I ran into a pleasant British gentleman at the book launch party for Peter Straub’s American Fantastic Tales. He introduced himself as Tony Richards. Tony is a long-time author of horror and dark fantasy stories, these days numbering over a hundred short stories, novellas, and novels, with a career spanning thirty years. His debut novel, The Harvest Bride, first appeared in 1987 and was nominated for a Stoker award. In addition to being a darn fine writer, he’s a great guy to share a conversation with over cocktails. Read on!
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer?
TR: I sold my first story — an SF one — at age twenty-one, a couple of months after leaving college. Then I spent the next few years contributing to classic anthology series like Pan Horror and Fontana Ghosts. My debut novel, The Harvest Bride, was nominated for a Stoker. A second was published in 1995, and I was about to see a third in print when the big slump in horror publishing kicked in. I only started to recover from that at the start of this decade with the boom in independent publishing … the new editors who were popping up everywhere were eager for my work, and four collections of my short fiction appeared within two years. And I currently have two novels with Eos, both set in the same scarily magical town, the inhabitants of which can never leave.
TH: What is the Story of Tony? Is it a novel? A short story? Are there witches? Does everyone die a horrible, gruesome death?
TR: I base most of my work on observation and exploration, often of foreign cities. And — much though I love my wife and friends — I do my best observing alone. So mine would be a novel with a distinctly noir feel, probably written by Dashiell Hammett with a final polish by Fritz Leiber. They’d change my name to something like Sam Spadework. In the novel, Sam would pound the sidewalks of New York, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Budapest, Tokyo and Hong Kong. His steely blue eyes would go everywhere, hunting for the truth beneath the veneer of each city. The raddled, overworked waitress in a nearby café. The couple arguing in a parked car. The hooker on her corner, and the bum in his alleyway. Sam would observe all of this and then go home and write about it, the light in his office sometimes burning until almost dawn as he takes what he has seen and transforms it into fiction, surpassing mundane reality by lending it a supernatural or fantastic edge. You’d think that once his work was done, Sam would have earned a rest. But no. Years ago, a curse was cast upon him by a vengeful witch. As soon as he is finished, he must go back on the streets again. When we last see him, he is disappearing down another foreign boulevard, dusk closing in around him. He pauses in the distance and there is a brief flare as he lights a cigarette. And then he vanishes into the neon-studded dimness.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
TR: I don’t see it as a decision. Rather, I honestly believe that I was born a writer, and knew it as soon as I was old enough to read proper fiction … there was an instant, almost electric connection. I started drawing my own comic strips — rather badly — about the age of nine. And by age twelve that had progressed to full-blown stories. But I didn’t choose it, it chose me.
TH: If you had, for whatever reason, not managed to find your way into being a professional writer, what would you be doing?
TR: I’d love to say something really cool like Marine Biologist … I’m fascinated by that stuff but I just don’t have the right qualifications. In common with a lot of writers, dead-end jobs seem to have come my way down the years like I’m a magnet for them. I’ve done cold calling. I edited legal forms for a couple of years … boy, that was interesting. I’m kind of reminded of what John Lennon said when someone asked his band what they’d be doing if they weren’t the Beatles. His reply, without a beat, was, “We’d be unemployed.”
TH: Every writer has things they would like to accomplish, e.g. first sale, next sale, first novel sale, first bestseller, etc. What accomplishment are you striving for right now?
TR: Those two books with Eos I mentioned at the start of this are intended as the first two volumes in a series. The fictional town is called Raine’s Landing, Massachusetts, and what makes it special is that, back at the end of the 1600s, the real witches of Salem fled there, escaping the witchcraft trials. By the present day, their descendants pretty much run the place, and although it might seem normal on the surface it’s an extremely strange town when you look closer. I’ve ideas for at least half a dozen more novels set there, with new characters good and bad, alarming new developments, and even weirder forms of magic. And some of the central characters have their lives re-shaped by these events and go through pretty major changes. So I’m totally committed to developing all that in the foreseeable future.
TH: Do you have any writing stuck away somewhere that will never see the light of day, but nevertheless helped you build your skill to be publishable?
TR: Tucked away in a drawer somewhere is a hard-backed notepad containing a handwritten SF novel titled Wars of the Reptiles. I wrote it when it was fourteen. I don’t think Spielberg will be beating on my door for the movie rights any time soon. But hey, these days you can never really tell.
TH: The age of twelve to fourteen seems to be some sort of magic number for many writers (myself included) when they suddenly and for no explicable reason sit down to write a novel. Do you remember what inspired Wars of the Reptiles?
TR: We were simply given the project “write something” in English class, and so I started writing that. The influences were everything that I was reading and watching at the time, I guess. Doctor Who, Dan Dare, Heinlein, Norton Asimov. The plot involved a human astronaut who crash lands on a world inhabited by two warring factions of man-sized, upright, sapient lizards, so it was really just a scalier version of Planet of the Apes. I don’t believe I ever finished it. What a loss to modern culture!
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
TR: My number one inspiration, obviously, is travel. I’ve been incredibly lucky in that respect, and gotten to visit maybe forty different countries. It doesn’t just ‘broaden the mind.’ It gives you a depth of perception that no amount of book-reading or documentary watching can provide, not merely about the places you go but the nature of our world in general and the people in it. How ironic, then, that I have wound up writing a series about people who physically cannot leave their little town, who’ve never once glimpsed the world beyond their borders. The flipside of my own experience, I suppose. But I portray them as mostly happy and content — until something bad shows up, that is. So perhaps I’m acknowledging that folks can stay at home and still lead fulfilling lives.
