Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Daryl Gregory

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 3, 2009

Daryl Gregory lives in State College, PA with is wife and two gaming children. His short stories have appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and many “year’s best” anthologies. He won the Crawford Award for 2009 for best new fantasy writer. His first novel, Pandemonium, was nominated for several awards, and is currently a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. His second book, The Devil’s Alphabet, will appear in November 24, 2009 from Del Rey Books.

Author website:

Could you take a minute and explain what Pandemonium is about?pandemonium2

That may take more than a minute — it’s a weird book. It takes place in an alternate America where demonic possession is a regular occurrence, though the “demons” seem to be Jungian archetypes dressed up in the clothing of American pop culture, especially golden age comics, folk tales, and pulp fiction. The demon called The Truth, for example, is a Shadow-style vigilante who punishes liars. The Captain possesses soldiers and likes to carry shields. And Smokestack Johnny is a reckless Casey Jones who likes to commandeer trains and run them until they fly off the tracks.

The main character of the book, Del, was possessed by a Dennis-the-Menace style demon called the Hellion when he was five, but the demon seems to have never jumped to a new body. Somehow Del trapped it, and now it’s struggling to get out. He needs an exorcism, but nobody can tell him if possession is a neurological disorder, a magical problem, or something stranger. He seeks help from a bald, female, Catholic priest, and Valis, a demon who decades ago possessed the body of a hack SF writer named Philip K Dick. Hijinks ensue.

What was the process like in getting your first book published?

The process began in the late 80’s, when I first started trying to write short stories. Fast forward 20 years, and I’m an overnight success. The -exact- process is so convoluted that it would take me a couple pages to explain, but in summary it was: writing, getting rejected, writing some more, going to Clarion, writing a long unpublishable novel, writing short stories that (finally) didn’t suck and seeing those published and picked up by year’s best anthologies, then writing a shorter publishable novel, finding an agent, and finally getting the book into the hands of an editor. See? Easy.

Were you a big reader as a child/young adult? What were some of your favorite books and/or authors growing up?

Anybody who reads Pandemonium will be able to deduce my reading list. I started with comic books, Hardy Boy books, and the Doc Savage reprints. I just inhaled those Doc Savage books. I never stopped reading comics, but in high school I added science fiction: Zelazny, Sturgeon, Ellison were favorites and huge influences.

Are you or have you ever been a gamer? What has your gaming experience been like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I started hanging around gaming stores in junior high. I bought a copy of Chainmail and started collecting miniatures, which led me and my friends to D&D, Traveler, Gamma World, and just about every game system we could get our hands on. I’m proud to say I was the founder and first president of my high school’s D&D club. In college I discovered Champions, the Superhero roleplaying game, and that became the system I loved most. Ten years after college I played in and ran play-by-email Champions games, and since then I’ve taught the system to my children and run games for them. Now my son, who is 13, runs his own games. I’m as proud of that as any ex-high school athlete whose son has learned to throw a 90 mph fastball.

Have you ever ventured into online worlds? If so, please explain what that experience has been like.

I’m not a big online gamer, for two reasons: one, it completely sucks me in and I don’t get any writing done; and two, it’s humiliating to get your butt kicked by a twelve year old in Ottawa. I was very into Battlefield 1942 for a couple years, and never got good at it. My son and I played City of Heroes for awhile and enjoyed it — my son especially enjoyed City of Villains. The experience is pretty amazing, and proof that we live in a science fictional world.

Would you say that your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

My good friend, ex-college roommate, and frequent GM in those days asked me this same question. I said, not really, but then we kept coming across tidbits from Pandemonium that echoed games we had played.

devil's alphabetI do think that RPG-ing — which is my kind of gaming — is essentially storytelling, but with a key difference. When I’m the author, I am manipulating the reader. I am doling out information and arranging events for optimum emotion and tension, I’m cutting extraneous characters and editing out events that distract from the theme, and I am completely in control of mood. These are all things that a good GM must abandon. The important thing in a game is that the players have real agency, and that they have a responsibility to come up with ways to complete the mission that the GM has not engineered in advance. The GM can try to set the mood, but we’ve all been in games where the players completely disrupt it. If you’re the GM, you’re only choice at that point is to either stop the game — and no one likes a party pooper — or go with the flow.

Would you say there is grinding in the writing process?

Of course there’s grind! There’s no way to stay completely in love with what you’re writing all the way through a 100,000 word novel. Some days you’re not feeling inspired, but you have to sit down and do the work. Eventually, the love comes back.

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Writing is the hardest thing I know how to do well. (There are plenty of difficult things that I suck at.) It’s so rewarding to finish something that I didn’t know I could do, and to find readers who appreciate it.

Would you have any words of advice for the would-be-writers out there?

There’s really only one piece of writing advice: write, revise, and submit — then repeat. It always helps to find a workshop where fellow writers can critique your work and allow you to sharpen your own critical skills. But when it gets down to it, the only thing you can do is sit your butt in the chair and get the work done.

You wake up to a world where Pandemonium has been made into an MMO. What character class would you play and why?

I would have to play the Captain. I was imprinted at an early age by Captain America. So there’s really no choice in the matter.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with this gamer/reader audience?

Whenever you see Pandemonium on a bookshelf, please turn it face out. Oh, and if you see my next book — The Devil’s Alphabet, due out this November — turn it face out without obscuring Pandemonium. I know it’s a lot to ask, but it will make my mom so happy.

daryl gregory

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: