Author interview published November 2008
conducted (in person) by Aaron Hughes
Daryl Gregory photo (left) by Amy Peterson
"It's a wonderful thing, isn't it? To have a geek son who will follow you! I'm as proud as any former athlete
who's got a son with a strong pitching arm. To have a reader, I'm just enjoying the hell out of that. And I'm struggling
with that. What is the purpose of this? Why am I attracted to it? Why are other people attracted to it? What
does story do for you?"
- Daryl Gregory
Daryl Gregory (DG): Well, thanks for doing this. I really appreciate it. I appreciate people taking the time to do this and to have a chance to talk.
FR: You know, it's a fun thing about being a science fiction fan, that the authors I respect so much - they talk about van Gogh being unappreciated in his lifetime; you are the group of unappreciated artists in our society -
DG: There we go! I like the idea of being the underdog.
FR: So it's nice to be able to just go up to authors and talk to them, and they'll give you the time of day.
DG: Yes, that's something I like about science fiction. The first couple cons I went to, I had sold a couple stories and felt like I shouldn't even be there. But everybody was so approachable. I would be afraid to seem like a stalker, because I'd start thinking in my head, maybe I'm the three thousandth person who says, "I really love your work." But I realized everybody was completely open, nobody had any problems with that.
FR: Let's talk about the book, Pandemonium. I really enjoyed it.
DG: Oh, well, thanks for reading it so quickly. I know it just got out to you.
FR: Well, I will confess that I had to go a little fast in the last 100 pages, so if I seem to have not understood something, you'll know why.
DG: Don't worry about it! I'm just impressed you even got a chance to start.
FR: I have enjoyed everything of yours I've read, although I avoided the sinus story.
DG: That's probably a wise choice. That one should come with a warning label.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): What do you say to people when they're looking for a one-line description of Pandemonium? Is it possible to do?
Daryl Gregory (DG): I am completely at a loss for a one-line description, and I feel totally inadequate with summaries anyway. I guess the one-line description is...oh, gee, how do you do it as a one-line?
FR: You certainly can't say, well, there are demons possessing people -
DG: Because that gives you totally the wrong idea. If I say there's a plague of demonic possessions, people automatically go to The Exorcist. I realize I've made this very hard on myself. I usually have to take five or six sentences to say, okay, it's a novel about, well, there have been demonic possessions since the 40's, but they're not really demons, that's just a word they use to describe this thing when no one really understands what's going on...
FR: They're archetypes, and some are kind of like superheroes, and by the way Sinead O'Connor is in there...
DG: That's right! I guess the best description is that I think of it as a mash-up. I took all these things I really liked. You know, when you're writing a novel that you're not sure is ever going to sell, you figure, what the heck? So I basically had a list of things I had grown up reading that I loved, like The Shadow, comic books, Captain America, pulp stuff, and then there was all this pop culture that I wanted to put in. And I had been listening to these mash-ups, these music things where they're throwing together twenty songs into one song. And I just loved the effect of that, of creating something out of all these known materials. So I just started putting everything in, and I realized as I was doing it I was totally muddying the waters.
There's a conversation in Pandemonium where -
FR: Where they're talking about the mash-ups?
DG: Yes, they talk about the mash-ups, and there's another conversation that's happening at what looks like a science fiction convention, but it's for these demon fanboys, where they're saying, "How do you know whether you're in a fantasy novel or a science fiction novel?" And there's a quote there from Philip K. Dick that I just took from one of his essays, that I attributed at the end of the book, saying it's basically a judgment call on the part of the reader. If you think something's plausible and possible then you're reading science fiction; if you think it's impossible you're reading fantasy.
So I wanted to write a fantasy - I guess it's a fantasy - but treat it like science fiction. My idea was that if you have something that's really going on in the world that looks like demonic possession, people would be studying it. There wouldn't be just a few people saying that's magic and we can't understand it. People would say, "Look, this is actually happening, there's got to be some cause." We wouldn't immediately leap to the mystical explanations, at least not everybody would, so there'd be neurologists and psychologists and there'd be research journals. And then there would also be these fanboys who would dress up as these archetypes, as these demons.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Okay, but there's a difference, I think, in tone. Because in science fiction it's always the scientist, the rationalist, who is the hero and has the right view of things. Whereas here, they go to the conference where the scientists are trying to explain things, and they just seem like a bunch of assholes, saying, "Yes, ten people got possessed consecutively in the same place, but I can explain how it's something in your frontal lobe." Was that your intent?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Well, I did definitely want to create the feeling that nobody knew. I'm always kind of annoyed in science fiction and fantasy novels when there's something weird going on, and we hear from one scientist, and that's the explanation for what's going on. Because in the real world, if you think about really hard problems like consciousness, things that we really can't understand, there's not consensus. The scientific process really is messy; it's usually much cleaner in science fiction novels.
My characters tend to be people who are kind of in the dark, and who are not in power, who are not the scientists making the groundbreaking discoveries, they're usually the people on the fringes. So I wanted to put this guy at the mercy of people, when this weird thing is happening and nobody has the clear explanation for what's happening. And he's got to go to talk to various people. All he wants is a solution, but he has to talk to exorcists and whack jobs like the Human League - just for people who haven't read it, that's a group of people who have read A.E. van Vogt's Slan and taken it basically as scripture as an explanation for possession and have tried to implement their own anti-demon measures.
