We’re here at Laconic Writer Central, talking to two rising stars of the literary world…but do stars rise?…don’t they expand with the rest of the universe, fusing hydrogen as they go…okay, so here I am with some emerging fusion generators of the literary world, the lovely and talented Alan DeNiro and Daryl Gregory.
Alan’s first novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less (Bantam Spectra), and Daryl’s second novel, The Devil’s Alphabet (DelRey) are out today.
If these books share anything (and let’s face it, I haven’t read them, I have no idea, I’m just making shit up here), if these books share anything, it’s a real-world setting gone askew and authors who craft their words and worlds with precision and dark humor.
They’ve stopped by LWC to answer a few questions before heading out on their first world tour together.
LWC: What was the inspiration for the novel?
AD: The inspiration for the novel came from several different places; I’m not sure if I can pin down one. Some travels in the Lake Pepin region of Minnesota/Wisconsin, where some of the first scenes of the novel came into being. The voice of Macy was a strong component from the outset. One of the other “what if” questions that came early on and informed the tone of the novel was: “What if my family growing up had to be taken to a refugee camp, and we had to leave everything behind? What would that be like for the modern American family?” Now, this is an experience that DOES happen throughout the world, today and throughout history. But in much of America, there is an abstract remove from these kinds of violent pressures. There isn’t TOO much of my actual family in Macy’s family, but it was that initial question that allowed some of the characterization to kick into gear.
DG: It started with the image of a twelve-foot tall, skeleton thin man with chalk-white skin. I didn’t know who he was, or what had made him that way, or if there were more like him… and it took me a long time to figure out those answers. Some I didn’t figure out until I was well into the writing of the book.
The second inspiration was my parents’ hometown, Rocky Branch, Tennessee. I grew up in Illinois, but my family visited Tennessee once or twice a year, and this book grew out of my experience as a Yankee with hillbilly roots, as an outsider-insider who was part of the culture but still standing outside it. The town of Switchcreek that appears in the book is quite different from Rocky Branch—there are no twelve-foot trolls, for example—but the inner landscape was there.
LWC: What was the writing process like–did you plan/outline ahead of time, work it out as you went?
AD: No outline at all. I worked it out as I went. I had a notebook of “jots and thoughts” with worldbuilding details I wanted to include, but for the most part I let the story take its course.
DG: The process was painful. I’ve blocked most of it out, now, but my wife remembers me whining a lot. For the first half of the book, I was flying blind, backtracking and rewriting and re-outlining every 20 pages. There were, however, moments of pure surprise, like the baptism scene, which came out of nowhere. It was that sense of discovery that kept me going in the early months.
Then somewhere around page 200 everything began falling into place. I knew why the characters were saying what they were saying, why they were acting so peculiarly, and what they secretly wanted. In retrospect, there was no other way for the book to work out — but only in retrospect. For much of the writing of the book I was wandering around the house in a state of fear, muttering, “I can never pull this off. What have I gotten myself into?” I suppose I shouldn’t admit that.
LWC: What animal (living, extinct, mythological, or combination) would you say represents the novel?
AD: One of those hybrid, saltwater/freshwater sharks that sometimes make their way up the Mississippi, just for the hell of it.
DG: Rabid dog. Not late stage rabid — I’m talking the early days, when it’s still sweet-natured and familiar, the dog you’ve raised from a pup…until it starts to act oddly. There’s a strange look in its eye. It starts to snap at shadows. You grow concerned. Then you lean down close to it and say, What’s the matter, boy?
You know how this ends. We all know how it ends. And when it does, it’s all right. It’s over, and it’s just you and the pup you raised.
LWC: What question have you never been asked in an interview but would like to answer?
AW: I’m more of a St. Paul person than a Minneapolis person. I love both cities dearly but since I’ve been up here I’ve either lived in St. Paul or on the eastern outskirts of the Saintly City. It’s a bit more muted now, but some of the rivalries of the two cities within the 20th century have been pretty crazy. Hey, thanks for asking!
DG: What is the opening sentence to a short story that you memorized in high school, and that you still occasionally chant to yourself while you are mowing or shoveling snow?
“They came to Alf Gunnderson in the Pawnee County Jail.”
It’s from Harlan Ellison’s “Deeper than Darkness.” I read this story my sophomore or junior year, and for the longest time I thought it was the perfect opening sentence: Who are they? What do they want with Alf Gunnderson? What has he done that they had to put him jail? So many narrative hooks, sunk so quickly.
But that was no reason to memorize it. It wasn’t until later that I realized that it wasn’t the function of the sentence that attracted me, but the rhythm of it. It still strikes me as a beautiful American sentence, almost noir. It’s straightforward, simple, and ends with a punch. In my own fiction I struggle mightily to open and close with sentences like that one.
LW: That’s it then, thanks for your time.
Now, everybody go out and buy the books, read them, and tell all your friends.