Kevin Thomas was born in Southern California and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. He writes a 9-panel black-and-white webcomic into a book review strip for The Rumpus. Using his captivating illustrations and no more than a handful of words, week by week Thomas decrypts some of the most intriguing books of our day and now seventy-five of his favorites are collected in one volume called HORN! The Collected Reviews. His work has previously appeared in Barrelhouse magazine and on OccupyWriters.com. He lives and reads in western Washington.
Hello Kevin, and thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us, a little about yourself and your background?
Hi Aman, thank you for your interest in my little book! To give you a bit of background, I come from the West Coast of the United States, I’ve lived in California, Oregon, and—above all—Washington.
What is your area of expertise as a writer/artist or an online publisher?
I have no expertise that qualifies me to do what I do: I got my degree in music (composition), so mostly I dealt with notes and rests. But I was always interested in literature and art: at the end of high school and the beginning of college I was a poet with a very modernist (like, 1910s modernist) aesthetic. But in college I related to the music people more than the English majors (for reasons that don’t merit going into, I missed out on band/choir/orchestra culture in high school) and I had a knack for music theory, so I replaced one kind of writing with another. I never took any studio art classes in college: I sampled a bit of art history, but for some reason—even though I was allowed to be a music major without much of a musical background—I didn’t feel like I belonged in drawing or painting classes. Oh well.
The connection from then to now is fuzzy, but I’ve always felt a need to do something creative—to write songs, essays, whatever—and for a long time that wasn’t happening.
Congratulations on your debut book, HORN! It has some amazing book reviews. All of your reviews are in a form of illustrated strips. How did you come up with the idea at first?
It is about five years ago I decided to make these dumb little autobiographical webcomics. I was inspired partly by Scott McCloud (in particular his books Understanding Comics and Making Comics), and partly by the art of podcasting that was still pretty new at the time: my thing was visual, not audio, but the spirit of doing something by yourself, putting it out for free, and learning how to do things as you do them—that was and is the guiding star.
So I did that for a year, and then when The Rumpus Book Club came into existence, I adapted my 9-panel black-and-white webcomic into a book review strip. The Rumpus liked the first three reviews I made and asked me if I wanted to be on the comics roster. After I’d been doing it every other week for three years, OR Books approached me about a collection. Everything I have is thanks to luck and the kindness of strangers.
Do you write/illustrate every day? Do you follow any ritual?
Some days I read, some days I draw. I have my own rituals, but mostly they are procrastination measures. I (like most people, I think) am always fascinated by writers’ routines, but I don’t think there’s anything universal you can derive from studying the habits of creatives. I work mostly at night. I have a cozy workspace. As long as I’ve got beer to drink and comedy podcasts to listen to, and my shoes are tied tightly, then I’m ready to go.
What motivates you to continue your work?
What motivates me to keep going is that I’m not yet good at what I do, and wouldn’t we all like to be good at what we do? The other things that motivate me are probably universal: to make people like me, to make money (in a hypothetical universe), to fend off death and thoughts of death by using whatever power you have to turn chaos into order and thus temporarily reverse entropy.
What do you prefer: Pen or Computer? And how do you stay organized (any methods, systems, tools you use)?
I don’t do a lot of writing in my reviews (maybe 70 words or fewer), so I usually just draft them on the computer, in an email to myself. Then I design the comics on Bristol board in blue pencil, ink them using brushes & Pigma Micron pens and then reduce & scan them. I’m very low-tech. If I were faced with having to make comics inside the computer itself I don’t know what I would do.
Do you believe in “writer’s block” or in your case an “illustrator’s block”? If so, how do you avoid it?
I’m sure writer’s block is real and I can’t understand the people who claim to be unaffected by it. For me it manifests in two ways: 1. general procrastination—knowing what you have to do, just not wanting to start it; and 2. lack of ideas. The first problem can be solved by deadlines whether real or artificial, but the second problem is more chronic. The classic example is Seinfeld: the best story ideas on that show came from Larry David; Jerry Seinfeld specialized in form/technique/structure. I wish I had Larry David’s gift: I’m good at figuring out how to craft a solution to an artistic problem, but if I have an original idea it’s a very lucky day.
What do you like to do when you are not writing/ illustrating?
My hobbies probably don’t even qualify as hobbies. I like to get intoxicated and watch TV or play the Wii. I like to cook. Sometimes I think I would like to be an outdoorsy person or an exercise enthusiast, but then I remember that you can see every episode of Cheers or The X-Files on Netflix.
What are you working at the moment? When can we see your next work?
I’m working in watercolor right now, and that’s pretty exciting. It’s a comics adaptation of selections from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and will be out sometime next year. I also have a Horn! review coming out in print soon, but I’ll keep you updated on both of these things as they get announced.
Thanks, Kevin. I am looking forward to them. So, Any advice for aspiring writers?
I have no advice for aspiring writers, because I think aspiring writers are more clever and hard-working than I am. The cliche advice is always true: do it every day, read more than you write, submit constantly and collect rejections…. But you can do all of this and fail or you can do none of this and get lucky. You can also die tomorrow. Who knows.
Okay. a quick round about your READING LIFE
Are you a reader?
Yes, of course I’m a reader! But not as good a reader as I wish I could be. There’s something magical about being inside a book, for the brief time that you are in one, but unless I’m reading for a review, books have a difficult time competing with TV, movies, drugs, alcohol, podcasts, Twitter, video games, and music for my attention.
What do you prefer while reading: Paperbacks or eBooks?
I am not a print purist—I have a Kindle and love the ability to search a book (or all of your books) for a certain word combination. And it’s nice to get a book from NetGalley to read for review, or to get something from Amazon that’s been ridiculously discounted. But for the most part I would prefer a paperback—or hardcover, but I have to take the dust jacket off or I’ll go crazy. And if there’s a deckle edge I usually get sad because that means (as with e-books) that riffling through the pages is pretty much impossible.
One book that you would read again & again?
I haven’t re-read a book in a long time. I used to like to do it with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which should be read in late March/early April), and I should probably read that again sometime soon. But I haven’t been a re-reader since I started reviewing books: every twice-read book is a lost opportunity to discover something new. On the other hand life is short and you should read what you want to.
Your favorite authors?
My favorite authors are the ones that make me laugh. Modernists: James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, Italo Svevo, Ralph Ellison, Flann O’Brien. Contemporaries: Francine Prose, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, Sam Lipsyte, Yannick Murphy, etc. People whose books blow my mind and I wouldn’t have known it were it not for these reviews: Shane Jones, Barbara Browning, Sara Levine, Karolina Waclawiak—someone is always at work writing something crazy, funny, and moving. My personal favorite example of this type of writing is Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon by Marjorie Kellogg (made into a movie starring Liza Minnelli)—I haven’t read it again since the first time, but if you can map the genome of that book, you’d have the key to what I love about the novel.
What book(s) are you reading at present?
I have too many books to read right now and am kind of hiding from them. But if I were reading, I would most likely be reading nonfiction: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, the new expanded edition of Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson, Against Football by Steve Almond, Bowie by Simon Critchley, and Enter Talking by Joan Rivers (rest in peace).