Previously in my author conversation series: Jasmine Guillory, Alejandro Varela, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Megha Majumdar, Ada Limón, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Crystal Hana Kim and R. O. Kwon, Lydia Kiesling, and Bryan Washington.
There is nothing R. Eric Thomas could write that I wouldn’t read the hell out of, though I truly have no idea how he writes it all. His debut memoir, Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America, came out in 2020 and was a national best seller; earlier this year, he published a young-adult novel, Kings of B’more. He’s co-authored a biography of Rep. Maxine Waters and written several plays. He writes for the shows Dickinson and Better Things. He composes and sends two newsletters each week—plus, he basically wrote this newsletter for me by answering my questions for an hour. “All I need is a little bit of encouragement. When somebody says, ‘Hey, we would like to read more of you,’ that’s all I really need,” Thomas said when we spoke last month. “Which is not to say that encouragement makes it easy—every day, I get up and say to my husband, ‘I’ve lost it. I’m not funny anymore. Everything I write is terrible.’ But now I have all these deadlines, so I’m like, ‘I guess we’re going to work!’”
Thomas and I talked about his new memoir, which will come out next summer; the pressure and strange isolation of having a Very Online career; how he got into playwriting and writing for television; and the questions and themes he explores in his work. I was particularly interested to hear about how he pursues collaboration with other artists and works across so many different genres, often with little separation between projects. His work habits and routines shift depending on what he’s writing, but his process, he told me, is fairly consistent regardless of form. “I’m really just listening for people’s voices,” he said. “I like thinking about the architecture of a story … Once I build the house, then I can fill it with voices.”
Nicole Chung: Eric, it’s great to see you again. How have you been?
R. Eric Thomas: I’ve been fine? I was a month late turning in my next book and just turned it in yesterday.
Chung: Congratulations! A month late—I’m sure both our publishers appreciate me saying this—is nothing. What’s the book about?
Thomas: It’s another comedic memoir; it’s out in August 2023. It’s essentially about reaching a certain milestone in a relationship, thinking it’s happily ever after, and then there’s all the nitty-gritty of real life. My husband and I moved to Baltimore right after we got married, which is where I’m from, and I didn’t want to move back to Baltimore ever. The book goes into the complications of moving back home, making friends as an adult, and getting to know myself as I start over in life. Oh, and being personally attacked by gardening.
Chung: I can’t wait to read it!
Thomas: Thank you! I’m excited for your book. April is so soon.
Chung: Yeah, it’s creeping up. I also turned it in a bit later than I’d hoped!
You’ve been so busy, but then, you always are. I’d love to hear more about your latest play, Crying on Television—I know it’s about friendship, fandom, finding your people. What was the inspiration for it, and what are some things you’ve really enjoyed about the writing and production process?
Thomas: Crying on Television is about four Black people living in an apartment building in a city—this particular production was set in Baltimore. They’re all people who, because of their personalities and how the world sees them, would be side roles or sidekicks in a sitcom. But in this play, there is no main character. It’s about loneliness and how we understand belonging.
I was having that experience: I was living in an apartment building in Baltimore; I was having trouble finding community and finding myself; I was lonely. The thing about new or refurbished apartment buildings is that they all have these common areas that look like West Elm showrooms. They are selling you this idea of community: Hang out here! Go barbecue or swim in the pool! But [ours] was such a barren space, no one ever gathered. I’d never lived in an apartment before, and the way I understood it from Nick at Nite is that your friends just walk in the door throughout the day and fill your life. That wasn’t happening. So I was interested in looking specifically at Black people experiencing that, thinking about our modern forms of isolation, and using a comedic sitcom vocabulary to explore that onstage.
It was a lot of fun. I think it’s one of the funniest plays I’ve written. Producing comedy onstage is usually hard, because it’s very technical—you really have to hit your marks—but the actors and director and creative team were all so talented. It was such a joy to come to work after a really long and hard year, to go into a theater every day and say, Okay, how do we create this experience together and make people laugh?
Chung: How did you first start writing plays? And does your writing process change when you’re writing something that is meant to be seen and experienced in person, like a play, as opposed to a memoir or novel?
