Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Interview with Jeffrey Thomas


      In the spirit of Halloween, here's an interview I did with SF/horror writer Jeffrey Thomas, author of the novels Monstrocity, Health Agent, Deadstock, and Blue War, as well as the short story collections Punktown, Voices from Punktown, Punktown: Shades of Grey, and Punktown: Third Eye. If you've never encountered Jeff's work before, you're missing out. His unique brand of science fiction combined with atmospheric horror is some of the best I've ever read. But don't take my word for it, here's what China Mievelle has to say about Thomas's work: "Punktown is searing and alien and anxious and rich, and it is humane, and it is moving. Jeffrey Thomas has done something wonderful." I had the opportunity to interview Jeff several months ago for a graduate presentation I was giving on world-building and short fiction. You can read two of Jeff's stories online for free on Infinity Plus: "The Hate Machines"  and "The Library of Sorrows".

1. First off, why Punktown? Can you describe this world and your ideal vision of it? 

JT: I’m not sure I can explain why Punktown, but I guess I could say why not, in that Punktown seems to be the very personification of my chaotic imagination; a center of vibrant activity, where strange and frightening but hopefully also wondrous things can occur. In 1980, I arrived at the idea of setting a series of stories in a weird futuristic city -- ostensibly a science fiction environment, but as much a funhouse mirror reflection of our own world -- where I could address sociological issues in a darkly satirical way. But my vision of Punktown has grown since then and continues to grow.

2. When creating Punktown did you originally envision it as short stories or longer works? Which did you write first? 

JT: I started in 1980 with a novel, and invited my brother Scott Thomas and friend Thomas Hughes to write their own Punktown-based stories (from a series of guidelines I created for them). My first novel and Scott’s have never been submitted to a publisher (though I hope one day to prepare them for that; both are still in a handwritten state!), but Tom Hughes’ short novel ultimately appeared in the shared world anthology PUNKTOWN: THIRD EYE that I edited for Prime Books. It was actually Scott who first planned on writing some Punktown short stories. He didn’t do so until years later, however, after I had begun doing so. It was short stories I sold first, to small press magazines, and which composed the contents of my 2000 collection PUNKTOWN. Novels set in Punktown, from various publishers, began following a few years later.

3. What are the advantages of writing short stories set in the same world as opposed to creating a new one for each story? The disadvantages (if any)? 

JT: The clearest advantage is I don’t have to create a whole new world from the ground up; I have a firm idea of the setting already in my mind, knowledge of what can take place there, places or alien races or technologies that can be tied in from stories gone before. I’m always careful, however, to make each and every Punktown tale -- be it novel or short story -- capable of existing as a standalone piece, to prevent readers from being intimidated by a need to read more than they might care to in order to understand what’s going on. I suppose a disadvantage might be growing too comfortable, not venturing into new directions and creating other exciting worlds. So I do try to leave Punktown alone for stretches. Yet I always go back there, because the setting is such that it can accommodate pretty much any type of story. There’s always another street to explore, and the inhabitants of that street to meet. (And I very seldom reuse characters in my Punktown stories, which helps keep things fresh for me and the reader.) I think an author could write only of New York City and never bore his a far-future city full of people from other planets and even dimensions should offer up even more potential stories. Ultimately, my favorite advantage is that you can end up with this wonderful mosaic effect where the sum becomes greater than its parts.

4. What comes first: character, situation, or a scene/image?

JT: I would say it varies on the story, as Punktown stories can vary widely in feel and approach, but it’s more likely situation or scene/image as opposed to character. Once I have that situation or scene, I’ll know who I need to create to interact therein. But if I looked back at my Punktown stories, I think in most cases I wouldn’t recall what sparked that tale, at least not clearly. They start as nebulous things. I truly believe my stories take shape in a smoky back room of my mind, where my conscious mind is only sometimes allowed to visit; and that when I write I enter into a kind of waking dream-state in which another “me” takes over. He seems to know what will form from that nebulous cloud. But sometimes I can trace a story’s origins to a specific inspiration. One story of mine in my next collection of Punktown stories (“Ghosts of Punktown,” forthcoming from Dark Regions Press) was inspired by several unpleasant images I chanced upon on the internet; they shook me, and I felt the need to address them. I think I process the world through my art, and one example of that is my Punktown story “Face.” When I received the diagnosis that my son Colin was autistic, one way I assimilated that was to write a story that addresses the child as “other.” It’s a very sad story, but somehow writing it helped me work things out inside.

5. Do you plan your Punktown stories in advance or do you just write whatever you feel like writing at the moment?

JT: Again, it varies. Some stories are written as if I’m just jumping into the water and learning to swim -- and where to swim to -- as I go along, trusting to my survival instincts as it were. Occasionally I’ll adhere to more of a preconceived structure, however, such as detailed notes. In the case of my Punktown novels DEADSTOCK and BLUE WAR, released by the mass market publisher Solaris, I was required to submit a chapter-by-chapter breakdown before writing them. Initially I thought this approach would inhibit me, and I wasn’t even sure I could do it, but I found it worked out quite well! I wrote the outline as if writing a very, very concise story...and then when the project got the green light and I sat down to write the actual novel, it was fun putting the flesh on those bones. I’ve never used that chapter-by-chapter approach again, but as I say I do often rely on extensive notes that guide me through by the hand.

6. Cloning and biotechnology are central themes of the novels Deadstock and Blue War, as well as many of your short stories. Did any of the concepts originally created in your shorter work spawn ideas for your novels?

JT: First of all that’s very true, though I’d like to state my intention is not to warn the world about the threats of cloning, but to use cloning for all the great metaphors it can embody, such as exploitation of workers and the cheapness of human life. But all my cloning stories do seem to spring originally from my favorite Punktown short story, “The Reflections of Ghosts,” about an artists who clones copies of himself and changes them radically into art objects. I find these kinds of scientific themes are great vessels for more human concerns. In BLUE WAR, the runaway semi-organic building process that turns a proposed condo complex into a spreading replica of Punktown on another planet is not so much a cautionary tale about biotech gone wrong as a metaphor for overlapping one’s culture onto another society’s culture. 

7. Do you feel that writing short fiction has helped you develop a distinctive narrative voice, which has translated into novels?

JT: It could be said the other way around, as well, since short stories are a difficult form in themselves and not merely a developmental stage leading to the writing of novels.

8. Punktown serves as an elaborate metaphor for the world we live in, showcasing all the dark and light aspects of humanity. How has your vision of Punktown (and by extension, our world) changed since you first started writing stories set in that milieu?

JT: My vision of our own world has broadened over the years, and I’m certain that has helped Punktown expand in scope and texture. When I first conceived of the city, I had in mind the city I was most familiar with -- Worcester, Massachusetts. But later on I became more familiar with Boston. I visited New York. I spent some time in Seoul, and a lot of time in Saigon. These experiences have gradually helped me better portray Punktown in all the richness a future megalopolis, peopled by beings from other worlds and sentient machines, must encompass. I might also suggest that growing older has helped the city, and its characters, become more nuanced, complex, and perhaps more mature. And as I say, I hope to keep building onto the city and inviting more characters to immigrate there until my digits can no longer dance upon these keys!

And that'll do it. Thanks so much! 
Thank YOU, Taylor, for flattering me so!

 Also, check out his blog:

 Thanks again, Jeff!