In April of 2009, I conducted an interview with legendary writer T.M. Wright. It appeared on the Apex Online website, and though no longer available there, I’m posting it on my blog, so those who never had a chance to read it are now able to.
When Stephen King calls you a rare and blazing talent, you know you’ve done something right. In a career that spans almost 50 years, T.M. Wright has proven to be one of the most enduring writers of speculative fiction. His work truly defies any easy categorization, yet it’s all easily identifiable as a T.M. Wright novel.
Born in Syracuse, NY in 1947 to a traveling salesman father and a secretary (later a teacher) mother, Terry is one of six children.; his twin brother, T. Lucien Wright, has published six novels in, more or less, the same genre–dark fantasy.
Q: Your first book, was The Intelligent Man’s Guide to Flying Saucers, published back in 1968, what was the impetus for this? And had you done any writing non fiction or otherwise, prior to its release?
T.M. I actually believed–so long ago–that UFOs (aka “Flying Saucers”) were something…real, that intelligent life from some other star system had found its way to our star system. So, with that…hope in mind, I decided to write a book that dealt with the subject in an “intelligent” way. Yes, I knew that Asimov had a series of books with the title prefix “The Intelligent Man’s Guide to”… but that didn’t bother me (in fact, he threatened to sue me, after the book was published, but backed off when his lawyers told him that titles couldn’t be copyrighted.) I made a whopping $300.00 on the book, although it sold about five thousand copies in hardcover, at $5.95. The publisher, A.S. Barnes, NJ, contracted for another book–“The Complete Photographic History of Flying Saucers,” which, for various sad and laughable reasons, never saw print.
I’d been writing poetry and short science fiction for years, then: my first publication was, in fact, a poem, in The Newark (NY) Courier Gazette, in 1961, titled “Silver Branches,” about, of course, an ice storm.
Q: Strange Seed came out 10 years after the flying saucer book. It was your first published novel—how was that different for you from having your nonfiction book published?
TMW: Thankfully, it required far less research, though a lot more imagination. I remember getting positive responses to my queries about the novel (which existed, then, only as a vague idea), and deciding that the response from Doubleday (and editor William G. Thompson, Stephen King’s first editor) was the most promising, and turning to my cat, Oily, and saying, “Now all I’ve got to do is write the damned thing.” Two and half years later, the book was published by the now-defunct Everest House, which Bill Thompson and a couple of friends had founded after Bill left Doubleday. The novel has been reprinted several times, by various publishing houses, and (pats himself on the back) you’ll find it on King’s list of the best of the genre in “Danse Macabre.”
Q: Stephen King referred to you as a rare and blazing talent, in his blurb for one of your early novels, was there any pressure on you to live up to that?
TMW: Not really, because I wasn’t sure what he meant by “a rare and blazing talent”–I had a feeling it was simply filler at the end of his complete blurb, though, as I think about it, and without checking, the quote itself may have been for my second novel, “The Woman Next Door” (Playboy Press, 1981): maybe a reader will check that for us.
Q: A Manhattan Ghost Story is probably one of your best known novels, and has been in and out of development as a movie for years, where does that stand now? And can you talk a bit about the history of it being optioned ?
TMW: The novel, first published in 1984, by TOR Books, was optioned by Robert Lawrence Productions, through my agent at the time, Howard Morhaim, in 1991. That option was exercised by Lawrence in 1993 and the film was scheduled to begin production that year through Carolco Pictures (same studio that brought you the Terminator series, as well as the really awful pirate movie starring Geena Davis—Cutthroat Island—which, because it lost $100 million, spelled the studio’s doom, and, also, the doom for their plans for “A Manhattan Ghost Story”). Back then, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere were attached to A Manhattan Ghost Story, though, after the property went to Disney, which bought the rights at the Carolco bankruptcy sale for 1.7 million, Sharon Stone was firmly attached, and a number of directors were tapped, then un-tapped, as the decade progressed. Ron Bass (Rainman, Sleeping with The Enemy, What Dreams May Come, et cetera, et cetera) was paid what was, at the time, a record amount for adapting a novel to the screen ($2 million), and now, today, you will find, at Hollywood.com, that the movie is “announced,” whatever the hell that means, with Wayne Wang as the director and that it’s with Left Bank Productions, a studio owned by George Clooney. Several people have made more than a few million on the project, though its “first day of principal photography” has come and gone numerous times. The tale of the decade and a half I’ve waited for the movie to be made is very sad indeed–and my advice to others whose novels get optioned, and the options get exercised, is simply to enjoy the cash and hope for the best.
