Review: At a home for troubled youths, a young man struggling with his own emotions becomes integrally involved with Willy, another young student with problems of his own, both internally and externally, past and present. I found the narrative to be admirably in character at all times, yet the style didn’t work for me. For me it very difficult to move through the book though certain descriptions and ideas did stand out, and I understood the method and reason behind the choice.
The language used was very visual, often intense yet believable in an ordinary way so that when you realize the suspense has built, it’s almost a surprise. You’re surrounded, and find yourself entirely immersed in the drama the main character is experiencing.
Personally, for the homo-erotic content some readers or reviewers mentioned, I must be eclectic or very open-minded or it’s a Berliner thing, but the interaction that happened seemed entirely normal to me (that’s a good thing) and representative of adolescent exploration that simply isn’t often admitted by those who may feel threatened by the spectrum of sexuality after they become adults. For the dark psychological aspects, perhaps because I’m a Psychology major and have worked with severely troubled children and adolescents in the past, the story didn’t seem overly heavy or dark to me. Seen too many things far worse.
I found “Willy” to have a unique voice and perspective that certainly would appeal to many readers.
Description: In an isolated school for boys with emotional problems, a disturbed adolescent struggles against a mire of superstition and oppression. Then he meets Willy, and the other boy – charismatic and strange – saves him … or damns him. WILLY, an atmospheric novel of suspense by the author of THE PINES, THE SHORE and MARTYRS & MONSTERS, becomes both an evocation of painful growth and a dark psychological thriller.
Robert Dunbar in his own words:
What genre do you write? Why do you write the stories that you write?
I’ve written a lot of things, everything from – you should pardon the expression – straight literary fiction to suspense and science fiction, though primarily of course I’m known as a horror writer. Personally, I prefer the term dark fiction, because it feels so much less restrictive. As for why I write what I do … I’m not at all sure how to answer that. An artist’s work is like a fingerprint – each one is distinctive. Critics are always comparing my work to that of other writers, often with hilarious results. I hear ‘Stephen King’ a lot, which always cracks me up. I mean, I know it’s meant kindly, but I can’t even think of another author with whom I have less in common. And sometimes these comparisons are extremely flattering, if a bit puzzling. Just this year, I’ve gotten everything from J. D. Salinger to Flannery O’Connor. Personally, I don’t think I write like anyone else … which is as it should be.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
When am I not writing?
Where do you hang out online?
These days, my favorite virtual hangout is probably the Literary Horror group at Goodreads – running that has been very stimulating. It attracts a very smart, very engaged group of people, lots of teachers and librarians and writers. (Okay, so the writers may not be as smart of all that: we do our best.) My personal site remains www.DunbarAuthor.com, but I’ve now got a fan page set up on Facebook for Uninvited Books, and that’s also been great fun.
What would you like readers to know about you the individual?
Dunbar the person as opposed to Dunbar the writer? I don’t think I can make that distinction. It’s all so intimate, all that passion and discipline. How could it not be? Writing is an identity issue, not an occupational one. (I’ve always told aspiring writers that if they can do anything else they should. This is way too hard a life for anybody with a choice.) Do you understand what I mean? This isn’t just my life, it’s me, all of me, and whatever pride I take in my work is ultimately beside the point.
My books have often annoyed the hell out of populist reviewers, but a more literary crowd has always praised me in the most amazing ways. (What was it Churchill said about having enemies? That it proved you stood for something?) Truly, the accolades can be quite alarming, not that I don’t love them. What writer isn’t thrilled at finding words like “masterpiece” and “superb” in a review? But some of the most meaningful feedback has been from readers, you know, comments online or at lectures and signings, that sort of thing. People often voice their astonishment at how much sheer humanity my underclass and minority characters possess, which I normally interpret as a sad comment on the usual stereotypes. (The horror genre is only slowly emerging from a long reactionary period.) Recently, I heard from a reader who marveled that I write about gay characters who seem like regular human beings. That really moved me. And, yes, I think that indicates a lot about what kind of a writer I am … and what sort of a person.
No, the question wasn’t designed to make a distinction, as I believe every individual can be such a variety of things, there is no reason for writer or writing to make them specifically different from others. As I live and move among those search for higher and wider gestalts of thought and being, yes, I understand what you mean.
“write about gay characters who seem like regular human beings”
I found that a very interesting statement, both with critique and admiration for the expression. I would have to say that is positive on the person’s part, though in a homo-ignorant kind of way, and in general for your writing, a plus, as I’ve not seen your work in general added to “m/m fiction” or gay fiction lists. I’ve experienced the fact far too many readers don’t seem to be able to differentiate between fiction that contains real gay situations and characters from those that are entirely fictitious or make gay characters into caricatures. So that the boundaries of gays as “regular human beings” has become blurred, when that is what we are anyway.