So that was very much intentional that nobody could come from a point of authority and say, "This is what's going on." Because I wanted also to keep the reader thinking anything's possible.
FR: But it's not just that they don't necessarily know exactly what's going on, it's that they're so adamant that we can come up with a rational explanation for this, when it seems pretty obvious that they can't. That's almost the converse of a lot of science fiction, where there's a group of people who are superstitious and insisting this is magic, when the reader knows there's a scientific explanation.
DG: Right. Yes, so I've also got these people from the various religions who are not in agreement about what's happening. There are fundamentalist takes on it. There is a Jungian kind of mystical take on it. In the end, it does seem like Jungian archetypes, but I'm not even willing to commit to that. I'm willing for other people to draw their own conclusions.
But I do think, yes, there is this feeling that, from a scientific point of view, they're not going to consider that. And frankly, if I had a physicist who was keeping all the options in play, I'd be a little worried too. I'd want them to be evidence-based and insisting that there is some real basis for this. Because if I had really weird things happening to me, my default mode would be first to look for some medical problem. That's their default mode. And I like the fact that nobody can agree on anything.
FR: I want to go back to what you said a minute ago about this being a mash-up of a lot of different things. I loved the scene in there where they're playing music mash-ups. It seemed like a tip of your hat, this is what I'm trying to do on a literary level.
DG: Yes, it really was. Gary Wolfe of Locus has this idea that sometimes a book tries to tell the reader how to read the book. And that for me really was a tip of the hat saying, look, this is what I'm doing here. It's a mash-up taking a lot of different things together and trying to make something new of it, but being clear that I'm drawing from all these other sources, all the things I grew up reading and am still reading. So there's Lovecraft in there, The Shadow, a lot of comic book stuff, and then there's also kind of an American mythos, there's a Casey Jones mythology going on with one of the demons. So, yes, I'm basically instructing you, "Look, this is what I'm up to, folks, and if you want to bail out, maybe you should bail out here."
Fantastic Reviews (FR): The interesting thing to me is, in my view your short fiction is typically very focused. You'll have one central concept and everything ties into that concept, and you don't go off on tangents at all or throw in anything extraneous. You really stay tightly focused, which works very well in short fiction if you have a good concept, which you always do, but is difficult to do in a novel. And clearly that wasn't what you tried to do in this novel. Did you approach this book very differently from how you write short fiction?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Yes. That was a difficult thing about switching, actually. Because you're right, the short fiction is all about trying to distill things down to these moments that are really about that concept. And in my short fiction, when I'm writing science fiction, I like for the science to be as real and as plausible and kind of hard SF as possible. I usually write about pretty much the present day, and everything that's happening science-wise is pretty much possible or just maybe a step away. I look for resonances between the real science and maybe some metaphor that says something about the characters in the story. And you're right, you try to stay really focused, because you just don't have time in a short story.
So going to a novel, you've got this expansive canvas to work on - I think some novels I've read probably went too far afield; you don't know, are they only doing this because the writer's having a good time and they're just following their tangent way out on this loop until they come back around? - and I was looking for ways to use that, especially with the demonology sections, where we get snippets of how these archetype personalities, these demons, have affected history since they've been showing up. Because I realized I wanted to do a personal story about this guy Del, who was possessed when he was five and now it's coming back in his twenties and that would be the main story, but I also wanted some way to talk about the scope of everything that's happened because of this in America. So the demonology sections were my way of trying to do that, to open it up a little bit and have a few of these tangents.
FR: But there are also a lot of other elements where you seem to be taking a "know what" approach to the novel. Know what? I like Sinead O'Connor, I'm going to throw her in. Know what? I like Captain America...
DG: Oh, yes, I was having entirely too much fun. Because I thought, okay, it's a mash-up, so I gave myself permission to pull from all these pop cultural things. But I did have a rule that if you understood what the reference was, it was like an Easter egg, it was a bonus and you would enjoy it more. But if you didn't, if you hadn't read Philip K. Dick and didn't know that he was possessed by Valis, or you didn't recognize that maybe this character was Sinead O'Connor, you could still read the story for what it was without having to know those references. But there would be more available to you and it would be more enjoyable if you did get them.
FR: I actually wanted to ask you that, particularly with respect to a lot of the science fiction and fantasy references. Because there is quite a bit that a fan would recognize, you'd recognize Philip K. Dick and A.E. van Vogt, and the DemoniCon would sound familiar, and the Lovecraft. And yet, as a fan I can't speak for someone who doesn't have that background, but my guess is you wouldn't feel left out. Some recursive novels, if you're not a fan, there's no point reading it.
DG: There's no access point sometimes. If the thing depended on knowing something to get it, that would be bad. So I had a couple readers who had not read any science fiction whatsoever, I was sort of beta-testing them to see, are you engaged enough? For me the key really is do you have characters that people care about, that you want to see them through their problems.
