by Kira Wronska Dorward UE
“By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.” ― Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid, or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well. ― Stephen King
“I was a big reader in grade school,” he recounts of his beginnings, “where I won an award for ‘most books read’ in the sixth grade,” he recalls, smiling. “I would go to the library and read everything…by the time I got to high school, I had started reading the bigger works, like Stephen King and John Grisham. It was what sparked my imagination. I also loved to write.”
However, being pragmatic, Thomas majored in advertising at Bradley University, but took psychology classes, almost considering a double major in the discipline. “Understanding how people work is so important as a writer,” he underscores, citing the study of the mind as a large component of his work. He describes his style and favoured genres as “neo-noir speculative fiction with a literary twist, but lately that’s been leaning more into the new-weird and hopepunk. I am a maximalist, who likes writing heavy setting and lyrical prose, to create an immersive experience, with an emotional reaction. If I do my job right, that is.”
In his twenties living on Chicago’s Gold Coast and sending work off to editors and publications, Thomas did not exactly receive the immediate acceptance and validation he had hoped for in the writing world. “I never got anywhere,” he recounts of that period. “It was so painful. I was absorbed into the world of advertising, and writing fell by the wayside.”
Twenty or so years went by, and then one day Thomas watched Fight Club, based on the book of the same name by Chuck Palahniuk. After venturing onto the author’s website and immersing himself in a forum called “The Cult”, the suit-by-day in advertising once again became excited about writing fiction.
He then followed up on this enthusiasm by taking a class with Craig Clevenger, whose writing he admired. “I wanted to present my work to him and see what he thought…I wrote seven or eight stories. At the end of it, he said he was really impressed with one story and thought I should send it out. I hadn’t sent out anything in twenty years.”
The story, “Stillness,” was picked up for Shivers VI, an anthology published by Cemetery Dance. Initially disappointed not to have made the cut into the headline magazine, Thomas was amazed to find that “I was in there with Stephen King, Peter Straub, Brian Hodge, and Brian Keene, to name a few authors. It gave me a lot of validation and drive to keep writing.”
Thomas then took another class with horror author Jack Ketchum. “He helped me tap into a lot of personal fears and to use that as a vehicle to write some powerful stories.” Building on this momentum, Thomas then entered an MFA program at Murray State University where, in his own words, he “began reading more globally and a different range of voices. It added a layer to what I’m trying to do as a writer,” he says of reading the likes of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, and Denis Johnson. “I’d been writing stories for a while, but I realized during my MFA that I was always drawn to writer’s on the edge, the black sheep in the literary world. Finding these people out there inspired me to do new things, and that changed how I wrote, in terms of sensory details.”
Since then, Thomas has published 160 stories, three novels, three short story collections, run an online magazine, Gamut Magazine, and acted as Editor-in-Chief of Dark House Press, where he has been able to work with his own literary heroes such as Stephen King, Brian Evenson, Stephen Graham Jones, Kristi DeMeester, Usman T. Malik, Damien Angelica Walters, Paul Tremblay, and Angela Slatter.
Of his neo-noir work, Thomas describes the genre as based on reality, but “taking that atmosphere of mood and tone and bleakness, and [updating] it in a more modern way. It takes that spirit [of the noir] and makes it more modern, weird. A lot of times it can be gritty, but there’s also a lot of heart to it.”
Having begun his career as an editor, Thomas recounts, “It was really exciting because I wanted to showcase these voices and [have readers] see where I was coming from…to work and interact with these authors was really just an honour for me, putting it all together. That got me excited to keep looking at these and similar genres. I like to find the intersection between mystery, crime, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but I’m also trying to do things a little differently, in the uncomfortable and the unknown. ‘The new weird,” he concludes of his own work as writer and editor. “It allows me to do new things. I’m very conscious of the ‘experience’ [in my own writing and want] to make it immersive.”
In the past four years, Thomas has taken stock of the zeitgeist by writing more “hopepunk”. “The state of the world has been so chaotic over the past four years that I’m trying to get to the light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of the work I’ve been putting out in the past few years is like that because I want to leave people with that sense [of hope] at the end.”
His two forthcoming publications in 2021, “Battle Not With Monsters” in Cemetery Dance, and “Saudade” in the PRISMS anthology (PS Publishing) are contrasts of his style. “Saudade”, a word that describes the longing for someone that was loved and lost, while that feeling of love remains. “Battle Not With Monsters” sounds much like it is, a classic horror story and paranoid thriller. “I think between those two pieces coming out this year, that really displays my range [as a writer].”
