This week we’re going to be talking with dark fiction author Greg F. Gifune. I first heard about Greg when I interviewed Robert Dunbar, and Rob mentioned Greg’s novel, Judas Goat. It was many months later that I finally had the time to read some of Greg’s work, and I’m glad I did.
Greg’s haunting prose has garnered starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and the Midwest Book Review. Greg is the author of numerous short stories, several novels, and two short story collections (Heretics and Down to Sleep).
His novels include Children of Chaos, Dominion, The Bleeding Season, Deep Night, Blood in Electric Blue, Saying Uncle, A View from the Lake, Night Work, Drago Descending, Catching Hell, Judas Goat, Long After Dark, and Kingdom of Shadows. His latest novel, Gardens of Night, is soon to be released from Uninvited Books.
However, today Greg is hanging out with us, so without further ado, I’m delighted to present Greg F. Gifune in his own words.
Tell us about your latest novel, Gardens of Night.
Gardens of Night is a essentially about a couple who experience a horrifically violent but rather enigmatic event, and how this event impacts them physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually as they try to heal and find deliverance from all the darkness it brings. While recovering, Marcus Banyon, the main character, begins to experience odd things—frightening visions and strange sounds—whale sounds and mysterious connections to nature and the universe around him that he did not experience prior, and it’s not really clear if he’s literally experiencing these things or if, as his doctors suggest, he may have suffered a psychological break.
As part of the healing process, Marcus, his wife Brooke, and their oldest friend Spaulding, retreat to a chalet in upstate New York with the idea of it being a recuperative thing where they can just relax and enjoy themselves, reset a bit and hopefully get their lives back on track. Of course there are all the dynamics between the three of them, their pasts and histories and how they all intersect, so there’s that aspect too, and then it begins to seem as if perhaps this trip was preordained by some outside force.
From there the novel begins to explore various mythologies, including the Three Fates, the three sisters from Norse mythology who allegedly determine the fate of mankind. Mythology and magic play a big part in the novel, mostly as metaphor, but the line between what is ‘real’ and what may be something else is not always clear (at least until the end of the novel), so Gardens presents a very surreal landscape that Marcus finds himself wandering through, and a lot of the novel takes place in and around a mysterious farmhouse that is allegedly where these three sisters (The Three Fates) have taken up residence and are practicing the magic that controls the fate of Man.
Throughout the course of this, the novel delves deeper into exactly what may have happened to Marcus and his wife, and not only what this nightmare has done to them, but ultimately what it may mean to their individual fates, as it follows their quest to find a way out the madness and mysteries consuming them. In-other-words, it’s a feel-good romantic comedy the entire family will enjoy.
You are an extremely prolific writer; tell us how you go about constructing your stories.
I am fairly prolific, but because I’ve been a published novelist for over a decade now, when you spread my books out over that timeframe it’s not quite as impressive. Also, sometimes they’re published in bunches, and two or three books will all come out within a short time of each other, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I wrote them all during that time, they may have been sitting for a while or in various stages of completion.
I’ve said this in a lot of other interviews, but it’s accurate to my process, I like to let things nest in my mind for long periods of time before I start to write them. That way, I feel a connection to the piece and the characters that I might not otherwise—a comfort—as comfortable as I ever get, I guess. But in terms of the ins and outs of how I construct stories, it’s hard to say, really. I mean it’s kind of a process that just happens. I generally begin with the essence of whatever I’m trying to explore or purge—whatever the case may be—sometimes both.
I start with characters and what’s usually a relatively straightforward theme and then expand from there. Character is a huge part of it for me. Along with lots of drugs and alcohol. Wait, what? Anyway, I know ‘the story’s the thing’ and all that, and obviously you have to have a story, but to me the old expression that good novels aren’t about something that happens, they’re about something that happens to someone is an approach I agree with.
