Interview with Frederic S. Durbin

Welcome back to the Mysterion interview feature! This months interview is with Frederic S. Durbin, whose book, A Green and Ancient Light, we reviewed last week.

How would you describe your spiritual and/or religious beliefs, and how would you say they influence your writing?

Christian faith is central in my life and informs what I do and how I think. For me, writing is a calling; I believe it’s what I’m here to do, using my gifts for God’s glory, for the benefit of others. It’s like Eric Liddell said about running: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” That’s how I feel about writing.

Why do you think you became a writer, and why speculative fiction?

I was blessed to grow up in a house full of books. My mom was an elementary school librarian, a teacher, and a writer herself. My dad opened our small town’s first bookstore. They read to me from my infancy, and I saw how much they loved books and stories. From the moment I understood what stories were, I knew I wanted to make them myself. Before I could read, I wanted to be a writer.

As for speculative fiction, I think that’s where my affinities naturally lie—who knows exactly why? My fascinations have always involved monsters, ancient and secret places, journeys, stories of dangerous adventure . . . spec fic has those.

I have a theory that, as writers, our truest material grows from what we experience in earliest childhood. When we arrive here, our first emotions involve wonder, fear, and curiosity—so, spec fic!

I heard Peter Straub say, “We read and write fantasy because it’s the only genre capable of representing life as it really is.” Others have said much the same thing, and I agree. Spec fic—especially fantasy—goes beyond the material, beyond even the emotional, straight into the unseen world, the metaphysical. Living life demonstrates again and again that the invisible realm is there, that it impinges. Speculative fiction gives a writer the contract to explore the places and elements that make human life what it is.

What do you think are some of the most important themes in the stories you write?

Love, loyalty, and persistence are pretty much always there, I think. A sort of Gospel turns up everywhere in my writing. I don’t mean overtly the Christian Gospel, though of course that’s where it comes from. But my books and stories set forth what my wife calls my “theology of October.” There’s darkness around a candle, there’s silence around a song; and the darkness and silence make the candle and the song more beautiful. Even a dark fantasy/horror tale like my first novel, Dragonfly, offers an underlying assurance that things will be all right in the end. There’s real suffering in the world, and victory comes with cost—loss, change, consequence . . . But there’s always the awareness that the darkness will pass away.

Which books or authors most influenced you when you first started writing? What are some of your favorites now?

Charlotte’s Web was the first book that made me cry, at age six, and I realized right then how wondrous those tears were, how powerful was the medium that had brought them. When I was ten, I read Watership Down, and I firmly believed I had read the best book in the world, that nothing would ever come close to it. Then I found my way into The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and I was greatly relieved. And yes, those were the books that influenced me “when I first started writing,” because I did start as soon as I could talk. I told stories before I could write them. Then I learned how to use a pencil. No, I wasn’t writing well for many years after that, but the writing started then.

H. P. Lovecraft was a huge influence, too. Dunsany. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Peter S. Beagle. The popular “monster panic” novels of the 1970s and early 80s that started with Jaws. Much more recently, I’ve discovered Shirley Jackson, Steven Millhauser, Hope Mirrlees.

The central setting of your novel A Green and Ancient Light is an overgrown garden filled with statues of mythical creatures. Are there real or fictional places that inspired this garden?

The idea for that book came to me when I happened upon a magazine article about a Renaissance garden in Bomarzo, Italy. The garden in my book is a fantasy version of that garden. (I’ve never been to the real one, though I want to go. What a pilgrimage that would be!) As I later learned, several creative artists over the centuries have found inspiration in that Italian garden and used it as the basis for various works. In 1967, Manuel Mujica-Lainez wrote a novel titled Bomarzo, a sprawling tale with the garden’s creator, Pier Francesco Orsini, as its hunchbacked, complex protagonist. There’s even an opera about the garden! So my book is merely the latest iteration in a long tradition, though A Green and Ancient Light uses the “Grove of Monsters” as its setting in a looser, alternative way. I’ve made free alterations; I’m not trying to be historical. There’s certainly no solid sense that the book is even set in Italy.

