Interview with T. M. Wright
An Unleashed Imagination
Novelist T. M. Wright reflects on creativity, the muse, and finding your writer’s voice.
Interview conducted by Matt Cardin
First published in May 2010 at Demon Muse (now discontinued)
Republished June 2014 at The Teeming Brain
Amid the flood of books and authors, many of them quite awful, that made up the 1970s and 80s horror publishing boom, T. M. Wright was one of the few whose works rose above the murky waters to reveal qualities of authentic excellence. Some readers and critics called him a new master of ghost fiction, even placing him in the company of M. R. James. His 1978 debut novel, Strange Seed — about a newlywed couple who escape the urban din of New York City by moving to a farm house in upstate New York, where they’re confronted by a shattering supernatural presence in the woods — is a bona fide modern classic that prompted Stephen King to dub it “the best supernatural novel since Interview with the Vampire.” King also included the book on his list of essential modern horror novels in Danse Macabre and called Wright himself “a rare and blazing talent.” A Manhattan Ghost Story (1984) is likewise recognized as a modern classic, and is credited with introducing a new twist on the ghost story that went on to exert an enormous influence on both fiction and film.
What primarily makes Wright’s work so singular and memorable is its visionary evocation of a bizarre supernatural reality that impinges on the mundane world in the most sinister and strange of ways, as expressed in a mesmerizing “experimental” voice, style, structure, and tone. His novels (more than 20 of them and counting), short stories, and poems convey the sense that they are following an obscure thread of meaning that reveals itself not in and through the conventional mechanics of plot, setting, and characterization, but in a more oblique and almost subliminal fashion. William P. Simmons, in reviewing a new edition of Strange Seed that was published in 2006, nailed the whole thing when he said, “While Wright’s refusal to play it safe by providing readers with clean-cut moral simplicities or easy-to-understand endings has alienated a large percentage of what could be considered the traditional horror readership, his poetically lush atmosphere, evocation of ambiguity in a lonely universe, and anti-plots of subjectivity have delighted just as many.”
I personally became acquainted with Terry (the “T” in “T. M.”) in 2006 through our mutual habit of hanging out online at the Shocklines Message boards. One thing led to another, and we ended up co-editing a two-volume fiction anthology titled Holy Horrors (which, sadly, never saw publication). When I was in the early stages of planning and designing the now-defunct Demon Muse blog, which was focused on the experience and discipline of creative inspiration by the muse/daemon/genius, I thought of Terry immediately as a great candidate for an interview, not only because he’s such a fine writer, but because his work bears evidence of a profound sensitivity to the nuances of the creative process. I especially wanted to ask him about the deep inner source of his hypnotically expressed ideas.
And so, when we finally sat down in cyberspace to chat, that’s what I led with.
MATT CARDIN: Thank you for joining me here, Terry. And apologies up front for starting with a variation of the oldest question in the author interviewing biz, but it leads right into the center of what I want to talk to you about: when you write, where does it come from? What’s your guidance, the source and center of the ideas you follow?
T. M. WRIGHT: You know, in all honesty, I’m not sure. I think what I’m probably following is my belief that the universe we live in isn’t as benign or dependable as some of us hope. And when I say “the universe we live in,” I’m not talking solely about the physical universe, the universe of home, city, country, et cetera, but also the universe of our souls — a word I use very broadly — and creativity. The universe of our expectations and relationships, both with others and with ourselves, is simply not as knowable as we’d like to believe. And sometimes that universe takes us completely by surprise, for good or ill.
MC: So as you go about exploring and explicating this belief in a fundamentally mysterious physical, interpersonal, and soulful/psychological universe, what’s your experience, if any, of inspiration, of being given ideas and words in a way that feels spontaneous and beyond your control? Please note that when I ask the question, I’m thinking in the back of my head about the large number of writers, including some prominent ones in the horror genre — I think immediately of Joe Lansdale and Brian Keene, for instance — who have famously championed the “ass in chair” prescription for authorial success. They emphasize the necessity of practical effort, of simply committing to the discipline of sitting down and pounding out words. The thing is, some people of this persuasion — and I’m not saying this is true of Joe and Brian — go at it in a one-sided manner by talking as if effort precludes inspiration, as if they’re mutually exclusive. They even dismiss the very idea of inspiration as a distraction from the gritty reality of doing it all yourself through hard work. Personally, I think effort and inspiration go together. I think both are necessary, because effort and discipline are what provide a suitable channel for inspiration to flow through. So what do you say to any of this?
TMW: I make the effort — the writing effort — until what passes for “inspiration” makes an appearance, and then I go with its flow. Often, it takes me to strange places inhabited by strange people, and I find myself writing about these people, in these places, as if they’re real, as indeed they are. They have to be real, in some universe, anyway.
