They Live, Nada, and “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”

John Carpenter’s They Live has been a favorite since I first saw it, and remains a pulp science fiction classic. My friend Tony Peyser told me it was based on a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1966, long out of print. He also invented the propeller beanie hat, if you remember those.


The story is very thin but of course, a very memorable premise of mind control and aliens among us. Carpenter filled it out a lot with Reagan-era class warfare from the yuppie class enslaving working people, and fed into the hatred of the soulless consumerists who inspired American Psycho. If you haven’t seen They Live, it’s a deserving classic for many reasons, and embraces its kitschy pulp roots, very much like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The DVD is available on NetFlix.

You can read “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” here. In 1986 there was a comic adaptation by Bill Wray in Alien Encounters, which Carpenter saw and drew from. That’s where the infamous and silly final shot comes from. Instead of a girlfriend, Nada, played by Roddy Piper the pro wrestler, gets Keith David, one of my favorite actors, best known for playing Childs in Carpenter’s The Thing. When Nada wants him to “wear the glasses” that will awaken him from alien domination, they have a throwdown alley fight for at least five minutes, to play to Roddy’s wrestling strengths. It’s a lot of fun, and silly, and after so many mass shootings, Nada’s shotgun solution to the aliens in the infamous bank scene is a little creepy, but it’s as pure an action hero story as there ever was.

If you want to read the comic that inspired Carpenter, you can read it here. This is a snip:


Good Reads, mid December

Read any good books lately? I have. Here are a couple.

couplandAll Families Are Psychotic, by Doug Coupland. I’m a big fan of Mr. “Generation X.” My friend Suzanne kept goading me to read Microserfs, and I was surprised at how damn good it was. Coupland has a knack for seeing the heart of things, especially generational differences and the string in the sweater of our personality, that when tugged, causes everything to unravel and be seen for its component parts. “Families” is no different, pitting ’50s-born parents against children born in the ’70s and ’80s, with his unique, insane caper-style stories. Almost if Don Westlake decided to write John Irving stories, these books are always fast, packed with humor and unpredictable yet inevitable collisions between unforgettable characters. This one involves AIDS, the space shuttle, endangered species smuggling, Thalidomide, surrogate parenthood, and … well, it’s set in Florida, so maybe all that’s expected. This was one of my favorite reads this year. The paperback is sadly out of print, but it is available on Kindle, and at used bookstores. Coupland always manages to play fun games with book design. My paperback felt like it was bound in corrugated cardboard, and the end wraps had a photo of the author next to a huge statue of a green toy Army soldier. I’m told the hardcover was flipped midway through, like the old Ace Doubles, but I haven’t been able to find one.

tampaTampa by Alissa Nutting will be polarizing. It’s the story of a monster, like Nabokov’s Lolita, with the gender roles reversed. The main character is a middle school teacher who preys on her male students. Because we view women as less dangerous, Nutting can carve a dark satire of our mores, media, and expectations. By the end, the damage to her victims is clear as day, but our cultural beliefs are barely shaken, even when the protagonist’s monstrosity is laid bare and raw, and our double standards flayed before us like a laboratory specimen. This was a daring novel that will certainly be pilloried as salacious, but its depiction of a heartless female predator and the incalculable damage sexual abuse inflicts on teenage boys is an important and generally untold story.

lush_lifeLush Life, by Richard Price is like a season of The Wire moved to the Lower East Side on the cusp of gentrification. The book flies, despite being crammed with storylines of street kids, detectives, bartenders, and hipsters. Any fan of the series will want to read this. I hadn’t read Price since Clockers, to my detriment. That book was fantastic, and remains one of the best crime novels written about New Jersey. The Wanderers, his ’60s era coming of age in NYC novel, is delightful, too. One of the first books I ever read that had characters that reminded me of my friends and family, who “tawked” like me. But Lush Life is an accomplishment, encapsulating the sausage factory of the criminal justice system and how even the best intentions ricochet like mad.

