Robert E. Dunn is an interesting guy. When I read his book THE RED HIGHWAY I had never heard of him. By the time I finished that book I was glad he’d been brought to my attention and wanted to know more about him. The theme of it was both imaginative and daring. While taking on a familiar trope and some extremely hard subject matter, he managed to do so in a way that made it his, a unique and original creation, as well executed and entertaining as any that have come before it. Today I have a chance to finally learn more about Robert and so do you. He has graciously agreed to talk with us today and his answers are quite illuminating. I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with him as much as I did.
SL: Thank you for being here today, Robert. For those who don’t know you, please start by telling us a little about you.
RD: Thanks for letting me be a part of Shotgun Logic. I would tell you I visit often but usually end up telling everyone about it when I do so you know. I’m just a guys kind of guy. You know the type, old cars, old rock, cowboy boots, and secrets in the basement. Actually, I began in the world thinking I would make movies. After graduating from college, by the skin of my pale, white behind, I went to Los Angeles and began working post production for a company that made trailers and featurettes. There were a lot of things to enjoy about that city and a lot for this Midwestern guy to dislike. For a while I lived with seven other guys in a studio apartment behind the Chinese Theater. Another time, I lived around the corner from the Palomino Club in North Hollywood.
While out there I wrote. And I sold nothing. There were almosts. I thought I had something with my first screenplay, a family friendly, historical bio piece about the Legend of John Henry. It got passed around and strangers called me just to say they thought I had a command of dialogue. I just didn’t have a command of what anyone wanted to buy. A story editor from one of the big cable companies called me and talked for two hours about all the things that were great about that script. Then he told me that HBO was doing a series on Tall Tales and Folklore. He loved the script, he said, but…
I got an agent that said I should write something funny. Then he said I should write a new Ghostbusters. He thought that was “right up my alley.” I did some spec things for TV with and without partners. I met an old editor that was friends with a documentary director that had just had a big success. His success had brought him a development deal. He wanted to do a monster movie. A “revival of the form.” I had the chance to work up a script writing with the editor but he just wanted me to type and fix so I walked away. Just as well, the project never got going.
So all of that’s to say that I went out and took my swing. After that, there were more times at bat and more swings. It’s the one thing I can say about myself. I keep stepping up to the plate and taking my cuts and I hope I always will. There is joy in the game.
SL: When did you decide to start writing professionally? Why?
RD: I grew up telling everyone I wanted to be an oceanographer. As I grew I refined that to marine biologist. I was accepted as an undergrad into the University of Hawaii. That could have set me on a very different track. For tons of reasons including money and the fact I realized I wasn’t smart enough, I went another direction. I had scholarships for my test scores and some for my theatre work so went to a private school I could never afford on a full ride. Theatre led to communications/TV and then I worked with a professor to develop a special program in film. Only two of us ever followed that program shooting shorts on an old Bolex camera in reversal news stock. What fun. Through all of it the one thing that remained was writing. I wrote plays. I wrote screenplays. I wrote bad poetry to impress girls. Sometimes it worked.
After school, writing was the one thing that defined all my work in film, television, and corporate communications. In one way or another, I always made my living writing. Then life kicked my ass. There was a period of darkness and rebuilding with no job and no chance at getting or holding a job. But I could always write, so I did.
SL: Name some inspirations: movies, books, that sort of thing.
RD: It is easier to tell you the things that don’t inspire me. I never know what might strike a chord and find its way into my work. That being said, I, like so many people get a real inspiration from the music in my life. It helps define my points of view and says so many of the things I need said in ways I could never imagine. I grew up in the ‘60’s listening to hand-me-down records from the ‘50’s. The ‘70’s were my time for music but not so much disco or the huge wave of gentle pop that ran through the decade. I loved folk and the smooth country-rock sound of the Daredevils, Pure Prairie League, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They weren’t the only things I listened to. Springfield, Mo only had one FM station that played any kind of rock at the time and that was populated mostly with the BeeGees and Elton John. Like my friends, I had Foghat on 8-track. But it was Eagles and the bands that wanted to be them that really stuck with me.
There are other inspirations, like fingerprints on my writing. Poetry, cars, and the Ozarks reoccur time and again so I’d say they inspire me. Books too. So many books but you’re itching to ask me about authors so maybe I’ll save something for that question.
SL: Who are your favorite authors?
