NSFW Warning: This interview has explicit content and may not be safe for work.
Tom Lucas is a college professor, author, blogger, poet, book reviewer, and spoken word performer. His most recent book, Pax Titanus, was published by Eraserhead Press in 2014 and is part of the New Bizarro Author Series. He has been published in many places including Writer’s Digest, Orbit, Anthropomorphic, Graffiti Rag, and Dark Fire Fiction, and he has shorts appearing in the upcoming anthologies: They Did It For The Money and Southern Haunts III. As a staunch supporter of spoken word he has performed on the Lollapalooza stage as well as guest spots on CIMX, WDET, and WJR.
He was born and raised in Detroit, and although currently enjoying the lack of snow and ice in Florida, remains a son of the post-industrial apocalypse. When not writing, Tom likes to drive fast and take chances. He can be found at readtomlucas.com and on Facebook, and if you sign up for his email list, he’ll send you a free story.
In this interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, we talk about bizarro, Pax Titanus’s epic creation story, and The Struggle.
PT: You have been on an interview tear for Pax Titanus. You’ve been on Lit Reactor, Writer Groupie, Strange the World, and you talked with Tiffany Scandal. I’m pretty sure I’ve never interviewed someone who’s also been interviewed by a Suicide Girl before. Gold star for me. Because you’ve been all over the place, I’ll try my best to avoid questions you’ve been asked a million times already, so let’s start where most interviewers end: What do you wish someone would ask you that no one has asked yet?
TL: I have seen great fortune as of late. You’re right, I’ve been able to stick my mug in a few place since the release of Pax Titanus! Before we dig in I’d like to tip my hat to all those who have given me a digital spot to ply my wares. Each interview has covered a different aspect of my writing, so I haven’t felt the itch of a necessary word unsaid.
But, you pose a strong opener. Seriously. I have been sitting here staring at my laptop’s screen struggling to compose a response. Stalling. I am never at a loss to speak, so why now?
I suppose it’s because for all of my online bluster and enthusiasm, I tend to not think about how the world should address me but rather how I should address it. Every word I write or speak feels more like an appeal. I’m a “Got a minute?” guy much more so than “Hey, over here ya lunk!” personality.
But in today’s environment, if you are a creative – an artist – then you have no choice but to wave and dance and invite and seduce. There are so many voices, you have to stick out somehow.
Maybe it’s the kind of energy I put out there, but I haven’t been asked about THE STRUGGLE.
PT: What is the struggle?
TL: For me, the struggle is to be relevant. To have my stories mean something. To have them create a feeling, spark a thought, or maybe just provide an escape. This has been on my mind as of late.
My first novel is self-published. I was excited by the advances in publishing technology. I did the usual thing first — query letters and whatnot — but after a time I decided to pull the trigger and do it on my own. That’s a tiny bit of the struggle, the figuring it all out. But there’s a bigger piece. After jumping in the deep end of the pool, I started connecting with many indie writers on several social networks. I joined several online groups. I was hungry for any and all information that might give me an edge. I was looking for something to help distinguish myself from the pack.
Because I felt that my work had relevance.
Others might disagree! But still, that’s the place I work from. What I am struggling with is how to feel about what I see out in the field. Many indie authors, including one in my local authors group, seem to only view their work as widgets. As in “How many widgets did I move this week”?
There’s my conflict. I don’t think they are working to be relevant. I don’t think they are working from a place of integrity. I think they are looking for a paycheck. Sure, what author doesn’t want to sell books? I get that. I just think that they might have lost their way a bit.
So I struggle with the art vs. necessary commerce thing quite often. Especially since so much of what I write is critical of commercialization.
Most days when I am online, at least one of my writer friends will be promoting their work. Book sales, Kickstarters, and maybe a Patreon link or two. In my heart, I would love to support them all. I’m right there with them. I need to sell books in order to be able to write more of them. I need that ball rolling too. But my heart and my checking account are on very different pages. There’s no way I can support them all and still eat. And, I have finally accepted that I simply won’t get to read all their books anyway. There isn’t enough time.
With all these new channels, those that might not have a chance to give birth to a creative work are now able to do so. There has never been so much choice. It’s exciting to me because in my younger years, I was a proponent of the punk rock, DIY ethic. I was never truly a member of the scene, but I certainly enjoyed a fair bit of the music and the publications. But I never contributed to it. Still, the grab a guitar and make music, make a statement, get people thinking aspects of it – those ideals still drive me.
