Photo and art copyright © Josh Lory
Robert Lory’s many books include The Eyes of Bolsk, The Thirteen Bracelets, Master of the Etrax, Masters of the Lamp and The Veiled World, among others. His nine Dracula novels, commencing with Dracula Returns (1973), remain popular with fans of supernatural fiction. I had the privilege of connecting with Robert via e-mail and he kindly consented to this on-line interview.
Tom McNulty: Your Dracula books are all now highly prized collector’s items. With that said, what makes Dracula such an appealing character?
Robert Lory: There are several aspects to the Dracula I wrote about, some of them conflicting. First off, there's the potential turn-off that he's far from "likable" -- he would never walk off stage with the Congeniality Award. Second, there's the abject terror his name alone, and certainly his presence, can conjure. Third, his past is one of dark mystery. How did he become this near-immortal, blood-needing, bat-morphing creature? In this sense, and fourth to my mind, he's as much a victim as he is a predator. Somewhere, at some time in the far distant past, something or someone put this soul-twisting curse upon him. Why? What did he do, if anything, to deserve it. Finally, I never thought of him as "evil." Like most creatures, his actions -- though extreme -- are based on the need to survive.
TM: Are there any writers that had an influence on you? I’m especially interested in learning about the books you read that might have influenced you as a young reader?
RL: Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer (the Fu Manchu series) definitely make the early-years list. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler showed me how to do noir and anti-heroes. Max Shulman and Thorne Smith were great at crafting over-the-top humor and sharp-edged dialogue. In science fiction/fantasy, the standout is Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever, who directly influenced the personality and exploits of my Hamper the However (Master of the Etrax).
TM: I was going to ask this question last, but I decided I can’t wait because this is the question I believe all of your fans want answered, so here goes – Do you have any new books in the pipeline?
RL: I basically retired my fiction keyboard in the early 1980s due to the demands of my full-time work. However, in a recent move (from Texas to Florida), a three-quarters-completed fantasy manuscript unearthed itself. Now and again, I stare at it speculatively.
TM: In Masters of the Lamp and The Veiled World you have Shamryke Odell as a secret agent type who becomes an outlaw. I’ve always liked these books. Can you tell me how this character developed?
RL: Sham literally came off the typewriter ribbon, In the beginning there was no outline, no plot, nothing except the need for my brain to keep up with my fingers. Some writers talk of being "inspired." I think that's too lofty a word. Writing, to me, is a process. Sometimes (and they're great!) the process takes over.
TM: In The Thirteen Bracelets you present an apocalyptic vision of America with parts of the east coast controlled by gangs. Then you have the south separated by race. Some of the motifs and themes are quite timely, even today. Did you consciously include social issues as part of your outline process?
RL: Bracelets never had an outline. What happened was, I sent the first 40 pages to Fred Pohl, who was then editing Ace Books, and asked him if he wanted to see the finished product. He said yes -- but would I include an underground battle and an insane computer? I really enjoyed shaping both elements. As to the social issues aspect, it seemed to me at the time everybody imaginable was out on the street brandishing graphically challenged signs that were protesting almost everything imaginable. Bracelets was sort of my catharsis.
TM: Tell me about your writing process. How important is it to create an outline first, and where and when does writing turn into an act of discovery? Or does it? Do your characters surprise you sometimes?
RL: I rarely did outlines. When I first started the Dracula books, the publisher wanted to see them, so I obliged. After the third book, when it was obvious I never followed them, the requirement was dropped. I like your words "act of discovery." That's what the writing process was pretty much all about for me. Other than a general feel for where a book might (and I emphasize the word "might") be headed, I was constantly surprised by what my characters did and said -- even to the extent of a brand new character suddenly showing up at precisely (for my protagonist) the wrong time.
TM: in Master of the Etrax you have an unlikely hero with Hamper the However and his switch-blade peg-leg. I think it’s a fun book, rather charming in a way. And the characters are fantastic. How did this book come about?
RL: Much of my first book, The Eyes of Bolsk, took place on Trovo, and when Lester Del Rey asked me to contribute to the first issue of Worlds of Fantasy, I decided to use the same locale for a quest-based story. I mentioned earlier my admiration of Jack Vance's Cugel, and I wanted to try my hand at a similarly amoral hero. The However job-title came from my observation that, at high-level corporate meetings, the most unpopular guy in the room is the guy who points out potential flaws in whatever plan is being debated. Since this was Hamper's constitutionally consecrated function, he became the monarch's immediate choice when a particularly nasty assignment came up. As for his name, I wanted something that went well with "the However." And I already had a great example in Cugel the Clever. Ergo, Hamper. I enjoyed writing the story so much, it was a natural for me to expand it to book-length.
TM: When writing, how do you decide which story fits better with a first person narrative or a third person narrative?
RL: It usually boiled down to who was pushing the action and how much back story had to be told -- and who would have to tell it. Sham Odell was, to me, an obvious first-person. Hamper was a third-person, primarily because the format of his story is akin to an odyssey, which demands there be a "teller." When Lyle Engel first thought about the Dracula series, he was thinking first-person. In fact, the back cover of the first printing has Harmon recalling Drac's resurrection in the first person. That slipped through, because Lyle agreed with me there was no way Harmon -- or any one character -- could know everyone else's back story.
TM: I thought the Dracula series was fantastic, which I’m sure you’ve heard before. Do you think any single book stands out as memorable, or do you think of them as one long storyline?
RL: I can't say I had a favorite, unless it was whichever one I was working on at the moment. While I knew I would be adding more of Dracula's past to each book in the series, my main decision before starting each was to craft a worthy opponent and an appropriate (and different, if possible) setting.
TM: Sometimes your character names seem like puns – Hari Denver and Hamper the However. You obviously have an incredible imagination. How does a writer nurture his imagination and keep the ideas fresh?
RL: My short answer is Beefeaters gin. My longer answer may sound trite, but as a writer yourself, I think your experience will find it to be of little surprise. Some people don't notice a lot of what's going on in the world around them. They're oblivious to much of the present, more of the past, and all of the future. Alternative outcomes rarely come to minds that are mostly devoid of a sense of humor. Most steadily published writers I know are polar opposites. Not only do they ask What? -- they also ask What If? Where do these traits come from? We could get into a lot of psychological babble here, but my vote would go to the "right" combination of experiences early in life. By the way, Hari is the name of an Indian friend who worked out of Hong Kong in the '70s.
With special thanks to Robert Lory