James Dorr combines the charm of a gentleman born in the US South with the wiles of a near-New York City upbringing, the canniness of a one-time New England resident, and the guile of an outwardly stolid Midwesterner. Or so he says. It is known that he was born in Florida, grew up in New Jersey, went to college in Massachusetts, and currently lives in Indiana where he also harbors a cat named Wednesday. He 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. In addition to three prose collections and one of poetry, Dorr has had nearly 400 appearances in publications ranging from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine to Yellow Bat Review.
1. What do you think makes a good story?
Character first, even if sometimes it may not seem apparent. A.J. Budrys defined the first three elements of a story as a Being (character) in a Situation (environment) with a Problem (motivation). It’s the solving of the problem (or failure to solve) that becomes the story,
2. What do you think makes a character a compelling villain or hero?
Villains are fun because, insofar as they attempt to frustrate the hero, they're also part of the situation/environment, yet are characters being acted on it as well. But what makes a character is the author’s getting into his or her (or its, especially if it’s a villain -- it could be an alien or a sentient monster) head. To become that being, see through its eyes, hear through its ears, smell through its nose, feel with its feelings -- themselves influenced by the being’s environment too -- and convey those feelings to us as if you were yourself the character. This is the meaning of “show, don’t tell”: Telling is an author’s description of a character; showing is the author’s conveying an understanding of what that character feels and does and why.
"The Tears of Isis" is a collection of short stories, all but two of which have previously appeared in various magazines and anthologies, so the stories themselves were for the most part a given. However, while this is my third fiction collection, the previous ones were planned out by their editor, even choosing the stories themselves from a selection I'd sent. In the case of "The Tears of Isis", however, part of the attraction was that I’d have pretty much of a free hand from start to finish (the one “mechanical” restriction being that it had to be at least 60,000 words).
So what I learned was to be an editor: to look at a large number of stories and narrow them down to, say, 20 or 30; to then look at these stories as groupings representing loose themes and choose from them the one I thought most apt. In this case I found two, one a more future-based science fiction theme, the other based around the idea of art and beauty as holding within it an aspect of destruction, and felt the second spoke to me more urgently (thus" The Tears of Isis" begins with a poem about Medusa as a sculptress, at least symbolically turning her models into stone, while the closing title story brings us back to another sculptress who leaves her own trail of victims behind her). From there the challenge was to choose stories that I could order in such a way that each might seem to flow into the next in at least some aspect -- even if completely different in other ways -- offering readers a wide variety in themselves, yet adding up to a greater unity when the book is taken as a whole. And, hopefully, leaving readers with a feeling that what they've just read amounts, in some way, to more than just entertainment.
4. Are there any horror books that have influenced your life? If so, what are they?
I suspect my answers are starting to get a bit longer than you expected, so I'll try to make this one short: The Complete Greek Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (say what? For an explanation see my introduction to "Telling Tales of Terror: Essays on Writing Horror & Dark Fiction, Kin Richards, ed., Damnation Books, 2012"); The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe; Ray Bradbury’s "The October Country," "The Martian Chronicles;" "I Am Legend" by Richard Matheson; many, many more.
I’m going to cite a story and not a book, if that’s okay -- and this was scariest at the time I read it, though it might not be now: H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space.” You may note from Question 4 that dark science fiction has a special appeal to me ("I Am Legend," for instance, is scary because it’s possible -- it could happen) which is part of the appeal of this story too, but I think the main thing was that this was the story where I started to feel Lovecraft’s thesis of the universe as a vast, indifferent place where the whole of humanity is less than a speck of dust.
6. Do you think that writing will be a long-term career goal for you?
Yes and no. That is, it has been to the extent that my first publications go back to the late 1980's, so I've been at it for about a quarter-century thus far. On the other hand, while I've made a living on a couple of occasions before as a non-fiction writer, I've never considered fiction and poetry to be a career in that respect. In a way, in fact, it’s more than a career. It’s what I do, whether I make money at it or not (though I do make some money, so in that respect it's a long-term source of supplemental income.)
