Welcome Dustin! We’ve worked on the elements of this chat for a while and it’s finally here! I’m super excited to share our conversation because I know it will inspire other writers and creators who can relate to the types of struggles and joy you experienced as you pursued, and continue to pursue, your passion for literature, whether writing it, or reading it.
One of my favorite parts of your story is when you found the joy of reading. Tell us about being a late bloomer turned devotee of the written word.
Writing has pretty much always been a part of my life. I can still recall being in the fifth or sixth grade, and sort of dreaming about becoming a household name, and I’d jot down potential chapter titles, which says a lot about how little I knew about the writing process. That went on for a short time, and then I’d put writing out of my mind for a while, only to revisit it at random times throughout my teens and early twenties. Writing’s funny like that, isn’t it? It’s kind of like an insistent plague that refuses to let you out of its grasp. Only, unlike an actual plague, the writing process is rarely deadly. It’s one of the healthiest endeavors you can pursue.
I wake up each morning, grateful for all the wonderful educators who, in their own, distinct ways, have guided and encouraged me over the years. And I’m thankful for my wife and other family members you’ve believed in me, especially when I didn’t have faith in myself. The friendships I’ve fostered online genuinely mean the world to me, and there are far too many to count. Lastly, I’m grateful to God for the plans He made for me a long, long time ago, and for giving me the talent, desire, and the gift of storytelling.
The peculiar thing is, and this will no doubt surprise you, as it seems to go against the grain of most writers, but prior to my fourteenth birthday, I was never very interested in reading. There was a reason for that, too. It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in stories, because I obviously was, on some level. I just wasn’t a very good reader. But one random day, in the summer between eighth and ninth grade, after being curious for a while about Stephen King’s writing, almost on a whim, I used my allowance to purchase a paperback copy of Misery (this was in 1993, when books were still relatively inexpensive,) and I started reading it later that day. I could not put it down, and I’ve never looked back. That book forever changed the trajectory of my life.
That is a powerful statement about fiction, and I love how it just hit you all of a sudden. What did you do with your newfound passion?
Reading almost obsessively quickly became my “new normal.” It was practically a drug. And with the exception of required school reading, I was pretty much only reading Stephen King for the next three or four years. Before long, I’d amassed quite the paperback collection, and I prided myself in the sheer number of books I was reading, and the fact that I was devouring them. For example, in my senior year of high school, I finished The Stand (complete and unabridged version, as I couldn’t find the original novel until I was in my early twenties,) in maybe a week’s time. If you’re familiar with that version, you’ll note that it’s well over a thousand pages.
Also during that general time frame, and as required reading, I was introduced to Shirley Jackson’s classic short story, The Lottery, which happens to be one of my favorite stories of all-time. There was something about it that inspired me to try my hand (again) at writing. The tale also showed me something important, something I’ll never forget but which felt kind of like an eureka moment at the time, which was that not all “scary” stories had to revolve around an insane killer clown or serial killers like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees. They could be serious, and they could communicate something important about the world. It would be many, many years before I realized there’s a term for that: social commentary. The latter is one of my absolute favorite elements to read about, not just in horror, but across any genre.
Way to capture the benefits of good horror fiction! Taking away thought-provoking insights in addition to being entertained has always been a plus for me, too. What other elements do you hope for in a story?
I inevitably look for character development, worldbuilding, impressive prose, and stories with social commentary and subtext. And dread, of course. I’m a sucker for a compelling story with a well-executed sense of dread. I’m definitely a character-driven type of person, as opposed to plot. I learned a lot about the craft in college. I’ll be eternally grateful for one professor, in particular, Mr. Matt Sullivan (who’s now a published author with a second novel forthcoming, so big shout-out to Matthew J. Sullivan, author of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore) because he probably taught me more about writing than I’ll ever know. Most importantly, he believed in me. He saw the potential long before I, or anyone else, probably did. I took as many of his classes as I could, and through them, I was introduced to a lot of very different authors and genres and unique styles. His creative writing course, in particular, was unlike anything I’d experienced, and the highlight (for me) was a full week or two of workshops, where we’d divide into several small groups, read each other’s stories, and give in-depth, constructive criticisms.
