Interview: Tom Mavroudis, Author and Horror Writers Association Scholarship Winner
by Lucio Rodriguez
I’ve known Tom Mavroudis for nearly a decade, having concurrently attended UC, Riverside— Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program. We’d frequently meet up at the bar between classes at residency to talk books or nonsense over truffle fries and lobster mac. We shared an interest in genre writing, including weird fiction and horror, as well as an interest in giving each other a hard time.
Since graduating, Tom has more than a few publications under his belt. He has stories in Terror in 16-Bits, Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horrror, Terror at 5280’, Weirdbook Magazine, Night Terrors, and Mysterium Tremendum. Most importantly, his new novella, Bergdorf & Associates, is out now through Omnium Gatherum. In 2019, he also won the Horror Writers Association Scholarship From Hell to attend workshops at their annual StokerCon convention. When asked to interview Tom for The Coachella Review, I was overjoyed, and arranged to meet with him along a volcanic mountainside where ash fell like rain.
Lucio: I didn’t realize you had won the Scholarship From Hell for StokerCon 2019.
Tom: You didn’t know that?
LR: So, you managed to get the Horror Writers Association to foot your bill?
TM: Somehow. [laughing] Somehow I tricked them.
LR: That’s awesome—belated congratulations on the scholarship.
TM: That was really how this sort of all came together. I had applied, I think, every year I knew about it. What was nice was that [fellow alums] Lisa Quigley (author of Hell’s Bells), Mackenzie Kiera (All You Need is Love and a Strong Electrical Current), and Kathryn McGee (host of HWA’s Skeleton Hour) were all there. So they said they’d take me around and introduce me to everybody. Through Kathryn, I hung out with [Omnium Gatherum editor] Kate Jonez and a couple of other people. So that was a good introduction before I even realized I was going to be pitching to Kate.
LR: So you met Kate Jonez and pitched to her at the same StokerCon?
TM: Yeah. As the recipient of the Scholarship From Hell, I didn’t have to wait, and I could just say, ‘I want to pitch to these people.’ I’d been hanging out with Kate all weekend, and the night before, I said, “Okay, Kate, full disclosure, I guess I’m pitching to you tomorrow.” And she said, “Oh, wow. Well, I’m excited.”
LR: And she still was interested in your book after meeting you?
TM: [laughing] Yeah. She’s really cool. I picked up her book of short stories [Lady Bits, JournalStone], which was awesome. The thing about Kate’s book was that I read through it super fast because the short stories were so well written and tight.
LR: That’s awesome. I think we’re kind of in a unique situation in that we know a lot of people that are talented, but it’s always cool when they write something we personally enjoy.
TM: Exactly. At StokerCon, I picked up a book from everyone I liked meeting and wrote to them. At the time, I was trying to entice people to come to Denver because Denver Book Bar is owned by some friends from high school. They have a thing called BookBed, a bed and breakfast above the bookstore. It’s awesome, and I wanted to entice writers from out of state, or even writers who live in the mountains here, who would enjoy a getaway. Nicole, one of the owners, and I came up with an author series called Frights and Flights. You could have a wine flight and listen to this horror writer speak in conversation. It was a lot of fun to do. Maybe I’ll pick it up again when things open back up.
LR: Tell me about your book.
TM: It’s novella-length. It’s called Bergdorf & Associates. It started out, [my family and I] were living at this house that had a really creepy furnace room. All furnace rooms are creepy, I guess. Whoever owned it before us had their little workspace there. You could see where this person had all their tools kind of mapped out on their pegboard. We called that the tinkerer’s room because we were wondering, ‘What was he building in there?’ He could have worked somewhere else but was working in there because secret stuff was going on. Every time I would go in there, I would imagine being watched from behind the water heater. So I just started writing this piece where this entity, Bergdorf, was spying on this guy from behind the water heater. I was picturing a skinned lamb, but in the book, he’s not really a lamb or a goat. He’s just a skinned, uh, grass chewer. What are those? Ungulates?
