Daryl Gregory won the Crawford Award in 2009 for his first novel Pandemonium. His 2014 novella “We Are All Completely Fine” won the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award in 2015. His other novels include The Devil’s Alphabet, Afterparty (which we loved), and his YA Lovecraftian novel Harrison Squared. Gregory has also written many short works, graphic novels, and has written for television.
Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, Gregory relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area in California in 2016. His latest novel, described by some as a “literary fantasy,” is Spoonbenders, and it’s a five-star book.
Daryl took some time to answer a few questions about the writing of the book, the “Mom test,” and the mysterious fascination with Chicago pizza.
Five random commenters with a USA or Canadian mailing address will win a copy of Spoonbenders.
Marion Deeds: For me, Spoonbenders is a family saga with psychics, but people who don’t read fantasy will probably find it just as appealing as I did. You mentioned that your own mother doesn’t read science fiction or fantasy, and coined the term “the mom test.” Tell us what the mom test is, and how it relates to your audience.
Daryl Gregory: The Mom Test is my personal test for most of the things I write, and it’s very simple: Does Daryl’s Mom understand what’s going on? Does she understand the characters, what they want, and why they want it? That’s the minimum requirement for the story. No insider knowledge is required.
That said, my stories may be more enjoyable if you’re a fan of certain things. My first novel, Pandemonium, was a love letter to golden age SF and comic books. Philip K. Dick shows up, possessed by the spirit of Valis. If you know who PKD is, you’ll get a buzz from that, but all my mom has to know is, here’s a famous writer who thinks he’s been taken over by an alien intelligence. In Spoonbenders, if you know who James Randi is, you’ll get a charge when a certain character walks on stage.
The plot of the book is complex, with many points that intersect, multiple points of view and, by my count, three different timelines. What external tools, if any, did you use to keep track of everything?
Spoonbenders has five point of view characters, with scenes set in three decades, and sometimes an event is revisited through another character’s eyes. I had two main tools to keep all this straight: a thorough outline, and a chronology spreadsheet.
The outline is a Word document, done in outline mode (natch); which I fleshed out as I went along. In some ways it’s an “afterline,” a coinage I heard online, because it’s as useful for keeping track of what’s already been written as it is for planning what to write. I keep track of what day it is for each scene there. The chronology spreadsheet is an Excel sheet which tracks every character and how old they are at each point in the story.
But even with the outline and spreadsheet, I made mistakes. When I rewrote, I would sometimes move a scene around, and come up with a line of dialogue that was consistent with the timeline, and I would miss correcting other instances where that event was mentioned. Luckily, Knopf put a team of people on copyediting, and one late copyedit was all about ensuring the correct chronology and correct ages for the characters in the scene. It was a lifesaver.
The Amazing Telemachus Family has some amazing members. Matty and Buddy seem to be the most sympathetic, while patriarch Teddy is certainly the showiest. When Matty’s Uncle Frankie was first introduced, he did not make a good impression. Frankie is a desperate loser who is in trouble and dragging his family down with him; he seems willing to put Matty at risk over another harebrained scheme, this one criminal. Still, we have some empathy for him by the time the story ends. What was the genesis for his character? What do you want people to take away from his story arc?
Frankie is like a lot of guys I grew up with. He’s a dreamer, and a bit grandiose, and maybe too desperate for the big score. But I hope readers have empathy for Frankie, and see how he thinks that everything he does is for his family. He has a good heart, even if he makes terrible decisions. One of my teachers at Clarion was Kim Stanley Robinson, and one of things I learned from him — and from reading his books — is that he loves every character, even the ones who are doing hurtful things.
In the 1970s the cold war, the human potential movement and the use of mind-altering drugs created some strange military programs, which you use in Spoonbenders. What interested you about the military investigation of “remote viewing” and other psychic phenomena? (Other than the sheer weirdness of it.) What do you think was driving the military and intelligence minds of the time, that they invested in these, well, let’s say “questionable” techniques?