7. Who is your favorite author, and what have you taken away from their books?
This comes back to question 4 where I'll cite Ray Bradbury for showing me beauty in prose, Edgar Allan Poe for the juxtaposition of beauty and death (if you've never read it, look up Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition”), but then I’ll add Allen Ginsberg for a glimpse at the beatific in the ugliness of modern life and Bertolt Brecht for his theory of epic theatre and the use of artistic alienation. For an single favorite author though -- or a single influence -- I don't think I could narrow it down to just one (I haven’t even mentioned Shakespeare, for instance).
And this takes us back to questions 1 and 2: because horror is the study of character under extreme stress. Most fiction is ultimately this, of course, but horror ramps it up. Good horror shows what character is in its rawest, most desperate terms and whether, stretched out to its maximum level, if can survive.
9. What is it that attracts you to the macabre?
This takes us into the realm of environment, which in horror is what tests the character. In particular, though, it forces us to face up to the gruesome ourselves, to confront our own mortality -- but in the pages of a book or on the screen in a fairly safe way. One might think of it as a rehearsal perhaps, for what ultimately is a part of life.
10. Halloween is just around the corner. Have you ever had any interesting/spooky/fun experiences during the best holiday of the year that you'd like to share with your readers?
Well, last October I showed up at a poetry reading group I belonged to as a Victorian gravedigger and was a bit surprised that others, dressed as generic witches or rock stars if even dressed up at all, made so much of my costume. (To give it a literary excuse, I cited Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” pointing out that you can't have a burial at all, premature or otherwise, without a gravedigger.)
11. What is the one thing that scares you the most?
I tend to be a bit claustrophobic as well as not getting along well with heights. My ex-wife, though, had a fear of worms that, on one occasion, demonstrated an utter panic that I'm not sure I've ever actually felt myself. The thing is, though, having at least witnessed it, I think it’s helped me as a horror writer (see question 2, on getting into a character’s head -- in this case the worm itself was a tiny inchworm, but to my wife that didn't matter. She was on a couch where she couldn't get up without moving closer to the worm, itself underneath the glass of a glass-topped table, until I and others removed the tabletop, picked up the worm, and took it out of the house).
12. How were you introduced to the horror genre?
Probably originally Classics Illustrated versions of individual Edgar Allan Poe stories, then as I got older late night horror movies on TV (hosted by “Zachery” in the New York area) plus reading the Poe stories as they were written.
13. What is your favorite horror movie?
"La Horde" came to mind immediately as a fairly new movie. This is a French “zombie apocalypse” movie from the point of view of a squad of not-too-honest Parisian cops who thought they were just getting into a gang war-- and, incidentally, one I reviewed about two years back on my blog. For classic films, the original "Nosferatu." But, as with you, there are really many. "Cabin in the Woods" is one I found quite good too.
14. Do you use childhood experiences and your own nightmares as inspiration? Have you ever used some of your own personal phobias in your writing?
I actually did use a dream once to spur a horror story, but I usually don't remember enough of them. I don't think I've used childhood experiences overtly, but I have used my own fears in building characters and on one or two experiences as a starting point for a story. “Pets” in "The Tears of Isis," for instance, came about through, if not an actual fear, a strong aversion to cockroaches. Also I used my ex-wife’s fear of worms, that I mentioned in question 11, in a story called “Romance Unlimited” that ended up being one of my first professional sales (to the anthology Borderlands 2, ed. Tom Monteleone).
15. Does your creative process, the one where you originally come up with the concept for a horror story, involve daydreaming, brainstorming, ripping stories from headlines, research into legends and myths, or just using plain old terrific fantasies that you've had?
All these and more. I have a bad relationship with the Muse (think mud wrestling) and will grab onto any kind of inspiration I can get.
