Creatives in profile: Ben Thomas

006 Ben Portraits.jpg

Ben Thomas is editor of The Willows Magazine, author of The Cradle and the Sword, creator of TheStrangeContinent.com, and founder of the neuroscience news agency The Connectome. He travels the world as a freelance writer, and has lived in more than 40 countries. His hobbies include aquaculture, Linux customisation, tantric meditation and ink drawing.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

THOMAS

I spent my earliest years in the woodlands of Ohio — but was transplanted to the desolate steppe of West Texas at age 10. I got out of there as quickly as I could, moving to Los Angeles to study cinema. I spent most of my twenties in California — then in 2013, I made a decision to cast off my material possessions and backpack across Europe, Africa and Asia for four years. These days I’m nesting in Austin, Texas. But I’m hoping to get back to London, Paris and Rome soon; if only to collect the books and relics my friends have been kind enough to keep for me.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

THOMAS

I’ve always been intrigued by mysteries of all sorts. One of my earliest memories is of staring into an aquarium at the Toledo Zoo, gazing deeply into the eyes of a fish, trying to imagine what it was like to look out from those eyes; to be that fish. And I suppose some version of that quest has fueled all my great passions: my fascination with rare and esoteric creatures, my love for mythologies and ancient languages, my research on neuroscience and the human mind, my travels around the world, and my lifelong love for weird tales.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to writing and literature?

THOMAS

Well, words are magic, aren’t they? When we present a compelling argument or conjure an imaginary scene in someone else’s mind, we’re quite literally casting spells: shaping our own (and others’) perceptions of reality through the verbal evocation of ideas. I can’t imagine a more delightful or rewarding trade to be in.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

THOMAS

Ashurbanipal, Enheduanna, Paul Atreides, Hypatia, Isaac Newton, Wu Zetian, Aleister Crowley, Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, Iain Banks, Rosalind Franklin, Hülagü Khan.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

THOMAS

For the first few years of my life, my mother devoted herself almost entirely to teaching me everything I wanted to know. We’d go to the library and check out stack after stack of books, then bring them home and read them one after another in our rocking chair. If I wanted to learn a skill — say, finger-painting or guitar — we’d acquire the necessary materials and explore that area until it was time to move on to the next exploration. She was the most wonderful gardener my growing mind could have wished for.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

THOMAS

A magician of language. (Cf. my answer to the question above.)

INTERVIEWER

What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?

THOMAS

I find it’s impossible to write fluently about any subject — fictional or otherwise — without a working knowledge of the world in question. But my research rarely proceeds according to any prearranged plan; each day I simply wake up and ask myself, “What do I want to know about today?” and proceed from there.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

THOMAS

I believe people in all creative disciplines bear a responsibility not only to describe the world as it is, but to present compelling pictures of the world as it could be. One of my mottos is, “Remember, someone is turning sixteen every day.” — in other words, every day, new people are waking up to themselves; examining ideas in the media they read and watch; deciding which ones they want to pursue, or integrate into themselves, and which ones they’ll reject. We don’t get to decide which of our ideas will connect with these people — but we do have a responsibility to provide them with accurate and useful concepts, and not to frighten them with falsehoods for the sake of profiteering.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about ‘The Willows’ – how did you first conceive of the idea, and what are some of the challenges in running a regular literary magazine in this day and age.

THOMAS

I first conceived of The Willows in 2006. I’d been an enthusiastic reader of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood since my university days — and one evening it just occurred to me that no one was publishing fiction in that vein anymore. Right then and there I set up a small website and put out a call for stories, and the response was far beyond what I expected: authors, illustrators, marketers and supporters appeared out of the blue, all rejoicing that this magazine existed. Seems I wasn’t the only one who’d noticed a cultural void where that The Willows ought to be!

A small crew of us ran the magazine from 2007-2010. The funds came out of my own pocket — earned at a series of mind-numbing day jobs — and many contributors volunteered to provide work for free, or for significantly less than their usual fees. I hadn’t the slightest idea how to produce a magazine; I taught myself Adobe InDesign, found a local print shop that was willing to work with me, and learned the trade through (often expensive) trial and error.

Over the years, the stress and expenses took their toll — I was spending upwards of $1000 of my own money to produce each issue, and usually making only a few hundred in profit, even with the advertising space we sold. My co-editors Skadi meic Beorh and Orrin Grey picked up a lot of the slushpile work, enabling me to focus more on the production side — but even so, we’d set ourselves the task of publishing a bimonthly magazine, out of our own pockets, while simultaneously working forty hours a week or more at our office jobs.

