Conducted by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeffrey Thomas and Scott Thomas are two of the most prolific brothers in the history of weird and horror fiction — with careers each spanning close to 30 years. Over that time they’ve published in numerous year’s best anthologies and had career highs with major publishers as well as critical acclaim in the small press. At this point in their careers, they must be considered an iconic part of the dark fiction landscape. A brief glance at Jeffrey’s Wikipedia page reveals the extent of their work.
One of Jeffrey’s signature creations is the far-future city of Punktown, set on another planet. One of Scott’s signature creations is Westermead, a place full of ghosts and legends. Both brothers are also artists and poets.
This “lost” interview took place on May 19, 2000, via a chat room set up by Garry Nurrish for the event. Kelly Rothenberg of the website Undead Remains (sadly since deceased) lent his services to preserve the transcript, which would have otherwise disappeared into the ghost world that is the Internet. I chose the chat room format because I thought that the interview should take the form of a conversation as much as possible. There were, of course, complications. A lightning storm kicked me out for about 10 minutes toward the beginning (which explains the absence of follow-up questions during the your-ancestor-was-a-witch section of the interview). Wherever possible I have preserved the conversational nature of the interview — an interview that was lost to the chance destruction of my computer shortly after conducting it. The interview was unearthed from a floppy disk by my wife, Ann VanderMeer, a few months ago. It seemed like a useful piece to post at Weirdfictionreview.com — a snapshot of the brothers 16 years ago.
Jeff VanderMeer: One of your ancestors was a witch. Or, rather, I should say, was accused of being a witch. What’s the story behind this?
Scott: Our Aunt Marge gave me some information about our genealogy…
Jeffrey: Elizabeth Howe, Scott.
Scott: The woman putting the information together claimed that we were related to Elizabeth Howe. She was hanged with the others.
VanderMeer: Howe was accused of being a witch in Salem?
Scott: Yes, and executed thanks to one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ancestors.
Scott: I have the transcript of the trial but have yet to read it. Hawthorne modified his name to distance himself from one of the hanging judges, a Hawthorne, I believe. Someone once said we were related to Helen Keller, I believe and those notes, if I recall correctly mentioned William the Conqueror.
Jeffrey: Our brother Craig and my uncle Wally have Keller as a middle name. It is Wallace Keller Thomas, right Scott?
Scott: I believe so.
Jeffrey: We’re proud Scotsmen in our family. Uncle Wallace named his son William. “Freedom!”
Scott: I wonder if we’re related to Dylan Thomas? Thomas represents the Welsh blood in the family, but there has always been more of a focus on the Scots blood.
Jeffrey: Yeah…Thomas is a VERY Welsh name. The Scottish version would be McCommish (spelling?) Thomas L. Thomas is another Welsh writer. But no relation to Danny Thomas, who was Lebanese.
Scott: I’m wearing a kilt right now. I want to be related to Abe Vagoda.
Jeffrey: Vigoda. Or is it Viagra?
VanderMeer: Your family has been in Massachusetts for a long time. Over the years, what sorts of professions have your ancestors pursued?
Jeffrey: Not sure. Scott?
Jeffrey: Our maternal grandfather was head of the Highway Department here in Westborough. We had a great uncle who was a gangster who vanished one day without a trace.
Scott: Our dad was in the Navy, his dad too. Our grandfather on my mother’s side was in charge of public works for a time — having roads plowed and all.
Jeffrey: Yeah, Public Works.
VanderMeer: Tell me a little bit about your immediate family in terms of their creative endeavors.
Scott: Our younger brother Craig is very musical and I think he’s a good artist and poet too, but he doesn’t pursue those avenues.
Jeffrey: My brother Craig has written some clever poetry, and I published two of his poems in my magazine The End. My sister Wendy used to write a local newspaper column about high school doings. My mother used to write a newspaper column in her youth. And my Dad was a published poet who began the Poet’s Corner feature in The Westborough News. His poems used to be read at Memorial Day services in the center of town, every year.
Scott: Our sister Wendy used to write fiction when she was a teen and lately she is making lovely folk art from fabrics, craft work with quilting and such.
Jeffrey: My Dad was also a very good artist, primarily a painter, though I have some lovely pen and inks of his.
VanderMeer: When did you guys start writing stories together? Before or after you started writing stories separately? And do you recall what the first story was that you wrote together? What was it about?
Jeffrey: Even on the erotic stories we’re not collaborating…Scott has his half of the book and I have mine, just as we once owned a desk together which we grooved down the center into separate halves!
Scott: Well, with this erotic project we’re doing separate tales. I still have the desk. It’s my art desk. I refinished it but the groove is still there.
VanderMeer: So this was a later development. Or not a development at all. Sorry for the error.
