Not So Random Books: Willy by Robert Dunbar
In this vast literary world in which we live, readers have so many choices that it’s very easy to get lost amidst them. As a reader and editor, let me help you wade through the piles. On occasion a piece of dark fiction stands out like a beacon and cannot be ignored. When those works scream loudly, they appear here…
Robert Dunbar talks about Willy
Why the first person narrative?
It had to be an interior monologue – this story couldn’t be told any other way. My goal was to make syntax an integral part of the plot, right from the word salad at the beginning and on through all that sinister incoherence. How else to expose the dangers yawning for the boy? It needed that particular tension, the ambiguity about what’s real and what’s imagined. And by making the text a diary, I could reveal the development of his consciousness as he gropes toward sanity, if that is what he’s groping toward.
What or who inspired the unnamed protagonist?
Queer teens aren’t given much to work with. They’re like castaways from another planet. No safety net, no community, only the very real knowledge that much of the world hates them, even wants them dead.
Still, we survive. Some of us. Adolescence is such a horrifying point in life anyway. What could be more frightening than that sort of intensity? The connections we forge while inventing ourselves become like hooks. They pierce us … and sometimes elevate us.
Sometimes not so much.
The inspiration? I’ve always insisted that sex and drugs saved my life as a kid. (People generally assume I’m joking.) My strongest memories of childhood involve all those notebooks I was forever clutching, as though they could protect me, and how I would bleed onto the pages, especially that year I fell in love for the first time and had no context for even identifying the emotion.
Passion and terror. Isn’t that what the best dark fiction is always about?
This is an extremely challenging novel. How difficult was it to write?
Every word had to be honest. The emotional demands – added to the technical difficulties – just about killed me. Do you understand what I mean? The book is so intricately constructed. Everything had to be told in the boy’s voice, seen through his eyes. If a single syllable struck the wrong note, the whole thing would have shattered. Talk about pressure.
Describe the power struggle between Willy and the headmaster Spenser. There are hints of generational abuse, personality conflicts, fear and intimidation in the relationship. What themes were you exploring?
I never trust writers who can blithely discourse about the thematic structures in their own works. That’s not an artistic perspective. It’s an academic one. (But I’m always delighted when critics talk about having read WILLY multiple times, gleaning deeper truths each time.) Certainly, the subtext to the relationships here suggests a tradition of abuse, but this novel has more layers than an onion. There are so many secrets. As a boy, Spenser himself was sexually exploited by the old dean. If his struggle to be a good man attains tragic dimensions, it’s because his failures – even his transgressions – are dictated by his own trauma.
But a sad monster is still a monster. And sometimes they’re the worst kind.
In organizing the resistance – what he calls “the coven” – Willy probably commits more evil than Spenser, and so the tragedy is compounded.
No one here is healed. No one is whole.
Perhaps the nameless boy has a chance to grow.
How does the gay subtext reflect upon the larger themes of the novel?
Love can distort the soul as much as loneliness or fear. The boy’s obsession with Willy achieves a religious intensity, and sex becomes part of the ritual. Nothing in this world is more dangerous than a true believer.
The boy writes in his diary about being “from nowhere.” Unconnected, unprotected, he’s the ultimate outsider. (It’s a terrible feeling, one of many lurking in the dark hallways of the old school.) I’ve always felt that the ‘wild child’ trope in fiction rang completely false. Such an innocent would never be all unfettered impulse and ego — he’d be furtive and frightened. Wounded kids turn inward, and depression only isolates them further.
If ever a boy needed saving …