What is fascinating to me about the government programs — and about the “testing” of psychics like Uri Geller at the Stanford Research Institute — is the notion of misplaced expertise. In the SRI case, two scientists who were experts in lasers thought this gave them the ability to catch a flim-flam artist and stage magician. The government, perhaps out of fear that the Russians were getting ahead in the “psi race,” sunk millions into dubious science. It was a group delusion fueled by confirmation bias.
In addition to genuine psychic abilities, the book has stage-tricks; there are some card tricks, a couple of magic tricks and one “cold read” technique is revealed (or at least you describe one way it could be scammed). What kind of research did you do for this part of the book?
I’ve always been fascinated by stage magic. I love novels about stage magicians — Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil was an inspiration for my book — and non-fiction books about magicians, con men, and charlatans. I will watch and read anything by Penn & Teller or Rickie Jay.
For Spoonbenders I needed to figure out which tricks Teddy would use to cheat at the card table. A key book was Phantoms at the Card Table, by David Britland and the magician Gazzo, an entertaining history of legendary card sharps and their techniques. Teddy also needs a few tricks to fool researchers into thinking he has real psychic powers and for that I depended on James Randi’s books on fake psychics, particularly Flim-Flam! and The Truth About Uri Geller. A handbook for mentalists, Practical Mental Magic by Thedore Annemann, was also very important in working out the details. I would try out a technique long enough to see if I understood it, but I’ve been too lazy to practice a trick long enough to fool an adult. I do have one go-to coin trick that works big with the under-ten set, however.
That’s good to know, Daryl.
Tell us about your writing routine.
When I’m working on a novel, I try to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences. For many years I had a half-time job as a programmer, so I’d write code in the morning and fiction in the afternoon. But since I started writing full-time, I fill my morning with answering emails, reading the news, and checking twitter.
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on books 2 and 3 in my Lovecraftian young-adult series. The first book in the series, Harrison Squared, came out two years ago from Tor, but Tor Teen will be reissuing that book and publishing the sequels, most likely in 2018.
I just saw Harrison Squared in a local bookstore and it reminded me of “We Are All Completely Fine.”
If Spoonbenders were to be a movie, and you had any control at all, who would you want to direct it? Tell us why. And then fan-cast it for us, please.
Well, Paramount Television and Anonynous Content have optioned the book for a television series, and I have no idea who’d they cast. Someone told me that Kevin Kline should play Teddy Telemachus. I have no problem with that. For Frankie we just need an actor who can produce flop sweat on demand.
Kevin Kline would be awesome!
I met you last year at a writing workshop you taught for Locus Magazine. You’ve done a couple of those one-day intensives. Tell us about them. And if you’d like to, tell us a little bit about Locus and the Locus Foundation.
I’ve been reading Locus Magazine since 1988, and I tell every new writer that they should subscribe. It’s the trade journal of the field, with reviews, interviews, and publishing news that writers should pay attention to. The Locus Foundation is a non-profit that’s preserving forty-five years of science fiction history, photographs, and art — their collection of first edition books is amazing.
I’ve done a couple one-day writing workshops for them. Traditionally they did a workshop every year at the Locus Awards weekend in Seattle, but they’ve recently started offering them in the Bay Area. Paul Park and Gail Carriger recently taught, and they’ve lined up Nancy Kress and other authors for future workshops. If you’re a new writer struggling with short stories or a novel, these one-day workshops are miniature versions of the longer workshops like Clarion or Odyssey.
What is it with Chicago and pizza? Seriously, what?
The Chicago deep-dish pizza is the culminating culinary masterpiece of western civilization. It’s as simple as that.
We at FanLit always ask the authors we’re interviewing if they have a favorite beverage. What’s yours?
My daughter once asked me, if I had to give up coffee or beer, which would it be? My brain locked up for days. If I gave up coffee, I’d get no writing done, but if I gave up beer, I would hate life. So, it’s coffee by day — the Jacobs Wonderbar blend by Philz Coffee is a favorite — and beer by night. Just let me end the day with a bottle of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA in my hand.
Thank you for your time, and your books!
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