Thomas: Theater was my first love; I was a very dramatic child. I watched Into the Woods on PBS, and it was this life-changing experience—see, you’re nodding; it changed a generation! I wanted to be a child actor for a while. I bought a book at the Scholastic Book Fair called How to Be a Child Star; it had Neil Patrick Harris and Paula Abdul on the cover, which was weird because at the time, Harris was a child star, but Paula Abdul was, like, an adult person.
My talents are not, it turns out, in acting or singing or dancing. But through participating in middle- and high-school theater, I fell in love with the creation aspect of it and realized: Somebody wrote these words. As I got to take more classes in modern drama and script analysis, I started to understand the mechanics of it—that the way you feel as a member of the audience, or as a performer onstage, was crafted by somebody. That was really compelling to me. In college, I tried my hand at playwriting and joined a group that produced student plays, and it rang a bell in my head that I didn’t know I was listening for.
For better or for worse, I kind of approach all different forms of writing in the same way, in that I’m really just listening for people’s voices. In a high-school fiction-writing class, the feedback I always got was that my dialogue was really good—all I need is just the tiniest bit of encouragement! When I’m writing prose, it’s very voice-driven; once I’ve got that down, I go back and work more on structure and plot. I like thinking about the architecture of a story, how I know something is a play versus a movie.
After I finish my memoir edits, I’m going to start a novel for adults. When I write fiction, I start with a detailed outline, because I don’t want to get lost. Once I build the house, then I can fill it with voices.
Chung: How does your knowledge of playwriting inform your writing for television? And what are some of the key differences between the two?
Thomas: Knowing how to build and convey character through dialogue is key to both. One of the biggest differences is how you think about structure. You can think about how a play is shaped, whether it’s rooted in rising action and consequence or whether it’s a different beast, but television is often much more rigid in terms of when things have to happen: Your inciting incident might be on page 3, your midpoint on page 15. You’re beholden to a very specific kind of structure built around the way TV is filmed and made, often based around ads, and that felt constraining, initially. You have to fit your most creative desires around a kind of immovable structure.
I read somewhere that one of the challenges with longer television scenes, say four to five pages or more, is lighting—you have four people talking around a dinner table, and the scene goes on for five or six minutes; you’re shooting so many angles and spending so much time that it’s actually cheaper and easier to do a quick scene at the dinner party and a quick scene outside.
Chung: How did you get into TV writing? Do you think it’s something people can learn outside of a program?
Thomas: Absolutely. It’s something I’m constantly relearning. A fair number of people get MFAs in screenwriting, but I don’t have one, and a lot of people I work with don’t; the way that you learn is by doing and taking workshops. I’ve taken numerous classes, one on television structure; I’m starting another one next week on screenplay structure. One of the most influential classes I took was with Sundance Collab, which is an offshoot of the Sundance Institute. I’m always hungry for those kinds of things.
I also read a lot—in my office here, this whole shelf is craft books. There’s a book on screenwriting that’s been around for years called Save the Cat, and it teaches a very specific kind of structure that not everybody follows, but I’ve read it a couple of times.
Chung: What is your writing routine like? I imagine it varies depending on which genre you’re working in that day, deadlines, and all of that—how do you find the right balance when you have so many different irons in the fire?
Thomas: Unfortunately, my writing routine is so chaotic it makes me furious with myself. For my recent book, I took myself out of my house, out of town—I’d get up in the morning, I’d go get breakfast, I would tell myself that I needed to write for four hours. Then I’d eat lunch and check email and write for four more hours. And then I’d get dinner as a reward.
At home, it’s amazing how crucial doing laundry is, or going for a walk. When I’m in my house, little tasks will take up the day; I won’t get the clarity of mind to write until 8 or 9 p.m., and then I’ll write until 2 in the morning. That’s College Eric, though, and College Eric hasn’t been around for a long time.
With screenwriting and plays, because it’s mostly dialogue, it’s easier for me to do it during the day. Most of my time working in film and TV is taken up with notes calls, getting edits, and I’ll get off those calls and jump in the doc and just start working the notes. I’m writing a screenplay next month, and I’m like, okay, you’re gonna work from 11 to 4 every day, and you’re not gonna check email, and you’ll have an admin day every Monday. We’ll see how it goes.
