How Thom Atkinson Became the Best Author You’ve Never Read

Atkinson has been serving up scenes and characters from his short stories and plays for decades in insightful, unforgettable ways.

Illustration by Paul Blow

Denise Burgess read the short story 10 years ago and can’t recall the title, but a scene from it has stuck with her like so many others in Thom Atkinson’s writing. Two down-on-their-luck teenage girls share a cigarette in an alley behind a small hair and tanning salon, where the older teen is primping for the prom and the younger one reluctantly works.

They lean against a cinder block wall, then drop down and sit together in the gravel, flicking ashes into the alley. Having never been on friendly terms, the girls trade pointed barbs at first about each other’s family and friends. But then the older teen confides that she’s pregnant and hasn’t told anyone. The dynamic between the two girls suddenly changes from hateful to sisterly.

“The details in that scene are so layered that they resonate in your head, even if you’ve never smoked a cigarette in an alley,” says Burgess, the self-described president of the still-to-be-founded Thom Atkinson Fan Club. “The way he describes it, you’re right there with those two characters in that moment. He’s so observant. He takes in everybody no matter who or where they are.”

Atkinson, 63, has been serving up scenes and characters from his short stories and plays for decades in insightful, unforgettable ways. The Cincinnati native is a five-time winner of the Ohio Arts Council’s Individual Excellence Award and has had plays staged at Ensemble Theatre (Circle of Mystery, Copperheads, Cuttings) and Playhouse in the Park (Clear Liquor and Coal Black Nights) as well as theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He’s twice been nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Prize in short fiction and had his short stories included in half a dozen anthologies.

But despite collecting enough literary honors and critical accolades to wallpaper his home office in Anderson Township, popular acclaim has been elusive. Atkinson and his devotees are hoping that will change with the release this fall of his second novel, Tiki Man (Regal House Publishing), the story of an abandoned 10-year-old girl and the under-employed, sobriety-challenged man who takes her under his broken wing. Its cast of characters and themes are common to much of Atkinson’s writing: people living on the margins of society struggling to do the best they can for each other with a limited set of skills and options.

“A great writer is the kind who can live 1,000 lives and truly not hold back what’s happening,” says novelist and artist Robin Winter, who met Atkinson at several Santa Barbara Writers Conferences. “Thom to me is someone who has lived all of those lives, and he hasn’t judged them at all. He wants to be those people with every fiber of his being.”

Catherine Ryan Hyde, the best-selling author of Pay It Forward (which later became a movie) and nearly 40 other books, remembers Atkinson reading early drafts of Tiki Man during her Santa Barbara workshop in 2014. “I told him the details just knocked my socks off. I don’t understand why he doesn’t have Cormac McCarthy’s  career. The literary magazines can’t get enough of his stuff, so it’s not that nobody is affirming how good he is. It’s just that when someone actually has to make a financial investment in whether they can sell one of his novels, at that point they start thinking he’s almost too good.”

Atkinson grew up in Mt. Lookout on a gravel side street of working-class homes “before the neighborhood became Mt. Lookout-slash-Hyde Park” of mostly white-collar professionals. “Ours was the tiniest little Cape Cod,” he says. “But now somebody bought it and put an addition on it that’s maybe two-and-a-half times the size of the original house. It’s like a small dog having its way with a large dog.”

Atkinson attended Walter Peoples Junior High in the early 1970s when the newly integrated Cincinnati public school was a volatile mix of Appalachians from the East End and African Americans from Evanston. “Those two groups generally didn’t care for each other, and they clashed,” recalls Atkinson’s former classmate and longtime friend, Karl Kadon. “But they had one thing in common— none of them liked the kids from the Hyde Park and Kilgour grade schools. It was periodically harrowing for us to navigate the hallways between classes.”

The tough environment was formative for a tall, painfully skinny, book-minded student like Atkinson, Kadon says. Part of his protection was “a scalpel-sharp wit from the time he was a kid. He learned how to use words as a shield and a weapon. I can see that same Thom in his writing. He’s always had a way with invective that’s hilarious.” Both Kadon and Atkinson later tested into the more academically competitive Walnut Hills High School, where Atkinson says he distinguished himself with “Gentleman Cs.”

Atkinson began his education as a writer at the University of Cincinnati, where he majored in English and earned certificates in both creative writing and poetry under the tutelage of author Dallas Wiebe and poet Terry Stokes. Both mentors saw a young writer whose talent they thought was worth nurturing. They urged him to be fearless in his honesty, pointing him in the direction of Southern Gothic novelist Harry Crews. In particular, Atkinson recalls the impact at the time of reading Crews’s novel The Gypsy’s Curse.

