Wednesday 8 January 2020

Author Profile and Interview with Roger Thomas

Author Profile and Interview with Roger Thomas

I discovered the works of Roger Thomas late in 2019, and in 6 weeks had read 6 of his 7 published works. I was greatly impressed by the skill showing in his novels and short stories. And the mastery of various genres. Roger graciously agreed to answer some questions for the readers here at Book Reviews and More. So here in his own words is Roger B. Thomas. 

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How are you nurturing that dream?

I’d loved reading and stories from my youth. I was the kid who’d burn through all the stories in the grade reader by the end of the second week of school, and go to the shelf in the back of the room to grab the next grade’s reader. I was first exposed to Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles at about age eight, and loved to imagine myself there or in other fantasy stories. 

It wasn’t until high school that I began writing some of my stories down. I started with what we’d call today fan fiction, though I also wrote stories in this world, primarily imaginings of where my life might go and what adventures I might have. It was garbage, and I now pity my poor friends on whom I’d thrust my handwritten manuscripts in hopes of getting a positive review from them. But it was important garbage, because it gave me critical experience in writing stories which would come in handy later.

2. Who were some of the biggest supporters of your writing?

Currently, it’s my wife Ellen and some friends, who not only encourage me but assist in practical manners by editing and advising. Since I’m not currently using any publisher, all the nitty gritty details fall on me and my supporters. It’s one thing to dash off a manuscript and shove it up to a self-publishing site to get it out; it’s quite another to put out a polished, professional work that people will be willing to pay for.

3. What authors influenced your writing style and format?

C.S. Lewis is far and away the biggest influence. I’ve steeped myself in his fiction since my grade school days, and his more scholarly works since my late teens. J.R.R. Tolkien has also influenced me since high school. Other writers such as Rudyard Kipling and O Henry have had some influence as well, but those two are the big ones. I enjoy other writers, everyone from G.K. Chesterton to Charles Williams to Tom Clancy, but to identify those who have actually influenced me, Lewis and Tolkien would be the biggest.

4. Writing is not your day job. How do you fit it in around your work in the technology field? 

Currently, I don’t. The works I’m getting out now were written during my years as an independent consultant, when I had more free time. My consulting years ended in autumn of 2018, and I doubt that I’ll have much time to write new stories until I retire in a few years.

5. If you were not writing in your free time, what would you be using it for?

I’ve been an avid reader all my life, so hopefully reading, but I find myself in a bind there. Maybe it’s that the quality of writing is going down, or maybe it’s that I’m becoming more of a curmudgeon, but I have a hard time finding books that I truly enjoy anymore. I’ve always been a big fan of fantasy and science fiction, but with a few exceptions, I find I don’t have much patience with it. The plots seem to be formulaic retreads and the characters seem two-dimensional. I find myself feeling like Lewis did when he commented to Tolkien that it didn’t seem that anyone was writing the kind of books they loved, so they’d have to write their own. 

6. What does your writing process look like? Takes us through the steps from idea to publishing?

It usually begins with the characters. I might have an idea for a plot, but it’s the people who come to life in my imagination first. For instance, I’d been pondering a plot for From Afar – my “magi story” – for some time, but when I began to imagine the story unfolding, it opened with a slave boy rushing up to the captain of the guard. That was Baba and Tigranes, who turned out to be vital to the story.

From there I rough in a plot – outlines of chapters specifying what happens and who’s involved. That keeps me straight on the ordering of events and helps prevent omissions and contradictions. After that, I get to penning – and I mean literally penning – the chapters themselves. I get ribbed about this by other authors (Mike Richards was particularly amused, joking with me about chiseling my work on stone), but I write better when I physically write, with a pen on long legal pads. For one thing, this curbs my natural tendency to wordiness. For another, it helps me focus and carefully transcribe the scenes unfolding in my imagination. Another advantage is that it helps me just write at that juncture – the editing will come later. If I try to write at a keyboard, the temptation to edit as I write is too strong, and I end up tying myself in creative knots.

