Daryl Gregory on The Devil’s Alphabet

The Devil's Alphabet

A couple of weeks ago, after I interviewed comics writer/prose novelist Chris Roberson over at my other online home, Robot 6, we got to discussing novelists that he would recommend to feature here. One of the first names he mentioned was novelist Daryl Gregory. Roberson was kind enough to get me in contact with Gregory who was willing to discuss his latest novel, The Devil’s Alphabet. Before starting the interview, let’s delve into part of his bio: “Daryl Gregory’s first novel, Pandemonium, appeared from Del Rey Books in 2008 and won the Crawford Award for 2009. It was also a finalist for several other awards, including the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. His second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, appeared in November, 2009, and was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly.”

Also, here’s some background on the novel itself: “Switchcreek was a normal town in eastern Tennessee until a mysterious disease killed a third of its residents and mutated most of the rest into monstrous oddities. Then, as quickly and inexplicably as it had struck, the disease–dubbed Transcription Divergence Syndrome (TDS)–vanished, leaving behind a population divided into three new branches of humanity: giant gray-skinned argos, hairless seal-like betas, and grotesquely obese charlies.

Paxton Abel Martin was fourteen when TDS struck, killing his mother, transforming his preacher father into a charlie, and changing one of his best friends, Jo Lynn, into a beta. But Pax was one of the few who didn’t change. He remained as normal as ever. At least on the outside.

Having fled shortly after the pandemic, Pax now returns to Switchcreek fifteen years later, following the suicide of Jo Lynn. What he finds is a town seething with secrets, among which murder may well be numbered. But there are even darker–and far weirder–mysteries hiding below the surface that will threaten not only Pax’s future but the future of the whole human race.” My thanks to Gregory for his time and thoughts.

Tim O’Shea: In addition to naming you in a manner that allowed you to avoid being called junior, do you think your parents unintentionally helped make your name more marketable for when your began your writing career?

Daryl Gregory: Wait, would my name be more unmarketable as a “junior”? Growing up, I thought it was pretty lame as it was. That’s why for my first publication — a science fiction story that appeared in “Rambler Roundup,” the Marion Hills Elementary School newsletter, when I was in fifth grade — I used the pen name “James Clark Savage,” Yes, I’d been reading a lot of Doc Savage.

We should explain to your readers that my father’s name is Darrell — note the subtle change in spelling — and that he also has a different middle name. So I’m a phonetically near-junior. The marketing genius of this — and I have to believe my parents planned it — is that it gives me something to talk about in interviews like this one.

O’Shea: You sold your first short story in 1989 and published your first novel in 2008. Had you been wanting to write a full novel since the late 1980s or creatively did you want to hone your writing skills through short stories for a number of years before tackling novels?

Gregory: For more than ten years, between selling my first batch of stories and returning to the field in the new century, my only goal was to get some — no, *any* writing done at all. I was working full time, my wife was getting tenure (she’s a professor at Penn State), and we were raising babies. I was lucky to get ten hours a week to write, and I spent most of that on a long, unsellable novel. I was lost in a sea of words, and I could not figure out how to shape the thing. There were scenes and characters and ideas I loved (some of which I later transferred to short stories), but structurally and plot-wise, it was a mess.

When I did carve out some time to write, I went back to short stories. I feel lucky that in my genre there’s a market for short fiction, because it did allow me to figure out how to tell a story. More specifically, I learned what kind of stories I wanted to tell.

And what kind is that, you ask? (Thanks for asking.) I became attracted to what I call N+1 stories. They’re almost all set in the real world, with one difference: perhaps demonic possession is a regular occurrence, or an epidemic of some new prion disease erupts.The nearest I’ve gotten to the future is a couple of years. I hear it’s nice, though.

O’Shea: Anyone that visits your website can tell you have a sense of humor. How challenging is it to ration the level of humor you put in your stories–so it strikes the right balance and does not undermine the drama or suspense of the story you’re trying to tell?

Gregory: The sad part is how little comedy I get to put in. Many of my stories are just plain grim. I don’t know why they come out that way. I should ask my wife.

But it is challenging to find the right place for humor in a story. For me, the humor only works when it comes out of character. Is this funny line something the character would really say or think in this situation? My default mode is psychological realism in the face of situational surrealism, so a lot of my characters can only give deadpan responses to the outrageous things going on in the story.

