Today, I would like to introduce you all to Tony Rabig, indie author of supernatural horror fiction.
1. Tell me more about how you got started as a writer and who some of your literary inspirations have been?
I started trying to write short stories in high school and college, and tried a few novels after college. God must truly love mankind because none of it was published. While working in libraries, a bookstore, and later as a computer programmer, I wrote but not often enough. Now that I’m semi-retired, I’m trying to get back at it — about the time I was leaving full-time work, Amazon and Smashwords were making it possible for indie writers to put their work out there. So…
As to literary inspirations, the writers I admired early on were mostly science fiction and fantasy writers: Heinlein, Bradbury, Ellison, Zelazny, Sturgeon, Leiber, Matheson, Jack Finney. Other writers went on that list later, including John D. MacDonald, Stephen King, William Goldman, Evan Hunter/Ed McBain, and Jorge Luis Borges. That list isn’t complete and it still changes from time to time (at the moment, Joseph Epstein and Don Robertson are up there too, and if I could write a novel as good as Robertson’s Mystical Union, I’d die a happy man).
2. What do you fear? Tell me about your own phobias.
Wasps and other stinging insects — don’t know why, because I’ve never been stung. But I react to the sight of a wasp the way a swimmer reacts when he sees that fin in the water coming toward him. I’m not too crazy about high places either. That’s the physical side. Then there’s the feeling that I’ve been faking my way through life, that I’m not really much good at anything, and that everyone is about to catch on — that fear applies to the day job, the personal life, the writing; there’s nothing it doesn’t touch.
3. A number of your stories, such as The Other Iron River, The Point and They’re Waiting, explore the notions of revisiting the past and regrets over roads not taken in life to very potent effect – can you tell me more about why these particular themes interest you?
Those ideas appeal to me in part because of the time I spent just earning a living and not writing more, but also because I think they’re universal. Is there anybody who’s never wondered how life would have gone if only? Anybody who never wonders what might have been? Anybody who doesn’t think occasionally that he’s not a good fit for the world and time he lives in, that he should have been born somewhere or somewhen else? And you find those notions used by a lot of writers. The phrasing of your question alludes to Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” There’s a line from Whittier: “For of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’” Plenty of modern fantasy stories let their characters escape to times and places they think would be better — quite a few Twilight Zone episodes played with the idea, and I’m not sure anyone’s ever topped Jack Finney’s short fiction in the use of the theme. Phrases like “If I knew then what I know now” and “If I had it to do over again” are heard so often that you can’t help thinking that everybody would like another chance at something. Of course, we don’t have it to do over again, and we didn’t know then what we know now, so at best we’re left with questions we can never answer and at worst we’re left with regrets that we can’t ease and that poison everything for us in the here and now. I’ve always been a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy, and I love a good downer of a story, and the contemplation of roads not taken is a rich source of material.
And an afterthought on this — check out the web site of the poet and critic Dana Gioia, and look for his poem “Summer Storm;” it works this ground nicely, and the rest of his poetry’s well worth a look too.
4. Acts of Faith is a zombie apocalypse story with a quieter, more sombre tone and a different focus to the usual action and splatter we have come to expect – did you consciously write this story intending to fit into the current trend for zombie horror fiction, or did the idea emerge organically?
I’m not sure why it occurred to me to try a zombie story, but when it did, “Acts of Faith” came pretty quickly. Usually the movies follow groups of survivors, but it’s scarier if the protagonist is alone as in Matheson’s I Am Legend. The movie survivors may be holed up in an isolated farmhouse or village or a locked down shopping mall; I thought of a small college campus and of some libraries I’ve seen with windowless behind-the-counter work areas. Then the last scene of George Pal’s film of The Time Machine came to mind, with the question of what three books the time traveler would have brought with him to help the Eloi rebuild civilization, and the story was there. The questions of what you keep, what you try to preserve and pass on, aren’t just for science fiction or horror stories — every librarian and every teacher and every parent is engaged with those questions.
5. In Acts of Faith and They’re Waiting, some pretty grim conclusions are drawn about faith and the afterlife – do these represent your own thoughts and feelings or are they purely invented for the stories?
Largely invented for the stories. In the case of “They’re Waiting,” it was a simple twist on the idea of the ghost — the notion of being haunted not by the spirit of someone dead but by the self that never had a chance to be. (Come to think of it, did Henry James have a character haunted by the self that might have been in “The Jolly Corner”? Need to look at that one again…) You’d think at my age (early 60s) I’d have some definite ideas about faith and the afterlife, but no.
6. The comfort and import of the past is another theme that runs through your work – do you think bygone times were better than what we have now, or is it more the dreams we have and the good memories of such times you think we should hold onto and preserve?
