Virtual 2020 Festival Presenter Robert Dugoni: Books a Lifeline for the Lonely During Pandemic

Robert Dugoni
Genre: Crime/Mystery, Fiction

NOTABLE BOOK: "A Cold Trail"

  • The New York Times, No. 1 Wall Street Journal and No. 1 Amazon bestselling author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, The Charles Jenkins series and the David Sloane series.
  • Has sold more than five million books since 2013; two of his novels have been optioned for television.
  • Non-fiction expose, "The Cyanide Canary," was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and the Idaho Book of the Year.

Bestselling Mystery Writer Discusses Virtual 2020 Festival, Life as an Author During COVID-19

By Ryan Woodard
ryan@sdhumanities.org 

During the coronavirus pandemic, Robert Dugoni's books have become a lifeline for the lonely.

As an author, he's done well to voluntarily seclude himself, selling five million copies of books he's written while alone in a room.

Now, with extra time at home because of canceled book tours, he's connecting with people who are secluded involuntarily — homebound and shut out from the world in the now socially-distant nation. Since the pandemic began, the mystery/fiction author's email inbox has been filled with profound, sentimental messages that are amongst the most heartwarming he's received in his 20-year writing career: emails from readers who are alone and quarantined — people who simply miss other people.

Perhaps the most wrenching — yet touching — emails are from readers who are living their final days on earth quarantined, alone in their homes, terminally ill. But they find respite in the one-to-one intimacy of escapist novels.

"They're not going to survive. But the time that they have left, they're enjoying the ability to read my novels," he said of the correspondence. "I lost my father to cancer and it's really tough. It's a really tough thing for people to have to experience. And so, to feel that you're giving them some measure of relief is an incredibly powerful and emotional experience."

Lonely people want to feel close to others. Books make them feel close, and the medium is perhaps unrivaled for that purpose. Many authors, including Dugoni, believe that the message from the mind of the writer to the reader is the most intimate of all. Maybe that is why, now, in this odd time, those most alone are finding the most value from his work. While the coronavirus has been devastating, many people are finding silver linings.

"I received a really beautiful email from an older man who's going through chemotherapy and said, 'The reality is, I will never get a chance to travel to Russia, to travel to Moscow, to travel to St. Petersburg, but I can do that reading your novels, and that takes away a little bit of my pain."

For Dugoni, spending more time at home during cancelled book tours has provided an opportunity to reach people who need it most.

"Books have the ability to touch people's hearts," he said.

Staying in touch with readers is one of many things keeping him busy these days. Dugoni was in the midst of a book launch and numerous writing projects when he took a few minutes to discuss by phone his upcoming virtual appearance at the Festival of Books. Despite the loss of human interaction, he is nonetheless excited to talk about writing — albeit via Zoom — with Festival fans and to bring as much value to aspiring writers as possible.

Dugoni to Teach 'Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters' Workshop Oct. 2

So, what can be learned from Dugoni?

Appropriately, for someone tuned in to his relationships with readers, Dugoni the writer doesn't prioritize genre, or plot, or even the vexing "Do I write fiction or non-fiction?" question that stresses out many writers. He focuses on characters.

The same holds true for his craft instruction, and students of his Oct. 2 workshop can expect as much. The veteran writing instructor, who during normal times appears at conferences and runs a novel-writing course from his home in Seattle, is teaching a workshop called "Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters" at the Virtual 2020 Festival.

Why the focus on characters instead of concocting the zaniest of all plots?

As Dugoni tells workshop students, there are few original plots. But there are an infinite number of characters to be created.

"The reason people care about a story, and why they care what happens in a story, is they care about the characters," he said. "If you don't have a character that readers care about, the story will go nowhere."

Tension, which pulls people through the story, is created by interactions between complex characters. To move people is to create characters people can relate to — and those creations come from the writer who can relate to himself. This is at the crux of Dugoni's instruction, and he repeats the advice often: Rather than fixating on a plot or story that will appease the masses, the writer must first construct characters who build interest for the story. The best way to do that? Write about what you care about.

"Write what you're interested in. Write what really floats your boat," he said. "Write what makes you think of things — what makes you emotional? What gets you mad, angry? Whatever it is, those are the things you should be writing about. If it touches your heart, it's going to touch other people's hearts."

After all, if the writer doesn't care, why should the reader? There's no "Moby Dick" without Ahab, there's no "To Kill a Mockingbird" without Atticus Finch, there's no "The Great Gatsby" without...well...Gatsby. Dugoni takes a character-first approach because he grew up on such classic, character-driven books.

"I just love telling stories," he said. "It's what I really wanted to do my whole life, you know, since the seventh grade. My mother started handing me books, like 'The Count of Monte Christo,' and 'The Old Man and the Sea,' and 'The Great Gatsby' – all those classic, classic books. I read them all before high school and I got into high school and into my English classes and I didn't have anything to do."

Great books, great plots, but even greater characters that inspired a young writer who is now reaching people in ways he never expected back in seventh grade, when he decided his future.

"I never, never in a million years could have imagined that the stories I would tell would resonate with people on such a personal level."

The plots continue to add up as our nation's "normal" changes direction almost every day. But, again, it comes down to the people. The characters. The ones who, during these difficult times, need other people more than ever. And the people who help those people.

So, maybe missing some book tours isn't all bad.

Robert Dugoni: Events

Friday, Oct 2
10:00 am - 11:30 am
Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters
Robert Dugoni

VIRTUAL – REGISTER HERE ($20 – one of three paid events)

Saturday, Oct 3
8:00 pm - 9:00 pm
Mystery, Mayhem & More
Robert DugoniWilliam Kent KruegerAmy StewartDavid Heska Wanbli Weiden 

VIRTUAL – REGISTER HERE (part of free general admission)

About Robert Dugoni

Dugoni is one of many authors to find success in other fields before becoming a professional writer. Growing up in Idaho, Dugoni wanted to be a writer from a young age. After graduating from Stanford University, he worked briefly at the Los Angeles Times before attending and graduating from the UCLA School of Law.

A San Francisco attorney until 1999, he quit his law practice to write novels, moving to Seattle on his wedding anniversary to pursue his dream. Dugoni worked in an 8 x 8-foot windowless office in Seattle's Pioneer Square where he completed three novels, two of which won the 1999 and 2000 Pacific Northwest Writers Association Literary Contests. However, it was his non-fiction expose, "The Cyanide Canary," that kickstarted his career. Published in 2004 by Simon and Schuster, the true story chronicled the investigation, prosecution, and aftermath of an environmental crime in Soda Springs, Idaho. It was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and the Idaho Book of the Year.

The New York Times, No. 1 Wall Street Journal and No. 1 Amazon bestselling author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, The Charles Jenkins series and the David Sloane series, Dugoni has sold more than five million books since 2013; two of his novels have been optioned for television. He is also the author of the best-selling standalone novel, "The 7th Canon," a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel. 

He is the recipient of the Nancy Pearl Award for Fiction and the Friends of Mystery Spotted Owl Award for the best novel in the Pacific Northwest.

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