Robert Dunbar Interview
Today folks I’m a proud to have author of among others The Shore, The Pines and Willy and owner of Uninvited Press Rob Dunbar over for a chat.
GNOH– Hi Rob, how are things with you?
Why? What have you heard? It’s all lies.
GNOH– Could you give the readers a little bit of background information on yourgood self?
Like at a parole hearing? Sure. I’m awriter.
I figure that about says it … butpeople always stare as though they expect you to expound. Whatever. I startedlife as a poet. Can’t you picture me? I cut quite the romantic figure (Ithought): twentyish and long-haired, terribly intense, my work actually gettingpublished in eccentric little journals. I was forever giving readings at artgalleries and coffeehouses. Actually, I didn’t read the pieces so much asperform them, and the poems gradually evolved into plays, which only got producedat the sort of theatres where the word “experimental” got tossed around a lot. Myscripts were full of angst and anomie, and furious young directors loved them,so you can imagine the size of the audiences they drew. To forestall actualstarvation, I worked for a bewildering array of newspapers and magazines, doingbook reviews and theatre reviews, movie reviews and dance reviews. Iinterviewed singers and sculptors, painters and politicians. I also wrotehumorous essays, or at least I thought they were humorous. These led to doingsimilar bits for a couple of radio stations and eventually to some televisionwork, mostly for PBS and the Discovery Channel.
But it’s as a fiction writer that I finallybegan to discover myself.
GNOH– You write horror, but are you a fan of the genre? And can you remember whatkicked off your love of the genre?
I love a trick question. It depends onwhat you mean by “the genre.” If we’re talking THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE orCONJURE WIFE, if we’re talking about stories by Edith Wharton or Henry James orAlgernon Blackwood or Willa Cather or Elizabeth Bowen then, yes, absolutely,I’m the most passionate fan who ever lived.
However, if you mean…
No, let’s not even go there.
What began my affair with dark fiction? Simple.A love of books. I imagine it’s the same for most writers. Children can onlyescape inward. It can start with the quiet adventure of prowling through alibrary and the accidental discovery of M. R. James or Oliver Onions or RobertAickman. Also, never underestimate the impact of being able to sneak downstairslate at night to experience classic horror films. Sitting very close to the television,the sound almost inaudible, I absorbed THE UNINVITED, THE CAT PEOPLE and THEINNOCENTS in a state bordering on religious rapture.
GNOH– Why do you write? Was it alwayssomething that was trying to break out, or did you stumble into it by accident?
Growing up, I kept bits of ghost storiesI’d written hidden in odd places. (Ah, the miseries of childhood!) As I gotolder I tried to steer myself toward what I perceived as more acceptablechannels, but dark fiction always called to me.
GNOH– How easy do you find it to write?
The only thing in the world that’sharder is not writing.
GNOH– Is it always an enjoyable experience? Some writers say writing is fun. Surely writing should be a painfulexperience, where you have to wrestle each book into submission.
If the writer is only having fun, I guarantee his readers won’t be. How can Iexplain this? Look – sex is fun, right? But there’s also a whole spectrum ofother aspects: a fearful intimacy, seriousness of intent, joy and ecstasy, eventhe terror of losing control. Plus it can be hard work. (Everything rewardingis.) And that’s just the beginning. God forbid you actually become pregnantwith a book. Giving birth is nobody’s idea of a good time.
GNOH– Horror has always been a polarizing genre, with fans on one side and thosewho think it’s the poor relation to good writing on the other. However, itseems that even the fans seem to be fighting themselves each day, with thosesaying that good horror can’t be literary, and those saying that good horrorhas to be literary. How do you feel?
Come on. I think you already know theanswer to that. Besides, the fighting is very one-sided. Fans who don’t read atan adult level have been pandered to for so long that they feel empowered todictate what’s “allowed” within the genre, and I’ve often been struck by howthis mirrors the culture at large. With greater intellectual sophisticationcomes greater appreciation for diversity. Sadly, the reverse is also true.
GNOH– You seem to have become one of the standard bearers of the Literary side. Isthis something you are happy about?
I’m proud of that reputation. On theother hand, I never wanted to choose sides. But the first time someone insistedthat I shouldn’t be “allowed” to write the way I do, I knew a line had beendrawn in the sand.
GNOH– What would you say makes a book literary?
