Tuesday, August 9, 2011

An Interview With James Dorr

James Dorr is the author of Darker Loves, Vamps, and Strange Mistresses. Welcome, James.
I’d be fascinated to know more about you.
Well, Susan, I’m a short story writer and a poet, working primarily in dark fantasy and horror with some journeys into science fiction and mystery, but mostly I write about whatever interests me at the time.  Ideas come hard to me, so what choice do I have?  In college my creative activity actually began in the visual arts where I was a cartoonist and illustrator, ultimately art editor, on the campus humor magazine, then in graduate school I moved more into writing as a columnist (and ultimately co-editor) on a campus underground newspaper, followed by editor of an arts newspaper, then technical writing/editing and business freelancing in the “outside world” before settling down into a proper flunkey job that allowed me to write more in the genres I liked to read, starting with SF, then migrating toward the dark side.  I also play music as leader and tenor in a Renaissance recorder consort and am a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  
All of this was and is cross-genre, as I also did some utility writing for the humor zine, illustrations for other college publications, pictures and words for the campus science fiction association (college and grad school, though different locations) and, in graduate school, now and again illustrated my own articles.  And, while I play “pre-classical” music now, I often use jazz as a theme for poetry and sometimes fiction. 
Tell us about your writing. 
I have two books out from Dark Regions Press, Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance and Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, as well as an out-of-print poetry chapbook, Towers of Darkness, published by Nocturnal Publications.  The first two are multi-genre collections primarily of fiction, but each with a short poetry section at the end, including pieces first published in Aboriginal Science Fiction, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Asylums and Labyrinths, Bloodtype, Extremes 5, Fantastic, Gothic.Net, MarsDust, New Mystery, New Mythos Legends, The Palace Corbie, The Short Story Digest, Strange Attraction, Terminal Fright, TomorrowSF, Wicked Mystic, et al. (to give an idea of genres as well as range -- in total I probably have three to four hundred individual stories and poems in various magazines and anthologies).  Towers of Darkness, as it sounds, is horror, depicting life in a not-very-nice city and also introduces the vampiress Annchuck who later pops up from time to time in other poetry, often combined with musical sub-themes (the lady likes to dance), while the two larger collections introduce some (then) new material set in the “Tombs,” a far-future city with its environs which has served as the setting for other stories as time has gone on as well.  And then there’s Vamps (A Retrospective), a full size book of poetry just listed by Sam’s Dot Publishing -- in time to celebrate “Vampire Month!” -- of which I will have more to say a bit later (music up, rising tension....). 
What books or authors have influenced you, James?
I was once asked on a panel at a science fiction convention (to sneak into this sideways) what I thought was the best horror book of all time.  My answer was Dracula, especially when you put it in context, given its pseudo-documentary style,  in a society that might still not have been absolutely sure vampires didn’t exist -- at least in barbaric places like Transylvania.   But then I suggested if we could go outside the genre, the really best all-time horror was by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in The Complete Greek Tragedies.  I stand by that still, and don’t mind admitting I’ve borrowed from both of the above for my own work.  Then, as a kid, I was introduced to the Modern Library Giant edition of  The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (which I still own) and the works of Ray Bradbury, particularly The Martian Chronicles (I was a great science fiction fan at the time) and The October Country.  Then since I write poetry, along with Poe I’ll add Allen Ginsberg and Ezra Pound, with maybe a little T. S. Eliot, and from (as it were) left field, Bertolt Brecht including his theories on drama and “epic theatre.”  Those are a few, but as a fiction writer and poet I also read a lot of nonfiction:   travel books about exotic places, books about even more exotic people -- or people in general, books about myths and legends and folklore -- what people believe.  Books on fairy tales, plus the tales themselves of course, because in a way that’s what I’m writing too. 
How do you develop characters?
The three basic elements for starting a story:  A being (or character) in a setting (or situation) who has a problem (wants something).  This is cribbed from Algis Budrys’s “Writers of the Future” workshops -- the basic story continues through the being’s attempts to solve the problem, getting in deeper, until a climactic all-out push either succeeds or fails, followed by a “validation” confirming that it’s been worth our attention (e.g., at the end of the original Star Wars movie, Luke and Han receive medals for blowing up the Death Star; in Cinderella, the narrator tells us Cin and the Prince live happily ever after).  So, given a problem what kind of character would be affected enough to want to solve it?  Does the setting/situation help define the character’s actions?  If a crime has been committed, is my character a detective?  An innocent bystander?  The victim?  Or how about the perpetrator (I do write horror)?  Now let’s make it interesting, “Vampire Month” and all, and suppose the character is a vampire, perhaps accused of illegal blood-sucking. . . . 
Well, that’s an exercise.  To continue it I usually try to put myself in my character’s head, imagine myself in her circumstances (let’s make it a female vampire -- they’re sexy) and try and imagine what I would do.  Now it happens I’m a heterosexual male, but I’ve known women, was married to one once.  What would my ex do?   Well, granted my memories may be prejudiced, but sometimes she could be conniving, so let’s imagine a conniving, but charming,  sexy female vampire who happens to be innocent this one time (but doesn’t want to explain herself too much to the police, because there may be episodes in her past when she wasn’t so innocent).  Or maybe it’s not the cops. . . .