After the story is written out on the pads, then comes the effort of typing them in. For some authors this is unbearable tedium, but for me it’s the first editing pass, the “cleanup” of the raw story on the legal pads (fortunately I’m a swift typist). Once the manuscript is all typed in, I print it out and begin the several editing passes. My helpers can assist in spotting typos, sentence fragments, and the like, but I’m the only one who can sift through and evaluate things like, “I could word that better” or “I need to find a better term to use here – that one isn’t conveying my meaning well.” Editing is at least as much work as the actual writing.  When my work was being handled by publishers, they’d take over much of the fine editing, but now that I’m publishing myself, I have to do all of it. 

Once the MS is finished, I go through the steps of uploading it to Kindle Direct Publishing, and then creating a cover to wrap around it.

7. Do you use a playlist when writing? Are certain books written while predominantly listing to the same music?

Not anymore. The last story I wrote while listening to music was The Accidental Marriage. I seem to concentrate better in silence. Music can spark ideas – for instance, it was a Michael Card song that inspired From Afar – but these days I typically write without it. 

8. You have written in a wide range of genres. If the process different for historical fiction, western, epic military, or near future dystopian?

No, the process is the same. I may have to research different things in preparation, but that’s all done before the rough outline stage 

9. What books are currently in progress for you? Writing, researching, planning or even just ideas that you would like to work on?

My focus for the past year or so has been getting the Watchful Sky stories out the door. I really didn’t want to have publication-ready manuscripts on my hard drive that “I’ll get around to publishing”. When I got the release from Ignatius Press to publish the Midgard Manor stories, that was another bonus. Now that they’re all out the door, I can focus my effort on promoting them. I suspect I won’t do any new writing until after retirement, but you never know. I definitely think there are more stories in the Watchful Sky series, and who knows what else may crop up.

10. I once heard Madeleine L'Engle state that her characters were real to her and almost an extended part of her family, she said once that at the dinner table she sat up and stated "Meg just finished her PhD." Are your characters real to you, do you ever get glimpses of what they are up to now, or once you finish a book is that it?

They’re not quite that real, and given that they’re mostly in either the far past or in the future, there’s not much overlap between my lifespan and theirs. One exception is the characters in The Accidental Marriage – they’d be not only contemporary, but in the area. I found myself thinking about the turn of the year, “Grace will turn ten this year.” I sometimes wonder if there is such a family actually out there. 

11. One of the greatest strengths in your books are the characters, they are so solid and believable. The characters you create, are they reflections of people you know, composites of different people you know or entirely your creations?

Some of the characters directly reflect people I’ve met, but they’re largely minor. For instance, in Tattered Web, the character of the leech harvester Bob is a real person. I picked him up just outside Alpena when I was doing a local color tour of the region as preparation for that book. He’s a colorful character but a minor one. 

Largely the characters come to life in my head, and though they may borrow a mannerism or appearance from people I know, their personalities are their own. They tend to grow and take over the story, too – I’ve heard other authors speak of this phenomenon. They’ll have a character who’s so alive in their imagination that they might envision him doing something, but have to change their plans because “he wouldn’t do that.” 

When I was younger, I thought that stories were about the action, the neat stuff the characters did. The older I’ve gotten, the more I see that what sticks with readers is the personalities of the characters. The readers get to know them, to love (or hate) them. This means you have to bring them to life, which sometimes constrains you. If you want to write a good story, it has to unfold in light of the characters and what they’d tend to do. You can’t just say, “at this point, Derek will do thus and such because the plot requires it.” You have to ask, would Derek do that sort of thing? Would he have sufficient motivation? Would he envision the outcomes? Is it consistent with who he is? If your characters are going to be believable, you have to have the story stay true to who they are.

12. Which is your favorite character you have created and why?

Tough call – I like a lot of them. To me, Derek/Luke in the Watchful Sky series, and Scott in Accidental Marriage, are very relatable. There’s a lot of myself in those characters, though I don’t always like them. I honestly like a good many characters, though for different reasons. Gaspar and Tigranes in From Afar, Helga Sykes in The Accidental Marriage, Chip Keller and Gerald Solomon in the Watchful Sky books. Of course, it’s kind of hard to beat Mary and Joseph, but I can hardly claim them as “my” characters. 

Characters do tend to run away with you at times. For instance, I had no idea that Chip Keller was going to be as important as he proved to be in the Watchful Sky books. I think Shawn Ramirez, who first appears in Tattered Web, is going to prove important if the series goes further. Likewise with Shaundra Nichols from Watchful Sky – I think she’s going to have a bigger role in later books.

