Interview: Writing to Music with Daryl Gregory
Music has greatly influenced my writing, and I have a novel brewing that was inspired by a song, but I was struggling with how to take that inspiration and spawn a complete story. It occurred to me that I may not be the only one. So I returned to a book that I’ve read a few times, Daryl Gregory’s The Devil’s Alphabet.
What this novel does best is offer a window into an odd, sometimes horrific, world that simultaneously feels quite familiar. That familiarity largely comes from a connection to and understanding of the struggles of the main characters. But there’s another interesting fact that’s near invisible unless you’re a die-hard David Bowie fan: it was inspired by and outlined to the lyrics of “Oh! You Pretty Things.” Given that that is so hard to catch, I thought I’d change up the format a little this week to ask Daryl how he went about writing his novel.
For starters, could you tell us a little about the story?
I call it an SF Southern Gothic murder mystery. It takes place in Switchcreek, Tennessee, a small town nestled in the Smokies, where ten years before, a gene-altering disease swept through the town that killed many of the residents, but turning the survivors into one of three new species: the ten-foot tall Argos; the scarlet-skinned, ungendered Betas; and the bulky Charlies. Oh, and the elder male Charlies produce an addictive, hallucinogenic substance from the blisters in their skin. It’s that kind of book.
The main character is Pax Martin, who was one of the “skips,” people who were supposedly unaffected by the disease. Yet Pax is haunted by the idea that he’s been changed on some deep, subtle level. He was sent away by his Baptist father when he was a teenager, but now he’s come back for the funeral of one of his best friends, a Beta who was murdered, and to take care of his father, who’s now a 600-pound Charlie being used as a living drug factory. (I warned you.) The book’s about evolution, alienation, and the elusive nature of humanity, but it’s also about life in an East-Tennessee mountain town similar to the one my parents grew up in.
What particular set of music inspired this story and why?
A few of my short stories have been inspired by a particular song—my story “Damascus,” for example, came out of Johnny Cash’s rendition of Depeche Mode’s “Your Own Personal Jesus”–but this is the only novel I’ve written that was guided by one: David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things.” That was also the original title of the novel (minus the exclamation mark), before Del Rey decided there were too many other books with similar titles. I really wish I would have fought harder for that title.
I’m a huge Bowie fan, and always have been. When I was sixteen I wore out my cassette tape of Young Americans. Blackstar, his final album, moves me to tears every time I listen to it. (I don’t turn it on when I’m driving in traffic.) “Pretty Things” comes from the album Hunky Dory, way back in 1971, and it’s Bowie in groovy SF freakout mode. Here’s a typical verse:
Look at your children
See their faces in golden rays
Don’t kid yourself they belong to you
They’re the start of a coming race
The earth is a bitch
We’ve finished our news
Homo Sapiens have outgrown their use
All the strangers came today
And it looks as though they’re here to stay
See? It’s an SF novel waiting to happen.
How did this inspiration change your normal brainstorming, outlining, and writing process?
The Devil’s Alphabet was my second novel, and I remember starting it in a haze of panic. Did I have any more ideas? Could I possibly write another novel? I decided to help myself out by using “Oh! You Pretty Things” as my outline. There’s a sudden, God-like event—Bowie has a “crack in the sky” in the first verse—which leads to a struggle between parents and children, and the story ends with “You got to make way for homo superior,” the emergence of a new competitor to homo sapiens.
I laced other lyrics throughout the manuscript. This is a trick I first learned at Clarion in 1988, when my classmate Brooks Caruthers wrote an entire story linked by song titles on a mix tape. Maybe Brooks learned it from William S. Burroughs or Lou Reed, but wherever it came from, it’s a technique I’ve gone back to many times over the years. There’s something about borrowing an outside structure, or an arbitrary set of rules, that gets the creative juices flowing. Of course, later you can cut anything that doesn’t fit the story anymore, and that’s fine, too.
Were there any pitfalls in this process or in using music to guide you through a story?
Well, the lyrics will only take you so far. They’re good for generating images you want to write about, but not so great at telling you why something is happening. Pax Martin is a kid in his mid-twenties who’s alienated and a bit lost: he doesn’t know why he’s come back home, isn’t sure what he wants from his father or his friends, and doesn’t know what he wants out of life in general. He’s not even sure he’s human!
