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Interview: Novelist Daryl Gregory on Raising Stony Mayhall

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Writer Daryl Gregory always provides enlightening and entertaining discussion — that’s why this marks the third time I have interviewed him about his work. Last month saw the release of his newest novel, Raising Stony Mayhall, which publisher Del Ray enthrallingly describes:

“In 1968, after the first zombie outbreak, Wanda Mayhall and her three young daughters discover the body of a teenage mother during a snowstorm. Wrapped in the woman’s arms is a baby, stone-cold, not breathing, and without a pulse. But then his eyes open and look up at Wanda — and he begins to move. The family hides the child — whom they name Stony — rather than turn him over to authorities who would destroy him. Against all scientific reason, the undead boy begins to grow. For years his adoptive mother and sisters manage to keep his existence a secret—until one terrifying night when Stony is forced to run and he learns that he is not the only living dead boy left in the world.” 

In addition to chatting about his newest novel, Gregory also explained how his previous novel, Pandemonium, came to be translated into Hebrew, as well as what else is on the creative horizon for him.

In terms of this novel’s timeline, the first zombie outbreak happened in the late 1960s. What was your thinking in terms of the timeframe of when Stony was born?

It’s a nod to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which came out in 1968. In the world of the novel, a guy who also happens to be named Romero films the outbreak a documentary. We go on from there, and the book spans Stony’s entire “life,” from when he was discovered as an undead baby beside the highway in ’68, to his eventual second death in his 40s in 2010.

Conveniently enough, I was born in 1965, so Stony’s life and times are basically my life and times, with a few key differences. (Stony spends his life as a zombie, for example, while I am only a zombie before I’ve had my first cup of coffee.) Stony eventually discovers that he’s not the only living dead boy in the world, and he goes through a political awakening when he realizes he’s part of an oppressed community.

Using my own chronology was my chance to talk about growing up surrounded by sisters (only two of them, but I felt surrounded), as well as childhood friendships, and finding your place in the world. A reviewer on GoodReads called it a zombildungsroman, and that’s the best, most efficient description of the book I’ve found.

The lead character, Stony, is fascinated with the nature of his body and his mind (understandably, given that he’s a zombie). What are you trying to explore by this character examination?

Stony is a thinking man’s zombie! Or a man’s thinking zombie? Regardless, he’s a scientist at heart. And just because his own circumstances seem to be impossible, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t try to figure out who and what he is.

The thing about real, Romero-style zombies (as opposed to, say, genetically altered humans who act like zombies) is that they make no sense. If they’re dead, how do they move? If they have no metabolism, why do they eat, and how do they digest what they eat?

Instead of disregarding those questions, Stony takes them as facts of his world, and begins experimenting on himself to see what that means about him. One small example: If his brain is nothing but inert matter, but he still is conscious, then consciousness must exist outside the body. He arrives at religious explanations based on the evidence.

How elated and surprised were you when Publisher’s Weekly pegged Raising Stony Mayhall as its pick of the week?

Very elated and very surprised. Publisher’s Weekly does a great job of covering science fiction and fantasy, but I didn’t expect to see them choose a genre book as their pick for all readers. (Then again, maybe they do this more than I’ve realized.) I’m just very grateful.

Did you find that response from your GoodReads giveaway helped spread the word about your new book?

My publisher graciously put up 20 copies for the giveaway, and we had a huge number of people sign up to win free copies of the book. I don’t know if that will turn into sales, but I hope so. At the very least, it exposed a lot of people to a book they might not have picked up at the local bookstore — if they even have a local bookstore.

At what point in the development of Raising Stony Mayhall, did you realize that you wanted an element of humor in the story?

I think that was built in from the beginning. A strict zombie story is dependent on constant, increasing levels of terror. But Stony is a bent life story, so there’s room for all range of tones and elements. There’s humor, because life is humorous.

Not every author offers to sign and mail bookplates to fans. When did you decide to start doing that — and is that another way you try to stay connected to your fans?

I stole this idea from new Del Rey writer Kevin Hearne. My editor told me what Kevin had done, and it seemed like a good idea. For one, bookstores are now ordering what to place on the shelves based on pre-orders, so it seemed like a good idea to encourage a jumpstart. But also, there are plenty of folks whom I’ll never be able to meet or sign books for, and this seemed like a nice way to stay in touch and say thanks.

You just wrapped up a Clockwork retreat, what do you enjoy most about these creative retreats?

I would like to say that it’s because I get a tremendous amount of work done, but that’s a lie. It’s really about hanging out for a week with fellow writers, talking about business and craft and crafty business people. These guys — Matt Sturges, Chris Roberson, Bill Willingham, and the rest of the gang — are my Council of Elrond. I’m trying to learn how to break into comics and balance that with writing prose, and these people are all doing that — and all doing it differently! I also come out of these weeks recharged, ready to try new things.

Not every writer can say “hey my book just got translated into Hebrew” — but that’s exactly what happened with Pandemonium. How did that book deal come about? How many different countries have published your novels?

Pandemonium is in three countries so far — Italy, the Czech Republic, and this edition from Graff Publishing in Israel. I’d gotten to know Rani Graff at science fiction conventions, and one day a couple years ago we were sitting in a bar at a WorldCon and he told me that he wanted to publish Pandemonium, but was having trouble getting through to the rights people at Random House. And I said, my editor is sitting next to me! I introduced them, and I think they shook hands on the deal that day.

What else is on the creative horizon for you?

My first collection of short stories is coming out from Fairwood Press this fall — it’s called Unpossible and Other Stories. I’m also working on a new novel, and writing comics. I’m writing Planet of the Apes from BOOM! Studios, and my other comic for them, Dracula: The Company of Monsters, is finishing up soon with #12. The eight-year-old Daryl is very impressed with me right now.

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