An interview from the archives. First published in January 2019.
Craig DiLouie is an American-Canadian author of thriller, sci-fi/fantasy, and horror fiction. His work has been published by big publishers, small presses, and self-published; nominated for major literature awards; published in multiple languages; and optioned for screen adaptation.
GJ: You write in many genres. Do you have a preference?
CD: My work tends to focus on ordinary people facing the extraordinary and showing what they’re made of under crisis. With a strong focus on character, action, and mixing heavy realism with a fantastic element, I can go almost anywhere with this formula, from thrillers to sci-fi and fantasy to horror and post-apocalyptic.
That being said, different genres have various appeal for me as a writer. Horror is fertile ground to break boundaries and hold up a fractured mirror to the human soul. My WW2 thriller fiction allows me to explore human courage and why men fight. Dark fantasy allows a fantastic element to intrude on the real world and reveal something disturbing about it. In each case, I enjoy making the reader sweat and getting them to ask themselves, “What would I do in this situation?”
So for me, genres are simply tools or formats to which I can apply a signature approach that distinguishes me as a writer.
Where things really change is when I write for a big publisher like Orbit or Simon & Schuster versus self-publishing. These are very different media and for me have different requirements. When I write for big houses, my books tend to be longer, standalone, and thematically explore a big idea. When I self-publish, my books tend to be shorter, pulpy, actioners rolled out in a series. While both may put the protagonists through the wringer to see what they’re made of, my self-published WW2 fiction tends to deliver more on wish fulfillment and be more cathartic with a big win against impossible odds.
GJ: I know it’s like choosing a favourite child, but do you have a favourite book you’ve written or one you’re most proud of?
CD: I’d have to say it’s One of Us (Orbit, July 2018), a Southern Gothic dark fantasy about a town with an orphanage outside it populated by monsters created by a mutagenic disease. The townspeople fear the monsters, though behind their deformities, they’re regular human beings. The novel is dark and explores the universal human trait of prejudice as a theme. I wrote it with a fierce joy and really fell in love with the characters and their world. It was a lot of fun to mesh fantasy with Southern Gothic, a venerable American literary tradition heavily laced with the grotesque, taboo, and prejudice.
That being said, I love my other works equally at least for one particular thing. For example, in the case of Suffer the Children (Simon & Schuster, 2014), it’s theme. In this novel, a disease kills the world’s children before bringing them back as vampires needing blood to go on living a little longer, leaving their parents with the choice of whether to let their loved ones go or do whatever it takes to give them blood. With Crash Dive, my self-published WW2 submarine series, it’s the joy of a simple story well told, blending the heroism of a single man overcoming incredibly harrowing obstacles. And so on.
GJ: Which genre did you write in first?
CD: My first published work was Paranoia (Salvo Press, 2001), a psychological thriller about a man exposed to conspiracy theories until he’s shown incontrovertible evidence one is real, which leads him down a rabbit hole. My next was a comedic military sci-fi actioner, The Great Planet Robbery, which might be described as Kipling’s “The Man Who Would be King” in space.
I’ve found that success in publishing starts with continually improving your game and being as prolific as possible, and ends with luck—that is, being at the right place at the right time with the right book. That happened for me with my first zombie novel, Tooth and Nail (Salvo Press, 2010), which was the first true military versus zombies novel and started a subgenre in zombie fiction. Sales exploded, leading me to write two more: The Infection (Permuted Press, 2011) and The Killing Floor (Permuted Press, 2013), which also did extremely well. The Kindle was just getting big at that time, which helped a lot.
Back then, there were maybe forty of us writing zombie novels and only a handful doing well with it. The zombie fiction market quickly saturated after that, leading me to explore other genres.
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GJ: Where do you get your inspiration from?
CD: For me, it always starts with a big idea expressed through a twist on a venerable story. So making kids vampires to tell a story about how far parents will go out of love (Suffer the Children), using monsters in a Southern Gothic to explore prejudice (One of Us), having a reporter discover the use of child soldiers in a second American civil war (Our War, Orbit, August 2019), these are all examples of twisting familiar genre material into something fresh that is further emboldened by a big idea. That resulting concept drives me to write the book because it’d be one I’d want to read and one I’d be excited to see others read. Writing books is like mentally climbing Everest over and over, so you have to love your book from the first blank page.
GJ: If an apocalyptic event was going to happen, which would you prefer and why?
CD: Anything but the one we’re currently living in. We are living in apocalyptic times, though it’s happening so slowly it’s hard to notice. Climate change and environmental depletion are grinding toward a tipping point possibly in our lifetime, which I find terrifying.
GJ: What would be your essential item of kit in the event of an apocalypse?
CD: I have some emergency stocks, but otherwise I’m hardly prepared. I think if a real apocalyptic event happened, we’d be screwed, so I’d have to say I’d find a lot of yoga essential. So I could be flexible enough to kiss my own ass goodbye.
GJ: Can you tell me about your journey to publishing your first novel?
CD: I wrote my first novels in the ‘90s and had a huge problem breaking in. I felt like the guy in Kafka’s The Castle, invited to a party that wouldn’t allow me in. You needed an agent to get published, but you needed to get published to get an agent. You’d mass mail pitch letters to agents, only for them to use your self-addressed stamped envelope to send you form rejections along with flyers promoting their own book on how to get published.
Then the ‘00s came along with on-demand printing, eBook readers, the development of the Internet, and easier audiobook distribution, which democratized everything. Small presses started to thrive by capturing niche markets the big publishers found too risky, and then the self-publishing guys came in and ate everybody’s lunch by competing on price. This allowed me to catch a break and work my way up the ladder to work with big houses. It’s been an amazing journey, gratifying and humbling.
GJ: Are you a full time writer?
CD: Yes, though I split my time between fiction and nonfiction. My nonfiction work is journalism and education in the lighting industry. Fiction is an awesome career but emotionally a rollercoaster. My nonfiction steadies everything out and provides reliability and predictability.
GJ: What do you see as your main challenge in your writing life?
CD: I’m constantly working towards perfecting my game in two respects. First is cultivating true fans, people who will read anything I write rather than anything I write in a particular series or genre. The second is producing genre work that transcends genre to achieve mass market appeal.
Thank you for having me as a guest!
GJ: A bit thank you again to Craig for taking the time to talk with me last year. If you’d like to hear more from him then head over to his website, www.CraigDiLouie.com. His new novel, One of Us, is available to buy now.
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