It was a long time coming, this book – six years in the making. How did it all happen? It wasn’t easy, but here’s how it all went down.
Originally I knew I wanted to follow up my first book, Transubstantiate, with a simple narrative – one POV, mostly linear, something dark that was based on my worst fears. I’d taken a class with Jack Ketchum, and knew that I wanted to tap into my worst nightmare, and for me, that’s always been losing my wife and kids in some horrible accident. That would be my undoing – I’d disintegrate.
I wrote the first half in my MFA program under the guidance of my professor there, Lynn Pruett. She wasn’t aware of neo-noir, so I gave her Kiss Me, Judas by Will Christopher Baer, The Contortionist’s Handbook by Craig Clevenger, and All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones, and then pointed her towards Dennis Lehane. She got what I was going for, and we were off. She was very supportive, asking me to look for balance, to offset the dark with light, the sexual with the innocent, the violent with the peaceful.
Second semester I was switched to Dale Ray Phillips, who had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I was intimidated, but excited to work with him. The first day of class we went over my opening chapter to Disintegration, and he asked the class (of about eight students) to raise their hands if anyone would continue reading after the first page. Nobody raised their hand; including Dale Ray. I was horrified. I’d gotten into the program based on my writing, the same voice, and even had a book out, and a story published alongside Stephen King in Shivers VI, and now this. In the hallway after class he told me he didn’t think my book was thesis material, which means, it wasn’t good enough. I had a choice – quit, leave his class, or work with him and put aside the novel. I put aside the book. And in the end it was worth it, I learned so much from him, reading authors I might never discovered – Flannery O’Connor, Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison, and many others. It’s made me a better writer.
A year and a half later, I had a gap between work and the kids being home for the summer, so I set out to finish the book. In an insane flurry of typing, a great purge of 40,000 words came gushing out, in five days, my fingers bruised, my arms sore, but the book done. It was exhausting. I broke down and cried, thinking I might throw up, and then got in the minivan with the family and hit the road.
For a year I shopped the book to small presses, some 30 in total, and got very close a number of times, but everyone passed. I decided to shoot for an agent, and started doing research, again getting very close, but not getting the call until about the 100th agent, when Paula Munier (at Talcott Notch) phoned to say she loved it, and wanted to sign me, only 100 pages in. I told her to finish it, letting her know it was a dark book, with some twists and turns. In the end, she was still sold, and signed me. We immediately went after the big six, another year of close calls, editors saying it was a strong voice, well-written, but not a good fit, no place in their catalog. It even came down to a board vote at one press, losing by one vote. In the end we took a chance on the new Random House Alibi imprint, and it has been a pleasure to work with everyone over there. Dana Isaacson is my editor, and he’s been so helpful, just brilliant, but I also have three copy editors and a team of PR/marketing people – the support is amazing.
When I think of Disintegration, there is of course that reference to Dexter, and his rules for killing, dispensing justice toward those that deserve it – a killer snuffing out other killers. And I always picture bits of Falling Down, with Michael Douglas, the day you finally snap, taking it out on those that wronged you, from the idiot at the fast food restaurant, to the jerk that cut you off in traffic every day. I owe a debt of gratitude to Will Christopher Baer, and I wish he wasn’t such a ghost (I’ve tried to get in touch several times for various reasons, but no luck, even after talking to his agent). Kiss Me, Judas is the book that woke me up and told me how it could be done, mixing setting with dialogue with atmosphere. I’ve given that book away more than any other title – except for maybe All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones, another huge influence – an innovative serial killer thriller that I read once a year. I must have given away 20 copies of each of those books, maybe more. And of course Craig Clevenger was a voice that resonated with me, the surreal quality of his prose. Not to mention Chuck Palahniuk who was the one who got me back to writing, after being silent for some 15 years, seeing the film Fight Club and then reading everything he had out at the time – Choke, Survivor, Diary, Lullaby and Invisible Monsters.
Disintegration is also the first book in the Windy City Dark Mystery Series. The Breaker is the second. Both are set in Chicago, Disintegration in Wicker Park, with The Breaker in Logan Square. I wanted to do a series with Chicago as the backdrop, but not with the same protagonist, since I tend to get bored reading a traditional series. This way you get the same atmosphere and tone, with a new protagonist every book. It probably has more in common with Stephen King and his small town Maine vibe, than somebody like F. Paul Wilson and his Repairman Jack series.
I try to write on two levels – the surface, where you can read, and enjoy the book, turning the pages at a fast pace, entertained, but not bogged down by prose that is too dense; and underneath, working in lyrical passages, metaphor and imagery, surreal moments that drift in the ether, unsure of what’s true and what’s a lie, what’s real, and what’s only an illusion. I’m sure I fail some people, but it’s that sweet spot between literary and genre that I’m searching for.
If we do well with these two titles then Random House Alibi might pick up more titles. We’re looking into foreign rights, and even talking to several studios about film rights. Keeping my fingers crossed, but excited to get this book out into the world. To have an author like Irvine Welsh call it, “A stunning and vital piece of work,” and for Chuck Wendig to say it’s, “A twisted masterpiece,” – well, I never thought I’d live to see the day. I’m humbled by all of the support, and thrilled that people are enjoying the book.
About Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas is the author of six books—Disintegration and The Breaker (Random House Alibi),Transubstantiate(Otherworld Publications), and two short story collections, Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press) and Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine, One Buck Horror, and Jotspeak and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of three anthologies: The New Black (Dark House Press), The Lineup (Black Lawrence Press) andBurnt Tongues(Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.