Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Thaddeus Howze – Thaddeus Howze is a prolific writer of speculative fiction, scientific, technical and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California.
Thanks so much, Thaddeus, for joining me!
J. Scott Coatsworth: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
Thaddeus Howze: Unlike a lot of writers, I can’t say I have been writing my entire life, or that I wrote my first novel when I was eight.
Instead, my parents discouraged the idea of art or any kind of art related career because they didn’t see artists making very much money, and they didn’t know any artists of color at the time (mid seventies).
So I went to school to learn science because it was assumed I would go into some sort of scientific or engineering field. I read science and technology books regularly, had a library card by the time I was eight and knew most of the librarians in my neighborhood on a first name basis.
But my secret that I managed to keep for a few years was my purchase and enjoyment of comics. I had a neighbor who was a comic collector (hard core, bags and backs, cooled room, stacked, ordered and organized) and after doing some work in the building, we came across each other.
He was a retired gentleman in a wheelchair who couldn’t dig his car out of the snow during our crazy New York winters. So I helped him with his car and I got to read comics from the Golden Age!
My mother would not have approved of me spending so much time reading comics but as long as I stayed a straight A student she didn’t complain. “Get your work done and your time is your own.” So I did. We would have a falling out over this eventually, because she felt I shouldn’t be reading things that weren’t useful in school. I neglected to mention to her, I had also started reading what would now be called classic science fiction around that same time…
I joined the military after leaving the Bronx High School of Science, one of the more prestigious science schools in New York. Bronx Science cemented my love of all things scientific and its influences always affect how I think about everything.
I began writing reports in the military and would at some level write analyses and reports like those for the rest of my life, no matter what career I would work in. I learned early, if you were a Black Man, documenting your work was Job #1.
My first attempt at fiction didn’t happen until my second year in college AFTER the military around 1987. I took a creative writing series of courses and experienced for the first time the real joy of creative writing.
I was a roleplaying gamer in high school: my two favorite games were Champions and Dungeons and Dragons. I would continue gaming in the military and even after I got out. I would become a Game Master and even start writing my own scenarios for players. I was a professional Game Master long before it became an actual job description today.
In 1993, a friend of mine pitched an idea to a game company called R. Talsorian Games. We would produce our first writing for hire in a magazine called Interface.
It was a big deal to me at the time because I was working a full time job and still trying to put out this four-color cover and black and white interior publication with only a limited understanding of the potential of desktop design, since the tech was in its infancy. But we managed to work with writers around the world an eventually get the bloody thing in print.
I was very proud of the work, even though it would be described today as a print on demand project. Back then, there was no such thing. We were at the forefront of the technology and were making it work, nearly a decade before anyone else would do work like it regularly.
From 1993 to around 1996 I would work on this and a number of other publications. This was the first time I was paid to write. But once I became an adjunct professor and a network administrator at a community college, I wouldn’t write or create anything creative again seriously outside of my teaching work for another 15 years.
JSC: If you could sit down with one other writer, living or dead, who would you choose, and what would you ask them?
TH: I have met a number of famous writers, in person, including some of my favorite comic writers like David Walker and Brandon Easton, and we have talked over social media in some cases for many years. Daniel Keyes Moran and Steven Barnes, two of my favorite writers have spoken with me online and we have talked about science, writing and I feel I have been privy to quite a bit of understanding about their challenges and enjoyment as writers.
But if I were to mention a writer who I would like to meet who is still living it would be the incomparable Neil Gaiman. I have been a fan of his writing since I first discovered him in the Sandman comic series published by DC Comics, Vertigo line.
His characters, their wonderful dialogue, his mastery of the fantastic and the mundane strike the heart of modern fantasy writing. I love his Endless characterizations. Cosmic beings who still struggle with finding their place, redefining themselves and always under the auspices of trying to become better beings resonate with me. I would want to know what he does to bring these characters to life and how I can do the same thing with my own.
JSC: How would you describe your writing style/genre?
