Interview with Thom Stark Part 1   1 comment

Displaying Thom Stark.jpgThom Stark is the author of The American Sulla and a Book Trap (Facebook) friend. What began as an author interview has expanded into a larger conversation, which I’m going to highlight on Thursdays for a while, starting with the author interview, which was long enough and entertaining enough to run as a two-part series. Lela


Tell me about yourself, Thom!

They tell me I was born in Pittsburgh, PA – and I believe them, because that’s what it says on my birth certificate – but I’ve never had any sense of attachment to the Iron City. I was an Air Force brat, so I grew up all over the USA. I learned to read in Japan, and almost immediately discovered and began to devour science fiction at a rate most black holes would envy. Even at the age of six, it was clear to me that someday I’d eventually wind up as a writer, but I certainly did everything in my power to avoid that fate – and I was sufficiently skillful or lucky enough to avoid the curse for almost four decades.

My wife and I spent 23 years living in California, so, if there’s any place I think of as home, it’s the Golden State. Since mid-2008, we’ve lived in Chillicothe, Ohio, where we moved so that Judy could be close to her mother while she was being treated for breast cancer. (She’s been cancer-free for more than 5 years now, for which I am pathetically grateful, because, quite frankly, I’d be completely lost without her.)

I sing, write, play, and record music as a hobby. I’m an okay guitarist, a pretty good producer/arranger, and a decent singer with a limited range, but a distinctive vocal style.

We’ve been Persons of Dog since Valentine’s Day, 2001. That was when Wolfgang Amadeus Dogzart, our beloved American Staffordshire Terrier came home with us from the Mariposa County Animal Shelter. Puppies have been part of our lives ever since. Wolfie died of leptospirosis in early 2008 – as you can imagine, that was a rough year for us – but we still have his first companion, a bullmastiff mix we named Miss Watson. Currently she shares Doggie Island with a year-and-a-half old Grand Pyranees/Saint Bernard mix named Wanda. She’s a rehab project we took on because she has an irrational fear of strangers that we have the experience to help her overcome. Wanda has been slowly improving, and we have great confidence she’ll eventually learn to leave her anxieties behind.

How did you first start writing?

With a pencil, on loose sheets of unlined paper. (At first I just drew individual letters, but after a few weeks, I progressed to entire words …)

Very funny! I meant writing stories, of course.

Actually, I wrote my first piece of fiction at the age of six. It was just a little plotless scenario about three teenage boys who race their jet cars to the launch pad where their rocket ship is waiting to take off, but it taught me the first Unfortunate Reality of Prose: that writing is hard. As it turns out, good writing is very hard.

I submitted a terrible short story to Analog when I was 11 or 12. Legendary editor John W. Campbell’s rejection letter was kind, and he encouraged me to keep writing, but it was already clear to me that I needed a lot more experience of life before I was going to have any chance of being good at it. So I stopped doing that and did other things for the next few decades – although I did write or co-write several dozen pop and rock songs in the 1970’s and 80’s. I’ve kept that habit up ever since, although, as is true of my prose output, the process of songwriting is a slow one for me.

I’ve worked at a wide variety of jobs, from newspaper typesetter to aspiring rock star, with stints in between as everything from carnival roustabout to professional videotape editor. In the mid-1980’s I got interested in personal computers, eventually became a senior research analyst for Wells Fargo Bank, and then went into independent consulting. That, in turn, led me into becoming a professional writer (by which I specifically mean “one who gets paid for it”).

I had gotten very interested in the Internet as a resource for networking professionals. This was in the early 1990’s, when the Web was only just beginning to emerge from the high-energy particle physics community, and using the Net basically demanded a set of skills that most people simply didn’t have. But there was an already-rich – and rapidly growing – collection of resources for the sort of job I was doing at the time, and I thought it was important to spread the word about them to my fellow PC networking professionals. So, at a San Francisco Novell User Group Christmas party I cornered Susan Breidenbach, who was then the editor of LAN Times Magazine, and pitched her on the idea of running what I described as “a Baedeker’s Guide to the Internet” for people in our line of work.

