Interview with author Craig DiLouie on his dark magical realism novel about the beauty and the monster that can be found within every human being

I am a huge fan of stories that focus on the inner beauty of others and proving to the world that someone who or something that seems like a monster truly isn’t. Naturally, this would make my favorite Disney movie Beauty and the Beast and my favorite novel Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I am always eager to read new stories regarding this focal point. It is so sad that, in this day and age, so many people are told by society to look and act a certain way and, if they don’t act the way society says to or look the way you “should”, you are automatically deemed strange and you don’t belong. This is a real problem today and author Craig DiLouie did a beautiful job portraying this very fact in his latest novel, One of Us.

Synopsis of One of Us: The plague children are looked down upon due to their genetic mutations and are treated like dirt. They are forced to reside in a home that acts more like a prison and are forced to take part in laborious work, told that this exhausting work is all they will be good at and that they will never amount to anything. These children did not ask for their mutations and they did not ask to be called “freaks” and “monsters”. They just want to live like normal people do and to have the freedom to be who they wish to be. However, that tempting “want” over the years has turned into an overpowering “need” and, come 1984, the plague children may just become the monsters society has always deemed them to be.

Personally, my mind was blown after reading One of Us. Craig is a phenomenal writer who brings up very valuable political points in his writing. He did such an amazing job taking fantasy and reality and blending them together to create a story that truly makes readers think. A book about X-Men-like children with strange mutations that make them look and act different than “normal” humans are alienated and treated like dirt. A story very much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein that will leave readers questioning: who is the true monster? In all honesty, after finishing One of Us, it will be difficult for readers to decide.

I had the great pleasure of speaking to Craig about his story and learning more about his writing process. So, without further ado, may I introduce Craig DiLouie, author of One of Us.

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Alicia: Please tell me about yourself.

Craig: I’m an American-Canadian fiction writer with his feet firmly planted in both the indie and big traditional publisher worlds, a journalist and educator in the lighting industry, and a father of two wunderkinds. Overall, a very busy and blessed guy!

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Alicia: Where did the idea for One of Us come from?

Craig: Published by Orbit in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook, One of Us is a Southern Gothic dark fantasy about monsters living in the real world. I was fascinated with the idea of these monsters being misunderstood, essentially good people and having a lot to offer but rejected because they’re monstrous in appearance, and now some of them are starting to exhibit frightening powers.

This type of thing is familiar in fantasy, but what hammered it home for me was the idea of placing these monsters in a Southern Gothic. Popularized by greats such as Harper Lee and Cormac McCarthy, this is a venerable American literary tradition that dives into the taboo, grotesque, society in decay, and prejudice. The small town setting and cast of characters makes the whole thing more earthy, real, and immersive.

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Alicia: You made a story that borderlines fantasy and made it more realistic than readers could imagine. Was it difficult to make all of the events in One of Us sound like they could actually happen or does this ability come pretty naturally to you?

Craig: You saying that is music to my ears, thank you! That’s exactly what I was going for. If I can make the setting real, the characters all too human, and the dialogue natural, the world I create becomes all the more immersive, and the monsters that populate it more believable and empathetic. A reader’s willing suspension of disbelief is really where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the magic of reading, and as an author I want to respect and support that.

Doing it isn’t difficult, but it does take a huge amount of effort. For me, it’s part of the job of engaging readers in a story they’ll feel in their gut as much as enjoy with their brain.

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Alicia: You focus on a real issue in the world that seems to only be getting worse with each passing year as society continues to butcher what it means for someone to be “beautiful.” You have written it in a way that I personally think is the best written since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Is this an issue that you feel strongly about and is this why you wrote your story? Are world issues common themes for some of your other stories, as well?

Craig: Putting One of Us anywhere near Frankenstein is really high praise, thank you! When I start a story, I begin with the nonfiction concept. So my vampire novel Suffer the Children wasn’t about vampire children and the parents who must keep them fed, it’s really about how far parents will go for their kids out of love, told in an inverted way that is dark and twisty. For One of Us, it was about prejudice as a fundamental human trait, and whether monsters are born or made.

As for prejudice, it’s universal. We’ve all done it to others and had it done to ourselves. Again, it’s a natural thing, and the only way to minimize it is through self-awareness. Where it becomes really problematic is when the fears and desires that inform prejudice become institutionalized in a society, targeting a certain group. We see this with various minorities in the USA and Canada. While I care about these things, again, I was more interested in examining prejudice as a fundamental trait and, therefore, loved the idea of creating a fictionalized group that would be its target so the reader wouldn’t come into it with any preconceived ideas. In the end, the story’s main purpose is to entertain, not preach, but the theme is there if readers want to reflect.

As for the secondary theme, which is whether monsters are born and not made, this is another powerful idea that readers can reflect on. If we call people a certain thing and treat them negatively based on that perception, one day they may live up to the label and dish it back.

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Alicia: Who do you sympathize with more in your story: the plague children or the normal people? I must say you have portrayed both sides equally and it makes it very difficult for readers to choose which side they would side with.

Craig: I love Stephen Spielberg as a director, but when I’m watching some of his movies, this heavy handed music will suddenly surge, and I feel like he’s yelling at me: Feel something, damn you. As an author, I never want to do that with readers. I never want to do their thinking or feeling for them, or make things oversimplified and easy.

