A Conversation with Daryl Gregory
Daryl Gregory is the author of three (fantastic) novels, a collection of short stories, and a couple of comic series. I suppose his novels would be characterized as fantasy, but that’s not entirely accurate, as we’ll discuss below. I first met Daryl Gregory at ReaderCon in Boston back in…2009? 2008? Honestly, my years all blend together. I have mostly crummy memories from that trip, but meeting Daryl was a high point. At the time I’d read his first novel Pandemonium, and pretty much went all fanboy at a ‘meet the author’ type of thing. We struck up a friendship, and he’s been a good friend and mentor to me over the years. He’s a hell of a nice guy, an infuriatingly excellent writer, and always offers good advice and a sane perspective on writing and publishing. What follows is an email conversation we’ve had over the course of last couple of days.
Me: Let’s start with this – When most people think fantasy novels – and by “most people” I mean me – they (I) immediately think of talking raccoons with swords. (Unfair, but true.) Obviously the genre encompasses a lot more than that, as your work proves. But why fantasy? What about the genre appeals to you more than others? (That’s right, defend your genre!)
Daryl: Yeah, Tolkien casts a big shadow, doesn’t he? I’m of the generation where if you said capital F Fantasy, people were most likely to think of swords and dragons. But these days, most of the people who are reading fantasy are not reading epic fantasy, and they’re calling it something else. “Vampire novels.” “Manga.” Or just “cool books I like.” Harry Potter is casting a bigger shadow than anyone.
But despite growing up on Tolkien, I’ve never written epic quest fantasy, or high fantasy, or sword and sorcery. (Though I love Glen Cook’s Black Company series, and I’d like to take a crack at gritty S&S some day.) I like to write stuff that crosses genres. I write both fantasy and science fiction and some stuff that is both. Most of my short stories are SF, one of my novels is SF but constructed like a fantasy novel, and the books that are supposedly fantasy have a lot of elements that make them feel like science fiction. (Scientists and doctors always show up in my books to argue about why the weird stuff is happening, even if they fail to find an explanation.)
I guess what I’m attracted to is weirdness. I was an English major, and read a lot of the canon, but I was always attracted to the stories that had an odd bent to them, a little bit of the fantastic. When I sit down to write, it’s the weird stuff that I’m always attracted to.
What about you? When you started writing, did you start with SF or fantasy stories?
Me: See, when I started writing, I defaulted to horror simply because I’d grown up on my brother’s Stephen King novels. So when I had to write short story in a writing class, I wrote a King knockoff. That line between fantasy and horror is so blurred though. Your novel Raising Stoney Mayhall could be classified as horror because the main character is a zombie, but I see it more as fantasy. Maybe that’s because when most people hear “horror” they picture blood and guts and screaming coeds. In a way, I’m probably still guilty of that. Heck, I’ve sold stories to horror publications that could easily be classified as fantasy stories, but are dark enough to sell. Again, that line is really blurry, a lot like how your fantasy stories could be labeled SF.
Ultimately, like you, I like weirdness, too. But it has to be grounded in reality. My favorite TV shows – Twin Peaks, Lost, The X-Files – gained their audience by being “weird”, but were always realistic. The characters always came off like real people living in the real world, but had fantastic things happening to them. Your books have all done this really well, and maybe that’s why I like them. Even Pandemonium has a sense of everyday reality to it, even though it takes place in a world where demon possession is a recognized fact of life. When you’re drafting a novel like that or any of the others, how do you manage to contain the fantasy elements in order to keep the book’s world recognizable? Is there ever a point where you think, “No, I’d lose the reader if I went in that direction”?
Daryl: I have a whole speech on what I call “anti-horror,” which is what I often write. Take some of the tropes of horror, like zombies or demons, and re-cast them in such a way that the arc of the story isn’t about revulsion and rejection of the monster, but acceptance and understanding. But I digress…
Your question was about reining in the fantasy. I think about this a lot in the planning stages. I look for a premise that will let me stay grounded in a world pretty much like ours. I usually change only one fundamental thing, then write whatever follows logically from that premise. And it’s usually an event that has happened in the past — it’s a condition of the world, so if the reader’s not going to buy it, they can get out early.
In Raising Stony Mayhall, the Romero-esque zombie uprising has already happened, and the ghouls have been defeated. The story is about the few living dead who have survived. In Pandemonium, those demonic possessions you mentioned have been happening for decades. And in Devil’s Alphabet, but the big epidemic that transformed the protagonist’s hometown happened ten years before.
At some point I realized that I was really interested in what happens _after_ the big climax. The body of the novel is about living in the wake of some catastrophe. Of course, then I get to build to my own big climax. By that point in the book, I’m no longer caring if the changes in the world are too extreme, because the base world we started with is solid enough. If readers have followed me that far, I figure they’ll go to the end. By the conclusion of each of my books, either the protagonist is irrevocably changed, or the world has been. I like that effect, but it makes sequels almost impossible.
So far I haven’t written a “second world” fantasy, in which I have to create from scratch an entire environment, history, economic system, magical framework, etcetera. I’d need to spend a year just making notes.
I think short stories are very difficult, because you have to establish the world so quickly. But on the other hand, readers are willing to put up with much more weirdness and ambiguity. Not everything has to be spelled out. Since Stephen King was an early model for you, you’ve probably tried that out in your stories. Start with a mundane world (say, a town in Maine), escalate the weirdness, then at the end drop the mike and walk away. Or maybe not.