16. What is one thing that you'd like people to know about horror writers?
We're mostly nice guys, but you've probably heard that before. Some of us are pretty literate too and, gloomy story settings aside, most that I've known have a good sense of fun.
17. What got you interested in writing, and how long have you been doing it?
I was art editor on my college humor magazine but ended up doing some fill in writing too, did a weekly science-humor column for an underground paper in graduate school., got a job as a technical writer (later editor) at an academic computing center, freelanced a bit on business and consumer topics, then finally got a regular day job and went back to enjoying myself with short stories and poetry. I've been at the fiction and poetry part since the late 1980's/early 1990's.
18. What, for you, is the hardest part of writing? How do you overcome writer's block?
For me first getting ideas, then second finding time to sit down and write them out. I’m a slow writer -- rather than try to belt out a first draft I tend to correct and polish a story as I go along. As for writer’s block, I'm not entirely sure it really exists. There is procrastination, of course, and there is fatigue (sitting at a keyboard for several hours takes a physical toll). Sometimes, though, if I seem “stuck” and it’s not a case of just writing through the problem anyway, taking a walk or playing music sometimes seems to relax me.
19. Tell us about your most recent or current book that you've had published.
My latest book, "The Tears of Isis" (released in May 2013 by Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing -- http://perpetualpublishing.com/the-tears-of-isis/), is a collection, as are two previous books from Dark Regions Press; "Strange Mistresses: Tales of Wonder" and "Romance and Darker Loves: Tales of Mystery and Regret," and my all-poetry "Vamps (A Retrospective)" from Sam’s Dot/White Cat. In this case, though, what I've tried to do is not just round up a group of favorite stories, but to tell in some way through them a larger story. Thus the book starts with a sort of introductory poem about Medusa, but as a sculptress carving men from stone -- or is it the other way around? -- and, seventeen tales later, ends with the title story about another sculptress whose art always seems to lead to the destruction of those most close to it, who ultimately discovers herself within the myth of the “Weeping Isis,” the Egyptian goddess who was both a protector and creator of life, but was also depicted with vulture wings as a totem of death.
The point is, you can't have life without death, from which in turn will spring new life. But also art involves its own kind of destruction if only in the artist/writer/poet’s need to objectify his or her subjects, thus stepping back from them and out of their lives -- symbolically freezing them into a kind of immobility -- but, at the same time, preserving them for (one may hope) eternity. Two of the earlier stories in "The Tears of Isis" are vampire stories, for instance, as vampires are creatures that bring immortality but only through their victims’ deaths; while the story preceding them depicts a man who is already dead but still has a mission.
Some of the stories thus are horror, but others work with fantasy tropes and, in one of two instances, even fairy tales or science fiction. But all, I hope, will bring a feeling of interrelatedness, some element of each being reflected at least a bit in both the tales that precede and follow it, like links in a chain, and in all, I hope, there will be some sense of beauty or love or creation within their variety -- as well as its contrast in terms of a real or implied destruction.
20. Are you working on your next novel or short story at the moment? If so, what is it about?
I've just finished a story called “The Casket Girls,” a vampire tale relating a legend of New Orleans, which was the location of 2013’s World Horror Convention a few months ago. So in a sense, perhaps that is my “What did you do on summer vacation?” story.
In a larger sense though I've been working on a series of stories that, somewhat like the late Ray Bradbury’s "The Martian Chronicles," add up to a sort of quasi-novel. Set in the “Tombs,” a huge necropolis and its environs on a far-future, dying Earth, sixteen of these have been published already in various places, including three (two reprints, “Mara’s Room” and “River Red,” and one, “The Ice Maiden,” for the first time) in "The Tears of Isis," and another, “Raising the Dead,” is scheduled to be out later this year in White Cat Publications’s "Airships & Automatons."
While I’m currently continuing to treat these as separate items, writing and marketing them as stand-alone stories, I may eventually start to look into a book publication for these as well, possibly with a larger publisher.