The following is an interview with Carol Dunbar regarding the upcoming release of the novel, A Winter’s Rime, through publisher Forge Books. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Dunbar about the importance of examining trauma through the lens of her characters, what she hopes that readers may take away from the story, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the upcoming release of A Winter’s Rime! For those who may be unfamiliar, how would you describe the book’s premise, and what inspired you to tell this story?
Carol Dunbar: Thank you so much for this opportunity. A Winter’s Rime is about a young woman who is going through a life crisis. Mallory has gotten herself into a bad relationship, she’s working a meaningless job at a gas station store, and she’s anxious, stressed out, and on edge. To cope, she works as much as possible and goes on long walks in the woods. One night during one of those walks, she encounters Shay, a teenage girl who is injured and asking for help. The two of them share a harrowing experience that night, after which Mallory feels compelled to assume responsibility for this girl’s safety. In trying to help this girl recover, Mallory recognizes herself in this young person, and finally starts unraveling what happened to her and why she behaves the way she does.
This is a story about healing trauma, and what’s interesting is that I didn’t know I was writing about trauma when I started this process. I was writing to understand myself at twenty and the rough time I went through. I wrote from a place of behaviors and symptoms, not knowing anything about the biology of fight or flight or the signs of PTSD. I thought that trauma was an event in the past. I thought that trauma was something you could get over the way you get over a bad cold. I thought that trauma only happened to you if you were physically injured. None of those things turned out to be true.
BD: The novel deftly balances the navigation of generational trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder with thoughtful self-discovery. What can you share with us about your creative process in weaving these narratives together, and what have been some of your creative influences?
CD: Most of this novel was written by hand in journals. The process felt intimate and confessional and propulsive—the character of Mallory came through very strong for me. But there was something intense about the way she perceived the world. There was always this overlapping of sensations—smells, sounds, feelings on the skin. Something different was going on, and intuitively, I understood this. I went with it, but it was unspecified and all over the place.
One morning after a writing session, I was doing yoga to my daughter’s playlist, and this song came on and I knew immediately, “That’s Mallory. The sound of this music is Mallory.” I ran up to my office, did some Googling, and there was Billie Eilish. She had just dropped “Bury a Friend,” the year was 2019, and I went down this rabbit hole and discovered synesthesia.
That was a defining moment in the creative process because it explained not just what was going on with Mallory, but something that I had always experienced as a child.
Synesthesia is when your brain activates multiple senses at once. Billie Eilish has tone-color synesthesia, where hearing music triggers visuals of colors and shapes in her mind, which sounds awesome. As a child growing up, I had always had this thing with certain people’s voices where I would feel specific tingling sensations on my skin. I never knew what it was until I did the research for this novel and learned the term for it: auditory-tactile synesthesia.
The narrative for this novel was largely influenced by the research I did and the professionals who I interviewed to understand how trauma rewires the brain. I found several studies confirming a link between PTSD among veterans and synesthesia; and studies finding that children growing up in violent homes had the same occurrences of PTSD as war veterans. When these things came together, Mallory’s condition became clear and specified.
BD: At Fanbase Press, our #StoriesMatter initiative endeavors to highlight the impact that stories can have on audiences of various mediums. How do you feel that Mallory’s story will connect with and impact readers?
CD: Mallory’s story reveals the way violence can impact you, even if you’re not aware of it. Hers is a witness story, and this was the narrative that was missing in the books I read when I was going through my crisis. I wrote this story to support others who might also be experiencing this. We live in an era of mass shootings and climate disasters. During COVID, incidents of domestic violence escalated worldwide. I had a lot of assumptions about trauma that turned out to be wrong. It’s my hope that readers will recognize their own behaviors—or the behaviors of people who they love—in the character of Mallory, and come away with a greater understanding of and empathy for what’s really going on.
BD: What makes Forge Books the perfect home for A Winter’s Rime?
CD: Being under the umbrella of Macmillan, Forge has the muscle of a big publisher, but with the care and attention of a smaller house. With Shay’s story especially, it was vital to have accurate details. At one point during the editing process, my editor Robert Davies had to extend my deadline after an interview revealed the need for a significant rewrite. I was getting up every morning at four a.m. and pulling all-nighters while my family brought me food! But this rewrite made the story so much stronger. I’m also indebted to the design team who did such a beautiful job laying out this manuscript—the images between the sections breaks, the snowflakes, the evocative cover art—just stunning. Nature plays a significant role in both my novels, and Forge has shown incredible enthusiasm for my take on eco fiction.
BD: Do you foresee expanding the novel into subsequent books or even into other entertainment mediums, if given the opportunity?
CD: I would love to see A Winter’s Rime as an anime film. The characters in this story have so much going on, and they’re interacting with this stark and brutal landscape. Anime has the ability to show deep character emotions in visually stunning ways, and that makes it easier, somehow, to take in difficult moments. My kids grew up watching Hayao Miyazaki—he’s our family’s favorite director. Young adults today are paying more attention to their mental health, and this story is all about bringing awareness to that. Anime would be a perfect way to give visual expression to both these inner and outer worlds.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with our readers?
CD: I’m currently falling in love with my next novel. Like my first two, it will also be set in the woods, and it’s about artists. I also just finished an essay about my rescue dog, Hap, and how his symptoms of PTSD helped me through the final draft of this novel.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for our readers to find more information about A Winter’s Rime and your other work?
CD: My website: caroldunbar.com
On Instagram: carol_dunbar_wi
Thank you so much for your time.