Hello friends! Today is a real treat because I get the chance to interview an author who has a lot of experience with the art of writing. Robert Dean is a writer and journalist, but he would also call himself a cynic. Having been featured on NPR (National Public Radio), his essays have been featured in Jackson Free Press, Victoria Advocate, and is a regular contributor to The Austin American Statesman.
Robert’s most recent novel, The Red Seven, has received a lot of acclaim from readers. The novel is a Southern Gothic Western story of revenge and violence, and has been described as “rich in vivid imagery, quirky characterizations, and no holds barred violence and mayhem. I never knew what the word romp really meant until now, but in case you’re wondering, this is it.”
What made you start writing, Robert? Were there any particular books/events/people that inspired you to start writing?
Everything stems from seeing Pulp Fiction when I was 13 in 1994. That summer, I saw Akira, Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, The Crow, Mallrats, etc. Kurt Cobain died, I was diving into more music every week. I was finding books that weren’t just written by Stephen King, whom I loved. (And still do.) I had found myself in subculture.
But, Pulp Fiction taught me that art could be different than what I’d perceived it to be. Up till that summer, movies were Star Wars to me. They followed a logical order. Pulp Fiction upended that. I started to analytically think about stories, what the meant. That seed stayed there and when I could flex my interest in stories in school, I would. I typically got A’s in English and Writing classes, so it kept my slow brewing idea a secret.
I’m from the South Side of Chicago. It’s a working class part of town. You grow up to become a plumber or bricklayer, not a writer. When high school was nearing a close my senior year, I went all in on my Composition for College class and tried to ace some papers and see if it was worth pursuing. I managed to get A+’s and my when I admitted to my teacher this is what I wanted to do, he said it was a fantastic idea. So, eighteen years and a lot of life miles later, here we are.
What is your writing background?
I’m a freelance writer, a journalist and novelist. I have two books published, In The Arms of Nightmares, and The Red Seven. I’ve been in a million anthologies. I was in 10 different anthologies in 2017. I actively write for websites like Farce The Music and Clash Media. I’m also a regular contributor to The Austin American Statesman and other newspapers. I’m currently wrapping up edits on my third novel, A Hard Roll and shopping my horror script, Marrowbone Holler.
What is your writing process? Is it a set process or more fluid?
I write for my day job, so a lot of my day gig and my personal stuff can blend together, depending on deadlines. But, typically, I get my kids in bed and then I head into my office around 9 or 10PM. I put on VICELAND on mute and sit in my chair and pound away on whatever project or article till 2 or 3 am. I typically get 5ish hours of sleep a night. But, I do try to cram in a nap, cuz two kids and a day wears your ass out.
What advice do you have for new/aspiring writers?
You’re gonna get the ever-loving shit kicked outta you. It’s gonna take time. No one is born good at writing. You need metric fucking tons of practice. You might be better than your peers, but there’s always some dope person who kills and you’re left feeling like a dumbass.
Writing requires you uncompromising faith. You will get rejected. You will get rejected a lot. It won’t sting any less. Even after you’ve had some successes you’ll still get told NO. You have to be able to endure the NO’s until someone finally gives in and you seize your moment. If you can’t handle the rejection, the long hours of working on rewrites of a story you thought was done, get a new hobby. This gig is the hardest of the arts and it’s not kind. You have to bleed for it.
You need to read a lot of books. Not just the books you want to copy, either. Go into your local used shop with $30 and buy random books with cool names or cool author names. Challenge yourself to read a variety of styles and topics, non-fiction and fiction. I tell people don’t even think about trying to write until you’ve read at least 200 books. You need to learn the cadence of wordplay, how characters speak to one another.
Where do you draw your inspiration? Is it more internal inspiration or external?
Something will come to me. I was drunk, listening to Tom Waits, staring at a fire at Christmas time when the major plot point to A Hard Roll came to me. From there on, a scribbled down, or took a note in my phone, adding up to a million little thoughts. Just stuff to string character traits, conversations, whatever, together inside the plot of the book, eventually I had about 5 or 6 pages of notes that I’d work into a rough outline. Then I’d cherry pick all of these little points and weave them into the storyline.
What drew you to your genres?
I’ve always been drawn to darker themes. I don’t even know how to write something that doesn’t involve murder or violence. I’d get bored writing Fantasy. I don’t enjoy dragons or swords or any of those tropes. I need losers betting on boxers over the hill, or women with guns in their purses, I like gamblers, drunks, sociopaths, and killers who eat cereal like the rest of us. Crime, Southern Gothic, Westerns, and some Horror, those are all of the themes I’m drawn to. I love Baudelaire one minute, and James Ellroy, the next. I can’t tell you a damn thing about Ready Player One, but I can blab endlessly about Bukowski or Burroughs, or Jane Smiley.
What project have you enjoyed working on the most?
2017 I tackled editing my book and writing a script and through both of those projects, I learned A LOT. With A Hard Roll, I’ve worked tirelessly with my friend and editor, Jacob Knabb, formerly of Curbside Splendor. In this year, he’s taught me so much about voice, tone and style, but mostly importantly, how to harness mine. Working with Jacob was the single smartest choice I’ve ever made when it comes to me messaging him and asking if he’d be into it.
As for the Marrowbone Holler script, I’ve been working with my friend Todd Campbell and I learned a lot about a style that’s less about prose, but really about being an instruction manual. I’d never written a script before and under Todd’s guidance, I did just that. And now, we’re trying to sell it. I’m used to storylines wandering and being able to tell a side story if I want, but with a script, I’ve learned to work in a linear way that’s less about me and more about “how can I drive these characters toward their goal?”
Both projects taught me different lessons, but they’re both equally valuable. I work with some awesome people. It’s gonna sound tacky as fuck, but I’m what them ol’ white ladies call “blessed”.
What is the deciding factor on whether or not to pursue a project?
I gotta fall in love with something. If I can’t get the idea out of my head, then I know it’s something I need to keep working on. Also, there comes a time when you realize you can’t just try to jump in every anthology that needs stories. Learning to pull back is important if you reach a certain point. But, that said, I don’t feel comfortable unless I’m way over my head with projects and work.
Are their any professions or experiences you have had that have helped you as a writer?
A Hard Roll is set in New Orleans. I lived in New Orleans for seven years and without my experiences in the city, I’d never be able to get that book right. Too many people write stories about New Orleans and they’re total horseshit. People lean way too hard on cliché when writing about that city. It drives me bananas. Everything isn’t a magical voodoo man with a pot of his mama’s gumbo in a hidden alley.
On the flip side, my next book, Shitbird, which I’m still plotting out, has a storyline that involves Sydney, Australia, which I’ve visited twice. Because of those trips, I can actively write about the city and get the details right vs. assuming stuff.
How do you go from having an idea to a finished manuscript? Do you tackle each project in the same way?
Depends, really. I plotted and finished Marrowbone Holler in 14 months and that was with lengthy breaks. The new book on the other hand has been a two-year project so far. I’m hoping to start shopping it in the early spring. I’m ready to drop that heat on the folks out there in the streets. The Red Seven took like, a year and some change to write? Pretty much, you can count on me taking two years in between releases.
Thank you for the interview, Robert! These answers were honestly pure gold, especially your advice to new/aspiring authors. I know personally that I went through nearly a thousand rejections before connecting with my literary agent. And as someone who enjoys writing darker stories myself, I can completely relate to what drew Robert into his genres. I appreciate you stopping by the blog, Robert!
For my readers, I hope you enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed conducting it! Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below