Scott: That’s true, there is no collaborative story at this point. Jeffrey came up with the idea for my Punktown story “Veterans,” but I wrote it.
VanderMeer: Okay — previously I thought one of you had mentioned Scott wrote the first Punktown story — was that from your concept, then, Jeff?
Jeffrey: Punktown was my concept, but I invited Scott and my friend Tom Hughes to write within that world, as Lovecraft invited friends to write within his Mythos. Scott wrote the first Punktown short story, but prior to that I had been writing Punktown novels (of which I have a good amount, though none have been typed from their handwritten versions so as to be submitted to a publisher).
Scott: While we have described ideas previous to writing at times and bounced things around, I think we also have always liked to surprise each other. Jeffrey has always been the audience I have in the back of my mind when I create.
VanderMeer: Tell me what life was like growing up. You had an old ancestral home — how long had the Thomas’ dwelt there?
Jeffrey: We lived there on and off, actually (my grandparents owned it) since we were kids. When my father died we sold that old crumbling Victorian monster, reluctantly…it was traumatic, like a death.
Scott: That dear old house was the haunted house of our play, and one time I set up the cellar to be a walk-through spook house.
VanderMeer: I was curious as to what effect that house had on you. Did you use it as a setting for any fictions?
Jeffrey: I’ve set many stories in that old house, such as “The Boarded Window” and “Collapsed Roof” from [my collection] Terror Incognita. It just had such a sense of family…it was the original nest…it was where I started my own family.
VanderMeer: Somehow when a writer of dark fiction says, “it was the original nest”, it makes me wonder…
Jeffrey: Original nest…har! That’s where the first pod landed…
Scott: The Thomas house is a reference point for my aesthetic…so much personal history there.
VanderMeer: Is that where your grandparents set up their library? In an email, Jeff mentioned mountains of books. How did that affect you?
Scott: Our grandparents lived across the street, but there were large built in bookcases in our place.
Jeffrey: Our grandparents lived in their own house across the street, and it was there my grandmother had her enormous library. My grandfather built huge bookcases in our house, too, though he bragged he himself had never read a book in his life. I used to covet my nana’s books on nature, seashells, etc.…all that wealth! When she died, I took box loads of her books.
Scott: Nana had mountains of books. Many books on nature — she was a naturalist, really, in her own way.
VanderMeer: Scott — Is that where you got your appetite for nature, from your nana?
Scott: Maybe so, Jeff. I remember her walking me through her lush, shady garden of a yard and I was quite impressed by it, by her naming of plants. One time she caught a snake and called us over to see it. My mother has been an influence in that department as well. Her love of animals and plants and the countryside has surely had some effect on me. In her younger days, she wrote lush poetry about Nature.
VanderMeer: Which reminds me — when did you encounter Lovecraft? And was it especially relevant to your experience that he had lived and written pretty close by?
Jeffrey: It didn’t really matter to me that Lovecraft was a New Englander. Actually, it was King’s Lovecraft-inspired story “Jerusalem’s Lot” that made me want to seek out the real thing. That story just rang a bell in me. I thought it was the best story I’d read from King, not knowing how inspired it was by another writer. Finding Lovecraft was like coming home.
VanderMeer: Did you read any “regional writers” growing up? And, just in general, who did you guys read?
Jeffrey: I have eclectic tastes, though I’m a depressingly slow reader. I often mention Thomas Hardy, Yukio Mishima. As a boy, I loved Dickens. Bradbury made me want to write short stories. Heinlein was an early influence. I loved Edgar Rice Burroughs. Today, favorites include Kathe Koja, Clive Barker. Recent favorite books would be Fight Club and Perdido Street Station…
Scott: I remember some short stories in school made an impact on me with their ability to hit buttons — I recognized a power, an ability to transport. I remember The Red Pony, for one. I read In Cold Blood when quite young, but that’s not fiction. I was born the day of those Clutter murders, by the way. I read The Exorcist when fairly young. Regional writers…hmmm, no bells are ringing.
VanderMeer: Many writers of dark fantasy who attain a kind of cosmic vision seem to have a purple prose style hardwired into their fiction as well. I’m thinking of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Machen to some extent, Hodgson. Hodgson, for example, in The Night Land, almost makes you long for a translation into English and yet you also cannot conceive of the work having as much majesty and power in less hyperbolic language. Do you think that to attain the kind of grandeur of vision alluded to above that you must write in over-heated prose?
