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Apr 24

Interview: Daryl Gregory

A little while ago, I read Afterparty and lost my mind about how amazing it is. Daryl Gregory is a true peach. He is incredibly busy, and even after I told him that I might happen to be the worst interviewer on the face of the planet, he let me bug him with some questions anyway. Please check out this interview, and give the man some serious props for putting up with me.

And while you’re at it, go buy a copy of Afterparty. You won’t regret it.

My mind is still blown.

Read more about Daryl Gregory, and his book(s) here

Onto the interview!

First things first, what do you do when you aren’t writing?

I have a half-time programming job that helps keep a roof over our heads. I write code in the morning, then head off to a coffee shop to write every afternoon. There are a few psychological benefits to not quitting the day job. One, I don’t need to sell to eat, so I don’t have to take work-for-hire jobs unless I really want them—like the Planet of the Apes comic, which I enjoyed tremendously.

What is your writing background? Were you always a writer or did you have an “ah ha” moment of awakening that led you down this road? 

I’ve wanted to be a writer since about 30 seconds after I learned to read. I wanted to be inside books, and writing them turned out to be the easiest way to do that.

On your website you say that you are an author of “genre-mixing novels.” After reading Afterparty, I have to agree with that. Do you consciously set out to “genre-mix” or does it just happen? What appeals to you about blurring the lines like that?

Genre-mixing is my natural inclination. Growing up, I read all kinds of stories—fantasy, science fiction, horror, crime, adventure, historicals—and those books were all having sex with each other in my head. I consider my own stories to be their strange babies. Of course they’re confused. It didn’t help that some of my favorite novels crossed genre boundaries. Afterparty couldn’t have been written without Zelazny’s Lord of Light.  Fortunately for me, as both a reader and a writer, there’s more of that kind of thing going on. I feel very lucky to be writing at a time when there’s an audience for these kinds of stories.

You’ve won a ton of awards and received a lot of recognition for your novels and short stories. Does your success ever surprise you, or is that something you get used to over time? 

Well, I would say that I’ve lost a ton of awards. I think my first novel lost three different awards to Jeff Ford. Now, Jeff’s one of the finest prose stylists of our time, but what’s infuriating is that he’s also one of the nicest guys in the world. How is that fair? If I’m going to lose that often to a single writer, at least make him hate-able.

But yes, I have won a couple things, and I’ve been short-listed for end of year lists by organizations like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. That’s very gratifying, and I haven’t taken any of it for granted. I’m from the Midwest, which means that you grow up knowing that as soon as you feel proud of any accomplishment, a tornado will wipe out your house.

There is one thing that surprises me every time it happens, however, and makes me get all verklempt: when a writer I respect says, I read your story, and it was good. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.

You write comics as well as novels. These two forms of literature are vastly different, so I assume writing and creating them are vastly different. What are some of the ways writing a comic is different than writing a novel? How are they similar? 

Telling a story is telling a story, so that doesn’t change whether you’re writing a novel or telling a ghost story around a campfire. But the form of comic writing is so different, and fortunately I had friends who were ace comics writers. Matt Sturges and Chris Roberson coached me through writing to the tight structure of a 22-page comic. But the most important lesson amounted to “Write less.” Let the art do the work.

Afterparty absolutely captivated me. One of the reasons why was because the “near future” you set it in was so absolutely realistic and believable when compared to the world we live in. Did you have a method to your madness when creating things like the chemjet printers, the cigarette smuggling business and the like?

Here’s the trick about writing near-future SF: It’s just mainstream fiction about the present, with enough new ideas so that it won’t feel quaint in a few years. Almost all the tech I invented was either possible now in principle, or possible when combined with a couple other existing technologies. Take the chemjet printers, which allow people to “print” designer drugs onto rice paper. I just took 3D printers, replaced the plastic source material with foil packs full of precursor chemicals, and assumed that the open source community would take care of inventing new recipes.

I’m glad you brought up the cigarette smuggling. In the novel, there’s a scene where First Nations people are smuggling cigarettes across the St. Lawrence river from reservations lands in upstate New York. None of that is made up, and is happening every day, right now. I did add the idea of replacing live boat drivers with remote controlled drone boats — but that’s not very far-fetched either.

The trick when introducing new tech into the story is to not point to it too strongly and make a  big thing out of it. It’s part of the world, so you mention it and move on. Readers will fill in the gaps, and because they’re doing the work, it feels like part of the world.

One of the major issues that fuels Afterparty is regarding the side effects of drugs and medication. This is a really heavy theme throughout the book as it causes mental illness, and seriously alters a person’s life. What kind of research did you do when you were creating these drugs and their effects?

I’ve been reading about neuroscience and for years now. Many of my short stories are about quirks of consciousness, and some of the big questions, such as, Why are we conscious at all? Do we have free will? And how do our emotions affect rationality?

When I started writing Afterparty, I knew I needed to know more about psychoactive drugs, their affects on the brain, and the way the brain reacts in withdrawal. Fortunately, I found a few good books, and a host of sites online. There’s a community of people interested in smart drugs and designer drugs.

I’m interested in what modern day inspirations you used as jumping off points for Afterparty.

For this book, I wasn’t thinking about things in the modern day as a jumping off point. The book is set in the modern day, with only enough science fictional invention to allow me to talk about what I wanted to talk about, and to make my plot work.

