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A Date with . . . Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson is a retired Military Cop from Seymour, Texas. As well as moving around quite a bit as the son of a cowboy, his military service took him to Korea, France and Vietnam but he loves his home town:

“ I was born in Seymour, but spent twenty years in the military. My dad was a cowboy and cook, so we moved to other places during my early years. In fact most of my early education was in schools in Wichita Falls, Texas. After retiring from the military service we moved back to Seymour because our parents were in bad health, and we stayed after they passed away. Seymour is a small ranch and farm community,with a population under three thousand. However, we have two museums here. The Baylor County Historical Museum, and the Whiteside Museum of Natural History. Seymour is in the Permian Basin (think oil) where a dig site has been providing Permian reptile fossils for well over a hundred years. In fact, we have a 300 million year-old amphibian named after our town, the Semouria. The Whiteside Museum of Natural History has a huge display of animals from mammals to dinosaurs and reptiles. Schools from around Texas and Oklahoma bring students here on field trips, and many do return engagements. Students love to visit the museum, as do adults.”

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Tom is passionate about pulp fiction (the real stuff, not the eponymous movie). I wanted to know what attracted him to the genre?

“First I became a collector of the old pulp magazines, and was fascinated by the yarns written in the 1930s & ’40s, and even the earlier stuff by Johnston McCulley. It was really a time for heroes, and Johnston McCulley and a few others started the costumed/masked crime fighters long before Superman and Batman tackled crime in comic books. The explosion actually happened after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

The public was tired of gangsters in suits and expensive automobiles while the rest of humanity stood in lines at the soup kitchens.

They wanted heroes and the Dime magazines gave them those heroes. While living in Wichita Falls, Texas I had access to the movie theaters in the 1940s and thrilled to the Saturday Matinee serials. These were stories right out of the pulp magazines, and I loved those old serials. As an adult I started collecting the serials- I’m now at 100 and counting, and this led to collecting and reading the hero pulps. As a writer of SF, I wanted to write new stories of the old pulp heroes, and have enjoyed some success in that genre. I don’t think I will ever tire of the hero stories. And you’re right, the movie, Pulp Fiction has nothing to do with real pulp fiction.”

Tom regularly collaborates with Altus Press, he explains how the partnership began:

ALTUS PRESS is owned by a very nice gentleman in Massachusetts named Matt Moring. My wife and I started the publishing imprint of FADING SHADOWS in 1982. We started publishing a hobby magazine that year, plus in 1995 added genre magazines and published new writers from around the world.

In 2002 I had a stroke and we had to slow down, so in 2004, 22 years after starting our imprint, we ended the FADING SHADOWS imprint.

Around 2005 Matt Moring contacted me wanting stories from the pulps to reprint. I began supplying ALTUS PRESS with the material Matt needed, plus he hired me to write Forwards and Introductions to his books. When he learned that I had researched many of the old pulp series, he asked me to let him print them, so he began publishing a lot of my work from the FADING SHADOWS period. At 78, I’m pretty well retired now, but I’ve recently written another Forward to ALTUS PRESS upcoming book, THE DOMINO LADY

Tom began writing whilst in the military:

I was a reader from an early age. Comic books at age 7, and the classic novel like Tom Sawyer by age 11. So I’ve always loved to read. My dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become a cowboy. But I hated ranch and farm life. At age 16 we moved back to a ranch where Ihad to work after school and on weekends. I decided that wasn’t a life I wanted, and when I turned 18 I joined the Army and left ranch life for good.
In the early 1960s I was a desk sergeant for the MPs in France. While my units were on patrol I would create plots and characters and write little scenes of action. I guess I was bitten by the bug, so to speak. But I didn’t do anything with my interest until after a touring the jungles of Vietnam. When I returned home in 1970, I sat down and wrote two novels that would become the first two stories in the JUR series. I wrote them in long hand and pencil. Paid a typist to put the first one in manuscript format, and made copies which I mailed off to SF publishers.
Just as quickly I started receiving rejection slips. I needed to learn the trade. So I stuffed the manuscripts in a drawer and started writing articles and columns for newspapers and magazines. And when we started the FADING SHADOWS imprint after I retired from the military, my wife and I got into editing and grammar.