Parable of the SowerAnd finally, The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler. Her stories have always resonated with me, from “Bloodchild,” which I’d read as a teen, to “Speech Sounds,” an amazing apocalyptic tale where humanity is slowly robbed of language. The Sower is another story of slow collapse, as the economy crumbles and America becomes a Balkanized state of gated communities and enslaved company towns. Written from the perspective of Olamina, a teenage girl prepping for the day looters clamber over the walls to destroy her family, this book is equally entertaining for teens and adults. It is rich and thoughtful, but written as diary entries, by a young woman creating a scientific philosophy where God is change and cannot be worshiped as much as prepared for. As dark as The Road but as compulsively readable as The Hunger Games, this 1991 novel is due for a deserved resurgence. The politicians will sound all too familiar, as they bargain away our rights and national assets in the name of “the economy” as the country foments into a corrupt Third World state without the rule of law. I’m waiting before I tackle the sequel, The Parable of the Talents. Butler died while still working on a third novel, that was never fully realized or completed.

Give yourself a gift, and read a book. Happy holidays to you all.

Everyday Sexism and Giant Space-Dicks

I started following @EverydaySexism on Twitter a month or so ago, and it has been an eye-opener. A morning coffee with a cockroach in it, reminding me how ill behaved some men are.(Not that women are saints. At PROTECT they’ll tell you no one knows what a predator looks like, and plenty of women use society’s view of them as natural nurturers as camouflage for predatory behavior.)

I’m also twitter friends with cosplayers, people who dress up at science fiction and comic book conventions. Some are women, and many of them get groped by let’s face it, there’s only one word, assholes who feel entitled to grab a stranger’s ass or feel the need to inform a women they’ve never met what he’d like to do with her.  And this is supposed to be taken in stride, because hey, who wouldn’t like to be called sexy, or beautiful, and isn’t that what it really means?

No, it doesn’t. It means you are there for my enjoyment, and you are less than a person.

To a lesser extent, we’ve seen more of this viewpoint in the recent SFWA debacle where two old dinosaurs waxed poetic about beautiful “lady editors,” and who looked great in a bikini, and then cried censorship when people complained. Then a writer seriously told these women to be “like Barbie,” and “maintain [their] quiet dignity as a woman should.” On what planet is that acceptable? SFWA President John Scalzi is taking the blame, but his brave martyrdom distracts us from men so entitled that they believe they are above criticism. “Lady editor” is the stupidest thing I’ve read in years. When I was a kid, women driving was rare enough that the term “lady driver” was still in use, and jokes about women driving badly were the norm. That was almost forty years ago. “Lady writer” sounds like something the idle rich do, to fritter away their time.
(Before you assume I’m commenting on hearsay, follow the links above, which will get you to the actual pages from the SFWA bulletin)

And the most common response to this vile behavior is to tell men “what if it was your sister/mother/daughter?”

How about some empathy? What if it was you?

You may not believe it, but I’ve had my ass grabbed at a convention. It was by a fellow who mistook me for what is known as a “bear.” I didn’t punch him out, as you might imagine. I was too shocked. I felt like I’d swallowed an ice cube. That initial, unbelievable invasion of my personal space and objectification was something utterly new and alien to me. I stammered some veiled threat and he waved me off and walked away.

There’s a reason the pop-culture male nightmare is to be locked in a cell with a horny guy named Bubba. Because deep down, we men know how it makes women feel. But we say “that’s how it is,” and expect them to tolerate it. 

Do I claim to  how women feel when groped, even if it’s at a Science Fiction convention? No, because that was an isolated incident for me. It has never happened again, not at bars in Chelsea, not at Burning Man as thousands of mostly naked people chanted in the desert around a techno wicker man. I don’t walk around dreading it, expecting it, waiting for it to happen because it happens so damn often.

I didn’t write this for sympathy or whatever. I can remember it, but the only effect it has on me is a desire to catch one of these assholes groping a female friend of mine, so I can find out if he can swallow his own fist.  As for “lady editors,” if science fiction writers can imagine unheard-of future civilizations, they can unshackle their brains from the ’60s when they were cocks of the walk, and start treating women as equals and not “lady writers,” who are so durn cute when they write their widdle stories and try to be like men! She thinks she’s a person, isn’t that adorable?

