New York Times best-selling author Christopher Rice called him "the best writer of horror and thrillers at work today." Legendary author Ed Gorman said he was "among the finest dark suspense writers of our time." Greg F. Gifune has certainly earned an admirable reputation in the world of horror and suspense fiction.
Greg's novels, novellas, and short stories have been published all over the world and translated into several languages; received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus, and others; is consistently praised by readers and critics alike, and has garnered attention from Hollywood. His novels, among many others, include Savages, Babylon Terminal, God Machine, Midnight Solitaire, Midnight Gods, and Drago Descending.
Greg's novel The Bleeding Season, originally published in 2003, has been hailed as a classic in the horror genre and is considered by many readers to be one of the best horror/thriller novels of our times.
Greg, let's start with The Bleeding Season, probably your first novel to thrust you into the limelight. Delirium Books published the first edition. I believe a new edition was recently reissued by Journalstone. What has been your experience working with various publishers throughout your career?
Yes, The Bleeding Season put me on the map, and it's continued to be in print and sell all over the world for years now. It's considered a cult classic, and many, including Famous Monsters of Filmland, listed it as one of the great horror novels alongside King's IT and McCammon's Boy's Life, so I'm very proud of it. It's done very well in Russia and Germany, so it has a broad fan base and a readership that is rather rabid in supporting the book.
The new edition is a fifteen-year anniversary edition that one of my publishers, Journalstone, released in 2018 and features a new introduction from Ronald Malfi (Bone White) and a new afterword from Eric Shapiro (Red Dennis). I'm happy to be with Journalstone. They have much of my backlist of novels and I'm doing new projects with them as well, including a new novella I wrote with Sandy DeLuca called Blue Hell that'll be out in March and available everywhere.
I'm fortunate in that I work with many great publishers, and my experience over the years has been incredibly good. I've had a few bad situations, of course, but everyone that's been in the business more than ten or fifteen minutes has too. Overall, I think I've had good relationships with almost all the publishers I've worked with in what's been a twenty-year career so far. Generally, it's been positive.
And what advice would you offer authors who want to develop strong relationships with publishers?
I'd say be patient. Patience has never particularly been one of my strong suits, but it's something I've learned to develop in dealing with publishers. You must be open-minded, particularly when you're starting out. If you're working with professionals, people who know what they're doing—and odds are, if they're in those positions and you're just starting, they know more than you do—go in with an open mind and listen to what they tell you. A good editor is invaluable. I don't care what level of experience you have, an excellent editor only helps and makes the work, and by extension you, better.
I've been on both sides of that desk. I've worked for publishers as an editor, running lines and in acquisitions. I've worked in that capacity with seasoned veterans and newcomers, and the best experiences are always those that work as a partnership. A good editor doesn't write the novel or try to tell you how to write it. He or she simply guides you, keeps you focused and on track, and helps bring out the best in your work.
You must also realize there's nothing magical about publishers. They have good days and bad days like anyone else. As long as a publisher is honest, that's the key. If a publisher tells you something, it should happen. If it can't happen or doesn't, they should be upfront about why, and you go from there. Communications is big, and that (or should) go both ways because, to develop strong relationships with publishers, it's a two-way street. There must be mutual respect, and the publisher must want to work with their authors as much as authors want that with them. So, be a writer they want to work with again, who cares about what you and they are doing, and who wants to team with the publisher to make the book as good and as successful as it can be.
Do you believe there is true evil in the world, an underlying darkness that is beyond our control, the engine that drives the world? The Bleeding Season certainly suggests that.
The short answer is yes. 'Believe' is probably the wrong word because I think belief requires faith, in a sense, and suggests it's open to debate. For me, it's not. Evil is one engine driving the world. On the other hand, I think good drives it as well. It's usually a matter of which stream you want to swim in.
