Justin Gustainis is the author of an exciting new paranormal series featuring kick-ass supernatural investigator Quincey Morris. I had the pleasure of reading this book recently, so look for my review in a day or two. In a few words, you won't be able to put the book down. In this fascinating interview, the author talks about his new novel, the writing process, and creating his protagonist; plus, he offers us a glimpse into the mind of the supernatural thriller writer.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author? Do you have another job besides writing?
Let me answer the second part of that first: I’m a college professor. My field is Communication Studies, and my specialty is social influence (persuasion, argumentation, etc.) I teach in a mid-size university in upstate New York.
My academic colleagues refer to teaching as my “day job.” My publisher, on the other hand, calls writing my “day job.” I hope they never meet.
My literary “career,” if it may be called that, has two stages. The first was abortive. Years and years ago, I thought I might try my hand at writing. I wrote off a few short stories, and sent them off to some magazines who published that sort of stuff. Imagine my surprise when the stories were all rejected!
I guess I lacked commitment, because I just – stopped.
Quite a few years later, I was going through a stormy period in my marriage, and I got the idea for a novel and started fooling around with it. I didn’t consciously realize it at the time, but I was using writing as a way to get away from my problems for a while. And it worked! Once I really got in to it, time would pass effortlessly. I’d look up from the computer, and two hours (or more) would have gone by.
There’s a guy named [Mihaly] Csikszentmihalyi who, a while back, wrote a book called Flow. The term refers to a state of utter absorption in what you’re doing. Different people achieve it different ways – sports, playing chess, building a house. For me, “flow” comes through writing. And it led to my first novel, The Hades Project.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I was, indeed, an avid reader. In fact, I tell people that I’ve never had a creative writing course or taken part in any kind of workshop (although that’s about to change: I’ve been accepted for Odyssey this summer). What I know about writing comes from reading about a zillion books.
My progress, beginning at about age 7, was: comic books, nonfiction about World War II (the show “Combat” was popular at the time, and sparked my interest), followed by “books for boys,” especially the “Rick Brant Science Adventures,” then Sherlock Holmes, The Saint, then Bond, James Bond. This takes me up to about age 14, and after that I was off to the (literary) races.
Tell us a bit about your latest book.
Black Magic Woman is an urban fantasy about a family living under a curse that dates back to the Salem witch trials. The curse appears life-threatening, so the family seeks the help of Quincey Morris, occult investigator. Quincey is a direct descendant of the Texan by the same name who appeared in [Bram] Stoker’s Dracula, and gave his life in pursuit of the Count’s destruction.
Quincey realizes he’s in over his head and calls in Libby Chastain, a “consultant” who is a practitioner of “white” witchcraft. The two of them cross the country on the trail of the “black” witch responsible for the curse. But then she learns of their pursuit, and uses all the evil power at her command in an effort to destroy them.
At the same time, the FBI is investigating a series of child abductions and murders with strong occult overtones. The Bureau sends for an expert from South Africa, who knows more than a little about occult murder. Detective Sergeant Garth Van Dreenan is a member of the country’s Occult Crime Bureau (which really exists, by the way). Van Dreenan is partnered with African-American Special Agent Fenton, and the two of them attempt to overcome their cultural differences long enough to discover who is behind the murders, in which the children’s bodily organs are removed while they are still alive.
The two cases appear unrelated. They are not. Both eventually come together – with a vengeance, you might say.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
For the first book, The Hades Project, I started with an idea and a character, and kept writing because I wanted to see what was going to happen next. The same is true, pretty much, for Black Magic Woman. However, for the third book, Evil Ways (a sequel to BMW and the second “Quincey Morris Supernatural Adventure”) I had to compose an outline in order to secure my contract from the publisher. I’m writing the book now, and frankly, finding the outline rather confining – because this is the structure of the book that I have, more or less, committed to write, so I can’t change it drastically.
Your protagonist, Quincey Morris, is one of the most likable heroes I've encountered in a novel in a long time. How did you develop this character? Did he come naturally or did you want him to have specific qualities to suit your plot?
Quincey evolved gradually, but, looking back, I can see that he reflects qualities and attributes of three friends of mine – one of whom is a Texan, like Quincey. Or, another way to look at it is Quincey Morris is the man I always wanted to be. Give or take the vampires.
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
The Hades Project took about a year and a half to produce the first draft. Black Magic Woman took about a year. Keep in mind, I have a day job. Or so my fellow professors say.
Describe your working environment.
I have an office at home where I do most of my writing. It’s decorated with “occult detective” memorabilia, since that’s both what I write and what I love to read. I’ve got Constantine and Hellboy movie posters on the walls, mugs from Twin Peaks and Millennium, Mulder and Scully action figures, and a prop from Kolchak: The Night Stalker (the original, not the more recent, pallid attempt). There’s a lot more, but you get the idea.
Are you a disciplined writer?
Not nearly as much as I wish.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
In the case of finding the publisher for Black Magic Woman (Solaris Books), it was a combination of persistence and dumb luck. It’s a very long story, and I’d rather skip to the second part of this question.
My advice is simple, but I mean it sincerely. Don’t quit. Don’t stop writing, don’t stop revising, and don’t stop sending your stuff out. This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be published – but the other choice guarantees that you WON’T be published.
Somebody once said that “a published writer is an unpublished writer who didn’t give up.” I’m down with that.
What's inside the mind of the supernatural thriller writer?
I think it’s the knowledge, deep down, that the world is a dangerous place – and not all the dangers come from terrorists, diseases, and global warming.
There’s something out there, in the dark, just beyond the range of vision. It’s my job (and my pleasure) to give you a glimpse of it. Just a glimpse, mind – a full-on look would drive you mad with terror.
My credo is well expressed by the last line of the stage play Dracula, a line spoken directly to the audience: “Just remember: there are such things!”
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
I once read something attributed, I think, to Andre Norton. It’s about how becoming a writer is a simple, three-step process: 1) place butt in chair 2) write 3) repeat.
Works every time.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
You betcha. It’s at JustinGustainis.com. And, as long as I’m giving website URLs, here’s one for the publisher’s (Solaris Books) page dedicated to the book.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Well, I’ve already mentioned Evil Ways, which is due for publication in January 2009 – always assuming I get it finished on time. I’m also putting together an anthology of “occult detective” stories. Some very well-known writers have agreed to contribute: Simon R. Green, Rachel Caine, Kim Newman, Lili Saintcrow, and P.N. Elrod, to name a few.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
Evil Ways will be dedicated to the memory of my wife, Patricia Grogan, who died on December 22, 2007.