Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fantasy/horror author James Dorr: "True" stories resonate with readers

Welcome to James Dorr, whom I met through my publisher L&L Dreamspell. He joins us to talk about his latest book, The Tears of Isis, released on May 15 by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing.

James is a short story writer and poet working mainly in dark fantasy and horror with forays into science fiction and mystery, and  has previously worked as a technical writer for an academic computing center, associate editor on a city magazine, a nonfiction freelance writer, and a semi-professional Renaissance musician. Dorr’s earlier books include two collections from Dark Regions Press, Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder and Romance and Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret, and a poetry collection Vamps (A Retrospective) from Sam’s Dot Publishing (now part of White Cat Publications), joining nearly four hundred individual appearances from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine to Yellow Bat Review.  An active member of SFWA and HWA, Dorr recently wrote the introduction to Telling Tales of Terror: Essays on Writing Horror & Dark Fiction (Damnation Books, Dec. 2012).

You can find more about James and his books at:
The Writers' Lens is about "Bringing fiction into focus." What brings your writing into focus--the characters, the stories, the love of words? For me character is usually the most important part of a story since (as I see it) fiction is about the testing of a character or characters under stress (in the case of dark fantasy/horror, extreme stress). So the character is in a situation and it's how the character copes with it (or not) that defines the plot.  Characters, in turn, are defined in part by their beliefs and by their environments (my life has been relatively peaceable, for instance, which will give me a different perspective than someone who grew up, say, in Iraq).  The game, then, is to put oneself into the head of that character, look out through his or her eyes, hear with his or her ears, feel with his or her skin and emotions, etc., to translate that character into terms the reader (most likely having had a relatively peaceable life as well) will be able to understand.  It is then that a love of words comes in, choosing those words most apt for the task -- because words can induce mood too, which cycles back into that character’s feelings -- but ultimately it is still the character, the person or other being that the story is about.  

What inspired your latest book? Artistically, hopefully some of the answers that follow will give an idea. Because inspiration is a tricky thing, it can come in dribs and drabs from various places and not even be seen as inspiration until something happens to pull it all together. So on one level, the answer might be “I really don’t know.” But there’s a pragmatic side to art too, Michelangelo, for instance, received a commission from Pope Julius II that resulted in the painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, so the Pope was somewhat responsible too. In my far more mundane case, Editor/Publisher Max Booth III had just started up Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing and, having recently edited an anthology for Dark Moon Books, Zombie Jesus and Other True Stories, that included a story by me, he asked me if I would like to do a collection. As it happened, I’d had some dribs and drabs of ideas, running in several different directions, so I started putting some of them together and ran with the one that looked the most interesting, one having to do with the idea of art and creation. (Thus the Michelangelo name-dropping, although, of course, it’s after the fact -- itself inspired by Teresa’s question.) And so the result, taking its title from the last story in the volume: The Tears of Isis.         

What do you think readers will like about your book? The Tears of Isis is actually a collection of seventeen stories and an opening poem, but, rather than just being a grouping of what I might think are the best of my works at the moment, it also attempts to have a unifying theme, that of creation but coupled with destruction as well as a balancing factor.  Thus it begins and ends with the iconic figures of Medusa and Isis, the former a sculptress who “spoke to her hair” and may literally turn her subjects to stone, and the latter one who, seeking inspiration, discovers Isis and in her herself, one who both creates art, but also takes from those she deals with some piece of their vitality, their souls. Then in between come perhaps some of the tales Medusa’s snakes spoke to her in return, not all of art but some touching on it, and most in one way or another touching on destruction or its possibility. To quote from the editor’s Introduction, “Each story in this book has a purpose. It would not feel complete if even one were omitted...” As author, I hope readers will agree.        

Would you share a bit about your next project? An ongoing project of mine has been a series of stories set on a far future, dying Earth centered around a vast necropolis called “The Tombs.” About fifteen of these have been published thus far including two reprints, “Mara’s Room” and “River Red,” and one for the first time, “The Ice Maiden,” in The Tears of Isis, with two others this year in separate anthologies, “Ghost Ship” that came out at the end of April in Techno-Goth Cthulhu from Red Skies Press and “Raising the Dead” to be out in fall in Airships and Automatons by White Cat Publications.  At one time I had been in discussion with a mid-size publisher about a possible novel made up of Tombs stories somewhat along the lines of the late Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, though problems with the economy at large seem to have put that on hold for now. However, the project could be revived. Also, having published a book of poetry on vampires in 2011 with Sam’s Dot Publishing, Vamps (A Retrospective), I’ve been toying with the possibility of a follow-up volume, perhaps to be titled Vamps (And Friends), opening up to allow zombies, werewolves, demons, etc., into the mix too.  