Now, it’s so easy to be out there. There has never been so much content. It’s a wall of sound that hits you anytime you crack open your laptop.
PT: It’s so refreshing to hear you say that. There’s a lot of arts advocacy going on right now that says that if you support the arts you should support artists with your wallet. While I think more money for the arts would be good for society–and artists. Who am I kidding?–I worry about what this idea is doing to artists in places like the United States where financial support necessarily means creating something with market appeal and the implication that you can’t be a real artist if you can’t (or don’t want) to target your work to the most lucrative audience. I’m curious about how you define relevant and how you’ve resolved that tension between art and commerce for yourself–or started to. You have a traditionally published book out there now, so you must have found a way around it a little bit, at least!
TL: To be relevant in today’s terms is probably more subjective than ever. I suppose I would define my relevance in terms of what I deem relevant. The kinds of books that interest me the most are ones that contain some kind of social commentary or thought provoking element. Sometimes I read for the thrill or just to laugh, but when I story gets me thinking, I am most satisfied. Those are the books I will purchase readily. So, I have some friends that are down on my “to-buy” list because they don’t feel relevant to me. I’d like to support their art, but my personal interest isn’t there.
The relevance that I put into my writing….first, I try not to duplicate another’s work or write specifically to the market. I see many writers in my newsfeed writing to the market, which I suppose is smart (maybe I should try that) but in the end, they are churning out derivative work that is ultimately forgettable. It’s not adding anything new, fresh, original to the world. I see people working very hard to write the next Harry Potter, 50 Shades, Game of Thrones, etc. It feels very crass and disingenuous. Writers only looking for the payday. Blech.
I try to weave thoughtful commentary amidst the cartoonish violence and raunchy humor. I try to provide a great story with characters the reader will care about. And remember. I try to create my own thing and I think I’m doing OK at it.
As for negotiating commercialization and my own work. Well, I’m still wallowing in obscurity so I haven’t had an ethical nervous breakdown. My publisher is on the fringe of polite society as well, so I am keeping great company. I don’t know how I would react to greater success, but I would hope that I would find a way to subvert it as it happened.
Hopefully, it will happen sooner than later. I do have some student loans to pay off.
PT: I hope so, too, because it would be fun to see what you would do and also because your latest book, Pax Titanus, is one of the more memorable books I’ve read in awhile.
TL: Yay, because I have many ideas. I do believe I have enough fuel in the tank to expand this universe for A LONG TIME. Notes are everywhere, and because it’s got Space Opera spirit, there’s fun to have that science fiction cannot offer.
PT: The opening paragraph, in particular, is one I’m pretty sure I’ll never forget:
“Craxx and Titanus were best friends. It was just a matter of time before Craxx wrapped his stubby fingers around Titanus’s massive red cock.”
TL: This was written with great intent. It’s my way of saying to the reader, here’s what to expect. It’s ok if this train isn’t headed to your station, feel free to put it down and we can go our separate ways. It’s a raunchy book (the farthest I have ever gone in that direction) and I wouldn’t want to grab a reader just to turn them sour a few chapters in. Better to be fully transparent.
PT: Almost like an in-text trigger warning.
TL: Yep. It’s a pool filter for common decency, ha ha. In these times, you have to get the reader hooked on the first page. There’s too much competition for a reader’s time, so it has to be out there immediately. Might as well make sure we all know exactly what we are dealing with here!
PT: That kind of raunchiness kind of comes with the Bizarro territory, doesn’t it? Pax was my introduction to the genre, but I’ve gotten the impression that Bizarro tends to say the things other genres can’t/won’t say.
TL: As I am a newbie to the scene, I don’t feel that I am truly qualified to speak to the whole genre. However, I would agree that going beyond comfort levels and the familiar is certainly a quality of bizarro.
It’s quite liberating from the writer’s perspective although you have to be aware that you are working in a niche and the work will struggle for mass appeal.
PT: How did I get into bizarro?
TL: My first book, Leather to the Corinthians was written without any knowledge of the genre. In fact, one of the earliest chapters from a short piece I wrote in a creative writing class back in the early 90s. All I knew at the time was that I was interested in creating a strange landscape filled with strange characters doing maybe strange, maybe normal things.
In time, that story grew to a full manuscript. I wrapped that up in 2010 and spent the following year and a half sending out query letters, etc. No one seemed to know what to do with it, so of course, they all said no. I don’t blame them. Still, I needed to get it out of my system so I could move on to other projects. I self-published it at the end of 2012.