While researching the Mike Shayne magazine the publisher put me in contact with James Reasoner, the current Shayne author at the time, and James heard about my SF stories and wanted to read them. I sent him the first story and he made some good suggestions which I took to heart. I rewrote the first novel, and in 2002 submitted it to a publisher.

The publisher wrote back accepting the novel and asked for more.

I wasn’t doing anything at the time so sent the second novel to them, then the third. That began my real writing.
But you asked me about the military, didn’t you? My career field was law enforcement, but my training was infantry. I spent a couple tours in Korea, the first on the DMZ under fire in 1959-60. A wonderful three year tour in France, and a tour in Vietnam 1969-70. I spent most of the 1960s overseas. When in the States I had a hard time getting out of Texas. I think I was stationed at every military post in Texas. I joined the Army on November 24, 1958, and retired February 1, 1979. I still feel the military was a better option for me than ranch life. Twenty years in the military, and twenty years in publishing. I don’t regret any of it.

Looking at the covers of Tom’s books (some of which are reproduced here) it’s obvious that he does his best to imitate the style of the 1940s pulps he loves so much. How much of that is down to him?

I do most of it myself, though sometimes I use one of our old FADING SHADOWS artists to illustrate and a designer to set up the cover. I first look for a pulp cover that’s in the public domain, and if I can design the title, I’ll do it myself. I want something that will catch the eye of the reader. I don’t really care for modern book covers.

Tom is married to his editor – and he has encountered every self-publisher’s worst nightmare (not that the two are in any way connected!).

Ginger, my wife, does a good job editing my books. I will go over the manuscript several times until I’m happy with it, but then I turn it over to Ginger and she catches the things I don’t see. I do have too many files, though.

Once, when we uploaded a manuscript for print and eBook we uploaded an unedited file instead of the final version.

One of my readers saw the problem and let me know. I had to pull the book and upload the file again. Unfortunately, I had ordered 26 copies of the paperback for book signing, and that was a waste of money since the book was full of errors.

Some people regard pulp fiction as the bottom of the literary barrel, both from the presumed quality of the writing and from the subject matter and the culture it promotes. How does Tom respond to such criticism?

I’ve heard this a lot. And some of it is true. Pulp was formula, and the writers were trying to make a living at a penny a word during the Depression. There was little plot, little characterization, but lots of action. Lester Dent, the author of Doc Savage (as Kenneth Robeson)struggled to move from pulp to the slicks because he thought Doc Savage was junk and he would never be recognized as a real writer. But if we compare the sales of Doc Savage to the sales of Hemingway, Doc Savage probably sold ten times more books than Hemingway, and today Doc Savage is more popular than Hemingway. Unfortunately, Lester Dent died in 1958, so he never knew how popular Doc Savage would be. Some great writers wrote pulp fiction. They had to if they wanted to feed their family.

I was unaware of Tom’s age when I asked him the standard question about fitting writing in around working for a living.

With my retirement and what my books bring in I make good money. Besides, at 78 I’m too old to work (LOL). I’ve always heard never quit your day job to become a writer. But we are well off and have no worries about finances. If I never sold another book, it would not hurt our income in the least.

Not surprisingly, Tom’s favorite authors include a few who write ‘pulp’:

There are so many writers I admire. Past writers would be Edgar Rice Burroughs (remember Tarzan?) Robert E. Howard (Conan). I have spent time with many of the pulp writers. Today’s writers I would have to say K.G. (Gail) McAbee, who can write anything and it’s going to be good! And a dozen others, but if I mentioned a few and left out others I would get in trouble, so I will leave it at this. LOL

Asked to reveal something unexpected about himself, Tom confesses that

I am addicted to coconut. I love coconut pies and coconut cakes. I am as bad about coconut as some are about chocolate (LOL).

I really enjoyed my conversation with such an engaging gentleman – I hope you did too. Connect with Tom on Facebook, at Amazon and via firstrealmpublishing.com.

For the latest Pulp news, check out Tom’s blog here.


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