I take care to introduce the ground rules for what's going on early enough, so you can choose to bail out if this is not your cup of tea. Also, by grounding it in the current day world - it starts in the O'Hare terminal, where there's a possession going on - you have that combination of, look, I'm going to give you the real world and then there's going to be this one extra weird thing. People like Stephen King do that really well, where they'll ground it in the real world so you can follow that story, and then there's this extra thing and all you have to manage is that extra thing.
There are science fiction novels I love in which everything is different. You're in a far future and society's different and technology's different. Science fiction readers love that kind of immersion in complete otherness, but it really can seem opaque to someone who's not in on all the buzzwords. Science fiction can be really compressed. We can say, well, it's nanotech and there's a pico-network controlling this, and you've just shut out people because they can't understand or visualize what's happening.
So I have it kind of easy by picking this to be basically the real world plus one weird thing, to let people have access into it.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): But what's unusual is, it is close to the real world, it almost has a slipstream or surreal feel that a mainstream reader I think could handle pretty easily, and yet has all the tips of the hat to the science fiction fans reading it.
Daryl Gregory (DG): Oh, yeah, and I think people like Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon have sort of given people permission to put this stuff in mainstream.
You know, I am a science fiction reader and I find this stuff amusing. There is a relationship with the main character and his brother, who have obviously grown up together as geeks, and they're having this conversation about how to pronounce "van Vogt," a conversation which I have had many times growing up. Because when you're reading as a kid, you don't know how any of these people are pronounced. I don't know when I quite figured out how to pronounce "Heinlein." I think I pronounced "Zelazny" as "Zelzany" in my head until maybe I was 25, all the sudden I hear somebody pronounce it out loud. "Van Vogt" I never knew how to pronounce, so I have that conversation about, "How do you pronounce it, van Voggetuh, van Vookt?"
These kind of things I am just having way too much fun with, but hopefully they don't get in the way of the reader who has never heard of these people.
FR: It's true that it's just the one extra element of the demons added to the real world, but because of the way the story works, that element has to go back to this guy's childhood, so it has to have been around for a long time. Was it a difficult decision for you whether to set it in the near future, so it could have been happening without history being different, as opposed to writing it this way, almost an alternate history.
DG: It really is kind of an alternate history. For some reason when I was imagining the story I was imagining it happening in today's world, right away. So that meant I had to backdate it. I've read novels that did this very well, probably the one I stole from most liberally is the first Wild Cards novel. They do these snippets that go through the decades, and I just loved that effect of saying, look, this is not the main line of the narrative but here are these snapshots of what the world has been like. That seemed like a really effective way to do things, rather than have somebody explain, "Well, you know, Rod, since the 1950's this has happened..."
And I liked the idea of making some things concrete, like with Richard Nixon and the O.J. Simpson trial, how would that effect things? That's part of the mash-up too, let's take these real people and mix them in with these made-up people.
FR: I liked your resolution of the O.J. trial much better -
DG: - than real life!
FR: Yiddish Policemen's Union is up for the Hugo tonight.
DG: Great book.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I liked it a lot. But some people who are alternate history fans didn't care for it, I think because they want things spelled out in concrete terms, this is what happened and this is how the Korean War came out differently and so on. People who read alternate history seem to come from two different viewpoints. One is it's fun to just have that as a different background and get little bits and pieces here and there - is the president going to "go Nixon"; I loved that reference in your book - as opposed to readers who really want the timeline spun out in great detail. Did you have any concern that you needed to do that?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Well, I think you're right that there are two kinds of readers for that stuff. A lot of alternate history is actually just alternate present. They're not going back and spelling out the whole timeline. There are some books, like there's a great book by Kim Stanley Robinson called The Years of Rice and Salt, which is a true alternate history in that he covers all of history, retelling it basically as what would have happened if Europe was wiped out completely by the plague. So I guess there was a concern.
I think, though, what readers need most is a feeling of trust in the writer, that the writer has worked out the timeline and that the references that people make in conversation feel consistent. They may not actually have to be consistent, but it feels like the world feels to us. People make references to things all the time, drop things into conversation, and they don't stop to explain: "When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, because as you know, the message that they were coming didn't get through..."
FR: As you know, Bob!
DG: I wanted those kind of incidental references. I drop a couple references that some O.J. thing happened before I get around to explaining it. I like that kind of a feel that there is this density to the world that won't be explained, but if the reader feels like it's out there they can relax and trust it.
FR: So did you map it out for your own benefit? Like what happened to Nixon after he "went Nixon" in the press conference, did Spiro Agnew become president, things like that?
DG: I had some notes, and then some things I just couldn't work in. I'd love to do the scene where Nixon gets possessed, which I think may be the explanation for what really happened with Nixon and what really happened with O.J.
FR: It's as good as any.
DG: Yes! But some things I decided I had to know just enough. For example, I sort of mapped out Nixon. What happens in the book is Eisenhower gets attacked by a demon called the Kamikaze, who does what a kamikaze does, he dresses up, hijacks a plane and tries to crash it into someone. He tries to do this to Eisenhower, Eisenhower misses the attack, dies of a heart attack, Nixon becomes president early. And I was thinking, taking Nixon's personality, what he did to Democrats and journalists, that he would basically target the Japanese. For me that's specifically a 9/11 reference, that we'd say, who is doing this to us, let's profile those people.