TH: Modern Speculative Fusion: I am not a single genre writer. I know how. I can write fantasy or speculative fiction in equal measure. Having grown up with classic science fiction, Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov, Gregory Benford and the Pulp Era science fiction, Robert E Howard and E.E. Doc Smith, as well as what I considered the reformation of speculative fiction in the seventies and eighties with Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Jack L. Chalker, Michael Moorcock and Roger Zelazy, my exposure to a wide range of styles of both fantasy and science fiction makes me unwilling to write just one genre.
While I mentioned all of these masters, I would read any speculative fiction book growing up, adding it to my mental database of writing, both good and bad to draw upon and to learn from. Now, I can write pure hard science fiction because I love science and will learn about a science so that I can speculate on what it might do in a potential story. I am not however, limited to hard science and will just as easily create stories around space wizards and the flaming swords if it suits me to do so. I am tech agnostic: magic and technology can be the same thing to me. With sufficient logic, magic IS technology. See: Arthur C. Clark
I love the full range of speculative fiction and have made it a challenge to write in as many genres as I can. Since I LOVE to write short fiction, I get the chance to create something in a new genre nearly every day I sit down to write. My favorite worlds are the ones where I fuse magic and technology into something stranger than both.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
TH: This November will make my twelfth year as a full-time writer. The reason I began writing again was my wife was going through an old storage space I rented when I moved out of my apartment and discovered some short stories I wrote in college, all those years ago.
My name wasn’t on them, only my grade (the professor claimed it was to prevent bias on her part). The grades and the professors notes intrigued her, so one weekend she started reading them all. When I came home, she asked me why I didn’t write for a living? And my response was: “I like eating. Information Technology pays bills.” And I thought the argument was over.
But it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. When the argument actually ended three months later, I was writing again, tentatively on a blog I created, but the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. It was as if a dam broke within me and suddenly stories, articles, analyses, started coming forth fast and furious.
I participated in my first National Novel Writing Month and completed it. This was the beginning of my career as a writer. I would start taking writing challenges whenever they were available. While my first NaNoWriMo novel hasn’t been printed, a number of the ideas from it have gone on to become short stories I have managed to sell for various anthologies.
I published my first book called Hayward’s Reach in 2011 from the first 30 Stories in 30 Days contest I participated that April, 2011. I decided to self-publish to experiment with the advances in the technology since I wrote my first magazines and the process was MUCH easier. It took me about three months to figure out what was needed but only a month to produce the actual book once I understood what was needed.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
TH: For me, there is no such time as a bad time to get an idea. I do my best writing when I am not writing. I’ve discovered my best ideas come to me when I am doing something else. I have developed the habit of doing work which tends to be mindless but physically demanding. During this meditative state of not being able to type, I find ideas will come to me, most likely because I can’t write them down.
This puts me in the unfortunate position of having to receive the incoming story and play with it in my head while I am doing another task. The first time this happened to me I was a janitor in a VA hospital. I am mopping of one the never ending hallways when a story came to me, so I began to write it in my head. Playing with the idea, I treated it like any other short story, mulling it over and creating characters to fill in the vision of the story. If my story was particularly hot, I could even see myself working through the dialogue while I was hosing out trash cans.
When I would get off, I’d be bone tired. But I would drive the thirty minutes to get home, drag myself out of the car, into the shower and then at 3:00 in the morning, start typing. When my wife got out of the bed at six, I would just be heading there.
But the story would be done. And because of its intense percolation, the inability to do anything but mull over it for five hours, I got a chance to work with it, sharpening it before putting any time typing it at all. On a good day, it would explode out onto the page in a single sitting.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
TH: Everyone in my stories is an under-represented group. As a writer who is a Black man, over the age of fifty, who is on the autistic spectrum, who is raising a son on the spectrum, who has worked for most of my life as a Black man in the primarily white technology industry as a technical person, who has served in the military, taught in college and didn’t become a professional writer until he was nearly forty years of age, I am the epitome of the under-represented group.
Growing up without much representation on television, I swore if I ever became a writer I would champion all kinds of people in my work and being a speculative fiction writer, the definition of who or what qualifies as people varies widely. I range from intelligent stars to super-intelligent virus colonies and all kinds of critters in between. My work features the old, the young, the neuro-diverse, people from all walks of life, reflecting my own experiences across my life.
