Interview: Robert Dunbar

I’m going to focus on things that are the most important to me this year, and one of those things is pointing out writers who deserve credit based on the sheer talent, intensity and honesty of their work in contrast to those sadass writers who rely on throwing money into getting their names out there or who constantly kiss ass or manipulate to get ahead.

These writers I’m going to interview are Pros in every sense of the word. And they show it where it fucking matters. On the page. In the residue their stories leave behind in your head.

I’m honored that Robert Dunbar is the first. He’s the author of THE PINES, THE SHORE, MARTYRS & MONSTERS and WILLY. He’s also the publisher/editor for Uninvited Books, a wonderful addition to the genre that is focusing on dark literary work and has released two of my top books of 2011 (Greg Gifune’s GARDENS OF NIGHT and Robert’s novel WILLY).

WILLY is a wonderful novel full of quiet intensity, beauty and sadness. It was my introduction to Robert, made my top five reads for 2011, and I can’t wait to dig into his other work. This is how it goes for me. (It happened when I first read Tom Piccirilli, Douglas Clegg, Peter Straub, Greg Gifune, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, William Faulkner, Jack Cady, Clive Barker, et al.) I’d stumble onto a book by an author I’d never read and the lightning hits. All of the things I love most about a story are there in spades. Robert Dunbar did that to me too, the bastard. Now I have catching up to do. But it’ll be good fun.

Thanks for taking time with me and the readers, Robert!

My pleasure, Lee.

How did you start as a reader? Were you raised in a household where reading was encouraged and respected? Or did you have to sneak books and hope that if you were caught with one that you wouldn’t be ridiculed?

Was I raised in a cultured environment? Yes. Yes, I was. Absolutely. In fact, my governess went to great lengths to instill a love of the arts and …

I’m tripping. In our neighborhood, it was more socially acceptable to be caught with syringe than a book. A handgun involved fewer explanations. Something tells me you can relate.

When and how did you cross that line from fan to fan/creator?

I was never a fan. A connoisseur, perhaps. A passionate advocate. Certainly. But a fan?


Not that there aren’t artists I intensely admire.

By the way, that’s an amazing list of writers you mentioned, and I’m very conscious of the honor in being included, but I’d like to make it clear that I’m not above ‘kissing ass and manipulating’ to get ahead. I just suck at it is all.

Who has influenced you, Robert? Did different writers offer different things? (Did you love one for their lyricism and another for depth of character, etc.? Or just soak it all in?)

I can’t even enumerate all the crisis points in my life where I’ve asked myself, “What would Barbara Stanwyck do?” Oddly, I never seem to have a riding crop with me at such moments. Oh, but you probably meant literary influences, didn’t you? On that level, I’m easy to please. A book just needs to be brilliant.

You’ve already touched on a few of my personal heroes, but there’ve been others.

I admired Poe very much as a child but had already begun to find him rather tedious by the time puberty hit. (Actually, it didn’t hit so much as fall on me.) When I was about fourteen, I had the requisite weekend where I found Lovecraft to be intense and hypnotic but by Monday had decided he was jerk. (Don’t you hate relationships like that?) It didn’t take me long to discover Edith Wharton and Henry James and Willa Cather and E. M. Forster and Saki – wonderful Saki – and Shirley Jackson and Algernon Blackwood and Oliver Onions and Robert Aickman and Fritz Leiber. (Faulkner and Henry Roth and James Baldwin all affected me like heroin.) I don’t know what I would have done if not for the public library. Killed myself probably.

How much of your work is mined from real life’s joys and sorrows? Are any of your characters a mirror into your soul?

People are always advising me to write about my family. What the hell do they think I’ve been doing? Making shit up?

(It’s probably just as well I don’t have that riding crop.)

Yes, my work seems to get more personal all the time. WILLY in particular was a cri de coeur – and very therapeutic too, you know, turning it loose in the world where it could haunt others (instead of me). And a few of the stories in MARTYRS & MONSTERS are more intimate than I’m entirely comfortable with discussing. Some things can only be addressed in fiction.

I know most writers see somebody who has gained some recognition and think that said writer somehow found a magic key (surely that must be it) to appear out of nowhere. What has your journey been like as a writer?