But I did not do a really detailed timeline. I sort of had these markers in my head, big cultural markers that people would know about and talk about, and then I gave myself room during conversations if I thought of something just to put it in. I was hoping that people would feel like I filled notebooks up with exactly what happened year by year, but it doesn't actually exist.
FR: The demons, at least some of them like the Captain, resemble comic book superheroes. Is that something you wanted to explore from the outset, or did it just come out that way because those are archetypal characters?
DG: The idea is that there are these archetypes and they clothe themselves in the pop culture. And I was looking at, for reasons you find out later in the book, especially the icons that come to light in the 40's and early 50's. And for me, that's the golden age of comic books and pulp.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): But when you first were conceiving this book and plotting it out, were you looking for a vehicle to explore comic books? Because now you can thanks to Chabon and Diaz, you can get away with that, is it what you wanted to do going in?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Well, I started writing this before they came out,
but they've made it easier. I basically was saying, what are the things I'm
interested in? So part of it was really self-serving, saying I want to write
a literary science fiction novel that feels like a mainstream novel, but I
want to have my cake and eat it too. I want to write my
I was realizing that those pulp characters are really vivid, but they're two-dimensional. It would be very difficult for me to believe that someone would really dress up in a suit and carry a shield and go fight crime. But I could believe in an archetype, that is monofocused and is trying to relive these stories, appearing in the real world. I think that's actually easier than trying to write a novel about a guy dressing up in a suit, although I think that can be done. I love comic books, but I was interested in showing how these two-dimensional ways of being in the world aren't really tenable. You can't be a vigilante in the real world and go shoot a roomful of people and actually get away with it. But maybe a demon could!
FR: Your wife is a psychology professor?
DG: Yes, she is a psychologist, a professor of psychology at Penn State.FR: Does she forgive you for taking such a Jungian outlook?
DG: Ha! She actually liked that detail. In our world, Freud basically
won. The Jungians are sort of on the fringes, and the Freudians won for a
long time, although now there are other ways of thinking about psychology
that are more dominant in counseling. But I thought that if there were such
things as demons, Jung wins hands down. The archetypes and the collective
unconscious, that explains everything then!
And then I fool around with this idea that Jung was experiencing this stuff. All of the details about Carl Jung and the kind of mental breakdowns he was having, the kind of hallucinations he was having, are all true. The weird thing is I kept finding these correspondences to Philip K. Dick's life; he was experiencing sometimes the exact same kind of hallucinations. And the conspiracy theorist in me says, ah, OK! We can use these details to say this is the link between both these guys. They're both tapped into the collective unconscious. They both were imagining biblical characters coming to them. They both felt like they were receiving information from the outside. For Philip K. Dick he believed in the coming of the pink beam of light that gives him information, but Carl Jung was experiencing a lot of the same things. So I just decided for purposes of my novel, that's the true stuff that was happening and that's what links them.
FR: Psychology plays an important role in a lot of your work. In addition to Pandemonium, it is important in "Dead Horse Point" and "Second Person, Present Tense" among others. Is that because of your wife, and you're getting ideas from what she is running across?
DG: Probably. She is a counseling psychologist, not a clinical psychologist or someone working on cognitive research, but certainly that stuff is in the house all the time and I've always been interested in the neurological aspects. I started reading about the problems of consciousness years ago and it began to freak me out more and more. You can see that in "Second Person, Present Tense". There's also a story called "Damascus", that has to do with weird temporal lobe epilepsy that has these neurological effects.
I love the fact that it's such a hard problem for people to work on - what is consciousness? I keep coming back to that kind of thing. Identity - who are you really? Are you just a collection of subsystems in your head?
The great thing about being married to a psychologist, well, two things: one, we can talk about this stuff and she is reading these kind of articles too; the other thing is I cannot cheat at all with any of the relationships. She reads my stuff as a mainstream reader; she has no tolerance for SF clichés. And if I cheat at all with relationships to make my plot work out, she will totally call me on that every time. She is a great first reader for me. I feel really lucky, because I know some writers who don't have spouses at all interested.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Switching gears, let me ask you about religion in your work. It comes into a lot of your fiction, and a lot of it at least at first blush seems to take a negative view of religion. Maybe James Morrow is brushing off on you, living in State College. Is that too superficial a reading of some of your work?
Daryl Gregory (DG): No, it isn't. I am critiquing it. I'm trying to have it both ways, I guess. I was raised as a Southern Baptist, by Southern parents who had moved North. So I grew up in Chicago but I was raised by Southerners and went to a church where it was all Southerners and Southern Baptists. And so I grew up in that tradition, but at the same time I was reading science fiction, which is all about: well, it could be different. And the church is about: this is the way it is. So I was balancing those two things.
Pandemonium and a lot of my stories that deal with religion are a critique of the too-easy thinking that happens, kind of magical thinking. Well, if there's this hurricane that wiped out these people, that must be God's judgment. Or HIV is a judgment against gay people. Given this, then Y must be true, which can drive me crazy.
