Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Terry Dowling
Terry Dowling is author of Basic Black: Tales of Appropriate Fear (International Horror Guild Award winner for Best Collection 2007), An Intimate Knowledge of the Night, Blackwater Days, Amberjack: Tales of Fear & Wonder and The Night Shop: Tales for the Lonely Hours. He has been called “Australia’s finest writer of horror” by Locus magazine, its “premier writer of dark fantasy” by All Hallows and its “most acclaimed writer of the dark fantastic” by Cemetery Dance magazine. The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror series featured more horror stories by Terry in its twenty-one year run than any other writer.
Terry’s homepage can be found at www.terrydowling.com.
Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?
I came to writing fiction from producing artwork and poetry very early on, then becoming a songwriter in my teens before being a soldier and a teacher, and a performing musician/resident guest on a national children’s television show. I was lucky enough to have a natural sense of euphony, a feel for the rhythms of how things should “sound” as well as look on the page. A lot of storytellers have to work at doing that, I later discovered, so I was fortunate. The gift just seemed to be there.
This inevitably led to storytelling, where it became about recognising and finally mastering what I still regard as the three essential things: first achieving invisibility as soon as possible (so the reader doesn’t notice the act of reading), then what I call voice of truth (where first lines, first page, any “poison tasting” samplings throughout the text let the reader know they’re in good hands; they’ve found the real deal this time round), finally adding style, but only if it doesn’t compromise the first two things. These key elements became second nature over time and, in fact, were only given the above namings when it came to presenting writing classes and commenting about processes in interviews.
My professional storytelling career spans over four decades now. I made my first sale in 1982, first submission, first sale, first local award. Other story sales soon followed, but my fascination with dark fantasy and horror work was there from the outset. It was the energy found there, and what tapping that energy brought with it, the feeling of an extra dimension added to everyday lives increasingly worn down by routines and, paradoxically, both overstimulation and desensitization.
But, importantly, whatever “genre” categories I found myself working in, I realised that what I wrote, no matter how dark things became, had to be a blend of fear and wonder working together. Creating grim scenarios, and desperate and bleak outcomes could never be enough, only one part of what the best and most enduring horror manages to achieve. This is the same mix that so many of the great Romantic poets were trying for, notably Wordsworth and Coleridge, presenting true feelings of awe and terror for anyone faced with the sheer vastness of the world and the universe.
I think I instinctively sensed this early on, being drawn to what I later came to call “appropriate fear” – the fear that puts us back in the world in a healthy, balanced, and transformative way, keeps us replenished, focused, aware and paying attention.
That’s what I find I still keep looking for in the best horror and dark fantasy writing and keep coming back to in my own work, not just showing the darkness, loss, and dread, but also the promise of “something more,”, however fraught and elusive it may seem.
Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
As a boy and young teenager, I found myself naturally drawn to science fiction and fantasy like so many other imaginative adolescents, satisfying this interest first with picture books, comics, and movies, then moving towards print fiction, notably work by Jack Vance, Cordwainer Smith, Ray Bradbury, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Fritz Leiber Jr, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin, along with the usual SF stalwarts like Heinlein, Asimov, and Clarke. By 1962, having a keen enjoyment of the darker thrills that horror and dark fantasy provided led me to the local Horwitz horror reprint anthologies edited by Charles Higham that were available down here in Australia at the time, such as Tales of Terror, Tales of Horror and Spine-Tingling Tales, and similar memorable reprint compilations like Herbert van Thal’s Told in the Dark, R.C. Bull’s Perturbed Spirits, Dashiell Hammett’s Creeps by Night, as well as single-author collections by Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert Bloch.
The impact of one story in particular, Fritz Leiber’s “A Bit of the Dark World” in Fantastic for February 1962, can’t be overstated. It seemed to get a crucial blend of plot, setting, mood, and mystery just right, with the story’s outcome nowhere near as important as what came before. Leiber would continue to be a powerful influence, especially with his 1977 novel Our Lady of Darkness with its central notion of a greater secret life in the workings of the world. I suspect Leiber had a lot to do with how I kept wanting to explore the field’s recurring tropes and standards in stories like “Two Steps Along the Road” and “The Bullet That Grows in the Gun.”
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
For those who don’t tend to go to the relevant conventions, visit online sites, or have steady access to invaluable magazines like Locus, professional storytelling tends to be pretty much a cottage industry, so I haven’t noticed such changes in any direct or significant way, neither in terms of emerging trends nor in changes to market and venue availability. I’ve tended to achieve profile by having stories picked for reprint Best ofs, then by having gifted editors like Ellen Datlow, Danel Olson, and Eric Guignard continue to invite story submissions directly. That’s a very sweet spot to reach, and can’t help but confirm many convictions about how I should proceed as a writer. Ellen in particular has been a continuing, invaluable, and unofficial “mentor” in that regard. Being invited to try for a place in one of her anthologies is always a wonderful challenge and has meant a great deal.
