The Confession Book: Stephen Dobyns

Best-selling author Noah Charney interviews great writers about the writing life.

/ by Noah Charney

Where did you grow up?

Northern New Jersey; East Lansing, MI; Arlington, VA; State College, PA; Bloomfield Hills, MI


Where and what did you study?

Shimer College, Wayne State Univ. (BA), University of Iowa (MFA); Great books, English lit, creative writing-- poetry


Where do you live and why?

Westerly, RI. So I can live by the ocean and have easy access to Boston and New York. The fictitious town of Brewster is about ten miles away.


The Burn Palace employs a distinctive narrative style that has a cinematic component to it. The reader feels that he is swooping through the air over the town you created, like a camera strapped to a crow, landing periodically on various townspeople to get to know them, and see them in action. Dickens famously employed this technique at the opening of several chapters in Bleak House, and I notice that one of your big fans, Stephen King, has used it in various novels, from Salem’s Lot to his co-authored books with Peter Straub (like Black House). I’m not sure what to call the technique but it’s wonderfully evocative and cinematic. Could you tell me a bit about using the technique and what you feel it achieves?

I don’t know if this “technique” has a name, but I have liked how Milan Kundera can move in an out of the narrative frame. I felt that my use of it widened my options for surprise; and by beginning it right in the first chapter, I was able to establish an early precedent. It also seemed an effective way to introduce exposition without it seeming like exposition.


You have a wonderful way of dipping the reader into just enough character to paint a three-dimensional portrait that does not sway into caricature, but that quickly gives readers a sense of who is who in your book. Do you map out your characters ahead of time, and do you pre-select what you will show when your characters are first introduced to the reader? Or is the process more organic?

I have a sense of several of the main characters before I start, and then I identify places in the novel, as I move along, where I believe a certain kind of character is necessary. But ninety percent of the time the character’s actual identity, when he or she turns up, is a surprise. That surprise is energizing to me as a writer. I also know that the character must be three-dimensional, to seem more that simply functional. So I try to give a sense of the character’s past and possible futures, give them likes, dislikes, habit, idiosyncrasies, and to create the illusion that I could say much more about them, if I wished. And I try to give many of them a clear physical presence that can be imagined and, often, a distinctive way of talking. I try to make characters that stick in the mind after the reader has finished reading. And I have to care about them, even the bad guys.


It’s a tall task for an author of invent, design, animate, and populate a whole town, as you do in The Burn Palace. How much is charted ahead of time? What are some other novels that likewise conjure up a township, that you admire?

Not much of the book is charted ahead of time, other than beginning actions and a narrative arc. But situations require inhabitants, and I know that not only do I have to give a sense of the town and who lives there, but also to create the illusion, again, that I could say much, much more. Also I try to balance the characters against one another, to create many different sorts of people. And I’m nosy about people; I like to hear how they live their lives. Hemingway said that you have to know a character so well that you know his or her grandmother’s maiden name. I used to do that before I wrote a book, but now I do it as I move along, though not the maiden name. But I feel I have to know the character well enough to know how he or she will react in any given situation.


Describe your morning routine.

I’m afraid it’s not as disciplined as it should be, but once the novel is started, then I move forward eagerly, or at least until I get stuck, for anywhere between two and eight hours. A lot of the writing, in terms of what is going to happen and who is going to walk onto the page, are discoveries of the moment, and so are energizing. And after the first scene or first few pages, then I’ll get caught up in chains of cause and effect, that action A must lead to action B and so on. Very quickly I begin seeing it all in my head and I just write down what I see. Later, in revision, bits will come out and maybe new bits will come in. I try to keep the whole thing malleable until the end.


Please recommend three books (not your own) to your readers.

The Selected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert; Repetitions, Testimonies, Parentheses by Yannis Ritsos, trans. by Edmund Keeley; War and Peace; all the short stories by Chekhov. I don’t see how Tolstoy or Chekhov could be left off any list, and I’d like to add another half dozen Russians as well.


What is a place that inspires you?

I don’t think of a specific place as affecting the writing, although my knowledge of the Syracuse area and the Westerly area were certainly helpful in writing The Church of Dead Girls and The Burn Palace, as was my knowledge of Saratoga Springs, in my writing of the Saratoga series. But my fiction writing has been deeply affected by my time as a journalist, and so I see the writing as a task that I love, and see my approach as workmanlike. Much of my time, in writing fiction and poetry, I see myself as working against or guarding against self-deception, by which I mean telling myself that something is good or important or finished or truthful or inspired. Doubt separated from insecurity is a constant tool. On the other hand, I try to spend a month each spring in a different foreign city: Florence, Paris, Istanbul, Rome, Lisbon. These experiences give my brain a good washing and clear the ground for new projects.


Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.

I just sit down and begin. Hemingway, however, gave some very useful advice that the writer should leave the end of the previous day’s work undone—a scene or action or description undone. This makes it easier to start work the next day. The writer finishes the undone bit, whatever it is, and then continues. If I finish a chapter in the afternoon, then it can be difficult to start a new chapter the next day. So I try to follow Hemingway’s advice.


What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?

I try to do a minimum of three pages, but usually I manage double or triple that. But by having a low threshold I save myself from too many paralyzing recriminations.


Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?

I usually collect a number of scenes over a number of years. Then, once I have a sense of the initial scene, I try to imagine a line of causality, and on that line I will hang a number of other scenes. I used to map out a book very carefully, chapter by chapter, and would also have paragraphs and even pages on the characters I meant to use. With time, I realized much of that was unnecessary, so now I limit myself to a few scenes at the beginning, a sense of the end and a narrative arc, while also preparing something to get through what I call the muddy three-quarter mark where many books begin to sag. As for characters, the nature of those characters, or the kind of characters I will need, are determined by the plot. For instance, I need a protagonist and antagonist. I had a very clear sense of the scene with Carl Krause at the end of chapter one, and his behavior at that time determines, casually, how he will act further on. But many characters I’ll have no idea of until I’m at the point where I need them.


Some author-to-author advice: what has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?

Each sentence in a book has to contain within it a reason to read the next sentence. So the very beginning must engender interest, and begin to make the reader care about what may happen later in the book. A literary novel by a well-known writer can start more slowly, in part because that writer already has a track record. But any novel deals with some sort of change or crisis or strife, and the writer has to be sure that the reader becomes emotionally invested in the solution. The first chapter is also where the writer can show the reader the range of language that he or she will use, the range of syntax, the kind of metaphor. It’s necessary for the reader to have a sense of this range so nothing later on creates a distracting tone change that may damage the writer’s credibility. I usually put a fair amount of exposition in the second chapter so the first chapter has to be energizing enough to help the writer plow through it.


What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Get a day job that doesn’t sap your soul.

Noah Charney

is a professor of art history and best-selling author of, most recently, The Art of Forgery. You can learn more about his work at or by joining him on Facebook.