RD: See? I knew you were going to ask me that. I go through waves with favorite authors. There are always some of those defining authors, those that helped shape my ideas and love of writing. I grew up reading a weird mix of classics and comic books. Poe and Robert Lewis Stevenson kicked me off. Then, Heinlein and Asimov. Between the classics and the science fiction there was Franklin W. Dixon. Not familiar? That was the pen name used for the Hardy Boys books. Why did it always end up being about smuggling?
King. All of us horror writers owe a lot to him and as a general rule, we’re fans. Right now I’m a huge fan of Jonathan L. Howard, author of the Johannes Cabal series. Also, Nick Cutter. Both The Troop and The Deep were great bits of horror. I read a lot of non-fiction and popular history. Simon Winchester, S.C. Gwynne, Erik Larson. I wish I had the brains and patience for research to write their kind of books.
I’m a huge fan also of country noir even if it’s more country than noir. Craig Johnson who writes Longmire is a smooth hand. C.J. Box, Ace Atkins, Joe Lansdale, and the master is, James Lee Burke.
Recently I’ve become friendly with and a huge fan of Hunter Shea. You’ve hosted him and reviewed his books here on the blog so you know. Two books and authors I’ve only just discovered and can recommend are F.R. Tallis, author of the submarine ghost story, The Passenger and Holly Messinger, local girl author of the weird western, The Curse of Jacob Tracy. It’s fun to recommend authors but being able to suggest a female writer of a weird west book is very cool.
SL: If you had to name one book in particular that’s had an impact on you, what would it be?
RD: It would be impossible usually. But this question comes up just a few days after the death of Katherine Dunn, no relation. She wrote the amazing, Geek Love. It is a strange and wonderful story of family and the power of differences. It was one of those books I kept close and could pull out any time to read bits or the whole thing.
SL: Do you read much outside the horror genre? If so, what other genres/formats do you like to read?
RD: Oops I think I touched on this but I’m happy to go a little further. I read a lot of science, both popular and the less popular. I think it is an analogue of my love for horror but I read a lot of books about the biology of disease. Parasites are also a great topic for a horror writer and have a resonance in my own life. The idea of pandemics and emerging diseases fascinates and terrifies me. Sometimes that overlaps with history. I can’t pass by a book about the Black Death and plague years without picking it up. History is a love. The American Civil war is a topic with so much depth and so many viewpoints. I’ve read Shelby Foote’s three volume set a couple of times.
I have to confess a real affinity for the specific history of object books like Mark Kurlanski’s books, Salt, Cod, and The Big Oyster. Joseph Amato wrote a fascinating book with the off putting title, Dust: A history of the Small and Invisible. Yeah, I enjoyed the heck out of that.
SL: If you had to choose a profession other than writing, what would it be?
RD: I’ve done lots of interesting things in my life and there are so many things out there to do. Most of those things I wish I was smart enough to accomplish. I would be a very happy guy if I had the skills to make a living as a custom car builder. There are so many things that would be just dreaming but this is something that I could actually see working. I’ve been a tinkerer all my life fixing cars or doing projects. Several years ago I bought a rusted out 1966 Mustang and rebuilt it for my daughter. What a chore and what a great time. Except for all the cussing at the brakes.
SL: What’s the worst writing advice you’ve ever been given?
RD: All of it. I’ve read some great advice from professionals but anytime someone gives advice directly it just doesn’t fit. Either it is so broad and watered down as to be cliché or it is so specific it works for them but no one else. The one I hate most is the truism, Write what you know. Everyone knows it but no one really thinks about it. Taken on face value it is a brick wall, a hard limit on imagination. Ignore it and you discover that limits are sometimes railings to keep you from falling off the edge of the world. It should be—understand what you can, because no one understands it all, then put what you understand in your writing. But I become curmudge only…
SL: If you could give one single piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?
RD: Stop whining about inspiration. Stop waiting for inspiration. Inspiration is crap. Writing is work. Do you think a housing contractor waits to be inspired? Sit down and do the work and don’t give up until you have something completed. Every completion builds the next one.
SL: What is it about horror that made you choose that genre as a medium for your creativity?
RD: It wasn’t really a conscious choice. It was just how I see the world and the culmination of my influences and experiences. It is not my only writing genre but it infuses everything else.
SL: In your book, THE RED HIGHWAY, you took a close look at some touchy subjects, particularly racism in America. Was that difficult subject matter to write about?