LR: Yes, ungulates. Hey, nice!
TM: Thanks! So, he’s a skinned ungulate watching our man from behind the water heater. I was just trying to figure out why this entity was watching our guy, Abe, and it’s because he needs Abe to do something for him. Abe is pretty downtrodden. He’s a real dark cloud and doesn’t have too much to live for. He has a thread he’s connected to, and that’s why he ends up doing these things for Bergdorf.
LR: Why novella-length? You decided, instead of 100,000 words, you’d write 40,000 words, which is, of course, what a normal person does with their time.
TM: Well, the full-length work came about as sort of an exercise to try and meet small deadlines because that’s exactly my problem. I was halfway through my master’s thesis, which is still only halfway done. I was surprised I was even able to write something the length of a master’s thesis. Sometimes writing just 5,000 words is daunting. So, in my mind, once I got halfway into my novel, I thought, ‘Okay, I’m just going to wrap this up. I’ve already written so much.’ Well, I kind of got lost with my main novel, so I wanted to try doing an exercise where I would have a maximum word limit per chapter and see if I could just complete one of these chapters a month and circulate it around to some good eyes. You know. Your eyes were some of the first ones on it. Just have beta readers and get it into a cohesive extended narrative. That’s how it came to be only that length, because I outlined it, which was an amazing process.
LR: So, wait, you don’t outline?
TM: I do not outline, which is probably why I haven’t finished anything lately. A lot of things have been dangling. But Bergdorf & Associates has proven to me that by making real-world goals and deadlines, you can complete whatever length of work you want. And, of course, it evolved after my initial draft, when I got it to my initial endpoint. I’d been toying with it for a while, and made stronger connections once I could see it as a complete work, and fixed it up. It was a good test.
LR: Yes, I was one of your beta readers. The first time I read it, I enjoyed it. I recently asked you if there was anything significant you changed in it, and you answered no. But I think you’re too close to it. The ending was a lot more solid, and your story does a lot more than it used to.
TM: Well, I played with it a lot, but when it got to Kate Jonez, whose job is to edit things and to make things better, she helped get a lot of those connections rendered out. It’s interesting. I don’t think people acknowledge that editors are like record producers. You can tell when a record has been produced by a certain person. They do have a little of their influence in there, and an ear for how to get the raw material together. This whole experience with Kate was like that. She didn’t change anything; she just made what I had stronger and better. This was a really cool experience, and I’m glad that you can see the differences.
LR: But I’m assuming you’re not done with Abe and Bergdorf?
TM: Well, there are a lot of things going on in this world, so I am about halfway through a follow-up piece to Bergdorf. Hopefully, I can finish that, and hopefully, people can enjoy more Bergdorf and Abraham.
LR: Do you have a working title?
TM: So far it’s called The Seventh City. It’s the continuing shenanigans of Abe and Bergdorf.
LR: [laughing] Bosom buddies.
TM: [laughing] Yes, those good ol’ buddies. There’s definitely a lot going on in that story, and I didn’t want to make it complex, but the world of magic in this story pulls from everything. That’s how I feel—how we live in the world. We have a lot of belief systems, and a lot of the time, you’ll read a genre book and it’s only got one thing, and if it’s successful, they’ll bring something else. For instance, I watched the True Blood show. It begins with vampires. Vampires are a thing. And then as you’re going on—‘Oh! Werewolves are a thing, too.’ And witches come in the next season. Every season they add something else, but to me, well, weren’t they there before? The whole time? I didn’t want to hold anything back; it feels like cheating.
LR: I did notice there are Christian and Jewish influences. The bruja is almost a Hispanic folklore type of thing?
TM: Yes. Mexican American folk magic. Crystals play a big part in this. Abrahamic mysticism. I didn’t want everyone to have to look up every little thing that I had in there, but I did want them to hunt for some things.