The morals are fairly blurred in Afterparty. You really set up a scene where social evolution made drugs accessible, and along with that comes the religion and morals that alter to make way for the easily accessed drugs. Many drugs were created with good intentions and ended with disastrous results. Some people take advantage of that, and some don’t. You’ve really created a fascinating and complex moral gray zone. I wonder is that a reflection of how you see society now? A complex array of constantly evolving grays? Also, regarding the merging of drugs and technology, is this the path you see humanity on? 

Another advantage of writing about the very near future: I don’t think I invented much as far as the accessibility of drugs or the moral universe in which we would all be using them — that’s all here, right now. And it is a gray zone, in the ways you’ve pointed out. Drugs save lives, but can also be abused. I think we’re not on the path to using drugs as technology; we’ve been using drugs as “modules” to augment ourselves since we discovered peyote and beer.

Mental illness is a strong theme throughout the novel, and you keep that mental illness and the characters who struggle with it, incredibly realistic despite their struggles. They aren’t defined by their mental illness, but it certainly is part of them. What kind of research into mental illness did you do when you wrote this? Did you ever struggle with not letting the psychological disorders overpower the characters?

This is one of the benefits of being married to a psychologist—and hanging out with shrinks! For years I’ve been very interested in the neurochemical aspects of the mind, and have done a lot of reading on my own, but this topic is just in the air in my house.

You bring up an interesting point about not letting the disorder overpower the character. You just have to write “person first”—Lyda’s a person with (unusual) problems, she’s not just “a schizophrenic” or “an addict.” I think if you write out of love and empathy, you avoid most of the problems of reducing the disability to some kind of plot function.

Afterparty really focuses quite a bit on the connection between science and religion. It is impossible not to have the two tied when the protagonist has an angel nearby almost constantly. Science and religion are both topics that people tend to not want to talk about around the dinner table. Are you worried about how such weighty, hot button topics would affect readers?

I wasn’t worried about the readers–hot button topics are why we read! No, I was worried about my mom. My parents are devout Christians, and my mom reads everything I write, no matter how weird it gets. She knows I’m her strange child. But I was afraid that this time I’d written a book that she wouldn’t want to tell her friends about.

That said, I hope my mother (and her friends) read to the end, because my take on religion is more nuanced than just “it’s all in your head.” (Well, I believe it is, but it’s more complicated than that.) I think the numinous—the religious feeling that tells us that we’re all connected—is true in a philosophical sense. We are connected. But that impulse may also be an excellent survival mechanism that we’ve evolved for good reasons.

Maybe this is a stupid question, but the name “Lyda Rose” is also the name of a song in The Music Man. So, of course I have to ask, why did you pick that name? And are there meanings or interesting parallels with all the names in your book or just hers?

Lyda’s name popped into my head early on, and then it was simply her name, and I couldn’t shake it. I was in that musical in seventh grade, and I still have most of the songs memorized. So in the book, Lyda’s name is an annoying inheritance from her mother, who was a fan of Broadway musicals. I don’t think any of the other names have special meaning. Most were picked for their sound and rhythm, like “Edo Andersen Vic.”

Afterparty is such a deep, thought provoking book I am having a hard time narrowing down what questions to ask you. I always try very hard not to ask this question, but I think your book merits it. When people read your novel, what knowledge or thought do you want them to walk away with? 

“Thought-provoking” is both the adjective and final result I’m looking for.  Will readers keep thinking after they put down the book? I’m not trying to leave them with one specific idea in mind, except perhaps this: you’re brain is lying to you all the time, so be on guard.

What other projects are you working on that I can look forward to?

In August 2014, Tachyon Publications will be publishing a novella in book form called We Are All Completely Fine. It’s about five survivors of supernatural horror—each of them a Last Girl or Last Boy—who go into small group therapy together. Then, of course, they find out that their stories aren’t over, and are connected in mysterious ways.  Then next year Tor is publishing my first YA novel, a Lovecraftian book with a light touch.

So, two horror books that aren’t really horror, because I love the monsters too much. My first novel was about “demonic” possession, my second about genetic freaks of the Smoky Mountains, and my third was about the nicest living dead boy in the world, so I guess this is a psychological issue I’m working out.

 Are there any final thoughts you want to leave with readers?

If after reading this interview your lying brain is telling you to try out Afterparty, maybe you should think twice about that.

Thank you so much for your time!!

It was a pleasure.

3 comments

1 ping

  1. Bibliotropic

    I feel kind of stupid for not catching the Music Man reference, seeing as how I was part of my high school’s production of that years ago and sometimes still catch myself humming songs from it. :p

    Awesome interview, great insights, and having finished Afterparty, I kind of want to read everything Daryl Gregory has ever written.

  2. Paul Weimer (@princejvstin)

    Another fine interview, Sarah.

  3. Bob

    I’m not sure where you got the idea you’re a bad interviewer because this was pretty awesome.

    I just finished Afterparty yesterday, and I need to let it simmer before I can write a coherent review. Yet, there is one small little part of he book that has been playing with my brain since I read it, and I spewed it all out at Andrea the other day, but I can’ stop thinking about it. Not sure if I’m going to talk about it in my review because it’s a minor smidget of the book, so I’ll mention it here.

    Also growing in a Fundamentalist Christian family, I always struggle with the almost schizophrenic nature of god. There is on story in the Bible where Abraham is told to sacrifice his his son to god. I have always found this sadistic, and if that was the nature of God I wanted nothing to do with it. In the book, I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but he says that he likes to look at that story as not God testing Abraham, but Abraham testing God to see if he would really make him go through with it.

    That scene, and the neurochemical free will stuff has had my brain spinning for a few days. All that, and a pretty fun damn story as well.

    But really, great interview.

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