Thacher E. Cleveland is a busy man. On top of a civilian life, he’s a contributing writer and columnist for PanelsOnPages.com, co-host of the Super-Fly Comics and Games PodCast, and is the writer of the surprise cult hit novella “Winston & Churchill Case” series. Available at Smashwords and Amazon, it’s a must-read for fans of supernatural and/or detective fiction.
With a new installment of the series just out, Thacher chatted with Geeks Of Doom via e-mail about “Winston & Churchill,” genre writing, the e-book market, and moving into comics writing.
Geeks Of Doom: I’d like to start with a sand bag of a question – The “Winston & Churchill” series? As an Irish-American why would I want to read about some British dude?
Thacher E. Cleveland: Very tricky, but the Irish American in you will be glad to know that the series isn’t about a British Prime Minister or any Brit at all, but two private investigators, Lexie Winston and Henry Churchill in Manhattan who specialize in occult investigations: demons, vampires and the like. So if you like supernatural adventure stories that don’t involve a cheesy romance then this is for you, despite my cheap attempt at a catchy title.
Geeks Of Doom: So it sounds like you’re not taking the Stephanie Meyer approach to monsters. Very brave in this day and age.
One thing I appreciated about the stories while I was reading them was not just that you place monsters in a crime-procedural type story, but that you also make the “Winston & Churchill” stories funny in many spots. Was it by design that you made a piece that blurred genre lines or did that come out organically? Do you write with genre in mind?
Thacher E. Cleveland: As much as I can respect the paranormal romance genre for selling as many books as they do its just not my thing. I like my monsters being monsters, so I just started writing what I’d like to read and that’s probably where the humor shows up. Just because there’s monsters there’s no need to be dour about it. Action adventure stories lend themselves well to run the gamut from heartbreaking to hilarious.
Geeks Of Doom: It’s apparent very early on in the series that you’ll be keeping the readers on their toes. The first two stories alone have a very different vibe in their alchemy between terror and adventure. Do you set out to tell different stories each time or do you simply let the story take you someplace organically?
Thacher E. Cleveland: I know generally what’s going to happen and what sort of story I’m looking to tell but a lot of the time the tone of the story will find itself as I’m writing. Conversations and the personalities of the characters can push the humor, terror or adventure aspects. There’s a unifying arc to these first dozen or stories but there have been a couple of side stories and new directions that have popped up as I’ve been writing and that helps keep me on my toes.
I’m also trying to flesh out this world without pounding the reader with tons of exposition. That’s been a tricky balancing act at times but I hope it lends to some of the mystery about these two and what they’re all about. When I first came up with these two it initially started with two people that are superficially complete opposites.
Geeks Of Doom: And yet Winston and Churchill have a pretty good working relationship. Is one easier for you to write or are they a package deal in your mind?
Thacher E. Cleveland: Thus far everything’s worked out smoothly in their working relationship. In the future? Well, who knows. When the series opens they’d only been working together for about 6 months and there’s still a few things about him that she (and the reader) don’t know about.
When it comes to the actual writing I’ve found Lexie’s voice comes a little easier to me because she’s sarcastic and laid back, whereas Henry is a bit of an enigma at times. He’s been doing the occult private investigator thing much longer than she has so despite being married and having children he has a few skeletons in his closet. I’m trying to alternate the focus of the stories from one to the other so that the series doesn’t just become about one rather than the other.
Geeks Of Doom: So how long have you been working on the series? What prompted writing this?
Thacher E. Cleveland: I started pulling together ideas probably about ten years ago and leaning more towards a novel-length story but there were a few other things I wanted to focus on first. As I worked on other things the ideas for the first couple stories came to me and I started working on those a little bit at a time. After I finished my first novel, Shadows Of The Past, I started thinking about it more and more about the stories and what I wanted to do with them.
There didn’t seem to be much of a market for short stories anymore. Magazines seemed to be on their way out and fiction websites didn’t seem to be big in to short fiction anymore. I’d self-published Shadow Of The Past as an ebook and the more I looked in to that the more I read about how serialized fiction is beginning to make a resurgence so I figured it’d be worth turning the idea into a serial of sorts.
I decided I wanted to release them a month at a time and have each story cover a month of “real time” for the characters. After settling on an over-arcing story for the first year I started working on them. There’s been a couple little hiccups here and there but I think we’re back on track for monthly releases.
Geeks Of Doom: You mention Shadows of The Past, what other projects do you have under your belt, and what do you have coming down the pike?
Thacher E. Cleveland: Recently I was part of a successful Kickstarter in November for a horror comics anthology called Monstrology. Digital copies were released to backers in February and print copies will be available later this month and hopefully I’ll have my copies in time for Chicago’s C2E2 convention at the end of April. We all were given a general location and a classic monster to make a 12-page story. The keywords for story I wrote for artist Fernando Cano to draw were “underground” and “the Blob,” which became about two people pursued by the slimy monstrosity through the storm drains under Las Vegas. I also have a 4-page story in Greyhaven Comics’ anti-bullying anthology You Are Not Alone, which should see print later this year.