I start with characters, and if I get to know them well enough and I invest in them enough and take the time to let them evolve into real people, in a sense, the plot and their stories are born from that, so the story takes care of itself. It comes from the characters, because stories are born from people, not the other way around. I also keep dossiers on most of my characters, all this background info and whatnot, so I know virtually everything about them, very little of which ever makes it into the novels. But it goes back to my acting roots, where you get to know the character within as well as outside the material. And even though much of this is never shared with the reader, it allows me to understand the character and more effectively move her or him through their story because I’m so familiar with them and who they are.
For me, it’s vital to understand the people in my work. Beyond that, to quote the great Ray Charles, ‘I just make it do what it do, baby.’ It’s like when people ask how or where I get my ideas from (and by the way, for the love of God please stop asking writers that, we’d really appreciate it), for the most part, I have no idea. God? The Universe? Some unknown pool of consciousness out there somewhere? My own mind? All of the above? Who knows? They just come to me. A lot of what I do involves my own demons, the things that haunt and torment me, so it’s often loosely based on real life, and there’s a lot I can draw from unfortunately, but in terms of how I actually pull it together, it starts with character and grows from there.
This is the favorite child question, but out of your many works, which ones did you enjoy working on the most and why?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because for me writing isn’t really ‘enjoyable’ per se. I’m in the Dorothy Parker camp in that I often hate writing but love having written. I do what Rob Dunbar calls ‘method writing,’ which is again an extension of my acting background, where it’s method-based, where you draw from your own experiences to feel what you need to feel. So when I write a novel I tend to psychologically live it and feel it, so it can be unpleasant and draining emotionally, and sometimes a bit like stepping off into insanity and just hoping you’ll find your way back every time. A few people who know me would probably tell you that ship sailed a long time ago, but you get my point.
The process can also sometimes be very fulfilling, but generally it’s more draining than anything else. Once I get going I try not to let myself drown in what I’m doing, but I get in there pretty deep, especially when a novel starts to take form and come alive, and it’s no longer just a concept but a breathing, living thing with characters that have some point and depth that I can look at it and see as something really worth writing. Although I focus on the material with a lot of intensity, I’ve always had the philosophy that one should never take oneself too seriously, but always take the work very seriously. As with any form of art, you do it first for yourself and because it’s something you need to do, but I also think if you want people to experience your art and invest their time in it, then you owe it to them to deliver something that’s worth it.
I guess I could point to The Bleeding Season as having been enjoyable because it was my breakthrough novel, but the actual writing of it wasn’t anything close to what I’d describe as fun. Drago Descending and Catching Hell were kind of fun, I guess, because they’re so fast and plot driven. Drago was designed to be very sleek and fast and kind of a point A to point B type novel, structured like a mystery novel but written as horror, and Catching Hell was similar in that it was essentially a plot driven, very linear piece that allowed me to shrug off a lot of what I normally do and just dive in. But as I say, the joy for me really comes when it’s over and I can look at the finished product and be happy with that.
Saying Uncle is probably one of the most poignant works I’ve read on how violence can warp a family, yet your message of redemption is very clear. It’s not horror in the traditional sense; the ghosts here come from the past to propel the protagonist forward. Tell us a little about Saying Uncle and what led you to write this particular tale?
First of all, thank you. Secondly, Saying Uncle, like almost all of my work, is very personal. There really is no supernatural element to the novel, but then, you know, that can be said for almost all of my novels. Some people may be surprised to hear that but most of my work, if you really look at it, the supernatural elements tend to be used as metaphor and as surface, and you can easily remove or question the supernatural aspects of what I do and look to the subtext to find out what’s really going on.
It’s rarely completely defined because I think what’s unknown is more interesting and also closer to how the real world plays out all around us. What’s unknown is what makes something creepy. If something is solidly real, however horrific, you can comprehend it, focus on it and deal with it (however difficult that may be it becomes possible when something is without question, actual), but I think it’s the idea of not really being sure where more interesting things happen emotionally and psychologically.
