There is nothing like a good coming of age story to remind you that life can be hard, and there are no experts in living it. Yet, there are people with a will to figure out how to maneuver it as best as possible to create their own life story. We had the opportunity to catch up with author Robert Lee Dugan III to discuss his latest novel, A Stranger Among Us, and he is talking about inspiration, life lessons, and what we should expect next.
TSW: Robert, thanks for joining us. A Stranger Among Us maybe your first release, but it's not your first rodeo with the pen. What is your earliest memory of writing?
RLD: I would credit my fascination with storytelling to two people: my grandfather and my mother. My mother read to me every night when I was young, and she was a big yard sale attendee. Every yard sale had a big box of books, and I would gather up as many as I could, some of them I could not read and understand, but I was always encouraged to read outside of my comfort level. Those adult books, mostly Stephen King and Dean Koontz, seemed like something I was too young to read, so of course, I wanted to read them most of all.
TSW: Stephen King?? He is such a fantastic writer, but I have to admit I have barely finished any of his works, movies included. They terrify me! But, it seems you have quite the foundation for developing a keen reader and writer in your family.
RLD: My grandfather was a big reader as well, but he is a wonderful oral storyteller. He has a real knack for details and characters. He can remember names and backstories for decades. When he tells a story, the people he describes seem to appear in the room. So, to answer the question directly, I started journaling when I was a kid, practicing the craft of setting my experiences, narratives, details, and thoughts down in writing. I branched out from there.
TSW: Nice! It would have been wonderful to sit in the room with your grandpa and hear him bring the characters to life. How about you give a glimpse of how he'd do. Paint me a mental picture of your book's setting.
RLD: My book is set in a small town in West Virginia's Eastern Panhandle. The geography of that area is so unique. It is sandwiched between Maryland and Virginia. It's a place where Appalachian culture mixes with and rubs against larger movements in American society; it's a place unlike any other I've ever been. The location of the novel is a small, valley town. There's a highway running through the center. There is a single stoplight and a handful of stores. There is a sand mine, a hospital, and a few other landmarks, but apart from that, the location is a sprawling wilderness of forest and asphalt. It's a playground for young men. There's plenty of room to grow and experiment, and the town is sparsely populated enough to escape the adults' watchful eyes.
TSW: Yes! You picked up his knack. It felt as if we were right there, seeing the place unfold. Switching gears a little, what, if any, personal characteristics do you see in your characters? Coming of age stories tend to highlight some sort of relationship; your story outlines a bromance, which is significant. What inspired the need to highlight other links outside of romantic relationships?
RLD: My heart, throughout my career in education, has always been with young men. There is an education gap that has developed between young men and women, especially those in poverty. I wanted to write something that speaks to everyone but dodges the types of motifs that I don't think resonate with young male readers. My novel has drinking, drag racing, and mischief because those are the types of self-destructive activities that most interested me as a young man, and I think that those things shape the lives of young men more than we would care to admit as a society. The reality is that there are more young men in Appalachia racing cars, driving drunk, and spray painting graffiti than there are developing long-term, loving, intimate relationships with their girlfriends. I wanted to write a book that I thought accurately represented the life of a teenage boy, with all its ugly blemishes that we would rather not acknowledge.
TSW: Wow, Robert, that is quite a passionate and an essential point of view. Drawing from there, If you could give your main characters one solid piece of advice, what would it be?
RLD: I would say that education is the key to escaping poverty. The mainstream books that discuss escaping the cycle of poverty are written by people who got full-ride scholarships to prep schools or ivy league universities. Those are valid paths, but they are unattainable for most of us. My path out, on the other hand, is attainable for everyone. I went to a public university on a merit-based scholarship. I worked hard in high school and made good decisions, but I wasn't an especially extraordinary student. I read novels and studied. I was lucky enough to have parents that were active in my life and demanded that I take honors classes. I was pushed, but I didn't get scooped up by Yale or do a study abroad in Europe. I didn't have any special, once in a lifetime opportunity fall into my lap. My advice to my main characters would be that, if you don't take an active role in steering your life, your life will choose a direction without your input. If you don't know where you want to go, you'll never get there.
TSW: 'If you don't know where you want to go, you'll never get there.' So true. Was there an 'aha moment' for giving your current book its name, or did you always know the working title would be the actual title?
RLD: The working title for this book was Scrambled Eggs. I read somewhere that the Beatles chose that as the working title for The White Album, and I liked it. The title A Stranger Among Us came from a teacher at my school. They told an anecdote about a young man who got hooked on drugs and became someone who was "a complete stranger." I chose the title because of that anecdote.
TSW: It's incredible how small tidbits can be so memorable. A Stranger Among Us is out on the shelves. Have you started any new projects?
RLD: I'm about halfway through my second novel. It has been tentatively titled Snakes in a Church. The novel features a snake-handling minister who becomes a role model for a college dropout who has lost hope. I've always been fascinated by the idea of snake-handling as a show of faith, and I'm excited to tell an intimate, character-driven story, with tent revival culture as the backdrop.
TSW: Please keep us updated on that release! I am interested in seeing how the dynamic of the two interests play out! Now, before we wrap up, I want to do a TSW staple, a Power Round. Best time to write:
RLD: After Coffee
TSW: Coffee, wine, or beer:
RLD: Coffee, always Coffee
TSW: Ha! Understood, Coffee is my fuel too! Before you head out, how can the people get in touch with you?
RLD: People can get in touch with me through all the usual social media channels. Direct links and contact forms can be found at www.robertleedugan.com.