... James Dorr
1. Tell me about your book, The Tears of Isis, and where you got your inspiration for it?
The Tears of Isis is a collection, my third primarily of short fiction - to which another can be added, the all-poetry Vamps (A Retrospective) - consisting of 17 stories and an opening poem. The mood is dark fantasy, though individual stories may differ in emphasis running from mystery to fairy tale to science fiction to even a hint of romance, with an overall theme revolving about art and how it may separate itself from “real” life, ending, in the title story, with an actual quest for artistic inspiration.
As for my own inspiration, most of the stories in The Tears of Isis have been previously published, so it would be hard to know where to start. I was asked last fall by Editor/Publisher Max Booth III if I would be interested in submitting a collection for a start-up small press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. I was to have pretty much a free hand, so in addition to going over a large number of possible choices for inclusion (between stories and poems, I have probably nearly four hundred individual publications), including perhaps a new story or two, I explored possible themes I could wrap a collection like this around - to hopefully make the overall book have a meaning beyond just the sum of its parts. Two “finalists” came out of this process, one more science-fiction oriented, one more aimed toward “art” and acts of creation (combined with a balancing of destruction as Isis, the goddess, combines both the spirit of motherhood with the vulture-winged image of ultimate death) and possibly because it seemed to speak to me the more urgently, I chose the latter.
2. Who has had the most influence in your life? What lessons did this person teach you?
This is a hard one, since I think it would be impossible to single out just one person. At the risk of slightly changing the question, I often look to four people, though, as having the most influence on my writing, although here too many, many more would need to be added to form an entire picture. The four though are first, Ray Bradbury, who I read initially for his science fiction (The Martian Chronicles is still one of my favorite books, but also for his darker works like The October Country, for the poetry and beauty in his expression as well as the love that comes through even at the darkest of moments. Then Edgar Allan Poe, who I began to read at a fairly early age, for that same odd juxtaposition of beauty and horror as he himself describes in his “The Philosophy of Composition” the nexus of Eros and Thanatos in Freudian terms, of sex and death, both in his tales and in his poetry. Try reading “The Bells” out loud on a dark night. Then Allen Ginsberg, one of the “beat poets” in the US, especially, perhaps, for his long poem Howl that combines Biblical cadences with images of the ugliness of life alongside of the beatific. And then, finally, German playwright Bertolt Brecht for his ideas on “epic theatre” and artistic distance for meaningfulness, but combined with an emotional intimacy in such works as Mother Courage.
3. How would you like to be remembered?
As a good person, I hope, taking everything together. A weird person, maybe, one who went his own way. A writer worth reading, one who was a little unusual, and who had poetry in his prose. A writer who made one think. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if, through that, I had changed even one person’s life for the better?
4. If you could interview anyone from your life, living or dead, but not a celebrity, who would it be and why?
My maternal grandfather, a very old man, had been a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion. The what? I had asked him once if he’d been in a war, World War II still being in many people’s memories. I was thinking, in his case, of World War I and had never heard of the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising in 1900 in China against what was considered foreign oppression. Looking back now, though, what interesting stories he might have had to tell!
5. Do you have a writing process? If so describe it.
Ideas often come hard to me. I have to wrestle the Muse for inspiration. Given the germ of an idea, however, I try to combine it with other ideas, then add in some character it would affect, usually have some idea by then of how it would all end, and try to figure out where to begin it. For the writing itself, I like to give myself at least a four-hour block of time when I can - I’m also a procrastinator and it takes some time for me to get up to speed - at least to get a story underway. (This is for stories, poems often get sketched out in longhand on the backs of envelopes and the like, then rewritten to the computer at leisure.) I am a slow writer but part of the reason is that I’ll go back to things as I’m writing, combining rewriting with the original composition, though after a story seems to be finished, I’ll still let it gather preferably at least a week’s worth of dust, then reread it in hard copy making notes for possible corrections or changes, then add those back to the master copy on the computer.
6. What is usually your first thought in the morning?
7. Are you mostly a clean or messy person?
Messy in terms of organization. I’m a very undisciplined person, I don’t insist on certain hours or times that I must write, for instance, but will either pounce on an idea or a theme when it comes to me, or languish until a uneasy feeling starts to sneak up that I really should be getting to work on something new. That’s when the wrestling matches with the Muse occur, looking at books, looking at prompts from other writers, just trying to be receptive to ideas -- in one of the stories in The Tears of Isis for instance, “The Candle Room,” the initial notion came from an image in a video on MTV that I just happened to have on at the time. .
On the other hand, I’m willing to take bits and pieces of time, with no pre-planned schedule, for the less creative aspects of writing, like submitting work or answering emails or even to some extent doing rewrites. As far as submissions go, I try to have a certain number of pieces go out on a monthly basis, but when the end of the month comes, it’s not an evenly spaced out process but some days of three and four submissions separated perhaps by a week where the calendar’s empty. And I do keep records - I’m messy enough that I have to.
