If you aren't already familiar with the byline of Thomas Pluck, you should be.
What's more, I predict everyone soon will be—because I think there definitely are some big things ahead for this young (from my perspective, darn near everybody's "young") writer out of Nutley, New Jersey.
Thomas is the author of several tough, well-received short stories ("hardboiled thrillers, unflinching fiction with heart," as he himself puts it) that have appeared over recent years in publications such as Beat To A Pulp, Crimespree Magazine, Spinetingler, Hardboiled, Shotgun Honey, Plots With Guns, etc. His story "Black-Eyed Susan", appearing first at Powder Burn Flash and again in Beat To A Pulp: Hardboiled, was a Bullet Award winner.
Thomas has also edited and/or co-edited the noteworthy anthologies The Lost Children (2011) and Lost Children:The Protectors (2012, just released Sept. 1), both of which are charity collections with all benefits going to PROTECT
(The National Association to Protect Children) and Children 1st.
He is working on two upcoming novels.
I am grateful that he agreed to the following interview.
WD: You come from a blue collar background, your father a construction worker, your mother a hairdresser. You yourself have worked construction, been a short order cook, worked in a pharmacy, and currently do computer work. Care to expound on that a bit more for our readers?
TP: I think writers, especially crime writers, sometimes go out of the way to make their life and career seem exciting. I don’t think I’ve led a boring life, but the parts that made me a writer aren’t very exciting. As a cook, cashier and laborer, you get to observe people almost like a naturalist with a hidden camera. You’re part of the scenery, once you take on that role. At least in city life. So those jobs did more than put me through school, they let me see people, almost as an outside observer. I found it fascinating, and I had to share it.
WD: You've told me that you've always had an active imagination and first began writing as a child. At what age was that, and what were the kinds of things you first wrote?
TP: I’ve always had a thing for revenge stories, looking back. My first book- and it was a book, my second grade teacher sewed up pages of good thick paper and bound them for us to take home- was called Komodo and Dragon’s Adventure. In it, two komodo dragons take out a poacher who is hunting on their island, by rigging a complicated trap to catapult his Jeep into quicksand. And I mention it, because I think as a writer, your voice doesn’t really change much once you find it. It’s a simple revenge story where a makeshift family of critters- there’s an Iguana named Iggy, and a few other ragtag reptiles- bands together to fight evil. It wasn’t going to win a Newberry award or survive a second reading, but I had to laugh when I thought about it again, because compared to “Black-Eyed Susan,” the story than won the Bullet award, the structure and underlying theme are the same.
WD: All writers tend to be avid readers. I assume the same is true of you. What type of books or stories did you read early on, and what is your reading diet these days?
TP: I started reading nonfiction, devouring information, but I always liked Encyclopedia Brown and later on, Agatha Christie. Not for the puzzles, but for the enjoyment of justice being done. I found Dashiell Hammett from there, the Continental Op. The Op remains one of my favorite characters, because he remained an enigma in some ways. Once I devoured all of those stories, I found modern hardboiled, like Lawrence Block and Andrew Vachss, and then the more lyrical James Lee Burke. I wish I’d found Hardboiled Magazine, back then! I love crime stories because they reveal a hidden world beneath the civilized veneer, but read outside of the genre a lot. I try to force myself to read something outside of crime, every other book, so I don’t get myopic. Stuff like William Gibson, who started with cyberpunk, the noir of science fiction, and has moved toward excellent depictions of how technology and corporate worship affect us. I’ve always liked fringe science fiction, or “speculative fiction,” as some call it, ever since I read Harlan Ellison. Who began as a crime writer- he joined a NYC street gang to write a crime novel called Web of the City, but he never let any one genre constrain his imagination, and I respect that. You want to read a book, read Ellison’s collection Angry Candy, with his Edgar winner “Soft Monkey.” He’s hard-boiled SF, and writes raw, from the heart.
WD: You've told me that two of your favorite current writers are Andrew Vachss and James Lee Burke. Any others—past or present—you'd care to mention? Are there any writers or particular works you've read that you feel have had an influence on your own writing?
TP: Those two icons are like the Gods of Anger and Sadness, respectively. When I think of Vachss’s Burke, I see an angry man staring out over the moral wasteland of New York’s metropolis, beaming hate at those who abuse power, and fury for those who ignore it, or worse, buy into it. He beams a light into sub-basements, illuminating the rotten foundation of a civilization that tolerates the abuse of the only true innocents, our children. And he does it with stories that grip on a visceral level. It’s cliché to say he writes “stripped to the bone,” and it’s incorrect. He doesn’t. There’s plenty of art there, but it’s like the blues. It says it straight, with no apology, and if you don’t get it, you never will.
James Lee Burke is almost the opposite. He writes beautiful prose—he’s up there with Cormac McCarthy—and crafts believable romantic characters in a brutal, cynical world. His characters are angry about injustice as well, but they work within the law. And to me, that’s romantic, believing that in the end, the system works. But he makes you believe it, and that’s part of his power. He has a great sadness and disappointment when the system and the frail humans who run it don’t live up to the romantic ideals that America was founded upon, tempered with the belief that if we persevere, it someday will. I’m somewhere in between. I’m not sure we’ll ever overcome corruption, but we carry the fire and hand it to the next generation.
WD: You read like a very natural storyteller. Have you ever taken or attended any writing courses?
TP: Thanks, Wayne. That’s a great compliment. I took a creative writing class for one semester in college, and one for poetry. Poetry helped more, it taught me to write from the heart and not try to write like how you think a writer sounds. I think that’s the biggest hurdle, trusting your own voice. The second hurdle is not falling in love with it, so you can “kill your darlings,” as the saying goes. Great example? Joe Lansdale. He’s another literary idol of mine. When he writes, it feels like you’re sitting across a campfire or next to him at a bar, listening to a tall tale. Your own work has that same comfortable feel to it, speaking of natural storytellers. So does Lawrence Block, another favorite of mine.
WD: Much of your work up until now has been short, often flash-type fiction so this question probably wouldn't apply to that. But now that you're branching into novels and longer works, do you plot or outline extensively? Or are you a seat-of-the-pantser?
TP: I’ve only just learned that I’m an outliner. See, short stories and flash are easy to concoct in your head. It all fits in there. So I thought I was a pantser, when this idea I’d been turning around like a pig on a spit for days, weeks, years, came out in a rush on the page. The first time I sat down to write a long short story, I learned how wrong I was. I had to gut it, go back, write some more, double back again, until I got it right. That story is “Garbage Man,” which will be in Beat to a Pulp: Superhero, in a few months. Now I think it out first. Sometimes I write notes out, and keep them next to me. I’m a daydream writer, really. My sister still teases me about how when I was a kid, I’d walk home from school in a daze, imagining laser tanks and thugs with machine guns ravaging the town. And I still work best after a good walk around the neighborhood and into the park. I wrote my first novel without a net, and I’m still fixing it. The next one I know what happens, and I just need to fill it in. That’s the way for me.
WD: I've been retired for a few years now so my writing schedule (and my output) have expanded considerably. From all the years I wrote while working a full-time job, however, I know how hard it is to fit in writing time. Do you have any kind of "typical" writing schedule?
TP: I write first thing in the morning until I need to start work, and again at lunch hour, and at night either when I get home or after dinner for a few hours. I write pretty slowly, by my estimation. I still edit too much on the fly. A buddy of mine, Matt McBride, wrote his first novel during 35 second breaks on the assembly line. After I heard that, I stopped making excuses. It’s a great read, too. Frank Sinatra in a Blender. Also love that title.
WD: I know how important it is to have the support of a soul mate. Tell us a little bit about your lovely wife Sarah, whom I know has been involved in the Lost Children anthologies and seems strongly at your side.
TP: She’s the love of my life and my best friend. Great, snappy sense of humor and a no-bullshit attitude. She’s a graphic designer, and created the striking covers for both anthologies. She supports my writing, but it’s too dark for her taste. She’s my dose of reality, which every writer needs.
WD: You have two series characters—Denny the Dent and Jay Desmarteaux—who have appeared in a number of short stories and are scheduled to be making novel-length appearances soon. Care to expound on them a bit, maybe give us a hint what lies in store for their futures?
TP: Denny the Dent is my hardboiled “pulp” hero. 350 pounds of muscle, he’s a black ex-con who works as a junk scrapper in Newark, New Jersey. The big quiet guy who everyone assumes is dumb, it’s compounded by the dent in his skull, received when the incompetent doctor pulled him out. He grew up hard, with just his mama to teach him what was right, and he metes out his twisted form of justice to the cruel and powerful. His novel pits him against an abductor of children, overzealous police, and two neighborhood groups who both think they’re doing the right thing, and only making it worse. It’s a lot for a simple, honest man to contend with. Denny is up to the task.
