by Blu Gilliand
Lee Thompson is cut from the same cloth as the pulp writers of old, continuously churning out unbelievable amounts of fresh copy like his life depended on it. He has racked up a deep, diverse bibliography in the two years since he published his first book, and if the plans we discuss below come to fruition, it’s going to continue to grow by leaps and bounds. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find that Thompson conceived and completed a new novel while conducting this interview. Read on to find out how he keeps the words coming, the giant mythology he’s building that will tie much of his work together, and where he’s going from here.
HW: You recently marked your "second anniversary" - two years from the date that Darkfuse published your first novel, Nursery Rhymes for Dead Children. In that short period of time you've published five novels, six novellas, and a handful of short stories. For some, that's an entire career, and yet you're just in your sophomore season. How do you stay so prolific?
LT: I think I’m prolific because it fits my personality. If someone is a natural procrastinator, or spreads themselves too thin doing a number of things, I think it slows them down. My whole life I’ve given whatever I’m doing my complete focus. I’m also a bit obsessive and developed a system that works well for me. I know what I want to write about and search for the big moments in every story so I don’t spend time spinning my wheels and trying to gain traction. There’s a lot to the process actually, and yet it’s really simple.
Writing is my number one priority though and I treat it in many ways like a career. I’ve asked a lot of advice of Shane Staley at Delirium, as well as from some of my heroes like Tom Piccirilli, Brian Hodge, Sandy DeLuca, Robert Dunbar, Les Edgerton, and Jack Ketchum.
You recently completed four novels in an eight month period. That's an amazing amount of work. How much rewriting do you anticipate having to do to those four books? How many drafts do you typically go through, and do you juggle multiple projects or work on one thing at a time?
Thanks. I had to take a break recently before I started the fifth novel because I was emotionally exhausted. I think it’s important to take a break when we need to and simply recharge and to not feel bad about doing so. Nobody is Superman.
As to how much rewriting I suspect to do for those four novels, not very much. Gossamer turned out the way I’d hoped after I received critiques from my pre-readers; my agent, Chip MacGregor, read The Lesser People (written as Thomas Morgan) and said it was ready to go as is, so he’s shopping it to publishers right now; the first novel I’ve written as Julian Vaughn, Earthly Things, is very tight, has little fat, and every scene drives the plot forward, raises the stakes and reveals the characters. Chip is reading that one now and I’ll take any feedback he has that can make it even tighter and better, work it in, and run with it. The Wolverine needs a few paragraphs added about one particular thing and it will be ready to sell.
I normally write one draft, send it to my pre-readers, consider all their feedback, work it in, and then it’s ready to go. I do a lot of brainstorming for the pivotal moments and the character arcs before I write a story though, and then make the process of writing easy by breaking it into scenes. It’s pretty simple really. And I work on one project at a time so I’m totally immersed in that story world with those characters.
How does your process apply to your Division Mythos, which ties so much of your work together. Is there a grand, overarching plan, or are you still feeling your way through to see where it's heading?
I love the Division Mythos. It’s really one massive story, each one building on the last until the full payoff in the yet to be written last novel. The series starts off simply with my YA novel Before Leonora Awakes. Each main character (Red Piccirilli, John McDonnell/Michael Johnston, Frank Gunn/Boaz) has their own trilogy until they’re all together in The Patron Saint of Infinite Sorrow. I didn’t know it was a bigger story until I had written the first of each trilogy. Then I started mapping out how each one would lead to the last novel where my team of broken men will face the end of the world.
For those that are unfamiliar with the Division Mythos, tell us a little more about how it flows through the various novels, novellas and short stories.
Red Piccirilli starts the Division Mythos with Before Leonora Awakes. He’s a young boy when he notices this strange man he dubs Mr. Blue and follows him home. He discovers Mr. Blue has a girl trapped in a cage behind his house. Red and his imaginary friend Pig save her but it costs them dearly when they discover she’s a gorgon princess and the man, Mr. Blue, is an angel who feels abandoned by God and yet retains his post as guardian of the princess. Red’s little girlfriend Amy also gets tangled up into it. In the end of the first story Red is bitten and inherits a blessing and curse, a powerful mix of magic that will never leave his blood. Red and Amy’s families think they’ve been abducted and molested so treat them very gently, seeing as how damaged the children are, but Red and Amy have a big secret to protect and its where destiny tramples into their lives.
By the second story, Within This Garden Weeping, Red’s family moves him out of town thinking that it will be easier for everybody. They live in this little trailer bordered by woods and swampland. Two opposing forces are at play and Red is dragged into this other realm, Glory on the Green. He bounces back and forth between two realities, and his heart is darkening to a point that it costs him some of his innocence. He ends up killing Amy’s drug dealing father and it causes a division between him and her, but he doesn’t have much time to make amends, or even sort things out, because this god in Glory on the Green begins to teach Red about the magic he has living inside him, and that god, Ash, uses Red to overcome another god who has taken his throne.
In the third novel, The Collected Songs of Sonnelion, Red is fifteen. His family has moved out of state to a small town named Division in Pennsylvania. He meets an older boy named Abraham Nutley and his best friend Lucas. At first Red thinks they are very cool guys. But Lucas ends up drugging and sodomizing him, and Abraham sees a glimpse of Red’s magic and wants it for himself because he’s a believer in the unseeable. Meanwhile, while Red is in denial about what Lucas has done to him, he fears his father is having an affair and follows him. The readers are introduced to Proserpine, this gorgeous, dangerous woman who also has her own agenda. And another creature named Gravesend, who loves Proserpine, is out to save her at any cost. Red’s young love, Amy, dealing with the loss of her father and realizing that he was never a father to begin with, hitchhikes to Division. When Lucas and Abraham get involved with Amy, Red goes into a blind rage that costs the girl he loves her life, and that act and the consequences shape who he is.