As a young man growing up in the rough and tumble life of 1970s New York, I feel my experiences there exposed me to a very cosmopolitan worldview. I got to see a world of diverse colors, hear a wide array of languages, eat so many fantastic foods, that by the time I left home to travel in the military, I was prepared to handle different cultures and eager to meet new ones.
My writing is filled with those experiences, the alien-ness of a new culture. The isolation. The panic of not having language in a new place. Feeling alone in a crowded place. The feeling of mastery of new language, the moments of recognition, the slow build of connectedness. The absorption of new cultural ideas. The feeling of a new home, a place you could see yourself being a part of… This is the heart of much of my speculative fiction.
JSC: How did you deal with rejection letters?
TH: Does crying a lot count? In the beginning, I didn’t take them very well. I wanted to be liked and worked very hard in the hopes I would be. Now I recognize rejection is literally part of the game and I am better about it. I try not to take it as personally. I will admit to disliking them as much as ever, but now my goal is to figure out how to get an organization to like my work rather than focus on why they rejected it.
I recognize my unwillingness to compromise my characters, or my story, or my personal integrity means I will not get pass certain editors or gatekeepers. I believe in my work and will not compromise it, even if it takes me longer to get published and recognized the way I want to be.
The quote from Jean Luc Picard to Data goes something like this: “Mr. Data, you can do everything right and still lose.” There is no business where that applies more appropriately than writing.
JSC: What was one of the most surprising things you’ve learned in writing your books?
TH: Race matters. The more I write, the more I discover there are challenges which have nothing to do with your writing and more to do with the industry. While there is a lot of hubbub in America about race, I don’t let it affect my writing if I can help it.
I cannot affect the perspectives of people who are not buying my work. I cannot change how they see the world, how they deal with the false divisions of race created by people in power to sow dissent in the world at large.
What I can do, is write well. What I can do is to create compelling characters. What I can do is create characters whose experiences are NOT stereotypical, NOR are they pale shadows of the dominant subculture which says: People of color have no lives except for those which put on display stereotypical depictions of Black Pain or racial discord or suffering.
My characters, no matter their racial depiction, cultural emphasis, social class, are as human and three dimensional as I can make them. This means they are also flawed, challenged in some way which may blind them to the world and its issues. I may use these same flaws to talk about social issues, but that is NOT why I write.
If I happen to cover an issue which deserves to be recognized, that is a fortunate side effect of what I am writing. My GOAL is to tell a compelling story, first and foremost. If someone wants to read deeper and see what other things I may layer in there, they are free to (and I appreciate if they make the effort).
Race isn’t going away any time soon, as much as I would like it to. Pretending it isn’t there doesn’t work. Recognizing there are advantages other writers may have due to their network, skin color, connections, affiliations is all part of BUSINESS as usual in these United States.
My solution? Be so damn good, nobody cares who I am, what color I am, or what color my protagonists are.
Since I have written about stories with robots, intelligent machines, sentient viruses, stories about different color humans who happen to live on a tiny insignificant planet called Dirt or Earth or some such, shouldn’t be a serious stretch for me.
With a bit of research, talking to my diverse pool of friends, I can get an inside scoop on making real experiences for my characters that can be related to by everyone who reads my work. Beyond those efforts, all I can do is wait to be discovered.
Honestly, I do use my art to discuss delicate topics. If your art isn’t doing that at least at some level, it isn’t really doing anything at all. Good art is often subversive at one level or another. I am okay with that.
JSC: Would you visit the future or the past, and why?
TH: One of my pastimes is the study of history. I developed an interest in history when I started wanting to run roleplaying games set in historical Earth periods. I would later demand greater veracity in my writing and my time travel knowledge, just in case time travel became a possibility. You never know, right?