“It’s told from the first-person point of view of a circus freak, a guy who was born without any bones in his legs,” says Atkinson. “He walks around on his hands, and he’s deaf. So when he signs, he goes up on one hand to do sign language. That’s the first-person narrator, the kind of approach where you have to have these giant brass balls and set them up on top of the typewriter before you even start writing.”

Atkinson’s writing has been described by other writers as “Appalachian Noir,” since his stories often take place in the hard-scrabble regions of southern Ohio and West Virginia. His mother grew up in West Virginia even though “she never wanted to admit it and you wouldn’t have known that just by listening to her,” he says.

Atkinson’s father was a World War II veteran wounded during the Battle of the Bulge. He was the only soldier to survive from his rifle platoon, and barely so. A shell from a German 88-millimeter cannon exploded in the trench where he was taking cover. A field surgeon saved his life, but the wound that sheared away the left side of his face would require three years of surgery to patch together again. While recovering in a hospital in Cleveland, he met Atkinson’s mother, a volunteer who’d lied about her age to become a Navy WAVE.

Atkinson doesn’t like to talk about it, but his own life has had its share of unpredictability and physical imperfection as well. He suffers from an inherited disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that affects the body’s connective tissues, blood vessels, and joints. He wasn’t diagnosed until his early 30s, when he began having severe migraines and neck and joint pain. It’s a chronic condition that can be debilitating and even life-threatening, and it’s interfered with but not kept him from writing over the years.

“He doesn’t want that to be what defines him,” says Tracey Atkinson, his wife of 30 years. And although his condition helps him identify with the challenges of some of his characters, she says, “he wants his writing to stand on its own.”

Like all serious writers, Atkinson worked at a variety of make-money jobs before he was able to devote himself full-time to his craft. In 1988, six years after earning his MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University, he was a tech at Princeton Tires in Sharonville, owned then by Kadon’s father, when Clear Liquor and Coal Black Nights was accepted for staging at Playhouse in the Park. Then 29, Atkinson was the first local playwright to have his work produced there, bumping a play by Sam Shepard to be part of the subscription season. While under cars at the tire store, Atkinson would sometimes get calls from the William Morris Agency in New York. “Mr. Kadon would come over the PA in the garage and the waiting room in this deep, booming voice: Thom, your agent is on line one!

Atkinson had moved on to working at the old Drew’s bookstore in Hyde Park when he first met Tracey. Cincinnati being the village that it truly is, her boss at the software start-up firm where she worked at the time, then known as SDRC and now owned by Siemens, was Erica Wiebe, daughter of Atkinson’s UC mentor. Atkinson called the tender plot to get the two of them together “the most transparent ruse ever.” After several other visits, he says, “Tracey comes into the bookstore, and there’s a Post-it note in her hand with this information on it. She hands it to me and says, Erica is having a Christmas party and she wants you to come.

The couple married in 1991. Until their sons were grown enough to go off to school, Thom had precious little time to write. “After dinner, I’d run up to my office and have maybe three hours and the energy for work, work, work,” he says. The result was Strobe Life, his first novel, based on his years as a bar-band rocker in the early 1980s.

Playing bass in the band was Atkinson’s longtime friend Chris Nickson, who has become a successful writer of historical fiction set in his native city of Leeds, England. “We called ourselves Harvey and the Larvae,” recalls Nickson, who moved back to England in 2005. “I can only hope to be as good a writer as Thom is,” he says. “It’s easy to just tell a story and sort of skim along the surface, because it’s what I used to do for a long time with my fiction. But Thom has always had that ability to dive deeper into his characters and to make a particular geographical location his own.”

Nickson says he was surprised that, in Tiki Man, Atkinson has moved the setting from Appalachia to Florida’s Space Coast near Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach. “But it’s very similar people in a similar situation, not the Florida you see in the ads,” Nickson says. Atkinson says he based his setting on a street of mostly transient residents where his in-laws once had a condo.

The main characters in Tiki Man are Pere, a part-time marina worker trying to make ends meet, and Tammy, the daughter of his jailed girlfriend, and they were inspired by two people Atkinson had overheard in his in-laws’ neighborhood a decade ago. Capturing the way Pere and Tammy look out for each other in the toughest of times is what snags the reader and won’t let go. “The details become like the character of where we are and what society is there and how these characters live,” Hyde says. “And it’s not that he doesn’t have plots. It’s just that he does the descriptions so amazingly well I would sit there all day and read them.”

Hyde would like to see Tiki Man propel Atkinson’s popularity to new levels. “I’m really looking forward to my description of Thom being ‘the greatest author you never read’ becoming archaic.”

See Thom Atkinson read the first chapter of Tiki Man at Ensemble Theatre on October 17, 2021.

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