As a result, in One of Us, we see an ensemble cast of monsters living in an orphanage and various people living in the nearby town. Only maybe two characters are real villains, while the rest are just plain flawed, good and bad all mixed together. That is both classic Southern Gothic and simply how I wanted to play it. One of my goals was for the reader to feel torn when the monsters finally rise up and dish it back. They rise up, and it’s this cathartic moment, but it’s not as simple as that, war has been declared and there’s now no going back. Gradually, we end up sympathizing with the people who are getting creamed by the monsters.

In the end, if the reader isn’t sure who they’d side with, they get the idea that when it comes to institutional prejudice on this level, nobody wins, and there can be no good result.

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Alicia: How did you develop the designs and powers of each of the plague children? Where did the ideas for your plague children come from?

Craig: They popped into my twisted mind. As the author, I had several goals for them. First, I wanted each to be virtually unique rather than uniform in appearance, resulting in a surprising and titillating menagerie of creatures. Second, I didn’t want to milk their appearance to make readers feel repulsed, as I wanted readers to have the chance to empathize with them. This required a light touch and bringing their appearance into the story naturally. Goof, for example, has an upside-down face, which makes people think he’s talking to feel off kilter, and they end up thinking he’s happy when he’s sad and sad when he’s happy.

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Alicia: I absolutely love your writing style. You give such detailed descriptions that paint amazing pictures in the imagination and you developed each of your many characters wonderfully and gave each of them their own unique characteristics. I must ask, what is your favorite part about writing?

Craig: Thank you again for your kind words! My favorite part of the process is the conceptualizing, from the big nonfiction idea to the research and creating the fictional world and the people who will inhabit it. Engineering a story is really fun. At this stage, there’s nothing but potential.

The hard part is writing those first words knowing you’ve got about 100,000 of them to write, and you’re facing this massive labor giving shape to this formless, seething mass of images and ideas. I treat it like climbing a mountain. Set up your base camp and start walking. One step at a time, and then suddenly you look back and see how far you’ve come, and that peak, once so far away, is now tantalizingly close.

Then comes my next favorite part, which is the downhill on the other side. By this point, I know the characters as well as I know myself, the central conflict is nearing the climax, and I know exactly what needs to happen and when. At this point, I’m writing in a frenzy.

And then after all that, there’s the elation and inevitable novel hangover, which is typically cured by starting to plan out another work.

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Alicia: Who was your favorite character(s) to write?

Craig: I loved all the characters, even the hapless loser Gaines who “couldn’t find his own ass with both hands in his back pockets,” as each had a strong individual personality and desires. Dog is probably the most likeable character, as he is earnest and kind and believes the world will give him a fair shake if he plays by the rules, though he will sadly find out the world ain’t fair, it can be quite cruel. Goof is funny, particularly in his dealings with the self-important Agent Shackleton. The sheriff knows the monsters are getting a raw deal, but sees himself as a defender and what he considers to be natural order, resulting in inner conflict. And so on.

Probably my favorite, though, is Brain. He’s a super genius trapped in a monstrous body and he sees everything clearly—what is happening to him and what needs to happen to stop it—while becoming trapped in the horror of the uprising he saw as inevitable. He’s a really tragic figure.

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Alicia: Your novel most certainly takes readers on a roller coaster ride of emotions. I think for me I felt almost every emotion while reading. Were there any parts that were difficult to write? Were there any parts you enjoyed writing?

Craig: One of Us was a special book for me in that I didn’t hit the usual speed bumps during the writing process. I wrote it with a fierce joy and it really poured out of me. I was lucky to have a fantastic editor at Orbit, Bradley Englert, who helped me take it to a higher level. I loved this world, the characters, and the tension that built to inevitable conflict. Whatever readers may feel while reading it, they should know I probably felt the exact same things while writing it.

That being said, I had a few difficult spots, notably around sexual assault. One of my goals for the novel was to contrast human monsters and monstrous humans. As a result, among the “normal” characters in the book, there is betrayal, violence, and lust. Writing a scene with sexual assault is problematic these days, as in the past some writers might put in one or more rape scenes to be titillating. For One of Us, I wanted to avoid being gratuitous, focusing on feelings rather than descriptions of the act. As a horror and dark fantasy author, I’ve written about plenty of taboo stuff, so I’m not shy about it, but I do think it has to be handled properly. If readers get upset by some scenes, I want it to be because they care about the characters rather than because I pushed them for a reaction. As with willing suspension of disbelief, readers deserve respect.

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Alicia: You ended your story in a way that could hint at another book or even a series. While One of Us stands on its own beautifully, do you have other stories for your characters in mind? If yes, is there anything you can share with readers?

Craig: While I write series when I self-publish, all my books for big publishers are big idea standalone novels. One of Us has a bit of an open ending as far as the meta conflict goes, but otherwise all the storylines are tied up. In this case, I don’t think we need to know the final outcome, as that really wasn’t the point when it came to the story and its themes. By the end, everybody clearly knows who they are and has chosen a side.

That being said, if the book enjoys good enough sales, the publisher may see demand by readers for a second book, in which case I’d be happy to write one.

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Alicia: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Craig: My hope is that every reader who closes the covers feels like they enjoyed a strange and powerful experience that made them think and feel, and then reflect on the themes.

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Alicia: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Craig: I just want to say thank you again for reading One of Us and that I’m glad the book got to you. And to thank your readers for joining us. If they’d like to learn more about my fiction, they might stop by my website at www.CraigDiLouie.com. Thanks for having me on your blog!

 

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