8. If someone came up to you and wanted to tell you about an idea or a book they were writing, what would you do? Or what advice would you give?
This happened once. I told him not to tell me because, if it was a good idea, I’d steal it. (In fairness, I then explained that it’s not the idea, but how it’s used that counts -- in fact, in my writer’s group, on occasion a member has thrown out an idea as a challenge to the others, then a month later we read and critique the very different stories that result.) In this case, though, and not surprisingly, he decided to tell me the idea anyway. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t a very good one. (Though I did suggest some directions he might take if he wanted to develop it.)
9. How do you react to a bad review of one of your books?
If it’s actually hurtful, I’ll try to see (well I’ll do this anyway) if it has validity, what mistake I might have made and how I might avoid it in future stories, though I’m also aware that people’s tastes can differ and often a poor review is just that, that the story I wrote is just not the type the reviewer likes. As a more general thing, I’m still happy for the attention, that the reviewer thought it worth noting. A worse thing, for me, is the review that mentions some other stories, then dismisses the rest in some kind of phrase like, “there are twenty other stories in the book, none of which struck me as being particularly good or bad.”
10. Are the names of characters in your stories important?
I usually go by what sounds good to me at the time, while avoiding traps like having all my characters with over similar names (like Minnie, Millie, Molly, and their friend Manny, though occasionally I will purposely use something like that if, say, the first three are sisters), although sometimes I’ll pick a name with some symbolic resonance if it suits the story. I’ll also be aware of ethnic variants of names if I want, say, my Irish character to be instantly distinguishable from my Italian one (though, again, sometimes I’ll play against type to point out, say, that a character is an immigrant). I do have one series of stories I think of as my “Tombs” stories, set on a far future dying Earth (three of these appear in The Tears of Isis, one original, the other two selected from a dozen or so published thus far in various magazines and anthologies) where in some cases the ending of a character’s name will indicate their status in the particular society they’re a part of. Two more Tombs stories, incidentally, should be appearing later this year in other books, “Ghost Ship” in Techno-Goth Cthulhu to be published by Red Skies Press and “Raising the Dead” in Airships & Automatons from White Cat Publications.
11. Would you rather write for children or adults?
Adults, definitely, in that I often write on darker subjects that might not be appropriate for younger children. I wish to enlighten, not corrupt, my readers.
12. Which do you find more embarrassing to write, violence or sex?
Sex at first, but I worked my way through it. When I was beginning to write, I used to feel self-conscious writing love scenes, but worked through it with a couple of stories that got a little graphic, and now, while I don’t usually write erotica as such, I can take things more or less in stride. Similarly with violence, while I don’t go out of my way with it - and I certainly think there’s a difference between horror, for instance, and sadism – I don’t find trouble dealing with violence if a story requires it. To beginning writers, though, it does take practice, but then so do other aspects of writing (it took me awhile, for instance, just to write regular conversation in a way that didn’t seem stilted).
13. What are the most important attributes to staying sane as a writer?
There has to be joy in it. Writing is hard work and it often may not seem worth it, especially after a sting of rejections (which happens to us all, even the more famous among us, but for instance on my blog I don’t talk about that, I talk about the submissions that are successful), and certainly for most of us the money isn’t really all that good, but I still get a charge when something of mine is accepted or when I see it in print. That’s mine! Someone thought enough of it to take it and put it in a magazine or book and even give me some money for it, even if not much. And some people presumably will even read it, if only because they bought the book and want to get their money’s worth out of it.
But that’s something - that’s really something that most people can’t accomplish. And there’s joy in that!
14. Do you research your stories?
It depends on the story, but very much so if the story demands it. I have a fairly extensive, if eclectic library at home of reference books of various sorts, which I can dip into - I prefer to go to printed sources first, then use the internet for quick look-ups or confirmations of some fact or other - as well as a county library (and a major university one too, including a rare book collection, though I rarely need to go that far) within walking distance. And one of the neat things about going to books for reference is that there will sometimes be other facts I’ll run across that I don’t need now, but will generate ideas for future stories.
15. What are books for?
Repositories of knowledge for future generations and civilizations. A source of information as well as entertainment. Doorstops.
16. What would you do with 1 million ping pong balls?
Raise the Titanic. Ping pong balls are filled with air; if you force enough into a submerged wreck, in theory it ought to raise it to the surface. In the interest of full disclosure I should add, however, that this is not an original idea, but one I read in a Donald Duck comic many years ago. Also that it doesn’t take into account the fact that beyond a certain depth water pressure would crush a ping pong ball.
Nevertheless, it still seems like a neat idea!
17. Say you’re dead but are a ghost? You can’t be seen, can make objects float and walk through walls. What would you do?
