It’s a beautiful Friday morning and I don’t even have to take my transporter to meet this week’s guest. I can drive to our interview. It’s only an hour away in Iowa’s capital Des Moines. Downtown on Fourth there is a snazzy little coffee shop called Java Joe’s. I’ve been there many times. They have rick showing through the masonry, a scuffed stage peformers do their stuff. Every so often the place hosts a poetry slam. Of course, I’m not drinking coffee, but they have this wonderful Asian soda that I can’t find anywhere else. Bob’s drinking some foriegn blend of java strong enough to grow hair on your knuckles.
I’ve known Bob for many years as he was a member of my critique group when I attended. I remember standing outside a deli one night with him and we just talked about random things until about one in the morning. he’s a great guy and an intelligent conversationalist.
1. Who are you and what makes you the most fascinating person in your city?
I am the author of two historical novels. The first one, “The Holy Sabbath Morning,” tells the story of the Alamo from the perspectives of soldiers on both sides of the conflict, while my new release, “To Fame’s Proud Cliff,” is based on the life of Sam Houston and explores his relationship with Andrew Jackson. I also work as a security officer at various locations around Des Moines. I have a wide range of interests. Just to name a few, I am heavily into music (rock, country, blues, big band, you name it), the art scene, and the outdoors. I have a bigger personal library crammed into my apartment than many small towns have. It recently occurred to me that, since my books are carried by several international distributors (Amazon UK and Booktopia in Australia, just to name a couple of them), I am probably the only internationally known security guard in Iowa.
2. Without revealing a deep dark secret (unless you want to), what one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?
People would probably be surprised to find that I am an aficionado of bad films, like those made by Ed Wood. Another thing is, I love to go onstage at Karaoke nights. I do a lot of Elvis and Johnny Cash.
3. What interested you to become a writer rather than something else such an international spy?
It’s hard to pinpoint one specific moment when I decided to write as a career. I’ve always written, ever since elementary school. My teachers and classmates often praised my work, so I guess I always had it in mind that it was something I was able to do. Actually, as a teenager, I really wanted to be an actor, but when I was about twenty years old, I shattered my left ankle, which left me with a permanent limp, so unless I was able to play every character as a clubfoot or something… Anyway, at that point the writing moved to the fore. Besides, international spies have this nasty tendency to get killed.
4. Writers are readers. With which author(s) would you enjoy sharing dinner? Why?
Max Allan Collins, another Iowa author. would be one. He wrote “Road to Perdition,” among dozens of other things. I’ve met him and talked to him a few times, but I’d really like to sit down with him for a couple of hours in an informal setting. He has already changed my perspective on a few things. For instance, in talking about “Road” and its sequels, and his Nate Heller series, he mentioned that he considered them historical novels. I had always thought of stories like that, or like “The Godfather,” simply as gangster stories. But he was right. Approximately the same amount of time has passed since that era as has passed between the days of the Old West and the TV western craze that occurred when I was young.
5. If I were stranded on a deserted island or suffering from a four hour layover at the airport, why would you book(s) be great company?
Well, I think my books are both entertaining (at least, I hope they are) and educational. I’ve always taken the view that history, like the best literature, is character driven. History, for me, isn’t this dry collection of facts about dates, places and events; it’s about the people who shaped those events and the people who were simply caught up in them. History doesn’t make people; people make history, and that’s what I try to bring to my writing. Instead of baldly stating that such and such a body of soldiers moved from Point A to Point B, I think it’s more interesting to go from Point A to Point B along with a specific soldier from that unit, allowing the reader to experience the move through that character’s perception of it. You get to see what he’s seeing, feel what he’s feeling, and experience his personal take on what it all means. That makes it all come alive for the reader in a way that they can’t experience in a history class or textbook. I just hope I don’t make you miss your flight.
6. Share your process of writing in regards to: plot and character development, story outline, research (do you Google or visit places/people, or make it up on the spot), writing schedule, editing and number of rewrites.
For the most part, of course, plotting for me comes directly through history. I just have to decide where to begin and end. I compare it to a journalist looking at a jumble of facts and asking himself, “Just where is the story here?”
Character development comes to me pretty much the same way. So far, I’ve always written about real people. Not to say I never will, but so far, I haven’t invented anyone out of the whole cloth. It’s still a challenge, though, because unless they left some kind of tangible documentation, like letters or a diary, I have to rely on my own imagination to put words in their mouths or thoughts in their heads to explain their motivation for doing some of the things they did. It gets especially dicey with some of the secondary characters, about whom little may be known with certainty. You don’t want to portray someone as a drunk, for instance, if no documentary evidence exists to support such a portrayal. Not only is it not true to history, but when you write about actual people, you have to remember that your characters have descendants, and those descendants have lawyers.
For the most part, I research the old fashioned way. I don’t entirely trust the internet to provide accurate information. As for a site like Wikipedia, where anyone can go in and perform an edit, forget it!
With a “real world” job where I can be called to work any hour of the day or night, in addition to working my regular shifts, it follows that my writing schedule is chaotic at best. Somehow, I get it done. How? Maybe the Delphic Oracle or someone could answer that one for you. I sure as hell can’t.
I edit as I go, then I’ll do a complete re-edit of an entire draft. There are a minimum of three drafts to everything I write, although on a large project like a novel, some individual sections will get even more.
7. “I think I have a good idea for a story, but I don’t know where or how to begin. Your process may not work for me. Any advice?”
That’s a tough question because everyone’s process is going to be different. The big thing, I guess, is to just start writing. How will you know if it’s any good? Try it out on people. You’ll get the most constructive advice from a writers’ group that workshops and critiques. Yeah, that’s hard, sharing your work with a bunch of strangers,but let’s face it, your family and friends aren’t going to be objective enough to do you much good, unless, of course, one or more happen to be writers. I belong to several different groups, kind of informally, in order to get as wide a range of advice and opinion as I can.
8. I saw an amusing T-shirt the other day which read, “Every great idea I have gets me in trouble.” what is your philosophy of life?
“If I like it, it’s probably illegal!”
9. Please tell me you’re not going to stop writing? What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a novel about the Lincoln Assassination. The focus will be more on John Wilkes Booth and the conspirators than on Lincoln himself. That’s all I’ll say about it for now. I’m not being secretive, really, but I find that if I talk too much about a project without having a completed first draft, then when I sit down to actually write, I feel like, “Oh, Christ, I’ve been over this so many times, I think I’m going to throw up!”
10. Where can people find more information on you and your projects?
Probably the best place to look is my Facebook page, Bob W. Dunbar’s Author Page. In addition to talking about the books, I also offer comments on history as well as on writing.