How do you choose your setting?
So does this happen in Olde Transylvania or, say, modern Paris?  Well, I’ve written one that takes place in Paris, at Christmas, but it hasn’t sold yet, so let’s pick Transylvania, specifically in a heavily draped room in a castle, perhaps a dungeon but with a window through which one might peek to see the setting sun.  This is a flash piece, about 500 words long, and I won’t have much time for characterization so I’ll borrow traits from a 1930s movie called Dracula’s Daughter.  In my version, though, the vampire and her servant Sandor have survived, but Sandor still wants her to make him immortal (his motivation in the movie too, but this is my story) and so, while she’s sleeping, he’s managed to get her into a chair and chained her to the wall.  As night comes, she’ll need to have blood before dawn -- as Sandor reminds her, he knows her secrets -- and she can’t have it unless she does his bidding. 
Just that much setting, plus her remnder to him that “I am Countess Marya Zeleska, the daughter of Dracula himself,” gives enough, I think, to cover the three basic elements discussed above (regardless of whether you’ve seen or even heard of the movie).  The problem servant (not the cops this time), the setting, the Countess who must acquiesce to her servant’s demand -- something her pride will not allow her to do! -- or perish.  Or does she, conniving survivor that she is, have a secret that even Sandor may not know? 
What it comes down to is that the character(s) and the nature of the problem can themselves be involved in determining the setting -- even, sometimes, the setting itself may be part of the problem, may even have sparked the original idea.  As for the example above, “The Shackles” won third prize in the 2009 Ligonier Valley Writers Flash Fiction Contest and has been reprinted in the anthology The Hungry Dead (Popcorn Press, 2010). 
Tell us about your latest release.
Annchuck, who we’ve met above, joins with Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, “Guillemette” (née Mina Murray), Nadja, Nikki, a modern Medusa, a tourist who meets “Cape Man” in France (“... he had a tendency to change the subject when I asked him what he did.  Eurotrash, I suppose”), a competitive runner who races the sun, a woman who dreams of someday winning the Galactic Lottery, several survivors of unusual dates, a baseball fan who especially likes night games, a modern Carmilla who also likes jazz, and a future version of Kipling’s vampire (“a rag and a bone and a hank of hair”) in Vamps (A Retrospective), which has just come out from Sam’s Dot Publishing.  This is a full-sized collection of  75 poems, a little over a third of them never published before, and is illustrated by a friend and poet in her own right, Marge Simon -- so even if you don’t like poetry you can still buy the book!  The thing is, I’ve written poems about vampires, lots and lots of them over the years, so in a roughly chronological order (by date originally written, not necessarily published, and jiggered a bit for thematic reasons as well in some cases to make more efficiant use of pages) these are the highlights, ranging in length from a number of 3-line haiku to a 170-line and a 263-line mini-epic.  Some serious, some comic, some short, some long, some sporty, some sassy, some tragic, some sexy, some reminiscent, some even science-fictional, these are vamps for all seasons and tastes. 
Is it available in print, ebook, and Kindle formats?
At least in some formats.  Vamps (A Retrospective) should be available as you read this in trade paperback form from  Also, while I’m not sure about Kindle, I  understand it may become available as an electronic book through Smashwords, either directly or via a link on the Sam’s Dot webpage.  
Can you tell us about current or future projects, and where can folks look to find out more about them, James?
Moving away from vampires, there is one setting that’s been an element in a number of  my more recent stories, that of the aforementioned “Tombs,” a vast necropolis on a far-future, dying Earth and the cities and lands that surround it.  About a dozen Tombs stories are already published one place or another, including one in my Strange Mistresses and three in my Darker Loves collections,  and more of these should come in the future, along with a possible novel involving stand-alone Tombs segments with other material somewhat in the manner of Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing.  In addition, “Vanitas,” a story that originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s in the 1990s, will be out in electronic book form in the very near future from Untreed Reads Publishing, to be joined hopefully by more as time goes on, while, partly as a response to the recession, I’ve been increasing efforts to get other reprints out both electronically and in print, along, of course, with new stories and poems. 

For these and more, readers are invited to visit for ongoing information, leavened with occasional sample poems and stories, movie comments, bibliographical information, and resident cat Wednesday’s personal webpage. 


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Excellent interview! I particularly like your ideas on developing character. Like you, I enjoy both reading and writing genre short stories.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jacqueline. Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it! Character I think is often the most fun part of writing a story, especially in genres like dark fantasy/horror where much of the point is often in how a protagonist reacts to extreme stress.

And Susan, thank you too for a great persentation!

Susan Whitfield said...

It's nice to have you over, James. Thanks for stopping by Jaquie.

Pauline B Jones said...

Fun interview! I agree that character is a fascinating part of the creative process.

James Dorr said...

Hi Pauline, thanks for stopping in. And kudos to Susan for asking the question about developing character. It's something I think we, as writers, neglect at out peril.