Dyer Wilk has the heart and soul of a true artist.
Like British author Keith Nixon, whom I recently interviewed, Dyer Wilk shares my birthday (April 2 - no gifts, please, though I never turn down a free drink). Even though we’ve never met, I feel a true kinship with him, and not because we share some creative sensibilities.
I can already tell he not only has the heart and soul of a true artist, but he is an acutely sensitive and intelligent human being. These qualities come across in his posts and online exchanges. This is a testament both to the positive power of social media, but also the power of a positive personality to shine through the negativity that can clog one’s newsfeed and make you just want to power down permanently.
On top of being a genuinely good guy, Dyer is truly multi-talented. He is one of the most popular and in-demand cover artist in the indie fiction community (in fact, he’s designed several of my own Thrillville Press books, including the official logo). Everyone in this vast but tightly knit network knows and loves both Dyer and his amazing work.
Plus he’s an incredibly gifted writer in his own right. I’ll let him take it from here, because he has a personal story to tell that’s as compelling as his fiction...
First of all, please tell us about your newly published novella, The Canyon (which also boasts your cover art), including its inspiration.
The beginnings of The Canyon go back quite a ways. Around 2011, after a few years of writing horror fiction without any published stories to show for it, I decided to challenge myself and take a little time to try my hand at crime fiction, thinking I’d spend a few months on it at most. By late 2013, I’d had a handful of crime stories published, but I was started to feel a lot of limitations within the relatively small group of publications I was submitting to. The stories I’d written up to that point mostly dealt with tricks of perception. I’d omit certain details, and drop subtle hints about others so I could pull off some sleight of hand at the end of each story in an attempt to surprise the reader. That felt a lot more rewarding to me than telling a story comprised of worn out tropes without an original or interesting revelation at the end of it.
Even though editors had been receptive to what I was writing at first, it was becoming clear to me that they preferred the tropes. I don’t fault them for that. They knew what they wanted, and they stuck to it. But I wasn’t comfortable writing stories that demonized poor people addicted to meth, or stories where some barely-defined woman is raped and killed for the sole purpose of the protagonist avenging her in a blood-soaked killing spree.
The word “transgressive” gets thrown around a lot, but it comes off as an absurdly-applied marketing term. Calling something transgressive assumes you have something to transgress against. But what’s left? Pain and suffering have been fueling the 24-hour news cycle for years. And thanks to Breaking Bad, the meth crisis has already been captured and humanized through a pop culture lens. Beyond that, blood and violence are nothing new or shocking. HBO has been mining that territory since the ‘90s, and pretty much every other network, channel, and streaming service has followed suit. Before that, we had Tarantino, Scorsese, Coppola, and Peckinpah making violence mainstream for Americans in ways that had only been hinted at during the censorship years of the Hays Code.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is I needed more than what I was seeing in the genre at the time. I’m not trying to throw crime fiction or crime writers under the bus. On the contrary, I think it’s an incredibly rich genre that’s still offering new insights thanks to the diverse group of authors who are gradually coming onto the scene and replacing some of the uninspired old white men who have been coasting on tasteless rape and revenge narratives for the last few decades. It’s heartening to see that kind of change finally occurring, but five years ago it felt like all I could do was move on to something else.
I had a bit of luck around that time when the editor of a small webzine that published a wider number of genres invited me to fill an open slot in their schedule. Knowing I wasn’t going to be limited to something stereotypically “crime,” I decided to use the opportunity to try something new. I wanted to write a western, but, much like my approach to crime, I didn’t want to lean on the tropes. I wanted to invert them, or deviate from them altogether. That meant no gunfights on the main street of a dusty frontier town, no John Wayne heroics, no “savage” Indians being ethnically-cleansed by the cavalry, no positive spin on manifest destiny.
I wanted to write a story that had just as much to do with what you didn’t see as what you did. I’m a big fan of the Twilight Zone and the way its narratives often twisted in unexpected directions. I wanted to put some of that into the story, and I went in knowing exactly how I wanted to end it and what it would take to set it up. I also knew that I wanted a largely faceless villain, more akin to Richard Matheson’s “Duel” than Tombstone. The truth is, I saw it as a horror story anyway. It just happened to be a horror story set in the Old West.
With less than a month before my deadline, I wrote the first draft quickly. At that point it wasn’t a novella. It was roughly 6,000 words, and even though most of the broad strokes were there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was missing something. I spent a couple days mulling it over and marking up the manuscript with the intention of turning it into a final draft of about the same length, but it just wasn’t working. I was running out of time, and I knew I’d need more than the week I had left to figure out how to turn it into the story it needed to be.
Ultimately, I caved and quickly knocked out a crime story instead. And not a very good one either. I was sorry that I’d missed my opportunity to do something different, but I figured I’d come back to The Canyon eventually.