So there is this critique of that kind of thinking, but at the same time I really respect people who live by their beliefs. If you really believe someone is going to Hell if they're not saved, I respect people who take that seriously and are trying to work on it. So what I usually have is a critique of the larger thought processes, but people within it I try to treat with respect.
In "Damascus", there is this false sense of religion, in that people begin to evangelize by infecting everybody else with this biological religion.
FR: Did you ever read "The Moral Virologist" by Greg Egan?
FR: That has a similar story premise, where a religious person is saying, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could spread our beliefs through a virus?"
DG: Maybe it's a good thing I hadn't read that. I think Greg Egan is great, though.
But of course, if you really believe that you've got the answer, it's your duty to spread the truth. So probably the kindest character in "Damascus" is the most religious, this woman she meets in the hospital, who is the most traditionally religious Christian woman and she is pretty much the kindest person looking out for her. But I don't believe one of them has the answer.
I am suspicious of anyone who is too certain. So in Pandemonium, no one really has the answer. In Pandemonium, somebody says, "It always comes down to the scripture, whether it's no-money-down real estate or the Bible." There is always the scripture and the guy saying this is the truth and you have to follow it. And that stuff is scary, I think.
FR: That's also a parallel with James Morrow. Some people criticize him for being anti-religious, but then you think, who is the most sympathetic character in this story? And it's Father Ockham, it's somebody deeply religious.
DG: Yes, right! That's a lovely choice. In Towing Jehovah, he is a wonderfully engaging character, and you like him too because he is open. Jim Morrow was talking about this, we were talking about Towing Jehovah and he was saying that Norman Spinrad described it as a hard SF novel, because it takes the premise - OK, there's a God, He's dead - and proceeds rigorously from that premise.
Yes, he does critique religion, but his characters are sympathetic. He's not talking down to them.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): We talked about you using some recursive science fiction and fantasy personalities and tropes in Pandemonium. You were having some fun with that and tipping your hat to the fans. But it seems to me it's also part of a theme that runs through a lot of your fiction - I'm thinking also of "Unpossible" and "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy" - where you're really trying to explore what is the purpose of science fiction and fantasy, and why does this appeal to us?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Yes, that's a really good point. Especially "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy", which is really a mainstream story. It's not a science fiction story as much a story about science fiction. That's about kids growing up in Iowa who are making these science fiction films, which is something we did. You take these Star Wars models and you try to blow them up and make a video. And what is the purpose of these stories?
As a father, I've got a son who is twelve years old, which really is the golden age of science fiction. I'm opening up the vault, going to the bookcase saying, "Now you are ready for this, my son!" And I hand him Dune. He's reading right now the Foundation Trilogy, which just knocks me out. I'm just right back where he was.
FR: My son is twelve, and we're going through the exact same thing.
DG: Oh, it's a wonderful thing, isn't it? To have a geek son who will follow you! I'm as proud as any former athlete who's got a son with a strong pitching arm. To have a reader, I'm just enjoying the hell out of that.
And I'm struggling with that. What is the purpose of this? Why am I attracted to it? Why are other people attracted to it? What does story do for you?
In "Unpossible", they're trying to get back to this fantasy land. After reading to my kids - The Phantom Tollbooth, The Chronicles of Narnia they read on their own, Where the Wild Things Are we read dozens of times - what happens to these kids afterward? What happens to you as you grow up, if you had these stories as your foundation? What's the purpose of these stories? One of the purposes is, you just keep passing it on, and every person's going to find their own purpose.
In "The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy", there is a very real feeling that you're onto something important. When you're feeling like an outsider growing up, and I think this is true of a lot of science fiction readers, you're growing up feeling that outsider feeling, and you're holding onto these books, which become so important to you. Not only do they become touchstones, they really do shape the person that you become. At least there are certain books that are always in my head, kind of.
FR: But there is a bittersweet aspect to that also, that comes out in "Unpossible", that you really can't connect with it as an adult the same way you could as a child.
DG: Oh, that is so sad! I don't know if you've tried to do this, but I read dozens of Doc Savage novels growing up and I loved these books, and then you go back and try to read them and they're so badly written it's almost impossible. There is this door that closes. I'm watching this with my son. He's just a sponge, he's absorbing all this stuff, and I don't even know if he notices when the writing is good or not. He's starting to gradually realize that there are levels of writing.
When I was his age, there was just books. I don't think I was conscious that some people are doing this more elegantly than others. In some ways, that starts to close the door on innocence. When you start being too aware there's a writer and there's a technique and there's a point they're trying to make, you start being less innocent about it.
I really wish there was a part of my brain I could turn off, the writer part. And some writers can still get me to do this. Some people can be totally absorbing, and I become unconscious of their technique, I am totally absorbed in the story, like I was when I was twelve. But it's harder to get back to that.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Some science fiction and fantasy writers can do that for you?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Yes. I remember reading John Crowley's Little, Big, and I was just sucked into that book completely and totally. I read about a year and a half ago Geoff Ryman's Air: Or, Have Not Have, and that was a different experience in which I couldn't figure out how he was doing it. His technique was so subtle, so clear I was just blown away, and I wanted to say, "Okay, now it's time to stop writing." Because it was just so beautifully done.
FR: Did you read Ryman's "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter"?
