A couple of months ago, Lou Anders sent me an advance copy of Masked. It was for proofreading purposes, of course, but I couldn’t wait to check out the other stories in the collection. Most were contributions from well-known talents. A few were from authors I was unfamiliar with – Daryl Gregory for one. Well, hitherto-unknown-to-me Daryl Gregory’s entry in Masked, “Message from the Bubblegum Factory”, so impressed that I decided to make his novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, a book of the month club selection. It, in turn, so impressed that I immediately picked up his first novel, Pandemonium, which is now sitting on my night table waiting to be read. Hopefully his next novel, Raising Stony Mayhall, will be out by the time I finish Pandemonium, otherwise I may have no choice but to bid on his old love letters.
In the meantime, this Q&A will have to tide me over…
DG: First of all, folks, thanks for reading, and for taking the time to participate in this discussion. This is really all a writer dreams of — to reach a few readers, and hope they understand what you’re trying to do. Okay, writers also want money. They’re needy like that. But mostly it’s readers.
Let’s get to the questions!
Rebecca H writes: “I’d like to ask Mr. Gregory if the book was influenced at all by the writings of Flannery O’Connor. The evocation of Southern life, the
grotesqueness of the clades, the depictions of the struggle between good and bad, and even the questions left unanswered except in the minds of the readers,
reminded me of her writing.”
DG: Call me Daryl, Rebecca. And if anything in ALPHABET reminded you of Flannery O’Connor, that’s high praise. But I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read O’Connor since college. Mostly I was trying to capture my experiences of visiting my parents’ hometown of Rocky Branch, Tennessee. I grew up in Chicago, but we went back to Tennessee about twice a year, to see grandparents and our relatives — and I have a LOT of relatives. I always felt like a kind of “insider/ outsider.” I was a Yankee, but all my roots were in the south, going back generations. My father’s side of the family was kicked out of the Cades Cove area of the Smokies when the government made it into a national park. If you climb Gregory’s Bald in the park, that’s where my great-great-grandfather kept his cattle.
I’m pretty happy the government grabbed the land, though. The park service has preserved quite a few of the cabins, and several cemeteries have been preserved, so I’ve been able to take my kids there. My father was quite pleased to show his grandkids Gregory’s cave, where my people stored their moonshine.
AvidReader writes: “As has already been pointed out, The Devil’s Alphabet is a very unique novel. It’s partly horror, partly fantasy, partly science fiction. I’d like to know how the idea for this story developed. Were you originally going to write one type of story and had it develop and morph in the writing stages, or did you always plan to write a book that crosses several genres.”
DG: The original idea came about because of an image that came to me of a tall, grey-skinned guy standing beside the road. I knew immediately that he wasn’t an alien, but that he’d been transformed somehow. From there the story began to grown and change as I tried to figure out how and why he was there.
The genre-crossing became clear to me as I worked out the plot. Partly because my first novel, PANDEMONIUM, had been a road novel, I decided that I wanted to set the story in one small town, a kind of microcosm to talk about the big SF ideas. Then I realized I could talk about my parents’ hometown. And then I realized it would be fun to mix the southern gothic — a town of mysteries, with a murder plot thrown in — against a backdrop of hard SF.
The horror aspects are really kind of accidental — I never intended them to be scary! My approach was to just write as frankly as possible about bodies, and the strange things that can happen to them as they age and change and contract disease. Many people my age are taking care of elderly parents, and many more of us have had to help a friend or relative through a terminal illness. If you’ve ever gone through something like that, you know how overwhelmingly physical the whole process can be. It stops being metaphorical and romantic fast.
But I have to admit there are a lot of bodily fluids in ALPHABET, especially in the scenes where the main character takes care of his father. And while I understand that some people find this disgusting, I thought it was necessary to the story, and something I needed to talk about.
Tim C and Ponytail both ask about that “interesting (but disturbing) cover.” I usually get asked two questions: Whose idea was that, and are those my eyes on the cover?
That cover came from the mind of Del Rey’s art director. It’s meant metaphorically — the book is about change, and distortion, and the folks there thought it would stand out on a book rack. But I get such a binary response on the cover. Some people really like it, some hate it. The people who like it tend to be editors and booksellers, interestingly enough. But I’ve had several people tell me that it made them want to avoid picking up the book.
The problem is, to some people the cover makes the book seem like a straight horror novel. Partly the title is to blame. Having “devil” in the title, plus that disturbing cover, pushes the horror buttons. But I think if we’d used my working title for the book, OH YOU PRETTY THINGS, we might have gotten a different reaction.
But I really don’t know what works best on a cover, or what sells books. That’s why I’m a writer, and not a publisher. Readers are really the best judges of this. So why don’t we put it up for a vote here — thumbs up, or thumbs down? Any comments on why it works or doesn’t work for you would be welcome.
Oh, and they’re not my eyes. Mine are right-side up.
Avid Reader asked, “Finally, and this is cheating I know, but what do YOU think caused the TDS?”
DG: Heaven forefend, AR! I couldn’t possibly say.
But I will say this: in every story and novel, I struggle with how much to resolve. As a writer, I’m much more interested in the effect of strangeness on character, rather than the explanation of strangeness, because every time you explain something it gets less mysterious, less interesting. On the other hand, when you write a mystery, there’s a contract with a reader to provide a solution.