What I also came to realise is that in a consumer-oriented, marketing-driven entertainment industry, flavors will continue to come and go, often as nothing more than the result of targeted marketing strategies: new wave, old wave, traditional etc, being touted as cutting-edge, new, fresh and different when they invariably aren’t. You come to learn that a good story is a good story, whenever it was written, only limited by how language, syntax, and delivery conventions change and how tastes for particular subject matter shift over time. Again, because of my conviction that the best storytelling has to be about fear and wonder working together, any “changes” in horror storytelling haven’t affected my approach at all, as far as I can tell.
For me, it remains about what you bring to the communal campfire, the quality and impact of what you do and what you feel you need to do. We’re all storytellers, and in an age where deciding factors for story publishing, certainly at novel length, tend to be based on safe returns to shareholders, with committee decisions and lowest common denominator markers serving that reality, you inevitably get less and less that is new, fresh and different, like I say, just often well-enough written material that mostly lacks those things. Those strictures don’t tend to apply with short stories and novellas. But, like flying a jet plane, walking a tightrope, or doing brain surgery, effective storytelling tends to be based on merit – how well you do what you do – something that favors those with the natural skill, flair, and insight to do it well or who have the smarts, commitment, and self-awareness to take the time to master those things as best they can.
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
I haven’t that I’m aware of but, like I say if you take a really good story to the village campfire and please the hunter-gatherers, the weary parents, and grandparents, the young and old that night, then they’ll feed you and even invite you back the next night, maybe keep you on as a returning and welcome guest. Age doesn’t matter then, especially if you manage the right delivery and how well the story does what it does.
This is where it can also come down to how you present yourself. You don’t write with your ego, but ego, poor thing likes to take the credit and so can become the enemy. Just don’t believe your own publicity and propaganda too much. Get a sense of how others see you. There’s reason here to avoid having too much of a social media presence as well, being too available. If you are polite and interested and seen to be doing your best, if you can be counted on to deliver, then next you should resemble someone humble and mysterious who might just be privy to great secrets and insights. As Harlan Ellison told me in 1988 when visiting him in LA: “Always make sure you act like a prince from a far land.” I instantly knew what he meant and why. It’s valuable advice.
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
All of the above, if only to save the time spent working out these truths and the often lengthy process of having them confirmed by others. Excuse the hubris here please, but imagine what it was like when – as late in my career as August 2019 – Boyd White published his retrospective article on my work: “Terry Dowling: Poet of Shadows” in Firsts magazine (Volume 29, Number 9/10), calling it “a singularly distinct body of work that is one of the most remarkable achievements in contemporary fantastic fiction.” For someone proceeding according to those storytelling convictions about fear and wonder mentioned earlier, shooting from the hip as it were, having these words from an interested and respectful stranger seemed like a vindication of how I’d been instinctively going about my craft all along.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
First, get perspective and show respect. Learn the field you wish to tell stories in, know who its trailblazers and heroes are, what its themes and history are, in other words where it came from, and how it got to be how it is. Be seen to be doing your homework and paying your dues. Those who know will respect you for it.
Second, find three (preferably five) readers for your work who are not friends or relatives, and must never be friends or relatives. Give them short work to read, never too much. Reward them for the time and effort spent. The moment they become friends and allies, be wary, or better still, consider replacing them because they won’t want to hurt your feelings and will start giving you the Beautiful Lie. With luck, eventually, those readers will be replaced by editors, who with time and interest will likely provide notes and even buy your work.
Remember, too, that a great number of cases, you do short fiction for the reputation, and long fiction to pay the mortgage. With luck, it ends up becoming long fiction for the reputation as well, but demonstrating that you can deliver a story at 5000-7000 words often shows a vital skill set (things like delivery, self-editing, and landing a satisfying resolution) way more than delivering a conventional genre novel will.
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
I can’t speak to that because I’ve never tended to read or write that way. As I say, the effectiveness of a story told well and with the right invisibility of delivery should stop it from being any kind of issue. Things like age, gender, race, etc arrive as suits the needs of the story, just as they should. That said, I’m conscious that my psychiatrist sleuth Dr Dan Truswell has aged along with me, but that wouldn’t stop me from adding stories across the life he’s lived.
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
The fact that I need to stop and try to think of an answer to this question shows you that it never becomes a conscious element for me in approaching a story as a reader or writer. The story and what it needs come first.
Do you have anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
Just to thank you for this opportunity – as a “seasoned” writer – to talk about what I try to bring to the campfire.