DG: Yes, I did.
FR: That's terrific too.
DG: It is terrific. He has that ability to make me forget. He can do such beautiful strangeness.
I'm always trying to get people to forget. Probably the best compliment I've ever gotten on Pandemonium came from my son. He said, "Dad, I was reading it and I was really liking it, and I forgot that you had written it. At first I felt obliged to like it, and then I realized I was really liking it." I thought, okay, if I can get you past the obligation, that's enough for me.
But it is harder and harder, I don't know if this is true for you, but it is harder to find books where I am totally sucked in the older I get.
FR: It becomes harder I think as you are more mature and have read more, but I think it's probably worse for you as a writer. I've heard other writers say that as they learn the tricks of the trade, it becomes harder to enjoy reading, and that's a real downside of being a writer.
DG: Yes, and I do find myself reading more and more complex stuff trying to push myself to see, okay, how are they doing it? And that's a predatory kind of reading. You're reading as a tool-sharpening exercise, which is not the real pleasure. I really like it when I can find a book that I totally fall into.
For me, Iain Banks - I read both his mainstream novels and his science fiction - and I sort of fall into his books as well, they are just absolute pleasures. But a lot of times I have to read outside the genre to get that kind of pleasure. I'm reading right now a collection of hardboiled stories from the 40's and 50's, just to see how beautifully those guys wrote, and realizing there are more tools available.
FR: I am a collector, and I have one of the very early issues of Black Mask.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): That's where they first were creating that subgenre, and it's amazing that they could come up with that entire style out of whole cloth.
Daryl Gregory (DG): Yes, it is amazing. Gary Wolfe said at one point that maybe everything after that period is just pastiche, just homage. Because they were writing absolutely brutal stories sometimes, and that's been eye-opening.
FR: Tell me about the progression of your career. You sold three stories early, 1990-1992, and you had one mystery story a few years after that, but really didn't come back until quite recently.
DG: Yes, this is pretty much the worst way possible to have a science fiction career.
FR: How did it work out that way?
DG: I went to Clarion in 1988, a completely eye-opening experience. It was a really important experience for me, because I all the sudden realized that it was possible to do this writing thing. So then I started writing stories. But then life got complicated. We started having children, my wife was trying to get tenure, I was working full-time.
So I started working on this long novel that turned out to be unsellable. I was just pecking at it for a few hours every week, and taking forever to get it done. Looking back, what I should have been doing, if I was serious about a career, was to keep writing short stories, because they were shorter and would have been more manageable. But I really wanted to try a novel, and I'm glad I did, because I don't think I could have written Pandemonium without writing a really long, bad novel first.
But I did chop that novel into parts, and I got two short stories out of it. One of them was "Dead Horse Point" and one was called "Gardening at Night". Two completely different sets of characters and sets of problems, which may point out one of the problems with the book.
What finally happened to change all that was our kids got older, my wife got tenure and she didn't have to be working quite so many hours, and we got to the point where I could switch to half-time at work. So I'm a web programmer by day and I do that in the mornings, and in the afternoons I write. Committing time to writing was the big difference. I am not a fast writer, so I have to throw hours at things. I write sentence by sentence, so I couldn't find any shortcuts to writing fiction.
FR: Because you write that way, do you find you have to have a block of time? So it might not work to have an hour a day for ten days in a row, you need a ten-hour block of time.
DG: That really does work best for me.
The other problem was I was teaching high school for the first three years after Clarion. And I was so emotionally fried, I was thinking, okay, when summer comes that's when I'm going to have my block of time for writing. But I'd be so fried from the school year that I wouldn't do anything for the first two weeks. Then there would be some vacation in there. And then I'd be trying to get writing done, and it was like trying to start a car that's been in the garage all winter. It just was so painful to restart. So one thing I realized is that I need to write every day, to at least touch the manuscript every day. I'm bad at doing that, so I have to keep on myself about that.
But I really do need a block of time. It's very hard for me to say, I've got thirty minutes - go! Some people do that, and I'm really jealous of how they can do that. I do need the block where I sit down, and I sort of have to get myself into it. Once I start typing I can get monofocused and get work done, but I do need that block of time. It's very difficult for me to just jot things down.
There's a great story about Elmore Leonard. He had a job, I think in the insurance industry, and he would keep his pad of paper in his desk in a drawer, and he would write with one hand so nobody could tell that he wasn't doing his work that was on his desk. He'd be writing and if anybody walked into the office he would just shut the drawer. People can do that now with their computers, just flip over to what you're supposed to be working on, but I need the block.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Are you satisfied with that mix of working half-time and writing in the afternoons, or would you rather write full-time?
Daryl Gregory (DG): Right now I'm really satisfied. What I've found out, this is from being married to a psychologist, I've taken these tests many times and I know that I am fifty-fifty extroverted and introverted. I test out almost exactly down the middle. For me it works out, because I can go to work, get my extroversion taken care of, and then go off in my corner by myself and just write. I think if I were writing full-time, I might start going a little crazy and end up being one of those people who are just on the Internet constantly, trying to fill the extroversion by, "I know, before I get writing today, maybe I'll go start a flame war on a discussion board somewhere." I swear a lot of the problems on the Internet have to be from people who are bored with too much time on their hands, especially writers. I'd probably be blogging, trying to get people to comment.
