A chat with Daryl Gregory, author of Afterparty

AFTERPARTY, Daryl Gregory’s excellent new book, is out next week, and I’m thrilled that he answered a few of my questions about it, and much more! Please welcome Daryl to the blog!

darylgregoryYou’re a very accomplished, award winning novelist, and your new book, Afterparty, is excellent, but did you always want to write? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and your background?
I don’t feel like I had a choice in becoming a writer. When I first started to read I automatically wanted to start telling stories too. I read everything I can get my hands on. I would show up at the checkout lane of the White Hen Pantry or the K-Mart with another comic book or cheap paperback in my hands, and my parents, God bless ’em, bought it for me every time. When I started writing, they didn’t know what to make of me, but they supported me, and let me drag my typewriter along on vacations.

I’m sure my parents would rather not hear this, but I credit much of my development as a writer to being bored to death at church. We were Southern Baptists, and went to church a lot–three times a week minimum. To keep me occupied, they let me bring notebooks to scribble in, and gradually doodles gave way to D&D maps and story ideas. I wanted to write “real” stories but I didn’t know how publishing worked. I only knew that my goal in life was to have a cheap paperback in the science fiction rack at K-Mart. I’ve yet to realize this dream, so I’m going to keep going.

What inspired you to write Afterparty? Will you tell us a little about how the idea came about?
For years I’ve been reading neuroscience and philosophy books for the layperson. I find the problems of consciousness to be really interesting, and weird facts about the way our brains work have made it into my short stories. For example, I’ve written stories about temporal lobe epilepsy, sociopathy, and the illusion of the self (as in my story “Second Person, Present Tense”). However, this was the first time I’ve tried to tackle these ideas at book length. Growing up in the church like I did, I guess it was no surprise that I’d concentrate on a new form of religion.

Afterparty is set in an unspecified future. Did you have a specific time frame in mind when you started writing the book?
Much of the book concerns a drug called Numinous that gives you that feeling of being in the presence of something larger than yourself. The technology and knowledge we’d need to build the drug are available now, so I first thought I was writing about the present. Then I realized that I wanted to talk about what happened to the characters ten years after they’ve created the drug, which pushed me into near-future.

afterpartyOnce I realized that that was book was happening ten to twenty years from now, I had to rethink my technology. So, we get the chemjet drug printers, the smart pens, the likely future of the drug trade… which turned out to be a tremendous amount of fun to imagine. Some of those inventions turned out to be useful thematically (like the smart houses you highlighted in your review of Afterparty). And some were there merely to make the plot work, or to make the reader feel like this future was real.

Here’s an example from an invention that came late in the process. Deanna Hoak, my copyeditor, pointed out that there were no science fictional details in the first chapter that would tell readers that this was set in the near future. I added a few things, including an app that homeless kids could use to find open beds in the shelter system. This seemed like an eminently doable piece of tech, and it was–so doable that I found out a couple weeks ago that someone just released an app like that for the homeless in San Francisco. So, the book is well on its way to becoming SIHF—Slightly Inaccurate Historical Fiction.

You explored some pretty complex themes and concepts in the book, but made them very accessible. What kind of research did you do for the book, and what was one of the most interesting things that you learned?
As I mentioned, I’ve been reading books on neuroscience and philosophy for a while, but for Afterparty I focused on two main puzzles: “the numinous,” that feeling that you’re in touch with an external presence, and the illusion of free will. We probably don’t have the time for me to go into what I mean by saying that free will is an “illusion” (though most of it made it into the novel). But I was shocked by how easily free will can be exposed as an illusion. Daniel Wegner, in his book The Illusion of Conscious Will, documents many experiments that demonstrate that show our feeling of being in charge is just that, a feeling, that can be manipulated with ease.

There was some other research just to get the science right. I wanted to write convincingly about Lyda’s lab and the techniques needed to create Numinous. I had to bone up on my biochemistry (which was pitiful and remains so, except for the few areas I’ve used for SF stories). And a friend of mine, Kevin McCullough Wabaunsee, had worked in a neuroscience lab as a rat wrangler, and answered all my questions about the care and sacrifice of lab rats. When he told me about the rat brain atlas—which is exactly what you think it is—I was so tickled. “Rat Brain Atlas” is now the name of my prog rock band. (Okay, I don’t have a prog rock band. But it’s coming.)