Your Writing Process
Why do you write?
For the same reason I breathe. Sorry – that sounds so pretentious. It’s the truth though. How else could I live?
It doesn’t sound pretentious to me in the slightest, but merely honest. But then, where I’m from, we just tell it like it is.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read. You wouldn’t think that would be such a radical suggestion, would you? Sadly, it seems to be. So many “writers” apparently just skip that whole business of learning their craft. I can’t really think of any other discipline where this happens so often. Not in music. Nor dance. In art class, they begin by teaching you to see. You study the masters. You learn perspective and anatomy and composition, and only then do you begin to paint. But pretty much anybody can click on “spell check.”
Do you track work count or write a certain number of hours per day?
I work as many hours a day as I can. Beyond that, no, I don’t count paragraphs or pages. But it’s always a battle. Everything in life makes demands on your time, your strength, your passion, and you have to resist. Your will becomes a machete for hacking away all the inessentials, so that you can carve out a space for yourself, for your life, your real life, and you must protect that fiercely. The battle never ends.
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
There are four right now, and several others in the works. My favorite? Tough call. Probably the best known is still THE PINES, which continues to attract devotees. It’s always a thrill to hear it referred to as a “modern classic.” But in many ways, I prefer THE SHORE. (It has a smaller but – if anything – more rabidly intense group of admirers.) But WILLY and MARTYRS & MONSTERS are the ones closest to my heart, probably because of the autobiographical aspects – WILLY most of all.
Do you outline your books or just start writing?
All writers outline … even the ones who don’t know they’re doing it. Somewhere inside there’s a blueprint. Personally, I need to create that framework, or else the details of a book just proliferate out of control. The trick is – having created the thing – to ignore it, not to let it inhibit the process. What dancers call flow, you know, when it’s just coming through you … when you don’t even have to think about it. You have to trust your instincts enough to know when to let go.
Well, I’ll have to disagree with you there, but maybe because I don’t care for generalizations involving an infinite “all.” I don’t online some of my work, it comes as it wishes.
How does it feel to hold a book that has your name on the cover? What is your favorite cover of all your paperbacks?
Now you’ve really hit a nerve: this used to make me cringe. The original cover for THE PINES had a bloody stump on the cover, and the gore was actually embossed. But that book has had so many editions that I’ve lost track. Through the years, I’ve had good covers and bad ones. Even some generic ones. But all the titles from Uninvited Books, like – WILLY – feature sophisticated, elegant artwork by Chas Hendricksen … who happens to be the love of my life. (Just wait till you see the cover for the new edition of MARTYRS & MONSTERS that’s about to come out.) I am a very lucky writer. People can check out Chas’ cover designs at www.UninvitedBooks.com.
Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Those are not mutually exclusive options. I’ve had lengthy relationships with people who turned out to be largely imaginary. Most of my fictional characters are far more substantial.
I had to smile. Those weren’t intended to be, but rather a point from which the author could expand upon.
Is it hard coming up with names for your characters?
No, they tell me who they are.
Have any of your characters ever haunted your dreams or woken you up during the night demanding attention?
All of them.
Is there a character from one of your books that resonates deeply with you?
So many. A particular one? There’s the nameless narrator of WILLY of course. Beyond that … how about two? There’s a pair of boys in MARTYRS & MONSTERS – Timmy and Conrad – who have always just broken my heart, maybe because of the way they constantly hurt each other. They’re junkies. Timmy hustles. Con is a thug. These kids have “doomed” written all over them. But they’re in love. And part of me wants so desperately to believe that this could save them. I often feel them inside me, those two, and they turn up in my dreams a lot.
A huge thank you to Robert Dunbar for taking the time to reply to this set of interview questions, and for his patience regarding my intercontinental move that forced me to delay posting his review and interview, the latter of which was completed by him several weeks ago.
Robert Dunbar is the author of the supernatural thrillers THE PINES and THE SHORE, both of which garnered profoundly postive reviews. He is also the author of MARTYRS & MONSTERS — a collection of his short fiction — and a new dark literary novel WILLY. He has been called “the catalyst for the new literary movement in horror” and “one of the saviors of contemporary dark fiction.”
Dunbar has written for television and radio as well as for numerous newspapers and magazines. His plays and poetry have won awards, and his short fiction has been widely anthologized.