The Bleeding Season explores and suggests that, and I think there's a real-world parallel. It's a very personal novel. While it's fiction, there's also a good deal of truth in it, and the essence of what I explore in that novel is real. There's a lot of truth in terms of human behavior and the evil in the world. Much of it ties to a past of mine I don't talk about much, where my life went in a different direction than it is now. There's a deep truth to that novel and I think that's one reason it resonates with so many readers, has for so many years, and continues to.
The Bleeding Season is a harrowing, cerebral novel heavy on psychology—a thinking person's horror novel. Savages, on the other hand, reminded me of a '70s B movie—gruesome and fun. They're very different books with distinct styles. It was as if different authors wrote them. When you begin a novel, do you intentionally explore new writing styles, or does it just come down to the subject matter?
I don't necessarily explore different styles (in a technical sense), as my style remains more or less the same from one work to another. But Savages is a departure from my other novels. I'm glad it reminded you of 70s B movies because that's what I was going for. The whole idea behind Savages was to write a salute to those great 70s and 80s B drive-in movies that I've always loved and were great fun. That was my tip of the hat to that sort of thing. I stepped outside of what I normally do, and I think you're right that if you read Savages and then any number of other novels I've written, you'll see a difference.
My other work, as you said, is more cerebral and psychological. Then there are my crime novels, and most of them are something else again. But in terms of style, it pretty much stays the same. I just alter things for what I'm trying to accomplish or get across. And that's really what Savages was about, so it had to be written like a pulp exploitation novel or it wouldn't have worked.
Speaking of B movies, what are your favorite ones?
I can't even begin to give you a list. I'm a big movie fan and have been my entire life. I have an insanely huge DVD collection—yes, I still collect DVDs—I even have a multi-region player that plays discs from all over the world so I can see many films I'd otherwise never be able to. I love B movies for sure, many of them. But I have eclectic tastes, so I love a wide variety of films. All sorts, not just B-movies.
Babylon Terminal also has a different "feel" than the other books. It reminded me of Blade Runner or Logan's Run. There's even a touch of noir. The protagonist, Monk, is a unique, driven character. With a character like Monk, do you create the character as the plot develops? Or do you develop the character first?
Yeah, Babylon Terminal is another different one. While it is closer to the rest of my work, it has a science-fiction bent to it, and yes, there is a noir edge to it as well, which was done purposely.
Monk came together along with the general concept early on. The concept behind Babylon Terminal was about the people who populate our dreams and nightmares. If they existed as literal beings, what would they do when they weren't in our dreams? What would the rest of their lives entail and what would their world look like? How would they live, what would the rules be, and what would happen to those that broke those rules? From that concept, Monk was born. I needed an extremely violent protagonist and a kind of antihero, a by-the-book sort who is then faced with having to bend those rules, rules he's lived his life by, and without knowing why.
The basic gist is that the people who inhabit the dreams of the living must remain in their world, regardless of how awful it usually is, because if they leave then who will fill that role? So, to discourage them from attempting or even thinking about such things, there are law enforcement agents known as Dreamcatchers who track down those who try to run and find what they believe is a promised land, a reality beyond their own where they don't have to fill these roles but can live their lives as they choose. The Dreamcatchers track down those who run and either bring them back or terminate them. Monk has always mindlessly done that job, like a machine, until his wife runs, and he must find her before his fellow Dreamcatchers do. He goes on this quest across a feverish dreamscape to find her, and that's the novel.
Interestingly, I usually have the characters first when I write a novel and the plot is born from them. But with this one, it was more of a dual thing. I had this concept I thought was interesting and hadn't been done before (to my knowledge) and then the character just developed from that.
You're perpetually juggling projects. How do you keep things straight? What keeps things on track and not flying off the rails?
It's not my preferred way of doing things, but I don't have the luxury of sitting back and writing a book once a year or every two years or so. Early on, I could because I was just starting out and I didn't have the demands I have now. I didn't have the opportunities I have now either, so it's a process I had to learn. It's not naturally comfortable for me, to be honest, but I've learned how to do it, and hopefully effectively. Keeping it straight is not easy, though. I tend to split it up. I'm now juggling a couple of different novels I'm writing, so I work on one in the morning until I break for lunch. I clear my head and reset, and then work on the other one in the afternoon until I call it a day in the late afternoon or early evening. But it's something I had to work at mastering, and in all honesty, I still am.