So for me, writing is this pure thing, by having only this set amount of time for it. I'm terrible at updating my blog, because I feel like my job is to write fiction, and I'm a lot better at that than blogging.
FR: I don't understand the writers, like Scalzi, who are constantly putting things on their blogs, when they're actually able to write their fiction.
DG: That's a gift. If you can afford to live off your writing full-time, that's the way to do it, and maybe that's your day job. I really like the fact that my day job, programming, seems to draw from a different well than writing fiction. They don't seem to eat into each other much, so for me the balance is great.
Keeping the half-time day job almost gives me permission to keep writing pure. I don't have to try to put together how I am going to pay the mortgage - maybe I have to do other kinds of novels or maybe I have to do non-fiction writing to try to generate income. I can keep it this pure thing that's all about the fiction, and if I get no money from it, okay. Because you're not going to make any money writing short fiction.
FR: Does that mean you feel more at liberty to keep writing short fiction? You don't have to now switch just to novels because they pay better?
DG: I do. I would like to be one of those people who can keep doing both. Like you pointed out earlier, there is a joy to having this really narrowly focused thing that can be all about the poetry. Like "Unpossible" was about as compressed as I could make it, and tried to suggest lots of other children's novels in the space of a very short story. I love the art of that, but I love the novels where you can have a little breathing room. I would love to be able to do both.
But career-wise, it's very hard to convince people why they should be doing short fiction. I think you have to love it.
FR: Yes, and it is a shame, because sometimes authors like you who have a real talent for it end up not doing it, because you're getting paid five cents a word.
DG: You're getting paid five cents a word, and for me stories take a long time, especially longer stories and novelettes. "Damascus", I remember, was a lot of time working out the science, the structure, there was a tremendous amount of reading I was doing to get it right, basically trying to land my punches. With every story, I am trying to think, even if I only get one story done in a six-month period, at least try to give it my best shot possible.
Especially if you're doing your writing like I am at a coffee shop like Starbucks, I am losing money per page. A latte is costing me; each story is in the loss column.
So I want to keep writing that, but I also want to keep writing novels. I do know some people whose short stories I love, like Kim Stanley Robinson, I think he's said that he's sworn off short stories now, and as a reader I am annoyed with that. I want my Stan Robinson stories and I want his novels, I want them both.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I was at the panel earlier in Denvention on great opening lines, and James Patrick Kelly -
Daryl Gregory (DG): God bless him!
FR: - had printed out his all-time favorite opening lines, and one of yours was in there, "Second Person, Present Tense". That's mostly just an ego-boost for you.
DG: Yes, that's right!
FR: But just to make a question out of it, is the very beginning of a story something you focus on a lot?
DG: Well, one of the things that happened to me when I was taking this long break and writing the long, unsellable novel was when I came back to short fiction, I realized I needed to kick it up a notch and I needed to really focus on the sentences. I needed to have as much of the story in my pocket as I could, to know what it was doing. Because sometimes I would write these short stories where I was writing and I had an initial idea, but it wasn't going anywhere and I'd spend all this time basically just running into a wall. One thing I learned was, wait for the story to finish cooking. A lot of times I have to wait actively, writing variations of it sort of in a synopsis form to see what the shape of the story is, but not start writing the story until I had the bones of it there.
So for me, yes, I realized that editors choose really quickly when to stop reading, and so do readers, and to try to pay attention to those opening sentences. That's something you need to do more in short fiction maybe than novels, maybe novels people will give you more of a chance to get warmed up, but I don't think very long. I think if they're standing in the bookstore trying to decide, you don't have a lot of time either.
FR: What's interesting, though, is it seems like for short fiction people start at the beginning and have a short time period to decide is this holding my interest. With a novel when they're deciding whether to buy it, I see people all the time, they don't look at the beginning, they open it in the middle and start reading somewhere in the middle.
DG: Oh, really? That's probably a better test, actually. If the writer started slacking off, maybe they spent all their time on the beginning, you should check the middle. It's spot checking. If somebody gives you a bag full of apples, maybe you should check more than just the top ones, maybe those are the shiny, pretty ones. That's a really interesting observation.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I have been very encouraged lately. I really thought there was a dry period in American science fiction, like around the 90's, for ten or fifteen years. A lot of the established authors weren't writing that much or were writing less ambitious work than they used to, and a lot of the new writers coming along I felt weren't doing really new things. It was a different story in England, where they were having the British Boom, and there were certainly exceptions here but not so many as I wanted to see.
But the last few years I have encountered several writers who are new to the scene who I think are doing really interesting, high-quality work. You're one of them, but there are a number of others, Paolo Bacigalupi, Daniel Abraham, Catherynne Valente and other people out there, who are not that well-established but I open them up and immediately say, "Wow! These people really know what they're doing."
Do you ever look at it that way, where you fit in the new generation, or are you just writing your stuff?
Daryl Gregory (DG): I'm just writing my stuff. I don't think you'll know where you fit until much later, if you're lucky enough even to be mentioned at all later.