Q: Your work, and particularly your later novels have a surreal flavor to them, is that intentional when you start out, or does it sort of develop as you write?
TMW: Because I don’t believe in “evil” as a force in nature, I tend to peer very closely at my characters’ motivations within the context of a surreal universe. And I’m not really sure what I mean by “surreal” other than to say that my characters realize, at one point or another, that the universe, their universe, our universe, isn’t exactly what they thought it was, that it’s not really a predictable, ordered, or orderly place. But they‘ve got to find some comfort level in that whacked-out universe, so they adapt to it in various ways. For instance, Paul Griffin, one of the two main characters in Strange Seed, discovers, many pages into the story, what he truly is, and it causes him to act in horrifically unpredictable ways.
Then there’s Abner W. Cray, the lead male in “A Manhattan Ghost Story,” who discovers “true love” for the first time in his miserable existence, but then discovers that the object of his love is not one of the living: does he drop the relationship at once? Of course not, he re-orders his world-view (in a way) and his expectations, too. He becomes enamored of the idea of being in love, and making love to, a woman who—although, most of the time, she looks quite invitingly alive—is a murder victim.
As one of my characters once said, “Existence is dull without absurdities.” Maybe that’s precisely what I’ve been writing about these last three decades.
Q: You wrote 2 novels under the pseudonym F.W. Armstrong, was there a specific reason for this?
TMW: Yes. My editor at the time, the mid eighties, wanted me to write a couple of novels that were “more graphic” and “blood curdling” than what I’d written to that point. And because she didn’t want the novels to effect the way people looked at my TM Wright novels, she asked that I write them under a pseudonym. Less money was involved, but there was far less time involved as well. Whereas I usually spent three to five months on a TM Wright novel, I only spent three to four weeks on the FW Armstrong’s, but was still paid about 75% of what I got for the TM Wright novels. FW Armstrong, by the way, is a real person. He lives in Rochester, NY and runs an animation studio called Animatus. He and I have been friends for over forty years and we’re still, after thirty years, looking for someone to bankroll a low-budget film based on “Strange Seed,” for which I’ve completed one screenplay and started another.
Q. You write novel, stories, and poems as well as paint: which gives you the greatest satisfaction?
TMW: I would like to say that writing fiction and poetry, and dabbling in art, all give me equal satisfaction, and that would be true if I were equally successful with each of those disciplines, but I can’t say that because what I do best, and I realize it only too well, is write fiction. If I create a painting that pleases me and pleases the subject of the painting, and a few others, I feel good about it. and that’s fine. But, if I write a novel that gets lots of praise from readers and reviewers, and as well, I think it’s a successful novel, then I feel very good about it. I’ll tell you a secret though: I’d even more like to be remembered as a poet than as a novelist. It’s the way I began my writing life—as a poet–nearly fifty years ago. Somewhere in those decades, I guess I realized that poets had to struggle very, very hard simply to earn somewhere near half of minimum wage. That didn’t appeal to me.
Q. You said you find yourself more drawn to poetry as you grow older, do you also find the things you want to write about have also changed?
TMW: No, probably not. My first novel was pretty much concerned with a very troubled being’s internal torment; same with “The Eyes of the Carp” (CD, 2005) and “I Am the Bird” (PS Publishing, 2006), and “Cold House” (Catalyst Press, 2003). I’m concerned, in my fiction, and, to some extent, in my poetry, with the…nasty stuff that percolates within us, and its effects as time passes.
Q. Who are some of your influences, and who do you enjoy reading?
TMW: Shirley Jackson, C.S. Lewis, Harlan Ellison, H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot, Stephen King, Albert Camus (I did an essay about Camus’ “The Stranger” for the second edition of HORROR: THE 100 BEST BOOKS), Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Weldon Kees (a now all but forgotten poet and short story writer who took his own life in 1954; if you haven’t read him, you must), Carolyn Chute, for her groundbreaking and oddly lyrical first novel, “The Beans of Egypt, Maine” (1985), Ramsey Campbell, Charles L. Grant (who was, and remains, the king of “Quiet Horror”) and Isaac Asimov, who entertained me through most of my young teenage years.