This obviously wasn’t sustainable — and it was, perhaps, inevitable that in the spring of 2010 I suffered a nervous breakdown, stormed out of my job at at a media planning agency, and became a recluse: living off government benefits, painstakingly crafting elaborate ecosystems in garden planters on the balcony – tiny bonsai trees, grassy hills, lakes, mountains and caves – and attempting to populate them with small frogs and fish, who all hopped away, or died overnight, to my horrified dismay; stringing up fluorescent lights in the attic to grow tomatoes and soybeans, resulting in a forest of dead leaves and vines into which I frantically pumped nutrients in the vain hope of resuscitation; poring over Babylonian cuneiform texts and ancient Greek philosophical treatises.

Long story short: I was, for all practical purposes, dead to the world until 2012 or so. When the dust settled, I decided I wanted to have nothing to do with The Willows — or the weird fiction community — and I moved on to studying neuroscience; and later, to traveling to other continents. It wasn’t until the spring of 2019, when I attended the Outer Dark Symposium of the Greater Weird in Atlanta, that I reconnected with many old friends (and made new ones) in the Weird community. At that conference I floated the idea of a Willows hardcover anthology — and once again, the response was far stronger than I expected. The Kickstarter campaign flowed naturally from there.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

THOMAS

I’ve just begun a new Strange Continent series on neolithic China, which I think is a fascinating time and place. I hope eventually to bring all Strange Continent stories together into a single attractive print volume (as some readers have suggested). But since visual images play such crucial roles in the historical tales I tell, I’ll need to find a way to acquire print rights to the paintings I’ve interspersed throughout these stories — and I anticipate a labyrinthine series of bureaucratic headaches in that direction.

In the meantime, I’ve been getting back to my roots, writing weird tales in the classic tradition of Machen and Blackwood (though some are set in the present day). I hope to find welcoming homes for some of these stories over the coming months.

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite book/author?

THOMAS

Absolutely impossible to pick just one. Here are my top nine.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

THOMAS

Cult classic. Fashion is fleeting, but style is timeless.

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated artist?

THOMAS

Brian Evenson. He’s our century’s Kafka.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated artist?

THOMAS

The Apostle Paul. We should’ve tossed him out and kept the rest.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think more people should know about?

THOMAS

My friend Orrin Grey. He’s a skeleton who writes more about monsters before nine a.m. than most people do all day.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

THOMAS

All my talents remain hidden until the right time comes.

INTERVIEWER

Most embarrassing moment?

THOMAS

Hmm… probably that time on a cruise to Mexico when I had a catastrophic panic attack (because it was impossible to get away from the throngs of loud drunk people) and locked myself in our cabin’s bathroom while my girlfriend screamed at me to stop being a psychotic infant. I’ve never set foot on a cruise ship since.

INTERVIEWER

What’s something you’re particularly proud of?

THOMAS

I’ve done my level best to share everything I have with my friends.

INTERVIEWER

One piece of advice for your younger self?

THOMAS

Nobody’s going to do this for you. If you want it, you’re going to have to build it yourself.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

THOMAS

She’s just my student!

Honey…

Seen.

 

Advertisements

Creatives in profile: Interview with Eric Akoto

 

Erik Akoto

In the latest of our ‘Creatives In Profile’ interview series, it is an honour to introduce Eric Akoto, Publisher and Editor in Chief of Litro Magazine.

With a journalistic background, Eric has featured in various magazines, and contributed to various books. He also curates and comperes at festivals such as The Latitude Festival and the Hay Festival. His passions lie in progressive politics, freedom of expression, quality & independence in arts and journalism, social enterprise, secularism, good technology, and above all the power of fiction to connect and bring a level of empathy to different peoples.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, your background and ethos

AKOTO

There’s a long story and a short story. The short story of my background is that I was born in London and raised in South London, Battersea; I had a strict African upbringing. After leaving University, it was hoped I’d become a doctor or a Lawyer; but I had a creative spirit. Not knowing how to channel that creativity, I accidently landed a job as a male model – the job required a great deal of travelling. This was about 2000. Before the dawn of email and fast internet connectivity for sending large image files – so I would always be travelling, with an A-Z & my portfolio in hand. Spending hours on end on public transport – my sense of direction is terrible so I was always late – but I lasted for a good number of years and got to work with some amazing creative designers, photographers & magazine editors, which ironically lit a spark in me to get into magazine publishing. My first attempt at a creative publication was an e-zine called LA-NYLON (Los Angeles, New York & London) – I was about 25 and fortunate to have been offered the opportunity – through the modeling- to travel to some amazing cities. I wanted to create a platform where I was able to share what I was experiencing in these cities with friends.

