Interview with Robert Dunbar

Robert Dunbar is not only one of the best writers working today, he's also one of the wittiest people I've ever encountered.

I caught up with him recently and he took time out from his busy schedule as an author in the midst of a new oeuvre, the editor and publisher of a wonderful small press--Univited Books, moderator of a literary horror group at Goodreads, and the best martini-mixer I know--to answer a few burning questions I concocted.

I think writers--seasoned and aspiring--will find the results of that interview to be well-worth reading, and find his advice, his acerbic wit and his intelligent insights are always delightful, constantly challenging:

LM: What are your thoughts on the current state of the horror genre?

RD: Oh dear. Are you sure you want to hear this? Where to start …?

Wait – I know. Just the other day I received a press release from a gentleman who described himself as an “author and award-winning cheese maker.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Needless to say, he’s written a horror novel. My first thought was please, let it be about cheese. But of course it’s another zombie apocalypse epic. I think you can actually buy a program now that writes these for you, then automatically self-publishes and begins posting five-star reviews, thereby eliminating the need for a writer, an editor, a publisher, or actual readers. Talk about a self-sustaining industry! I do feel this guy has missed a great opportunity in not writing about cannibalistic cheese though. “Eaters of Curd” has Stoker Award written all over it. And can’t you just picture the climax where the plucky heroine saves the day through an adroit application of toast points?

Sorry, that should have been funnier. It’s the toast point reference, isn’t it? Always throws people. Hell, we’re talking zombie fans here – I doubt many of them understood “curd.” They all got the Stoker reference though, and any minute now fifty people will denounce me on Facebook for being elitist. Yet every single time I threaten to take a cheese grater to someone, I get in trouble. Go figure.

LM: Umm … okay. Moving on, what can you tell us about the tradition you write in?

RD: Tradition? The mythology I work with, you mean? Obviously, I’m trying to craft it into something meaningful and contemporary. As well as something intensely personal. Artists are weird. This is what we do, what we are.

I’ve been lucky.

Readers have responded so profoundly. Even after all these years, THE PINES continues to attract new devotees … and new detractors, many of them still sputtering in outrage. (I mean, the book is complicated. It even has long sentences and big words. Lots of “fans” believe this antithetical to the genre.) THE PINES introduced Athena Lee Monroe, a displaced person eking out a marginal existence in the New Jersey pine barrens. It also introduced her son Matthew, a boy with a strange affinity for the forest. There’s a presence in those woods, an influence. This remains a key theme, and it still resonates with readers. The character of Steve Donnelly also appeared for the first time in THE PINES, though the melancholic detective resurfaced as a major character in THE SHORE. With that one the setting moved to a beach town on the edge of the woods.

If I feel connected to a specific tradition, it’s that of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, E. M. Forster – all those writers who told tales of the ancient, sentient forest.

Something alien lurks in those shadows, something that destroys … or seduces.

Other facets exist, of course. The Freudian overtones in the work of writers like Henry James or Edith Wharton represent an equally significant aspect of the tradition. Sometimes I think that’s my true calling – to somehow forge a synthesis.

LM: Is there anything you want to tell us about Uninvited Books?

RD: Perhaps just that I intend it as a sort of beacon. There’s a reason our slogan is illuminating darkness. Our first anthology – SHADOWS, Supernatural Tales by Masters of Modern Literature – focused on tales of haunted writers, featuring work by luminaries like Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence. Our next anthology – DARK FORESTS – should materialize shortly, and I see it as following in that tradition of dark impulses and evolved intellect. Our other releases, like Greg F. Gifune’s GARDENS OF NIGHT, T. M. Wright’s LITTLE BOY LOST and Sandy DeLuca’s DESCENT are surreal, intense, beautifully written, and the reviews have been amazing. Our goal is to continue championing brilliantly cerebral dark literature.

LM: It appears as though your own work has taken a detour since the days of THE PINES and THE SHORE, that it’s become less conventional horror fiction and more literary fiction. Would you agree?

RD: Yes. And no. (Sorry.) I think that as my style has deepened my work has grown even darker, certainly dark on a more significant level. MARTYRS & MONSTERS made a definite impression on the public, and I think it opened the eyes of a lot of readers who might otherwise have been inclined to dismiss me as “just” a genre writer. But I did return to the pine barrens with one of the stories in that collection, as well as in my novel WILLY.

Pardon the digression, but the reviews for that novel astonished me. WILLY is so subtle, so strange. I expected it to simply be ignored. Instead critics seemed to be competing to see who could praise it the most extravagantly. The plot is set in a boarding school for boys with emotional problems. A miasma of overheated adolescent sexuality saturates the atmosphere, and there’s a sinister – possibly supernatural – force at work. All of this seemed to strike a chord with a lot of readers. More recently, WOOD has attracted a great deal of positive attention as well. (In many ways, it’s a very traditional monster/horror yarn, though of course in other ways it’s anything but conventional.) All very gratifying. And I’m looking forward to the response to VORTEX, also due out soon, my nonfiction book about the influence of folklore on genre fiction.

LM: Do you have advice for beginning writers?

RD: Only the same advice I’m forever giving young writers. Read. Read everything. William Faulkner and Gustav Meyrink. Samuel R. Delany and William Saroyan. All of it. Virginia Woolf and Henry Roth. Baldwin and Capote. Elizabeth Bowen, Burroughs and Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford. Mishima and Flaubert and Langston Hughes. Immerse yourself. How can you hope to write until you’ve really begun to read? I can’t emphasis this enough. It’s the same in all the arts. Painters begin by learning to see. Composers begin by listening. Really listening. You want to write? Open a damn book. And not one about flesh-eating cheddar.

On the other hand, I can’t seem to get the title “Fromage from Hell” out of my head. Hmm…

LM: Thanks, Rob, for stopping by--and for being first on the chopping block.

RD: Thanks for asking me...I think.

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