Name: Thomm Quackenbush
Where are you from: Upstate New York. I live within an hour and a half from the hospital where I was born, though it is now a parking lot.
A little about your self `ie your education Family life etc
At present, my day job is in a juvenile corrections facility, teaching English (royalty checks don’t stretch as far as I would like and “full time author” doesn’t yet have health benefits). It is both more and less difficult than people assume, though partly because I don’t let myself know what offenses my student committed to end up in my class. Like all children, one just has to let them know one’s lofty expectations and they rise to meet them to the best of their ability, which can be less than stellar given spotty school attendance. Inner city gangs seem to recruit directly outside special education classrooms, unfortunately.
In my personal life, I am a four months away from marrying my artist fiancée Amber and becoming, in the words of one of our friends, a “liberal arts power couple.” Like a good husband-to-be, my part in the proceedings so far involves distinguishing between shades of purple for napkins and occasionally buying plastic cups in bulk. I have 95,000 words of a future novel about the wedding sketched out, because I am an intolerably thorough writer, though I likely will not get to actually writing the book until after the wedding itself.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
Last month, I was one of the headliners at No Such Convention in Poughkeepsie, New York. Despite a total blackout during my “Monsters You Don’t Know” panel, it was a rousing success, though the local paper did misspell my last name in the article about it.
I am already lined up appearances at the Pine Bush UFO Fair and Parade at the end of April and Otakon in August (just after my honeymoon), though the latter may only be on the artists’ alley.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
Writing was always how I best expressed myself. My parents and teachers were sharp enough to encourage this from a very young age, so I always pushed myself to excel in my writing.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
Possibly from the moment in my childhood when I realized I could not realistically become a dragon.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
In part, it was a childhood filled with books on the paranormal. But, no matter how much world-building I did, We Shadows didn’t coalesce into a story I wanted to read (to say nothing of write) until I wrote a story inspired by a friend of mine committing suicide. The story won no prizes, though I have reproduced it in my anthology Find What You Love and Let It Kill You for the sake of completeness. I didn’t want to let those characters, Shane and her boyfriend Eliot, leave. I wasn’t done with them yet, so I slotted them into the world I built. Instantly, I had a plot and protagonist I wanted to discover.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
I don’t think I do, though I’ve been told it is very easy to see that I have written something. I spent my adolescence trying to imitate better writers (Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, David Sedaris, Anne Rice, Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, etc.). I will never sound like them. They have beaten me with experience. Since then, it was just a matter of learning how to write well for an audience and systematically unlearning all the imitative techniques teachers are trained to drill into you.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
We Shadows and Artificial Gods come from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Danse Macabre came from a French song that I was made to listen to, with accompanying black and white video of Death summoning skeletons from their grave, every October in elementary school. I was unaware at the popularity of the title, however, or I would have chosen something else so people didn’t ask if I am Stephen King or Laurell K. Hamilton. The title for my next book, Flies to Wanton Boys, comes from “King Lear”.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
The world is much stranger, more dangerous, and more wonderful than you are allowed to believe, but it is out there. When the strangeness wants you to experience it, there is little you can do to stop it.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic?
Likely more than readers would think. For example, in Artificial Gods, I attended several meetings of the United Friends Observer Society, a UFO support group in Pine Bush, NY, where my story is set. Many of the stories characters tell are amalgams of what I heard from members during sky-watches. Basically, the only thing whole fictional in that book is the characters. The setting, UFO fair, support group, and much of the UFO lore are verifiable.
Fiona: Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I try not to base my characters on people I know, since I tend to treat the characters I like best the absolute worst. I wouldn’t want someone I know taking offense to being brutally abused in my fiction.
That being said, I do tend to mine my adolescent awkwardness of laughs and character back stories whenever possible. Someone should profit from them, after all.
Fiona: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Neil Gaiman was the first author I recognized as writing the genre where I thought I best fit, though I was about a decade too immature as a writer to attempt my own inclusion.
Gaiman has given me occasional bits of advice and encouragement through the years and owns my first two books, though I have no evidence they are anything more than shelf-filler.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I am finishing up Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking, which is a very quick and enjoyable satire. I had committed the cardinal sin of seeing the movie before reading the book, but that was so long ago that I doubt it has influences my perceptions of the book beyond picturing protagonist Nick Naylor as Aaron Eckhart and wondering when someone will say “The great state of Vermont will not apologize for its cheese.”
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
I was given a review copy of Sarah Bruni’s 2013 novel The Night Gwen Stacy Died. I started it reluctantly, not really sure where it would go and a bit uncertain I wanted to deal with main character named Peter Parker. However, I am over a hundred pages in and have a hard time putting it aside each night. Bruni is clever and compassionate. The material she chose to deal with is not easy, but I believe even in the absurdity she throws at the reader.
Fiona: What are your current projects?