Scott: I don’t want to think that one would need to. I think using words is like painting…it comes down to how one wields a particular power. One writer might be capable of evoking grand visions with fine-tipped, precise wording; another might need to splash color/words. M.R. James created a world where there were hairy beastly supernatural creatures and ghosts, while retaining masterful subtlety and restraint. Not to say that he did not have lovely descriptive ability — he did, but he did not need to overdo. He had a fine-tipped approach. Whereas Dylan Thomas in his horrific tales, like “The Burning Baby,” depicts a world of surreal madness with language that is poetic, nearly wild. While he was not creating worlds of cosmic supernatural forces in his horrific work, I think I’m making a point about how language can be used for effect. I think it really comes down to the skill of the individual. It might be possible to evoke a universe like Lovecraft’s realm of great god-creatures effectively even with a quiet or more restricted style, although the story might be a quieter thing. I do appreciate the point you make about Hodgson — it might be EASIER to evoke grand things with grand prose and much more difficult and challenging to do it in a more low key voice.
Jeffrey: No, I don’t. August Derleth wrote in an overheated exaggeration of Lovecraft’s lush style, but that didn’t make his vision anything more than a pallid copy of the original. (No doubt because Lovecraft wrote from a very personal set of fears, anxieties, aesthetic inspirations that his imitators can not have experienced as he did.) In Perdido Street Station, China Mieville builds a highly detailed and convincing world immense in its scale, ambitiously and successfully blends SF, horror and fantasy, brings in cosmic elements, and all in a style that is poetic but very accessible and contemporary. I think the creator has to let his/her imagination soar to attain the kind of vision you mention, has to enter into a creative state almost like rapture, but I don’t feel the author has to speak in tongues in the midst of the rapture. This said, however, I tend to like a very rich narrative style as opposed to a stark, cut to the bone style. I love the taste of the words themselves. I don’t like lite beer for the same reason. Scott has a more poetic style than I. He has one short story called “The September Fair” that I think is the only story of his that I ever cautioned him about in regard to overdoing it on its ripeness of style. (It’s inspired by Dylan Thomas, no relation.) Well, Scott didn’t listen and went on to publish it in a very good magazine that has never published any of my fiction; so much for my advice! It’s actually one of Scott’s favorite pieces, and that editor was drawn to the story precisely because of its very voluptuous style.
VanderMeer: To what extent is a dark fantasist responsible to not only pursue a unique vision but also use a unique and/or fantastical style in pursuit of that vision?
Scott: I shouldn’t like to think that a fantasist should be obligated to have a fantastical style, so long as he can pull off his desired effect. Again, I refer to James and Lovecraft, so different in style and yet they are the masters. James’ style could be described as being comparatively dry, I suppose, not so luminously idiosyncratic as Lovecraft’s. But he is concise and perfectly measured and his style is used to its best purpose. A brilliant fantasist, he did not need a colorful or quirky or iconoclastic style. Lovecraft’s style worked perfectly for what he wanted to achieve too. I love his prose.
My writing — some pieces more than others — has a rather distinguishing poetic quality, but I think that’s simply my inclination, my love of descriptive, rather than being necessarily symptomatic of the subject matter. I could write a story about a mailbox using wild language and then write a story about raining demon babies using a more conventional style. A good example would be my “The September Fair,” a simple story of a man following a pretty girl through country fairgrounds, but it’s written in a dramatically poetic way.
Jeffrey: I don’t think a unique, experimental, unorthodox narrative style is necessary so much as it’s an option. I’ve read mainstream, nongenre work that utilized an unconventional stylistic approach (as in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club), and I’ve read fantastical genre work that used a very straight-forward approach to excellent effect, and vice versa and so on, in any combination of the above. I’ve just begun Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and its bizarre style is extremely compelling, thrilling really, but I wouldn’t want to have to turn every book sideways or hold it up to the mirror in order to read it! But I think style can make a story. Plot-wise, Tess of the d’Ubervilles would be a forgettable soap opera in other hands, but Thomas Hardy brings it gorgeous poetry and powerful social commentary, hovers above the plot maneuverings as an invisible and unobtrusive yet palpable presence, making it a personal-feeling but restrained masterpiece of outage and heartbreak. Without its quirkiness, dreaminess, its sly meanings, the movie Blue Velvet would be a mere thriller. Its very individual style makes it brilliance of the highest order.
VanderMeer: Are there any books you enjoy despite the style?
Scott: I’ve encountered stories whose style did not live up to the ideas or imagination and vice versa. I remember one novel which, while it had admirable prose, was sophomoric, unimaginative, exploitative, and derivative. I enjoyed the style, not the story. I think to REALLY enjoy a story, the style and story need to be effectively integrated.
Jeffrey: I’ve been entertained — if not enthused — by books with a poor or boring style. I’ve read a few that were a real chore to finish because of their style alone. But it’s seldom because the style is experimental, archaic, long-winded, lush, and so on…usually it’s because it’s just an amateurish or cliché-ridden style. One reviewer who overall liked Punktown very much said that once in a while I got carried away with my analogies…but years ago I glanced at one of his own stories and saw a line in which he said, “The bitch did such-and-such a thing,” in referring to the actions of a minor character. Referring to a woman as a bitch in a third person narrative just isn’t my personal idea of an agreeable style. Beyond any concerns of political correctness, that sort of writing is just vulgar and ugly. In fact, glancing at his story, his style turned me off so much that I’ve never read one of his stories through…which might be unfair, based on that brief taste, but it does illustrate the importance of style.
