There are a few authors out there you only need to read briefly before you have to stop and say, "God Damn he is good." Robert Dunbar is one of those authors.
Your novel Willy leaves its readers with many interpretations, allowing them to come to their own conclusions. This is your creation; to you, are there multiple conclusions, or a few red herrings?
Everyone says this about the “many” conclusions; I’m not sure I agree. There’s only one story, one real story, and all the clues to it are there. The ambiguity creeps in because of the limited point of view of the narrator. The boy barely comprehends much of what occurs. He recounts events, yes, but his interpretations? Often wildly inaccurate. The reader understands this and is forced to consider what must really have transpired. That’s the heart of it for me. The most terrifying aspects involve what the reader will imagine between the lines.
In The Pines, you mix real world evils with those of the supernatural. In your mind does the accepted evil of the world add credence to the otherworldly elements?
Are there supernatural elements in THE PINES? I suppose there must be, but I never really thought of it that way. (Of course the book is meant to be about the Jersey Devil, but it isn’t. Not really. I use superstition as a metaphor for ignorance and evil.) But so many other things are going on. Certainly Matthew and Athena have a psychic connection. If anything, there’s more an edge of science fiction about the story than supernatural horror. What characters in the book interpret as a legendary monster turns out to be a genetic mutation, something that occurs with some consistency … but that usually leads to the death of the afflicted person (and others) before it fully manifests. Of course, what really interests me as a writer is where this will lead.
What were your thoughts when you set out to craft a sequel to The Pines? Was the end result – The Shore – what you envisioned when you set out?
THE PINES developed such a strong following: I wanted THE SHORE to continue the storyline while staying as far from the tone of the first book as possible. I mean, THE PINES seethes. It’s all summer nights. The emotions are scalding and miserable, and the (frequent) sexual encounters are steamy, tawdry. Everyone drips with sweat, and the air roils with insects. Yet, despite the meanness of their situations, some of the people possess a sort of innate nobility (which has nothing to do with conventional morality). They redeem themselves. They make sacrifices for love. They grow. (And die. Some of them.) If THE PINES seems to be occurring in an equatorial jungle, THE SHORE may as well take place on a polar icecap. The people barely speak. They huddle, move slowly. They harbor secrets. (And die. Some of them.) Where THE PINES is all bloody thunder and bolts of lightning, THE SHORE is an icy wind … and mounting dread.
When writing supernatural stories how do you ensure you never betray your reader’s suspension of disbelief?
By never writing a word that isn’t true.(God Damn he did it again)
Martyrs & Monsters is a collection of your short fiction. Is there a specific story contained within that to you is the standout?
You want me to name my favorite child? Let me think. Okay. Some of the linked tales, specifically the ones about Conrad and Timmy, still resonate powerfully for me. They almost became a novel, but I actually grew afraid for my sanity (such as it is) if I went to that very dark place for such a length of time. It’s much easier to escape from a short story. You can finish it and walk away. Writing a novel is like being trapped in an elevator with your characters … for a year or so.
How does your writing approach differ when crafting short fiction as opposed to a novel?
With a short story you just want the essence – haiku instead of an epic poem. Harder to do in its own way. With a novel, I try to pull the reader into the world I’ve created, to seduce them not just with imagery but with sounds and scents and textures. The effects accumulate.
But one false note could destroy a short story. It must be an intense fragment – a shard that suggests the complete edifice. It must be satisfying in itself while evoking so much more.
No wonder I drink.
What is your favorite character that you created? Do you love or hate him/her?
I closely identify with the narrator in WILLY. (I heard you mutter “duh” just then.) So many book critics mused at length about whether the ending of that novel was hopeful or sad. It’s both of course. He’s not out of the woods yet. Not even literally. The boy may even have killed someone, though in the development of an adolescent psyche a little thing like murder is a fairly trivial event. But the road into the light is there for him, and he will – in time – be able to follow it. For now, there’s pain and fear ahead for him, and terrible loneliness … but he’s already beginning to discover his own strength and to grope his way out of the maze of mental illness. He’s growing. And somewhere at the end of that road, he’ll even find love. On this score, I can speak with some authority.