The more I researched, the more horrified I became. The past is TERRIBLE. It stinks. There are no modern amenities for which I have grown far to accustomed to. If you ever want to figure out what it feels like to live in the past, all one has to do is travel today. Spend parts of the world are trapped, either by economics or cultural preferences, in the past. Those societies were some of the most disjointing experiences I have ever known as I struggled to adjust to them.
Having completed research into other periods, I realize living in some of the periods most beloved by modern citizens would be literally the last place I’d want to be. Victorian England and turn of the 20th century New York (high on the list of periods writers create in) were absolutely disgusting. Working horses to death, then leaving them to die in the street. Ghastly. But you know what’s worse? Being too large to move, meant sometimes leaving them there until they were… easier to dispose of. I leave the horror of this grisly process to your imagination. Nope. Send me to the dystopian futures, please. At least they may have plumbing.
JSC: What are you working on now?
TH: That last question was the perfect segue into my latest collection of short stories, which will be on the subject of Death and dying. Visiting Hours will be a series of meta-themed stories, much like my first book, Hayward’s Reach, except this time the theme will much darker. American’s have a nasty habit of not being able to confront their mortality. Our media features young and beautiful actors. Our nation spends billions on beauty advertising, fashion accoutrements and other beauty enhancing accessories. This culture punishes getting older. Depending on your career, you can find yourself considered “too old” as early as forty. Worst of all, as you get older, gone is the idea of staying with your family.
You are shuffled off to old folks homes to die in the care of strangers, your death isolated from your family experience. This was not always the way of things. Depending on where you live, death can be a much more personal experience and as you age, you have varying viewpoints on the subject, take it from me.
Visiting Hours is a series of stories discussing death and dying. It’s not just the death of people we discuss in this collection, sometimes it’s the death of an idea, or of a belief, which can be just as devastating. Or liberating, depending on whose perspective you’re taking.
The stories span the range of speculative fiction, as is my wont, from star spanning space operas to pawnshop owners trying to bargain for a little more time from the Grim Reaper. I know it’s a dark topic but I mix up quite an array of stories which, like my first book, I am confident people will enjoy despite the eclectic mix of stories. I’m almost finished writing it and will be working to get it to my editors by the end of the year.
And now for Thaddeus’s latest book: Broken Glass:
Clifford Engram, paranormal investigator was hired to work the cases the police would rather pretend didn’t exist. These were often murders behind locked doors with mysterious circumstances and often ghoulish consequences. They were his specialty.
A call from a New Orleans precinct indicates a serial killer whose methods hadn’t been seen in decades. Impossible murders, mysterious disappearances from behind locked doors indicated a killer with unique talents.
But the serial killer who performed these murders was thought fifty years dead. In Clifford’s line of work, being dead wasn’t always a hindrance to murder.
His trip to the Big Easy will uncover a family secret better left behind BROKEN GLASS.
BROKEN GLASS is Book One in the Eye of Knowledge Series.
Dominique LaStrade was a vital woman in her seventies.
Smooth-skinned and midnight black, only the tiniest crow’s feet in the corner of her eyes and slight frown lines in the corner of her mouth revealed her true age. Whispers of the source of her ever-present beauty were varied from a quality diet to dark magic associated with the children who went missing from time to time in Louisiana. Neither perspective bothered her much anymore.
Her hair had greyed and she stubbornly refused to dye it. As if to complement her refusal to age, her hair greyed in a stylish fashion, strategically streaked for maximum effect. In her youth, she was known for her mesmerizing walk, part sashay, part black panther, many a man might mistake her for something other than what she was — a predator of the first order.
Time had taken a step or two but not that most would notice. Full-hipped and still strong as any man, she maintained a food kitchen in the middle of the French Quarter, and still helped to unload the truck every morning as she had for nearly a decade since her retirement. Her kitchen cared for those people who had slipped the bounds of polite society and were unable to find their way back.
People were fanatically loyal to her and worked to stay in her good graces. Those who were able to return to society returned often to help out, with money, time or effort in appreciation for her kindnesses. She needed none of those things, but accepted them anyway, allowing them to contribute to her operation without even realizing their true purpose.
