Bewildering Stories interviews...
Thomas Lee Joseph Smith
Thomas Lee Joseph Smith’s works have appeared in more than a dozen magazines, and he’s written more than two hundred short stories. He’s been published in Nightmares, Scared Naked, The Midnight Gallery and numerous other horror, fantasy and humor venues. At Bewildering Stories he seems to have made himself a home, having been accepted more than a dozen times with stories that range from thoughtful to stories that take a considerable amount of thought just to comprehend.
This interview was conducted over the Internet. Some of the exchange has been edited for brevity.
Tom, as you know, we’ve been getting good response to your story “White Kangaroo.” But before we ask about your ideas, reading and the influences on your work, first we’d like to ask: Why do you use such a long name?
That’s easy. Some time back I received an e-mail from an editor telling me he really liked my work, and would I be willing to write another article, and could I fly to Santa Fe, and he’d meet me at the airport. And all kinds of stuff like that. And then, after exchanging a few e-mails back and forth I found out he was trying to enlist the help of a different Thomas L. Smith; that’s the signature I had been putting on my stuff, Thomas L. Smith. So after that I just starting using all the names I could muster.
When did you first start writing?
A very long time ago would be my short answer. I was required to take a writing course as part of my studies at a community college. I was 18 or 19 back then, something like that. Anyway, a very long time ago. If I had listened hard, I could have heard the Vietnam war winding down. If I had paid attention, I would have noticed I was living in very tumultuous times. I wasn’t paying close attention. I was self-centered even then.
Anyway, I had to take a humanities course, and for some unremembered reason I took a course in creative writing. I was always a dedicated reader. I often have a hi-liter in my hands as I read, and I’ll mark interesting ideas or impressive passages.
Anyway, I remember my teacher reading a passage out loud to the class and then saying, “I know this class would never be able to guess who wrote this.” She was holding it in her fingers like it was flash paper, that stuff magicians use. Of course it was my paper she was holding. Then she described the paper as tender and moving and inspirational. I don’t think I have that paper now. I do remember it was a silly romantic story about a boy receiving his first kiss. Thank goodness I moved on to writing fantasy and horror. I might have wound up another Dame Edna had I continued writing like that.
Do you prefer writing horror stories?
Oh yes. And probably, mainly, because I know how rich Stephen King is. One thing we have to remember is I’m hoping — maybe I’m just delusional — but I keep hoping someday actually to make money from my writing. In fact my wife is pretty certain I’m delusional. We’ve actually had fights where she wants me to quit writing. If I eventually make money, she was wrong; if I don’t, she was right. I guess we’ll have to wait and see about that.
I have written some good horror. Some horror I’m proud of. I keep my letters from editors; I print them off and keep them with the stories. I have some very strange letters in my letter collection. I have a letter from Marion Zimmer Bradley that says, in part, “after reading three paragraphs I just didn’t care to read any more... in fact this will be it for the day... I’m going shopping.” But I also have a letter from an editor and it says simply, “Oh yeah! THIS IS HORROR!” He was talking about a story called “The Faceless Ones.”
Would you be willing to describe yourself, maybe talk a little about your life?
I guess I look like what I am: a clerk in a grocery store. In the past I’ve been an engineer, a tool designer... but now I just work in a grocery store. I think I look about like Kelsey Grammer, about like that. I have three children. All of them are grown. My son dropped into schizophrenia about two years ago but recently he’s been doing much better; so that’s a lot of worry I can set aside for now. My daughter recently announced she’s going to marry this coming summer. My youngest daughter is a very good athlete, which surprises me, because I was always very clumsy.
My kids are fine for the most part; it’s the marriage part of my life that’s been a challenge. My wife thinks I’m crazy. She read one of my stories. Just one. As luck would have it the story was about a group of penguins trained as commandos, dropped into a desert, and complaining about the heat. After that I haven’t been able to get her to read anything else. And it doesn’t seem to help that the penguin story was accepted somewhere. She just thinks that proves anyone and anything can get published.
You’ve contributed about a dozen stories to Bewildering Stories. What do you think about our enterprise? What do you feel we are doing right? and what do you feel we could do better?
