Interview With an Author: Rhys Thomas

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Rhys Thomas and his new novel, The Secret Life of Sam Holloway

Rhys Thomas is the author of The Suicide Club and On the Third Day. He lives in Cardiff, Wales, with his partner and three cats. His new novel is The Secret Life of Sam Holloway and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for The Secret Life of Sam Holloway?

The idea for the book came from seeing a documentary about real-life superheroes operating out of English cities. Ordinarily, when we picture superheroes we imagine tough guys and girls saving the world from evil plots, and seeing ordinary members of the public going out and carrying shopping bags for elderly people made me smile. And also—who hasn’t imagined what it would be like to be a superhero?

Are Sam, Sarah, Tango, Blotchy or any of the other characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?

I don’t tend to base characters directly on people. If anything I search for characteristics and contradictory feelings within myself that I can share out amongst a set of characters. But writers are always observing people around us and so it all goes into the pot.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

The novel changed enormously over the course of writing and editing. This is why editors are essential in the writing process—they can seek out the gems that you need to carve out of the rock face. In the end, the book is pretty much exactly how I wanted it to be.

There was a homeless character called Walt who appeared in two of the Phantasm chapters. He didn’t make the final cut for all the right reasons, but maybe he’ll appear in another book, or maybe as an extra if the book becomes popular and there’s a special edition!

Sam’s favorite superhero seems to be Batman. Is Batman your favorite as well or do you prefer a different character?

Batman. No contest. Sam’s reasons for loving Batman are the same as mine. He’s a real human being with no special powers other than a cool suit and an analytical way of looking at the world.

Sam mentions a superpower he has dreamed of having during the novel. If you could have any superpower, what would it be?

In my more altruistic moments I might say the power to heal the sick. But seeing as though doctors, nurses, and scientists (real superheroes) are doing that every day the world over, I’d probably say flying instead.

How did you determine that Phantasm was the name for Sam’s alter-ego?

I wanted something that wasn’t quite right, was a little naff-sounding. Sam isn’t particularly good at being a superhero, and so I wanted a name that he thought would be cool but nobody else would.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I tend to read a few books at one time. At the moment I’ve got 1602 by Neil Gaiman, The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt, Crime and Punishment, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. I highly recommend them all.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

This is a tricky one. My father used to read Heidi by Johanna Spyri to me at bedtime and so that book has left a lasting impression on me. In terms of reading myself, the first book that really made me feel something was Matilda by Roald Dahl, which I checked out of my local library in Pontyclun, Wales. And then the book that really ignited my passion for reading, and this is kind of weird, was the novelisation of the movie, Willow. I bloody loved that book.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

When I was around eleven I read Night of the Crabs by Guy N. Smith. I couldn’t believe I was getting away with reading something where people were being ripped apart by giant crabs in one chapter and then having graphic, extraordinarily written sex in the next!

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

To make life easier, I’m selecting authors still living and to make life even easier again I’ll choose writers whose books I have to buy as soon as they come out, no matter what they’re about. So David Mitchell, Neil Gaiman, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, and Haruki Murakami. I know you said five but I’m throwing Audrey Niffenegger in there too! Having said all this, many of my favorite books are not by these authors.

What is a book you've faked reading?

I can honestly say I’ve never done this. Do people do that? Why would you do that?

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Well I didn’t buy but I persuaded my partner to buy it—Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami. It’s a photograph of a woman floating through space towards the counter of a noodle bar. It was part of a series by Natsumi Hayashi called Today’s Levitation that I just love. She achieves the effect by shooting with really fast shutter speeds and it works so well. And the novel is great too.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. It was like a fog lifting, and so incredibly beautiful.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

This would be David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. I’ve bought so many copies of this I’ve lost count, just so that I can foist it upon unsuspecting victims when they say they’re looking for a good book. I think it explains nearly all of human nature, whilst at the same time being outrageously compulsive and entertaining.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Jurassic Park. I loved the film and read the book afterward but the sheer wonder that I felt reading that novel is the reason I wanted to be a writer. As soon as I put it down I knew that was what I wanted to do, and proceeded to write all my school essays in the style of Michael Crichton from thereon in. I love films but with books, the reader gets to bring their own imagination to the party—they paint in the details themselves howsoever they wish and this is why I think Jurassic Park was the perfect book for me.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

Oh gosh, this is difficult. I’m a pretty simple person but I do know it would be a crisp autumn day. I’d probably take my partner for a nice walk in the woods before going to a quaint little village for a pub lunch. Then maybe a drive to the beach to stare at the sea for a few hours before finding a good coffee shop with comfy seats where we could sit and read. In the evening a visit to my family for Chinese food and then a trip to the cinema, or the pub with my friends. Not very exciting I know but I’m happiest being around people I love—the activity isn’t so important. Apart from at five to midnight, I’d like to go on stage in front of thousands of people and sing "American Trilogy" by Elvis with a hundred piece band and acrobats and fire-breathers and dancers and probably some dinosaurs too. Can Barack Obama do this with me?

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

This one! And this one.

What are you working on now?

I’m struggling along with a climate change novel that I’ve been tinkering with for nearly ten years now. It’s set four hundred years in the future. In fact, I’d better get on with that and so I’ll leave you to it, but can I just say a quick thank you to you, and all the librarians in America for the incredibly important work you do. For me, there is no greater act of empathy than reading and you are the custodians of books—without you guys, where would we be?

Book cover for The Secret Life of Sam Holloway
The Secret Life of Sam Holloway
Thomas, Rhys

Sam Holloway is a nice guy. He has a stable, but a not terribly exciting, job with an electronic parts distributor. He meets up with a couple of friends several nights a week at a local pub, where they talk about comics, movies, videogames and what it might be like to meet a nice woman. Yes, Sam is a bit of a geek, but he is also a good guy, and everyone seems to know that. What no one knows though, is that on nights when Sam isn’t at the pub with his friends, he dons a homemade superhero costume and patrols the streets of his hometown as The Phantasm, attempting to thwart crime and right wrongs. He doesn’t have a great track record. Fighting crime simply isn’t as easy in real life as it appears in the comics, but he continues his patrols because it helps give him a sense of purpose and usefulness that the rest of his life lacks.

Sam meets Sarah when she observes him buying food for a homeless person at a local bakery. When she sees him a few days later at the pub, she approaches him and they begin to talk. This is unprecedented in Sam’s experiences. He’s never been terribly social and is even worse when it comes to women and dating. Sarah represents what Sam both fears and desires the most. The question is, is he brave enough to risk his comfortable life, his comfortable existence, for the unknown future that Sarah may represent?

In The Secret Life of Sam Holloway, Rhys Thomas explores how crippling and isolating grief can be and how we all hide behind masks, both literal and figurative, for differing reasons.

The Secret Life of Sam Holloway is a gentle, lovely book in the same vein as Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. It is about both hiding and allowing oneself to be found. It is also about what it really means to be truly brave, which doesn’t often require donning a mask, but taking it off.