If you’ve listened to the podcast PodCastle, you know D.K. Thompson’s voice. For five years, D.K. (Dave) Thompson hosted and co-edited the show with Anna Schwind, where they produced and presented short fiction from luminaries of the fantasy genre such as Gene Wolfe, N.K. Jemisin, Catherynne M. Valente, Ken Liu, and Jeff Vandermeer, among hundreds of other incredible authors. Earlier in 2015, Dave and Anna announced their editorial retirement, passing the PodCastle reins on to Rachael K. Jones and Graeme Dunlop. Thompson’s short fiction has appeared at Escape Pod, Bull Spec, Drabblecast, and now Apex Magazine. His short story collection, And Welcome Back, will be available soon. Among other stories, it includes his love-letter to PodCastle, “Annnnd Welcome Back,” and fiction from his Saint Darwin’s universe.
This month, we are thrilled to present “All Things to All People,” in which history and redemption is inescapably marked on the flesh of the protagonist. An exercise in “less is more,” Thompson offers the bare bones of a story, yet those bones are polished so smoothly that the story is reflected right back at the reader, pulling you in further than you expected. While reading, I couldn’t help but think of a set of postcards that was gifted to me, a collection of photos of Russian Prison Tattoos. Stories of someone’s life, inked on their skin—actions they are proud of next to actions they regret, next to images of those they have disappointed, their bodies adorned with silent symbols, a story told, but rarely actually voiced. If you’ve never received one of these postcards from me, it’s because I can’t bear to give them up.
D.K. was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the genesis of “All Things to All People,” his experiences on PodCastle, his Saint Darwin stories, and more. D.K. Thompson lives in California, and you can learn more about his work at his website SpiritualNoir.net, or by following him on twitter at @krylyr.
Questions about the story
APEX MAGAZINE: Every time the protagonist helps someone, another tattoo appears, eventually to cover the person’s body and end their story. I have a fascination with how the artwork on someone’s body can tell a constantly evolving story of their life. What’s your connection with tattoos? Does body art feature in any of your other stories?
D.K. THOMPSON: I think my fascination with tattoos is pretty much Ray Bradbury’s fault. I read the Illustrated Man at an impressionable age while growing up in relatively evangelical setting. Tattoos were somewhat taboo when I was a kid, but that seemed to be changing, and that Bradbury’s book had stories literally crawling over this guy’s skin stuck in my mind. I think tattoos can be beautiful and symbolic—marking transformation and peace. They can also be utterly heartbreaking and make pain and the grieving process more permanent. And I love the implications of having something supernatural inked to your skin. I don’t think body art has featured too prominently in other stories I’ve written, but it has popped up in a couple stories I’ve been writing.
AM: “All Things To All People” is a sparsely told tale that epitomizes the writing method of less is more. No mention of the protagonist’s name, only what the reader absolutely has to know. Yet still, it easy to be drawn into this story, and pulled in any direction the protagonist chooses to take the reader. Were there earlier drafts of this story that contained more detail? Or even less detail? Generally speaking, how do you balance “less is more” with too much detail?
DKT: Thank you! Generally speaking, this story always just felt like it needed to be a bit more minimalistic, and that added to its power, so it stayed pretty close to that since the beginning. As far as how do you balance, you really just have to have in mind what serves the story best, which I know is a hard thing to judge! But it felt right, and it felt like it made the story stronger in the same way that writing some of the more wild stories I’ve tried feel like they benefit from More More More!
I have considered expanding this story into something longer—and I realize if I did try that, it would be much more detailed, and lose a lot of the ambiguity and minimalism this story had. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but it would be a different thing than what this story is, and I liked the way this story felt.
AM: Did Sadie free the protagonist from an eventual inky demise, or did she open the door to it? Is that last scene a new beginning, or simply the end of the story?
DKT: Huh. Ambiguity! I think I’m going to just let the reader decide on that one.
AM: What inspired this story? Why take the reader on this particular journey, in this particular way?
DKT: Well, in addition to Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, and my conservative upbringing, my friend and PodCastle co-editor Anna Schwind and I ran an urban fantasy noir story by Gary Kloster called “The Blood of Dead Gods Shall Mark the Score,” which also featured tattoos. When discussing the episode on the podcast, I wondered if I could try and capture myself in a tattoo, what would it look like. I don’t think I ever came up with a single image, but maybe this story works in place of one.
Questions about writing, podcasting, and everything else
AM: For a long time, I knew you as “The PodCastle Guy.” You and Anna Schwind ran Podcastle for 5 years, pushing the show well beyond what anyone ever expected. What are some of your favorite memories of running the show?
DKT: Oh, thank you for mentioning that. In a lot of ways, I am sad not to be “The PodCastle Guy” anymore. It meant so much to do the show for that long with Anna. Really, working with Anna and talking about stories with her was one of my favorite things, and I hope we can try to do something else together one day. There are so many good memories—working with so many wonderful narrators and authors. I made some very good friends over the years there—including Rachael Jones and Graeme Dunlop, who are now doing a wonderful job editing PodCastle. The other things that stand out are doing some of the full cast episodes, which were always fun, and also hearing back from listeners that we’d made a safe space full of diverse stories. Diversity was very important to us—we really wanted to show the full spectrum of fantasy, and that it was a pretty limitless genre.
AM: Any suggestions or tips for podcasting newbies?
DKT: Make sure you have fun. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, or to try new things that you aren’t sure will work.
AM: As this interview goes to press, your Kickstarter funded short story collection And Welcome Back is soon to go to press. Among others, the collection includes fiction from your Saint Darwin world and your love-letter to PodCastle. What I’m most curious about is your Saint Darwin stories. I know there are steampunk, and ghosts, and Darwin, but how does all of that collide?
DKT: Ha. I guess it’s the opposite of this story, going back to what feels right. With those stories, what felt right is always More More More! The Saint Darwin stories exist in the Victorian era, where after writing the Origin of the Species, Darwin went on to write the Origin of the Spirits, and created goggles that allowed people to see and interact with ghosts. He also discovered all kinds of occult experiences, artifacts, and even creatures in his travels. Basically, with the first one, I’d been asked by Matt Wallace to write a story for a magazine he was working on. I’d loved Matt’s fiction, and tried really, really hard to write something that was wild and visceral and spooky and sexy that would leave him asking for more. I guess I used to be cocky about submissions—not so much anymore! But I was delighted he loved it as much as he did.
AM: What’s next for you? What writing projects or other creative pursuits are on your radar?
DKT: I have a new Saint Darwin story coming out at Beneath Ceaseless Skies very soon that I’m really excited about! And I’m working on a novel and couple new short stories (some Saint Darwin universe). So, staying very busy!