Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the recent release of Unfortunates! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the collection’s theme or premise, and what inspired you to tell these stories?
Leo X. Robertson: Thank you for the congrats! This book has been in development for like five years, so it’s kind of surreal that it will actually exist this summer. But I also, oddly, feel like I didn’t do anything! Just throwing that out there for any writers reading who—like me, still—operate under the false belief that there is one thing they will do one day that will make them feel like a real writer. Thus far, I have to say, “Nope!” If I haven’t felt it after ten years of writing, I probably never will, but I’m sure, regardless, that won’t stop me chasing some feeling of having arrived. Self-awareness isn’t a guarantor of changed future behaviour, haha!
“Unfortunates” is the name of the title novella in the book, because it pretty well describes what I feel about characters in horror stories. We’re beyond the easy formula of seeing people perish in the order they deserve it most—as if we have the right to judge such a thing. In my stories, people mess up often and enormously—but who doesn’t? I certainly do, and I reserve the right, as a human, to do so again—a right I extend to anyone I know also. I mean, does anyone know what’s going on? But I don’t think that making mistakes warrants the hideous punishments that characters in my stories receive. Sometimes, someone deserves retribution and doesn’t get it. Basically, I can’t get over how unfair life is, which sounds so silly, but not when it’s the engine of a horror story. It’s why I think horror at its best is ultimately compassionate. The community certainly reflects that: the nicest most gentle people you’ll ever meet.
BD: What can you share with us about your creative process in crafting these short stories, and what have been some of your creative influences?
LXR: The stories are in a roughly chronological order, and my process has refined itself over this time. My biggest takeaway is that complete, well-written stories can come from any start/end point/order of work processes. Just keep putting the work in.
“The Art is Absent” is the earliest of the stories. It came to me in its entirety, so I transcribed it as soon as I woke up. This happens twice on a good year. I bet I was reading Marina Abramovic’s memoir around this time. She had an exhibition titled “The Artist is Present” where she sat and looked across a table at whoever wanted to sit opposite her, for eight hours a day. I was in awe of her self-confidence and the presence she must have generated for it to be so attractive to go sit opposite her, because people were queuing up. But what if an artist decided to commit to a piece like that and couldn’t generate the presence, the “art”? The artist was present but the art was absent? Where does art come from? Nobody knows, which is what makes it so eternally compelling—but in this story, horrifying. Even though the initial draft came to me that day, as with everything of mine, I rewrote it several times. Though I still don’t know what the last two sentences of it mean—my brain just told me to write them down and I kept them!
By the time I reached the title novella, “Unfortunates,” I had a process that serves me pretty well creating anything. The story is about a primary school teacher who, after moving to a new flat, finds himself haunted by a whole classroom’s worth of little boy ghosts.
The process of developing it went something like this (which happens mostly between my head and a Google Doc on my phone):
- What if a guy came home and discovered that his flat was filled with little girl ghosts?
- I could call it Little Girl Ghosts!
- They wouldn’t just suddenly appear, would they? Why does this happen? Why now?
- Maybe he moves into a new place and that’s why they appear.
- Why do they appear to him specifically? And why are there so many?
- Well if there are so many of them, it can’t be that they all died in the same building, right? And this is going to be a compelling story, the ghosts will have to relate to him somehow.
- But he’s in a new building. Do we want/need all the ghosts to be from that building?
- It could still be relevant. He might start by thinking that the ghosts are associated with the building, but later realize that instead they have sought him out specifically. They’ve done that because something happened in his life recently that triggered their visit.
- So the story probably starts with his discovery of all these ghosts (inciting incident.)
- (SCENE 1: GHOST DISCOVERY.)
- What would happen next?
- Maybe he would tell his girlfriend about it?
- Why isn’t she in the flat already? Don’t they yet live together?
- What if the reason the ghosts sought him out has something to do with his girlfriend? Maybe he just broke up with her.
- Okay but if that’s the case, I think I’ll relate to the story better while writing it if it’s a boyfriend he broke up with instead.
- In which case, if the ghosts relate to him and this relationship, they would probably all be boys, not girls. Also, the reason the ghosts were summoned should be something more severe than a break-up…
- Okay, I can’t call it Little Girl Ghosts anymore. I’ll need to think of a different title. Also it might transpire later, as I continue to develop this idea, that they were little girl ghosts after all.
And so on and so on, until all the paragraphs and sentences emerge in order. It takes a really long time, but whatever emerges is always well considered. Plus, any other way of approaching a story this densely structured would take even longer. It mostly came about because I really, really dislike deleting thousands of words. I find it difficult coming up with analogies, metaphors, character mannerisms and so on. I want to know if I put in that mental effort, I’m not going to end up deleting it all later!
Influences are anything and everything that’s ever resonated with me! For short stories, dangerously, it was George Saunders for a long time. The guy spends something like 5-15 years on each story—working on many of them simultaneously for that length of time, I believe. It becomes tough not to imagine that you have to match that quality and dedication. But then again, don’t you? I’m a weird combination of non-competitive but highly ambitious, so I usually make myself aspire to the toughest imaginable version of what I’m doing.
BD: At Fanbase Press this year, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Unfortunates’ stories will connect with and impact readers?
LXR: Well-written stories of any kind can have a huge impact. I mean relatable (nothing to do with likeable), flawed characters going through specific struggles, perhaps voicing ideas and thoughts that the reader had that they were too afraid to say out loud. This is why Lionel Shriver remains one my favourite writers. Her characters ask difficult and often callous questions, but they are posed through the safe lens of fiction, where nothing is really happening to anyone real.
When fiction does this, of all art forms it has the deepest impact. One person reads one story at a time. If some truth from a story hits them very hard, and they don’t like it, they can try to forget it, or even half-believe it as the mind is often capable of doing. You can accept it in stages and don’t need to tell anyone else you read something—it can be as private as you like. While other media like films and plays of course have their own advantages, they lack this intimacy, the allowance for this self-directed interaction.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
LXR: So many! I have a sci-fi novella, The Glow, coming out with Aurelia Leo autumn of this year; I have a story in Pulp Literature’s Spring 2021 edition, just released, and I’m currently submitting a horror feature film, Burnt Portraits, to various festivals. Hope it shows up somewhere.
My friend Sam Crichton is an actor, and his mum is an artist in a local studio. She said the basement looked like the perfect set for a horror film, so I wrote one that Sam and I could make there! Together, we’re getting so good at this process that (we both hope) we’ll be making at least one film per year for as long as my eyesight and hearing last, haha. I do think those will give out first, because the only other supplies we need are access to a new room and my cameraman husband’s patience, but those are thankfully both in abundance.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about Unfortunates?
LXR: It’s available for pre-order on Amazon now.
Maybe you want to check out my site for updates: leoxrobertson.wordpress.com.
And you can follow me on Twitter (@leoxwrite).