MC: What you’re describing, that transition where your story takes on its own life and you just follow it and record what happens, is pretty much the Holy Grail for most fiction writers. I’ve found it’s important when writing nonfiction, too — that moment when your project takes on its own momentum, and its inner logic tells you where you’re going. How did you originally learn to do this?
“Getting in touch with the creative unconscious is probably a tricky thing to do. After all, it’s the ‘unconscious’ for a reason: it doesn’t want to be gotten in touch with. But to find that true creative voice, my advice would be to forget it’s there, and simply write. It doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s got some kind of flow, strange or otherwise.”
TMW: I spent a few years at the beginning of my career struggling with what the process of writing was all about. Does a writer try just to write in ways that are at least readable, about characters and situations that a reader would probably find interesting and entertaining? In the beginning I guess I took what was almost a one, two, three approach. One, get an idea. Two, pop a few interesting characters and settings into that idea. Three, write the story in a way that keeps readers reading and satisfies them at the end. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, of course. It works quite well for many writers. But I sensed that, for me, something was missing. I felt I wasn’t getting in touch with something . . . other, something that was part of my need to write, something with which I had yet to communicate.
I found it, whatever it was, by throwing out the “get an idea” stage and simply sitting down and writing whatever came into my head. This was late in my career. Perhaps it started with Cold House, published in 2003 and written a year earlier. Or perhaps it started when TOR offered me a couple of three-book contracts based simply on titles for which I had yet to flesh out “ideas.” That approach gave birth to half a dozen trippy novels, including The School and Little Boy Lost, published in 1989 and 1993 by TOR, Sleepeasy, published by Victor Gollancz in 1994, and Blue Canoe, published in 2009 by the PS Publications in the UK.
MC: When you talk about the need to creatively “get in touch with something,” I think this naturally suggests something like inspiration, something like the muse. Do you subscribe to such an idea? Do you think of your creativity in muse-oriented terms?
TMW: You know, I think “finding the muse” is simply finding one’s true voice. It comes to us when the programmatic one, two, three structure falls apart. Of course, for many writers this approach never falls apart, and that’s great for them. They don’t need to seek “the muse,” because they’ve already found their voice. But for others of us, it does fall apart, and so we end up sitting and staring and waiting for the “voice,” the muse, to arrive. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. But when it does, we — and by “we” I mean “I” — can find new and exciting places and characters for the imagination to work with. And maybe that’s all the muse really is: an unleashed imagination. Trying to make something readable and satisfying out of that unleashed imagination, however, can be a daunting task, because on the one hand we have to keep it from making what we write into a mass of ugly pudding, and on the other hand we’ve got to keep it “unleashed.” Sometimes, for me, the process works.
MC: I love the self-portrait you created titled “T.M. Wright with Muse.” What’s the story there?
TMW: That came about when I was trying to make the black background a little lighter, with burnt umber. I stepped back at some point and realized, “Good Lord, that’s my muse!”
MC: So what’s your best advice for writers and other creative artists who are looking to get in harmony with their creative unconscious and produce work that’s really and truly “them”?
TMW: Getting in touch with the creative unconscious is probably a tricky thing to do. After all, it’s the “unconscious” for a reason: it doesn’t want to be gotten in touch with. But to find that true creative voice, my advice would be to forget it’s there, and simply write. It doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s got some kind of flow, strange or otherwise. How much should you write? As much as you can until it becomes drudgery. When that happens, back away. Oh, and to get in touch with your true creative voice, you should write about people, primarily. Of course, that’s what all writers do, to one extent or another. I guess what I mean is, try to write about the whole person, including his or her unconscious/subconscious stuff, nasty though it may be. Don’t just be interested in your own unconscious mind; bring that interest to the minds of your characters. I think we’re all interested in the whole person. I think we live vicariously through the characters that good writers create.
MC: I want to quote something you said in a 2007 interview for Fearzone when the interviewer, J.G. Faherty, asked you about your writing process. Basically, he asked whether you approach writing intuitively by depending on your unconscious mind to provide ideas, or rationally through deliberate thought, research, and so on. You replied, “I usually wing it. An image, a line of dialogue, even just a title will come to me and I’ll start writing and, often (though not always) a story will emerge some two or three-hundred pages later. It’s the same way with novellas, and short stories, though the page-ranges are different, of course. Poems, too. I believe in the muse, though I don’t think she’s a supernatural entity intent on making my literary life easier (if she is, then she’s failed miserably). I’m not sure what the muse is, but I believe in it — perhaps because I need something to excuse or justify the terribly anarchic way I approach the writing of anything.” So does this still describe the way you view and feel about the muse?
TMW: Hey, good catch. I didn’t think anyone had even read that interview. But yes, that’s still pretty much the way I see the “muse” — which is to say that I’m not at all sure how I see it, but it’s fun to talk about.