I’m Robert Sydney

I received a letter from a reader the other day lamenting that it had been 6 years since my last book. Nay, nay. It’s only been 3—still too damn long, but that’s another story. My last published novel was The Bright Spot published by Bantam under the pseudonym Robert Sydney. The reason? The Dennis Danvers brand wasn’t selling well enough. This wasn’t my idea but a publishing necessity. It didn’t work, of course. No matter how dismal that Danvers guy’s sales were, Sydney’s were worse. So there likely won’t be another Robert Sydney novel, and all my short fiction comes out under the Danvers brand. However, The Bright Spot is still in print and available. I’ve finished a couple of other novels since but haven’t sold any. I have a mystery story coming out in the forthcoming Richmond Noir anthology, and I’m toying with the idea of using the protagonist in that story in future mysteries. He’s unnamed in the story, but I was toying with giving him the name Robert Sydney, just to confuse things further. My dad was Robert Sydney Danvers, and he always wanted to break into print, which is why I chose the name.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received?

I was in a graduate fiction workshop at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of my pieces was up, and it hadn’t gone well. I was rope-a-doping my way through the post-mortem, resisting all suggestions to improve upon the clever perfection of my workshop gem, when some member of the workshop—I’m not sure who—said, “Get closer.”

That’s it.

And damn, if the bastard wasn’t right, and I could scarcely look at a single scene or sentence in the story without wanting to revise it, to strip away the cleverness and get closer to the sense, to the characters, to the heart of the matter, to whatever it was had me writing the story in the first place. Over and over again ever since, revising some new clever bit of boredom I’ve contrived, it’s the advice that keeps on giving: Get closer. Try it. Might work for you.

What is your least favorite of your novels?

This is actually an infrequently asked question. What I’m usually asked is what my favorite is. That always feels like choosing among beloved children—all of them are favorites when seen through one lens or another—but I definitely have an unfavorite, Time and Time Again. It’s a reincarnation story, three interwoven narratives in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. The male protagonist remembers his lives—the only way reincarnation interests me—and he changes over time. I wasn’t interested in doing a history-repeats-itself story. While I still like the 18th and 19th-century stories, the 20th-century one needs revision.
I changed editors in the middle of TATA. Ann Patty, my editor for Wilderness departed S & S. Perhaps I should have gone with her. Lisa Weinstein who did Ghost optioned the book for a film, and I noodled with a screenplay that would give me a chance to revise the narrative, but like most film projects, it was not to be, and I moved on to other things. The original title was Remember Me, but Mary Higgins Clark, also with S & S was publishing a novel by that title the same season. I’ve never liked Time and Time Again since it’s much too close to Jack Finney’s classic Time and Again.

Where do you get your ideas?

The number one question I get is “Where do you get your ideas?” or “Where did you get the idea for [name of novel]?” I get ideas all the time, but most of them don’t stick around long enough to bother with. Those who loiter are put to work doing a character, a scene, a bit of dialogue. Those who won’t go away usually mate with some other loiterer and turn into a novel. Wilderness, my first published novel (about the fourth one I finished) was born out of my interest in medieval romance, particularly Marie de France’s sympathetic werewolf in Bisclavret, the old Lon Chaney Jr. movies, and wolves. The spark was a dinner discussion with housemate philosophers Lenore Langsdorf and Laurent Godbout among others about the nature of humans, whether we’re animals or something essentially different. I was in the animal camp, and I talked a lot about the werewolf. The next morning I started writing the novel. My goal was to have a real woman turn into a real wolf. Researching the novel I went to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario during black fly season. What does a Texas boy know about black flies? I had the place to myself and heard the wolves howling at night, but I never saw one, though I wrote the first draft of the wolf encounter scene in the park on site, swatting black flies the whole time.