Creative inspiration can come from anywhere, but people who’ve spent much time around Moab know its landscapes are particularly stimulating. For author R.S. Dabney, growing up in Moab left a lasting impact on how she devises her imaginary worlds. Dabney recently published “The World Binder,” the final installment in her Soul Mender Trilogy. Though the fantastical series sends its characters to a parallel universe to take part in the conflict between good and evil, Dabney can still point out Moab’s influence in the books and her creative process.
“I had an amazing childhood here,” Dabney said. “Moab…creates people who love to be outdoors, who love creativity.” She described the two primary ways Moab left its mark on her writing. The first was through the educational system. Dabney lived in Moab from around age three to 11, arriving in 1991 and moving to Texas in 1999. Thus, her formative elementary school years were spent in Moab’s red rock country. “In about second grade, I like to think that’s when my journey with writing started,” said Dabney. “Moab had a great school system for me. My teachers would have us write little short stories, illustrate them. I still have so many of those left over.” Dabney told an anecdote about being separated into reading groups in second grade. She was placed in the red group, the lowest of the three levels. Instead of being discouraged, she “used that as a motivation to propel me forward.” Dabney read every book that was assigned and graduated from red to yellow then eventually from yellow to green. “I not only got better at reading but discovered that I actually absolutely loved it. It wasn’t work, it wasn’t a competition, it was just fun and joyful for me,” she said. Dabney expressed how Moab teachers helped “develop the technical side and… [my] interest in actually writing.”
The school system in Moab nurtured Dabney’s passion for writing, but the land itself and the people who call it home also had a considerable effect on her career path. “People ask…what shaped my writing and what shaped my creativity…Moab is really the answer to that,” she explained. “I had this million-acre playground,” said Dabney, describing her childhood in Moab. “I was able to take these like-minded people and form this amazing… group of friends and we were just out there making up everything. I think being in a place that I could do that, that was safe and encouraged it, just carried on to my adult life. I was like, ‘there is no limit to what my brain can make and come up with.’” Moab provided the spark that grew into a successful writing career.
The Soul Mender Trilogy has received a variety of accolades. It received first place for the mystery and suspense category in the El Paso Writers’ League annual contest in 2014. Kirkus Reviews named “The Soul Mender” as the best indie debut novel in 2016. At the Los Angeles Book Fest in 2017, “The Soul Mender” won in the genre fiction category while the second book in the trilogy, “The Peace Keeper,” won in the sequel category. Dabney is now wrapping up the book tour for the third entry in the series, The World Binder. In June, Dabney returned to Moab to give a reading to friends, family, and fans at the Grand County Library. “I grew up in the Moab library… so to be able to come back here after writing, being an adult, being away, is really special for me because this was sort of what shaped me,” Dabney said at the beginning of the reading. Once she read a portion of her latest novel, Dabney took questions from the audience. Someone wondered why Dabney’s protagonist was from Grand Junction rather than Moab. “For me, Moab was too iconic of a place to set a book…it’s got such a strong character of its own,” Dabney answered. However, Moab does act as the setting for the epilogue of the trilogy, in an example of the city’s literal influence on Dabney’s work.
Dabney began work on “The Soul Mender” when she was 21 and still in college studying wildlife biology. Moab’s influence provided the foundation for Dabney’s inspiration, but her experience in college was key in making the series into what it is today. “I had been raised in a really open-minded, caring, loving family,” Dabney said. So, seeing discrimination based on differences in religion, culture or socioeconomic level was shocking and upsetting. Those feelings formed the basis for The Soul Mender. Dabney described how The Soul Mender started with “my own frustrations with the world.” The goal was getting those emotions “out onto paper, feeling better and also trying to make a solution.”
It took nearly nine years from beginning “The Soul Mender” to its publication. Though dealing with rejection can be difficult, it was a great learning experience for Dabney. “The process of being humbled and letting my ego go was critical to writing and being successful,” she said. Discovering the ideal balance between creative endeavors and other pursuits also proved essential. Dabney now lives in Terlingua, Texas, a very rural area near the Rio Grande River, where she works as a river guide. “I like being able to completely step away from it and throw myself into something else,” Dabney noted when discussing her writing process. “I think indirectly it helps because I don’t keep my brain solely focused on writing to where I panic. If I get writer’s block…I step away and do something else entirely with a different part of my brain.” Dabney’s connection to nature is vital to her creativity, “I’ve had some of my major breakthroughs when I’m doing something physical in the outdoors,” she said.
Taking a mental break from writing can always help, especially when dealing with heavy thematic material. The Soul Mender Trilogy tackles the conflict of good versus evil, a topic Dabney admits is a “well-trodden theme.” Many of Dabney’s authorial influences, such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and J.K. Rowling, used good versus evil as a central pillar in their massively popular books. Regardless, Dabney was undeterred, saying she wanted “to show good and evil as more of a gray area than just these hard black and white places…and explore it in a different way than how it’s been done before.” She added, “I feel like in a lot of cases good and evil are misrepresented.” Crafting believable and relatable villains became a crucial part of developing the story. “I wanted to tell the good versus evil story in our modern world where the villains are people who we see every day on television or in the news,” Dabney said. “I wanted to make it to where people could relate and put faces to these fictional characters.” Her method of portraying a range of different perspectives helped humanize her antagonists. “A lot of times the bad guys don’t think they’re the bad guys. Everybody thinks they’re the hero in their own story.”
Following the success of The Soul Mender Trilogy, Dabney has signed with an agent and is currently working on an all-new trilogy. The new series will also be set in a fantasy world, but it will still deal with highly relevant and topical issues. The trilogy will tell the story of “a female mountain climber in a misogynistic world.” Dabney pitches it as “Handmaid’s Tale meets Vertical Limit.” Dabney’s experiences working in typically male-dominated fields like wildlife biology, park management and wildland firefighting informed the upcoming novels. “I faced my own levels of sexism and struggled to prove myself equal,” Dabney said, noting how strong female characters will always be part of her stories. When asked why she always writes a strong female protagonist, she answered, “it would be impossible for me not to because it’s so important to me.” Dabney’s journey, likely relatable to many women, is a source of strength for her. “I’m glad I had to work harder. I think it made it much more worthwhile…it made me a stronger person.” Now, Dabney can share that strength through her writing.
Dabney had a lot of advice for aspiring writers. “Find patience and your deepest perseverance you can muster. Keep writing and don’t ever take no for answer,” Dabney said. “Or take no graciously but keep going,” she corrected herself. She spoke about the importance of finding a writing community, “take advice from other authors and from people who want to offer constructive criticism.” She also added, “write what you love to write, don’t write vampires because it’s popular… only write about things that matter and are important to you.” Dabney obviously follows her own advice, since her reverence for the natural world appears in many of her characters. Critics have repeatedly praised her vivid imagination, something Dabney credits to growing up in Moab. Dabney’s love for nature sprang into being in canyon country, and that love is probably familiar to anyone who has enjoyed the red rock vistas found only in Moab.