That sounds amazing. All you teachers out there, what a gift you have to be able to touch even one student so profoundly. Thank you!
So, while you were on this journey of discovery, you had some personal battles to deal with. How did fiction help you cope then and now?
As good and positive as all that sounds, I was masking something dark and sad. Looking back on it, I’d been depressed since I was a child. I only know from what family has told me, but prior to the age of around eight or nine I had been an outgoing, talkative person. Afterward, I withdrew from the world and got quiet. I lost a big part of myself, and I’ve never really reverted back to the bubbly, extraverted person I used to be. Around nineteen, twenty years old, my depression became increasingly more pronounced and, for the most part, I kept everything hidden until I finally got help in December of 2005. My one constant was reading. Those characters became the counterparts I needed to keep going. The macabre and fantastical plots excited me in ways that the real world could not. But there eventually came a time when the reading was no longer enough. A lot of the joy and wide-eyed wonder was gone.
Darci, I gave up on life. I gave up on myself, on my hopes and dreams and aspirations. I came extremely close to losing my life, only to finally reach out and receive the psychiatric help that I desperately needed. Coming out of that dark place, I realized that I was glad to be alive, and thankful that I didn’t die that day. Since then, I’ve been fully medicated and it’s been a struggle, a hard-fought battle to be happy, and the two necessary ingredients for me to be a happier person are reading and writing, preferably every day. Also necessary for my happiness are the love and grace of Jesus, and the unconditional love and understanding of my family. I’ve also discovered the need to talk books with other people who share the passion for the written word. Books are absolutely essential things.
Thank you so much for sharing that. So many people suffer from mental health issues, often quietly, especially after the pandemic. I think we will see studies for decades to come on the aftermath of the prolonged mass social isolation. Unfortunately, it’s still a difficult medical condition to acknowledge, let alone bravely seek help for. I’m so glad you found a path, Dustin. And though it will always be challenging, I hope sharing your journey with others will help you as well as our readers who might have their own struggles . What do you do to keep your focus on the creative side of things?
I joined the wonderful online reading community called Goodreads in September, 2010, but I didn’t start reviewing books until October 27, 2011. My first review was of Stephen King’s The Wind Through the Keyhole (book 4.5 in his amazing Dark Tower series,) and thanks to the positive responses to it, I would go on to write many more passionate reviews. I try to review every book I read. Also around that same time, per the encouragement of an old friend (sadly, we’ve since lost touch), I started blogging via WordPress, where I share the same reviews found on Goodreads, as well as a few random life-related posts.
Speaking of blogging, I’ve actually been thinking about completely revamping my site, because I’m really not happy with it. I want to change the domain name and everything. There’ll still be my reviews, but I really want to talk about the writing life and family. My son is a Type 1 diabetic (diagnosed in August, 2021). He also has a sensory-processing disorder and is on the spectrum (Autism Spectrum Disorder), which he was diagnosed with when he was only four-years-old. He’ll be eleven in November. He’s the strongest person I know. He’s also my hero.
You can find Dustin’s fantastic review of Wind Through the Keyhole on Goodreads.
I hope you keep us posted on redesigning your blogsite. Creating your perfect theme for those amazing reviews, your amazing family, and a writer’s life will be a super fun project! Let me know if you need eyes on it.
Can you share with us more of your ideas and what you’re going for?
