Christine: I understand you've just published a book of poetry about vampires. Vampires seem to hold a lot of fascination for other people too. What do you think the fascination is based on?
James: Yes, Vamps (A Retrospective) was published by Sam’s Dot Publishing (http://sdpbookstore.com/poetrybooks.htm#vamps) this August. The fascination with vampires seems to be universal, stories go back to at least ancient Rome, and most cultures seem to have some variation on the myth. But why shouldn’t it be? Vampires represent the nexus between sex and death, birth and rebirth, or in Freudian terms eros and thanatos. And who of us can say that these aren’t our favorite subjects, at least at times?
Last year you had a Christmas story, "The Christmas Vulture," in the ezine Untied Shoelaces of the Mind (reprinted this September in their 2011 Anthology). Do you write a holiday story every Christmas and, if so, what can we expect this year?
Another favorite subject, at least in Western societies, though Christmas is celebrated these days to some degree the world over. This also makes for powerful icons, ones begging (to a horror writer) to be cast down, or at least messed with some. My first, simply called "A Christmas Story," appeared in the Winter 1991-92 issue of Cemetery Dance and I’ve written one or sometimes more nearly every year since. That one was about a boy who poisons Santa’s snack in retaliation for crummy presents the year before (Santa’s snack is always a good subject) while two stories just out this year, "Naughty or Nice" in Daily Science Fiction (archived on www.dailysciencefiction.com as of Dec. 28) and I’m Dreaming Of A. . . as a short story e-book by Untreed Reads Publishing (store.untreedreads.com), are about, respectively, a Parisian vampiress’s letter to St. Nick and snow that eats meat. "The Christmas Vulture," incidentally, is still available in issue 3 of Untied Shoelaces at www.untiedshoelacesofthemind.com.
You write poetry too. Do you think that has an effect on your fiction writing?
Absolutely, and in several ways, if only because writing poetry helps instill a love of words –- and the way they sound -- as well as practicing compact expression within set rules (even free verse has rules, though you may have to figure them out for yourself –- for this reason I recommend burgeoning poets start out writing formal verse, learning those rules before attempting to modify them). Poetry also allows expression of ideas that might not be amenable to treatment in story form (pure image, for instance, without plot or characters), though occasionally a poem will become itself an idea for a story. As an example, "Naughty or Nice," above, came out of a poem I’d written a few years before called "The List." "The List," I should add, is one of the poems in Vamps (A Retrospective).
Are there any writers you'd like to cite as especially influencing your work?
This one’s easy, though the answer can vary from time to time, depending perhaps on what I’m working on at a given moment. Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Allen Ginsberg (less so now, perhaps, but especially in my longer poetry), Bertolt Brecht (social motivations and intentional distancing -– his notion of "epic theatre" –- in certain stories).
Going back to the first question, what is your fascination with
vampires? Is there anything else you bring to the subject?
Two things perhaps, one being music. Somehow vampires seem to me to go well with jazz and jazz themes (this may be from the Ginsbergian influence cited above, though in this case affecting shorter poems too. You’ll see it in Vamps.) Then the other, for want of a better term, might be domesticity. Vampires are great as distant, mysterious, and, yes, sexy figures, but what if you dated or married one. Do you take turns washing the blood-stained coffee cups piling up in the sink?
What has been the toughest criticism you've received? Your biggest compliment?
Not naming names, I just remembered what might be the toughest. In graduate school, I wrote a weekly column for an alternate student newspaper as well as doing utility writing as needed, film and theatre reviews, etc. One year one professor marked my first paper for him with words to the effect that "you need to learn how to write a good, clear English sentence," to which my first thought was "Wow, I hope my editor hasn’t noticed!" (Not to worry, much of my column work was done under pen names, in part not to let it interfere with academics, but also, in fairness, there are certain stories I deliberately write in a florid style that have evoked occasional comments about "convoluted sentences." When an editor complains about one, I usually just break it up into two parts.)
As for the best, I’m still amazed that editors actually buy my work and pay money for it, so in a way almost any sale is a compliment. Two that stand out, though, were a phone call received from Charles Grant accepting the story "Victorians" for the anthology Gothic Ghosts (Tor Books, 1997 –- also reprinted in my collection Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance and, more recently, in Innsmouth Free Press’s Candle in the Attic Window) to the effect that this was the only story both he and his co-editor Wendy Webb gave an immediate "yes" to, and a similarly effusive phone acceptance from Forrest J. Ackerman for a story, "Flute and Harp" (originally in the anthology Whispers and Shadows, Prime Books, 2001), for his planned but unfortunately never published Sci-Fi Lesbianthology.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Persevere, persevere, persevere. And learn from your failures. Writing is hard and I wonder sometimes, if I had known how hard, I would have kept it up, but in retrospect it’s been more than worth it –- at least to me.
