As I was going through the old material, having decided to give writing a go again after the long layoff, I found myself drawn not just to villains who felt heroic, but to the impact of crime and violence in general on people. This got me thinking about the other side of the story. What happened inside that other person to make them act out? How did she really feel? So, I started into it, wrote way too much, and pared it down to a story I thought worked. Reading over it, I am surprised that I find “Hurt” a more impactful story.

“The Lesson” focuses on the disturbed person, the one we may understand a bit, but don't know. We know Cami. We could be Cami. We can place ourselves in her shoes and wonder how would we react. Shrink away? Lash out? I think the story needs both sides, which I didn't consider at all when I first wrote it.

DBK: You mentioned that you were writing about a decade ago and recently took it up again. What motivated you to start writing again?

RTB: A few months ago I found the crime zines through a very serpentine path that started with following the Castle cast on twitter. Reading them, I found homes for what I used to write. Back then the markets were few, but with a seeming surge in places for pieces to be seen, I figured I'd try my hand at it again. 

I wrote a violent little story and it was accepted at The Flash Fiction Offensive. When David accepted it, and I got some nice comments, I felt that urge come back to put the ideas in my head onto a page.

DBK: Your work is difficult to classify in a sub-genre. I want to call it noir -- certainly it's dark crime fiction -- yet the endings of many of your stories deviate from that tradition. Not that everything is Disney Happy at the end, but you might catch a character when they're looking up, when they're hopeful. Things don't usually completely fall apart for them. Why do you think those kinds of endings work for you? Or does it depend on the individual piece? Lastly, do you write with an ending in mind, or do you discover it as you go?

RTB: "Your work is difficult to classify." Just what every writer wants to hear, right? I usually just refer to it as crime fiction. Yes, it's usually dark, but that stems from the basic idea of dealing with crime. Coming out the other side, even if you’re not damaged, is a tough road. I guess that's why sometimes the ending is hopeful. Sometimes a person gets hit. Knocked down and around, but comes out the other side okay. Not great. Not without scars. But okay. Other times, not so much. If I tend toward the hopeful side more often, it’s because that's an emotion that hits home for me. Resilient characters strike a chord with me as a reader, and when I write, I find that characters find a way to salvage something.

I don't plan endings for the most part. Usually a short story idea starts with the climactic act in my head. I can see the act of revenge, or loss, or rage. I then think about what happened to get there, and then about what that journey means to me and how to convey that as best I can. What happens after, the actual ending, is left until the end and I have the complete picture. That's when the character is real enough to me to know if he or she collapses, goes for a pyrrhic victory, or finds a way to get through the other side. When I have tried to drive toward an ending, either because of reader comments or a desire to be more noir-ish, it always falls flat.

DBK: Who do you consider to be your literary influences?

RTB: Like anyone who writes crime fiction, I'm influenced by Chandler, Hammett, Thompson, Cain, etc. Even if you don't read their work, they have influenced the entire genre. If you're influenced by Bret Easton Ellis, then you are influences by Jim Thompson. Of those great writers, I think Cain has the biggest impact for me. His work dwells on the twisted logic behind criminal acts, the seduction of the possible benefits of crime and the impact it has on the victims and the perpetrators. Mildred Pierce is similar, though crimes are not committed.

I would say though that I am inspired by much of the work of Stephen King. The ease and power of his story telling always comes through. He finds a way to give all the details and emotions that matter, while leaving a great deal to the imagination of the reader to fill in the blanks. That is a powerful combination and I will continue to strive to work that into my writing.

DBK: What drew you to crime fiction? 

RTB: I'm really drawn to stories that force people to deal with unexpected events. I love the mix of internal and external tension. Trying to make sense out of what's happening, while also in a rush to escape or uncover something. In my writing, this tends to involve a crime or violent act. That's not always the case, though. A good horror story does the same, as do works like Mildred Pierce. I guess crime fiction is a natural place for the kinds of stories I write. I dabble in other areas, but seem to always find my way back there.  

DBK: What inspired you to start your blog, Criminal Thoughts? As anyone who reads your blog knows, you read a hell of lot of short crime fiction. Who are some of your favorite short story writers right now? Whose work do you make it a point to never miss?

RTB: I love short stories. They tend to get right to a character, hit a conflict and move along. Sure, it’s usually just a scene, and not a whole story arc, but it's amazing how much emotional punch you can get in so few words. Also, the short form allows a writer to experiment with some things that may not be fully developed in the mind. A character to try out. A setting to play in. A time period to explore. You need just enough to get by, because the length limits it.

When I found so many short fiction zines around, it was great. I wasn't sure how many readers the places had, or if anyone would care about reviews, but I felt something from so many of the stories, that I wanted to put that out there. Both to highlight some great stuff for other people who might be looking for a story, but also as a comment to the writer that they got something across at least to one reader.

There's so many writers right now that put out great material. It's tough to pick favorites because so much of it is good (and I hate leaving people out. After answering this I'll agonize about the people I don't mention.)