It only took me about five years.
A few months ago, I started to assemble a collection of short fiction. Knowing that this would be an introduction to my writing for a lot of people, I quickly decided I wanted to cover some heavily-varied territory – sci-fi, horror, satire, and a few things that might be a bit harder to pin down. As I went through my stories (published and unpublished), trying to narrow down the selections, I came across The Canyon and knew I had to include it, even if it would need a lot of work.
Not working on a story for several years really helps you see it in a different light. You can see the obvious things you missed, as well as some of the less obvious ones. The ones you never would have considered at the time because you’ve watched and read and written so many other things since then.
What really stood out for me were the characters, or more specifically, the lack of characters. I had people with names and descriptions of what happened to them, but they had almost no history. They didn’t say much, and when they did, it sounded very false, more along the lines of the “cowboy speak” from countless movies than the casual and varied speech of a real person.
I quickly realized it would be better to treat the first draft like an outline and re-write the story from the ground up. At that point, I wasn’t considering expanding it in any substantial way. I assumed it would end up two or three thousand words longer at most. But as I went along, rewriting the opening scene, I started to see the story in a different light. I’d originally written it as a horror story masquerading as a western. And the horror had been mostly derived from the fact that the characters were trapped at the bottom of a canyon, unable to escape thanks to geography and the threat of a gunman up on the rocks. But there were other horrors I’d only hinted at that were starting to play a more prominent role.
The horror of guilt. The horrors of depression and anxiety. The horror of loneliness and being unable to connect with all the people around you because they simply don’t understand you and what you’ve been through. The horrors that we all feel and sweep under the rug because we want to avoid the horror of appearing vulnerable.
That was my way in. I could relate to that. And I’m not ashamed to say I’ve lived it. Once I knew what kind of weight the characters were carrying around, I knew where the story needed to go, and I also knew I was writing the kind of story that means so much more to me than crime fiction ever did.
And stories like that inspire me, stories that can function on more than one level. I didn’t realize it at first, but the stories that inspired The Canyon are like that. Richard Matheson’s “Duel” is as much about the immediate terror of someone trying to kill you as it is about the anxieties caused by reckless driving. There’s a western story called “Scars” by Theodore Sturgeon that I drew some inspiration from. It isn’t exactly a western in the traditional sense, and it deals with loneliness and the feelings we tend to keep to ourselves for fear of being misunderstood. Then there’s Stephen Crane’s war novel, The Red Badge of Courage, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Both deal with external horrors and internal horrors in equal measure. Those works definitely helped to form The Canyon into what it is.
It’s not exactly the kind of journey I thought my story would take, but I’m happy with the outcome. The Canyon went from being a short story about physical isolation to being a novella about psychological isolation. And that’s the story it always needed to be. I just wasn’t ready to write it back in 2013.
You are well known and respected within indie literary circles for your fantastic cover art (including several of my own books). Is writing your true passion, or do you feel equally fulfilled by each of your many talents?
Writing has always been the dream, going back to when I was a kid. I struggled a lot with learning to read. Though it might be more accurate to say I struggled with learning to read comfortably. I tended to get frustrated at school and in traditional educational environments in general. I had a serious problem with obsessive-compulsive disorder at that age, so if someone told me I had to do things a certain way, I’d take it very literally and focus on it intensely to the point of ignoring almost everything else. So, I couldn’t read quickly. I’d be going through a paragraph slowly, line by line, focusing on each word as if it had some kind of hidden importance, as all the other kids breezed through it. That ended up turning into kids (and even some teachers) assuming I was stupid, which didn’t exactly help my with already non-existent self-esteem.
I liked to read, but I became convinced I was no good at it, so I spent more time watching movies and reading comic books. I focused on drawing and painting, and figured I’d end up working as some kind of artist when I got older. But reading and the thought of writing was always there in the back of my mind. I’d walk into bookstores and look at all the paperbacks with their eye-catching covers. And I’d think to myself that there were whole worlds in those books, and all I had to do was dive in. I also imagined worlds of my own, worlds I’d be able to create if I could get over the idea that I somehow lacked the ability to create them.
I feel lucky to have ended up working as both a writer and an artist. But in an odd way, as fulfilling as each is, there’s a part of me that’s always hungry for more. Writing and art are just tools, a means to an end. We use them to help us chase after something harder to define. We could try giving a name to that “something,” but most of the words we choose would come up short. Success, fame, happiness, peace of mind, bliss. Those almost describe it, but I think it’s something else. Writing and art don’t usually end once we’re successful or famous. I know a few folks who are genuinely happy, but they still sit in front of a computer every day to write or design. There are people who come off as so well balanced that you can envy them for having achieved some peace of mind, but there’s still an unfinished canvas on an easel in the corner of their bedroom. But maybe that’s all too linear a way of looking at it. As if there’s something at the end of all that work. I know for me personally, finishing a project isn’t what feels the most rewarding. At the end of it, I’m usually tired and worn out, even if I’m proud of myself for doing the work. But sometimes, when I can lose myself in the middle of something, when thought is pushed into the background and the words or brushstrokes seem to come automatically, I do feel something that could accurately be described as “bliss.”