Do you find yourself drawn to poetry or fiction writing the most? And what drew you to feeling a need to express yourself in a poetic manner?
I’ve put these together because the answer to both is the same: I really don’t know. I know that I’d want to have some kind of creative outlet, but I also play music and I used to draw (I still do very crude cartoons sometimes). Perhaps I could say that poetry (as well as creative prose) should evoke images much like visual art and I’ve already mentioned that poetry (add to that prose, too) also involves sound, so maybe I’m getting the best of all worlds. As to which I’m drawn to the most, it depends on the project. Short poetry is faster, at least in first draft, if only because it’s short, often requiring only the germ of an idea to bring out, though as for longer poems they require as much pre-planning –- for structure, for instance, as much as a story relies on plot; for mood perhaps as a replacement for characters –- as a piece of fiction.
Your writing's quirky and always manages to surprise me which is a difficult thing to do. Where do you get your inspiration? How do you stay original?
First off, I’m flattered by your question, not the least because I consider lack of imagination one of my greatest flaws. I have to go out and wrestle with the muse –- no sitting around for me waiting for "creative juices" to flow (I keep seeing that phrase in writers’ magazines and it’s always seemed vaguely obscene to me. Perhaps that could be an idea for a story). I like themed anthologies because they give a hint from the start about what to write about, the game then being finding some other idea or ideas to graft to it. And that, I think, is the answer to inspiration, that it involves the creative combining of ideas. A vampire and a saint combined with a childlike writing letters to Santa. Me and others combing the shelves of the CVS store the day after Christmas searching for marked-down candy combined with my sudden thought that we were like vultures. I usually carry a pen and some paper, so that got jotted down. As for the other part, staying original, maybe it’s just that I steal with grace, because I do steal too –- I don’t mind saying it. Much of my work is based on such things as fairytales and myth, not to mention an entire book on the notion of vampires. But the art comes in thinking of multiple things, as unlike as possible, that can be juxtaposed with the first idea.
To wrap things up, do you have other books that you haven’t mentioned, and what new projects are you working on now? Where can one look to find more about you?
We’ve mentioned Vamps and the Untreed Reads e-book I’m Dreaming of A. . ., as well as, in passing, my first general collection Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance. Strange Mistresses was published in 2001 by Dark Regions Press (www.darkregions.com) and has a companion volume, Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, that came out in 2007. Both these books are primarily prose, but with a short section of poems at the end. Then I have one short story chapbook, The Garden, in both print and e-book form from Damnation Books (www.damnationbooks.com) which has gotten good reviews but poor sales (and isn’t that the story for us all?) and another e-book from Untreed Reads, Vanitas, which originally appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and is also in print in Strange Mistresses (and has also gotten good reviews, but hasn’t been out as an e-book long enough for me to have a royalty statement yet). As for the future, I’ve been working on a series of far-future, dying Earth stories set in and around a vast necropolis called "The Tombs," just over a dozen of which have been published in various places (including one that appears in Strange Mistresses and three in Darker Loves). "Flute and Harp," mentioned above, is one of these and, if all goes well, I’ve been talking off and on with a publisher about a novel composed of Tombs stories linked by a common theme, tentatively under the rubric Tombs: A Chronicle of Latter-Day Times of Earth. In the shorter term, I’ve been writing a number of flash fiction pieces -- which in some respects may serve as the fiction equivalent of short poems, as described above -- in part to follow electronic markets which often run to shorter stories, but I’ve also been making a concerted effort to get earlier stories back into print, such as "Victorians" mentioned above. And then I’m also looking at electronic publishers, Untreed Reads right now in particular, as possible ongoing markets for reprints that haven’t appeared in electronic form before.
For more information about these and other projects, including a handy "click the picture of the cover" display to get to publishers’ sites for my books, I invite readers to check out my blog, http://jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com, which also includes occasional sample poems and stories or links to get to them, up-to-date bibliographies of fiction and poetry, reviews now and then of DVDs I’ve watched, and a link to my cat Wednesday’s personal web page. And should the spirit move, don’t be shy about leaving comments.
Thank you for the interview, James! I hope to have a new short story ready for you to critique next month.