RD: Very. Especially while being aware of myself as a white male in a particular age group. Heck I’m a poster boy for the Caucasian point of view—Other than the fact that I’m obscenely liberal. What’s the world coming to when you can’t judge an old, white guy by his skin and cowboy boots?
The truth is that I wanted to write about something that was dear to me, racism, in a way that was not preachy or making light of it. Americans have a hurdle that we keep building up even as we tear it down and it keeps tripping us all. I want to write fun stories, things that entertain, but I live in the world and have to take a part. Taking a part is hard.
The most surprising thing was how hard it was for other people. The Red Highway was a book I had hoped might work with an agent. Before it went to a publisher it went out to innumerable agents and some of the responses were: it was anti-religion, race was not something they wanted to deal with, it was pushing buttons needlessly. It never got an agent.
SL: In that same book, you—quite effectively—took on a trope that’s been tackled by some of the great masters of horror, including Stephen King and Robert McCammon. Was that intimidating? Or did it even cross your mind while you were writing the book?
RD: That’s a great question because you nailed it. It did not cross my mind as I worked. As a matter of fact the book developed differently than how I had originally imagined it. Until…
The truth is that a little past what became the half-way point The Stand popped into my mind and it was for a few moments paralyzing. I mean how do you compete with that? How do you even go into that ring? But I took a hard look and said, I’d just write my thing and let it be just that, its own thing. Still… at that point it was intimidating not just because of King’s great book but because I had followed my influences into a trope that has been done so well by such greats.
When the reviewers started mentioning it, and in a positive light, I relaxed and embraced it. It worked out well mostly because I wasn’t burdened with the thought of doing it that way from the beginning. The story developed from several seeds and grew naturally to fit the trope rather than me starting from the idea of writing a road story.
SL: In your newest book, MOTORMAN, you have a very unique story premise. Do you have a process by which you develop such ideas, or do they just come to you?
RD: Most of my ideas come to me as endings. I think of something as an end point and then have to write to it. In the case of Motorman, without giving too much away, I had the image of reaching for the moon. Honestly I had the idea of a young man telling a girl, he would reach out and give her the moon. Then things got dark. I had been toying with the idea of a monster made from car parts, a V8 powered Frankenstein. The two things fit oddly well together.
That is usually the beginning of my process, a few ideas that I need to fit together and an ending. I don’t work like a lot of other people, I’m not organized I’m more organic. I take the ideas, and characters I have, and begin writing. If what happens works, I keep going, if not, I tear it all down and start again. When I find a path that feels like it is truly aimed at my destination I run. I write linear, beginning to end without outlining or prewriting scenes. Not much of a process.
SL: Let’s talk a bit about your work in general. Any exciting prospects or projects on the horizon that you’d like to talk about?
RD: I always want to talk about that. And this is an amazing year to do so. Other than Motorman I also have The Harrowing coming from Necro Publications. It is a story about Andrew Presley, a nomad biker and mercenary sent to hell to rescue an innocent. No one is innocent.
I have a mystery/suspense coming from Kensington/Lyrical. It is the first of a series of books featuring Katrina Williams. She is a sheriff’s detective in a rural Ozarks county faced with modern day bootlegging, gangsters, bikers and a murdered child. Of course all this happens as her own life is falling apart.
SL: Where do you see yourself professionally five years from now? Any particular goals or milestones you’d like to accomplish?
I would like to place a book with one of the big publishers. Not because I imagine riches coming from it but because that is what you dream of as a young person imagining the writer’s life and career. If it never happens that would be fine too. Small press is where horror is happening.
SL: Is there any one question you wish interviewers would ask but they never do? If so, what’s the answer?
RD: No. I actually try to avoid all questions. I’m shy. No—really.
SL: Thank you for talking with me today, Robert. Is there anything else you’d like to discuss before we wrap this up?
RD: Do you think Stephen King goes fishing? Let’s find out and see if we can get him out on a lake with some sandwiches, a cooler of sodas, and a rod for each of us. How much fun would that be and who would care if we caught anything? Can you imagine jawboning about writing and his books floating on a calm, green lake? He would have to write a story about it and put us in. Let’s make that happen. What do you think, crappie or bass? Lake trout. I can cook.
SL: We may have to kidnap him but I’m okay with that if you are. And lake trout it is. One of my favorites.