Gore. Lots of gore. And zombies. And nothingsays stylistic prowess like gouged eyeballs. Throw in a disembowelling. Or perhapssomeone could have oral sex with a severed head. (The belles lettres crowd loves that sort of thing.) Add a few rapes or maybesome torture porn, and you’re golden. Who needs technical competence? To hellwith irony and metaphor. Jettison evocative description and plot structure andcharacter development. Now that’s literary.
GNOH– I caught the end of Stephen Fry’s show about the history of words andlanguage last night. One of his closing comments was that there really is nosuch thing as bad writing. What would you say to that?
Have you read his book?
GNOH– Do you enjoy any pulpy horror? Surely you have some guilty pleasures.
There’s nothing wrong with indulging ina little Apocalypse of the Bigfoot Zombies,if that’s what you’re in the mood for. Good pulp fiction can be dynamic, evenliberating. This isn’t about limiting options. Quite the contrary. Problems onlyenter the picture when juvenilia-in-disguise becomes the only sort of darkfiction that reaches the public. Besides, pulp fiction draws on a venerabletradition of…
I knew I couldn’t pull this off with astraight face. Let’s face it – any adult reading a book with the word “Bigfoot”in the title should consider evening classes.
GNOH– I personally read a more lowbrow horror, than literary horror. From a personal standpoint, most of the timeI read I am so knackered, I don’t have the energy to concentrate on complexwriting. That’s not to say I won’t read literary horror, I keep that for when Iam on holiday, or on the rare occasions I have a run of days off from work. So who would you recommend I should read?
I’m not sure what “knackered” means, butI’m hoping it’s filthy. So you equate “literary” with difficult? With me, it’spretty much the opposite. Getting through more than a page of any book thatseems to have been written for (or possibly by) a mental defective causes meactual physical pain. But if you’re serious about wantingrecommendations…
Let me think.
Have you read Sarah Waters’ THE LITTLESTRANGER? It’s structured like a classic haunted house tale in the ShirleyJackson/Henry James mode and quite brilliant. Andrew Davidson’s THE GARGOYLEpretty much defies comparison but is also brilliant, and of course immediately pickup anything and everything by Greg F. Gifune (but start with GARDENS OF NIGHT).Are you familiar with T. M. Wright’s work? Amazing novels. And I know you justdid an interview with Sandy DeLuca. Another recent favourite of mine was B. E.Scully’s VERLAND: THE TRANSFORMATION. Who else? Let’s see. There’s Peter Strauband Thomas Ligotti and Laird Barron and Patrick McGrath. Then there’s GaryBraunbeck and Tom Piccirilli and…
Should I go on? It’s not hard to findquality. One just has to look.
GNOH– No one could accuse you of being an overnight success. It’s been rather a hard slog for you. Do you think this has helped you mould yourcraft into a better thing?
Has it been all that hard? Maybe. Toughcall. I’ve had to learn my craft and hone my skills, certainly, but I thinkthat’s a vital part of any writer’s journey – not so much slogging as payingdues. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had a much more difficult time than anyother creative person. You want easy success? Crank out sub-literate drivel,then promote yourself relentlessly, as though perpetually running for publicoffice. Success will follow with a dreary inevitably.
Or did you want to be a writer? Becausethat’s a somewhat different aspiration. Be prepared to labour intensely and inisolation and for (almost always) very little in the way of material reward. It’sa rough life.
In so many ways, I’ve been fortunate.Even my first book was called a “modern classic.” How many writers get to saythat? And look at how generous the press has always been to me. I’ve appearedon endless television shows, been profiled and interviewed on the radio and innewspapers, even been on magazine covers. It’s all meaningless of course, butmost authors would do anything for that kind of recognition. More importantly,I have readers who tell me that my work has been important to them … and that’swhat keeps a writer going.
GNOH– Many would have thought that with the publication of THE PINES, everyonewould be knocking at your door. Why do you think this didn’t happen?
I don’t know. Maybe it had something todo with my being up on the roof with that cauldron of molten lead.
GNOH– It’s a book that seems to have polarized reviewers. Why do you think thisis? I read it in the days before Istarted blogging, and really enjoyed it.
Thank you, Jim. But I’m not sure thecritics were all that polarized. Most of the reviews were overwhelminglypositive. “Not just a superb thriller but a masterpiece of literature” remainsmy favourite example. What author doesn’t love the M word? And so many readers passionately adored it. But there was a backlash.