Also in an effort to bring hope and light in his work as writer and editor, Thomas is a teacher of the short story form in his own right. Offering three online courses for students of any genre, Thomas reflects that, “As a teacher, I want to listen [to my students] and encourage them to tell the stories they want to write. I try and get a sense of them as people. I try to help people figure out through their writing and their own voice what it is they are trying to do.”
In particular, Thomas hones in on a student’s particular literary influences for inspiration, much as he did with himself. “I think trying to get people to identify their influences so they can better understand what they are trying to do. Ultimately, I want to take you on a journey and entertain you, but I also want you to feel.”
At the end of the day, Thomas says, a story is both about entertainment, but equally important are the emotions a writer is able to stoke in their reader. “Body, mind and soul,” is Thomas’ mantra as a writer and instructor of writing. “The next level is the mind, to get people to walk away thinking about the piece.”
“My biggest advice is to read and write. Whatever the genre is, you need to read those genres pretty intensely. Read the classics, because they were successful for a reason. And then examine the contemporary writers in the same genre. Also, study with someone whose work you admire, because I think that can go a long way.”
For his own classes, Thomas offers three courses that build on each other. The first: Short Story Mechanics, is the base level that breaks down the components of a short story into its simplest elements. His Contemporary Dark Fiction course expands on the previous class, looking at the short fiction of contemporary writers and examining “what you’re trying to do, and what they’re doing.” The Advanced Creative Writing Workshop is a critical analysis of a student’s short story, “to see what’s not working, and then have the tools and ability to fix it.”
Overall, Thomas comments, “I’ve found that journey helped people evolve as writers, [to write] a deep, intense, layered story that can really affect your readers. It doesn’t matter about genre, as long as [the story] meets the requirement of that genre.”
Of writing in general, as either hobby or profession, “The most important thing is asking yourself if this is something you want to do. One of the great things about starting to write in my forties is I got to live and love and learn. I would tell younger writers to temper your expectations, because life experience informs your work. I started writing at 40, after working in advertising for twenty years, but I was always writing.
“The money isn’t what should drive you, it’s the satisfaction. I want to inspire people, I want them to feel alive. If they don’t feel anything, then I’ve failed.”
Thomas also comments on understanding the complexities of the publication industry, and recommends teaching or writing in similar adjacent industries to supplement income. “If you’re serious about it, you build in the expectation that you’re going to have to put in the work. Build into it patience and understanding.”
Additionally, with experience comes the understanding not to take rejections personally. “It’s mostly being the right story at the right time,” Thomas says of literary acceptances. As a personal example, both of his upcoming publications were shopped around and rejected—some for over 500 days.
Another important element, he emphasizes, is maintaining relationships with editors. “These kinds of relationships,” he maintains, “are really important. Treat people around you with respect and kindness—you never know where they could go. People helped me coming up, so I’m happy to hold open the door for others. I try to spread the love around and champion the work of up and coming writers. I know how hard it is to break out.
“I have been really conscious of diversity in my magazine, Gamut. We tried to get more women than men [to submit], people of colour, LGBTQ…that was very important to me, that we put out that call and backed it up with what we published. I try to encourage publishers of anthologies [I know] if they have any spots to consider female voices, and authors of color. I always have a list at the ready. I also work with a lot of Canadian writers and students, authors from all over the world, such as Bram Stoker winner Usman T. Malik, the first Pakistani author to win the award.
“I think it’s important to have a wide range of voices which aren’t always heard…I think it’s so important to get it out there. It’s kind of like being a high-school football coach about spotting talent. For me, it’s always about the quality of the work. At the end of the day, however, if you don’t champion your own work, no one else will.”
Kira Wronska Dorward UE is a writer, editor, and printed word enthusiast. She attended Trinity College as an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, graduating in 2012 as a Specialist in History. In 2014 she successfully attained a Master of Arts in Modern History.
In the past she has worked for Magazines Canada, The National Magazine Awards, The Digital Publishing Awards, and The Canadian Business Media Awards. She is a former staff writer for the now defunct magazine Caledon Living, a former reporter for the London Publishing Corporation, and has contributed to various literary journals at the University of Toronto.
In 2013, she received the Student Engagement in the Arts Award from the University of Toronto for her work as Editor-in-Chief (2012) of The Hart House Review. She was subsequently the Senior Fiction Editor for the 2013 edition.
She is currently a writer for In the Hills Magazine, as well as working on her first novel.