With Saying Uncle particularly, I’m glad you got the message of redemption from it, because it’s really a theme that runs through my work. Even though it can be very dark and on the surface pessimistic, it really isn’t. There’s always hope in my novels. One of the common themes in my novels is that the characters are reaching for higher ground, redemption, deliverance, that way out through their own humanity and their own humanness and how that relates to the spiritual realm and whatnot.
I think with Saying Uncle specifically, what I really set out to do was to write a novel about the impact of violence. One of the things I dislike (except for certain specific situations where that’s the whole point) is gratuitous violence in things like this because real violence is rarely anything like that. If you’ve ever experienced violence from either side (which I have, as violence played a part in certain segments of my past, unfortunately), it’s actually quite profound, and the effects can be extraordinarily profound. In fact I think the effects are often far more profound than the violence itself. But it’s the collateral damage it can cause that fascinates me.
One act of violence is like a disease and can infect a single person, but what you don’t necessarily think about initially are all the people that person’s connected to that it can also, and almost has to, effect and by extension, infect as well. Saying Uncle is a study of the complexity of violence, and this is precisely what the characters in the novel struggle with. They love the uncle character, who in many ways is a very loveable guy, he’s not a bad human being generally, yet maybe he is, so it’s difficult to define him in those ways.
It’s not that simple. We’d all like it to be but it’s not. This uncle character, this shady, vaguely mobbed up guy—is he a murderer, is he not, and if he is, is his crime ‘justified?’ Is murder ever justified? Does responding to violence with violence actually work, or does it make things worse and end up hurting even more people? Saying Uncle deals with revenge as well, there are a lot of themes that grow out of the problem of violence and that’s really what the book was about, taking a long hard look in hopefully an adult way at how violence cripples human beings. What adds to the complexity is that it’s something so intrinsically human, a part of our makeup we have to admit to whether we want to or not.
A simple revenge story, when done well, can be effective, but when it’s presented in simplistic terms it doesn’t reflect reality, and I want my work to reflect reality. I don’t want readers to suspend their disbelief to come along for the ride in this or any novel I write. I want them to believe what I’m telling them, to feel it and experience it along with me, or I feel I’ve failed.
What specifically led me to write the novel is very personal so I’m going to pass on revealing that, but I can tell you this, the other factor that led me to write it was the same thing that leads me to write most of my novels. It’s a cleansing, its cathartic, and because a lot of this was very personal to me and I was wrapped up in it emotionally myself in a very real way, I was able to process it closer to the bone in a sense, so writing it in many ways was my way of freeing myself of it. Once written, it was out of me, I was free of it to a degree, and if not healed, at least headed in that direction.
Your fiction transcends gore to reach deep into the psyches of your characters. Violence is a given in horror and dark fiction, yet you don’t use violence for shock value but as a catalyst into characterization. Tell us a little about your characters and how you conceive them.
For me, it’s all about essence. That’s how I learned my craft when I was coming up. The emphasis for me was (and is) always essence, getting to the core of what you’re really writing about. In terms of violence specifically, writing violence is like writing sex. I personally don’t believe it takes any talent whatsoever to write gore-filled scenes. I think anybody can do that. It’s like an over-the-top sex scene. Anybody can write pornography. It doesn’t take any special talent or skill.
What interests me is the heart of those themes. If you’re going to use violence and write a violent scene and it exists solely to make someone cringe or sick to their stomach, I’m not interested in that. Everyone knows what violence is, everyone knows what sex is, you don’t need a blow by blow (no pun intended) description of someone having sex or ripping someone’s guts out unless that’s what you’re going for, but that’s not what I do and I don’t care about that.
Certainly my work can be very violent, and using Gardens of Night as one example, there are parts of it that are extraordinarily violent, so I don’t shy away from graphic violence by any stretch, graphic violence or graphic sex or graphic anything, but if I do it I want there to be a point to it. I don’t want my work to have a cheap thrill feel to it. I want the violence in my work to be accurate, and that’s exactly how I portray it. But I think once you start to look for that essence and you’re not looking for shock value, but something that lives beneath all that, that’s where you get the whole redemption angle, and it’s there that you really connect to people, because that’s something we all reach for in life, whether we’re religious or not, spiritual or not, part of the human experience is that need for redemption. We all need some level of that, and I think sometimes it (or the lack of it) manifests in things like violence.