I do think there is such a thing as steam-engine time. Sometimes there is a group of people who end up writing similar kinds of things, who have all been coming in on separate trains and they all arrive at the station pretty much at the same time, and it's kind of an accident. Later, after the fact, you can say, "Oh, these are all steampunk people, these are all..."
But I also think there is something about the people we have been reading. So when we write our stories and our novels, we are sort of in conversation with all these other folks, and there is sort of a shared sensibility, but I think it's hard to tease it out when you're in the middle of it. I don't think you'll know until afterward.
So I don't know where I fit. I know the people I've been reading that I think are great. Like for me, a person in the 90's who had a huge effect on my writing was Sean Stewart.
Maybe this is my chance to say as a reader: I want Sean Stewart back. He's making money doing games right now and he's having a great time. I don't care if he's happy. I want him writing novels.
FR: Suck it up and write!
DG: Suck it up and write 'em for Daryl. Sean, if you're listening, I want you to write your novels for me. Same with Patricia Anthony, who I thought was writing great novels in the 90's and went off to Hollywood. I don't care if she's happy, I don't even care if she's making a gazillion dollars, I want her back. I'm a jealous, jealous reader.
I do think I'm lucky that there is sort of a bent going on right now - where people who are caring about the sentences a lot and are also trying to take science fiction, blend it with mainstream, blend it with all kinds of things - I feel lucky that maybe at this moment there is a readership for that kind of thing. And people who have crossed over to the quote mainstream are still bringing genre elements with them.
Our culture, the science fiction culture, basically won. So there is room now to write a totally mainstream kind of novel like Pandemonium, with this extra weirdness in it, with all these nods to the science fiction reader who will get these Easter eggs. There is room for that now, and maybe there wasn't room earlier. So I feel real lucky to find that.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): I think that's right. I think we won, but I still think there are a lot of people who don't know that.
Daryl Gregory (DG): Oh, no, because they'll say, "That's a mainstream thing, Michael Chabon, that's a mainstream novel."
FR: Right. And if Pandemonium is, which I think it will be, shelved in the science fiction section, there is a segment of people who would really enjoy it who won't ever pick it up because that's where it is.
DG: Yes, and that's a marketing problem more than a problem with the work. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says that these sections in the bookstore are telling people where they don't have to look. "I don't like biographies, so I never have to go in the biography section. I don't like science fiction, so I don't have to go in the science fiction section." And you can't find these readers.
FR: Right, and they're saying that even as they're reading science fiction, and they're not even aware of it.
DG: Oh, yes, exactly. There are always science fiction writers who complain, wait a minute, Margaret Atwood, Handmaid's Tale, that's completely science fiction. And Margaret Atwood would say, "No, of course not, I'm writing a mainstream novel." But they don't even say "mainstream," "I'm writing a novel, you people are writing something else."
FR: Talking squids.
DG: Yes.FR: You and I have something in common, but I think a lot of other people do also, which is we've both been yelled at by Harlan Ellison.
DG: Ha, ha!
FR: Would you like to tell the story?
DG: Sure. Growing up, I read Harlan Ellison, I read everything I could. I remember in high school opening up his collection Alone Against Tomorrow, and looking at those story openings and trying to figure out how he was doing it, and just finding it impossible. I'm sitting there typing on my little electric typewriter, trying to figure out, how is it done?
So I just worshipped the man. These stories were really important to me. So finally a few years ago, I'm at the Nebula weekend in Tempe, Arizona, and he's there, he's going to receive the Grand Master Award. He's got legions of people lining up for things, and at some point he's standing there and I come up to him and I say, "I just want to say how important these stories were to me." And at some point I say something like, "like your story, like -" and he says, "Like? Like? Like? What are you, a fucking college student?" And then he just went off, and I realized, okay, we're in performance mode now. And then we were done. He was just basically yelling at me at that point, and I thought, okay, that was my moment with Harlan Ellison. I was trying to tell him how much I appreciated him, but that wasn't going to wash.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): The last question we always end with is what's your favorite dessert?
Daryl Gregory (DG): German chocolate cake, probably. But in practice it’s usually coffee. Coffee at night, with some milk or cream in it, that does me.
FR: Well, thank you very, very much for talking to us.
DG: Oh, yes. Let me just tell you there's a second book coming out from Del Rey next year that has nothing to do with Pandemonium.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Do you have a title?
Daryl Gregory (DG): The working title is Oh, You Pretty Things. It's kind of a mash-up as well, in that it's a hard science fiction Southern gothic murder mystery.
FR: So that subgenre?
DG: At least I finally came up with a sentence! Yes, I want to claim that subgenre.
FR: You got it.
DG: I want the only book. But I think it's maybe too early to talk about, it'll be a year away. It's completely unrelated to Pandemonium.
FR: How far along is the writing process?
DG: I just turned it in, so I'll be starting the revisions. That one I took some of the hard science stuff I do more in the short fiction. Pandemonium is rubber science at most. There are a couple things that are true about neurology in there, but the book doesn't really depend on them or need them. In this one there's a little more hard science about evolutionary biology and that kind of thing.
Fantastic Reviews (FR): Good! We'll look forward to it.
Daryl Gregory (DG): Thanks a lot!