Really, fuck you guys. The best science fiction I’ve ever read was by women. Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr.

If you feel threatened by them enough to belittle them and tell them to get you some coffee, you can go eat a giant smelly space dick.

Belly Up to the Bar with Joelle Charbonneau

The Seven Stages War left much of the planet a poisoned wasteland. Humanity survives in the United Commonwealth, where the next generation’s chosen few rebuild civilization. But to enter this elite group, young candidates must first pass The Testing.

Cia Vale is proud to be among the chosen like her father before her. But his warning to Trust No One steels her for the toughest challenge, to decide who is her friend and who will do anything to pass The Testing.


Tom Pluck Beer Welcome to Belly Up to the Bar, Joelle. What can I pour you?


Joelle Well, I’m mostly a diet Pepsi kind of girl.  But let’s live dangerously.  Pour me a Sauvignon Blanc and let’s walk on the wild side!


Tom Pluck Beer I loved THE TESTING. It reminded me of Ender’s Game, the post-apocalyptic Fallout video games, and the Tripods series by John Christopher. Tell us a bit about the protagonist of THE TESTING, Cia Vale:


Joelle Wow!  Thank you.  As someone who read and loved Ender’s Game when I was just out of high school, I am stunned and amazed to be compared to that story.

Cia Vale is a young girl who has just finished her high school education.  Despite the fact leaving home will mean leaving behind the family whom she loves, Cia wants nothing more than to be chosen for The Testing so she can sit for the examination that determines those who go to the University and become the next generation of leaders.  Cia comes from the smallest colony of the newly recolonized United States (now United Commonwealth).  She has pushed herself to learn as much as possible so she can help rebuild the world the way her father has.  But though she is well-versed in physics and calculus, coming from a community where everyone wants the best for everyone has in many ways made her unprepared for the sometimes less than cooperative spirit than exists in other parts of the country.

Tom Pluck Beer Cia and Tomas make a great team. They’re both skilled and smart, with their own strengths and weaknesses. Cia can handle herself and knows machines, which is refreshing for a heroine in any genre or reading level. But Tomas isn’t dead weight either. I also enjoyed the puzzles and challenges Cia had to get through, which make the SATs seem like a breeze. What was your inspiration for the book?

Joelle  For the last decade, I’ve worked closely with my private voice students as they navigate the testing, application and audition process required to be accepted into college.  The pressure on our high school students is greater than ever before. The need to be better and brighter than the other applicants has never been more keenly felt.  Students are hyper aware that every answer they give could impact the quality of their future. Trust me when I say that I get a lot of phone calls from my students during these months. The teacher and parent in me is worried that the benchmark of success has risen too high and that the tests we are giving are not the type of measurements we should be using to judge our students.  The writer couldn’t help but wonder how much worse the process could become and what tests a future world might want to institute in order to select the next generation of leaders.   And I think it’s safe to say I truly hated taking the SATs.  It was one experience in my life that I’m glad I never have to repeat.

Tom Pluck Beer I see a lot of parallels to education today in the book, which I think will resonate with readers of all ages. How “the right school” makes all the difference, the importance placed on standardized tests, and the tough decisions we make as children, like whether to cheat or not, or whether to team up or look out for number one. Do you think school is a lot tougher for kids today?

Joelle  I do think that school is tougher for kids today.  More than anything I think that our education has changed in the past fifteen years and not necessarily for the better.  There is so much emphasis on test taking.  Teachers are hamstrung by the need to structure their classes in order to achieve high scores.  The problem is that the true measure of a student is not who gets the best grade.  Sometimes those that learn the most do so because they have been challenged, fail that challenge and then are forced to pick themselves up and face the challenge again.  We need to allow our students the chance to fail in order to give them the tools to succeed.  I think that is often forgotten in the midst of judging students by the number they get on a standardized test.