Do you use Scrivener or some other process when planning a book? Do you even outline when approaching a new project?
I don't use Scrivener, no. I wouldn't say I outline in a traditional sense. I'm more of a note-taker, including continuity notes, so I don't forget certain things, because writing a novel can be overwhelming. I keep a continuity notebook and I take basic, general notes on what I want to accomplish in each chapter. I don't do anything too rigid. I can't do those highly specific outlines. That may work for some writers. But, for me, it becomes more about constructing a novel than writing one, and that's not how I work. I never want to put myself in a position where I can't listen to the characters or the story and react and maybe go with something I hadn't expected. Everything I do in my novels is precise, it's all well thought out. Everything is there for a reason and done as I intended, but I like to leave room for the unexpected during the process. You must be disciplined. But, for me, if an outline is too rigid it kills creativity. That's the last thing I want.
What was the turning point? When did you realize "I am a writer"?
I knew I was a writer from the time I was a little kid. I was writing before I could write. I dictated stories to my older sister, and she'd write them for me. When I learned how to write, it became a huge thing for me, I did it all the time. Reading and writing were always huge for me. My parents were teachers, so I knew how to read before I started school, and I've been a voracious reader my entire life. But I've always been a writer, too. It's always been like a purge for me. It's a way to escape those things I want out of me, and writing has always felt like the best way for me to do that. That and drinking, I guess (*ahem* insert laugh here). I went off the tracks for a while as an adult, but eventually found my way back to it. I've always just naturally been a writer. Whether you want to call it God-given or natural, I seemed capable of doing it right from the get-go.
Of course, it took years of working at it and honing my craft and educating myself to become a professional. But I think the foundation has always existed in me. In terms of being professional, I'd have to say it was when The Bleeding Season hit and I followed it with my novel Deep Night. Then I realized, okay, I think I can make a real go of this and maybe write some things that actually matter.
Clive Barker, Brian Keene, or Stephen King?
I like and respect all three, and I like a great deal of their work. They all bring something unique to the table, but they're so different I think it's apples and oranges. And whether you like him or not, just strictly in terms of what he's accomplished, there's King and then everyone else. That said, my answer to your question is Peter Straub.
Who do you think is the shining star in horror fiction today?
You mean besides me? Seriously, that's such a broad question I'm not sure where to begin. Many established authors fit that, and a handful of up-and-comers I think are on their way. There are many shining stars out there.
What nonfiction do you read? (Maybe when handling research?)
I read a lot of nonfiction. Sometimes for research, but that's different. I keep things separate. I have reading I do for work and reading I do for pleasure. I read more fiction than nonfiction, but I read a lot of both for pleasure. Historical stuff, political, metaphysical, all sorts of things, as again, I have eclectic tastes.
Apparently, you were at one time a child actor. How has that experience impacted your work?
Well, I was an actor when I was a teenager. I worked in Summer Stock Theater and did a few other things. I acted from 14 until I was in my early 20s. How it impacted me as a writer—probably the biggest way is it helps me to see my characters more clearly and how to inhabit them in some ways, to see through their eyes. Coming from a theater background as a younger person was interesting because it gave me a theatrical sense and an appreciation of it artistically, of drama and how you put those things together in ways that make sense and can reach and impact people. Studying playwrights helped too, with language and dialogue specifically. Reading the great playwrights, like Tennessee Williams and others, and even doing some of their plays, certainly helped, too. I haven't been an actor in decades now, yet I still use those skills in my writing.
If you could start your career over, what would you have done differently?
That's a really good question. I don't know that I'd do anything different. I did (and do) things a bit differently than most and always have. That's just me. It's true in pretty much every aspect of my life.
