Today I welcome, Robert E. Dunn to The Scary Reviews. I’ve been a big fan of Robert’s writing for several years and I thought it was finally time I talked with him. I loved Dead Man’s Badge and the Katrina Williams series. He is a super busy guy and in the middle of his next work in progress, more about that later in this interview. He was gracious enough to take some time to answer some pretty involved questions, and he really went into some great detail. Thank you so much for your time, Robert. I appreciate it greatly, and you are always welcome on my site, anytime. Anyway, enough from me. Let’s get on with it, here is Robert.
David, thank you for having me on The Scary Reviews. We’re getting quite a history together. I have to say I appreciate all the reading and reviewing you do. Not just the effort and support you give my books but to authors in general. You are a great part of the community and I am always proud to have a role on the site.
It has been a few days since you sent your questions. I hate that I dragged my feet. But I can’t say I’m sorry. I’m a, dogs are family too, kind of guy and the last couple of weeks have been about the decline and loss of Pokey. Seventeen years leaves a big, dog shaped hole in your world. The thing that is really kicking my butt, my WIP is, in part, about dogs and their people in warfare. Don’t we all hate it when stuff lines up like that?
Enough about me. Now let’s talk about me—
TSR: I know this is a common question, but for anyone not familiar with your work, can you give everyone a quick once over about yourself.
I’ll tell you a few things not many people know that fill in a lot of blanks. Many years ago I was offered a great signing bonus and Army commission. I didn’t take it because my father, who served during the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam, had asked me not to. He said, he did enough for a few generations and he wanted me to do other things. Something else not many people know, after my undergrad schooling, I was accepted both to seminary and to law school. I did neither. How different would things be in all our lives if we took some of those other paths? In my life, I took the path to LA to write movies. I wrote some but didn’t sell any. I was able to keep writing and making a little money off of it. That’s the thing about the tug between making a living and developing your skills in an artistic area. Your arms seem tied to two different buckets and all your choices drop another rock in one of the pails. Your goal is to make all or part of your living through your art. The reality is, the other bucket fills faster and easier. Responsibilities to family, bills that require payment, your own desire for a little spending cash—all heavy things.
Most of my life writing has been a part of my living. And for all that time it was the wrong kind of writing and living. Everything from TV commercials to travelogues as a video producer. Let me tell you, when you are writing and producing the in-flight entertainment packages for an airline, you start to have dark, hidden thoughts. That was when I started writing Behind the Darkness.
TSR: When I first read one of your books, Behind the Darkness (four or five years ago), I believe sci-fi/horror was your genre of choice. Now it’s mostly thrillers, and I think a very strong genre for you. How and/or why did you make this change?
I made the change and I didn’t. Let me get back to that in a moment.
When I was growing up thinking about being a writer, I wanted to write hard, science fiction. I wanted to create stories about distant worlds or future societies, based on science. I figured out I wasn’t smart enough for that. My strength seems to be in story and character. Technology continually leaves me behind. I still pine for my Amiga computer and would be fine with a return to rotary phones.
So, when I started writing my first novel in earnest, I turned to another love, horror. Behind the Darkness was my first, second published. It was really a horror story with aliens. It didn’t have a lot of science except human experiments, hybridization, and relativistic time shifts. Hey, that’s more science than I thought. I loved how it worked and felt a nice bit of pride. So my next book was horror as well. The Dead Ground was a zombie book with a bit of humor. After that was The Red Highway. That was my real, King style, horror book.
Through all of those books, I was tinkering with a suspense/thriller. I got feedback from an agent who loved the characters. She said, I should try selling it as a romantic/suspense. I did and it sold. The publisher wanted it hotter so I spent a summer rewriting it with lots of steam. I started thinking of marketing and branding so that was published under another name.
Horror to suspense is not a huge shift. And my next book, A Living Grave, Katrina (Hurricane) Williams, book 1 was another step. It was more of a suspense/mystery but the grit and character gained amazing traction. Katrina is really the genesis of my thriller writing. I had a contract for two more books about her. I kept my eye on those developing stories even as the character drew me to other kinds of writing.
