Author Robert Dunn graciously took time to answer questions about the inspiration behind his newest horror novel, ‘The Red Highway’. In this interview, Dunn also describes the challenges of writing a horror novel taking place during the race riots in Los Angeles, what elements make for good horror and genre blending.
‘The Red Highway’ is a nerve jangling, wild ride through Los Angeles during the nineties race riots and the city of angels is on fire with tensions boiling beneath the steaming streets. In 1992, as Los Angeles begins to simmer in the heat of racial injustices, one dark man appears everywhere, spreading his message of race war. At the same time, Paul Souther, a homeless drunk, joins a strange group of outsiders. Some black and some white, they all carry the weight of broken lives and lost faith. They are all drawn to LA, for the arrival of a child, impossibly carried by Mary Prince, a sterile porn star. Through back roads and freeways everyone is pulled into LA and Mary’s side just as the baby is born. None of them have any idea that the city is a ticking bomb of anger. As riots explode, the mysterious man reveals himself to be an ancient, dark spirit using the rage of the people to stoke his own, literal, fires. He demands Mary’s child as sacrifice to keep the city, and perhaps the nation from burning. It falls to Paul, a faithless man, and a drunk with blood on his own hands, to make the impossible choice between the child and the city, and to save the people he has come to care about.
‘The Red Highway’ is available NOW from Necro Publications, Amazon, and major online booksellers.
Robert E. Dunn was born an army brat and grew up in the Missouri Ozarks. He wrote his first book at age eleven, stealing, or novelizing, as he called it at the time, the storyline of a Jack Kirby comic book. His college course of study, philosophy, religion, theatre, and film/TV communications, left him qualified only to be a televangelist. When that didn’t work out, he turned to them mostly, honest work of video production. Over several years he produced everything from documentaries, to training films and his favorite, travelogues. Still always writing for the joy of it he returned to writing 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. He lives in Kansas City with three daughters, a young grandson, and an old dog. He tweets sometimes as @WritingDead but makes no promises how interesting those little posts will be.
Francis Xavier: What is the first line from The Red Highway?
Robert Dunn: The opening lines from The Red Highway are, “For over an hour I had been trying to sleep. It wasn’t happening.” They were changed many times in the final stages of re-writing. Originally, it began with main character waking in an adult theater. I woke up to the sound of sex and the smell of beer. But beginning a novel with someone waking up is both over used and less engaging. I had decided that the process of trying to sleep and failing creates conflict and questions from the beginning. I want the reader to wonder, why can’t this person sleep? Within the first paragraph I let the character suggest, his guilt may be keeping him from sleeping. Then he admits, he has much to feel guilty about. I like to begin with something to make the reader want to know more even if the questions are small.
FX: Los Angeles is unlike anywhere else and serves as backdrop in The Red Highway; can you talk about the city as inspiration and what if anything surprised you while researching the 90’s race riots and its varied inhabitants?
RD: When researching Los Angeles, and particularly LA in the early 90’s I was amazed to find that there were changes for the whole nation being born in that place and time. Hip Hop culture was exploding and becoming something that would speak for a generation of young people. Race relations were being defined on those streets and they were so much more complex than the black and white that many people still think was the only issue. The relationships between young African Americans and the police that seemed so charged at the time, have turned out to be just a warning of the troubles we see now. What surprised me most about LA in the early 90’s was learning that it was still here, like an image burned into our collective eyes that we’ve learned to ignore and live with.
FX: Three words to describe your writing?
RD: Three words that offer a description of my writing are, Make Characters Speak. To choose three words to describe my writing I had thought about drama, or conflict, action, consequence, flaws. So many single words fit and say a lot. But I have been learning, through everything I write, people need characters they can understand more than they need action that impresses. We need to care or the big moments are meaningless. And we care about the characters when they speak. Not just through direct narration of course but through, narration, dialogue, and action. Just like real people. I put a lot of effort into building the characters and making them more than what they do.
FX: Which part of The Red Highway challenged you the most?
RD: When writing The Red Highway, I was most challenged by the African American characters who had such different life experiences than I had. Let’s face it, I’m a white guy from the Midwest, not always a recipe for blending well with diverse characters. It was important though, especially in a book that deals with race and riots and monsters, that I not write white heroes and black adversaries. I put a lot of thought not just into making the African American characters good people but real people just as flawed, troubled, genuine and necessary as any others. At the same time, I had some of them doing some pretty negative things. The main antagonist, is actively engaged in race baiting and inciting hate while in the guise of black men. It was troubling to me and I managed, I hope, by concentrating on humanity more than race.
FX: Which of The Red Highway characters do you most identify with?
RD: Of the characters in The Red Highway, I most identify with the main character of Dr. Paul Souther. He and I come from similar backgrounds although I never went to war. We share a love of history and old cars and we often find more meaning in the questions we ask than the answers we find. I identify with him but make no claim that he is a reflection of me or I of him. We are very different but sometimes those are the characters we most connect with, those who are different with just a spark of something same.
FX: What did you learn about yourself as a writer while working on The Red Highway?
