In 2012 I read and reviewed Evil Dark, the second book in Justin Gustainis’ Haunted Scranton series. I really enjoyed it and I was really looking forward to the next book Known Devil, which I reviewed yesterday and which was just as fun as Evil Dark. The Haunted Scranton series is a super fun series that I think hasn’t had the attention it deserves, so I’m really pleased to be able to bring you an interview with its author Justin Gustainis. I had a lot of fun putting the questions together and Justin gave some really cool answers, so I hope you enjoy this interview.
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Justin Gustainis?
I’m a college professor living in upstate New York. I was born in northeast Pennsylvania (near Scranton, which explains the idea for the “Haunted Scranton” books). I earned two degrees from the University of Scranton, did the Army thing for a while, kicked around some, got married, and eventually found myself in Ohio, where I earned a Ph.D. at Bowling Green State University. That led me (after a few detours) to my present job at Plattsburgh State University. I didn’t start writing fiction until the late 1990s. It took me about a year and a half (I have a day job, remember) to write my first novel, The Hades Project – and then five years to find a publisher for it. Things got a little easier after that.
Can you tell us a bit more about the Haunted Scranton books, as Known Devil is the third in that series?
I don’t pretend the basic concept is original (Charlaine Harris, among others, got there first), but the books are set in an “alternate” universe where magic and the supernatural are real, and everyone knows it. Humans and supernatural creatures (“supes”) live together more or less harmoniously. The house next door might contain a coven of witches, or the guy who cuts your hair might turn into a wolf during the full moon. But in Scranton, as everywhere else, there are laws that everyone is expected to obey. When supernaturals in Scranton cross the line, they have to deal with Detective Sergeant Stan Markowski of the Occult Crimes Unit. As Stan puts it himself, “If a vamp puts the bite on an unwilling victim, or some witch casts the wrong kind of spell, that’s when they call me. My name’s Markowski. I carry a badge.”
Other recurring characters who play a major role in the books include: Karl Renfer, Stan’s vampire partner (although Karl didn’t start out the series that way); Stan’s daughter Christine, also a vampire, who lives with him; Rachel Procter, the police department’s Consulting Witch; and Lacey Brennan, a detective from nearby Wilkes-Barre who may or may not turn out to be Stan’s love interest.
Like the Morris and Chastain series you write for Solaris, your Haunted Scranton series is essentially a supernatural crime novel. What about crime fiction attracts you to writing it?
It may be because I was a fan of crime fiction long before I started reading fantasy and horror. But what really floats my boat is the notion of the occult detective. I never conceived of such a character until I came across a 1977 made-for-TV movie called Spectre, which features Robert Culp and Gig Young as an occult detective team. The rest, as they say, is genre fiction.
My office at home where I write is a tribute to the fictional occult detective. I’ve got Hellboy and Constantine posters, a Frank Black action figure, simulated FBI badges for Mulder and Scully, and a small prop from Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There’s much more, but you get the idea.
What I really enjoyed about Evil Dark, the previous book in the series and the only one I’ve read so far, was the way you had the supernatural pervade every element of contemporary life, changing little details – Craigslist becomes Drac’s List, where vampires can meet potential ‘donors’, James Bond starred in From Transylvania with Love, Steinbeck’s bestseller is Of Elves and Men – to incorporate and almost retcon our world. How much fun is it to come up with details?
Oh, it’s immense fun – sometimes I chuckle out loud when I come up with what I consider a particularly good one. My favorite so far (which you may remember from Evil Dark) is when Christine is reading the “Special Undead Issue” of Cosmo. The cover touts such stories as “Is Your Coffin Clunky?” “Where He Really Wants You to Bite Him,” and “Sharpest. Fangs. Ever.”
How do you plot your crimes? Do you have a crime and its culprit clear from the beginning and do you then lead Stan and Karl from A to B with some diversions on the way, or do you start with the crime and discover the culprit together with Stan and Karl?
I start with a basic concept – like a new street drug that addicts supernaturals — then start writing. Sometimes I’m not sure who’s more surprised by what happens – Stan, or me.
Will there be more adventures for Stan, Karl, and Christine in the future?
I hope so. Known Devil represents the last book in a three-book contract I have with Angry Robot. Sales of the first two have been okay but not great, and if the latest one doesn’t kick some serious ass in the marketplace, I may not get another contract for the series. If course that doesn’t prevent me from publishing elsewhere, or writing short fiction set in Stan’s universe. We’ll see.
What’s next for you writing-wise?
I’m writing another Morris and Chastain novella for Solaris. I’ve barely started, but the working title, in keeping with the classic rock tradition for names in the series, is “Strange Magic.”
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
I can be pretty passionate about my day job in higher education. It all depends on what kind of week I’m having. Sometimes it’s “Damn, I could do this forever!” Other times it’s more like “I have to wait how many years before I can retire?
As a book reviewer, I’m all about the book enabling; I can’t help but want to make people read all the good books out there. But I can always use help. What are your top recommendations of books we should look out for in the coming months?
Okay, here’s what’s on my radar. There are a few writers whose work I enjoy so much I buy it in hardcover as soon as it comes out. There used to be more of them, but they keep dying on me – Robert B. Parker’s passing hit me particularly hard.
Thomas Perry, my favorite living crime writer, should have a new book coming out this year, but no title has been released yet. I’m hoping it will be a Jane Whitefield book. Stephen Hunter’s new Bob Lee Swagger novel, She, Sniper, is due out in May. Indigo Slam, a new Elvis Cole novel by Robert Crais, will be published in April. And Stephen King’s new one, Mr. Mercedes, is scheduled for June. I suppose it’s telling that all but one of these is a crime novel – and Mr. Mercedes might even qualify, too, from what I’ve heard.
Finally, I have to stay true to my roots and ask a librarian question to finish off with: Do you shelve your books alphabetically, by genre or do you have an ingenious system?
I’m afraid that, until recently, many of my books were in boxes on the living room floor. I guess that makes me a hoarder – but I refuse to do reality TV. I recently bought a couple of 84-inch-tall bookcases, to go with the two already in the living room (and as for what’s in the basement, don’t ask. Just … don’t). So the shelving scheme is based on what was in what box when I opened it. Thus, I expect that I’ll be locating books by what some call the Columbus method – discover and land upon.
Bio (taken from the Angry Robot site): Justin Gustainis was born in Northeast Pennsylvania in 1951. He attended college at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit university that figures prominently in several of his writings.
After earning both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, he was commissioned a Lieutenant in the US Army. Following military service, he held a variety of jobs, including speechwriter and professional bodyguard, before earning a PhD at Bowling Green State University in Ohio.
Mr Gustainis currently lives in Plattsburgh, New York. He is a Professor of Communication at Plattsburgh State University, where he earned the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2002. His academic publications include the book American Rhetoric and the Vietnam War, published in 1993, and a number of scholarly articles that hardly anybody has ever read. His popular series of urban fantasy novels featuring investigator Quincey Morris include Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman and the forthcoming Sympathy for the Devil.