I have another long love of crime fiction and found myself with a great, crime fiction character on my hands. She grew. She developed. She gained fans and detractors. But, here is one of the big THINGS people don’t think about—writing and being a writer are separate. I like to think of it like the old days when I would go fishing with my father and grandfather. Writing is fishing. Where you put most of your knowledge and skill. You pour your passion and effort out on the pages all in the hopes of setting the hook. You want to catch readers. But no matter how much you like the cove you’re working, it may be shady and quiet, it may have perfect cover, if the fish are not biting you try another spot.
Some of us recognize that the commercial success of our art provides for more art, more passion, more living. It is true, writing is a hard occupation. No one owes you success. You have to go out and earn it with hard work. I would never suggest chasing the market. You have to write genuinely. You tell the stories you want to tell. But if no one is buying your romance, you need to listen to the market. Readers will react and you get a feel of where your strengths are. The secret, my secret, is chasing my best. My best work catching the most readers. That’s my goal.
This is where I come back to the first thought, I made the change and I didn’t. The real truth to that is that I’ve had more success as a thriller writer. It doesn’t mean that all my books will be purely thriller. It means I will use my strengths, and write my horror, my romantic suspense, my crime fiction—with thriller elements. My fish are biting and telling me which of my baits they prefer.
I mentioned Dead Man’s Badge, which I thought was excellent. You have a great grasp of the crime genre mixed with thrillers. How and where did you learn so much about the procedural/police world to give these stories an authentic feel?
Advice to writers—never underestimate the value of reading other writers. But, more than that, never be afraid to reach out. If you are writing about cops in a big city department, there will probably be public information officers you can write to. They will arrange visits for you and answer questions. Something I learned about small departments, is the range of personality they have. Some are sticklers for protocol some are as casual and lax as the worst bad sitcom department.
Most cops are pros who want to be better, more professional, and more helpful. We only hear about the mistakes. It tends to color most people’s ideas. What I have found is that they love to talk about their jobs. They have pride in showing off the great aspects. Approach with respect and don’t lead with your assumptions.
And, there are a lot of great resources out there. Writers share. They share best in their books. Read the masters and even the authors who are up and comers. All of us have learned something you might see and be able to learn from. Many have written how-to guides for forensics, procedures, even weapons and tactics.
Most of all don’t forget it’s fiction. Our heroes go through once in a lifetime events over and over again. They do things no real law enforcement department would stand for. The loner who plays by his own rules is a great character. He wouldn’t last long doing paperwork and answering to real supervisors who don’t wink and turn away.
All the writers working in crime are guilty of sacrificing reality for story. That’s just how it works. But the best find a balance and make you believe all the shenanigans the character gets away with.
TSR: You know how much I love Katrina as a character. How and/or why did Katrina come to life and what keeps her coming back again and again? Was Katrina inspired by someone you’ve known in real life?
Katrina was inspired in part by a woman I know who was in the military, stationed at a distant post, and sexually assaulted on duty. Her entire life was changed. It was colored as much by the lack of response and punishment as by the physical assault. The crime against her was an embarrassment to her superiors and inconvenient in a service that was recruiting young women.
The character sparked for me when I read other neo-western, rural-noir books with tough male characters who fight both the environment and the bad guy. The question rose in my mind, what happens to a woman in the hero role rather than the rescued role? The genesis is basically, traditional—a damaged hero who has to fight their own demons, the restraints of a civilization that has failed her, and an adversary. Women respond differently than men and that is the fascinating thing. I think some of the responses are simply human. Some are shaped by gender roles. Some are character.
So I put those things together, the person I knew with male characters and literary standards. Katrina was born. Then she was rewritten. And rewritten again.
The amazing thing, something that developed organically, was the Ozarks world. I wanted to use the location as a character. That was the extent of my thinking when I started. The thing is that I stole some of it from the world of my youth. Some of it came from literary tradition. And some was from the commercial, hillbilly, music, tourist reality of today. I was completely surprised by how it came together and worked with the people.
Katrina works in context. She shapes the context at the same time. It has carried her now to her third book. Her fourth is written. Her future now is in economic hands. People I will never know, look at sales figures and costs and compare them to other books. I guess we will see if she goes on.
