Daryl Gregory on Short Books, Big Ideas, and the History of “Revelator”

Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory is not a writer who likes to repeat himself. The paperback edition of his novel Revelator was published earlier this year, and tells a story that involves familial secrets, violent clashes between bootleggers, and a godlike being that lives in isolation. It’s a compelling read, and it’s also a huge stylistic shift from his earlier novel Spoonbenders, about a family of psychics. That, in turn, was wildly different from the horror-tinged We Are All Completely Fine; what they have in common are compelling characters, complex themes, and a haunting quality that’s hard to shake. I spoke with Gregory about his latest book, his thoughts on genre, and what’s next for him.

Your fiction has explored many genres, and Revelator can be considered a horror, fantasy, or science fiction novel depending on how you’re looking at it. Where do you find the right balance of big ideas and genre traditions?

Wait, is there a right balance? Somebody should tell me these things!

But seriously… I see the “big idea” of a book as separate from genre. Any big idea can be treated any number of ways. The main idea of Revelator — the story of a family that worships its own private god — started in my notebook as a comedy short story (an easy crossover, because horror is a hair’s breadth from comedy.) But it just as easily could have been written as a traditional science fiction book, or a cosmic horror piece with no science in it.

The problem is that when people talk about “genre,” they could be talking about several different things. They could be talking about a marketing category — a way for people who liked Product X to find more books like it. I consider “mainstream” or “litfic” to be a marketing label. But when something’s pegged as genre, they could be using the word to separate fantastical fiction (AKA, commercial fiction) from “real” literature, so that MFA professors can safely ignore it. (Not all MFA instructors — don’t @ me, academics!) 

But when I’m writing, I’m really thinking about a third definition of genre, which asks the question: What stories is this book in conversation with? Each book can have many parents, grandparents, and cousins. Revelator draws from the Southern Gothic, so I was thinking of everybody from Flannery O’Connor to James Dickey to H.P. Lovecraft. But I was also mixing in science fiction and Dickens’ David Copperfield and Breaking Bad and Cherokee mythology, as well as my family’s history in East Tennessee, and the stories and tall tales I grew up with. 

So I really don’t think in terms of balance. There’s only the story, and the way you’re going to tell it. If the big idea that powers the book is so complex or weird that it scares away readers and hurts your sales, well, they’re not your readers.

What first drew you to the period setting and bootlegging elements of Revelator?

I grew up in Chicago, but both sides of my family came from a part of East Tennessee called Cades Cove. They were forced out of the Cove in the 1930s by eminent domain when the federal government created the Smoky Mountain National Park. You can visit the Cove today, and see Gregory Cave or climb up to Gregory Bald. The Park Service preserved the churches where my ancestors attended, and I can still visit the cemeteries where they’re buried.

I wanted to set Revelator during the period when my people were getting kicked out of the Cove. It was a time of upheaval, and the end of an era. Half of the book is set in the 1940s, and the future has arrived. I thought, what happens when the tourists start arriving — how will you keep your god secret if you’re not even allowed on the land? 

As for the moonshine, that’s just part of the family. My dad always said there were Preachin’ Gregorys and Whiskey Gregorys. There were probably some who were both. My uncle on my Mom’s side used to make moonshine and sell it, and he told me a few stories about his run-ins with the law and a few narrow escapes. He also shared his recipe with me, and walked me through his process. I knew I wanted to talk about moonshining in the book, but in the early drafts it always ran alongside the horror parts of the story. I realized I had to make it key to my main character’s story. Making moonshine and bootlegging it (two separate things) are Stella’s means of survival after she leaves the Cove. The process of distillation became a theme. Stella’s been distilled down to her essence, and she transforms into something vibrant as white lightning. 

You’ve also done a fair amount of writing for comics; have you found that a more collaborative process has changed your approach to writing prose?

I love writing on my own. I’ve never collaborated on a story or novel, and probably never will. I like the control. But!  I do miss working with an artist. I did a Planet of the Apes series for a couple years, and for most of the issues I worked with Carlos Magno, a brilliant guy who put so much world building into his backgrounds, and drew such affecting characters. He made me realize that in comics, it’s the art that does most of the work, and my job was to get out of the way. 

Writing for comics both hurt and helped my prose. It hurt because I could get lazy — Carlos and the artists were doing all the hard stuff! But one way it did help was that it made me sharpen my dialogue. In a comic there’s no room to be baggy. Those balloons are small! So now, when writing prose, if it might have taken three lines of dialogue to have a character get to the point, now I just pick the single best line and use that.

The speculative elements in Spoonbenders felt lower-key than some of your other work. Were the more fantastical elements of Revelator something of a reaction to that? Do you find that one book tends to have a clearly defined relationship to its predecessor?

The only relationship between books I’ve been able to identify is that I seem unable to write two books in a row that are in the same genre — either in the same marketing category or the same genre conversation. I do not recommend this strategy to new writers trying to build a career. (I pity my agent sometimes.) My approach to Spoonbenders came out of the golden age “psychic powers” books. Psionics was once a huge part of SF, and then petered out. My idea was that the only way to tell that kind of story today would be as a family comedy, about psychics who never made a dime off their powers, and never changed the world. That’s more low-key than, say, an extradimensional god hiding in a Tennessee cave, but Spoonbenders wouldn’t have worked as a traditional adventure. As Michael Swanwick says, the book is the boss. 

But when I finished that rather rompy comedy, I was ready to write something darker. So while Spoonbenders was about growing up in Chicago, Revelator could be about my parents and their history, as well as my own feelings about religion and belief. And then, after the darkness of Revelator, I wrote the goofiest novella, The Album of Doctor Moreau, about human-animal hybrids who form a boy band. 

You’ve written both expansive novels and work that’s in the novella/short novel category. Do you generally know from the outset if a given project will be longer or shorter, or do the stories tend to surprise you?

I always know whether I’m writing a novel, a novella, or a short story — because I start by giving my brain that assignment. When it’s novel time, my brain gives me novel-sized ideas. When I start a novella, I know I’m going to stay under 39,000 words. And when an editor invites me to write a story for an anthology, I hit the required word count. Any idea that won’t fit in that word count I save for another project. 

Only twice have I been asked to change the size of a project. Once I’d written a middle-grade horror novel that was about 40,000 words. The editor said, We’re really looking for YA novels, would this work as a longer piece with a teenage protagonist? I solved that problem by basically starting a whole new novel, and borrowing bits and pieces from the middle-grade book. The second time I was asked to change, it was again because of publishing reasons. I’d made a space opera joke on Twitter (remember Twitter?), and an editor said, Could you write that as a novella? I dashed off a pitch, but the publisher turned it down because it was too comedic for their house. The editor came back and said, well how about a novelette?   I said I’d think about it. And then two years later I wrote the editor and said, You remember that space opera thing? Here it is. “I’m Not Disappointed Just Mad, AKA The Heaviest Couch in the Known Universe” will be coming out in November 2024 on reactor.com

What else is next for you?

My next novel is When We Were Real, which will be coming out from Saga Press on April 1, 2025. The premise is that seven years ago, we all learned we were living in a simulation, but none of us got super powers, and everyone’s wondering what the simulators want from us. A novella and a couple of short stories are in process, but I can’t talk about them yet. The only thing I can promise is that they’re all in different genres. 


Photo: Lisa Trombi

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