What I didn’t anticipate was that she’d offer me the opportunity to write it. And that, if I didn’t agree, it wasn’t going to happen at all. So I decided to take a swing at it.

The result was @internet, a column that would outlast LAN Times as a going concern, and bring me a whole new career as a writer. I ended up at Boardwatch Magazine, a truly unique and wonderful publication that featured an incredible collection of top-level geeks as monthly columnists. John Dvorak and I were the only actual career writers there, when I started in 1997. Everybody else was busy inventing the technology that ran the Internet, and just did their columns as a side gig. It was pretty darned heady company in which to find myself, and I was deeply grateful that Boardwatch’s fanatic readership immediately took me into their hearts. It’s important to understand that many of those readers actually paid perfectly good money for their subscriptions – and a surprisingly large percentage of them read every issue of the mag from cover to cover. That was something that simply didn’t happen in the computer trade press, where the dominant business model was “qualified subscriber” distribution … but it happened with Boardwatch.

Anyway, I learned a lot from my experience in computer journalism, and I swiftly acquired a reputation for turning in ready-to-run copy. Some of Boardwatch’s most important contributors needed a fair amount of help from the editors to massage their columns into readable shape. I didn’t. A lot of that is because I had spent almost my entire waking life doing nothing but reading from the age of six until I discovered girls at around thirteen, and I managed to thoroughly absorb the rules of grammar, punctuation, usage, and spelling in the process. Some of it is also due to the fact that that I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I can’t stand to to submit sub-par work. (Just as an example, my verbal contract with Jack Rickard, Boardwatch’s publisher and Editor Rotundus, specified that my montly column was to be 1,000 words in length. I don’t think anyone at the magazine ever noticed, but, for five years, every column I turned in was exactly 1,000 words long, to the syllable.)

Oh, my! That is precision! So what happened then?

Then the dotcom economy imploded. Over the course of six months or so, the computer trade press shrank from over 800 titles to around 150. And because Boardwatch had been purchased for a squidillion dollars by Philistines who systematically dismantled every single thing that made it such a special animal, it went gurgling down the drain along with the rest of the industry.

I had to find something else to write, because now the infection had really set in, and I no longer had any choice but to produce prose. I did a couple of newspaper and magazine pieces, but my major focus became authoring an academic reference book called Plutarch’s Alexander – The Complete Reference. I had been under the impression that writing for the computer industry had taught me to do research, but that project made me understand what really mastering the literature on a subject was all about. It’s a skill that has proven invaluable in writing my novel.

Anyway, in mid-2008, my wife was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. We were living in Las Vegas at the time, and I immediately put her on a plane for Ohio, because Vegas is not even the place you want to be treated for a potentially fatal illness. A set of plastic boobs, or a nose job? They’re good at that. Curing cancer? Not so much. Meanwhile, Ohio has two fully-accredited National Cancer Centers, and to live here costs half of what it would to live in the Bay Area – which is pretty important, when the economy is right on the verge of collapse, as it was in June, 2008.

So we moved here, and I turned my attention to being my wife’s primary caregiver. Once she emerged from cancer treatment – she took the full ride: lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation, one right after the other – I found that I’d lost interest in the Alexander project. Writing a book like that is an incredibly immersive experience. To do it right, you have to live and breathe the subject full time. I’d been away from it long enough by then that I had lost the motivation necessary to get back up to speed on the literature. Then I broke a tendon in my left bicep. That triggered a rather hideous condition called adhesive capsulitis (aka “frozen shoulder”) that, combined with a ruptured disc in my neck, made it impossible for me to write, or even read for the next year-and-a-half. All I could do was grit my teeth and wait for it to pass … which it finally did, in mid-2011.

One response to “Interview with Thom Stark Part 1

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  1. Pingback: Interview with Thom Stark, Part 2 | aurorawatcherak

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