Daryl Gregory’s first novel Pandemonium won the 2009 Crawford Award. His novella We Are All Completely Fine won both the World Fantasy and the Shirley Jackson awards. Gregory writes across genres, with science fiction titles like Afterparty, and fantastical family sagas like Spoonbenders. Earlier in 2021 his novella The Album of Dr. Moreau was released, and his newest release is his Southern gothic horror novel Revelator.
He took some time to answer some questions for us. Two commenters with USA mailing addresses will get a copy of Revelator.
Marion Deeds: In many ways, Revelator feels like a personal book. You’ve written about the setting being inspired by Cade’s Cove in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, but could you talk a little more about the family connection?
Daryl Gregory: On the surface it doesn’t look like a personal book. After all, it’s about a family that for generations has worshipped (and done the bidding) of their own private god, and my family… didn’t. But writing about Gods and monsters — using, really, all the tropes and trappings of fantasy and science fiction—allows me to talk more honestly about my family and myself. Disguise and deniability are useful things! I’m sure my relatives are grateful for the obfuscation.
Both sides of my family came out of Cades Cove — or rather, they were kicked out, when the government bought out the residents by eminent domain. They were originally promised that the cove would remain outside the park, but politicians and financial backers in Knoxville reversed the decision late in the game. (Yes, we still carry grudges…) But honestly, having the cove preserved like that has been wonderful, for me, my family, and my kids. I’ve visited so many times over the years, and my father especially loved driving the road that loops around the cove, and hiking the trails that branch off from it. A few of the cabins of my ancestors are still there, as well as the churches they worshipped in, and the cemeteries they’re buried in. My ancestor, Russell Gregory, was one of the early founders, and is buried at the Primitive Baptist Church. His gravestone notes that he was “murdered by North Carolina Rebels.” He died near the end of the Civil War, defending the cove from Confederate soldiers who were raiding the cove for livestock and provisions. (I suppose I’ll have to forgive you, too, North Carolina.)
I set Revelator in the 1930’s, when they were kicking out most everyone, and in the 1940’s, when the only residents left were the few who were given a “life-lease” — permission to stay on their land until they died, but no one could inherit it. There was something about that period, when one way of life was ending and modernity was kicking in, that spoke to the idea of there being no room for old gods and old social structures that kept folks (especially women) “in line.”
MD: All the Birch women have a peculiar kind of marking on their skin. It varies from person to person, with Sunny’s being the most dramatic. What inspired that?
DG: The Birch woman all have bright red marks on their skin, as if they’re wearing a map to an island empire. I grew up Southern Baptist, so old-time Biblical images about the “mark of Cain” and the “mark of the beast” were drilled into my brain. I liked this idea of a proof of lineage, handed down from Birch woman to Birch woman, that other people would see as a sign of otherness, or evil, and that the women themselves gradually adopt as a badge of honor. When Stella, my main character, is a young girl, she’s embarrassed by her skin condition, but when she meets Sunny, the next generation, she feels an immediate kinship.
MD: Uncle Hendrick is a vivid character. He is plainly a True Believer and a bit of a conman at the same time. He was also realistic and scary (even, in some ways, scarier than Motty). I’d love to know how you created this character.
DG: Is there anything scarier than an earnest fanatic? He desperately wants to serve his family’s god, which he calls the God in the Mountain and some women in the family call Ghostdaddy. When you believe you’re part of a holy cause, it can blind you to the damage being done to the people around you. If he’s a conman, he’s also conning himself. He knows he has to be a bit of a showman if he’s going to expand his private church beyond the family, but he has no doubts that what he’s doing is justified.
MD: Stella, Revelator’s main character, is a moonshiner. You pay loving attention to the moonshine process, describing not only her still but her mentor Abby’s. The distillation process comes up in the story several times. At the same time, the god in the mountain is sickened, at least partly, by chemical residue that leaches into the hillsides, presumably from mining and other industries like aluminum smelting. Distillation becomes a theme. Was that consciously intentional, or did it grow organically from the story?
Let me try to recreate the thought process (and this is a little unclear to me, too.) I suppose it started with family history. My dad used to say there were two kinds of Gregorys, the preachin’ Gregorys and the moonshinin’ Gregorys. My uncle on my mom’s side used to make moonshine, and had a few run-ins with the law. When I was writing the book we sat down to taste some of his product, and he walked me through his recipe. So I knew then that I wanted all that to be part of the book, and show both the art and the science of moonshining.
But once you introduce an interesting element like distillation into a novel, you naturally want to see what’s thematically juicy about it, and look for other examples of it in the world you’re writing about. I realized that I also wanted to talk about Alcoa, the aluminum processing plant that so many people in my parents’ hometown worked for. My grandfathers and uncles all worked for Alcoa, and my dad worked for Reynolds Aluminum, which spun off from Alcoa and was later re-absorbed into the company. It’s dangerous, hard work, and Alcoa had a history of importing Black and Mexican workers to do the most dangerous jobs. Alfonse, Stella’s partner in moonshine, comes from a Black family that’s worked at the plant, and he wants no part of it. The chemical byproducts are indeed poisonous. From there it wasn’t hard to see that distillation was also the story of the Birch women. A brutal process, full of heat and pressure and spewing toxins, can nevertheless create something pure and perhaps beautiful.