VanderMeer: To what extent is the texture of the language you use important when writing a first draft — and do you see style and content as separable when you write?
Scott: Well, I usually don’t think of my stories in terms of drafts. When I’m “in” a story, and am attuned to the immediacy of its spirit, what gets put down will pretty much be the end result. Not to say that I have not modified, added, and changed things, but there is never a full re-write or terribly drastic change. So the texture of language — and I like the term — would not be altered later.
Style and content separable? It’s akin to an instinctual thing with me. That’s a generalization, mind you. There are times when I set out to do something in a certain tone. For example, the subject matter of my story “Ellette,” about a possibly mad woman who sees fairies, seemed to call for a darkly whimsical, heavily poetic style. My “Laben Blois’s Death,” being very simple and direct, sort of a created New England folk tale, seemed to call for simple, direct language. While I don’t think that there’s any one way to create a story successfully, I think the content and the style need to work well together.
I don’t like to pin myself in one approach for too long a stretch. For instance, I would not want to write two stories like “The September Fair” in a row — it’s almost surreal in its description — I would likely follow that kind of story with something more restrained, stylistically speaking.
You know, it’s rather a perplexing question, a good question, because I have to wonder if, for example, I wrote “Ellette” in a dry-toned style, it would be so very different, very different indeed. Not that it wouldn’t be good, per se, but it might be a different animal. It may be that style and content require some symbiotic element; again, like painting, you need just the right colors and shades to evoke the image you want to depict. While I don’t like to commit things to stone, my answer as to whether style and content are separable may be no. The style has to fit the piece.
Jeffrey: I don’t really write various, distinct drafts so much as I write a story and then polish it, tweak it afterwards. I do my rewriting as I go, for the most part, retooling a sentence until I feel I have a good link I can attach the next one to. So the texture is built in along the way. In my own personal approach to style and content, I would hope that they would be as difficult to separate from each other as the soul from the mind.
VanderMeer: Did your parents read your work when you were growing up? What did they think of it?
Jeffrey: Our parents were very supportive of our writing, proud of all our artistic endeavors, though I don’t think my Dad ever read anything I wrote (he wasn’t at all interested in horror or SF, was an avid mystery reader). My mother has read a few of my stories.
Scott: Our dad did celebrate creativity though and loved our poetry when he’s seen it published. He thought the imagination was a gift.
VanderMeer: This question may have no relevance, but I was wondering if there were any events growing up that have influenced your fiction or your philosophy of fiction?
Scott: I think many things fed into my sense of fiction. We loved creating worlds in our play, synthesizing our interests that way.
Jeffrey: Events growing up that influenced us…not so much as an atmosphere. An atmosphere of the arts, of reading, a strong sense of family…not to say we were the Waltons. We were the dysfunctional Waltons.
Scott: The Waltons from Hell.
VanderMeer: Scott — How did you become involved with the Gravestone Artwear catalog and what role does art play in your life? What future plans do you have for your art through it?
Scott: In the fall of 1996 I saw an ad in Yankee Magazine. A place called Gravestone Artwear was selling T‑shirts with reproductions of colonial grave art on them. I sent for their catalog with a note written on a photocopy of a pen and ink piece I’d done which showed gravestones. Paulette and Cassandra Chernack liked my art and wanted to see more. I drove up with my wife Nancy to visit their wonderful shop in York Village, Maine and Paulette (she’s the mother and Cassandra is the daughter) picked out some of my art to use on shirts and note cards.
The Chernacks have been producing and selling lovely grave-related merchandise since 1995. They have a website, a catalog (which includes a page dedicated to The Scott Thomas Collection) and a retail store. They’re great people.
I love art, I love creating it, but it takes a back burner to my writing. It’s a simple matter of not having the free time to indulge both callings, so one has to suffer. If I did not have to go out and slave in the real world, I’d love spending more time trying to experiment and grow as an artist. It’s an important thing to me and sad that it’s neglected much of the time. But when I’m doing it, it’s a meditative thing, a gentle thing, an expressive thing. I like who I am when I’m absorbed in creating an artwork — it’s a nice thing for a human to spend time doing.
I don’t send unsolicited art to Gravestone Artwear; I pretty much wait for Paulette to commission me for specific jobs. She’ll pass an idea to me and I’ll make it on paper. Most recently, we did a play on words design called Road Crew that has crows working on scattered human remains on a dirt road.