Isn’t that hilarious? So few people have any sense of the commitment, the discipline … or what it all demands from you. When most “aspiring writers” ask for advice, what they really want are marketing tips. Actually, it’s not hilarious. It’s quite sad.

The times we live in…

This particular journey has taken us all to a lot of strange places. Austin Considine had a brilliant piece in the Times a few weeks ago in which he compared living through the AIDS fatalities in the nineties to surviving a war. In 1995 alone, more than 50,000 people died of the disease. New York especially was devastated, but all the big cities were hard hit. People complain all the time about how the arts suffered, but it wasn’t just because a big part of an entire generation of painters and musicians and writers and actors were wiped out. It was also because legions of people who appreciated what they were doing were also lost, people who understood the ballet, who attended plays (and I don’t mean Spider-Man), who read and discussed books. Good books. Intelligent books. Demanding books. The cultural repercussions are ongoing, and we feel it all too clearly within the genre. Democracy has no place in the arts – the best and brightest should naturally flourish. But somehow the most ordinary have inherited the earth. Or at least the genre.

I was going to say ‘don’t get me started,’ but clearly it’s too late.

People are forever asking me what makes a work literary. It’s one of those “I can explain it to you, but I can’t understand it for you” situations. I mean, what can you tell them? Obviously, talent is the most essential (and most nebulous) criteria, but intellect is also necessary, as well as passion, seriousness of intent, even courage. (There are “writers” out there who won’t have a clue what I’m referring to here.) I think if you look at a lot of what’s out there now, the first thing that strikes you is that – pretty much across the board – the component of intellect appears to have been excised. (There are exceptions of course, artists like Gifune or Laird Barron, that Thompson guy, a few others.) The whole culture has been drastically dumbed down. Horror novels, ostensibly intended for an adult readership, these days all seem to have been written for children.

Some of them appear to have been written by children.

What was the question again? Oh. My journey. Right. You’re sure you want to hear this? I’ll keep it brief. In my twenties, I imagined myself a poet, and my work did get published here and there, mostly in the smallest of avant-garde journals. In retrospect, I can see they weren’t very sophisticated poems, but the readings I forever seemed to be giving did attain a certain intensity, I suppose. Actually, I didn’t read the pieces so much as perform them, and these gradually evolved into experimental plays. (That’s the word people used to describe them. Experimental. Sometimes this was intended kindly.) The astonishing thing was how many of these scripts got produced, mostly at theaters that resembled storefronts or warehouses or garages. In fact, the one thing they never seemed to resemble were theaters. By then I’d started working for so many different newspapers and magazines that I lost count. Mostly, I did reviews and interviews, but these led to my writing similar bits for a couple of radio stations … and eventually to some television work.

It was only when I began to concentrate on my fiction that the true path revealed itself. Why do I suddenly sound like the I Ching?

Lol. What is your proudest moment?

Every night when I look across the bed.

What has surprised you? In the world of publishing? In creating your stories? In building your readership?

Funny you should ask. I wasn’t anticipating the impact WILLY has made. And I mean that. I’ve been shocked and quite moved by the passionate response. I suppose I must have lost faith in the book somehow. Or perhaps it was the genre I’d lost faith in. I certainly never expected much in the way of support. The book is so subtle – I figured horror critics, if they bothered to acknowledge it at all, would simply blast it for being “too literary.” As it turned out, I’ve wound up feeling both humbled and inspired by the number of reviewers who have championed WILLY. Maybe there’s hope for the genre after all.

If you could recommend only one of your novels (or the collection) to new readers, which would you choose? Why?

So many people have found me through THE PINES, and I’m always touched by that, even now. But MARTYRS & MONSTERS is the one I’d personally recommend. It’s a little hard to explain really – what this book has meant to me, how important it’s been in my life. Over the years, I’d grown so frustrated with reviews. A critic would rave that THE PINES was a “masterpiece of genre fiction” or that THE SHORE was “surprisingly good for a horror novel.” With MARTYRS & MONSTERS – for the first time – reviewers began to discuss my work purely in terms of merit, without the qualification. And that made all the difference. Writers are such sensitive creatures. Without this level of support, I’m not sure I would have had the courage to attempt a novel as complex as WILLY.