When I wrote the book I was writing about people I knew who were lost at that age. But Pax’s disaffection makes him a difficult character to like. More critically, he’s not a great choice for a main character. He doesn’t want to participate in the story!
I shouldn’t admit this in public—and in general, writers should leave it to reviewers to bad-mouth their books—but because you and I have talked about this, and this newsletter is going out to other writers, I want to be clear: Don’t do what I’ve done! When I teach plotting now I warn people against choosing this kind of protagonist. (Of course, you still can. There are no rules in fiction. If you’re Virginia Woolf, feel free.)
What did you learn from doing this? If you were going to do it again, what might you do differently?
I still stand behind The Devil’s Alphabet, and there are scenes, like the drug-hazed baptism scene, and the argo funeral, that I’m very proud of. But I’ve since learned to pick more active, decisive main characters. It is possible to write characters who don’t know what they want, but you, the author, have to know what they desire subconsciously, and what they’re trying to get from other characters in the scene. Moment by moment, the character needs to be working on a concrete goal, even if it’s self-destructive, or in conflict with what the character “really” wants.
I say I learned this lesson from The Devil’s Alphabet, but actually I was re-learning something I’d had drilled into me in acting and directing classes when I was in college. (I was a double English-theater major, which I tell people is twice as unemployable as the usual liberal arts major.) A professor once told me that as an actor you can’t play “running from a bear.” You can only play a “want”—wanting to reach a tree, or a shotgun, or the door to the cabin. If you don’t want anything, you’ve got nothing to do on stage.
Pax, in The Devil’s Alphabet, was running from life, but I hadn’t given him anything to run toward. By the end of the book he figures it out, but by that point he’s already frustrated many of the readers.
You have a new book coming out in June called Spoonbenders from Knopf! I could not be more excited, and have already pre-ordered my copy. Would you mind telling us a little about that project?
You’ve already pre-ordered? That’s crazy. Thank you. You don’t have to read it, by the way. By simply buying it you’ve done your duty as a friend and colleague.
Spoonbenders is about Teddy Telemachus, a con man and card sharp, who falls in loves with Maureen McKinnon, a girl with real psychic powers, back in 1962. They marry and have three kids with somewhat mediocre powers—Irene is a human lie-detector, Frankie can move bits of metal, and Buddy can predict the scores of Cubs games—but of course Teddy puts them on the road as the Amazing Telemachus family. The book is about what happens after Maureen dies and the act (and the family) falls apart. Twenty years later, they’ve never made a dime with their powers. Then Matty, Irene’s son, discovers he has Maureen’s ability to move outside his body, and the family gets one more chance to make good.
It’s a bit of a romp, throwing together mobsters, the CIA, long cons, and old fashioned stage magic, but what drives the book is the family relationships. These grown kids fight with each other but also take care of each other when it counts.
So, I’m still writing about families, and mutants! But I’ve learned some lessons as a writer. With this book I went deeper into each character’s desires, even their modest, far-from-world-changing goals. The book has a rotating point of view, with each of the Telemachuses getting time in the spotlight, and I tried to not only understand what each family member wanted in each moment, but to find his or her unique voice, their way of seeing the world. Kim Stanley Robinson was one of my teachers at Clarion, and I learned something important from reading his books: He loves each of his characters, even those doing terrible things. His novels swell with empathy. In Spoonbenders I wanted that kind of love to shine through on each page.
Oh, and I also let myself be funny. In The Devil’s Alphabet, Pax was verbally awkward, and I stripped down my writing to show that. I deliberately cut out banter, pop-culture references, and much of the ironic attitude I’d used in my first novel, Pandemonium. (I guess I wanted to show… range? Hemingway-esque clarity?) I wised up for my third novel. The family in Spoonbenders—with the exception of Uncle Buddy, who’s almost mute—is a family of talkers, with a keen sense of the absurd. I hope readers have as much fun hanging out with them as I did.
Bio: Daryl Gregory grew up in Chicago and lived for 24 years in State College, PA, where he first met Mike Glyde. He’s the author of six novels, several comic book series, a short story collection, and the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which won the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards. In 2018, Tor Teen will reissue Harrison Squared, the first book in his Lovecraftian YA series, and publish two new sequels. He now lives in Oakland, CA.