VanderMeer: Jeff — How does your art inform your fiction and vice versa?
Jeffrey: In a general way, I think the fact that I am an artist helps me to create the imagery that’s so important especially to my Punktown stories. And in a particular way, an artistic concept of mine can turn into a story. As an example, Scott and I used to collaborate on our own video movies, and in one unfinished movie about some smalltime gangsters in Punktown I featured this weird little prop I made, a kind of metallic figure with a rib cage and a glowing, smiling moon face. But I never explained what its presence meant. Because I didn’t know; it just looked cool and enigmatic. But when I created my Punktown City Limits web site, I wrote a series of mini-stories inspired by various odd photographs in my collection, one of these being of that moon-faced machine. I decided it was a therapeutic device called a Hate Machine. I liked the idea so much that I went on to write a full story around it, called “The Hate Machines,” which appeared on the web site Infinity Plus.
VanderMeer: Given that you are such different writers in many ways, I wonder how you would typify each other’s writing?
Scott: I think Jeffrey is a consummate writer. I think there’s a fine sense of balance in his work and a sense of exactness that allows his sensitivity and skill with language to merge into a very potent brew. His sensitivity makes the emotions tangible and his imagination is superb!
Jeffrey: We both write within different genres, but overall I think of Scott as more a writer of dark fantasy, whereas I go back and forth between horror and SF. For what those labels are worth. Generally speaking, I think Scott is the more poetic writer. I think I try to incorporate more social commentary in my work. Not to say that I don’t shoot for poetry or Scott for subtexts.
Scott: Yes, well put, Jeffrey.
VanderMeer: Jeff — stories like “Face” in Punktown are by your own admission somewhat autobiographical. Are they harder or easier to write than less “personal ” stories? And do you find yourself with different kinds of challenges when you write them?
Jeffrey: Yes, sometimes there’s so much I want to squeeze into a personal story that I won’t even write it, daunted by the enormity of my feelings on the subject. But sometimes I’ll take that challenge on, try to abstract or pare down my feelings into something like “Face” or “John Sadness” (both about my son Colin). Those stories came easily, though, more so than some less personal stories. I think it has to do with whether or not the story has meshed with my creative mechanism, in terms of how readily it flows forth.
VanderMeer: Is that a function of distance, of coming to terms with the subject before writing about it?
Jeffrey: I think writing those two stories helped me come to terms with my anxiety (in this case, dealing with my son’s autism). I had been experiencing writer’s block prior to writing them, and they sort of broke through. To a large extent at least.
VanderMeer: Which brings me to a question for both of you: At what point does something become too personal for you to write about it?
Jeffrey: I think I’ve at least hinted at or touched upon every anxiety or bad experience I’ve ever had, though I might not tackle it at length or head-on. What attracts me to fiction is that you abstract reality, your real experiences.
Scott: I tend not to expose very much of myself in my writing, in ways, and much in others — aesthetically, largely. A past divorce did influence a couple of works, but I don’t think I’ve addressed the loss of our dad in my fiction. I did note that in poetry, though.
VanderMeer: Scott — how would you respond to someone who claimed the descriptions of nature in your stories are just eye candy? And how integral to your stories are such descriptions?
Scott: I feel compelled to transport a reader to where the story takes place, so I think mood and setting are valid. I think also, that nature tends to be something more than a backdrop in my work, that it is woven into the essence somehow. I love language too and hopefully that shows.
Jeffrey: Scott would smack them with a urethra epidermis frond from the zodalla tree.
VanderMeer: LOL. Scott — would you say Nature is sort of a character in your work? In what way?
Scott: I almost would say that, Jeff. It’s hard to break it down into concepts…it’s almost a gut thing, intuitive. I do feel that, at times, the actions in the stories are, on some level, related to this great mysterious force that sustains and destroys.
VanderMeer: If you had to pick, which of your own stories, Scott and Jeff, would you say you love the most? Why? And which of your brother’s? Why?
Jeffrey: Sorry, but thinking some more on the “personal” experiences” question…! think sometimes, because I’ve programmed myself to think as a writer, that I NEED to record my feelings or experiences if only in an abstracted form, as if that helps me digest them, catalogue them, maybe “control” them in a sense.
VanderMeer: I do see you as a more openly autobiographical author. There is a great honesty in your stories that I admire. I tend to be more like Scott — maybe dealing with it more indirectly?
Jeffrey: My own favorite story is most likely “The Reflections of Ghosts,” because it functions as both horror and SF, gets across my sense of Punktown quite well, combines moral and ethical issues, has a romantic element, sex, mutants and ghastly bits. Scott’s best story, for me, might be his Westermead-set tale “The Thatcher’s Cat,” which like many of Scott’s tales set in Westermead is tremendously emotionally affecting; his tragedies have a sense of the Hardyesque.