Me: I think I may start writing my stories that way, with escalating weirdness, but usually all fantastical elements get edited out of my stories in later drafts. I’m a logical thinker and highly skeptical, so I like to keep my weirdness real. The stories I’ve written with monsters or unexplained phenomena are my least favorites. The stories of mine that I like the most are all realistic in that they could happen – people freezing off body parts to feel included, students trying to drive their teacher insane, a kid using a huckster to help heal his father’s grief. Those things could happen, but likely never would. Whenever I come up with a “What if” scenario for a story or novel, I always look for a rational explanation, a characteristic that tends to cripple my creativity. But the way you create these worlds – where the change has already occurred, maybe explained, maybe not – is really appealing to me. It could almost be a way to trick my brain around needing to understand the logic of it.
You mentioned the lack of sequel possibilities and not having written a second world fantasy novel. (Although I still say you could write a hundred short stories based on Stony Mayhall’s world). However, it seems that nowadays those are the types of books that sell, especially in fantasy and SF. When you sit down to a new project, how much do you consider how commercially viable the end product will be? Or do you follow the “write what you would want to read” approach?
Daryl: The market definitely is an influence. If short stories paid as well per page as novels, I sure as hell would be writing more short stories, because I love them. And one of the things I love about them is that the range of what’s allowed is much broader — you can do just about anything you want to do, and if you execute it with skill, you can sell it and find readers. Whereas with novels, there are some books that will never sell to a major SF publishers, no matter how well written. How many Dhalgren‘s will never see print, because they can’t be marketed? We have small press and epublishing, but it’s depressing how narrow the categories are for the Big Six publishers.
So, my strategy for novels is to figure out what ideas will work with the main market, and what ideas I will have to reserve for some other venue. So far, I haven’t had to _change_ my ideas to match the market. No editor, once they buy, has tried to push me somewhere that wasn’t good for the book, or something I didn’t want to do. And often you get a chance to subvert from within. You do things in the book that perhaps the publisher didn’t know they were buying. But if you make it work, you win.
Every writer’s going to have to come to terms with the fact that there are some ideas that he or she loves that publishers won’t want to touch. But the thing you can never do– never never never — is write something you don’t like, just to please the market.
Okay, I lied. If they pay you a shit-ton of money, by all means, write that awful thing.
But otherwise, no. What’s the point? I take it as an article of faith that success only comes when you double-down on what you believe in, and that you write what you want to read. Chasing the market when you’re a new writer is damn near impossible (and nearly as hard when you’ve got all the publishing contacts in the world), and will lead you to all kinds of dead ends and dark alleys.
Kurt, you and I have talked about this some before. It can be very discouraging to find out that the market doesn’t want what you’ve created. But what choice do we have? Writing is not for the weak.
Whew! I got all ranty and preachy. That was fun.
So where are you in this process now?
Me: I’m at the start of the process – with a finished book and looking for an agent. It’s frustrating because like you mentioned, the Big Six have very narrow categories, and most agents selling YA are selling a very specific type of novel – ones with a fantasy slant aimed towards teenage girls. I wrote my book without really considering the market or an audience, a mistake I won’t make again, hopefully. But I do believe that you can still write what you want to read, and please the market, as well. Maybe. Still, it’s early, and it could just be that the stack of growing rejections is fueling my creeping pessimism. It’s all made me have to define what success in regards to writing would be for me. So for you, after three novels, a short story collection, and a few comics under your belt – Are you happy with where you are as a writer? Do you feel you’ve achieved your writing goals?
Daryl: As Gardner Dozois told me, It’s all ladders. There was a time (and it doesn’t feel all that long ago) in which all I wanted in my career was to sell one story to one good magazine. But as soon as I sold that story, I wanted to sell just one more to that magazine, to prove it wasn’t a fluke. And then I wanted to sell a story to a different magazine. And then I wanted to sell just one novel…
You see where this is going. No where good.
The Daryl from a few years ago would kick my ass for saying this, but of course I’m not content. I want to keep writing books. I want to sell enough books that the publishing powers that be will buy future books. Career-wise, I’d like to feel more secure.
That’s the business side talking. From the “art” side, I have to remind myself that I’ve written four books that I can stand behind. There’s nothing I’ve written that I’m ashamed of, or that I phone in. And nothing pleases me more when a writer I respect reads something of mine and says, “That was pretty good.”
Because look — I started a sentence with “Gardner Dozois once told me…” I know Gardner Dozois, damn it! I’ve been in his year’s best collections! I know that I’m a lucky man.
But I’m still not satisfied. Perhaps I would be if I were a better person. If there’s anybody reading this who’s thinking about becoming a writer, see if the feeling passes. Try something else first. Because some day, sooner or later, the business will break your heart.
I will say this, though. The days when you write a few good sentences, those are pretty great.
—- See? He’s great, right? Do yourself a favor and buy one of Daryl’s books. Not only is he one of the good guys, but his books are great. His latest, a collection entitled Unpossible, can be found here. (But if you want my opinion – and who doesn’t? – start with Raising Stony Mayhall – a complete deconstruction of the zombie genre that’ll make you weepy.)