She made cookies for her local church. She taught children to read. She was a woman whom the local society had great respect for and perhaps just the tiniest bit of fear. In less than polite circles she was rumored to be a witch or mombo, capable of communing with the dead. Her father was once one of the most powerful hougan this area ever knew. A binder of spirits, a destroyer of vampires, and a protector of the innocent against those forces which always threaten to unbalance our world.
The senior LaStrade was a formidable man whose reputation ensured his daughter’s prominent rise in local politics because in addition to being a the Hougan of New Orleans, he was also for a time its mayor. Dominique had no love of politics, though she in her youth had a taste for power, became a city councilwoman and stayed one for nearly thirty years. She maintained her facade as a harmless eccentric in her retirement though she kept her hands on the flow of power and so her sobriquet, The Lady of the Web was well earned.
I didn’t know any of this at the time when I first met her. We would be better acquainted later.
At the time, I was too busy fighting for my life.
The spiritual essence of a human being had just been snuffed out by, well, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing yet, some kind of spiritual predator. It was large, larger than I was and its shape mutated in the mist which acted as its prison. After its latest snack, his fiery eyes turned toward me as his next choice of dinner partners. In this form, most of my elemental magic would have almost no effect on it, as an entity of spirit, things that affect the real world weren’t much good.
Unlike me, he didn’t have to consider what to do and his crouch indicated his intent. I brought my cane up into a block while I considered my choices. Escape was not really an option. I was asleep and would be so until I woke naturally. Or died in my sleep, here. I could hope the Seer was still around and would be nice enough to intervene but they didn’t usually, something about their immeasurable value to the Agency.
This thing is fast. I barely saw it move from where it was to it biting down on my staff. The clang of its jaws on my staff rippled through my being and I realized just how much trouble I was in. Adding insult to injury, I could feel the aether in this building changing like it did when I first came in. The barriers were reinforcing themselves. Now I wasn’t sure I could leave even if I wanted to. Could I alter the barrier enough to get out?
That would take time and focus. At this particular moment, all I could focus on was keeping my spirit cane between the slavering jaws of a being who was perfectly capable of touching my astral form and tearing me to bits.
The first thing to remember about magic is it is dependent on intent. Even if you don’t have a spell handy the intent of the spell can be evoked by a reasonably effective magician. I didn’t have my body handy so most of my good magic was not available to me.
I was working on instinct.
Thaddeus Howze is a prolific writer of speculative fiction, scientific, technical and cultural commentary from his office in Hayward, California. Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. He has published two books, Hayward’s Reach (2011), a collection of short stories and Broken Glass (2013) an urban fantasy novella starring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.
Thaddeus works as a writer and editor for two magazines, the Good Men Project, a social men’s magazine as well as Krypton Radio, a sci-fi enthusiast media station and website. He is also a freelance journalist for Polygon.com and Panel & Frame magazine. Thaddeus is the co-founder of Futura Science Fiction Magazine and one of the founding members of the Afrosurreal Writers in Oakland.
Before his career reinvention as a writer, Thaddeus was a technology executive who worked in the Bay Area as the Chief Information Officer and Vice President of Information Services for John F. Kennedy University. He was also an adjunct instructor of Computer Science and the technology manager of the Computer Science department at Laney College.
Thaddeus’ career in information technology spanned two decades and included network design, desktop publishing, educational curriculum design and industry-related coaching.
In his identity as The Answer-Man he answers questions about science fiction, media culture, movies, anime, comics and superheroes all over the Internet. He is a fixture on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Stack Exchange. having won Times 50 Top sites on the Internet and writes on superheroes and two hundred other topics on Quora.com. He has won their prestigious Top Writer award three years running, in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
Thaddeus has appeared on a variety of podcasts and convention panels as a comic historian and inspirational writing coach promoting Afrofuturism and speculative fiction writing.
His speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies: The Future is Short II (2015), Visions II: Moons of Saturn (2015), Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short (2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (2012), and Possibilities (2012).
Thaddeus has written two books: a collection called Hayward’s Reach (2011) and an e-book novella called Broken Glass (2013) featuring his favorite paranormal investigator, Clifford Engram.