My single favorite short I've read this year is from Chris F. Holm. His collection, 8 Pounds, is fantastic, and I think everyone should read The World Behind. That's a story I've read several times and adore.

Of the British writers going now, I'm a huge fan of Nigel Bird. He manages to be both brutal and hopeful at once in many of his stories.

Keith Rawson's The Chaos We Know is a wonderful collection of noir. Less hope there than I tend to go for, but the pain feels real in those stories.

A never miss for me is Matthew C. Funk. His stories always have a layer of meaning that jumps out of the story for me. They make me think not just about the people in the story, but about how the ideas extend into anyone's life. Combine that with great characters and dialog, and I'm all over anything he puts out there.

DBK: Are there any up-and-coming writers you've noticed? Writers who the rest of the crime fiction community might not know much about yet, but they soon will?

RTB: I think everyone's aware of Thomas Pluck by now. He's jumped out with an incredible amount of material, much of it great, and much of it brutal. I've got my eye on Court Merrigan. He seems to be getting some traction, and his most recent couple have been impressive.

DBK: So you have a novel coming out next year through Snubnose Press. Tell us (or, um, me) about that.

RTB: It's a story of a man who stumbles home to find a mutilated corpse on his porch. A man who had beaten him earlier. After puking, he finds a makeshift animal sacrifice behind his house. The next day, his life gets complicated.

His home is broken into. He’s beaten by a stranger. Seduced by another. Told his disowned brother is dead. And threatened unless he can find the valuables his dead brother supposedly sent to him.

Ignoring advice to run, Gabe searches for answers. He finds evidence of a brother unlike the drug addicted young man he forgot. He finds stolen goods and the dirty money that acquired them. He finds new threats, new enemies, more dead bodies, a courage he didn’t think existed, a love that he didn’t expect and a truth that he feared.

DBK: What's your writing process like? Do you punch the clock for a certain amount of time every day or do you get it in whenever you can? Do you have a specific process you follow, or do you let the particular project direct how you approach it?

RTB: I write when I can. Between work and time with the family, it's a struggle sometimes. I have a goal of a thousand words a day, and work hard to keep that up. When code's running, or at lunch I'll squeeze it in. After I hit that mark, if I can get time to concentrate I'll do some more, but that's hit and miss.

For longer material, I tend to outline a few milestones in the story. Big scenes, climactic moments, pieces of dialog that popped in my head and inspired the story. Then I'll rough outline the full story arc. Once I start writing, I tend to write and circle back and edit as the process goes along. I want a thousand words I at least like okay, and I want to be happy with how the story is progressing. As needed, I make notes about how the story is changing. By the time the first draft is done, I have a good handle on the story and start the clean up. For shorter material, I just write and see where it goes. With less complexity of plot, I can keep the whole thing in my head.

DBK: Have any stories in the pipeline?

RTB: I have some short stories set to come out soon. One at Yellow Mama around Valentine's day, and one at All Due Respect in May. I'll also have a story in Luca Veste's compilation, Off the Record, with a story inspired by Otis Redding's, “Dock of the Bay.”  I'm working on some other shorts, as well as a new novel also set in South Texas.

Find Mayhem here and check out R. Thomas Brown on Twitter, @rthomasbrown.


  1. great interview. you've really summed up the hit-and-run quality of good crime shorts. never considered the parallel between Thompson and Easton Ellis before but yes, it's totally there. best of luck with Mayhem. eva

  2. Terrific interview. Looking forward to the novel!

  3. Smashing interview. I'll be getting a bit of Mayhem soon!

  4. Fantastic interview! And thanks for the mention!

  5. Can't wait to read the novel. Nice interview, Chris.

  6. Can't wait to read the novel. Nice interview, Chris.

  7. I'll bet it feels good to be back writing! I love having a new (to me) author to check out. Thanks, both of you, for the interview.

  8. Thanks for stopping by folks. I hope to make the interviews a regular thing.

  9. I think it might let me comment this time.

    I read it. I think you should. It's skirts around noir, is almost dystopian, has a crime unbrella and the feel of slow-burn horror at times.

    And many thanks for the mention - I'm delighted you enjoy my work.

    This wasn't what I said first time, but it's similar.

    Go buy.

  10. R. Thomas is all about angles. Angles you don't know are there until you cut yourself on one. Mayhem is one of those collections you finish, re-read and then think about for a long while. Proud to be in the same book as him(The Luca Vestre Collection) Interesting stuff, Chris and R. Thomas. Thanks.

  11. I was intrigued by this: "when I write, I find that characters find a way to salvage something." It's unusual to see that perspective especially in the darker works, and I think that shows insight and depth on your part. It's actually why I didn't like or read noir for so long (I felt like it was all the same plots with the same characters with the same endings- bang bang your dead, suckers. Sorta like bad horror- hack, hack your dead suckers!) But as I started reading more of it, I found good noir. I also can identify with how you enjoy writing internal and external tension.

    Neat interview fellas. Looking forward to the book.

  12. Excellent interview, the both of you. Always interesting to see what the good people are thinking. Good folks like R. Brown.