Interview with D. Ray Thomas – Author of the Take It Back Series
Peter: I had the pleasure of reading your all-action “Take It Back” novella series, starring Douglas Gage as a modern day vigilante. Thank you for agreeing to this interview and allowing us to discuss these books and your influences in becoming and developing as an author.
Peter: What was your main inspiration behind writing the “Take It Back” book series?
Ray: I’d always wanted to write a series of mysteries with one protagonist. Like John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee, or Robert Parker’s Spenser. Over the past few years, I’ve seen so much change in the economic and political climate of America. The poor keep getting poorer. It seemed like every new law or change in policy was written to make things harder for people already at a disadvantage. Families at the lower end of the economic scale became desperate for some kind of relief and became prime targets for con artists and corrupt government officials. The marginalized were powerless against the whims of the 1%. Industry continued to move factories out of the country, taking advantage of cheap labour overseas, not caring that, whole towns were being destroyed by their sole focus on profit. The economy transitioned to a service economy, offering significantly lower paying jobs with limited or no benefits. I was angered by what was happening. Besides helping in traditional ways (charities, volunteering, etc.), I was inspired to write about the situation. I combined my dream of writing a series of books with one protagonist with the idea of the disadvantaged needing a champion. So I sat down and began writing stories about someone fighting for anyone being robbed, oppressed, or had their lives turned upside down by what basically boiled down to the 1%.
Peter: Why did you approach these stories as a 4 book novella series?
Ray: Actually, I hadn’t planned on it being a 4 book series. I hope to continue the Take It Back series. The first four stories touched on several ongoing themes in my life, but I only realized that in hindsight. After I finished the 4th book, Safe, it felt like I’d reached a point that was a natural pause for the series. I have another story finished, but I don’t feel it fits with the other 4. But as I said, there will be more Take It Back novellas coming soon.
Peter: The fourth book “Safe” feels like a departure from the all-action theme in the first 3 novels, to an emotional soul-searching story. What were your thoughts in writing this novella that was different from the other three?
Ray: One the ongoing themes in my life is “family.” What does it mean to be part of a family? What does it mean to belong? How does being part of a “family” affect your individual life? Positive? Negative? What about the power struggles within a family? What if your family is toxic to you, and you remove yourself? The character I created to be the protagonist in my novellas, Douglas Gage, has issues with his family. These issues had been hinted at in the first 3 novellas previously. With Safe, I felt it was time to delve into what was at the core of Gage. I wanted to explore his motivations, his pain. His “trauma,” as a counsellor might say. What happened with Gage and his family? What makes him fight for people he doesn’t know? I knew, but I wanted my readers to know. After three novellas, it was time to peel back the layers of Gage’s heart and mind.
Peter: The Douglas Gage character is the core theme of the books. What was your motivation behind creating Gage and what attributes did you feel were important in developing his character?
Ray: When I thought about the main character for my stories, I wanted him/her to be as angry as I was about what was happening to the “have-nots” in society. The character also needed to have a personal empathy for the people he was helping. And there had to be a very strong personal motivation pushing him to be their champion. I looked at several options for the milieu of the Take It Back series. White collar? A man fights the system from within? Cyber? Computers? Banking? Finally, I settled on a blue-collar approach. I wanted the series to be about a “grassroots” hero, down in the trenches, fighting the good fight. Also, the “Frankenstein” model of a character appealed to me for my ongoing character. Looking like a monster on the outside, while having a gentle, good inner core, but also capable of violence without mercy if he/she feels taken advantage of, made the fool, or the victim of an unprovoked attack. I thought long and hard about a female protagonist because I have a long background in serial television. I wrote American Soap Operas for years on the strength of my ability to write female characters. The plots in American soaps might be outrageous, but they are engaging because the audience can identify with the real feelings of the character. Ultimately, I went with a male protagonist because I wanted to explore a character with an incredible amount of physical brute force at his disposal. Out of all of this came Douglas Gage. A very large man, also athletic, capable of breaking down a brick wall because of his size and speed, but also clever enough to go around the wall if need be. ? On the inside, Gage was empathic, sometimes even gentle, but as with Frankenstein, his appearance evoked the fear and continued misunderstanding. I first described Gage as “the Rock’s ugly brother.” It really summed up his appearance and brought an image to mind. Lately, I’ve also described him as Thanos, from the Avengers movies.
Peter: Do you feel an ongoing connection with Douglas Gage, is he alive in your mind, and how are you looking to develop him further? Towards the end did you control Gage or did he control you?
