Daryl Gregory is an award-winning writer of genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His first novel, Pandemonium, won the Crawford Award and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award. His second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet, was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher’s Weekly. His 2011 novel Raising Stony Mayhall was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal. Many of his short stories are collected in Unpossible and Other Stories, which was named one of the best books of 2011 by Publisher’s Weekly. He lives in State College, PA.
I recently read Raising Stony Mayhall and I just loved it. Thus, I'm really thankful to Daryl Gregory for agreeing to answer some questions about this wonderful novel and his work in general.
Odo: Zombie fiction is full of cliches, but in Raising Stony Mayhall you tell a zombie story that is both original and unconventional. Why did you decide to "stray from the trodden path"?
Daryl Gregory: My problem is that I have trouble staying on the trodden path.
When I was planning the book, the zombie craze was already well on its way. It seemed like no one needed yet another zombie book. But one of themes I keep coming back to in my fiction is the mind-body problem. What is our relationship to our bodies, and is there any self that's independent of that body? Writing about a zombie who is also an intelligent, caring person seemed like an interesting way to talk about that.
Plus, I wanted to look at some of those cliches. One of the questions Stony asks himself is how is it possible for a dead person -- a truly dead person, with no pumping heart, no metabolism, and no electrical activity in the brain -- to move and think and feel? And for heaven's sake, why aren't they rotting? In any logical zombie apocalypse, you should only have to wait a few weeks or months for the dead to rot down to their bones. In zombie movies, nobody ever asks those questions.
Odo: These days, we find zombies everywhere: in books, movies, TV series, comics, videogames... Why do you think people are so fascinated with the living dead?
DG: Zombies are both scary and comforting. They're scary because they tell us that at any point, the people we love could become unreasoning demons. The most horrible part of any zombie movie is when the friend or lover "turns."
But zombie stories, as a genre, are too often comforting, because they allow us to turn people into objects. In a zombie movie, it's perfectly fine to shoot people in the head. I think audiences (and I'm including myself here), can get sucked into enjoying that a great deal. It's the joy of guiltless, videogame violence.
I don't want to sound like a prude. I enjoy mindless videogame violence as much as the next guy. But in Stony I wanted to talk about the attraction to that kind of violence.
Odo: Your novel is full of wonderful characters. There is Stony, of course, but also the Lump, Commander Calhoun, Wanda Mayhall... All of them have a unique and distinct voice. How do you approach writing characters? Other than Stony himself, who is your personal favorite in Raising Stony Mayhall?
DG: I was a theatre major in college, so I do it through acting. Another way of saying it is that I just pretend, like a kid would. How does this character move? What do they sound like? And most importantly, what do they want? I try to figure out what each character wants in every scene, and then have them play off of each other.
I have a special place in my heart for the Lump. He's an undead guru who's barely more than a torso. He can only communicate through an assistant using an Ouija board, but for some reason, he has all the best lines.
Odo: In Raising Stony Mayhall there are many references to movies. George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is one of the more obvious, but I also think you pay homage to The Shawshank Redemption and even to Kill Bill. Do you usually find inspiration in movies?
DG: I find inspiration in pop culture in general. Throughout my books and stories are references to movies, song lyrics, comic books, old SF stories. I also like characters who are aware of pop culture, because that's the way people my age and younger experience the world. Some days, everything I see reminds me of something I've seen on TV. It's a condition of modern life.
Odo: Are you an avid reader, like Stony in your novel? Let's say that the zombie apocalypse has finally arrived. The living dead are banging at your door and you only have time to save one book. Which one would you choose?
DG: Stony's library in the novel is my fantasy library. I wish I had as many books as he did growing up. I spent most of my youth with my nose in a book. I read more than anyone I'd ever met, until I met my wife.
But now you're going to make me choose ONE book? This is a tough one. If the zombies are at the door, I'd probably grab my hardback copy of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Not because I'm an intellectual, but because the book is big enough to use as a weapon.
Odo: Before Raising Stony Mayhall you wrote two other novels: Pandemonium and The Devil's Alphabet. What is similar and what is different in these three books? Do you feel that you have evolved as a writer?
DG: Whether I'm evolving or devolving is a question for the readers. I feel like I'm becoming a better writer, but that may be a self-serving illusion. With every novel I try to do something I haven't done before, and to do something that I think I don't have the ability to do. With Stony, it was trying to do an entire life, from birth to death, in the space of one novel.
That said, the books have a lot of things in common. All three books are about the mind-body problem in some way or another. Pandemonium is about possession by alternate personalities. The Devil's Alphabet is about people whose bodies have been transformed by a genetic disease to such an extent that they're not sure they're human anymore. But on a more personal level, all the books are about family. Pandemonium is very much about two brothers. The Devil's Alphabet is about a father and son who may not be in the same species anymore. And Stony is about a dead boy and his three living sisters. I think a recurring theme of the books is that we're all freaks, but somehow we have to get along.
Odo: In addition to these three novels, you have also written a number of short stories (most of them recently collected in Unpossible and Other Stories) and even some comic-books. How do you decide whether an idea is better suited for short or long form, for written or graphical media? What do you prefer to write?
DG: The form shapes the idea. When I"m thinking about writing a novel, my brain tries to come up with novel-sized ideas. And when I'm working on short stories, I'm trying to find ideas that can be expressed in a few scenes. Short stories are liberating, in that way, because you don't have to show the global implications of the event or idea, you can be very personal, and let everything else be implied.
With comics, it's a much more collaborative process, in a visual medium. I'm working with an artist to tell the story, and so I'm always trying to write as little as possible, so the art can do most of the work. And sometimes the book is for an already-defined audience. For example, I'm writing a Planet of the Apes comic book, and that automatically sets certain parameters. The main parameter: The story must contain talking apes.
Odo: This a question I ask to all the writers who, like you, also work as computer programmers: What are the differences and the similarities between writing fiction and writing code?
DG: Most non-programmers don't realize how creative the code-writing process is. Or how collaborative. Almost all software is written in teams, and there is rarely one solution to a problem. Sometimes there are only a selection of less-bad options.
Odo: What are you working on right now? Can you give us a glimpse on your future projects?
DG: I'm working on two different novels that I can't talk about until they're further along. But I will say that one is mostly science fiction, and one is mostly horror. As per usual, I'm having trouble staying in one genre.
Odo: Where can our readers learn more about you and your work?
DG: Come to darylgregory.com, or my blog, darylgregory.wordpress.com. I'm also on twitter @darylwriterguy.
Odo: Is there any other thing you would like to add?
DG: I think that covers it!