In similar ways, violence can also be the catalyst that gets us there. Again, the way my characters are conceived, they’re not born from violence. It’s the other way around. The violence comes later, as part of who the character is. It’s just a different approach, but coming at it that way also allows me to round out the character as a fully realized human being rather than as a one dimensional villain or hero or anything along those lines. I think your description in your question is correct. It’s really a catalyst into characterization. And, as you say, one of the tenants of dark fiction tends to be violence, and that’s fine. But from there, it’s really about choices the writer makes.
Tell us a little about your short stories and collections.
When I started writing professionally I began with short stories. I’ve had two collections published, Down to Sleep and Heretics. I’m very proud of both collections and what I accomplished with those. I wrote short fiction for years before I even attempted to write a novel, a real one anyway, and I’m glad I did because writing short stories taught me a lot.
It’s a great way to learn how to write, how to sharpen your skills, because you don’t have the luxury you do with a novel, where you can go on and on for several pages if you like. In a short story you’re limited in the sense that every word really counts, so it forces you to be tough on yourself, forces you to be economical with words, to be succinct and to edit and to look at a paragraph and say, OK, I don’t have room to say what I’ve said here in five sentences, how do I say it just as effectively in two?
In all honesty, while I continue to sell reprints from time to time, I haven’t written an original short story in about six years now. I’d never slam that door completely shut, but I do feel as though I’ve done everything I set out to do with short stories. I’m a novelist now.
I noticed on your biography that you also work as an editor. How have your editorial experiences helped your writing?
I’ve done quite a bit of freelance novel editing for a lot of writers everyone would know, I’m Associate Editor at Delirium Books and have edited quite a few of the novels they’ve released, I was the editor of Thievin’ Kitty Publications for several years, which published the magazines The Edge: Tales of Suspense and Burning Sky.
I still do a little freelance editing but not a lot as I don’t have the time to dedicate to it that I once did. I enjoy editing though, particularly novels. It’s fun to take my writer hat off and put my editor hat on and work closely with a writer to help pull a project together and take it to where they want it to be. That’s very satisfying. Editing has also allowed me to help discover a lot of writers. There are many writers who have a name and following in the genre and beyond who I worked with early on, helped to discover in a sense, and I’m very proud of that. I think I helped bring a lot of what were then new voices to the genre and can hopefully continue to do that.
I think in terms of how it helps my writing, self-editing is of course no substitute for working with a really good objective editor, but it’s a nice skill to have. When writing my novels, I edit as I go, and I’m very hard on myself. But when I start final edits (which are never final so I have no idea why we call them that), I’m even harder on myself. I get that red pen going and I pride myself on my manuscript being very clean and hopefully requiring very little additional editing and even very little copy editing. My editing skills allow me to do that effectively, so they do tie in. Being a good editor, in my experience, has helped make me a better writer. It’s that simple. It gives you a level of expertise and a skill set you wouldn’t otherwise have.
So what’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a couple novellas and some other novel projects. The paperback of Gardens of Night will be released very soon and I’m very excited about that. A View from the Lake, a novel of mine that’s been out of print for a while and that a lot of people have been after me to get out there again, will be re-released soon, this time from Bad Moon Books, and this time in hardcover and paperback editions. So I’m happy to see that getting back into print.
I’ve also got a lot of other projects going I can’t talk about yet but will soon. Best place for updates is my official web site: http://www.gregfifune.com and I hang out at places like Shocklines and Horrorworld when I can. Also have a page over on Facebook because I’m pretty sure it’s the law now, isn’t it? That’s what’s happening and coming up.
I hope you enjoyed our interview with Greg F. Gifune. If you love dark fiction, check out his works, you’ll definitely be glad you did.