I am doing a final polish on Flies to Wanton Boys, fleshing out a short story a friend wrote he can submit it to magazines, and collaborating on an anthology/novella with a few friends. The last of the projects might not come to anything more than a fun activity, but I am enjoying seeing it blossom.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
It has better be, since I tell everyone this is what I do. I have had a lot of jobs and have tried to do the best I could at (most of) them, but writing has always been what I see myself doing decade from now.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
I haven’t reread the whole of Artificial Gods since final edits, though I will have to eventually, so it stands as a glowing paragon of virtue. This opinion will almost definitely be knock down a few pegs when I eventually do, since I learn so much in the writing of each book that I find my previous labors a little cringe-worthy. My editor on that book, Patricia La Barbera, was exemplary and exactly what a fresh faced author needs: she questioned every fact I inserted into my story, insisted my character didn’t know words I had used, and overall kept a reign over my artistic disposition. She was my editor for Danse Macabre, but that book was far more fictional and so her touch was lighter.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
02: Men in Black
Jasmine spent her afternoon trying to summon forth company of the non-Kathleen kind before her parents eventually returned home from their respective jobs and put her to work on chores. She guessed most of her friends, the casual acquaintances to the ones who she truly missed, were spending their summers far from Pine Bush. She considered it her own fault for not keeping in touch. She had spent the last two summers hopping from one summer program to another to circumvent requirements at Annandale, ignoring old friends as she was now ignored. Still if someone didn’t rescue her soon, she was doomed to a dull summer.
Around two in the afternoon, someone knocked on the door, three perfect sets of raps like a clockwork woodpecker soliciting entrance. Jasmine glanced through the peephole and saw two men in stiff black suits. Behind them, distorted by the fisheye lens, she saw a black Cadillac. The Jehovah’s Witnesses certainly upped the ante.
She opened the door a crack, leaving the security chain in place. “Sorry, we already have a savior and we aren’t accepting solicitations, but thanks for coming by.”
Jasmine slammed the door, but it didn’t close. She looked for what was blocking it and saw four pallid fingers like maggot sausages squeezed between the door and the frame. Immediately, she slid the chain free and opened the door so the fingers could be liberated. The front-most man slowly retracted his hand and put it at his side. “You are going to let us in.”
“What? Yes, yes, of course! I’m sorry about your hand. I didn’t see it there.”
Both men nodded in unison and walked into her house. There was something about the way each moved that reminded Jasmine of a cheap wind-up soldier she had been given as a little girl, its parts never quite moving in a sensible way. It was as though these men had not grown up with joints and were uneasy about using them now.
The men sat on the couch. The short one fumbled with a curling wire projecting from behind his ear. Jasmine wondered why a Jehovah’s Witness would need that, but then decided it must be for an old hearing aid, though the man was too young to need one. Or was he? It was difficult to settle on an age for either man. Certainly older than her, but in no specific way.
“Let me get you some ice,” Jasmine offered.
“Ice?” asked the taller man. “Yes. Ice. You will get us ice now.”
Jasmine dashed into the kitchen and placed some ice cubes in a Ziploc bag, covering this in a paper towel. How much more than this would be required for mashing some religionista’s hand in her door? It was mostly his fault for putting it there. She would accept a copy of The Watchtower and pretend to care for a few minutes, but then they were out of there.
She returned and asked to see the injured man’s hand.
“Yes. Let us show our hands,” the man said. Both men stuck their arms out, palms up. Jasmine pursed her lips at this strangeness and reached out for the injured man’s left hand. His fingers were long and pale, cool to the touch. The skin around the knuckles was torn but bloodless, and for a moment, Jasmine thought she saw something more beneath the torn skin, something silver or gray. The man retracted his hand to his side.
“What is this?” the other man demanded, looking up at her with his mouth half opened. His eyes were dark and unblinking, the irises almost black.
“It’s ice. For your friend’s hand.”
“Yes,” said the first man, matching Jasmine’s cadence. “It’s ice. For your friend’s hand.”
The two men took the bagful of ice and after a cursory examination, disassembled it on the coffee table into its components: ice, plastic bag, and paper towel. Then they began to put each, in turn, into their mouths. Jasmine backed away from them. Their attention returned to her. Both of their mouths were opened now, a sliver of paper towel sticking to the bottom lip of the smaller man.
“I think you two should leave now. My parents will be back any minute, and my father might shoot you.”
“The only functional firearm in this house is locked in a case five meters from you,” the first one said as though he were trying to mimic the robot from a fifties sci-fi movie. He flashed a badge, but all she could recall once he had put it away was that it was an inverted seven-pointed star with letters between each prong, but no notion remained of which. “We are from your government. We have questions.”
“Then you should talk to my parents.”
“If you want to see your parents alive, you will answer our questions,” the smaller one said. “I am Ensign Donald and this is Vice Admiral Erikson. You will answer our questions.”
Jasmine sat, though her instinct was to run. Donald removed a device from his jacket pocket, a small gray box with lights, and put it on the table between them. “What do you know about UFOs?”