LR: Something I did enjoy are the parts of your story where I recognize what an object is. The things I recognize, I kind of know what they’re going to do. Other things, like the crystals, I have no knowledge of, so when they do their thing, it’s a cool surprise. How much of this lore did you have to look up and how much did you know off the top of your head?
TM: Maybe fifty-fifty? A lot of the stuff I knew a little bit about, and then, when I just went in to confirm something, I’d find a cool detail. It doesn’t give anything away, but when Abe comes out with what Bergdorf and his crew actually are, he points out that the original ideas, their mythological, folkloric, and mystical origins, are so far removed from our contemporary concepts of this being.
LR: One of the things I thought was really cool was that there are a lot of talismans, or totems, these physical objects Abe comes into possession of or already owns. I’m going to just say it: I know that you own this “voodoo box” where Abe keeps all of his items. Are all of the things in this story in your voodoo box?
TM: I think they are. I don’t think I invented anything in that story that’s not in the box. I’m going through it now. There’s definitely a deck of cards. There are lighters. Oh, the pocket watches are not in that box.
LR: Well, they’re not in that box anyway. They’re in his dad’s . . . valet case?
TM: Yes. I call it a valet box. My dad had this box. It’s like a men’s jewelry box. It had spaces for cufflinks, and he kept his bolo ties in there. It has his two pocket watches in there that I didn’t even know existed before—so that’s where my real special magic is, in that box, just like Abe.
LR: Knowing that these are all objects that you own—even the cockroach in a vial, which is a thing I gave you because I know you don’t like cockroaches—I think it’s interesting that you own all of these objects, that all of these are real things.
TM: Well, when you say that—Denver and the Denver area play a role in this book as well. I use real streets and real parts of the city, and analogs of real places, so that people familiar with Denver will immediately be able to identify some of the things I talk about. And just like with the voodoo box and magic items, so much of the book is pulled from real-life stuff. I have fraternal twin goddaughters; they’re in their twenties now. The twins in the book are pulled from their personalities, but then I spun them out into their own thing. The nursing home—all of the events in the nursing home are pretty heavily based on events that actually happened. I never felt like I was the kind of writer who pulled real-life experiences or events into their work because I just like to explore stuff. But the more that I’m developing as a writer, the more I find I keep sneaking in my own stuff. This book itself just contains a lot of real-world stuff.
LR: A lot of Tom Mavroudis is in there?
TM: Yeah. I really look forward to seeing what people’s reactions are to all of the stuff that goes on in there. When my wife Lisa reads my stuff, she always points out something that’s happened in real life—“Oh, I like how you put those shoes in there.” Because it’s always something like that: shoes, or a significant piece of silverware, something that is normally mundane. But I put some sort of supernatural influence on it and take it into a story.
LR: You do have an excellent collection of shoes, though. Wrapping up, is there anything else you want to mention about your book or anything else you’re working on?
TM: I’m in the process of assembling my first collection, and a couple of editors are interested. And then my main writing focus, besides my Seventh City book, is that I have a chapbook coming out. This is for 2022, from Muzzleland Press.
LR: Anything else? Any cool ‘hey-I’m-Tom-this-is-the-cool-thing-about-me’ stuff you wanted to mention, besides your cool shoes?
TM: [laughing] I did buy some new shoes yesterday. So people can be on the lookout for those. [more laughing] Some fresh kicks on my dogs.
LR: Any disclaimers you want at the end of this?
TM: Uhhhh? No. It’s all the truth. It’s all 110 percent the truth.
Lucio Rodriguez received an MFA from UCR Palm Desert. He currently works as an entomologist, which largely involves sitting in the dark staring at moths. He has stories in Forbidden Futures, 18 Wheels of Science Fiction, and written in salt at the edge of one very specific graveyard.
He has a wife and two daughters, all of whom inspire him to be a better person. He hasn’t made any dark deals with questionable entities, but he does have student loans, which is kind of the same thing.