Look for the instruction manual to get to “Ghostland” or whatever afterlife it is that we’re supposed to go to. An interesting coincidence, though, is that my author’s copy of After Death arrived as I’m writing this, with a story of mine called “Mall Rats” about three children in a large, enclosed shopping mall where they seem to have made their homes and where things, like store specials, free food offers, even the progression of seasons, seem . . . a bit odd. This is an anthology, edited by Eric J. Guignard from Dark Moon Books, of 34 authors’ different takes on what may happen to us after we die. Perhaps I’d better read it before I say any more.
18. How did you come up with the title for your latest book?
This plays into my comments above on the inspiration, as it were, for The Tears of Isis. Placing the story, “The Tears of Isis,” at the end gave it a prominence in the book that I thought important in terms of the collection’s overall theme. Yet it’s an intriguing title on its own, derived from one of the aspects of Isis in her search for the parts of the slain Osiris - but also works into such concepts as that of La Llorona, which comes up elsewhere in the story “Bottles” as well as “The Tears of Isis” itself - so it seemed a natural for an overall title (and without a subtitle like “And Other Stories” because the book is itself meant to be understood as a whole).
19. What are your current projects?
I’d mentioned the “Tombs” stories before, set on a far-future dying Earth. This is a universe I’m continuing to explore and may do for some time. I’m also eyeing the possibility of a TOMBS novel, of individual stories but with a unifying theme, similar to Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man, and in fact had one mid-size publisher show interest in the project, though the soft economy at present seems to have put that on an indefinite hold. Beyond that, I’ve been looking at the possibility of a new book of poetry in the next few years, as well as being purposely aggressive about getting some of my earlier stories back into print (this in part has to do with the economy as well), whether as reprints in anthologies, or as the ones I selected for The Tears of Isis, a book of their own.
20. If you couldn’t be an author, what career would you choose?
At one time as a child I had wanted to be a scientist, and later I had an interest in the visual arts. In fact I had had a little training with an eye to possibly getting into commercial art, but wound up in technical writing instead. Now, looking back, I could see myself in some alternate universe as a book or magazine illustrator or, if public taste allowed it, perhaps even in the fine arts (given, since we’re fantasizing, considerably more talent as well) but always, with an eye to dark subjects.
21. What’s your favourite love story? (movie or book)
This is probably cheating, I know, but the first thing that comes to mind is the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in part just for the beauty of the filming. But also what a wonderful story, of psychological need for completion and for the idea that, in love, there may in fact be some loves that “are meant to be.” But also (and next to it by coincidence on the DVD shelf) Don Juan De Marco for Marlon Brando’s acting as well as the saying, to quote as best I can remember Johnny Depp’s character, “There are only four questions of value in the world. What is sacred? Of what is the spirit made? What is worth living for? What is worth dying for? And the answer to each is the same: Only love.” That’s some pretty decent writing!
What do Medusa and the goddess Isis have in common? Are both creatresses through destruction? And why was Isis oftentimes depicted as weeping?
Herewith are some answers as parts of a journey through art and creation, of sculpture and blood-drinking, crafting musical instruments from bone, revisiting legends of Cinderella and the Golden Fleece, of Sleeping Beauty and Dragons and Snow White -- some of these, of course, well disguised. For is not art both the recasting of what is, as well as the invention of what is not?
The Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney spoke of art as “making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature,” so here there be vampires, and ghouls, and insects perhaps from outer space as well as from this Earth, and visions of Saturn and life in the sea, and other wonders “such as never were in nature,” but, above all, Isis. The Weeping Isis. Isis with vulture wings, breasts bare and smeared with blood as in the earliest forms of her myth.
And of course, as well, Medusa.
The sculpture stood alone in its own room, darkened by velvet drapes. Track lights shone on its focal figure, that of a teen-ager, tender and white-skinned, a hint of the plumpness of pre-pubescence still on its smooth features. And yet, above, shadow. The shadow of . . . something.
The lighting was clever -- it never was quite seen. The eye didn't linger. A bat-like construction of wires and metal, but drawing the eye down and back to the focus, this time to soft lips that just started a half grin.
One sharp tooth just showing. . . .
Indiana (USA) short story writer and poet James Dorr’s previous books include two collections from Dark Regions Press, STRANGE MISTRESSES: TALES OF WONDER AND ROMANCE and DARKER LOVES: TALES OF MYSTERY AND REGRET; a poetry collection, VAMPS (A RETROSPECTIVE), from Sam’s Dot Publishing; and several electronic chapbooks from Untreed Reads Publishing and elsewhere. He also has one cat, Wednesday. An active member of SFWA and HWA with nearly four hundred individual appearances from ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE to XENOPHILIA, Dorr invites readers to check out his site at http://jamesdorrwriter.wordpress.com.