Who do I read now, primarily? Weldon Kees, Mary Oliver (poet), Galway Kinnell (poet), Tom Piccirilli (novelist, short story writer, poet, and good friend), Pete Crowther, whose approach to literature is unique and beautiful, Rhys Hughes, and many others, many of then poets: as I…er…age (not very gracefully), I find myself being pulled back to poetry. I’m not going to go on and on about “why,” but I will say that it (poetry) has more of life in it, for me, now, than fiction. Which is probably why much of the fiction I read borders on the poetic.
Q. ) What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about writing and being a writer?
TMW: From William G. Thompson, my editor on “Strange Seed”: “Never lie to the reader.” Also, in general–“Writing is rewriting.” At least for me.
Q. Did you grow up wanting to be a writer ?
TMW: Well, let me see, as of this date (April 7, 2009), I’ve been writing for about fifty years. God I’m a geezer. And, yes, I’ve known I wanted (needed) to write ever since I was a “pre-teen,” and I was convinced, even then, that I had what it took to publish what I wrote. My first book was published about 9 or 10 years after the writing bug bit me and the swelling that bug created still hasn’t receded. ). My father, whos’s the impetus for the incredibly abusive father in “Cold House,” was, in big ways, responsible for my need to create a universe of my own in the stories I wrote.)
Q. You were labeled as a horror writer almost from the get go, yet most of your work, while having some horrific elements, doesn’t neatly fit into the “horror” genre. how would you label your work?
TMW: Are you ready for this? Existential horror, existential dark fantasy. Stuff that looks inward and tries to figure out what we human beings are really all about. It’s a futile effort, I know. Blu Gilliand described my writing just about perfectly when he reviewed my CD collection “Bone Soup” in Dark Scribe Magazine (April, 2009): “rather, these stories are focused examinations of singular, defining moments, decisions and events in the characters’ lives.”
Q. For someone who has never read your work, where would you suggest they start?
TMW: Hard to say. Maybe “Strange Seed,” my first novel, or, possibly, “Cold House” (a revised edition appears in “Bone Soup”) or, one of my own favorites, “Sleepeasy” (Leisure, 2003).
Q: What can you tell us about your upcoming novel Blue Canoe? Any word on when your collection, Bone Soup will be released?
“Blue Canoe” (PS Publications, UK, April, 2009) is a short novel written, according to the subtitle (A MEMOIR OF THE NEWLY NON-CORPOREAL), by a man who’s trying to look back and find out just what the hell his life was all about. He tells us his name is “Happy Farmer” (which may or may not be true), and it’s clear from the beginning that he’s having trouble, of course (a man in his condition and all) recalling the best, and worst, moments of his life correctly: he thinks the love of his life was a woman named Epistobel (he tells us her mother named her “Epistobel” because she—the mother—thought it meant “flowing beauty,” which may or may not be true, as well), and his first-person narration waxes and wanes about Epistobel, about “the dog who would have been Bob had he been Bob” who inhabits the house Happy Farmer inhabits, about his—Happy Farmer’s—very, very strange family, and even stranger relatives, about Detective Fred Spoon, who appears later in the novel, whom Happy Farmer, under an assumed name, hires to find another love of his life who may or may not be Epistobel. For a short novel (42,000 words), it’s got a hell of a lot going on and most of it is…surreal, at least. Read Tom Piccirilli’s eye-opening introduction. I’ll go out on a very long limb and say that, since finishing the novel four years ago, I’ve thought of it as my best, surreal and, so often, confusing though it is—but that’s all right (read below).
“Bone Soup,” a collection of art, poetry, short fiction and a slightly revised version of my 2003 novel “Cold House” (which received very minimal distribution upon its publication but has gotten some of the best reviews of my career), will be published some time this year by Cemetery Dance.
Q. And finally, what do you hope people will bring away with them when they read your work?
TMW: I hope they bring away from their reading of my books what I brought to them—a sense that our universe (small, very small, large, very large, unfathomably large) is actually not the place of order and predictability and sanity that many of us believe and hope it is; because, after all, existence really is dull without absurdities.