But the reason that garden fires my imagination is because it embodies all the secret wonder we find outdoors when we’re children—the green “caverns” under bushes or hedges, the private worlds in treetops, maybe the little corner behind a crumbling back porch. These are our spaces as kids, places the adults don’t go or care about. It’s that kind of thing I’m referencing in the book’s title. There’s a wonder out in the natural places—near our homes, but hidden unless you look just right, unless you’re willing to crawl under fences and into the brambles. There’s something out in the warm, green light of summer that’s been there since before the first kid saw it, and it illuminates what’s common in all of us—what makes life both sad and unspeakably wonderful.

One theme we’ve noticed in your writing, both in what we’ve read and what we’ve heard you read aloud, is that of hidden places. What do you think draws people to find such hidden places?

I wonder if it might have something to do with the medium of Story itself. When a story is really good, no matter how many other people have read it, we as readers have the conviction that we are the only ones there—“I, right now, am the only one who has EVER been here.” We even forget that the author has been there, right? Hidden settings are like that, too: here’s a stone chamber under the mountain that has lain undisturbed for long ages of the world—until now, when I am here. This place is here for me to find it, as is this story. I’m sure that doesn’t fully account for why any given reader might be drawn to hidden spaces, but it’s a good theory. Secret places are certainly a trope of fantasy. Moria was always my favorite place in Middle-earth, the place I most wanted to go if I could go anywhere in Tolkien’s world.

So maybe it’s mostly me?! I’m not sure. But I do know that, when I was around seven or eight, my parents took me to Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, and I was BLOWN AWAY. After that, at my urging and pleading, all our family vacations included visits to caves all across several states. Mammoth Cave, you see, is a journey. On the longer tours there, you descend into the Earth by one entrance, you hike some four miles underground, and you emerge into daylight somewhere else—time has passed, and you have seen wonders. You are not quite the same person that you were. You’ve invested part of your life in that journey far from the sun, in a place that only God could make, in an unfeeling realm where a mortal is a frail guest at peril. As Dante wrote, “Broad is the way to dark Avernus; day and night, death’s door is open wide. But to return again into the sunlight, that is a feat, that is a labor.” And this is true: in all the stories and books I’ve sold to date, I’ve written to some degree about Mammoth Cave. The connection may be subtle, but it’s there, perhaps in a giant vehicle that’s like a cavern inside, or in a single cellar, or in a sprawling house of nearly endless corridors and rooms.

A Green and Ancient Light talks of Heaven and Hell, and even Faery, being less different places, than different paths. We’re curious about the origin of that idea. Did it have a theological origin, or was it rooted in the story?

That part is the way it is just because I needed it to work that way for this story. It has no basis in any theology, and I don’t believe Heaven and Faery are the same place! That’s a tricky thing, when you have to push and pull on big, established concepts for the purposes of a particular story. It means you have some extra explaining to do, because you’re messing with stuff that readers know about. In this book, I needed the realm of Faery and the afterlife to have some sort of close connection, so that the same doorway could potentially lead to both. It’s one of those fixes with baling wire and duct tape that I hope holds together long enough for readers to enjoy the book. It’s not something that I plan to use in any other story.

I’ve also been asked about the blend of conventional Christianity and the pagan or mythological elements—how the characters go to church, then go talk to a Faun, etc. For me, that sort of overlap isn’t troubling. In fact, it’s the only reason that a crucifix should have any effect on a vampire. Of course you can be a Christian and believe that God made a vast and diverse cosmos with all sorts of beings in it, all sorts of properties and laws in effect. The Bible mentions sorcerers and mediums. Scripture tells us what we need to know, but who would think for a minute that it tells us everything? It leaves a lot of room for the imagination. The other day, we were looking up some of the King James Bible’s many references to unicorns.

Can you tell us anything about your next novel?