I came into the business with a clear idea of how I wanted to do things and how I didn't. I wanted my work to speak for itself. I didn't want to be a marketing phenom or the darling of this crowd or that crowd. I wanted it to be all about the work, not me. It probably took me longer to get to where I wanted to be because of that, but many of the things that matter to many people in this business don't matter to me. I don't do readings or make many appearances. I'm not an awards guy or much for joining groups or cliques. I just do the work and go about my life and business.
Maybe I'd change one thing now that I think of it—maybe not go through almost five straight years of rejection when I first started. I questioned what I was doing. I'd think, my God, am I ever going to get a break? And while there were some tough days, I kept at it and decided I'd use that rejection to make me better. I decided I'd just work harder and try to make my work so good publishers would have no choice but to say yes. When I did finally get that break, I was ready. From that point forward, the gates opened, and I could keep it going and building. If I could change that a bit I might, but I wouldn't change it totally because failure makes you better. And that's something many people today, particularly people that decide to self-publish without ever having gone through the professional process, miss out on. I'm not bashing anyone—don't get me wrong—everyone should follow whatever path is best for them.
Rejection can be a good thing. It makes you better. Failure is good for you. You don't want to fail consistently your entire life, of course, and never learn from it, but failure is not a bad thing. Failure makes you better. Failure makes you stronger. It's what teaches you how NOT to fail.
Tell us about your latest novel, God Machine.
I had the idea for God Machine in my head for a long time. It has an interesting backstory because the actual God Machine really existed, and the people involved in its creation and the things they attempted to do with it were all real as well. It's a story that's always fascinated me, and I've wanted to use it in my fiction for some time. I had another concept, which was essentially an antiwar novel about a couple that loses their only child in Iraq and how it destroys their lives. I felt if I could bring the two concepts together effectively, I'd have something special. I did, and the result is God Machine.
Here's the synopsis from the back cover: In a hotel room on Cape Cod, a troubled young prostitute brutally takes her own life, leaving cryptic clues as to why written in blood on the walls. When head of hotel security and former cop Chris Tallo finds her savaged body, he sets out to discover why the woman committed suicide in such a vicious manner. Saddled with a drinking problem, and already grieving the loss of his daughter killed in Iraq five years earlier, his search lures him into a disturbing underworld populated by those who trade in black magic, pain, and death. The closer Chris gets to the truth, and its ties to a secret occult ritual that took place more than 100 years ago that ended in madness and rumors of demonic possession, the more he struggles with his own history and sanity. And as the forces haunting and manipulating not only him, but reality as he knows it, rise in a tempest of blood and fire, a horrific evil awakens.
What are you working on now?
I'm finishing up a crime novel called Velvet Elvis that should be out later this year, I just turned in a new novel called The Gypsy Moths to one of my publishers and should have an announcement about that soon, and I'm working on a horror novel as well. I've also got some movie and TV scripts and other things in development that I'm working on with a couple of partners. So, I've got a lot going on, thankfully, which is always good.
And last question: How do you define yourself as a writer?
Well, just as that. I define myself as a writer. I work primarily in the horror and crime genres, but I've never described myself as a genre writer or a horror writer or a crime writer—not that I think there's anything wrong with that, I'm certainly not ashamed of my work in those areas, I'm quite proud of it—but I just define myself as a writer who happens to write what I write. Whatever category the work falls into is fine, but I don't make those distinctions and that's always been freeing. Also, this doesn't limit me with readers. While I have many readers who are fans of those genres, I also have many readers who don't read horror, for example. Yet they read me. Or they don't read crime, but they read me. I consistently hear that from fans, and I'm grateful and open to it. So, I just stop at 'writer'. Whatever box or category anyone needs to put my work in for whatever reason, feel free, it doesn't matter to me. I think there's way too much of that, too many labels and boxes. I'm just a writer.
Thanks, Greg. Good luck with your future projects.
For more about Greg Gifune, check out his Amazon author page https://www.amazon.com/Greg-F.-Gifune/e/B002NWV4G2 and his twitter account at https://twitter.com/gregfgifune.
(A version of this interview was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Suspense Magazine.)