VanderMeer: The irony being that the not as obviously autobiographical can be as emotionally involving as the autobiographical.
Jeffrey: So true, Jeff…all depends on the execution. Though, also, something specifically autobiographical in tone might not connect with the general reader the way a less particularly personal fiction would.
Scott: Of my own, I’d have to say I feel very close to a collection of stories set in my imaginary world of Westermead…perhaps, “Home to Broomwood,” “The Crow Tree,” or “The Thatcher’s Cat”. I am very happy with my story “A Fine Death for Hubert Hillaby.” Again, it has to do with the language, the tone, the aesthetics. Of Jeffrey’s, I’m hard pressed to pick a favorite. I think his Punktown stories glow with brilliance and heart. I adore “Face” and “The Flaying Season.” They are powerful, so well written. Perfect.
VanderMeer: Just for the record, I love Scott’s “One Window” and “Hillaby” (if I had to pick two). I love Jeff’s “Library of Sorrows” and “Reflections of Ghosts” (again, to pick two). Given the intensity of your stories, Scott and Jeff, and the sense of something greater rising out of the stories — a catharsis, if you will — do you believe in God? And how does spirituality, in any form, suffuse your work?
Jeffrey: Yes, “One Window!” That might be my favorite, too!
VanderMeer: “He put the gun to his head and made a window.”
Jeffrey: I believe in brief, fleeting catharsis…as surely as I believe more pain will sweep in like the tide to fill the spot you’ve cleansed. No, I don’t really think I believe in a deity. But I try to stay as open minded as I can.
VanderMeer: “His heart was like a mad winged thing in his chest as he made his way to the ground floor.”
Jeffrey: Who wrote that?
VanderMeer: It’s from Scott’s “One Window.”
Scott: I like to think that there is SOMETHING there, some intelligence. It’s not an entirely logical thought, but I have had some spiritual experiences that might prod me to believe. I’ve been a practicing witch since 1983, so I see Nature and its cycles as an influence on my work.
VanderMeer: While we’re talking about your work, Scott, how did you come up with the idea of [your imaginary world of] Westermead? Can you remember the galvanizing image or character or event?
Scott: I think Westermead came about in an evolutionary way from a variety of interests and ideas. Its early roots span back to an idea for a novel that I was considering doing (to the point of making notes in the fall of 1988). This unwritten novel Settlers was going to marry my affinity for the look of colonial life in America (the 1600s period) with a moody, ghostly wilderness partly inspired by the movie Eyes of Fire. Elements and tones from Settlers went on to cast some influence over the development of Westermead, as did my unpublished novel The Dog with the Silver Tongue. While Dog is more of a sword and sorcery work, it has many of the flavors that distinguish Westermead…the mystical grey and green landscape, the particular sound of place names, the thatched villages, strange creatures, the atmosphere of magic.
Westermead’s elements drew on older interests too, like my fascination with prehistoric British monuments (an interest which blossomed in the early eighties) along with a fascination with herbs and their lore and magic. My love of British folklore also fed into the forming of Westermead. Around the time I actually wrote the first Westermead story, I was coming up with ideas for stories that were as much fantasy as horror. Somewhere along the line, I leaned away from the sword and sorcery timeframe and moved to a more advanced place in terms of my time reference. Like Settlers, my first Westermead story, “The Winter Women,” took place in a world not unlike our 1690s period of history, in terms of the technology. But I think that when I wrote it (November 1989) it was a whim rather than a conscious landmark; it was a stand-alone piece, which became a Westermead tale after the fact.
A galvanizing event, you ask? I’d have to say that there were two, really. As I’ve described, there were these elements and sensations sort of hovering in me, some idea about a collection of folksy, mystical tales. A historical moment for me, so far as the real “birth” of Westermead goes, occurred when I saw something on television about Portuguese man-of-war. The program was telling about the horrible burning injuries that the weird creatures’ tendrils can cause. It gave me an idea for a story where a mysterious robed creature has a face of tendrils, which can deliver a similar injury. It all began to come together for me at that point. I have a page of notes and quick little sketches dated November 15th, 1990, that describe the preliminary concepts for what would become my Westermead-based story “The Mask of Black Tears” and, also on the page, a possible collection title that well reflects the essence of what was to come, this being Tales of Country Magic. A paper with jotted story ideas, from two days before that, shows that I was tuning in, for it has the unfinished possible title: Country Tales from _____. There’s a big blank. The name Westermead would come later.