Reading was always a passion and the time I spent travelling to and from interviews was always spent reading a book, magazine whatever I could get my hands on.

The long story starts in 2006, when I met a guy at the London Bookfair who was handing out a pamphlet – an A4 sheet folded in half – with short stories. I took one and on my ride home on the tube started reading it and thought to myself “this is a great idea I want my friends to see this”. I had a spider web of talented friends all doing different creative stuff, and so I began reaching out to them – for artwork, cartoons, stories, design – along with this guy in the space of a month or two we’d put together about a 20 page DL sized pamphlet. I took it to a local printer and printed a few thousand copies – and began distributing them myself.  It was a fun hobby and every couple of weeks I got these amazing creative friends together to help design, bounce ideas off each other and produce this pamphlet, which I then shared with them – and the rest of my community.  Before long a year or two passed and the guy from the bookfair went on to finish his PHD – and I’d fallen in love with publishing. I started taking the pamphlet to book shops – Foyles was one of the first book chains to support the magazine and after a few meetings with them they decided to sponsor the pamphlet – I managed to then convince Time to insert the pamphlet into one of its issues – to do this I had to increase the print run to 60,000 to meet it’s print run and at the same time decided to hold more stories and add more pages to the pamphlet turning it into a magazine and I haven’t looked back since.

My ethos has been shaped by the help given to me by the creative friends who supported me – it is being able to give a platform to emerging talent and Litro Magazine over the past 10 years has allowed me to do this.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

AKOTO

 I guess anyone who is “fair” to people and know that despite a “general” direction there is always another way.  Kwame Nkrumah, Nelson Mandela, Malcom X, Tony Benn, Ta-Nehisi, and my daughter.

INTERVIEWER

The future of literature; of writing – and indeed the future of publishing – are all frequently discussed at great lengths. What are your thoughts on current industry trends – where are we heading?

AKOTO

The future of literature and writing, to me has to be one of growth and diversity (diversity not in the populous term that’s now coined as a catch all for inclusion of Black and ethnic minority in the publishing industry (being a minority, Black and Male in a very white industry I find the term a little condescending) – but the diversity in the industry to embrace all talented writers through to editors, publishers; whether they be Black, Female, Transgender, Gay whatever and not to be diverse because it’s trendy. A great writer will be enjoyed and appreciated by all and not just the few.

In order to not loose the many talented emerging writers by the wayside – from the top-down of the literary industry – it must reflect today’s society.

For a long time the dialogue around the future of publishing has been one of death –  its true many publications have either transitioned to the web or given a greater focus on the web; but what the web has done for publishing is to kill off the kind of print that provides distractions of the ’10-minute-read-before-you-bin’ variety. In turn, this has cleared the way for titles that are fascinating, made with passion, collectables.

Print does a great deal that the web can’t and vice versa – there will always be the need for a tangible, haptic experiences. Ultimately, nothing can replace the smell of a printed material. Even if the web / new technologies being developed cause a shift in the regularity of the reading experience.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a Literary Magazine should be for? Why are they important?

AKOTO

The sad truth is that literature or literary magazines does not reach a wide enough audience; yet alone have any chance of competing against other entertainment options – Binge TV watching, movies, journalism and non-fiction. More people will camp outside an Apple store for the launch of a new iPhone than they would for the lunch of a new literary magazine or a book. If the competition was a boxing match, there would be an inquest as to why the referee allowed the match to start in the first place.

It’s important for a literary magazine – on surviving its daily pounding from other entertainment options, it’s struggles with lack of funding – to produce a publication that does not just cater to writers but for the general reader – a platform for writers to write, emerging voices to be heard, but importantly a place for it’s contributors to develop a place to be heard for their particular beliefs or aims that they feel will better society and move culture in a positive direction.

Contributors to literary magazine’s should not expect to be published because they have done the rounds and feel it’s their turn to be published; but instead should be contributing because they feel their voice / story has something to say. And it’s in the publishing of these contributors that makes a literary magazine important.

Litro Magazine, for instance, has a clear identity. We have always championed and provided a platform for emerging writers, whether through print, online, festival stages, our newly launched literary agency – Litro Represents – and through other opportunities.