In some ways the past was better. In part, that’s memory working – when you’re young you’re discovering the books and films you’ll love for the rest of your life, you’re finding the people and the places and the work that matter to you, and all of it is new. For some people, things are never so intense and real again as they were during their younger days. Think of how long it’s been since you read a book that kept you up all night. How long has it been since a movie did it for you the way that first viewing of the 1963 version of The Haunting did? I think it was Damon Knight who said, “The golden age of science fiction is twelve.” But again, in some ways the past really was better. If you see the 1949 movie The Window (from a pretty good short story by Cornell Woolrich), you may marvel at the idea of the child taking his pillow and blanket up a few flights on the fire escape to sleep outside on a hot night New York City; the parents think nothing of it, and I’ve heard older folks than I talk about being able to do this — could you let a child do that now? I can remember days when you could leave your house unlocked if you went out for a while; these days you’re taking a chance if you do that. But whether or not it was better, your past shapes you, and your memories — of the people and places you knew, of what you saw and felt and did or didn’t do — stay with you. Those memories are our personal ghosts and some are comforting and some aren’t.
7. How do you feel your career as a librarian has informed your writing?
Sometimes I wonder that myself. A little over half my working life was spent in libraries and bookstores: fourteen years, not consecutive, in libraries and nine years at Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore in downtown Chicago. Seeing so many books all around, following so many review magazines for the job, lets you hear about writers you’d have missed otherwise, and learn some things from them that you can use in your own work. The to-be-read pile becomes huge. I don’t know who said regarding books that you can read ‘em or you can write ‘em but you can’t do both; he may have a point, at least in my case. When you read a lot, you think about comments like Robert Heinlein’s statement that there are only three basic plots, or titles like Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, or Scott Meredith’s plot skeleton, and it’s easy to start thinking that you don’t really have anything to add to all the books already out there. As I said earlier, I’m a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy, so thoughts like that come readily to me. You walk through any decent-size library or bookstore and you realize that there’s so much more there than anyone can read in a lifetime and wonder if the world really needs another book or story or essay. In his essay “Bookshop Memories,” George Orwell said that while working in a bookshop he lost his love of books, that seen in the thousands, they were boring and even sickening; I never lost my love of them, and never found them boring or sickening, but I sometimes found myself thinking that the last thing I needed to do was add to that mountain of print. Did working in libraries and bookstores help or hinder my writing? A little of both, I think. And a few of the concerns of the librarian — what should be preserved and remembered — have certainly found their way into some of my stories.
8. In Ghost Writer, you posit the idea of ghosts of dead writers dictating their lost works to the living – if you had the choice to take dictation from a writer who is no longer with us, who would it be?
I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to one writer. Passing over the taught-in-every-classroom names and looking mostly at the genres, here are some that come immediately to mind. Mystery and suspense: Stanley Ellin, Fredric Brown, Cornell Woolrich, and John D. MacDonald. Fantasy and science fiction: Theodore Sturgeon, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Leiber, Ray Bradbury (now eligible for such a list, unfortunately), and Jack Finney. General fiction: Jon Hassler and Don Robertson.
9. So what is a typical writing day for Tony Rabig?
Not sure there is a typical writing day. I’m semi-retired now, so some days I’m working on the part-time job that actually pays bills; when I’m not, and not dealing with day-to-day chores, I’ll walk a mile to the Subway sandwich shop, guzzle coffee, and scribble in the notebook for a while. When I’ve got a story draft finished in longhand, I’ll type it up on the computer and make changes as I do. I like working in longhand because a) I like fountain pens and b) having to type it up later forces an edit. I like to think I do a fairly clean first draft — don’t we all? — but having to type it lets me tweak it a bit and catch the idiocies that need to be fixed. Having let writing take a back seat for so long had a bad effect on my speed and focus; if I can get about 500 words down in a session I’m happy, and I hope to stretch that to the point where I can consistently do 750 to 1000 words a session. But that’s the writing day — the walk there and back, 500 words or thereabouts, and editing after the first draft’s done in longhand.
10. So what does 2012 hold for Tony Rabig? Any last words?
I hope to wrap up a novel that’s been laughing at me for years; it follows a small group of baby boomers over a long period. I’ve been messing with it for quite a while — too long, probably — and it may be about time to kick it out the door and focus on other material. I’m also working on a horror novel. Maybe a few new short pieces as well, but nothing definite there yet. I’m afraid I still work too slowly to say for sure what I’ll get done in any given period. As to last words…my paternal grandfather died at 83, my father’s older brother cashed in when he was 83, and my father passed away when he was 83. I sense a pattern there — who can say why? I’ll probably have some last words to say in twenty years, or at my hanging, whichever comes first.
Thank you, Tony!
The Other Iron River is available from the following links:
The Point is available from the following links:
They’re Waiting is available from the following links:
Saturdays That Might Have Been is available from the following links:
If you would like to find out more about Tony Rabig, please visit his blog here.