How much fact is in your fiction? Stories have to be “true,” and not just in a factual sense, if they’re to resonate with readers, and so if there are facts they’d better be accurate. Or, if they’re made up facts, as perhaps in science fiction, they’d better still be at least plausible. Why? Because facts are what the reader holds on to first, they’re a sort of anchor from which to reach out to the wonder beyond, the myth and the fantastic. So as to how much in a story is fact, it will depend on the story itself -- some need more, some less -- but even in something like “Bones, Bones, the Musical Fruit” in The Tears of Isis, a wholly fictional, even absurd, account of a man who carves musical instruments from human bones, details about his dealings with the local police, for instance, must be true to how real police and how local politics would operate given the situation. 

In this case, I’ve been involved in local politics, not in anything having to do with human bones, but enough that I can extrapolate from my own experience as well as things I might read in the paper or see in the news on TV. Or in the story “The Tears of Isis” scenes taking place in San Francisco, in terms of neighborhoods and streets, are based on library research, while those in Boston where the story ends are again from my own experience living five years across the river in Cambridge (and notice how I threw in the river as well as a city on its other side, to flesh the area out just a little, to give an idea, however slight, about what it would be like to be there yourself).        

What makes your book/characters unique? The stories in The Tears of Isis rely in many cases on myth, even fairy tales (although, to be sure, often disguised). And yet I hope a streak of reality runs through them as well, that the people, even in fantastic lands or situations, ring true as actual people, with actual motives and reactions readers can believe in. The fantastic rooted in the actual -- myth rooted in truth. To go up to the previous question again, I research a lot -- in the story “The Bala Worm” I used maps of England and Wales with places with local myths about dragons marked, just as do characters in the story. I followed the same procedure as they did to find where the dragon’s lair might be, then also put in background details of rock bands passing through the area with one-night stands in the neighboring village, just as they do in the town I live in now. I hope that throughout The Tears of Isis readers will see a thematic unity (some stories closer than others, of course, but even here there are musicians, for instance), yet see variety in the stories so each one will be unique in its own way.    

What's the highest compliment someone could make about your writing? That it made someone think.  That it made them wonder, and then to reflect beyond the page.  

THE TEARS OF ISIS: 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 Tears of Isis is available at:


  1. Interesting! Sounds like good reading! Thanks.

  2. James and Teresa,

    Great interview! Since I also write short stories that are speculative in nature, I found this particularly interesting. Seventeen short stories in one book is quite an ambitious undertaking.
    I took a graduate seminar many years ago in Renaissance poetry. One of the books we were obliged to read was Sir Philip Sidney's in Defence of Poesy. I recall the discussion of art vs. nature. The Elizabethans perceived artifice as preferable to the natural.

  3. Thank you Teresa, Joyce, and Jacqueline. I apologize for coming to this late in the day -- I'm at the public library now -- but will try to get a link up on my blog tonight, so perhaps some more comments will come in later. And of course I'll check back myself as well.

    I notice only the last of the e-addresses up at the top seems to Be "live" -- which could just be the fault of the computer I'm on, but just in case (or if anyone's interested) here's the blog address again: Or any of them can just be typed in. And in any event, the publisher would be happy to note that the one that is live is the last, the link to his own web page for more information on THE TEARS OF ISIS and possible ordering :-)

    1. LOL -- well, I think all the links are working now. Hope your publisher forgives me!

    2. Yes, thank you. I added a note down below (following the "spammers") too, as well as a comment with Dreamspell -- I thought the questions you asked were great and had an enjoyable time answering them!

  4. A magnificent interview, Teresa and James. I love reading myths, and especially of Isis (a weeping Isis)--and Medusa, too, who can turn men to stone, yes? Surely myth is deeply rooted in truth. Your book sounds utterly fascinating, James. I must look for it.

  5. Nancy, thank you, I appreciate that. And to all, if you do look into the book and like what you see, please share that with your friends too!

    Also Teresa, and all, the link is up on my blog now!

  6. Hi Teresa, all. Alas, the spammers seem to have found us. But Teresa, thank you for fixing the links up at the top -- I just tried them out and all are "live" now! And thanks, too, to those who commented on L&L Dreamspell's email!

    1. It's been great having you here, James!

      We've been trying to keep the comments open, but "anonymous" is becoming synonymous with "spam. Sigh.

  7. Spammers are gone now though, thanks, and I see today that there are still some people at least checking out the interview (linked from my site) so that's great! Thanks again.