It’s the biggest, most ambitious project I’ve ever done, and it’s going to be super-fun! I am really excited! It’s a fantasy novel series—the first series I’ve ever written. Books 1 and 2 are done, and I’m just now writing the ending of Book 3, which completes the larger arc. It’s a trilogy in the true sense: three books that tell a larger story, but each with its own beginning, middle, and ending. It’s for grownups, and it’s all the things I love best in a story: hidden places, secrets, mysterious codes and puzzles, monsters, and world-threatening peril. Most exciting for me is that it’s the most character-centric work I’ve ever done. Settings and action have always come naturally to me, but as I’ve grown and developed, I’ve had to work much more consciously on character, which is the element that most readers read for. That’s why I’m so thrilled about this series—it’s primarily about people who actually change over the course of the story: a family that is both lovable and deeply flawed in many ways, facing at least as much internal conflict as external. So at this stage, we’re just looking for a publisher willing to commit to the three books.

We've heard rumors that you're a collector of antique typewriters! Can you tell us a little about how you got into this hobby? How many typewriters do you currently have? Do you write fiction on them, or do you prefer to use a computer for that?

Well, I grew up back in the days of typewriters and still used a typewriter through college. But just then, word processors arrived on the scene, and I thought they were the best invention ever. I wholeheartedly embraced digital writing technology for the next three decades. But then, I started hearing about the return of typewriters to popular consciousness, most eloquently treated in Richard Polt’s book The Typewriter Revolution. I started talking about manual typewriters, and for Christmas 2015, my wife gave me a 1951 Underwood SX-100 standard typewriter as a surprise present. From that moment, I was hooked. I was fascinated by this iconic writing instrument. I started reading all I could about typewriters, collecting them, using them, learning to clean and maintain them, networking with others in the “typosphere” . . . and now I have over fifty typewriters at last count, all of them in great working order.

I use typewriters every day for journaling, list-making, check-writing, typing notes to myself about my fiction-in-progress, and for copious correspondence. I’ve always been a letter writer. At book fairs, I’ve done some “street poetry”: using a typewriter to write poetry on the spot for people, based on some input from them. But no, for my fiction, I still use an AlphaSmart Neo and a computer. That’s how my writer mind works; I need that fluidity, the ability to revise a little even at the first draft stage.

For anyone interested in the subject of present-day typewriting in the writer’s life, here’s a link to an article of mine on It does a better job of conveying why one might choose to use a typewriter nowadays and something of the enchantment of the typewriter hunt in the dusty attics and dim antique shops of the world:

How much time would you estimate that you spend writing in an average week?

It can vary quite a bit, depending on what life is throwing at me and whether or not I’m at a point in the story where I can see clearly for a ways ahead. I guess it’s usually anywhere from five hours (of mostly staring into the distance) to about twenty hours a week if I’m on a roll or “in hot pursuit of a chapter,” as I describe it. Kudos to you, by the way, for asking about an average week, not an average day. A weekly writing goal is much more realistic and useful.

Do you tend to plot out your stories first, or just start writing and see where they go?

Most writers are consistently somewhere on a continuum. At one end are the ones who plot out everything in advance, and at the other are those who have no idea what’s ahead and just explore. I’m toward the latter end. I’m not a plotter or detailed outliner. I have some rough ideas—sort of like big landmarks, like pillars in the distance, that I’m steering toward, but there could be anything in the miles between here and there—things that will change what happens. Maybe even that next pillar will look a lot different by the time I get to it. When I get there, I collect myself, then strike out toward the next pillar in the hazy distance. For me, that’s the only way the story stays alive, interesting, and realistic. I can’t just move characters like chess pieces. I’m running along with them or just behind them, watching what they do, how they feel, listening to what they say . . . and writing it down as faithfully as I can.

What's the first thing you do after finishing the first draft of a story? Do you start revising right away, or wait? Do you have a critique group or beta readers?