Jay Desmarteaux stood up to the town bully as a kid, and took the rap for the bully’s murder. In prison, he becomes the protégé of an old school outlaw, and uses his skills to pay back the people who put him in jail. Jay is more of a country boy outlaw, a bareknuckle fighter who’d be running moonshine and poaching gators in another time. He’s a drifter who lives hand to mouth, working as muscle or a thief for whatever criminal enterprise will have him, because it’s all he knows. He hates bullies, and often finds himself at cross purposes with his employers, and leaves a blazing trail of burned bridges in his wake. You’ll get a taste of Jay in a Needle: A Magazine of Noir’s summer 2012 issue, Hills of Fire: Bareknuckle Yarns of Appalachia, and in Feeding Kate, a great little book that a group of mystery authors are publishing to pay for a friend’s surgery.
WD: I know you enjoy eating, and "sampling" a variety of adult beverages; and that you are involved in mixed martial arts and strongman training—tell us some more about that side of Thomas Pluck, the non-writer side.
TP: Well, they say write what you know, and I wanted to write about hard-drinking brawlers, so I went and paid a bareknuckle fighter to punch me in the face. Joking aside, I never learned to fight as a kid. I was a big old nerd, and I’m still about as clumsy as a blind mule on rollerskates, so I signed up with the toughest, most street-worthy trainer I could find, a guy named Phil Dunlap who was trained in Burma, fought bareknuckle for ten years, and now runs Advanced Fighting Systems. Phil’s one of those no-BS guys. If you train for defense, you put gloves on and you get punched in the face. Boards don’t hit back. I sparred with a 6’4” cop who boxed in the Marines one of my first times in the ring, and he bent my nose for me. But I kept coming. After that, writing is easy. Six years later, I wouldn’t say I’m any good as a fighter, but I know my limitations. And to quote Dirty Harry, that’s something you need to know.
Strongman training is just lifting for strength, not looks. I’m nowhere near actual strongman weights yet. I can deadlift 555lbs, and strongmen start in the 700 range. I’ll get there. Why? No reason. It’s good exercise, I’m good at it, and it burns off the calories from burgers and beer, my two big vices. I don’t think there’s anything more quintessentially American than driving your self-defining car to a diner or roadstand to eat a greasy, delicious meal like a cheeseburger, barbecue or a hotdog with someone you love. If we didn’t invent it, we perfected it. It makes me feel like it’s the first stop on an endless road to adventure.
WD: You've said you have "a visceral and seething rage" for abuse of power and the bullying/abuse of those weaker and more vulnerable. Hence your unflagging support of PROTECT, and the work you are doing for that good cause. Any particular background experience or occurrence—beyond the natural response we all should have toward such abuses—that makes this feeling so strong in you?
TP: Personal and second-hand experience, and witnessing the long-term damage. I agree with Andrew Vachss, that the ultimate crime-fighting initiative is to protect our children. Part of me is cynical, but another is romantic, like James Lee Burke. And the work of Alice Miller (rest in peace) gives me hope. In her country, Sweden, in 1978, they passed a law banning the corporal punishment of children. At the time, 70% of people were against the law. In 1997, one generation later, only 10% are against it. She changed how her country treats its children. And it’s important—as the one thing in common with nearly all violent, habitual criminals is neglect and physical abuse as a child—when you can get them to own up to it. Love of the parent is so inherent in us that we’ll blame ourselves. “I was a bad kid. I deserved it. It didn’t do me any harm.” Things are getting better. In the turn of the 20th century, a large percentage of the population believed in pre-emptively beating infants so they wouldn’t grow up bad. This led to a century of unfathomable violence. No one would defend that practice anymore, and violence worldwide is actually going down, despite what the 24-hour news media will tell you. There will always be a market for crime fiction, there will always be bad men, but things are slowly getting better, thanks to the hard work of people like Alice Miller and the good folks at PROTECT.
WD: Finally, anything else you'd like to include or mention that my questioning didn't touch upon?
TP: PROTECT has taught me something else, that we should concentrate on what we agree upon, rather than our differences. Especially in America, where the news media would have us rant and rave like fans of two opposing teams. PROTECT has members from both extremes of the political spectrum, and everywhere in between. Getting along. Working together for an important cause, and making great strides. They’re a pretty damn good example for all of us.
And thank you, Wayne, for the opportunity to talk with you. Like I briefly mentioned earlier, I wish I’d discovered Hardboiled Magazine back in ’85, because it’s a pleasure to know you.
WD: Thank you for your time, Thomas.
I urge everyone reading this to check out the Lost Children anthologies. You'll be supporting a very worthwhile cause and at the same time you'll be treating yourself to some excellent, provocative stories by some of the most exciting writers working today.
If you want to know more about PROTECT and find out how you can be even more supportive with a modestly-priced membership, go to www.protect.org .
And by all means keep an eye out for anything and everything by this Pluck guy. You can learn more about him and get free access to several of his fine stories at > http://www.thomaspluck.com .
Persevere — WD