My primary reason for creating my blog was two-fold. First and foremost, those first few months at Goodreads made me realize just how much I love talking about books and connecting with new people who enjoy the same authors and/or the same type of stories that I enjoy. But, if I could reach others through WordPress, then maybe I could recommend a book to someone else, and maybe it could become one of their favorites, too. That was the initial hope. At the time, I thought that if my words could reach just one person, then I’d consider it a job well done; an endeavor worth pursuing. All the time, energy, and sacrifice would be worth it. Now, though, more than ten years later, I want my site to be something I am proud of, a place to call home. Ultimately, I’d love to see it grow, but that’s not the primary reason for redesigning it. I want to do that because I’m unhappy with its current state.
Yes, writing and reading are a very big part of who I am, but I try not to let those things define me. I’m a father, a husband, a follower of Jesus; I’m a survivor of childhood trauma and the subsequent life-long mental illness, which ultimately led to a suicide attempt. I’m a fighter, a lover of humanity and animals. I am passionate about the Arts, I’m constantly learning new and interesting things. I’m an ally of the LGTBQ+ community and an advocate of mental health and suicide prevention. I am all of those things and more.
All those things offered through your blog will be so inspiring to the reading and writing community. You’ve got the vision! I hope you have a blast bringing it to fruition.
I’ve been dying to get to this part. Tell us about some of your favorite recommendations.
Some of my favorite books of all time are Stephen King’s On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft. I’ve read it twice, and I recommend it to anyone interested in writing, or anyone interested in reading a memoir. Even if none of those apply, I recommend it simply for the beauty of language, and learning more about King. That book alone inspired me to pick up the pen and paper again. It instilled in me the knowledge that if “I was brave enough,” I could actually write a book. And now I have. I love that King is no stranger to giving out writing advice, and that he genuinely believes his Constant Readers can write their damn story, and it be something they can be proud of. The love he has for his wife, Tabitha, was on full display there, too.
Dune by Frank Herbert is, without a doubt, my favorite sci-fi novel. I’m long overdue for my first reread, actually.
If you’re looking for a vastly rewarding, extremely long and epic historical fiction novel, look no further than Les Miserables by the incomparable Victor Hugo. That’s perhaps my favorite in classic literature. Sure, it can be quite dense at times, and it’s well over a thousand pages, but I quickly found myself enthralled by the characters and by the French history in almost equal measure.
I’m also a big fan of the post-modern movement and writers like David Foster Wallace and Richard Powers are near and dear to my heart. I also love pretty much anything by Don DeLillo. I mean, seriously, I’d be very hard-pressed to find much finer books than White Noise or Underworld. Especially the latter. Wallace’s Infinite Jest is easily one of the best novels I’ve ever read, albeit for different reasons than the “typical” reader. I read it in 2016, and I still think about the characters and that tome in general, on a fairly regular basis. The fact that I’m active in the Reddit subthread doesn’t hurt, either. I’m astounded by anything that Wallace wrote. A couple months ago, I finished my review of Wallace’s debut novel, The Broom of the System. Gosh, I love that book, and it never ceases to astonish me that it was published when he was twenty-four years old.
I’m also big into fantasy, grimdark, sci-fi, nonfiction, some poetry. Pretty much anything that sounds interesting and fun. It 100% has to be fun!
You can follow Dustin on Reddit here. And be sure to follow him on Goodreads for his reviews and recommendations. He also shares his reviews on Instagram.
Okay Dustin. Let’s get down to some stats. You’ve read 542 books according to your Goodreads and you’ve got a whopping 8,567 on your TBR list. First, how many reviews have you done out of the 542? And, what number on your TBR are you comfortable saying you might check off in a lifetime? 🙂 Because I wouldn’t be surprised if you made a good dent in that. How many books on average do you read a year?
Now, that’s an interesting question because according to Goodreads, I’ve reviewed four hundred and thirty-nine books. But that included short stories and a couple essays, and those are a lot easier to finish because they require a lot less time. Not only that, but some of them aren’t actually ones I’ve read but on my TBR because I wanted to document my initial reactions to hearing about them, and some consisting of copy/pasted blurbs from Amazon because they’re not always available on Goodreads. If I had to guess, though, I’ve probably reviewed between three and four hundred books.