Every time a reviewer would praise thebook for being surprisingly good for a horror novel (not the most tactful ofcompliments), it seemed to provoke fresh outrage. And, yes, I also have afavourite example of a missive from the enemy camp: “This book is so stupid Ican’t even understand it.”
Doesn’t that just say it all?
GNOH– Had you started the sequel before THE PINES was released, and did you everconsider putting it aside once all the negativity came out?
Well, as I said, the book initiallyenjoyed popular and critical success. The “negativity” only kicked in yearslater, when a restored version of the book was reissued in paperback. By thistime, horror had begun pandering to a highly vocal reactionary contingent. Suddenly,people were complaining that THE SHORE was even more “difficult” than THEPINES. I actually had a woman rail at me because my books were “too complicated”to read in front of the television.
On the other hand, THE PINES iscurrently in its tenth edition and still going strong, so the backlash can’thave hurt all that much.
GNOH– By contrast, The Pines and The Shore had a relatively easypublication journey, compared to that of your short story collection Martyrs & Monsters. Could you tell us about the trials andtribulations of this book?
THE PINES and THE SHORE? Easy? I’d neveruse that word. But I know what you’re referring to, of course. At this point,I’d really prefer not to belabour the point. I mean, all well that ends well,right? But, yes, MARTYRS & MONSTERS did run into more than a few obstacles.Somehow that just increases my pleasure at how well the collection eventuallydid.
GNOH– Do you think it was a case of prejudice, or was it more a case of they reallydidn’t know what to do with it?
Trust me, I’m not the type to imagine biaswhere it doesn’t exist. I usually exert all sorts of effort to give people thebenefit of the doubt.
GNOH– Did you ever consider toning down some of the themes in the book, just to getit on the shelf?
I wish I were the sort of person whocould answer “no” unequivocally. Someone of unwavering principles. I’ll betKathy Acker and Brian Cooper never change a word. And can you imagine Samuel R.Delany tolerating an editor who’s racist or squeamish about sexuality? But I’mjust not that stalwart. I blame it on my background. If you’ve been in theatre,you always miss that foxhole camaraderie. And look for it. Being toocooperative is a huge mistake – you can’t force relationships to be positive. Myplacatory efforts even extended to changing the book’s title from GETTING WET,drawing the new title from a Baudelaire quote.
“Virgins, demons, monsters, martyrs, all
Great spirits scornful of reality …”
But more demands always followed. Once Ifinally started digging my heels in, things got easier. There’s a lesson here.
GNOH– Forgive my ignorance, but is there an active gay horror writer community outthere?
If there is, I’ll bet they have thecoolest bars. Wait … you think MARTYRS & MONSTERS is a gay book? I wouldnever describe it that way. Fewer than half the stories have any queer content.(Characters include lesbian monster hunters, a bisexual coven and oneunfortunate youth whose boyfriend is a werewolf.) But they’re all pretty damnededgy.
GNOH– A lot of writers say ‘write about what you know.’ How do you feel whenstraight authors write about gay characters?
It depends on the author. A true writershould be able to inhabit anyone’s skin, to understand and express theirhumanity. Sadly, the genre is replete with exploitative hacks. Please understandthat I am passionately opposed to censorship of any kind. No one has the right to say what you can orcan’t write. But remember Richard Laymon’s lesbian characters? I’m stillembarrassed for him, and the poor man has been dead for ten years.
GNOH– Personally I’m a bit prudish. No, that’s not the right word. I like my horrorto be just that: horror. I skip over sex scenes. If I want to read that sort ofthing I’ll move one shelf across and pick one of those books with a buxom lassbeing caressed by a handsome vampire. So what does gay horror offer, that forthe sake of pigeoning, mainstream horror doesn’t offer?
Look, I never know the answers to thisstuff. What’s gay horror anyway? Is there such a thing as gay writing? IsProust a gay writer? Or Virginia Woolf? How about E. M. Forster? My work is naturallyinformed by my own passions and experiences. WILLY is about teenage boys whofall in love in a boarding school. There are also suggestions, barely perceivedby the boys, of murder and ghosts and witchcraft. Possibly even of vampirism. Iwas prepared for howls of protest from the horror presses but was verypleasantly surprised by the reception. Virtually every review has praised thebook’s sensitivity, its emotional intensity. Words like ‘honesty’ and‘authenticity’ come up a lot. And, yes, most of the gay presses have been fullof praise too. Still … the categorizing rankles. I haven’t fought so hard formy rights all my life just to have my work stuck in some ghetto. I’m not a gaywriter any more than I am a horror writer.