Tom Pluck Beer Your books are known for their humor. The frisky grandpa in Skating Around the Law, and Paige in the Glee Club mysteries. Was it tough to go life or death in a forbidding future for THE TESTING?

Joelle  Ha!  I love Pop in the Skating books and Paige is a great deal of fun to write.  But strangely, while writing a darker themed book was a different challenge, I didn’t find it that it was any more difficult to write.  Perhaps because I wrote the first book for me.  I didn’t know anything about the young adult side of the publishing business.  I just had an idea and I wrote hoping that I could bring the world in my head to life.  For me, writing something not funny was an exciting chance to push myself without having to worry about anyone’s expectations.

The Testing’s book trailer

Tom Pluck Beer I admired the world-building in THE TESTING. The future is familiar enough- post World War 3, with all sorts of weapons of mass destruction laying waste to the Earth- but also refreshing, in that the civilization that has risen up isn’t led by mohawked bikers, it’s smart people banding together. There is something sinister behind the United Commonwealth, but it’s not obvious at first. I hope it was as much fun to write as it was to read. Is science fiction a genre you’d like to return to?

Joelle Thank you again for such a lovely compliment.  I had a wonderful time exploring the world of The Testing throughout the three books of the trilogy.  I think that all societies have a balance of good intentions and bad execution.  The circumstances that forced the creation of the United Commonwealth government also created the need for the leaders to advocate for the advancement of science.  If you can’t drink the water or eat the food you can’t live.  The choices that are made to continue the advancement of society under those conditions can be difficult to make and feel sinister.

Until writing this trilogy, I was a fan of science fiction, but was never certain I could effectively build a world from the ground up.  Turns out, I love the challenge and I am hoping that I get to turn my hand to a new science fiction story in the very near future.  Fingers crossed!

Tom Pluck Beer The Testing trilogy is also your first foray into YA fiction. I recall on Twitter that you said you enjoyed the freedom that writing YA gave you. Care to go into detail now that you have more than 140 characters?

Joelle I did say that!  To be completely honest, I didn’t set out to write young adult.  The story idea I had required a teen protagonist in order for it to work.  The story also required suspense, relationships, science fiction world building, a bit of mystery.  There is also a bit of a romance and who knows how many other elements that are typical hallmarks of different genres.  As writers, we often hear that the first question a sales or marketing department asks about a new book is “Where does it get shelved?”  For that reason, it can often be hard for a new author to combine elements from multiple genres.  There can also be restrictions based on how much or low little violence, explicit language should be in various adult genre books.  But Young Adult isn’t divided on shelves by category distinctions and while some young adult books shy away from violence or explicit words, other books use them liberally.  The only rule is to create the best story possible.  Which I think is a rule all writers and readers can appreciate.

Tom Pluck Beer Last but not least, being a dystopian novel that puts young people in a challenge, it will be compared to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. While those books put the kids on a murderous reality show, The Testing is set in a more dangerous world, which reminded me a little bit of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, where the earth has turned against us, and the stakes are much higher. Have you read any of those books, and what would you say to the fans who pick up yours?

Joelle I will say that I have read both Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.  Both are very strong books which some similarities, but funny enough I found the purpose of those books to be very different.  Dystopian or post-apocalyptic novels have a great deal in common, but I am hoping that readers of other dystopian books will find The Testing to have a story that is compelling and characters that make them want to keep turning the pages.

Tom Pluck Beer I said that was the last question, but this is for extra credit. You are about to be cast out into the wasteland outside the Commonwealth. You can choose one last piece of music to listen to, a book to bring with you, and one last meal before you go. What are they?

Joelle EEEK!  Just one song and book?  Okay, well, if I only get one song it will be One Day More from Les Miserable.  And the book would have to be The Stand by Stephen King.  As for a last meal – well, I’m thinking Lasagna.  If for no other reason that it would be a good idea to carb up!


Tom Pluck Beer Thank you for dropping by, Joelle. I truly enjoyed the book and wish you great success. I found it smart and entertaining, a little more Star Trek than an explosive science fiction tale, but just as much fun.