Aside from the “Winston & Churchill” stories what I’m most excited about is The Robozoic Age, a comic miniseries that’s going to be digitally published by Alterna Comics through ComiXology and all their other digital outlets. Drawn by J.C. Grande, The Robozoic Age is what I like to call a post-post-Apocalyptic story about future time where dinosaurs have returned to the Earth and are the only living animals left and robots roam the planet hunting mankind. The specific story is about a group of ranchers who loose their home and have to find a new place for themselves in this very dangerous world.
It’s like The Walking Dead meets Jurassic Park and Terminator, if you want to use movie-pitch shorthand. I’m pretty psyched for it and the first issue should be available late spring/early summer of this year. I also have another comic series I’m working on with artist Alex Smith that will hopefully land with a publisher later this year.
Geeks Of Doom: People who know you and know your work know that you’ve moving towards breaking into comics writing for probably your whole career. It’s a generic question, but one I find interesting: How has it been writing for comics and working with artists as opposed to writing straight literature?
Thacher E. Cleveland: Well, in a perfect world I’d love to have a foot in booth worlds. The possibilities for storytelling are endless if you keep both those options open, even though the audiences for them are vastly different (something that’s always baffled me).
The biggest difference in comics is the collaborative aspect. It has to be a team dynamic on some level or you just end up with something sub-par. When I was looking for an artist on The Robozoic Age I put an ad out on a comic creators message board saying what kind of story I was looking for. I’ve got another comic that’s in “pre-production” right now with an artist and when we agreed to work together I laid out a bunch of ideas and had him pick which he thought he’d enjoy more. There has to be a lot of give and take and back and forth with everyone on the team, including letterers and colorists and editors (if you have one). Not to mention that with all those moving parts there’s a much higher margin for error and time commitment. Most artists require a lot of lead time on a book and many of those that are willing to work with an unknown like me still have day jobs.
Prose, on the other hand, is pretty much just you. You’re on the tightrope by yourself and if you make bad choices or mistakes then, well, it’s a long way down. You can have all the beta readers you want but ultimately it’s all on you. That’s liberating in a sense as well because you are the main factor in the work getting done so it goes as fast or as slow as you allow it. Plus, with the advent of digital distribution and eReaders the production time (aside from making a snazzy cover) is nil. The downside to the modern “go it alone” eBook route is that you have to do everything: marketing, promotion, advertising, networking. Balancing the time between writing and doing those sorts of things is challenging. One of the things that comics have over all this is they are a quick read. Someone can glance over a comic relatively quickly and see if they’re going to like it. Prose is a little more difficult in that regard.
Another major difference is that comics, for the most part, have a set format. Standard comics are about 22 pages of story (a practical convention that came from the fact that there are generally 22 weekdays in a month and an artist of the traditional Marvel bullpen era drew a page a day) and are released monthly. Prose is…anything. A short story can run from 2,000 words to about 15,000 or 20,000 (although thoughts on this vary). You can make an original graphic novel and release it as its own thing but having people work on something for the better part of a year without getting paid for it is troubling, hence releasing each chapter as a single issue and making a little bit of money from it (hopefully). It can be a very daunting system to work in, but damn if it isn’t fun when you see new pages from an artist.
Geeks Of Doom: Any dream projects, comics or otherwise? Any franchises you spend an inordinate amount of time rolling around in your head? Or do you mostly focus on your original work?
Thacher E. Cleveland: Even though writing licensed characters is in no way my ultimate goal for writing there’s still a bunch of stuff that I have ideas for and think would be fun to work on down the road. When DC relaunched their line with the New 52 I actually ended up coming up with 52 mini pitches for stuff that I thought would work best in that line. There’s a handful of C- and D-list Marvel and DC characters I’d love to take a crack at (like the New Warriors, for instance) but nothing that’s a burning desire. The little bits and pieces you hear about the behind the scenes moves at the Big Two tend to be pretty off-putting, but thankfully it seems that the industry is moving away from having to work with them in order to make a living in the industry. There are a couple of other weird little properties that I’d love to take a crack at, like the Herculoids. How cool would a serious Herculoids relaunch be? But there’s also stuff like G.I. Joe, which I’ve loved since I was a kid and Star Trek that would be really amazing to be a part of.
For right now though I’m just working on trying to do the best job I can at my stuff. For anyone who’s looking to break in to any creative field right now, be it comics or fiction or music, that seems to be the new model: Do something on your own, make it great, find a way to get it in front of people and hope they like it and talk about it. In some ways that last part is the hardest because there’s so much out there right now to compete with. Not to undersell the whole “making it great” part which can come eventually after working on your craft consistently. If you’re trying to make art for a living, there’s a constant push and pull between those two demands and it can be very taxing. Then again, if you love it why would you want to do anything else?
Geeks Of Doom: Hey, thanks for your time.
Thacher E. Cleveland can be found at his website and on Twitter