I’m a writer.
There will always be a dark element inmy work, just as there will always be an erotic component, plus a certain acuityabout oppression. Gratefully, I find that most critics seem to appreciate theseattributes. But – as is so often the case with me – it’s the reader commentsthat have moved me the most. One reader remarked that MARTYRS & MONSTERSwasn’t like anything else he’d ever read in that the gay characters just seemedlike ordinary human beings.
I felt like cheering.
GNOH– Could you tell us about your latest novel WILLY?
You mean beyond what I’ve already givenaway? I’m very pleased that critics have been so touched by this work. Inreview after review, you come across words like “profound” or “heartbreaking.” Onecritic called it “a journey of healing.” Doesn’t sound like a horror novel atall, does it?
Yet it’s the darkest of dark fiction.
WILLY is the journal of a disturbedadolescent, which begins as he’s en route to yet another “special” school. Thisnew school turns out to be rather grand, though in serious disrepair. It’s alsoin the middle of the woods, and the sense of dread and isolation is pervasive.The boy may already be damaged, possibly even broken, but the terrors heencounters here will be the making of him … for good or ill.
Still curious about my WILLY? Find outwhat people are saying about it here: http://www.dunbarauthor.com./page11.html.
GNOH– I get the feeling that this is a very personal book to you, am I correct?
Well, it’s not pages from my childhooddiary, as some reviewers have suggested, but, yes, there’s a big hunk of mysoul in there.
GNOH– Are all of your books personal to one degree or another?
And getting more so all the time.
GNOH– Out of all of your books, which would you recommend to a reader new to yourwork?
MARTYRS & MONSTERS – the spectrum ofthemes and topics should intrigue almost anyone.
GNOH– As well as being a writer, you have also launched your own publishingcompany: Uninvited Books. What is the significance of the name?
Mainstream publishers will occasionallypresent a literary horror novel. But the genre presses? Not so much. This levelof writing has become unwelcome … and uninvited.
GNOH– There are a lot of small publishing companies out there. What sets yoursapart from the others? And what is your mission statement?
At UninvitedBooks, we face a very particular set of challenges. It’s easy to selldrivel to the masses. But find a way to attract intelligent readers of qualityfiction? That’s a bit more difficult. Many of those readers fled the genre longago. At this point, we not only have to reach them somehow but to persuade themto try horror again.
It was always going to be a toughprocess, but we’re already beginning to gain some recognition.
GNOH– How do you go about selecting the authors to publish?
GNOH– Without naming names, unless you want to of course, has there ever beenspitting of dummies when you have turned down an author?
Ah, the barrier of the common language…
GNOH– Are there any authors out there that you would love to have on your books?
So many, though I think it might be badform to mention names. I’ve been incredibly lucky in having relationships withsome brilliant writers who were willing to work for almost nothing to help getthis project launched. Greg Gifune in particular has been incredibly generous,and a tireless source of encouragement and moral support (of which I requirehuge amounts). It’s inspiring that so many people appreciate what’s at stakehere. I believe this: in its own small way, what we’re doing is rather important.
GNOH– So, other than writing and publishing, what else do you like to do?
GNOH– What does the future hold for you as a writer?
I’d love to say “great fame and enormouswealth,” but I suspect the reality will be closer to just more of the same:demanding labour, standards that are difficult to live up to and – when I’mlucky – moments of transcendence.
But there will always be new work. Ihave a novella called WOOD that should be available soon. And I’m hard at workon a novel called THE STREETS, which completes the trilogy begun with THE PINESand continued by THE SHORE. I’m also polishing a nonfiction book called VORTEXabout the folkloric roots of modern horror. Then in my spare time…
Discover more about Robert Dunbar’s workat http://www.DunbarAuthor.com.
Have you been Uninvited yet? ExploreUNINVITED BOOKS at http://www.UninvitedBooks.com.
You Can Purchase Rob’s Books from all major online book stores and by following the links below