RD: While working on The Red Highway I learned that my own impatience was the worst enemy I had. I caught myself rushing to write scenes I had been imagining for a long time then having to go back to see how my characters got to that point. That’s when you find out that the journey is as important as the destination for the character and the reader. Things that were clear in my head often called all my attention at the expense of what was yet to form. When I got bogged down in the details of plot or a character I did what was easier. If I didn’t pay enough attention to those details, I had to go back to them and make sure they worked later. By then, because I left things unsettled, I may have changed course and had to work them out all over again. I had always told my children, when doing their chores or homework, the easy way is almost always the wrong way. I violated my own rules for the same reasons as the kids. To get to those satisfying parts or rush to the end. On top of that, I finished a series of drafts and started looking for publishers then realized, no matter how ready I was, the book was not ready. Impatience made me show it before it was ready. That’s never a good thing for art of any kind. Eventually I set it aside and worked on it again later. It was the best and hardest choice. Subsequent books, I’ve forced myself to take the longer road and find I’m more satisfied at the end.
FX: What elements make for good horror fiction?
RD: I think good fiction is good fiction. There are the important elements of character and compelling plot no matter the genre. The element that sets horror apart and makes it what it is, I believe is simply atmosphere. In all fiction you need a kind of conflict but horror needs a sense of dread. Your reader needs to know something awful is waiting somewhere and you want them to fear it showing up as much as they want to see the monster or the killer or whatever it is they worry is there. That may seem too simple for most people but I’m a simple guy.
FX: What are your thoughts on genre blending in works of fiction?
RD: One of my earlier books, Behind the Darkness, began life as a treatment for a made for TV horror movie in the early 80’s. Because of the medium, the story had to follow specific expectations. Because of the time though, the touchstones of alien abduction stories were just being formed. That story was put away and resurfaced in my thoughts twenty years later. In that time, the story elements had become a tradition but I had never read a book that used them to my satisfaction. I started out to write a book that used everything in the tradition, abduction, hybridizing, rural setting, antagonism and disbelief from the authorities, even cattle mutilations. The idea was to avoid blending but create the best pure trop story I could. The next story I wrote was what can be called a ZomCom. My novel, The Dead Ground was originally written as Redneck Zombie Rodeo. It was a blending and just the kind of blend I love.
Basically, I think works of fiction are categorized mostly as a way to organize shelves. The best fiction blends things like cooking a stew creates flavors beyond what the pieces can deliver on their own. I love a grilled steak just as much as I love a gumbo. That being said, I’m not a huge fan of the recent mash-up trend. But that may not even be a blending at all. Some of those books are like the low budget cable movies, a great concept in a single sentence but on the page, like a plate of ice cream and steak. I like a novel to have funny elements, and romantic scenes, I like to see different characters that exist outside the tropes and/or great characters within them. But I want a book to be mostly one thing or another. If it is historical fiction about werewolves, great. If it is a novel about manners in the English aristocracy, tossing werewolves into the middle of famous characters to see what happens, not so great for me. Again, I guess it is about my sense of simplicity.
FX: Where can we find you and your work online?
RD: Online you can find my author page on Amazon, Barnes & Noble,
Visit the great publishers websites, Necro Publications, And Severed Press,
If anyone wants to learn more about me or my travels in horror, they can find me on Twitter as @WritingDead or catch my (erratic) blogging, Beware the Blog
FX: Favorite horror writer?
RD: My favorite horror writer is too hard a question to answer. There are just too many to pick one. I am a huge fan of Richard Kadrey. I used his name for a character that died horribly in The Red Highway. I also love reading Nick Cave, Hunter Shea, Johnathan Maberry, David Wellington, and, of course, the King. There are many, many more.
FX: Favorite movie?
RD: I’m a John Ford westers guy. I’ll watch The Searchers or My Darling Clementine at the drop of a hat.
FX: What scares you?
RD: Parasites. Screw sharks, vampires, zombies or tornados. It’s the little things that get inside and take over that get me.
FX: What’s one word you overuse?
RD: And is the one word I overuse. I have a bad habit of jamming multiple sentences together and having to go back to punctuate my way out.
FX: Favorite place to write
RD: My favorite place to write is my back porch in the spring through early fall. An Adirondack chair and huge glass of iced tea will keep my going.
FX: Title of your first published work?
RD: My actual first published work was a bit of poetry I don’t recall the name of or the magazine that carried it sometime in the 1970’s. My first book was The Dead Ground from Severed Press.
FX: What book do you wish you wrote?
RD: I dearly wish I wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
FX: Favorite color?
RD: My favorite color is really more of a range of colors. Pretty much anything blue.
FX: What are you currently reading?
RD: I’m in the middle of a couple of books now, Tortures of The Damned by Hunter Shea, Killing Titan by Greg Bear, and a I have a copy of Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong.
FX: Coffee or tea?
RD: I’m a tea man, iced with lemon, no sugar.
FX: Beer or wine?
RD: No beer. I will sip wine so it looks like I’m drinking to be sociable but beyond that I don’t really drink.