Recently I got the chance to interview Thomas F. Monteleone. In my eyes, Mr. Monteleone is a legend in the field. He is the author of over thirty books and has received the Bram Stoker award four times in four different categories. For more than twenty-five years he has written the humorous and informative column “The Mother and Father’s Italian Association,” which is his take on the craft and industry, and it currently appears in Cemetery Dance magazine. Mr. Monteleone is also the author of the incredibly successful, The Complete Idiots Guide to Writing a Novel, which is one of the only books about writing I suggest to my students (see article: The Other Bible). He is also one of the founders of the terrific publishing company, Borderlands Press.
I sent an interview request to Mr. Monteleone thinking I would get no response, instead, I he wrote back to me the same day and agreed to an interview. I must say I was a bit nervous to interview an idol of mine, but he quickly put me at ease with his friendliness and humor. In fact, we ended up talking for almost two hours. During that time we talked about his career, thoughts on the industry and much more. The following is our conversation:
Michael Aloisi: To start off, I have to ask the questions I ask in all of my interviews, starting with: What made you want to write?
Thomas F. Monteleone: I think that at some point writers become writers because, they can’t not write. I think I came to a conscious decision about it when I was around the age of twelve. I remember being laid up with the flu or something and I was reading comic books like I always did and my mother got some paperbacks from our neighbor, who thought I might like them. They were science fiction paperbacks. One of them was Caviar by Theodore Sturgeon, so I started to read it and the stories were so much more powerful and moving compared to the comics I had been reading. I was stunned.
It was the first time I was truly aware that this stuff came from somebody’s head and were written down by that person. A kid sees the world pretty much as a global entity, where everything simply is; they don’t have the awareness that adults do. But I realized at that moment that every story ever told had to come from the mind of someone—and it just hit me that it would be a really cool thing to be able to write stories like this guy, Sturgeon. So I said, I think I want to try this.
Later that year I cut lawns to make money, saved up and went to Sears to buy an Underwood typewriter and started typing out stories. Of course they were terrible, they were derivative and simple, but that is when I realized this was something I really wanted to do. So, I think I knew what I wanted to be since I was twelve. And in that respect I have been able to make a decent living at writing, I have been blessed because most people don’t get to live their childhood dreams.
MA: When you decided to start writing, how long did it take you to produce anything of quality?
TFM: I think it took a really long time because, unlike a lot of people now who go to conventions and workshops and things like our boot camps, I didn’t get any real formal instruction other than high school and college. I didn’t have much in the way of mentoring by anyone who’d already traveled the path.. It was sort of like being thrown into a locked dark room and having to feel my way around. All the secrets of writing were the furniture in the room covered up in sheets. I had to walk around in the dark and pull the sheets off and figure out what the hell I was in touch with.
I had this misconception that good writing was an abundance of flowery language. And as long as I believed that, I wasn’t a very good writer. I really needed to get all of this bad writing out of me. I’ll tell you how I got better, though.
There was a guy named Damon Knight who edited a lot of anthologies. He was doing a series back then called Orbit, and would do one a year, it was sort of the Cadillac of the genre at the time. Basically, if you got a story into Orbit, you’d really arrived. It was like the USDA seal of approval, it meant you were prime. I used to send a lot of stories to Damon Knight and he would always reject them. I would get the usual form letter, then about after fifteen or so, I got a letter from Damon Knight. He said; you have one of the most important things writers must have and that is persistence, I keep seeing your name and your name is memorable, but. . . . you are not getting any better. I’ll make you a deal. Send me the best thing you have ever written and I’ll line-edit it, I’ll go through it line-by-line because I think you have some talent, not much, but you have discipline and that is what you need to make it as a writer. So I’ll line-edit one story of yours and you learn from it what you can. I said great, so I rewrote and rewrote this story, I thought it was the best thing I had ever written, and I sent it to him. Then I didn’t hear from him for a while, maybe 2 months, but then one day I got an envelope back from him… I take the manuscript out of the envelope and stared at it in this stupor, it was like someone hit me with a heavy, lead pipe. I could barely read what I had typed because of all the red ink from his pen. There was so much red ink on this manuscript it looked like a road map to get you’re through Illinois or something. It was ridiculous! There was this voice over my shoulder that was saying; can this there be that much wrong with this thing? And then over my other should there was another voice that said: you bet your f*cking ass!
He totally took every sentence apart; it was a profound learning experience for me. I had never been edited like that in my life. I learned so much from it. It changed the way I wrote from then on. Pretty soon after that, I think within six months, I started selling stories. Something really happened with those edits, instead of feeling like I was just beaten out like a cheap piece of tin and thinking I wasn’t worth my weight in dog food, I said, you know what, this is going to make me better. And I think that happens with a lot of writers, when the bell finally rings and they find out that they are not as good as they think, they either say I’m rolling up my sleeves and getting ready to work or they are going to walk away and sell life insurance.
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