Well, I’m certain many people are glad you had the support that produced the courage. WILLY is fantastic. If you couldn’t write (say you lost your hands by poking them into a parallel universe) what would you do to let your creative side breathe?

I’ve always wanted to be an international jewel thief, like Raffles or Kay Frances in whatever the hell that old movie was called, but no one ever seems to be hiring. I must remember to ask Mannetti how she got started. Friends in low places probably. That may be the problem – I’m overqualified.

Sorry. I don’t mean to dodge the question. It’s just that I can’t even imagine not writing. It’s an identity issue, not an occupational one.

Do you have other passions? Do they feed/compliment your stories?

Yes, but you can’t get it anymore.

What do you wish the genre had more of? And less of?

More of me. Less of everyone else.

Did I say that out loud?

Seriously, I can’t imagine anyone who gets more of a thrill out of a really first rate horror novel than I do. I remember discovering Sarah Water’s THE LITTLE STRANGER last year and going into raptures. Then I read an article praising the distinctiveness of a handful of supposedly literary horror novels that had made it to the bestseller list. I rushed to read them all … and was sorely disappointed. It’s not that these books were bad exactly. No. Each had been professionally crafted, which was part of the problem. They all had a soulless, manufactured quality.

The genre needs more artists. The world needs more artists.

Amen. I’ve read three novels that Uninvited Books has published (your own, Gifune’s and T. M. Wright’s) and to say I’m impressed in quality, story, and craftsmanship would be an understatement. How did Uninvited Books find life? What is your number one goal with opening your own publishing company?

Greg and Terry are both extraordinary. As writers and as people. (Sandy DeLuca just scares me.) There’s this cheesy piece of corporate motivational advice I seem to keep stumbling across lately. “Celebrate what you want to see more of.” Generally, I abhor such drivel, but a note of truth resonates through the self-help-inspirational-speaker-jargon here … because there are amazing talents like Gifune and Wright out there, even in this godforsaken genre, brilliant writers who are not churning out Zombie Kong or Yeti Massacre but creating intelligent, textured, profoundly satisfying works of dark literature. One doesn’t encounter genius so often that one should overlook the need to celebrate it. That’s what we’re all about. Our first paperback at Uninvited Books was an anthology called SHADOWS, Supernatural Tales by Masters of Modern Literature – conceived as a sort of mission statement. May we never set our sights any lower.

Is there anything else you want to mention?

Just to remind folks to keep an eye out for my new novella – WOOD. It should be out from Uninvited Books quite soon.

Excellent. Thank you so much for taking the time to share with us.

Thanks, Lee. And best of luck with your own work! I hear wonderful things about NURSERY RHYMES 4 DEAD CHILDREN, and my copy just arrived. Can’t wait to dive in!

Learn more about Robert Dunbar.

Find out more about Uninvited Books.

What a brilliant man. Feel free to spread the word. Thanks!

4 thoughts on “Interview: Robert Dunbar”

  1. You’re both such liars. Everyone knows all writers have to do is wait for the Novel Fairy to drop off a manuscript and market it to the top. 😛

    But in all seriousness, I love to hear the phrase ‘demanding books’ used by a writer/publisher as a positive. Books that challenge the imagination and intellect are so much more satisfying, and we definitely need more of them.

    Great interview, guys! 😉 Martyrs and Monsters is waiting on my Nook and I can’t wait for The Dampness of Mourning!

  2. Lol. If only it were so easy! But then it wouldn’t be as rewarding either, right?

    I love hearing that from a publisher, too, Rook. And totally agree that those books that challenge the intellect and imagination are much more satisfying. The cookie-cutter, soulless, hollow, sugar-coated books, are so pathetic yet gets praised so often. To each their own, but I find those books much weaker and very forgettable (actually won’t even read them anymore. Time is too valuable.)

    Let me know what you think of his collection. I’ll be reading it soon too and will probably do a giveaway for some copies later this year once I have all my bills paid off.

    And thanks on The Dampness of Mourning, too. I like that book. A lot.

  3. Wonderful interview Lee. I also wanted to thank you for the acknowledgement in The Dampness of Mourning (my screen name Mister Crowley). That made my day when I bought the Kindle version and saw that. Now I just need to read the book itself!

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