The Red Highway by Robert E. Dunn - In 1992, as Los Angeles begins to simmer in the heat of racial injustices, one dark man appears everywhere, spreading his message of race war. At the same time, Paul Souther, a homeless drunk, joins a strange group of outsiders. Some black and some white, they all carry the weight of broken lives and lost faith. They are all drawn to LA, for the arrival of a child, impossibly carried by Mary Prince, a sterile porn star.
Through back roads and freeways everyone is pulled into LA and Mary's side just as the baby is born. None of them have any idea that the city is a ticking bomb of anger. As riots explode, the mysterious man reveals himself to be an ancient, dark spirit using the rage of the people to stoke his own, literal, fires. He demands Mary’s child as sacrifice to keep the city, and perhaps the nation from burning. It falls to Paul, a faithless man, and a drunk with blood on his own hands, to make the impossible choice between the child and the city, and to save the people he has come to care about.
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Gef: What was the spark that got you going on The Red Highway?
Robert: The Red Highway, like so many of my books, was sparked by an image. This one was in my mind while traveling. I went over a bridge in a lonely area and for some reason it struck me as an image of desperation and isolation. I thought, it was a bridge but it could just as surely be a place of endings. As I continued the thought and image wouldn’t let me go. It transformed and populated itself with someone stopping their car to jump. Then, when that didn’t satisfy, it became someone throwing someone off. The word, sacrifice, came to mind. From there it became a baby alternately thrown from the railing or from a moving car. It begged the question, what brings a person to that kind of sacrifice?
Gef: What was it about the L.A. riots that you felt you had to set your story there?
Robert: The LA riots were so big. They were televised and studied, commented on and mythologized. Then they were forgotten, because we always go on. But I was seeing so many things that we had a chance to discuss and settle reoccurring all these years later. Why is that? Collective insanity, a stubborn nature? Maybe there is a deeper reason, I wondered and the thought of sacrifice, national sacrifice, brought me to the image of the bridge.
Gef: The premise of a mysterious figure attempting to whip up racial turmoil reminds me a little bit of Charles Beaumont's The Intruder. Any inspiration from that book or its film adaptation?
Robert: I never read the book but I have seen the movie with Willian Shatner. It was a disturbing, and remarkable, for the time, look at hatred. It was not in my mind as I was writing but who knows what is in those dark corners whispering as you write. Influencers are not always the thoughts at the front of the line. Sometimes they are the small bullies at the back shoving everything forward.
In her review of The Red Highway, Mallory Anne-Marie Forbes mentioned Stephen King’s character, Randall Flagg from The Stand and made a comparison. I had read that book more than once, and had seen the made for TV movie version. Not to mention the fact, this is King. It was impossible not to be aware of that as an influence but again, it was not a conscious thing. I never thought, make it more like that character, or don’t do that, King already did it.
I imagine there were a million influences and inspirations most of which I remained, thankfully, ignorant.
Gef: How have you found your progression as a writer thus far?
Robert: Progression is a strong, probably optimistic, word for what I’ve gone through. I began writing early, like so many in this business. I transitioned from theatre to film in college then to the real business of writing, which is anything and everything and all needed right now. I wrote for news, and local commercials, training films and travelogues. All that time, I was pecking away at screenplays and novels that got slowly better. The story that became my first novel began as a spec script for a horror movie for a guy that had a development deal based on his art house and documentary work. It tanked but I kept the idea for years. Lots of m ideas were kept simmering for long times in my heated brain. The Red Highway went to thirty pages and stalled for several years while I periodically pulled it out and retooled and reimagined. Writing is the hard work of sitting down and putting the words down in order. You have to commit to the work. Sometimes though, the idea you want to work on is not ready. Sometimes it is never ready. Sometimes it is just bad. You go on to other stories and wait for those you believe in to be ripe.
Gef: Who do you count among your writing influences?
Robert: Within The Red Highway, some of my influences are probably too obvious. There is a lot of talk of poetry and music, much of it as cultural touchstone for the characters and reader. These are the kinds of invisible influencers I talked about earlier. Everything in our environment can serve to shape us and, to some small extent, we choose those that most speak to us, music, movies, books, theatre, TV, video games, quiet time fishing. Writers are obviously prone to seeking the influences of other writers.
I grew up reading Dafoe, Dumas, Burroughs, and Poe mixed in with Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino and of course, Stan Lee. That was the wrong education for a budding writer. For a long time I believed that a “real” novel was written like a Tarzan novel or War of the Worlds. It wasn’t until later, when I discovered Robert Heinlein’s juvenile adventures that I began to understand that old fashioned was simply that and not a sign of quality itself. From there my reading and influences exploded.
Gef: What do you consider to be the saving grace of the horror genre?
Robert: Flexibility. Monsters and terrors are what the writer makes terrible. As long as the feeling of dread, the fear of something unknown, is present, the unknown or unknowable can be anything from an animated corpse to our own government.
Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?
Robert: I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any writing advice other than keep going, you’ll get it. People sort through things themselves and find the things that work or don’t I guess. It is not advice, but the one idea I wish I could eliminate, is the one of inspiration. Writing is inspiration. Don’t wait for some mythical muse to whisper the perfect words or plot into your ears. Grab an idea, I think the idea for an ending works best, then start with the question, how did we get here? Sit down and write toward that point. Just write, the ideas come from the effort of making connections. Often you reach a point where you say, this won’t work, or this won’t work unless… Then you probably know your story. You can fix the opening or add what’s needed but you’re on the road. That works if you’re writing the book or if you are working out an outline to write from later. Don’t worry about inspiration, write.
Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?
Robert: All of my pleasures have some element of guilt in them. That’s what makes them so pleasurable. But, I proudly watch old, 1950’s style giant bug or alien invader movies whenever I get the chance.
Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?
Robert: Coming in 2016, a mystery from Kensington. It is the first of a series based on the character, Katrina “Hurricane” Williams. She is a former Military Police officer. Experiences on deployment in Iraq have left her damaged and dangerous. As a Sherriff’s detective in the Missouri Ozarks, she has to deal with murder, her own demons, and a bit of romance.
The Harrowing, is a horror/fantasy about a man who goes to hell to rescue an innocent. It turns out, no one is innocent.
And finally, so far finally, there is a romance/mystery just being completed and without a real title. It’ll make you blush but I bet you keep reading.
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Robert E. Dunn was born an army brat and grew up in the Missouri Ozarks. He wrote his first book at age eleven, stealing, or novelizing, as he called it at the time, the storyline of a Jack Kirby comic book.
His college course of study, philosophy, religion, theatre, and film/TV communications, left him qualified only to be a televangelist. When that didn’t work out, he turned to them mostly, honest work of video production. Over several years he produced everything from documentaries, to training films and his favorite, travelogues. Still always writing for the joy of it he returned to writing horror and fantasy fiction for publication after the turn of the century. It seemed like a good time for change even if the changes were not always his choice.
He lives in Kansas City with three daughters, a young grandson, and an old dog. He tweets sometimes as @WritingDead but makes no promises how interesting those little posts will be.