As clear from my review this Monday, I thoroughly enjoyed Daryl Gregory’s Spoonbenders. I was fortunate enough to already have an interview scheduled before I read the book, but Daryl was kind enough to let me send him some additional questions after I finished it, so this interview will be a bit longer than usual. I also had the pleasure of meeting Daryl in person at WorldCon in Helsinki, as you can see from a picture below. Spoonbenders was published by riverrun on Thursday, go check it out and I hope you enjoy the interview!
Let’s start with the basics. Who is Daryl Gregory?
What an impossible question! The older I get the less sure I am of that answer. The plain facts are that I’m a writer of novels, short stories, comics, and one video game, across many different genres. I grew up in Chicago, lived for 25 years in Pennsylvania, and now live in Oakland, California with Liza Trombi, the publisher of Locus Magazine. It’s nice there, with hummingbirds flying around the backyard that are only occasionally eaten by our cat.
How would you introduce people to the Telemachus family?
Thank you! I’ll be here all interview.
If you had to compare, are the Telemachuses more like the Brady Bunch, the Kardashians, or the Starks?
They’re the Royal Tannenbaums, except with psychic powers. Well, most of them have powers. Teddy Telemachus, the patriarch of the family, is a cardsharp and a conman, but he falls in love with Maureen McKinnon in 1962 at a government ESP test he’s scammed his way into. He’s faking it, but Maureen is the real deal, a powerful clairvoyant. They have three children with different powers, and in the 70’s go on the road as the Amazing Telemachus Family, performing psychic feats. Their eldest, Irene, is a human lie detector. Frankie can move objects with his mind, when he’s not too nervous. And the youngest, Buddy, remembers the future as well as the past.
After Maureen’s death from cancer, the act falls apart. Most of the novel is set twenty years later, when the family is in disarray. Matty, Teddy’s grandson, thinks the magic is over, until he has an out-of-body experience. From there, hijinks ensue. There are mobsters, aging CIA agents, romance, America Online chat rooms, some light fraud, a casino heist… and one cow with an artificial heart.
Spoonbenders is written from several different points of view and across several different timelines. How did you go about writing such a complex narrative and how did you keep from making continuity mistakes?
I very much wanted the kind of novel where every family member got time in the spotlight, so I rotate the point of view chapter by chapter. In the beginning of the writing of it, it was like starting five different novels, because I had to figure out the voice of each character. And sometimes the characters remember the same event differently, which was tremendous fun, but a headache.
As for how I avoided continuity mistakes, the short answer is that I made plenty of them! During the writing of the book I kept an outline (fleshing it out as I went), as well as a spreadsheet with everyone’s ages at certain events. Unfortunately, I didn’t specify birth dates for every character, so sometimes I messed up the ages. Fortunately, however, I had a team of fellow writers and copy editors who spotted those mistakes, and prevented me from looking stupid.
The Telemachus clan, including their extended families, is a flawed unit, but their mutual love and support is unconditional, even if sometimes accompanied by sharp words. Yet much of the story is about each finding their proper place in this mad clan and finding peace in that place. Did you set out to write a book about family or did the characters lead you in that direction?
This is primarily a book about love—complicated, familial love. I knew from the beginning it was going to be that kind of book. Each of my novels is about family—either the one you’re born into, or the one you construct for yourself—but this one went further, and more in depth.
Who or what inspired Maureen? She is such a compelling figure and so central to the story even in her absence or perhaps because of it.
I first conceived Spoonbenders as a comedy, but Maureen’s death grounded the book, gave it its heart. She’s the ghost that haunts the novel. Some readers wanted more of her in the story, but I wanted her to be elusive, a character constructed from the memories of her children and her husband. I wanted the reader to constantly be reaching for her, just like characters who miss her.
Apart from Harrison Squared (which is set to become a trilogy) all of your books so far seem to be standalone stories. What draws you to these contained narratives? Are you naturally inclined to work in shorter forms?
Characters, the world, and the story come to me in a package. The story needs certain characters to be in it, and the world is built to make that story possible. Also, most of my characters are so changed or wrecked by the story that they’re in no shape for a sequel!
The Harrison Squared story was always intended as a trilogy, and I’m happy I’ll be able to tell the rest of his story. And perhaps someday I’ll think of more stories that require multiple books. But for now, I love the shape of single-volume stories. They make a promise: Here is the most important thing happening in this world, and by the end, you’ll know all of it.
Do you consider yourself naturally an SF writer or do you feel yourself more of a horror writer?
I’ve written several things classified as horror, but I rarely feel like I’m bowling down the middle when I write those. There just aren’t enough scary parts! For example, my zombie novel, Raising Stony Mayhall, is much more concerned with religion, family, and the politics of oppressed (dead) people than it is with eating brains.
Then sometimes I write SF, usually about neurology and problems in consciousness. When I’m writing those, I’m very concerned with getting the science right, and consider them Hard SF.
But mostly I consider myself a writer of the weird who cares primarily about creating believable characters. I like borrowing from all genre traditions, including genre called “mainstream fiction,” and mixing those as I see fit.
Spoonbenders, for example, is mostly a story about family—though I wasn’t content with a normal family. The Telemachus’s psychic powers made the book come alive for me.
I’m so glad we got to meet in Helsinki for Worldcon! Worldcon has been criticized for moving from city to city on the theory that if it stayed in one place, as San Diego Comic Con or Dragoncon have done, it might have grown bigger. But I love how going holding a con in Europe or Asia provides opportunities for non-US fans and writers—and lets me visit some wonderful places.
Next up, I’ll be going to London during the first week of September for the U.K. launch of Spoonbenders. The following week I’ll be in Seattle and Portland for the Science Fiction Writers of America reading series. Then I’ll have a few weeks off before World Fantasy and The Texas Book Festival at the end of October.
Is there something else you’re passionate about other than writing and books?
Just my kids. They’re amazing people. Oh, and beer. Beer and coffee. But mostly beer.
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?
I’ve been recommending Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, a brilliant novel. And I’m currently reading an advance reader’s version of Annalee Newitz’s forthcoming book, Autonomous. It has robots, bio-punk madness, and submarines. Who could ask for more?
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 shelve alphabetically, but keep fiction and non-fiction separate, because I’m not a barbarian. But there are auxiliary wings of my library on various end tables, toilets backs, and dresser tops, where chaos rules.
Bio: Daryl Gregory writes genre-mixing novels, stories, and comics. His next novel, Spoonbenders, will be published by Knopf. Recent work includes the young adult novel Harrison Squared and the novella We Are All Completely Fine, which won the World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson awards, and was a finalist for the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Locus awards. His novels include Afterparty, an NPR and Kirkus best fiction book of 2014; Raising Stony Mayhall; The Devil’s Alphabet; and the Crawford-Award-winning Pandemonium.Many of his short stories are collected in Unpossible and Other Stories.