I fell in love with Ollie. In fact, I feel like you could have written a whole book about her. Is it hard to keep such scene stealing characters from taking over a book (I could have read about the IFs forever, too…)? Although Lyda is the main character, was there another character you particularly enjoyed writing about?
Ah, Sasha’s IFs! I would have liked to have written more about them, and her, too. (For all those people who haven’t read the book—and that’s almost everyone!—IF stands for Imaginary Friend. Sasha, a young girl, has a “deck” of them that she can draw from as if they were Pokemon.)

I’m glad you liked Ollie, too. And I wanted her to steal the book! I want all the characters to try to steal the book from each other. The only trick I’ve learned about creating believable characters is to love the one who’s on the page at that moment. Give him or her all the good lines. If there’s someone else on the page, give them the good lines too! As the author, you’ve got to be the actor for all those characters, and no scene is better by one of the actors phoning it in. The story will tell you how much time you can spend with each character.

weareallcompletelyfineWhat is your writing process like? Are you a plotter or a pantser (or a little of both)?
I’m a little of both. I need to have a beginning and an end in mind before I start, and I usually have a few tent poles scattered through the middle to keep the plot off the ground.

Notice that I said a beginning and an end. I almost always realize during the writing of the book that I’ve started in the wrong place, and I usually come up with a better ending that I originally planned. Afterparty, for example, had a very different first parable. And the last scene only came to me when I was three-fourths done with the book.

What do you hope readers will take away from Afterparty?
I just hope they keep thinking about the questions in the book. Do we really have free will? If I feel a sense of the numinous, is that an illusion generated by mind, or an external presence contacting me through my mind? How do we tell the difference?

You’ve undoubtedly influenced many authors with your writing, but who are some of your biggest influences?
It depends on the book. Every novel has a different set of literary parents… but some of those parents have slept around more than others, because their genes show up in multiple books. Philip K. Dick was a huge influence on Pandemonium, my first novel (he even shows up as a character), and for Afterparty I obviously owe a huge debt to Valis, with its dual-personality first-person narrator and all its talky, philosophizing supporting characters.

The other parents range from Zelazny in his Lord of Light mode to Hunter S. Thompson, because drugs. The fast-paced plot, however, came straight from my reading of crime novels, especially the books of Lawrence Bloch and Elmore Leonard. I worship at the church of Elmore Leonard.

pandemoniumRead any good books lately?
One thing that’s changed over the years is that I read much more nonfiction than fiction. Part of this is self-preservation: I need information to feed the stories! But there’s also a joy in just learning new things. The older I get, the more I realize how much I’ve missed. Right now I’m reading two books on “psychics” and our government’s secret programs to study them. The fact that we spent so much time and money on pseudoscience is both hilarious and appalling.

When you’re not writing, how do you like to spend your downtime?
For years I’ve told people that you don’t have to worry about how to spend your free time if you don’t have any. For most of my writing career I’ve worked full time (first as a high school teacher, then as a technical writer, then programmer). A few years ago I was able to switch to half time, but that was so I could write more. The rest of my time was with family. When you’re raising kids, you know what’s important, and taking care of your kids—going on vacation with them, or watching them in plays and concerts, just being there for them—trumps everything.

But now my daughter is about to graduate from college, and my son is about to enter college, and the dog just died! (Sorry. Didn’t mean to bring down the room.) My wife and I are wondering, what do we do now, become workaholics? More on this as it develops…

What’s next for you?
This summer I have a novella coming out from Tachyon Publications that I’m excited about. It’s called “We Are All Completely Fine” and it’s about small group therapy and survivors of supernatural horror. All those Last Girls and Last Boys have to go somewhere to talk over their problems, right? Then next year my first YA novel will be coming out, a Lovecraftian adventure book with the working title of Harrison Squared and the Dwellers. And after that… well, I’ve just started writing it, and it’s too early to talk about!

Keep up with Daryl: Website | Twitter

It begins in Toronto, in the years after the smart drug revolution. Any high school student with a chemjet and internet connection can download recipes and print drugs, or invent them. A seventeen-year-old street girl finds God through a new brain-altering drug called Numinous, used as a sacrament by a new Church that preys on the underclass. But she is arrested and put into detention, and without the drug, commits suicide.

Lyda Rose, another patient in that detention facility, has a dark secret: she was one of the original scientists who developed the drug. With the help of an ex-government agent and an imaginary, drug-induced doctor, Lyda sets out to find the other three survivors of the five who made the Numinous in a quest to set things right.

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