Katherine Tomlinson is the author of six books of crime, urban fantasy and dark fiction. She has written for feature film and television, and for newspapers and magazines across the country. Her work has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Pulp Ink 2, and Weird Noir. She is also the editor of the upcoming Dark Valentine Press anthology Nightfalls: Notes from the End of the World which includes stories by Nigel Bird, Patricia Abbott, Jimmy Callaway, Richard Godwin, and yours truly.
TP: Welcome to Belly up to the bar, Katherine- what are you drinking?
KT: Would you mock me if I ordered a virgin Sea Breeze? I’m diabetic so I save my calories for things that are really important, like the occasional fleur de sel salt caramel (thank you Trader Joe’s for making them available year ’round) and spicy Thai drunken noodles with chicken. I am all about the spice.
TP: Not one bit! I do partake of nonalcoholic beverages, they are one of my many vices. You write dark fiction. The first story of yours for me was “Water Sports” in A Twist of Noir (not what it sounds like, pervos) which perfectly captures the voice of a psychopath. Where does that voice come from? Is there a place that you go, or a memory you conjure?
KT: I have no idea. Compared to so many people I know, I won the parent lottery. I was loved, encouraged, praised, and given access to books and art and music (we had a piano) and travel. I tend to be a pretty positive person (I wear pink! I have a cat!) and I often wonder if it’s because I write out all my anger in short stories. And really, my fiction is only darkish compared to something like Plastic Soldiers by W.D. County or your own Black-Eyed Susan (which I admired very much.)
TP: One of my favorite movies is Last Night, a Canadian film about the last day on Earth, and how people spend it. It is surprisingly mundane, but very thought-provoking. What inspired the theme of the Nightfalls anthology, the end of the world?
KT: I don’t know that movie. I’ll have to check it out.
One of my good friends and I had thought about doing an end of the world webseries that would climax on 12.21.12. The idea was to follow a lot of stories, a la Crash or Valentine’s Day–all of them tied together by the office building where the characters worked. That project didn’t come to fruition but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I ended up playing around with a story I called “Conor and Travis Salute the Fallen Warriors” about a couple of World of Warcraft players who stay connected to the bitter end. It still needs some work, so I didn’t put it in the anthology.
TP: That sounds like a great concept, really. I was briefly addicted to MMPORGs, and find the so close, yet so far dichotomy lends itself to a good story. (For the record, I sold my account and helped pay for my sister’s wedding.) The introduction you wrote for the anthology moved me. People seem to wander around in their own little worlds these days, and believe that only their pain matters, and everyone else’s is somehow their own fault. Do you think people have become more and more selfish, or that we’re just more aware of it?
KT: In One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “When you’re cold, don’t expect sympathy from someone who’s warm.” I think that during the run-up to this year’s presidential election, the lines being drawn between those who are warm and those who are cold was pretty stark. It was all very Gilded Age and “I’ve got mine.” And it was troubling. I was especially troubled by some of the new euphemisms–talking about “hunger” as “food insecurity.” Food insecurity. My aunt is a retired Methodist minister and one of her longtime outreach programs is a food bank that serves a pocket of semi-rural Southwest Virginia. She’s feeding hungry people, not people who think they’re going to gain weight if they eat a whole non-fat muffin.
I think the proportion of selfish and clueless people is about the same as it’s always been–we just hear about it more now. What is that line from A Christmas Carol when Scrooge is asked to donate to the poor–“Are there no workhouses? Are there no prisons?” That was written in 1843, almost 170 years ago and every time I heard a reference to the “47 percent” last fall, I thought about Dickens.
TP: It’s refreshing to hear you speak of it as bluntly as I see it. Money forgives everything in America- it is very Machiavellian. And compassion is seen as denying some Darwinian imperative, by people who don’t believe in evolution. It’s utterly bizarre. From your bio, you’ve traveled the country from Hawaii to the coasts. I tend to be fascinated about the little pockets of character all over the country. What are some of your favorite places?
KT: I like cities on the water, oceans, lakes, rivers. I love San Antonio and am seriously considering moving there at some unspecified future date. I miss my hometown (Washington D.C.) terribly and when I was back there this summer, I was reminded anew of how much I love that city. It’s so green. My neighborhood in Los Angeles is a little oasis of trees and flowering Japanese magnolia and jacarandas in the spring, but L.A. was carved out of a desert thanks to water stolen from the Colorado River, and the desert is just waiting to take it back.
I love New Orleans too, that glorious wrecked wedding cake of a city. (I love that if you ask cab drivers where to find the best bread pudding in the city, they know. They talk about food there like people in L.A. talk about celebrities.)
I’ve never been to Portland, Oregon but have fallen in love with the city from watching Grimm. (Yes, like those who buy Playboy for the articles, I watch Grimm for the scenery. It has nothing to do with Sasha Roiz. Really.) I also have a soft spot for Ocracoke Island in North Carolina. You want characters? There are some serious characters on Ocracoke.