The other galvanizing touchstone would be my story “The Thatcher’s Cat,” which I began writing on December 6th, 1990. It pretty much captured what I wanted, aesthetically, in terms of the feel, the beauty and tragedy, the magic folksiness. It also incorporated one of the defining elements that would certainly shape the collection, that being my growing exposure to and love of folk music. I had been turned on to a rather large collection of folk music, British, Celtic, American and the wondrous Robin Williamson, who alone has been a great inspiration in terms of my shaping Westermead. He was the leader of the 60s group The Incredible String Band and has gone on to produce many amazing solo works. His material is largely Celtic, both traditional and original. Incidentally, a picture of Williamson in his younger days served as the visual model for Norbin, the protagonist in “The Thatcher’s Cat.”
VanderMeer: To what extent is Westermead based on local folklore? (If not, what would you say are its primary influences?)
Scott: Westermead was written in Westborough, MA, where I grew up and spent most of my life. It’s where my sense of childhood wonder was cast and so that part of myself, that sense of the world as a great mystery, took hold, and thus, a residual force from that likely bled into Westermead. Still, offhand, I can’t think of any particular local tales that were really addressed directly in the stories. Not to say that Westborough was devoid of lore. There’s a ghost story about a large pond called Hoccomocco where Jeffrey and I used to skip school. A book that once belonged to my grandmother, The Hundredth Town, published in 1889 and written by Harriette Merrifield Forbes, notes: “…the pond which the ‘fresh-water fishermen’ named for their evil spirit, because they believed that whoever chanced to be near its borders was under some malignant influence.” This explains a lot about the Thomas Brothers. At any rate, the ghostly legend concerns two young Indian lovers and a drowning.
Local lore is better reflected in [my Delirium collection] Cobwebs and Whispers. The practice of “sharp medicine”, or cutting the throat of livestock that has been infested in a sense, to bleed out the evil, actually was practiced on sheep in the town where I live, back when it was believed that the poor beasts were bewitched. I wrote my story “Sharp Medicine” to incorporate that colorful practice. Hoccomocco appears in my story “Joseph Warren’s Invention” and a mysterious place called Cedar Swamp, in Westborough, can be seen in both “Marcy Waters” and “Sharp Medicine.” Growing up, we heard that there was quicksand “in there…”
Getting back to Westermead… In terms of local lore having a hand in the stories, I would say that the Salem Witch trials (local in terms of being in the same state) brushed up against Westermead. I find it compelling (and at the same time exasperating) that people believed the world was filled with spectral dangers, as Westermead truly is.
VanderMeer: Jeffrey, how did you come up with the idea of Punktown? Can you remember the galvanizing event or image or character?
Jeffrey: There actually was one initial image that for some reason seemed to throw the doors open to the whole idea, though obviously that must have been fermenting below the surface. In 1980, my father was driving me somewhere or other and we passed a car with a young female driver, whose eyes were in shadow, so that her long hair seemed to be falling out of these black empty sockets. This was the origin of the Tikkihotto aliens who frequently turn up in Punktown stories, and are pretty much human except they have long ocular tendrils instead of eyes. But suddenly, upon seeing this woman and having my imagination run with the image, I had the whole concept behind Punktown intact: I wanted to write a novel, initially, about a futuristic city, a setting in which I could satirize and comment on our current society in an abstracted and exaggerated way. I wrote up some notes on the city, some of its more prevalent races and characteristics, then invited Scott and my friend Thomas Hughes to join me in the project — we’d each write a Punktown novel or novella, and contain them in the same volume, with some of our characters colliding in one brief final scene. We’ve never typed up or submitted the book (each of us wrote it in longhand, alas), but it was the birth of Punktown. I’ve written other Punktown novels since, all in longhand, because at the time I didn’t even own a word processor. Only the most recent Punktown novel, Monstrocity, was typed. For Punktown novels two and three, Scott and Tom were again part of the project, though they never completed the work for number three. Scott’s idea for number three was to write a series of Punktown short stories instead of a novel, and he did write one of these, titled “Veterans.” That was the first Punktown-set short story.
VanderMeer: “Nothing a murderer could tell MacDiaz in an interview revealed as much as the decor of their apartment…”; “There was no question: The dead thing in the gutter was one of his clones.”
Jeffrey: I believe in the spiritual only in its symbolic sense, ultimately. The spirit representing our higher selves, our minds, our awareness of others and the world around us, that thing that presumably separates us from the purely animal.
Jeffrey: Who wrote that dreck you quoted, Jeff?
VanderMeer: “And days passed, weeks, months, and the faces of the dead – burst by bullets, grinning mysteriously at their own fates, bloated…began to fade to smoke and shadow.” [All three quotes are from Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas, Ministry of Whimsy Press — ed.]
Jeffrey: Yuck! Splatterpunktown.
VanderMeer: I use these quotes because I think you are both honest writers. I wonder if you have any comments on the idea of honesty in fiction? And dishonesty? What constitutes dishonesty?