O’Shea: The old saying goes “don’t judge a book by its cover” but at least one reviewer was drawn in by the cover to The Devil’s Alphabet.

Gregory: So I’ve got one!

In that case, the cover did exactly what my editor said they were hoping it would do: pop out from the shelf and prompt someone to pick it up. I don’t know what kinds of covers make a book sell. I only know what I like and don’t like, and often those don’t have anything to do with how it works as a marketing piece.

O’Shea: Not every writer has a psychologist and professor of counseling psychology for a spouse. When writing, do you ever get to tap her wealth of knowledge for stories and/or is she one of your beta readers when a story is in development?

Gregory: I do use her expertise. I write a lot of stories about quirks in neurology issues in consciousness. A couple years ago I wrote a story about sociopaths, and she was able to hand me two books off her shelf — very handy. Also, psychologists and therapists keep showing up in my stories, not just because of my wife, but because so many of our friends are shrinks.

O’Shea: Why set the story in Tennessee, as opposed to another state?

Gregory: Tennessee is my second home state. I grew up in Illinois, but my parents and all my relatives are from Tennessee. When I was growing up we went back there on vacation every year. That’s why The Devil’s Alphabet is written from the point of view of an “inside-outsider.” Paxton, the main character, grew up in that small southern town, but he’s been gone for a long time. He thinks he understands the way his town works, but he really misunderstands everything.

O’Shea: How much does pop culture inform your work?

Gregory: In some of my short stories, and in my first novel, Pandemonium, pop culture is almost the main topic. Pandemonium was about mash-ups, taking everything I loved — science fiction, golden age comics, pulp, rock and roll — and throwing them all together to see what came out.

But in other stories I deliberately leave pop culture out of it. With The Devil’s Alphabet, for example, I wanted to create a more timeless book, so I removed almost everything except for a few David Bowie references.

O’Shea: Back in mid-January, you found out that your book was one of the finalists for the Philip K Dick Award. Was there a delayed elation after the initial shock of finding out you’d been nominated, since Dick’s work is of such importance to you (in addition to the impact of the honor itself)? How much do you think has it elevated interest in the book?

Gregory: What delay? I was immediately happy. Thought it’s a bit ironic, because Philip K. Dick’s books, especially Valis, was a huge influence on my first novel, Pandemonium, but for this book I went with different models.

I don’t think these awards do much at all to sell more copies, but they do elevate interest among a subset of SF readers who follow these things. Thanks to the blogosphere, the award press release tends to be recopied and posted everywhere, so maybe that will put the book on someone’s radar.

Jo Walton did a blog post over on Tor.com about how the PKD award is primarily useful not for who wins, but for its nominee list, because it highlights interesting books that were released in paperback that would probably be overlooked. The shortlist might help people find something interesting to read.

O’Shea: Who were the easiest and hardest characters to write in the book and why? Along those same lines, what scene or story element did you most struggle with, in terms of false starts and frequent revision?

Gregory: Pax, the main character, was by far the hardest to write. His problem is that he loves his father and his friends, but he’s been hurt, and his strategy is to disconnect and push them away. On top of this, he’s slowly becoming addicted to a strange substance that his father produces (through blisters in his skin– that old cliche). Pax doesn’t know himself very well, and what he does know — about himself, as well as his family and friends — is constantly being called into question. So in every scene I was trying to divine his psychological state. How engaged is he? Would he be callous here, or open up a bit? Does he even know why he’s acting the way he is? And when will he figure out what needs to be done, and then do it?

A writer friend of mine called him Hamlet (a comparison I now intend to bring up constantly), and I heard from readers who grew impatient for him to take arms against his sea of troubles.

O’Shea: Who edited the book, and how much from your perspective did the book improve from their input?

Gregory: My editor is Chris Schluep, and he’s great. I turned in a very odd book that my previous editor (Fleetwood Robbins, who’s now at Wizards of the Coast) had purchased, and thank God Chris understood what I was trying to do. (At least, he *told* me he understood. Maybe that’s what you say to sensitive writer types.) Chris had a light touch in the editing, but he saw ways to make the book stronger, mostly in terms of information flow. When do we learn this? Is there a way to meet this character earlier? On the next book, if I blow it, he may have to come in heavy and slap me around, but so far we’ve been on the same wavelength. That’s been a huge gift.