My wife, Julie, is my first reader. She waits (and clamors) for each chapter. She gets to read it as soon as it’s written—as in, the minute it’s written—in the roughest, rawest form, before I’ve even looked back at it. I tend to finish chapters late at night, and Julie actually insists that I wake her up when the chapter is written and printed out. She reads it, we talk, and I fix anything that’s a glaring error, such as a character who left the building but is oddly present in the scene, or someone reacting to something in an incongruous way—that sort of thing. I move onward, writing more, and over the next couple days, my wife keeps thinking about that first chapter, re-reading it, and makes me some additional notes if necessary. I will usually go back at that stage and incorporate them into the draft if I agree. She is working mostly on the characters’ emotional interaction (and internal processing) which, as I said, is often the hardest for me to get right. Sometimes I nail it out of the gate, and at such times, we’re both ecstatic. But sometimes we’ll keep working and working on some emotional point, tweaking the scene repeatedly over the course of many days. It’s very much like shooting a movie; we do Take 6, Take 7, Take 8, until the scene feels perfectly right to both of us. And I keep moving forward, and this happens with every chapter. When I come to the end of the book, I usually go right back to the beginning (I don’t wait, but by then, a year or more has probably gone by since I started the book), and we do this same process again with revisions: I revise the chapter on my own, Julie reads it, we discuss it, and she makes notes. You can see how integral she is to the process! At the end of the second draft, the book has been through some pretty rigorous scrutiny, so that’s when I bring in beta readers—four or five close friends, most of whom are writers, but not all. One really important reader is a friend who simply knows and loves stories and makes his living doing interpretive presentations about movies. This is a bit weird, but I usually send the draft to my agent at the same time as to these beta readers—I consider him one of them. I figure that any issues he or they bring up, we can deal with as we go forward. There will be more revisions coming if an editor acquires the book. I welcome the chance to revise, and I value all these readers’ input. That’s how the story gets into the best form I can possibly manage.

Do you have any stories you want to write someday, but aren't yet ready to?

Yes, there is a lot more I want to write. With most projects, I’m not ready to work on them only for the reason that I’m working on the current book now, and I can only work on one thing at once. But I would like to write a second series set in the same world and about the same characters as my present series-in-progress—but to write that, I do need to let some time go by. I’m emotionally ready to get into something different now, some other setting that I can explore.

What advice would you give to authors who'd like to see their work published but aren't there yet?

Just write, write, and keep writing. That’s the only way you produce work that you can be truly proud of: you have to write a lot. I don’t mean that you should endlessly revise the same book or story. Yes, revise it until it works well, getting reliable feedback as you go. But work on a lot of things, and finish them. Send them out. If you write only beginnings of stories, you won’t get published. If you don’t send things out, you won’t get published. If you’re not good at it, you won’t get published. So write, write, and keep writing.

Make sure your characters are getting their due; be sure you’re letting them breathe. The reader should feel what the characters are feeling. If we’re just seeing them like distant figures on a screen, you need to do more work. The difference between a flat character and a living, realized one is whether or not the reader is feeling things along with that character. It’s ridiculously simple, but I wish I’d known it years earlier. Do YOU know it? Are you doing it?

Finally, have FUN with it. Yes, it’s hard work, and sometimes getting started each day will bring some agony, but if you don’t regularly have satisfying, even exhilarating stretches where you are absolutely convinced you were born to write, then you’re doing something wrong. You get to make stuff up for people to buy! You get to spin worlds out of the air and give them lasting life! You get to connect with—and entertain—readers who may not even be born yet, and may not speak your native language—and who may not even pay attention to your name, but they WILL feel and experience your story! So for goodness sake, ENJOY what you’re doing. It’s the best endeavor in the world.

Thank you, Mysterion! It’s been a delight talking with you!

Frederic S. Durbin grew up in rural central Illinois and studied classical languages, mythology, and English literature at Concordia College, River Forest (now Concordia University Chicago), graduating summa cum laude. He lived in Japan from 1988-2011, where he taught ESL and writing at Niigata University. Now residing with his wife among the wooded hills of western Pennsylvania, he is a learning facilitator at a community college and a frequent presenter of interactive writing workshops for schools and libraries. His short work has appeared in Cricket, Cicada, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Black Gate, and Weird Tales. Arkham House published his first novel, Dragonfly; The Star Shard is his middle-grade fantasy from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His most recent fantasy novel, A Green and Ancient Light (Saga Press), won the Realm Award for Fantasy and was named a Reading List Honor Book by the American Library Association and a Best SF/Fantasy/Horror Novel of 2016 by Publishers Weekly. He collects and restores vintage manual typewriters and uses them in the classroom to encourage creative writing.

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