Joelle Joelle Charbonneau is a former opera and musical theater performer turned author of funny mysteries and not so funny young adult novels. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son. THE TESTING will be published 6/4/13 by Hought-Mifflin-Harcourt.

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The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

I interviewed the incredibly talented Joelle Charbonneau about her latest novel, a dystopian YA thriller entitled THE TESTING that recalled ENDER’S GAME and the FALLOUT video games, for THE BIG THRILL. 

(Click the title above to go to The Big Thrill)


Belly Up to the Bar with M.H. Mead

M.H. Mead is the pen name of the writing duo of Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion, authors of FATE’S MIRROR, THE CALINE CONSPIRACY, and most recently, the Motor City techno-thriller TAKING THE HIGHWAY. Detroit has become a commuter nightmare of dystopian proportions that gives us “fourths,” professional carpoolers needed to fill a car so you can ride in the HOV lane, and computer-controlled traffic patterns. As a fan of speculative fiction, science fiction that considers the issues facing humanity today and in the future, I enjoyed “Riding Fourth,” the short story set in the future of TAKING THE HIGHWAY, so I invited Yang and Campion to belly up to the bar.

Taking the Highway

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Hello Margaret and Harry, or M.H. … what can I get you?


mh mead Harry: I’ll take Captain’s and Cola with lime.
Margaret: I’ll have what he’s having.


Tom Pluck BeerTP:I gave readers a hint about the future Detroit in TAKING THE HIGHWAY, but tell us what the story is about.


mh mead Harry & Margaret: The Detroit of the future is a newly-evolved model of prosperity, but that prosperity is fragile. A ring of poverty circles the city like a noose, which makes commuting from the suburbs into the city a dangerous prospect, unless you’re on the highways. Since every highway is restricted to cars with four passengers, those carpools who come up short hire professional hitchhikers—fourths—to round out their carpools. The city needs fourths. Fourths need the work. It’s an easy way to earn some extra cash.

Or to end up dead.

Someone is killing fourths and the only one who can stop the killer is jaded homicide detective Andre LaCroix, who moonlights as a fourth himself.

Tom Pluck BeerTP:I’m a total motorhead, though my mechanic skills peter out after electronic fuel injection came around. I drove a ’65 Mustang ragtop in college–bought with my own cash after paying tuition, mind you–and I love a well designed car, whether it’s ’70s Detroit muscle or my Mini Cooper turbo. What are your favorites?


mh mead Harry & Margaret: We test-drove lots of contemporary American power to see which one we thought would become a classic. Which car of today would be considered a desirable antique in a future of smoothly plastic electric cars? A friend took us for a ride in a Viper, but we had to pass because it was only available in manual transmission. It was too much to ask that our hero be able to drive stick in that world—alas. Although we loved the Mustang and the Corvette, we came back to Dodge for the Challenger. Andre and his brother share a bright red, 2008 Challenger, inherited from their father. The brothers constantly fight over who gets to drive it, even though it’s too valuable to be driven at all.


Tom Pluck BeerTP: In “Riding Fourth” you make it clear that Fourths are second-class citizens. We like to think America is a classless society, but that’s only because it’s taboo to talk about it. And your car says the same things about you in America as your schooling and accent do in England. What inspired you to make a car-less underclass for this novel?


mh mead Harry & Margaret: We’re big fans of science fiction novels that focus on the cultural impacts of new discoveries and evolving technology. Detroit has been saved by shrinking its footprint, but that makes the commute there and back again from the suburbs a tricky thing. People will hire fourths only if they have to. Since you don’t want just any stranger in your car, fourths have to look good, act polite, and charm instantly. Our fourths are day laborers with the wit of Oscar Wilde, gigolos with the sophisticated charm of James Bond, and they are constantly clawing for respect. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.