13. Some authors monitor torrent sites and contact them to remove their content. Do you do so are have someone do so for you?

This is the first I’ve heard of this – maybe it’s something I should investigate. I presume this has to do with digital piracy.

14. If you could only recommend 10 books to a reader looking to be a well-rounded and whole person what books would you suggest?

The Bible, particularly the Gospels. C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. The Lord of the Rings (which I’d count as one book). Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles – again, one book. The Gift of Faith by Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer. Searching for and Maintaining Peace, by Fr. Jacques Philippe. Augustine’s Confessions. The Space Trilogy by Lewis (one book). The collected works of Plato. The Imitation of Christ by a Kempis. (Are you detecting a theme here? Did you also notice that I managed to slip 10 extra books in there?) 

15. What were some of your favorite authors in your teen years who helped shape you?

I think I mentioned Tolkien and Lewis, who were extremely formative. I read some other authors during those years, but the only ones I remember are big science fiction names like Asimov and Heinlein. The older I’ve gotten, the less I appreciate their works.

16. What are some of your favorite books and authors now?

Besides the authors I’ve mentioned, I really like science fiction author C.J. Cherryh. She’s always had a very original voice and powerful imagination, and I think she’s hit her stride with her Foreigner series. I also enjoy Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan sagas, though I like the later ones more, because her characters are more developed and three-dimensional. 

17. What are some of your favorite contemporary religious authors to read?

I think I mentioned Fr. Jacques Philippe, who is fantastic. I’m dipping more into works by Fulton Sheen, who was a wonderful man and (I think) a true saint. I like almost anything by Peter Kreeft, who I consider an intellectual successor to C.S. Lewis. And though he couldn’t be considered a “religious” author, Brad Birzer is a man of deep faith and real scholarship. I’m currently reading his recently released Beyond Tenebrae, which is a very scholarly treatment of Christian humanism(Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West). Fr. Tadeusz Dajczer is excellent as well.

18. I once had a university professor state that the true goal of a university education should be to teach one to learn how to think. What would you state should be the goal of higher education and why?

I think precisely that. The devolution of higher education into essentially glorified trade schools has been one of the marks of the decline of our culture. I speak from experience here – I have a computer science degree, which basically makes me a skilled tradesman. Many of my contemporaries are what I’ve heard described as “skilled barbarians”. I would be as well, if I’d let my education stop with my diploma. Fortunately, a true liberal arts education can be obtained outside a classroom, and I’ve attempted to do that. Newman had a lot of good things to say about what universities should be for in his Idea of a University.

19. If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 10 books to read again and again, what books would you want with you?

See my list above. The Bible would be essential, as would those other imaginative and devotional works. I might try to slip in one or two of my own. Or maybe I’d ask for some legal pads and write my own story.

20. What advice would you give to young aspiring authors and artists?

Read a lot. Read good literature, so you recognize when you’re producing it (and when you aren’t.) Be ready to review your works again and again. When you write something, set it aside for a few weeks. Go read some quality literature and then go back to try to read your work again with new eyes. It’s hard to get detachment from your own stories, but it’s necessary if you’re going to improve as a writer. Be prepared to throw away large volumes of what you’ve done (I have). It’s not that you’ve “wasted” that effort – it’s that you’ve used it to become a better writer. I once heard it said that you have to write a million words of drivel before producing one work that someone would pay to read. Be ready for that, and don’t give up. Above all, don’t try to write what would sell. Write the story that comes to your imagination. That, plus the skill you have to polish, is the voice you’re bringing to the world. Plenty of people can write potboilers. With self-publishing, you can easily get your name on the front of a book. But if you’re trying to convey something true, particularly if you’re trying to do it for the glory of God, be prepared to work hard.

Thank you, Roger, for taking the time to answer some questions. If you have not read any of his books, I highly recommend them all. He was number 2 on my 2019 Top Ten Fiction List out of almost 200 stories read.

Note: This book is part of a series of reviews: 2019 Catholic Reading Plan!

Books by Roger Thomas:
The Accidental Marriage
From Afar
The Last Ugly Person: And Other Stories

The Ghosts of Midgard Manor And Other Stories
The Crown Jewels of Undlar

Watchful Sky Series:
Under the Watchful Sky
Rising Darkness
The Wounded Land
The Tattered Web


Author profile and interview with Roger Thomas.

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