TSR: In my opinion, you have an excellent ability to write strong woman characters. Can you tell us how make this feel so easy?
I’m glad it feels easy on the reading side. On the writing side it is fraught with doubt and effort and rewrites. A sales person for the publisher actually resisted the first book because Katrina was not feminine. I’ve heard that a few times. That criticism is usually aimed more at expectations than at the actual character. She is the hero and she is tough, but neither love nor men solve her problems. She is really a woman burdened with a male hero trope.
The funny thing is that I get a lot more comments from women saying they like her. The vaguely dissatisfied, angry comments mostly come from men.
The truth is it would be so much easier to write her as a man. The fact that she is a woman I have to support with a thought process. Men in these violent, confrontational situations, are accepted as having certain underpinnings. They can meet anger with anger or walk out the door hell bent for revenge without ever an expressed idea or emotion. We’ve made cartoons out of many of our heroes. No one accepts that from Katrina. In the process she’s shown frailty, indecision, fear, even self-loathing and shame at her actions. Because she is female she has to be more complex. If she wasn’t no one would believe like they would a male.
That’s my take on it anyway. And I do wish it was easier.
TSR: I love the creation of Taney County. How did that location become home to the Katrina Williams books?
See? A simple question I won’t run on and on about. My grandparents lived for years in the town of Rockaway Beach, Missouri on the shore of Lake Taneycomo. I spent a lot of time there fishing the cold waters for lake trout. It was right in between the county seat of Forsyth and the tourist/music town of Branson. When I grew up, Taney County was still alive in my memory and personal history. Combine that with the wonderful woods, and deep history of vigilantism and frontier justice. How could she not be set there?
TSR: What is coming next or Katrina, if anything at all? Or is it too soon or say. I’d love to see what happens between Billy and Katrina.
Book four, currently titled, A Song Unsung, continues their story to a natural concluding. Not necessarily the conclusion. It goes to a place where readers who have followed the series won’t be left with a cliffhanger or even a blunt ending if the contract is not picked up.
That being said, it deals with murder. The fictional Taney County is a dangerous place. The murder reveals a lot of secrets one of which is wrapped around Billy Blevins who is now the Sheriff of Taney County. The story weaves through the Branson, country music scene, tree poaching, and a dark family history.
Some fun huh?
TSR: Aside from the Katrina Williams books, can you give me a hint at what is coming up next?
At the very beginning I mentioned a work in progress. It ties directly into some of your other questions and my answers about genre. The Human Line, is a science fiction/adventure thriller. Think Michael Crichton. See? I keep fishing different holes but I don’t give up bait that’s working.
This one isn’t the departure it seems. It has action, monsters, horror, and heroes sacrificing everything to stop the world changing event. In the near future, genetics has created smart, combat dogs to help in the never ending wars. After a televised ambush Sergeant Riddle loses a pack and becomes a hero. Several years later, genetics is creeping back into military science. This time, they’ve crossed the human line. Yeah! I’m writing the heck out of that story.
This book has been stuck on the downward spiral to conclusion for a couple of weeks. Like I said, it is actually hard writing a book where lots of animals are put into danger, especially dogs, just after you have said good bye to your own big dog.
TSR: Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you would like to share?
Are you sure you want to give me an open channel? You know how I go on. I’ll stop for now but you know I’ll be back. I always want to talk books with you and The Scary Reviews.
Robert Dunn, Biography-
Robert E. Dunn was born an Army brat and grew up in the Missouri Ozarks. He wrote his first book at age eleven turning a series of Jack Kirby comic books into a hand written novel.
Over many years in the, mostly, honest work of video and film production he produced everything from documentaries, to training films and his favorite, travelogues. He returned to writing mystery, horror, and fantasy fiction for publication after the turn of the century. It seemed like a good time for change even if the changes were not always his choice.
Mr. Dunn is the author of the horror novels, THE RED HIGHWAY, MOTORMAN, and THE HARROWING, as well as the Katrina Williams mystery/thriller series, A LIVING GRAVE, A PARTICULAR DARKNESS, and A DARK PATH.