Welcome back! Today’s author interview is with the prolific James Dorr. James is an accomplished author of over a hundred short stories published in such outlets as Daily Science Fiction, Abyss and Apex, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others.
Recently, James and I discussed his inspiration as a writer, his work as a Renaissance musician, as well as his tips for time management as an author.
A couple icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?
Hi Gwendolyn. I came to writing somewhat late, being more involved in visual arts up through college, but doing a little bit of writing on the side (for example, I became art editor on the college humor magazine, but then occasionally did fill-in writing, when an article didn’t come in or something). But then as a graduate I became editor of an arts newspaper, that had me writing (but doing occasional fill-in illustrating) which led to a job as a technical writer for an academic computing center and several other writing jobs including some non-fiction freelance. However, aside for occasional amateur work, my actual entry into serious fiction and poetry didn’t come until the lateish 1980s, with my first paid fiction, an S&S story called “The Fourth Attempt,” published in the long-defunct magazine Fright Depot in Spring 1988, for which I received a one dollar bill. I immediately made a little frame, and it’s still hanging on my wall somewhere, although buried under many, many more recent notices.
For authors, there are four that I would consider mentors: Ray Bradbury who injected beauty into even his darkest work; Edgar Allan Poe as the master of the combination of love and death, eros and thanatos, that informs much of my own fiction — and, indeed, is a driving force in my upcoming Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth, due out this June from Elder Signs Press; Allen Ginsberg for poetry, in combining the ugliness of everyday life with the beatific along with his use of what he considered natural rhythms; and Bertolt Brecht for his theories of “epic theatre,” of artistic distance but at the same time an emotional intimacy as in a play like Mother Courage.
You are a widely published and prolific author with stories appearing in hundreds of publications around the world. What does a typical day as a writer look like for you? For instance, do you write every day, and do you have any specific writing habits (e.g. listening to music while writing, etc.)?
I’m really a very undisciplined person, especially now that I’m retired from my day job. I also prefer to work in fairly long stretches (some, to be sure, taken up by warm up time because I’m a procrastinator too) so what I do now is still a reflection of habits of a few years ago when most of my new writing was done on weekends, where I could plan for at least four-hour stretches, and weekdays after work were used for editing, marketing, researching, etc. in more bite-sized chunks. Nowadays walks downtown to the library (my one good health habit, plus faster internet) substitute for days in the office, and “honorary weekends” (that is, days planned for being at the computer all day long, or a good part thereof) can come any time of the week. As for habits, I don’t listen to music when I write. I will have the TV on in a different room, though, with perhaps the news on or, in season, football, which I can’t really hear while I’m working (think “white noise”), but if I break to refresh my coffee, I’ll check on the score (or headlines) then.
Since you’ve been so widely published, you’re clearly skilled at being able to consistently produce as a writer. What tips do you have for new writers about time management? How, if at all, have your habits changed as you’ve progressed as a writer?
Well, if on deadline, that’s when honorary weekends come more frequently. Prior to that, to some extent I could force myself to work occasional longer weeknights — not to be lazy, but too many can lead to exhaustion however, which in the long run is counter productive — or on some occasions write out an informal sort of outline and just make myself slog through, say, a scene a night, an hour at a time. To new writers out there, though, I’m not the one to ask about time management.
To add to that, though, my “bad” habits may come from my newspaper and magazine college experience, where deadlines had to be planned around academic requirements. But deadlines came every month anyhow (every week on the arts newspaper, though ideally you might have two teams working on alternate weeks, only stopping in briefly to check on things on the “off” week), and emergencies happened, so one became used to all out spurts of work sometimes when something simply had to be done NOW.
In addition to your writing, you are also a semiprofessional Renaissance musician. Do you find that music often influences your writing, or even vice versa?
I think music does, but in what might be considered an odd way. Remember that poetry is music too — they both have rhythms, beats — but in my opinion the best poets are also very aware of the sounds of individual words. Poetry is meant to be read aloud (well, maybe not all of it, concrete poetry for instance, but a lot of poetry). But prose is made up of words as well, with harmonies, rhythms, and sounds and, even if fiction may not be read out loud, I think music can inform styles of writing. Think of Hemingway compared to Faulkner. So in a sense I really believe my interest in music, including in my case hands-on experience performing it, has helped me become a better writer. (A quick example: My 2013 collection, The Tears of Isis, has received at least two reviews making a point that there is a difference in styles between various stories, matching styles to the type of story, which they thought was good. This is something I try to do consciously, and I think a feel for music helps me to do it.)
From your website, I see that something we have in common is that we both share writing space with beloved cats (congrats on the recent addition of your rescue kitty, Triana!). Do you have any favorite anecdotes about writing while trying to share your space and time with a curious feline?
Playing with the cat, petting the cat, what a wonderful way to wind down from a long writing session! Hi there, Triana. On a practical level, she’s learned that there’s a space to the left of the keyboard of one computer I use that it’s okay for her to be in (but beware, if a paw gets on the keyboard she may get yelled at) so sometimes she’ll lie there, getting an occasional petting or scratch on the head during brief pauses while I’m working. (On the other hand, at my writer’s group meeting just last week I pointed out, in a critique of one member’s work, a string of five or six incoherent letters as “the cat’s comment.” A paw apparently had gotten on the keyboard when I’d gotten up for something, and I hadn’t noticed until after I’d printed it out.) As a matter of fact, though, I’m at a different computer now, an off-line one I do most of my original composition on, and Triana is fast asleep on a work table just behind me.
Out of your published work, do you have a favorite piece?
I have two fiction collections prior to The Tears Of Isis, which I’ve mentioned above, Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance and Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, both a little hard to find nowadays but some copies usually are on Amazon (my upcoming Tombs is a novel, however, though also on Amazon for pre-order). Of the three I’d put The Tears of Isis as my favorite and not just because it’s newest, but because the publisher had given me an almost completely free hand in its creation — selection of stories, the order of presentation, etc. — essentially the editing as well as writing as long as it came in at more than sixty thousand words. So if a whole book is okay, of what’s published now — which would include a poetry collection, Vamps (A Retrospective), as well — that would be the one. Of the stories in it, I’ve also mentioned the styles are varied and which I’d like best at a given time might be a reflection of my mood, but certainly these would be among my favorites.
What projects are you currently working on?
This would have to be Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth, pretty much in the homestretch for a June release. Indeed, much of this afternoon will be taken up by continued proofreading of an advance PDF. Tombs is a mosaic novel, or novel-in-stories, in the style of books like Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club or, more directly, Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It’s the story of a far-future exhausted Earth where, at the outset, a ghoul — an eater of corpses — has been exploring the ruins of one of its greatest cities in hopes of discovering the one thing that made its inhabitants truly human. This is the premise, the quest that introduces us to the book’s sixteen stand-alone chapters, arranged in five sections much like a classic five-act play (about half in fact already published in various venues as separate short stories), and loosely inspired by a pair of quotations from Edgar Allan Poe, of the most poetic subject being the death of a beautiful woman (which also informs, in its way, The Tears of Isis) and of the boundaries between life and death being “at best shadowy and vague.” So the question implied is, if these statements be true, and in an already dying world, can love be a power to even transcend death?
Where can we find you online?
Probably the best place would be my blog, at http://jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com. I also can be found on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/james.dorr.9 and, for those interested, my Amazon Author Page is at http://www.amazon.com/James-Dorr/e/B004XWCVUS.
Big thanks to James Dorr for being part of this week’s author interview series!