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Interview: Dale Bailey on “The Donner Party”

Dale BaileyTell us a bit about “The Donner Party.”

“The Donner Party” was written in part to see if I could pull off a conceit which contrasts the ultimate expression of a mannered society with the most horrible tradition I could imagine. I took a number of courses focused on the Victorian era in graduate school, so the setting seemed natural to me. It’s very much and very intentionally a story about the social order. And though the story is set in an era a century and more before our own, I wanted—without belaboring my own political beliefs—to write a story which could be seen as a kind of subtle commentary on class and class issues in our own day. I think that level of the story is there if you want to look for it, but it’s also possible to read it as a simple horror story, and I’m okay with that, too.


What was the inspiration for this story, or what prompted you to write it?

I can’t usually track down the inspiration for a story, but I can remember very clearly the moment this one came to me. I teach college English and my colleagues are always leaving random photocopies on the table beside the copier. It just so happened that someone was teaching a course on Victorian social customs, and he’d abandoned a copy of a chapter from some social history. The chapter was called “The Dinner Party” and it featured a picture of proper ladies and gentlemen of the Victorian era at table. At a glance, I misread the chapter title as “The Donner Party,” which reminded me of the American pioneers who ended up snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and ended up, well, eating each other. This, contrasted with the picture of the decorous Victorian dinner party, set me on my way.


You’ve been writing and publishing stories for over twenty years.  Did you find any aspect of “The Donner Party” particularly difficult to write, and do you think this is a story you could have written as a younger writer?

I don’t think I could have written this when I was starting out. I grew up in West Virginia, and most of my early fiction was rooted in family lore and local history. But I took a five-year hiatus from writing starting around 2004 and when I came back, I found that I was writing a totally different kind of fiction—less personal, but, I think, richer and more complex and often set well outside of my comfort zone.

I think this is one reason I found the story very difficult to write. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go it entirely alone. My dissertation advisor, Don Cox, an expert in Victorian literature and culture, was there to help me with some of the Victorian details (and any mistakes are all mine, I can assure you). And Charlie Finlay, the editor of F&SF, was around to help me sort out some of the issues in the story itself. So, yeah, I think this one was unusually difficult for me to write.


What are you working on now?

I have a book called IN THE NIGHT WOOD coming out from Houghton Mifflin in October. Despite its contemporary setting, it too draws upon Victorian elements. And I have four or five short stories coming out in various places over the next year, as well.

Right now I’m working on a full-out Victorian fantasy novel—which has turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected (and no, it’s not steampunk!). I don’t know when it will see the light of day. Someday in the not too distant future, I hope. We’ll see.


Anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. I’m really glad the story is in F&SF, where my first story appeared all the way back in 1993. It’s nice to be back.


“The Donner Party” appears in the January/February 2018 issue of F&SF.

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Clicking on Mr. Bailey’s photo will take you to his website.


One Response to “Interview: Dale Bailey on “The Donner Party””

  1. Recommended Read: “The Donner Party” in @FandSF – Snip, Burn, Solder Blog on March 9th, 2018

    […] See also: Interview: Dale Bailey on “The Donner Party” : The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction […]

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