TH: Do you recall something from your travels that directly inspired a great story?
TR: Years back, my wife — who is multilingual — was working for a poverty relief charity, and was due to attend a conference on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. She was getting her trip paid for, obviously. For me to come along was going to cost an awful lot extra, so we hummed and hawed a bit. But then we finally went, “Aw, the hell with it … how many chances like this do you get?”
Right decision. It turned out to be an amazing place, both in terms of scenery and the historic sites. Plus I met a bunch of young ex-patriots who explained a lot to me about the inside gen on Japanese culture. I simply had to write about all this. I had the story in my mind before I’d even got back on the plane. It was a fourteen-hour flight. I napped for a couple of hours when I finally got home, then fixed myself some coffee, headed for the laptop, and started in on ‘Hanako from Miyazaki,’ which was published in Cemetery Dance. A lot of people came up, next convention I attended, and told me how much they loved it. So it was worth the exacerbated jetlag.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you? What is the most fun?
TR: Novels are mostly plain hard slog … satisfying work, but the word ‘fun’ rarely applies. The exception to that is when I really get caught up in the first draft of an action scene. But the most enjoyable part of being a writer is when a short story idea hits you like a bolt from the blue and you just sit down and complete it in one session. No doubts, no hesitations, just pure inspiration. It’s happened to me on maybe ten occasions, and one time it turned out to be not simply a short but a 35,000 word novella called Postcards from Terri. I started writing it with no pre-planning whatsoever, and it remains one of my personal favorite works.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
TR: I feel I’m pretty well established as a writer of short stories these days. I know that because editors keep approaching me and asking me to contribute to their anthologies, and independent houses are keen to publish my collections. As for novels? The fact is, whereas other authors are writing for ready-made audiences, the Raine’s Landing books are kind of unique and are having to build up an audience of their own. They’ve had great reviews, and I’ve had stacks of emails from people who loved them, so it really looks like that is going to happen.
TH: Where did the idea for Raine’s Landing come from?
TR: For years now I’ve had this ambition to write some books set in a fictional, very weird and magical city. Something like Simon Green’s Nightside, but larger and less tongue in cheek. I knew that I wanted them to have a noirish central character — my first novel, The Harvest Bride, had that. But my attempts at creating such a place got nowhere.
One event that persuaded me to try a smaller and less complex setting was a visit to an old friend from London who had wound up living in Nyack, New York state. He showed me around the town. I was struck by how peaceful and relaxed it was, how friendly the folk were in my pal’s regular eateries and bars. Then someone pointed out to me that supernatural thrillers — like The Harvest Bride — were becoming popular again.
The idea grew from there. The ex-town cop turned supernatural troubleshooter. His tough female companion with a hard criminal past. I chose Massachusetts because it’s such an old part of the States, with such rich history. But the weird thing was, when I first showed the manuscript to Eos, the idea about the Salem witches was nowhere to be seen. I had another — and I have to admit rather weaker — explanation as to why the town was full of sorcery.
My editor, Diana Gill, spoke to me on the phone. And she said, “Sure, I like the rest of it, but can you come up with a better explanation for the magic?” I promised I’d think about it and call her back in a couple of days. Except the moment I put down the handset, my mind started buzzing wildly. Massachusetts? What else is there in Massachusetts that could explain magic? Hold it! Salem! What if there actually were real witches there, and they got out and moved to …?
Having told Diana I’d be a couple of days, I got back to her in ten minutes flat. She loved the idea, and Raine’s Landing was finally — properly — born.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity? Do you take that approach?
TR: Hemingway famously said, “When I’m writing, I’m an artist. When I’m finished, I’m a businessman.” And that certainly sounds like a sane approach. Let’s face it, once you’ve completed a work of fiction, what you have is a property which you hope to make money off. But a branded commodity? I’m not so sure about that. My stories cover such a wide range of themes and subjects someone on the Net once commented he’d never realized they were all written by the same person.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
TR: The third Raine’s Landing novel, Midnight’s Angels, is almost complete. Lots of surprises in that one, things happening that people who’ve read the first two books would never be expecting. Dark Regions Press is bringing out an extended version of my award-nominated 2007 collection Going Back, with four new stories in it. And they’ll start putting together a collection of my ghost tales sometime the middle of next year. I have a new novella, Yuppieville, coming out just in time for World Horror in Brighton. Watch this space, in other words. It fills up quickly.
TH: Why do you attend an event like the World Fantasy Convention?
TR: Obviously there’s a professional side. There has to be if you are trying to keep a roof over your head. Getting to know the top editors and agents is useful, and I’m always asked to contribute to at least a couple of anthologies each time I attend. But the main reason I go is I have so much fun. I meet plenty of good old friends and make plenty of good new ones every single time. I’ve never been to a convention simply to make ‘contacts’ … that’s just using people. Not my way of doing things.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
TR: I think, for any writer, it has to be that moment when there is a clatter at the mailbox, a plain brown package has arrived, an anthology or magazine falls out and you open it to your first published story. There’s your title. Underneath it is the bye-line, and it’s your name. And suddenly, as if by magic, the dream has become a reality. However good things get later on, nothing ever quite beats that.
TH: Anything else?
TR: If your readers want to know more about my work — or my travels or opinions, for that matter — my website is www.richardsreality.com. And thanks for this chat — I’ve enjoyed it.