Tom Pluck BeerTP: “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.” That’s from Flannery O’Connor’s WISE BLOOD. But I also like “Nobody walks in L.A.,” by Missing Persons. We have it on the jukebox. You got no wheels, you got nothing. Tell us a bit about Detroit. I haven’t been there for decades, and residents have a love-hate relationship with the city. What made you set it there?


mh mead Harry & Margaret: The Motor City hates the hate when it comes to public transportation. The unspoken undercurrent is “anyone not buying a new car as often as possible is part of the problem.” At the same time, cities often have islands of safety surrounded by lakes of poverty. We just took both things to their logical extreme. Honestly, the most science-fictional aspect of the entire book is the new prosperity of Detroit. In our imagined future, Detroit is a great place to live, work, and even vacation. One of our favorite scenes in the book is when Andre, working as a fourth, is picked up by a family of tourists. Their outsider’s view of Detroit really shows how the city has changed.

Detroit Grand Prix

Tom Pluck BeerTP: I was sorely disappointed that it wasn’t like ROBOCOP described it, when I visited. New Jersey has the same self-deprecating sense of humor. What are some of your favorite movies? They don’t have to be about cars or Detroit.


mh mead Harry & Margaret: We could probably carry on entire conversations using nothing but movie quotes. THE PRINCESS BRIDE has the best lines. “Have fun storming the castle!” and “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means,” and “I do not think you’ll accept my help, since I am only waiting around to kill you.” We also love little Ronald Ann in A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK. Her simple, “Uh-huh, save it,” speaks volumes.

What’s even more fun is quoting lines from really bad movies. Bruce Willis in STRIKING DISTANCE, half-shouting, half-whining, “I’m trying to solve a murder, here!” cracks us up every time.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: Here’s a buck, pick a few songs off the jukebox that readers should listen to while reading TAKING THE HIGHWAY.


mh mead Harry & Margaret: We could take the easy way and name car songs like “Highway to Hell” and “I’m in Love With My Car” and “Pink Cadillac.”  But you know what would be even more fitting? Classic Motown. Our near-future Detroit has a lot in common with the Detroit of the 50’s and 60’s. It was a time of prosperity, of population growth, of optimism. Yet, there was an undercurrent of poverty and inequality that exploded a few years later. Things were good on the surface, not so good underneath. And yet that music—The Supremes, The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye—is music everyone knows by heart.


Tom Pluck BeerTP: I tried collaborating on a story with a friend of mine, but I found it very difficult. Then again, I’m a brutal editor. For the record, “Riding Fourth” didn’t make me reach for my red pen. I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading your novel. What is it like collaborating on novels, like you do? How do you not kill each other?


mh mead Harry & Margaret: It starts with respect. We were classmates together and beta readers for one another long before we were collaborators. We have confidence in each other’s opinions, so if one of us says, “This is a problem,” we know it is. We often differ about the best fix, but the trust and respect means we will eventually find a way.

Do we ever want to kill each other? Heck, no! We’ve had a few serious disagreements, but 99 days out of 100, this is the most fun we’ve ever had writing.

Tom Pluck BeerTP: And speaking of death, what are your respective last meals?


mh mead Harry : The bleu-crusted, aged tenderloin filet from The Rattlesnake Club on Detroit’s Riverwalk. I’d pair it with a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon from Three Saints Santa Ynez.

Margaret: I don’t really care what’s for dinner, as long as there is key lime pie for dessert. Just like that character from “Dexter,” If I had the perfect slice of key lime pie in my stomach, I could die happy.


Tom Pluck BeerTP: I’d skip the grape juice, but key lime pie and a good steak sound like a great way to go. Thanks for dropping by and piquing my interest even further in your novel.


Taking the Highway is available for Kindle and in trade paperback. M.H. Mead’s website can be found at Yang and Campion.


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Belly Up to the Bar with Katherine Tomlinson

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.

nightfalls 2
TP:  Welcome to Belly up to the bar, Katherine- what are you drinking?


katherine tomlinson

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?


katherine tomlinson

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?


katherine tomlinson

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?

katherine tomlinson

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?

katherine tomlinson

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.

dc in snow

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?

katherine tomlinson

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?

katherine tomlinson

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?

katherine tomlinson

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?


katherine tomlinson

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.

commander's palace bread pudding souffle

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.

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