When the 2nd trilogy starts with Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children, Red is an old man and he’s worn these black velvet gloves his entire life. He passes the torch to his nephew John McDonnell and his friend Michael Johnston.
Anyway, each trilogy is a massive story unto itself, but the overall story built upon all the books is gargantuan.
You've published a lot of work with DarkFuse, but you've also dabbled in self-publishing as well, most recently with the novel Gossamer. What attracted you to self-publishing, and how do you determine which works you'll take in that direction versus selling to a publisher?
I enjoy working with Darkfuse a lot, but some novels just aren’t right for them. Also, I’m prolific, so it’s unrealistic to think they’d want to publish four novels or more a year by me. So self-publishing was a natural reaction to that. I also read all kinds of fiction. I love crime fiction (James Lee Burke, Dennis Lehane, John Connolly, etc.) and I’ve been writing novels as Thomas Morgan and Julian Vaughn to explore moral issues. Due to the pseudonyms, and the larger scope of the Morgan and Vaughn novels, I got an agent. I figure if I write one by each name every year, I can avoid starving. Self-publishing just expedites the building-an-audience process for me. I don’t want to be sitting on eight or nine novels that could be reaching people.
What are some of the differences between the two forms of publishing? Do you have a preference?
I prefer traditional publishing. I like getting paid up front because then I can pay my bills in advance and tuck money away for eating when I need to. I also like that traditional publishing covers all the costs for copyediting, the cost for layout, for the book covers, and they have a lot more reach than I do in marketing since I’m so focused on the work that I don’t go out there and scream “Buy my book!” like I see so many other people doing. And I don’t want to do that. But I do have to self-publish sometimes so I don’t create a mountain of yet-to-sell manuscripts.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you've learned over the last couple of years? How have those things affected your career and strengthened your work?
I love questions like this! I think the whole point of living is to learn and pass on what you’ve learned so others can glean something from it. Here are some of the most valuable things I’ve learned that have worked for me:
When I sold that first novel to Delirium I was very excited and had figured I’d just write that same kind of story and stick with them as my sole publisher forever. It was a naïve viewpoint. As I read and write and grow I discover that not all the stories I love, that live inside me, will fit their brand. The Thomas Morgan novels have thriller trappings but deal with things like racism, terrorism, and the loss of innocence. The Julian Vaughn novels deal with the darkly metaphysical and family/social conditioning.
I’ve also learned that what you’re labeled can hurt you. I was labeled a “horror writer” early on and since I’m not a horror writer there are people who read my work and sometimes bitch that “It’s not horror, goddammit!” And I agree with them. But I don’t know how to change that label. I pretty much just write dark fiction, or dark fantasy, that deals with characters in conflict with themselves and others spiritually, physically, and emotionally.
I’ve learned early on that honesty in our work is what makes it burn inside us until we collapse in relief when we’ve finished writing a manuscript. And it’s the honesty that resonates with readers. It’s not easy to expose yourself, but I think if you want to write anything meaningful you have to hang your ass out there like my buddy Shaun always says. If someone wants to write purely for entertainment value, that’s fine, but I don’t. I want to write something, every time, which will mean something, that will move a certain group of people.
I’ve learned that all of us write to a particular audience. I look at my fan mail and the majority of it is females, so I want to focus my energy even more to reach a certain bracket of the female audience.
I’ve learned that going to writing conventions is a lot of fun and well worth the investment. Just meeting your heroes is a thrill but there’s so much more to it than that.
I’ve learned that one of the best things you can do as a writer is to find great pre-readers. I have four: two writers, and two readers. Shaun Ryan, Kevin Wallis, Chris McCaffrey, and Charlene Cocrane. They’re amazing, read widely, and they’re quick to read my work and offer feedback.
And when you’re trying to survive on royalties (getting paid once every three months) you have to learn to manage your money.
Novels, novellas and short stories - which length is your favorite to write, and why?
Novels are definitely my favorite to write! There’s more room for character growth in a novel, more room for conflicts, for a larger payoff. But really it comes down to whatever length a story needs to be.
I want to leave you plenty of room to answer this question, because I'm sure it will be a lengthy response: what's on the horizon for Lee Thompson?
A lot more learning is what’s on the horizon for Lee Thompson. I have plans to sell more dark fantasy novels to Darkfuse. (Though Darkfuse is branching out into more mainstream publishing so I may try to sell them an occasional dark crime novel, too.) I’m sure I’ll self-publish a novel a year. I’ll sell more short stories professionally to places I love like Shock Totem. I’ll foster this relationship with agent Chip MacGregor because he’s been in the industry a long time, is knowledgeable, and pragmatic. I believe I’ll sell and establish an audience for the Thomas Morgan and Julian Vaughn novels because they’re important stories.
This fall I’ll be going to Bouchercon (The World Mystery Convention) again. I love meeting my heroes in person and being around book lovers. It’s like a vacation where you get to learn as you talk to people in the bar and take notes during the panels.
Most of all I’ll just continue to pursue what moves me.
# # #
Missed an Interview? Check out the Interview Archives