What is the first book you remember genuinely being frightened by? Was your immediate reaction to run out and find other similar tales, or stash it in your closet and block it out?
The first one? Like something I read on a cave wall?
The first book I can remember that left me physically shaken was probably Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife. I’d suffered from a recurring nightmare through most of my childhood in which I tried desperately to prevent a little girl from realizing she was dead. I used to wake up in a cold sweat. About three-quarters of the way through Leiber’s novel something happens that echoed that feeling for me, and I swear it actually brought me up out of my chair. Moments of such intensity haven’t been easy to find. But there’ve been a few. I cherish them.
What prompted your decision to found Uninvited Books?
Idealism, I suppose, mixed with a certain amount of frustration with current publishing realities. As a writer, I’ve pretty much seen it all. My favorite rejection slip reads: “We find your manuscript to be riveting and important but do not feel that we could successfully promote it in the current marketplace.”
Umm … huh?
Riveting and important is a rejection? Most people never get a review that good. What am I missing here? If you were a publisher, i.e., someone in the business of publishing books, wouldn’t you wait in hope for a manuscript that was riveting and important? And if such a project were to find its way onto your desk, wouldn’t it become your job to figure out how to promote it?
Must be me.
Truthfully, I think I just wanted to make the point that there’s another way to go about all of this, that there is still such a thing as artistic integrity. Or at least there should be. Even in business. Our mission statement reads: “At UNINVITED BOOKS we believe that lovers of dark fiction will choose works of quality ... if works of quality are made available. Our goal is to celebrate visionary artistry, subtle craftsmanship and psychological sophistication in dark literature.”
What does Uninvited Books offer readers?
Zombie mashups and Sasquatch porn. Oh, wait. That’s what we were designed to counter. Umm … golly … I guess I’d have to say sophisticated, intelligent dark fiction of highly evolved literary quality.
Sorry. It’s just that the awareness of what’s mostly out there gets to me sometimes.
All of our titles are available in paperback and as ebooks.
Do you find the label of Horror fiction is restricting, or does it grant you a freedom to pursue any content or thought?
I despise labels, but if I must have one I’ll take Dark Literature.
Is it ever difficult to take off your proverbial author’s cap when editing the works of other authors?
Only an incompetent (and possibly unstable) editor makes changes to another writer’s content. Editing is just the craft, the mechanics of the language. Even a genius could use another pair of eyes sometimes. When editing, I simply do what I do with my own work. Check for inconsistencies. Solecisms. Accidental shifts in POV. That sort of thing. Sometimes of course, if you have a real creative connection with the author, you might want to make a suggestion. But there have been very few such moments so far, which probably has to do with the caliber of the authors I’m working with. What changes would I presume to ask Greg Gifune or T. M. Wright to make?
I feel very strongly about this. I’ve told the story of what happened with my first book so often that it’s become a sort of legend in its own right. An editor (with a great deal of autonomy) apparently decided that my African-American heroine … shouldn’t be. (I believe he felt it would hurt the book’s marketability.) All mention of her race simply vanished. As did a homoerotic subplot. Ah, such professionalism! Needless to say, these deletions made nonsense of my carefully constructed storyline, which was now full of bizarre gaps.
I discovered all of this at my first book signing. I had to excuse myself to go and vomit. Writers are such sensitive creatures.
Time passes. One gets over things.
A few critics did observe that “Mr. Dunbar appears to have been ill-served by his editor,” and a handful of perceptive readers even asked whether the character was meant to be black. That helped. But it was a very long time before a restored version of the book appeared in print.
It’s disgraceful what writers have to endure. Uninvited Books is all about redressing some of that, as well as about serving the sort of cultured reader who’s so often ignored. I thought about making our slogan “Horror! It’s not just for dummies anymore!” but was afraid a few people might find it provoking.
Do you have anything new coming down the pipeline you would like to share with us?
WOOD should be along quite soon, also from Uninvited Books. It’s about a teenage Hispanic girl who battles monsters (symbolic and otherwise) in a foreboding neighborhood. I’m really looking forward to seeing how readers respond to it.