Stephen Dobyns’s career path has been curious. Yes, there are the predictable footprints of a literary life—an MFA from the University of Iowa, a steady stream of well-received poetry, university teaching assignments and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. But Dobyns isn’t afraid to escape the ivory tower and get a little muddy. As the author of over 20 mysteries (some with pulpy titles like The Church of the Dead Girls and Saratoga Fleshpot), he is an unapologetic practitioner of the genre novel.
“I think the more I learn about the form, the more complicated I make it for myself, which is probably a mistake,” laughs Dobyns, who published his first mystery in 1982 and has been plugging away ever since. “Part of the writing for me is the learning process. I’m trying to understand the nature of the language and how one presents something as real, so that I can write something and a reader can say, ‘Yes, that’s true.’”
At 72, Dobyns is no novice to the publishing world. But despite a prolific career that includes 20 novels, 13 books of poetry, two works of nonfiction and a story collection, he isn’t a household name either.
The buzz surrounding the publication of Dobyns’s 21st novel, The Burn Palace, suggests that that is about to change. “I think the book is basically a genre novel,” says Dobyns of his panoramic story of a sleepy Rhode Island town turned on its head by evil, inexplicable acts. “But I try to really push the limits of that genre.” In The Burn Palace, Dobyns gives readers a mystery that hijacks you on the first page and holds you as a terrified (if utterly willing) hostage until the last. The cast of characters, whose numbers rival those in a Tolstoy novel, are rendered with a humanity, psychology and, yes, poetry that probe deeper than a straightforward whodunit.
Dobyns wrote The Burn Palace quickly, working five to six hours a day for six months. Then he sent the draft to his agent and began an excruciating wait. “After I wrote it and it was accepted by my agent, it was rejected by 24 places,” Dobyns acknowledges. Though publishers praised the book, they were dubious about the number of characters and the eclectic narrative approach, which mingles a literary tone with the linear storytelling of a police procedural and couples the grotesque with humor. For some publishers, all the genre-bending made The Burn Palace a tough sell.
“Those [rejection] letters—I didn’t know what to think about that,” says Dobyns. “During the three years or so that it was being rejected, my various ideas about what I’d done successfully, of what I’d accomplished, got smaller and smaller. I just didn’t know.”
Then the book was picked up by David Rosenthal, a stalwart in the publishing world who had just founded a new imprint at Penguin called the Blue Rider Press, where he vowed to publish books that broke the rules. The Burn Palace was a perfect fit.
“I’d completely given up hope at that point,” says Dobyns of the book’s acceptance at Blue Rider. “It made me realize that I had not been mistaken about the novel. I was delighted and proud to be taken on there.”
Rosenthal liked what he saw in The Burn Palace and changed little in the draft. Soon, positive murmurs were coming from the Penguin sales department, as reps were recommending the book around. Next came a full-throated, three-paragraph rave from the godfather of the suspense novel himself—Stephen King. King’s praise of The Burn Palace goes beyond the standard blurb-in-a-box phrases found on book jackets. “If ever there was a novel that demonstrates why this mode of entertainment remains healthy and vital more than 150 years after Charles Dickens did his thing,” writes King, “The Burn Palace is that book. It is, simply put, the embodiment of why we read stories. You can’t ask for more than this books gives. I loved it.” (And that’s only from the last paragraph of his praise.)
It remains to be seen whether The Burn Palace will be the ”full meal” for readers that King promises it to be. (This reader certainly gobbled it up.) Dobyns’ publisher seems poised for a breakout. For his part, Dobyns is circumspect, already at work on his next novel, another Rhode Island mystery. “You write a book to figure out why you’re writing the book,” says Dobyns. “It’s a long process of discovery—if the writer has the patience to follow through to the end.”
Kirk Reed Forrester is a freelance writer based in Houston. Her work has appeared in the Texas Observer, Flower Magazine and Virtuoso Life.