Then, doing the reverse of what you are supposed to do, I looked for a readership. People who would enjoy my weird world. A friend, horror writer Sidney Williams, pointed me in the direction of Bizarro Central. This website is the hub of the genre and I learned quite a bit about bizarro from it. I picked up a few books, managed to get my book reviewed on the site, and tried to figure out what to write next.
In March of last year, another writer/publisher friend, Matt Peters (owner of Beating Windward Press) pointed out that there was a bizarro fiction writing workshop on LitReactor, conducted by Rose O’Keefe, the owner of Eraserhead Press. Eraserhead Press is the biggest of the bizarro dogs. I signed up immediately.
In that workshop, I wrote like it was an audition. And it was, because at the end of the month we were invited to pitch ideas for novellas. I crafted three pitches based on the stories that I had written. Pax Titanus was one of them and I was accepted to participate in their New Bizarro Author Series. Last July, I wrote Pax. It was out in late October. It was a blur and a blink. So suddenly wonderful.
PT: Did you write Pax in a month?
TL: I did. Not. Sleep. In July.
I would never write that fast with a spec project. But here was an editor saying, I loved the pitch, gimme a book — you have a month. I wasn’t about to let the opportunity slip away. I created a writing schedule and treated it like a job. No calling in, no excuses.
Maybe one day I’ll do a Director’s Cut and include some extra scenes and do some light revision. There’s a few jokes I could have made that I didn’t think of at the time.
PT: The thing I keep returning to when I think about Pax is that first scene when Titanus and Craxx are walking up to the elevator. There’s a sense that they’ve been friends long enough that they’ve had to face and find a way to work with each other’s faults.
TL: When I pictured the two friends, I pulled from my own experience and no doubt, a universal one at that. We all have that friend, at least one, that requires love and patience to navigate. If one can’t identify that friend then congrats, you are that friend. What I enjoy about the two of them is they are such opposites but work well together. There’s a lot of love there — and neither of them are human!
PT: And the scene is absolutely hilarious, and it’s so subtle. Unless you’re a neurotic like me who likes to pick everything apart, it becomes this thing you know that you don’t know how you know. It made me wonder how you work with humor.
TL: When I write humor, which is more of my work than not I would approximate, I’d say my overall strategy is to call the reader from down a long hall and then duck around a corner. When they walk past my hiding spot, I just out and say, “Gotcha.” So, a lead-in with no indication that a joke is coming. Surprises and such. Many of these surprises are surprises to me as well. Most of the humor is organic and comes out of the writing process. It’s almost never in my outlines.
PT: Going back to when you were first starting out: If you were advising your past self at this point in your career when you were writing and publishing Leather to the Corinthians, what would you tell him? Would you do things differently, if you had it to do again?
TL: The biggest thing I would change would be my choice of editor. She was great, but I don’t think she really knew what she was working with. I should have spent more time looking for a better fit.
PT: What would you look for in an editor?
TL: I’d do a bit more research. Find out who edited some of the bizarro books I admire and then I’d see if they were available for hire. This strategy is something I will employ in the future, regardless of the genre I am writing toward. Seems like a smart thing to do. I’m good for one smart idea a day. That’s it for now, I’m afraid.
PT: Is the industry different now than it was in 2010?
TL: There are some minor differences from then to now, I suppose. There are even more services to help with self-publishing endeavors. And as such, more indie/small presses. If I was just starting now, I would have gone to the publishers first as opposed to trying to find an agent for the manuscript.
PT: Why so?
TL: What I am learning is that they are interested in working with authors directly. That they are interested in unsolicited manuscripts. And to an extent, they are looking at developing writers. Unheard of, right? Seems like every agent or Big 5 publisher wants you to be a master and the manuscript perfect when you knock on the door. Now, I get why. Totally. But still, as someone working my way up, it’s nice to have some open minds.
PT: Are you working on anything now?
TL: I just pitched a book featuring a public domain character. FANTOMAH. She’s scary as hell. I am anxiously watching my inbox. That’s bad. You know that old saying, “A watched inbox never fills.”
But still I wait and watch. If it doesn’t fly, I am thinking about outlining a sequel to Leather. Several readers have asked me when, so I better get cracking.
I also have a non-fiction piece and a short story coming out in two anthologies some time this year.
And, I have a couple of short stories I am picking away at. I don’t feel quite right if I am not working on something. Like I left something on the stove.
Or the water running. Like, what am I supposed to be doing????