Per your second question, I would love to read all of them. But realistically, I know I never will. I can see myself getting through at least two or three hundred on my TBR.
For many reasons, I read a lot, lot less than I did when I was in my teens and early twenties. For one, I really struggle on a regular basis to concentrate, so that takes me a lot longer to finish even an average length book. Plus, I like to write at least a thousand words a day, and that can take me a few hours. I’m also a dedicated family man with a ton of responsibilities, outside of creative endeavors. Or I get lazy and procrastinate, even though I love reading. Or, I hurt too much and I can’t bear the thought of sitting up for hours to read. Because when I’m hurting that bad, all I want to do is lie down and relax. The last few years, I think I’ve only read between nine and twenty books a year. I’m not proud of that, either as a writer or in general. The important thing, though, is that I am reading, improving my well-being, and enjoying most of what I read. Great questions, Darci. 😊
I think you should be proud of yourself. Your stats are phenomenal no matter how you slice them! Especially working through all those challenges while you’re at it. I only hope I can get in ten books a year. I’ve set a goal for 30 this year. I guess we will see.
And guess what, Dustin? I just discovered we can compare our Goodreads book lists! What a great feature. By the way, Dustin and I are currently reading, for fun and discussion, Empire of the Vampire, and loving it so far. We are also buddies on NaNoWriMo, having a blast supporting each other on our progress for this month’s Camp NaNo.
With that fantastic list of recommendations, I think this is the perfect spot for your beautiful poem, which I’m thrilled you are letting me publish here. Thank you!
No, thank YOU! I appreciate your willingness to share it with your readers. Okay here it is…
Art is not Glamorous
Now for more good stuff. What are your works in progress and your plans for them?
I am currently going strong in my NaNoWrimo novel, facetiously referred to as “Project: Never-Ending Story.” I decided that instead of writing one MASSIVE manuscript, I’d divide it into three or four shorter novels. Book I was fun, but I’m truly having a blast writing Book II. The momentum is much faster (in fact, I consider the first one quite the slow burn, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing,) things are getting a lot more interesting as it goes along, and one of my favorite elements of sci-fi/fantasy is the worldbuilding itself. I’m a pantser through and through, and so every day brings something new and interesting to the page. This story is getting increasingly complex as I’m learning more about these characters and this world, and I’m eager to see where it’s all going.
Right now, my goal is to get the rough draft done. I haven’t thought too much about my publishing path, though I am leaning more towards traditional.
What final thoughts can you share about the Writer’s Life for those facing your types of challenges?
The writing life can be incredibly rewarding, but it can also be daunting at times. It’s oftentimes made more difficult with clinical depression, social anxiety, and chronic pain. Six or seven years ago, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, which, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is a generalized series of aches, pain, and tenderness throughout the body. Other symptoms include “brain fog,” trouble concentrating, difficulty sleeping or not feeling fully rested upon waking.
In addition, my wife has fibromyalgia and she’s a Type 2 diabetic (diagnosed within two days of our son) and naturally, that can be a lot to deal with on a regular basis. We live with my mother-in-law, who will turn seventy-two in April, and she requires a lot of help with mobility and doing things around the apartment in general. Currently, she’s working hard to get her strength back, so she can be more mobile and independent. My wife and I (and our son, to some extent) work together to help her as much as she needs. So, needless to say, finding the adequate environment and time to pursue reading and writing is not easy. No one said it would be, but perhaps my personal journey is a little harder than the average creative. Then again, maybe not. Who really knows, right? 🙂
For more about facing the challenges of fibromyalgia, you can click here.
This has truly been an inspiring conversation, Dustin. Thank you for bringing attention to the challenges of a family dealing with multiple health issues, and the ways you have found to cope with it all and support each other. I look forward to more of your writing, reviews, and insights on Goodreads and your blog.