On the other other hand, tying up every plot thread feels unrealistic and strangely unsatisfying — possibly because life itself provides few tidy conclusions. It’s 2010, and we still don’t know how most cancers work. We can’t explain consciousness. And nobody knows why the Kardashians are on television.
The last thing I wanted to do in ALPHABET was have a brainy scientist character walk in and explain exactly how TDS works, why the clades are the way they are — to say, this explanation and no others is the answer. All the characters — from the clades to the unchanged skips — are struggling to understand their roles on the planet. And the one thing we do know is that change doesn’t stop, that evolution keeps rolling, and we may never get a definite answer to life’s most important questions.
What I decided to do in ALPHABET then was explain some of the mysteries — who killed Jo Lynn, and what Paxton’s true nature was — and leave some of the larger questions unanswered. I also realized that this might not be a satisfying choice for some readers.
So for all you readers who hung in there with the book — thank you! And if any of you threw it across the room in frustration, thanks for getting at least that far.
LeoLeona writes: “What can you tell us about Dracula: The Company of Men? What was it like working with Kurt Busiek and were you familiar with his work before you scored the gig? Did you also get to work with Mark Waid?”
DG: First off, Neil LaBute wrote “Dracula: In the Company of Men.” I thought Aaron Eckhart was great as the vampire. (Okay, I know that was just a typo, Leo, but I couldn’t resist.)
As I write this, issue 1 is about to hit the stands on August 25. I’m thrilled to be co-writing with Kurt (whom I can only just barely avoid calling “Mr. Busiek”). I’ve been reading him since THUNDERBOLTS, and ASTRO CITY and MARVELS are quite simply some of the finest comics ever written. In fact, one of my short stories, “The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm,” couldn’t have been written without the example of MARVELS.
Which I guess answers NCMarquez’s question — was I a comics fan before MASKED and DRACULA? Oh, yes indeed. I was a comics fan before I could read — I have a distinct memory of my father reading aloud from Spider-Man. My favorite character is Captain America, hands down. I imprinted on him at a very young age, and I still keep a statue of the Captain on my mantle. I don’t think we have any choice in these matters. I have a son who’s 14, and for him it’s Thor. Someday, scientists will discover the Kirby-Lee gene, which determines exactly which superhero you will follow for the rest of your life.
But back to Dracula. Kurt came up with the concept for the book, and provided the outline for the first 12 issues, and I’m writing the scripts. Kurt also provides feedback on each script. I think it’s been the best possible way to enter comics. I have Kurt’s outline as a model to teach me about structure and pacing, which is one of the main differences between novel writing and comics. KellyK, this answers one of your questions. And to answer another: No, I haven’t gotten to work with Mark Waid, but I met him for the first time at Comic-Con, and he’s a great guy. (It’s so nice when gifted people turn out to be nice, too.)
KellyK also asked if editors were more restrictive in comics. I don’t have enough data points yet, Kelly, but I will say I’m really enjoying working with Dafna Pleban, my editor at BOOM! Studios (publisher of DRACULA), and I haven’t felt restricted at all. On the prose side, I’ve had great experiences working with the SF and fantasy editors who’ve published my short stories, and I LOVE working with my editor at Del Rey, Chris Schluep.
Here’s the thing: Editors want the same thing you want, to make it the best story possible. I know people who’ve had bad experiences with overbearing editors, but that hasn’t happened to me. I’m a lucky man.
Now on to the short answer section:
KellyK: “What influenced the writing of The Devil’s Alphabet. Someone already mentioned Flannery O’Connor, but I’m wondering if there were any other works (either written or film/t.v.) that helped shape this story and your writing in general.”
DG: For content, David Bowie’s “Hunky Dory” album, and for tone, just about anything written and sung by Steve Earle.
KellyK: “How long did it take you to write The Devil’s Alphabet?”
DG: About a year and a half, including the daydreaming, and breaks for writing short stories.
KellyK: “Are you the type of writer who sets aside time to write and writes or do you only write when the muse sings to you?”
DG: If I waited for the muse to sing, I’d never get any writing done. I set a schedule, and try to write every day.
AvidReader: “Because the book is so unique, did you encounter any obstacles in getting it published, or was it straightforward because of the reception to your first book?”
DG: It was the second book in a two-book deal, so if the publisher regretted it, it was too late!
AvidReader: “And, a bigger question, how do you write? Do you always know where you’re going and going to end up or do you let the story guide you?”
DG: It’s a little of both. I do try to create an outline before I start, but the outline changes as I write each chapter. And while I usually know the beginning and the end, the middle is almost always a foggy gray area that gets filled in as I muddle through it.
Ponytail: “Did you toy with any other ideas on how to make a different group?”
DG: There’s an early draft, only a few chapters long, that included two more clades.
AvidReader and PonyTail both brought up Deke and Donna, and asked “why?”
DG: I’m sorry. I just realized as I was writing, that a moment had to come that would force both the town and Paxton that the stakes had raised, and that there was no going back.
Ponytail: “Now that Masked has published, what are you working on now?”
DG: I’m writing the remaining scripts for DRACULA: COMPANY OF MONSTERS, rewriting my next novel, called RAISING STONY MAYHALL, that will be out in the summer of 2011, and working on a few other prose projects.
And Ponytail, I’m sorry I didn’t get to answer the rest of your questions, but I have to get back to work on one of those secret projects.
Thanks, everyone! And thanks to Joe for renting this space. If you have follow-up questions, I’ll be watching the comments section this week!