Most of us spend our whole lives chasing after it. I just happen to chase after it with writing and art. For other people it might be found in front of a chess board, or while tinkering with an engine, or stooped in front of a patch of soil in their garden. It’s all art, and it all comes from the same place. A place of need.
As someone who has networked extensively within the online literary community, can you identify any particular trends, whether it’s a specific topic, genre, or “movement”?
I mentioned above that crime fiction is slowly becoming more diverse, and I think that holds true for science fiction and horror as well. Though I wouldn’t call this a trend. I’d call it progress.
Unfortunately, there’s also a lot of resistance to that. Like any shift that occurs after years of stagnation, there’s that inevitable anger expressed by people who fear change. Words like “snowflakes” and “SJWs” get thrown around a lot, but it comes off as very shallow and reductionist. There are folks who assume that the voices of different ethnicities or women or queer people are being heard because a cabal of liberal gatekeepers suddenly decided those voices are marketable and that those voices will be marketed in place of the voices of straight white men. But that’s not the case at all. Those voices are being heard now because more people are paying attention. People seem to forget all the decades in which those lesser-heard voices struggled to be recognized in a world that said they weren’t worthy of being acknowledged.
Change usually happens slowly, and once it’s visible there are people who become furious because that visibility triggers their insecurities. They can’t fathom the idea that people who are “different” from them can be storytellers that audiences want to listen to. They can’t see that those differences are outweighed by the things that make us all the same. We all want to be heard and felt and understood, regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, or skin color. And we all want to be able to see ourselves in the characters we read about.
I expect we’ll see even more diversity in the writing community in the future, but sadly we’ll also see a lot of anger about it. And the supporters of diversity will be assigned more pejorative terms that attempt to reduce people to whiny children who only support diversity because they feel guilty for being white and want to score points in the new leftist world order that’s being forced on the brave heterosexual white souls who fight to maintain the Godly perfection of the status quo.
Humanism tends to piss off people who can’t recognize the innate humanity of people who appear to be “different” from them.
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
They’ve changed a bit as I’ve gotten older. The so-called “serious” influences didn’t pop up until I was an adult, but I still watch the same movies that meant the world to me when I was 12, and I feel like I get the same thing out of it creatively.
There are a ton of horror movies, of course. The classic Universal stuff like Dracula, Frankenstein (plus Bride and Son), The Mummy, and Creature from the Black Lagoon. There’s the Hammer Horror and Amicus and Tigon stuff that came along a little later. Any of the Christopher Lee flicks where he played Dracula (and the two where he played Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy). The Gorgon, The Creeping Flesh, The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb, The Hound of The Baskervilles, Quatermass and the Pit, The Vampire Lovers. There are also all the American International flicks, Roger Corman’s Poe adaptations – especially House of Usher. There are the John Carpenter films, with The Fog, The Thing, and Prince of Darkness being personal favorites. And then all of the stuff that stands alone. Carnival of Souls, Crucible of Horror, Seven, Altered States, The Howling, The Lost Boys, They Came From Within, Fright Night, Night of the Living Dead, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In terms of novels, Stephen King is what really gave me my start. When I was eleven, I was still convinced that I couldn’t be a reader because of my struggles with it. But a stack of used King novels purchased at the local library did a lot to change that. And when I read ‘Salem’s Lot at 15, I started to take the idea of writing my own novel seriously. Discovering Robert E. Howard at 16 was an even bigger push. And then finally F. Paul Wilson tipped me over the edge and I started to make real attempts at writing stories.
As an adult, a lot of other writers have been essential to me along the way. Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Jim Thompson, Jack Ketchum, Alan Watts, Barbara Hambly, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Shirley Jackson, to name a few.
I also feel that music has been a big influence on me as a writer. At Necon this past July, I was on a panel about fiction inspired by music, and I talked about how I felt there’s a subconscious connection between the two. Some bands and musicians I feel have directly influenced my writing are Philip Glass, Morphine, Leonard Cohen, Vince Guaraldi, Miles Davis, Yusef Lateef, Claude Debussy, and Brian Eno. While I was rewriting The Canyon, I listened to Robert Rich almost exclusively.
What’s next for you?
I should have a short story collection coming out in a few months. There’s also a novel or two that I set aside and need to get back to, something that I didn’t know how to finish at the time. But if I learned anything from writing The Canyon, stories like that can become what they need to be, regardless of what I had planned for them.
Cheers and onward, birthday brother!