Ray: Gage controls me. Him and my wife. (?joke) Yes, Gage controls me. No doubt about that. He’s alive in my mind as much as my friends and family are alive in my mind. As I’m writing, I try to give myself over to him and let him drive the story. I’m a big believer in the collective consciousness. Writers are conduits of the stories the Universe wants to tell. Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance and many other novels, writes a lot about the concept. For any writer out there, if you haven’t read Pressfield’s The War of Art, you are doing yourself a disservice. One fun thing I’ve done is have Gage write a few blogs on my website. He complains that I, Ray Thomas, have stolen his stories, and now publish them. ? Gage’s character arc is rooted in resolution. Gage fights to resolve the individual cases he takes on. The resolution he seeks is the return of what has been stolen from his clients. Part of the resolution is also vengeance and punishment. Things can be resolved in a good way or a bad way. There can be full resolution, part resolution, or of course a failure of a resolution. But Gage seeks resolution. In his cases, in his own battles, and in his family life. I think following Gage as he continues on his path of resolution will give me many opportunities to develop his character. What those developments may be, I’m leaving up to the universe.
Peter: Do you use storyboarding or mapping processes to develop your plots or do you go with the flow and follow your instinct and gut feeling?
Ray: I do both. I have a corkboard on the wall beside my desk that I’ve used for many years to map out television scripts.
I’ve also done that with a couple of the Gage stories. Writing plot points, or chapter summations on 3×5 cards, helps me get started with a loose idea in my head. The story may change as I’m writing, but the map gives me a through line. However, truth be told, I’m really a “seat of my pants” writer. I have an idea and I sit down and go. Stephen King, in his memoir, On Writing, talks about the “vomit draft.” Writing the first draft without stopping to think. Get it done, so you have something to work with.
Peter: Are you very disciplined in how you approach each writing day? What is your routine?
Ray: When I was writing for television, I was very disciplined. I started at 9 every morning. Now, without the constant deadlines of serialized television, I’m not as disciplined, but I’m getting better. My routine most days is to arise before my wife, get a cup of coffee and some meth (?joke), and start pounding away on the keyboard. When she wakes, we have some coffee talk, eat some breakfast, and maybe watch part of a television show or movie we didn’t finish the night before. Then I head back to my office and continue. Usually after breakfast is when I write my blog. When I first get up, I work on the next Gage story or something else I’m writing that I plan to publish on Amazon.
Peter: Did you have any formal education or training in literature and writing?
Ray: I have a degree in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing from Loyola Marymount University here in Los Angeles. I also learned so much from writing my own material when I was a stand-up comic. Being “impeccable with (my) words,” as said in the book The Four Agreements. A story I learned from James Reilly, a mentor when I was writing for television.
Peter: Did you always feel that writing was a path you would take?
Ray: I did. Reading was very important to my mother, which of course made me want to write, so I would get her approval. My own reading inspired me to want to “do that.”
Peter: What authors have you most admired and have had an influence on you?
Ray: I guess I should give some highfalutin answer about Hemmingway, Faulkner, and Jane Austen. I read those books, yes. But I think it would take a huge amount of hubris for me to claim they influenced me. I’m not that smart. The author that most influenced me is John D. McDonald. His Travis McGee series was much more than a collection of mystery books. They were also about the human condition. He infused them with complicated characters with real struggles. They were explorations of human nature, love, envy, greed, contentment, and so many other parts of the intellectual and emotional workings of people. Robert Parker also had a big influence on me. Robert B. Parker’s mysteries were so well plotted, and his character Spencer brought so much humour to his works. His books were also rich with insights.
Peter: What is your favourite book you’ve read this year?
Ray: Safe, by D. Ray Thomas.? Okay, seriously. Safe, by D. Ray Thomas.??? Okay, okay. I’ve read so many eBooks this year written by indie authors that were wonderful, but I hesitate to mention them because I don’t want to leave anyone out. My favourite book this year from a traditional author was The Disappeared, by C. J. Box. (I probably should’ve been highfalutin here too!) The Disappeared was fun and the mystery was tightly plotted. It also was full of what they now call “Easter eggs.” The book was engaging in and of itself, but it also seemed like a big beautifully wrapped gift to all of us who’ve followed the Joe Picket books from the beginning. Mr Box wrote a book with a balance of action, mystery, suspense, and humour. Joe Picket is a great character.
Peter: What advice would you give to aspiring or debut authors?
