Start at the End of the Story (and More with Daryl Gregory)

Daryl Gregory/Photo © Liza Trombi

In his new novel, Spoonbenders, Daryl Gregory introduces us to the Telemachus family, a crew odd and endearing all at once. Once lauded for their special powers, the Telemachuses have fallen on hard times. The various family members have all adjusted – or sort of adjusted – in their own ways. We caught up with Gregory upon the release of this, his seventh novel, to talk inspiration, writing, and beyond.

SIGNATURE: The phrase “sleight of hand” is to be taken quite literally in your new novel, Spoonbenders, as it takes readers deeper into the lives of the Telemachus family. In “regular” families, however, one could apply the same idea metaphorically, considering the lengths some families may go to in order to make things appear one way or the other, different than they actually are. Are there any parallels you were consciously drawing between these two meanings while writing this book?

DARYL GREGORY: When I was writing the book, I was always thinking of how the members of the family were misunderstanding each other, and how they were keeping their secrets from each other. The family’s psychic powers only exaggerate what’s true in every family. For example, Uncle Buddy used to be able to see the future, and now he’s digging a huge hole in the yard. Is that because of his powers, or because he’s an odd duck? A lot of us have uncles who behave in mysterious ways.

One of my editor’s favorite characters is Irene, whose power is that she’s a human lie-detector. But aren’t most mothers? Matty, her teenage son, has to word his answers very carefully whenever he wants to hide something from her, and the whole family has learned that the safest way to answer a question from Irene is with another question, something they call trebekking.

The greatest sleight-of-hand artist in the book is Teddy Telemachus, the patriarch of the family. He’s a card sharp and trickster with none of the powers of his wife or children, but more secrets than anyone else. He starts the novel with one last con to pull off, and the biggest trick is to make it indistinguishable from magic.

SIG: Psychic powers, seeing into the future, telekinesis – the Telelmachuses are dysfunctional to begin with and layers upon layers of these additional details really take things to a whole new level. Why did you choose to go the psychic route as opposed to, say, superpowers or monsterdom, in Spoonbenders?

DG: There’s something kind of pathetic about mental powers that I found appealing. Who needs to bend cutlery, much less do it with your mind? The tricks that psychics like Uri Geller could perform were so small-scale and unreliable that there was no use for them off the stage. The question, then, was what does one do, twenty years after being almost famous? That seemed sad, and sadness, as we all know, is the heart of comedy.

SIG: Throughout Spoonbenders, the reader comes to know all members of the Telemachus family intimately. Can you tell me a little bit about your work on character development? What processes do you go through to build out each character? Do you find inspiration in people you know?

DG: Before I ever wrote a word of the novel, I spent a long time thinking about the members of the family, writing notes about what had happened in their lives before the story started, and daydreaming about what could happen during the course of the novel. I just open up my paper-and-pen notebook or my laptop and start talking to myself. The characters came to me in bits and pieces from lots of different people I grew up with and got to know – families that were much more volatile and interesting than my own – and sometimes when I heard them talking I would write down dialogue to use later.

Once I started writing the actual story, I ran into a different problem. I knew each chapter would be told from the point of view of one of five family members, and so at the beginning it was like starting five different novels, with a different voice each time. Then every time I returned to that character’s chapter, I would have to go back and re-read their other chapters to get the voice back into my head.

SIG: Fourteen-year-old Matty, son of Irene, is just coming into his own special talent when we meet him at the start of your book. That talent is awkwardly intertwined with puberty, which adds equal parts cringing and laughing to the reader’s experience. Is Matt at all a reflection of you at his age? What to you is most important about his character?

DG: At fourteen I was just as awkward as Matty, and as mystified and burning with the fires of puberty. And like him, I felt like all the interesting things had already happened. He’s born after the Amazing Telemachus family has stopped being amazing, and feels like he showed up after the circus had left town. My own life seemed unendurably boring and normal and safe – something I only realized later was a huge gift. Boredom made me a writer. Safety made it possible. And overwhelming normality made me write stories where the fantastic was just around the corner.

SIG: Spoonbenders is set in your hometown of Chicago, and in it there’s a reluctant-homecoming in Irene’s story. Why did you choose to return to Chicago in this novel? Was there any reluctance on your part to do so?

DG: I had no reluctance about returning to Chicago in fiction, and love to go back in real life. I think if I’d been like Irene and forced to return to Chicago after failing hard, I would resent going back. But returning to Chicagoland is a treat every time. I gorge on the food, I love seeing my sister (who still lives a block from where we grew up), and my accent comes back.

SIG: Do you believe in psychics?

DG: Alas, I’m a stone-cold materialist and skeptic. This does not make me popular at dinner parties. So while I love to daydream about what the world would be like if spoonbending were possible, I don’t for a second think that the laws of physics are bendable to our will. If the supernatural were possible, Facebook and Google would be monetizing it, and we wouldn’t think it was supernatural – it would just be nature. Look at quantum mechanics, which makes cell phones possible. It looks like magic on the face of it, but it works.

SIG: If you could have any one psychic ability, what would that ability be?

DG: I definitely don’t want to know the future. I wouldn’t want to read minds. Telekinesis might be fun, but it would be no help in my writing career. I think the one ability I’d really want is teleportation. I would love to bop over to the east coast for lunch with my daughter, or pop over to Tel Aviv for hummus with my Israeli friends.

SIG: As a teacher of writing, you advise students on many things. Thinking about the part where you have to wrap up a novel that you’re working on, what advice can you offer writers on getting to “The End”? How do you know when you’re finally done?

DG: I would tell them they’ve got it the wrong way around. You have to know where you’re ending, and then build everything to meet that ending. You don’t have to know what the ending is when you start writing – I know plenty of writers who fly by the seat of their pants in that first draft – but once you do discover the ending, once you figure out what the heart of the story is, and where your characters end up, it’s incumbent upon you to go back and lay the groundwork for that climax. Once you know that King Kong is going to climb the Empire State Building, you have to make him fall for Fay Wray, you have to put him in chains, you have to show why he’s desperate for escape.