But alongside this, we also publish contributors with arguments about the current cultural dialogue, and political landscape – through the monthly themes of Litro Magazine – we do this so we can encourage an attitude to writing that goes beyond just getting one’s name in print.

INTERVIEWER

Obviously, the rise of the internet has seen a big culture shift in the publishing industry; with numerous magazines switching from print to online, and others starting out and continuing as purely digital platforms. How do you balance the two outlets of print and digital with Litro? What are the different challenges you face with each of these?

AKOTO

I’m an early adaptor and a big tech geek, but I also enjoy the tangible feel of the printed form. There’s nothing better than meeting a person for the first time having a passing conversation – and for that person to then send you a book he/she has read and feels you will enjoy!

The internet has certainly provided a massive opportunity for writers – and consumers; but I don’t see a fight between print and the internet (for one thing print would surely loose before the bell rang). Instead, I see a nice challenge – how one can get the two to compliment each other. For instance, three years ago we started our collective story telling on twitter the #litrostory; and the experiment has been a great way to reach a new audience and followers on social media and draw them to the magazine.

INTERVIEWER

The magazine and online platform both look to combine various different aspects of literature – and indeed, culture in general, through a medium of different forms; from stories to reviews and comment or feature pieces. Why do you think it is important to combine these mediums?

AKOTO

I started Litro to share stories with friends who not only have differing practices but also differing interests – and I’d like to think of Litro Magazine’s readers as the same.

INTERVIEWER

Literature, and ultimately all art, is about communication and expression. How does Litro fit within our cultural conversation? And how do we ensure the conversation carries on?

AKOTO

I’m sure many in the publishing industry see Litro Magazine as incomprehensible – considering the fact we don’t just cover literature, yet we still call ourselves a literary magazine. The great thing about Litro being a small magazine compared to our larger, older contemporaries – who have greater access to funding and trusts set up – is that we are able to address topics and questions more openly.

The classical musician Bach was dismissed by his peers, who thought his music was incomprehensible. Employed by a church to play the organ, he was rebuked as having  “many curious variations in the chorale, and for having mingled many strange tones in it, and for the fact that the congregation has been confused by it”.

With Litro we provide a platform for the unheard, the experimental – and at times unpopular.

For literature and all art, we need to ensure the conversation continues to flow – so all of us – especially those in a position to help support the arts – must not be afraid to experiment and take chances.

INTERVIEWER

David Foster Wallace once opined that it was “getting harder and harder to sit quietly by yourself and think hard about something for thirty minutes instead of thirty seconds”. Do you believe that the ‘instant gratification’ culture of iPods, televisions in car back seats and constant information on our smartphones is having an impact on us as readers? How can the publishing industry counter this? How do we engage our readers effectively?

AKOTO

Our reading habits as a whole has been impacted by the rise of the use of smartphones and other hand held devices. Developments in technology moves so fast that I guess an ‘iPod’ now belongs in a museum.

Whether the change in our collective thirst for instant gratification needs countering – on the one hand yes, but the book as a product and the way it is consumed – has had to change to keep with the times, in the same way music consumption changed from a product packaged on a TDK cassette tape, on vinyl, or a CD, to a file on a smartphone or iPod.

But will book reading actually suffer – and its consumption need more engaging?

I doubt it. My daughter – who at just 11 has more handheld devices than I have, with Kindles, iPhones…you name it! –  But recently she not only re-introduced me to one of Kipling’s poems – but also to a poem by Jacqueline Woodson, New York from her collection Brown Girl Dreaming – a book I ordered on Amazon.

The new era of books may actually see more authors, more reading, and more books being bought and sold.

 INTERVIEWER

Could you name your top five writers – and explain why they impress you?

AKOTO

I am impressed and engaged by so many writers it’s far too difficult to limit to just five.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

AKOTO

For me, creativity is passion, and wanting to unleash something you feel you need to share, beyond your immediate surroundings and not having the fear of ridicule stop you from doing so. Ultimately, creativity is the need to create something new, which is very hard to do.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

AKOTO

I stopped watching the Television a while ago – which has been a great help, I like to run in my local park – I’m fortunate to live not too far from Hyde Park, which has a lot of green open space.

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 5 – 10 tips for writers?

AKOTO

Read, Read, Read, Read and Read some more – even it’s just a menu at a restaurant, a random magazine you pick up whilst travelling – you never know where your inspiration might come from. It’s also good to have a complete knowledge and understanding of whatever it is you end up writing.