Jasmine wanted to leave the room, to lock herself somewhere until they left, but found herself answering, “I don’t know anything. People see them. I’ve never been interested.”
Erikson jumped to his feet, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and back as though about to topple. “The most important subject in the universe and you are not interested?”
She shook her head. “They were always beneath my radar.”
Donald leaned forward at the waist, his gaze transferred from Jasmine to a blank spot on the table. “You will give us all of your radar readings and your machinery now.”
“I don’t have… It’s a figure of speech.”
Donald unbent himself and looked at her. He tore a piece of plastic bag free and began chewing it, his mouth remaining opened and only his bottom jaw moving.
“You did not see anything last night,” Erikson insisted.
“I didn’t,” Jasmine said.
“You took a photogram of what you did not see last night. You will give this to me now,” Donald said, the plastic bag gone from his mouth and the ice melted to a puddle. He turned his head sharply, up, down, side to side, and then back to her. “Jasmine Woods, you cannot hide your thoughts from us. We are from the center of your planet. You did not see anything last night. You will come with us in our transport vehicle, and you will show us where it was.”
Erikson reached for her. Jasmine pulled away and Erikson moved back into position. He picked a coin up from the table and held it to her. Then he closed his hand around it and opened it a moment later, empty. “Just as this coin is no longer in this dimension, your heart…will not…be if…you…tell…an…y…one ab…out this. Discharging! Discharging! We need to speak to your sister! Bornless, she has no head! Perform the Star Sapphire. Bring the moon! Ka ka ka ka ka,” he said like a cheap electronic toy frying its circuit board.
Donald then sang “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in a falsetto, but skipped back to the beginning after one and a half verses with the hiccup of a broken record. Both men rose and with their awkward gait, hobbled out of the house again without another word. Jasmine looked out the window and saw another man in a black suit standing at the far door of the car, staring back at her. He was about seven feet tall, but the suit seemed tailored for someone a foot shorter. They all entered the car—none in the driver’s seat—and it sped off.
When she was sure they were gone, she called Chrys’s cell phone, and when that failed, called Kathleen and told her to come pick her up.
“What’s wrong?” Kathleen asked.
“Nothing. I don’t know. Can you drive me to New Paltz?”
“Um, sure, I guess. When is good?”
Jasmine looked down at her watch, startled her interaction with these men had taken so long. “Three. I just need to get some stuff ready.”
There was a pause on the other end. “In the morning?”
“I don’t understand. You want to go to New Paltz tomorrow?”
“No, in like fifteen minutes.”
Again, the pause. “So, five o’clock, then?”
Jasmine looked down at her watch, then to the clock on the mantle for confirmation. She peered out the window at the sunlight. “One second.” She turned the television on to the Weather Channel, which stated the time as 4:44.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
The head of Double Dragon Publishing, Deron Douglas, prides himself on creating almost all the covers he publishes. I gave input as to We Shadows and Danse Macabre, but I was as surprised as anyone when I saw the cover for Artificial Gods in my inbox one night in January.
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Deciding I am finally ready to send it off. If left to my own devices, each of my books would be ponderous volumes that tell the back stories and motivations of almost every character, no matter how minor. After chipping the story away to the barest essentials, it’s hard to finally let go and release it into the world (to be edited by someone else). If I could, I would treat my book like wikis, tweaking and rephrasing things I have learned to express better and never actually producing anything new. Instead, I write sequels to prove to myself, if to no one else, that I have improved.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
I’ve went undercover with UFO support groups, I have memorized the phasing of Pagan rituals, I have read through historical tomes that starkly contradict the sanitized version I was taught in school. The world is messy and curious. I doubt I will ever stop discovering facts that cause me to have to recalibrate my views. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Finish what you start. I frequently talk to aspiring writers who tell me they are halfway through writing a dozen things, but that they never finish. As an addendum to this, write as much as you possibly can in a draft before going back to revise. I would have had We Shadows in the marketplace (and my authorial career begun in earnest) two years prior if I forced myself to stop “perfecting” scenes I needed to cut.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
No matter how terrified I may seem when you greet me at signings, I am constantly grateful for your interest and attention. Though I am continually trying to write the book I want most to read, it would be pointless if you didn’t enjoy my work. Whenever I see a new review or a stranger quotes me in their term paper, I squeak with delight. Authors live by your reactions and the best thing you can do is to let us know you are still interested. We are an insecure bunch.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
I had once planned to become a comedic actor, since I excelled at inhabiting foreign heads and making people laugh (I once taught a course in improvisational comedy to the son of a Comedy Central bigwig). As a fifteen year old, I figure that I would go to college in Chicago, join Second City, be hired on Saturday Night Live, leave after a few season for a sitcom gig or motion picture work. This seemed completely sensible to me then, but it should be noted that I was always inclined toward fantasy.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
My main website is http://xenex.org, though interested parties can also find me on Twitter (@thommq) and Tumblr (thommquackenbush.tumblr.com).