Ray: I’m not the first person to say this, but the main thing is to WRITE. Stephen Pressfield, in his non-fiction books, lays out great advice not just to writers, but to all artists. I would suggest reading his books The War of Art, and Nobody Wants To Read Your Shit. I would also say don’t get ahead of yourself. Before you publish, do everything you can to make your work as good as it can be. I made the mistake of putting out the second novella in my series – Cash Money – before it was ready. I lied to myself about it being good enough. Luckily, when you reviewed it (Peter), you gave me some spot-on criticism that made me a better writer immediately. I pulled Cash Money from Amazon and I’m taking another swing at it before I republish. Read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing. When you are ready to publish, do TONS of research about promotion and marketing before you actually publish. It doesn’t matter how good your book is if people don’t know about it.
Peter: What are the greatest benefits and restrictions to being an Indie Author?
Ray: The benefit I like most is one don’t have to get permission to publish your book. There isn’t a publishing executive making the call on whether or not your work sees the light of day. Remember the first Harry Potter book was rejected over seven hundred billion times. (?joke) Okay, it was 12. Twilight was rejected 14 times. Stephen King’s first bestseller Carrie was rejected 30 times. Lord Of The Flies 20 times. Margaret Mitchell had Gone With the Wind rejected 38 times. An indie author can publish their book at will and have complete creative control. A traditional author must contend with input and notes from editors and executives. Sometimes this can be helpful, but it can also water down the vision of the author. The restrictions of an indie author are many but can be surmounted with hard work. A big problem is there is no advance, no money up front. When a publisher buys your book, you get an advance, and then you can go about writing your next book. The average indie author has to do their own marketing and publicity to see any money from their work. A publishing house has the resources to put an advertisement for your book in front of almost every person in the world, with no cost to you.
Peter: What websites do you feel are important to promote your books on?
Ray: The Reading Desk has been a great help to me personally. The reviews are respected and being featured in a review has brought me many new readers. Amazon ads work when you can get the keywords right. Goodreads, if you can crack the code, is great. But really, any place that will give your book exposure is important.
Peter: How much time do you spend on writing compared to promoting your books?
Ray: I’ve had a hard time finding a balance. The marketing gets me sucked in, especially when I begin filling out forms, or reading advice articles, or checking my sales. I remember an article I read many years ago in Sports Illustrated about a famous quarterback. I think it was Joe Theismann, who played for the Washington Redskins but don’t hold me to that. The article listed all the different business opportunities Theisman had away from football. The kind of things like endorsements, television appearances, his own line of sports equipment, and so on. But the writer of the article then described how the #1 priority of Theisman’s day, businesswise, was working out, studying film, practising, and constantly getting better as a quarterback. Because Theisman knew that everything hinged on his success on the football field. I try to remember that example every time I get an email announcing a book promotion sale. The writing comes first.
Peter: What is your favourite medium to enjoy a book: electronic, paper or audio? What appeals to you about each medium?
Ray: I’m a big eBook guy. I fought it forever, but I changed my mind when Stephen King came out and said eReaders were a good thing. Who am I to argue with him? I have the Kindle app on my phone along with iBooks. I also read on my computer using the Kindle Cloud Reader or using a browser like Chrome. But I will never stop reading traditional books. The smell, the feel, the tradition. I do love bookstores, and I support the independents and also the chains by buying some of my eBooks in hardback or paperback because I never want traditional books and booksellers to go away. As far as audio, I have ADHD, so I tend to lose focus. I’ll suddenly realize I’ve missed the past half hour of narration and have no idea what in the hell is going on.
Peter: Can you give us any insights into any future books or projects that you’re working on?
Ray: Right now I’m working on a Gage novel. I may write more Take It Back novellas in the future, but the best way to tell his next story is in a longer format. I also have begun writing a modern romance series I will probably publish under a pen name. The knowledge I gleaned from my years writing daytime drama were not being put to good enough use.?
Peter: How can readers learn more about you and your work?
Ray: I’m all over the internet, and not just on America’s Most Wanted website.? My website is draythomas.com. My Amazon Author page is amazon.com/authors/draythomas/. I’ve also recently changed the theme of my blog. It’s now a serialized thriller with new “chapters” Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. It can be found here: draythomas.com/blog/. My Instagram, Twitter, Google +, Facebook, Linkedin, and my upcoming YouTube channel are all @draysbooks. Anyone who wants can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org because I love to talk about writing and reading. Not just my stories, but all books.
Peter: Ray, I appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions and if there are other snippets of information you wish to provide, please feel free. You are very supportive and complimentary on social media, for which I would personally like to thank you. I would also like to congratulate you on the book series and the development of an intriguing character.