The real world

Thomas Lloyd Qualls


Thomas Lloyd Qualls, 42, is a local attorney, father, poet and novelist. As the winner of the Reno News & Review’s best local novelist in our annual readers’ poll, it seemed incumbent upon us to read his debut novel, Waking up at Rembrandt’s. More information on Qualls and his work can be found at

Why was the restaurant called Café Rembrandt? Was that actually mentioned in the book?

It probably wasn’t. It was probably mentioned in an earlier version. I’d written this novel one time before, and it was at least twice as long and had more characters and a different voice, and I may have explained it then. But I kind of decided that in a lot of things, less is more. Rembrandt was a master of chiaroscuro, the balance of light and dark, so it plays off that a little bit—the balance of shadow and light or yin and yang or whatever universal thing you could think of.

Now I understand why you used Rembrandt as the sustained metaphor. Did you have something particular you were going for with Rembrandt, or did you assume people would understand that?

I liked the backdrop of it. I like how confused “genius” is for us. Like art—painters, writers, artists often talk about being in that flow where they can’t really take full responsibility for what comes out … sort of like spirit moving through them or genius, or whatever you want to call it, it’s inspired. Athletes, same way, that being-in-the-zone-type deal where you’re able to do things that are kind of perceived as superhuman. But often those same people are terrible at life. So Rembrandt was this amazingly gifted artist. A lot of people see him as the master of masters, but his life was a wreck. His money was terrible, and he ended up completely destitute. There’s all kinds of nice metaphors for that balance, or imbalance. We also have a tendency to chew up genius or bright lights around us and then throw them away when we’re done. He makes a nice metaphor for that. So I played on that, and I played on that with the arts and the words and the love poems. There’s a lot of the mystery of life in there and how we deal with it, and it’s often sort of off to the corner of our eyes. The idea that the broker he got and the more society cast him out, the better his art got has always been interesting to me. That was the backdrop. That’s what I played with.

So much of this is autobiographical. I mean, you’re all those characters, right?

In some ways, yeah. I think fiction can’t help but to be autobiographical to some extent.

What’s the next book about?

The next book is called Painted Oxen. On one hand, it’s simpler in that there are only two storylines that are woven. One is a backpacker in modern-day India, and one is an ancient Tibetan searching for a holy land. The kind of vehicle that I play with is the dream world versus the real world and kind of which one is which. I hope that the reader will ask themselves which one is which—is one of these characters the dream life of the other, and which is which, really? … I’m probably halfway done. I’m not as far along as I’d hoped because I had a child and that took up a big chunk of the year.