Chung: That sounds very organized to me, your approach and how you’re parceling out your days. I know that you’re always working on a ton of different things at once, and I still don’t understand literally how—but I was wondering if there are certain questions or ideas you find yourself coming back to across these different genres you work in.
Thomas: I had a conversation with Brandon Taylor at the Lambda Literary Retreat years ago, before we’d published anything, about writing the quotidian for characters who were somehow othered: queer, Black, people of color. We talked about how wonderful it can be to read about someone who doesn’t have to explain themselves or be identified only by their trauma. And so I’m very interested in that: writing quote-unquote “otherness” in the center of the page. I’m interested in using different forms and structures that historically have had few people of color in them—rom-coms, thrillers, detective stories. My YA novel, Kings of B’more, is a sort of riff on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it centers two Black queer kids in Baltimore. And obviously there are challenges [the characters] face, and their identities play a role in how they are perceived by others, but they don’t ever have to explain themselves or be forced to suffer because of who they are.
I also like thinking about humor as central to the experience of being human. I think that regardless of the quality of the show or song or whatever, pop culture can be a deep well of experience and emotion, and I really respect it. So exploring and experiencing the world through the lens of pop culture is often at the center of everything I write.
Chung: We’ve been kind of circling this a bit—a lot of the work you do involves collaborating with other people, other artists. How do you like to approach this?
Thomas: One of my favorite parts in the genesis of a play is when the designers do a presentation on the sets, the costumes, what they’re thinking about for the production. People have taken something I worked on by myself and gone to work on it by themselves, and now we’re all in a room, working together, and it no longer belongs only to me. I love the ongoing dialogue that [collaboration] produces; it’s always exciting for me.
Right now, I’m writing a play that is inspired by the history of Baltimore club music, and I’m excited to sit and talk with a deejay about that history. A lot of collaboration, for me, is about seeking out people who know things I don’t—not with a goal of mastery for myself, but of learning to think about the world in a different way.
Chung: What are some things that make it possible for you to do everything you do and not get burned out?
Thomas: It’s really important to me, especially now, to be physically present with the people I care about. I’m a big dinner-party person. It gives me so much joy and makes me feel that I’m participating in life. Maybe you feel this way as well—with writing, even as we try to build community with our work, it can feel very isolating, especially during the pandemic. I started to feel like I only existed online, and everything I was doing, putting out into the universe, was Content. So I asked myself, How do you escape that? For me, it’s by having meaningful experiences that are just for me: going out, having friends over.
I recently started taking swimming lessons—I know how to swim, but I could not save myself if I had to, and, like, what if I got on the Titanic? This is something I can do that doesn’t require my writer brain; it requires me to engage with my body in a different way and learn something.
Chung: Speaking of meaningful experiences, have you been reading anything great in your—LOL—“spare time”?
Thomas: I just started If I Survive You, by Jonathan Escoffery. Jackson Howard sent it to me—he’s an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux—and he was like, “Girl, this is the one,” and I was like, “Okay, I believe you.” I’ve really been enjoying it. I read Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin, going back and forth between reading and listening to the audiobook—that’s how I do a lot of my reading, since I drive a lot—and it’s phenomenal.
Everything else I’ve been reading is for work, but I’ve still enjoyed it: I reread IRL, by Chris Stedman, before doing a book event with him. The 33 1/3 series put out a call for proposals for short books about albums, and I love writing about music, but I’m not, you know, Wesley Morris, so I’ve been reading a bunch of those books to get into that world and think about whether I could propose one.
Chung: What do you wish you’d known when you started? Anything you’d tell your younger self?
Thomas: I wish I’d known that there is no finish line! A lot of writers talk about feeling let down or unmoored after something gets published. I’ve definitely experienced that, and so I’ve had to kind of deprioritize the idea of The Book, The Play, The Premiere, The Debut, and refocus on the doing. Because the doing is the thing that I have to work on for the rest of my life. For a long time, I was so focused on getting here, and now I’m trying to get up every day and do the things I love in a way that fulfills me and doesn’t burn me out. It’s something I’m still working on.