Jeffrey: Not expressing some personal part of yourself, whether it be your feelings, your interests, your aesthetic, your beliefs or values. If it doesn’t have a soul behind the voice. One can sense mechanical hackwork. That said, I don’t mean to suggest that every story must have social commentary, tackle an issue, contain autobiographical material, and so on. The brilliant M. R. James and Lovecraft just wanted to give you gooseflesh. (Yet their personalities, their interests and obsessions shine through.) Their stories didn’t really aim to give the reader fully rounded characters…but they gave us a rich sense of atmosphere which easily made up for it. There’s nothing wrong with a straight-forward scary story, and that was my approach in my own two featured at Redsine, “John” and “Flesh Wound”, which was my second or third short story written as an adult. I was pretty much simply going for an unsettling mood and disturbing imagery in those. But getting across what you truly find creepy or frightening still relates to what I said before about expressing your own personal feelings. Fear is a very useful feeling to paint with in horror. And as I said elsewhere, entertainment is my goal above all others.
Scott: Aptly stated, Jeffrey.
Jeffrey: That’s dishonesty/honesty.
VanderMeer: Relatedly, what will make you toss a book across the room? What makes you mad when reading a book (fiction)?
Jeffrey: Anything with squid in it.
VanderMeer: Well, I’m f***ed then.
Jeffrey: Anything with blork in it.
VanderMeer: Doubly f***ed.
Scott: I get mad when I’m devoting TIME to mediocre work which could’ve been spent reading Thomas Hardy or M.R. James. So much of what is printed is poor, cliché-ridden or sophomoric.
Jeffrey: What makes me mad? Cliché-ridden, easy, paint-by-numbers plotting, template characterization, no love of the word — a style pared down to style-lessness.
VanderMeer: What do you read for in fiction?
Jeffrey: I read to be moved emotionally, or to have some wondrous pictures painted on my inner eye, or to be made to think. But of course, I want to be purely entertained, first and foremost.
Scott: I’ll take whatever a good story will give me — tears, laughter — if it flies it flies. I love atmosphere, good characters, if I can get them. I’d recommend Punktown; it’s the last book I’ve read. I have not had time to read for a while, but now that I do, I have piles of things waiting.
VanderMeer: Jeff — What makes you interested in a character? And what techniques do you use to keep yourself and a reader interested in your characters?
Jeffrey: Unpredictability makes me interested in characters I read and write about. Sometimes my own characters can surprise me, just as when you think you know your child and then he goes and gets this sex change operation. I like moral complexity and even moral ambiguity in a character (which can lead to the aforementioned unpredictability.) Also, I often like characters who embody some real elements of their creators’ personalities; it can give an extra resonance, when it works. So in writing a character, I try to keep them unpredictable, spontaneous, as free of cliché as possible. And I often imbue characters with facets of my own composition. I don’t feel giving a character this in-depth history or background necessarily makes them authentic, though. I’ve seen so many protagonists who were these abused-children, former-alcoholics, war-vets, parents-died-in-a-car-crash, wife-and/or-cop-partner-were-murdered kind of characters. Too often that amounts to depth of character via paint by numbers. It’s creating characters by emulating bad action movies. I like characters who are insecure, uncertain, question their actions convincingly. Characters who are a bit bonkers are a lot of fun, and there’s nothing like an obsessed character.
VanderMeer: What are you both working on now? [Now being 2000 – 2001]
Jeffrey: I just finished my Punktown-set Lovecraftian horror/SF novel Monstrocity, to be published by Hive Press. It needs proofing and polishing. Doing some short stories, besides. No new novels on the horizon, though Scott’s wife is typing up the handwritten manuscript of my favorite Punktown-based novel, Health Agent, which I will then proof and polish up. I think it needs a new name. I [also] have a few last stories to transcribe and polish for my Lovecraftian short story collection, Unholy Dimensions, to be published by Mythos Books. Delirium Books (which released my hardcover collection Terror Incognita and Scott’s Cobwebs and Whispers) will be bringing out a collection of erotic horror stories by Scott and myself in 2002 — I have to write a few more pieces to fill my half of that. I’m hoping to place a second collection of Punktown short stories, those that didn’t make it into the book or were written afterwards; Scott and I will split that book 50 – 50 as well. (His story “Veterans” would be a part of that.) And I always have a variety of short stories and a couple of art assignments going. I don’t have time for a lot of illustrating these days, so I pretty much just do work for Flesh & Blood magazine. I’d love to start a new novel, and I’m considering returning to a fantasy novel I began and abandoned three years ago. As much as I love it above all other settings for my work, I don’t want to become trapped inside Punktown.
Scott: Currently, I’m planning a short story for the Delirium Books erotic collection we’re doing. It will take place in ancient Japan.
VanderMeer: Thanks for a great interview, guys.