MD: I think you’ve distilled your thoughts nicely there!
DG: I took some time after finishing Revelator to write a novella, The Album of Dr. Moreau, and a couple of short stories that I’d promised to deliver. The stories are all so different from each other — on purpose, because when I’ve just spent years on a novel, the last thing I want to do is write in the same tone or even the same genre. Ellen’s anthology is called Screams From the Dark: Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous and she wanted real monsters, not just metaphorical ones, so I wrote her a comic Lovecraftian story about cults and birthing an elder god called “The Virgin Jimmy Peck.” Jonathan, however, was looking for near-future science fiction about how mankind was going to make it through the next 30 years. For him I wrote a grab-bag of a tale with multiple point of view characters that includes almost every SFnal idea I’ve jotted in my notebooks. It’s called “Once Upon a Future in the West” and will be out in a few months.
MD: [Jots notes on To Be Read list…] …Okay. I read The Album of Dr. Moreau just before I read Revelator, which gave me a bit of genre whiplash! Tell us how you came up with the idea for that novella.
DG: This is one of the rare cases when the title came first, and the idea spun out from there. When I pitched it to my editor I said, imagine if H.G. Wells and Agatha Christie did a lot of cocaine and wrote a story together. It’s an homage to The Island of Dr. Moreau, but set in 2001, about five animal-human hybrids (bonobo, an elephant, an ocelot, a megabat, and a pangolin) who form a boy band. Oh, and it’s also a locked-room murder mystery. The boys’ despicable manager is found clawed to death, and of course they’re the main suspects. I have to admit that Moreau may be the most fun I’ve ever had writing anything.
MD: The fun shows. Why did you choose the specific time period you chose for that one?
DG: In 2001 my 9-year-old daughter was a superfan of NSYNC and The Backstreet Boys. She brought bubblegum pop into our lives again, and I’ve almost forgiven her. (Hmm, grudges are a theme of this interview.) I wrote this book for her, but also consulted with my second-born, Ian, who’s a musician. I asked Ian to write me a defense of pop music — a rant, really — and then pretty much pasted that into the mouth of Tim, the Pangolin.
MD: I think Tim the Pangolin was my favorite. He seemed very vulnerable.
Speaking of genre, I was looking back on your published works, and you seem to move comfortably among the standard speculative fiction genres — horror, science fiction, fantasy. Do you primarily identify with any specific genre? Maybe the question is, what do you think about genre, or do you think about it at all?
DG: I don’t identify with any one genre. I grew up reading them all, and admired writers like Roger Zelanzy and Philip K. Dick who could write SF that felt like fantasy and fantasy that felt like science fiction. I’ve told my writing students that the house of genre — including “mainstream” fiction, a subset of fantasy—has many rooms, and you can borrow the furniture from all of them.
MD: I feel validated reading the phrase, “mainstream fiction — a subset of fantasy,” because I have believed that for years. The original storytelling tradition was fantastical… but I digress.
In Revelator, do you have a section that was your favorite to write, or something you’re especially proud of?
DG: I greatly enjoyed writing the sections where young Stella questions the confusing, contradictory, and problematic stories of the Bible. What kind of God would ask Abraham to kill his son? And if God sacrificed his only begotten son, who was he sacrificing him to? Himself?
But what I’m most proud of is something that is largely invisible to the reader — the structure of the book, and the flow of information. The novel is about Stella, and the chapters alternate between her as a young girl and her as an adult who’s returned to the cove to shut down the God and the church. The reader only learns of Stella’s past gradually, and the emotional climax has to arrive at both points in Stella’s story “simultaneously” — the last chapter of the young Stella gives the reader information that changes everything they thought they knew about the adult Stella. My editor, Tim O’Connell and I had many discussions about how to make that flow work, and it took me several drafts to get it right.
MD: What can we expect to see next from you?
DG: The unexpected! At least I hope so. There are TV projects in development, and I’m in the early stages of a new novel, but if I talk about any of them right now I’ll jinx them.
MD:. Oh, no! We don’t want that.
We usually ask our interview guests for their favorite beverage, but I’m going to be more specific in your case. Do you have a favorite moonshine cocktail you’d like to share? If you don’t, please share your favorite beverage of any type.
DG: I don’t often drink moonshine, but when I do I like it with a hint of fruit — moonshine brewed with peaches is nice. And there’s always, Apple Jack, which is moonshine blended with fermented apple juice. But when it comes to whiskey cocktails, I like a “perfect” Manhattan, which is rye mixed with both sweet and dry vermouth.
MD: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us!
Readers, leave a comment for a chance to win a copy of Revelator. Two commenters with USA mailing addresses will get a copy!