I like the fact that you seem very organized. One of the things I appreciate is the fact that I don’t have to wait very long to get a response. I like the look of the site. I like the choices I get when I’m viewing a story. The way I can choose the color of the font and the backgrounds. I’m very self-centered and egotistical, so it seems funny, but the first thing I do when my stories come out, is to read them over.
In the past I’ve been disappointed by some magazines. Once this certain magazine — a little print magazine — they took my story and printed the first four-fifths and then said, “For the conclusion see page 17.” When I went to page seventeen there was an ad there instead of the story. In a subsequent issue they printed the ending to my story, but I’m pretty sure half their readers only got a portion of the story. I’m not sure who made out better, the people who read the joke or read the punch line.
I do like your other authors too. I’ve read a lot of stories that I wish I’d written. I think that’s praise. When I look at a story and think, “Gosh, I could have written something good like that if only that single tiny thought it was built around had somehow occurred to me!”
I do like Michael Tyzuk’s work. I think he’s worth studying. I always look over his work for clues on how to do this better. I thought it was interesting that he named Heinlein and John D. MacDonald as people who influenced his writing, because I’ve always loved MacDonald, too. I like that your magazine doesn’t neglect writers who do longer pieces. I liked that story, “MoonShadow.” That was very well done.
And I will have to say — maybe changing the topic here — I, for one, I just don’t understand some of the authors not using their real names on their works. Is there really a person out there named Vedgy Tarien or Alkaline Spudwort? I keep thinking I’d like to meet with these people. Maybe there could be a convention someday. I could find out their real names.
Almost all the comical pen names are from the same person. We know our authors’ real names, but only they can divulge them publicly; we’re sure you and our readers will understand. Could you tell us about that balloon story. What was in your head as you wrote that?
For the past year I’ve been creating about one story a week, about two thousand words a week. At least that’s my goal. A lot of my stories are just factual events that are exaggerated in some way. For instance, the story about the balloon contest is from an actual event, as strange as that seems. I’ve been taking my quest for fame and fortune out to the streets.
There is in St. Louis a street known as the Delmar Loop. On the Loop there are a lot of restaurants and bars and a couple of theaters. On that particular street, the city allows people to sell small items and sing or play music for money. There are people playing guitar there, and they leave their guitar cases open on the street and sometimes the people who pass by on their way to restaurants throw change or some bills into the open guitar case.
Well I went there to sell copies of my stories. I’ve made some of my stories into chapbooks, and I’ve been trying to sell them. I wasn’t attracting very much attention, and the attention I was attracting was confused. Most of the people who approached my ironing board — I was selling my stuff off an ironing board — most of the people who came by were looking for stories for their little kids. Somehow they assumed s-t-o-r-i-e-s were only for kids.
So I did try to write some stories for kids under the idea that the best way to make money was to have with me the items people were actually requesting. And to announce the fact that I had items for kids I brought with me a bunch of balloons. I read a book on how to make balloon animals. (In fact the book gets mentioned in the story we’re discussing). I started making balloon cats and giraffes and umbrellas and hats. My intention was to give the balloons away if somebody bought a story. This was all to advertise my writing, you’ll remember. But then a funny thing happened. I started making some pretty good money. I’d still give away the balloons. I’d still try to sell my stories. But all the public wanted was balloons for the kids. I was getting money for balloon animals. It lasted a couple of days.
Someone must have been paying attention. I came to my spot with a couple hundred balloons ready to get to work. I looked up and across the street was another guy doing balloon animals. And his were actually good! His art looked like art. My cats looked like they were made from sausage casings and his looked like they could actually meow. So that’s what led me to write a story about those balloon sculptures.
Is there any question you were expecting that we haven’t asked?
Is there any question you wouldn’t like us to ask? Any question you wouldn’t answer?
I don’t care to answer that.
Do you consider yourself an intellectual?
Is that a yes?
Many of our authors tell us good stories should engage the emotions. Your stories are very visual and very clever, but they really don’t seem to engage the emotions. Even “A Fine Day for Balanced Contests,” the story you called a glimpse into your private life, even that story seems... distant. Do you have emotions? Do you consider yourself emotional?”
(Long pause. Answer unintelligible.)
At this point subject of the interview actually broke down and cried. We waited quite a while; but this exchange seemed to end the session, so we finally did give up and quietly took our leave.
Thomas Lee Joseph Smith can be contacted directly by messages sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Lee Joseph Smith