TP: I love New Orleans, myself. Its old history as a free city lives on. And DC, the cherry blossoms and the worldliness. Writers always talk about their favorite writers, but I think there so many other influences on writing. For me, movies and music were a big part of it, the dark fatalistic tone of the nuclear age, and the raw, outlaw ferocity of early rock ‘n roll. You’re welcome to mention the writers you admire, but what else has inspired your writing?
KT: The Washington Post. (Most people don’t know this but until 1981, DC also had an afternoon paper, the Evening Star, and it was a damn fine publication.) So I grew up reading two local papers a day. My father subscribed to both the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. My parents were news junkies who would have loved the world of 24/7 news cycles. All that news just sort of acted as fertilizer for my imagination. I was a journalist for 15 years before I turned to fiction and I loved that I was paid to ask questions; that I could be nosy for a living.
I write a lot of fiction based on random news. (And I owe a lot to the Drudge Report, which is a never-ending source of inspiration.) But even the regular news these days is weird: Disembodied feet washing up in Toronto, bodies piling up in Detroit morgues. Tsunami debris coming in with the tide. Dolphins being murdered. Choking to death on roaches. The stories practically write themselves.
I was also a crazy fan of Twilight Zone and I think it shows in my stories, I do love my twist endings and I blame that on Rod Serling. At Thanksgiving this year we had the annual TZ marathon on in the background and everybody at the table could mouth the dialogue along with the characters … for every episode. Yes, everyone I know is a geek. One of my favorite writers is Stephen King and you can tell he grew up watching those same episodes.
TP: Oh yes, Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. That sense of fate inspired “Black-Eyed Susan,” which may be why you liked it. Thank you, by the way. For me the weird news source is Weird NJ magazine, I’ve written for them and I love exploring all sorts of forgotten history. You write a lot about fear, and it is the most visceral of emotions. As an adult, I find it tougher to get scared for entertainment. I loved supernatural horror, but aliens and werewolves aren’t scary for me anymore–the fear of losing loved ones to disease and accidents is all that remains–and that is too painful to read, sometimes. What is your favorite fear to explore in your writing?
KT: As a movie-goer, I am a horror movie maker’s dream audience. All you have to do to scare me is have something jump out at me. I still remember the jolt when I saw Jaws for the first time and nearly swallowed my popcorn because the editing and the music conspired to trick me into relaxing just before the shark popped out of that hole. (And for the record, I have been nervous about swimming in the ocean ever since.)
I think my stories are fed from a wellspring of anxieties that aren’t entirely my own. I’m afraid of heights but not of snakes. Around my house I am spider-bane, the designated killer of all things eight-legged and yet I have a totally irrational fear of going to bed with the Christmas tree lights burning. The most successful woman I know is haunted by a fear of being homeless. I once saw a neighbor totally freak out when a kitten licked her toe. “Get it away from me,” she shrieked, scaring the kitten.
If I had to narrow it down, I’d say I write a lot about loss. The death of my younger sister five years ago remains a tender spot and I have returned to that grief a number of times in stories. I don’t want to exploit that though, because that gets boring and kind of sleazy.
TP: My condolences, Katherine. Loss is the one real fear, for me. Men are told to be protectors, and we often base our self-worth upon it, in part, so loss of a family member—especially a female one—chills us to the core. And there’s all sorts of guilty emotions caught up in it, because it’s rather sexist, and possessive, isn’t it? Thank you for your honesty, not everyone likes talking about fear. So, other than Nightfalls, what is your latest book, and what do you have coming down the road for us to look out for?
KT: I am finishing up my first novel, Begotten, which is best described as urban fantasy, although I am beginning to hate that genre tag because so many books in that niche are same-old, same-old. My heroine is a crime reporter who follows paranormal crime. Unlike Carl Kolchak (Kolchak the Nightstalker was another big inspiration for my writing), she exists in a world that knows about supernatural creatures, so paranormal crime is just a regular journalism beat like reporting on City Hall or writing about high school sports.
The book takes place in the paranormal Los Angeles of my L.A. Nocturne stories (shameless plug), and I find it way too easy to slip into that world. Going from short stories to a novel, though, has been hard work. Novelists Christine Pope and G. Wells Taylor have been pushing and prodding me through the process, though, and I owe them a lot for their support.
TP: I’m looking forward to it. Stephen Blackmoore’s City of the Lost was a surprise favorite for me, and he made the Kirkus top 100 with it. I hope yours is there next year. Thank you for giving us a lot to think about, Katherine. One last question—what would your last meal be?
KT: A rare steak. Ripe tomatoes from my great-uncle’s garden. Garlic mashed potatoes. Or macaroni and cheese. Green beans with bacon and crushed red pepper flakes. Bread pudding from Commander’s Palace in New Orleans or Ina Garten’s chocolate cake with a side of caramel ice cream made from my great-grandmother Julia’s recipe. Or maybe all three if I still have room.
TP: That sounds delicious. Makes me want to fire up the electric chair, but then I’d never get to read Begotten. Thank you for dropping by, and for a great conversation.
You can read more of Katherine’s work at her blog Katomic Energy and her list of books is on her website.