INTERVIEW: Daryl Gregory, Author of Spoonbenders, Explains Why Psychics Don’t Rule the World and How Fiction Writing is like Magic

If Tolstoy had written Spoonbenders (Knopf, 2017), he might have started it: “All happy families are alike; each family of psychics is unhappy in its own way.” Then again, who needs Tolstoy when you have Daryl Gregory, my guest on this episode of New Books in Science Fiction, whose masterful family drama is tied together with telekinesis, astral traveling, and genuine mindreading magic.

A Nebula Award finalist and an NPR Best Book for 2017, Spoonbenders tells the story of the one-time Amazing Telemachus Family, who have struggled to make ends meet ever since they were exposed as frauds on national TV. Only they really aren’t frauds. Most of them have true psychic gifts. The problem is that psychic gifts aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be.

As Gregory explains, “I was trying to figure out why if people have these powers … wouldn’t they just become rulers of the world? Why wouldn’t they become rich and famous, and I was struck by the rationale that Uri Geller always used, which is ‘there are so many things that can reach out and interfere with your powers that only a faker can make his powers work all the time.’”

Frankie Telemachus, whose get-rich-quick schemes have left him in debt to the mob, can move objects with his mind, but his ability never comes when he needs it. His sister, Irene, a grocery store cashier, is a human lie detector, which makes it impossible to have intimate relationships. And their brother, Buddy, is so worried about the looming end of the world (which he replays over and over again in his clairvoyant mind) that he devotes every waking moment to fretful, obsessive planning to prevent it.

The story is told from five alternating points of view, revealing a cascade of secrets that explain the siblings’ inability to lead fulfilling lives while laying a foundation for their future salvation.

Among the inspirations for the Spoonbenders is the U.S. Army’s Stargate Project, launched in 1978 to study the potential military uses of psychic phenomena. “I was intrigued by the idea that the government was buying into this… Up until 1995, we were throwing millions of dollars into it,” Gregory says. The book, in fact, is set in 1995, when a CIA agent hopes to save the program by recruiting Irene’s adolescent son, Matty, who has just discovered he can astral travel.

Gregory himself doesn’t believe in psychic powers. “I’m a skeptic but I do like it in science fiction.” The only magic he believes in is that which a writer produces from his imagination. “A reader with a writer is making the same kind of contract as an audience with a magician. You know that magician is trying to fool you; you want them to fool you… And that’s what I’m really interested in. You know I’m going to tell you a story… but hopefully you’re willing to go along.”

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An Author Who Blogs about Real Sex, Writes Novels about Fictional Magic, and is Named after a Rodent

One of the most surprising things I learned during my interview with Ferrett Steinmetz is that the blogger who writes candidly about his most intimate experiences–including his polyamory and struggles with depression–is also socially anxious. He predicted that after our conversation, he’d need a few hours of Clone Wars and solitude to recover.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that a writer is quirky. After all, I’m a writer and I’m kinda quirky. And I can be socially anxious too. But enough about me. Here’s my summary of our conversation that I posted on New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Ferrett Steinmetz first built an audience as a blogger, penning provocative essays about “puns, politics and polyamory” (among other things) with titles like “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex” and “How Kids React To My Pretty Princess Nails.”

In recent years, he has drawn accolades as an author of speculative fiction, writing short stories and earning a Nebula nomination in 2011 for his novelette Sauerkraut Station.

And now he is exploring new waters with the publication of his first novel, Flex (Angry Robot, 2015), which tells the story of a father desperate enough to use illegal magic to heal his badly burned daughter.

The title refers to crystalized magic that, when snorted, gives the user the power to manipulate objects for which he or she has a particular affinity. Cat ladies become felinemancers. Weightlifters become musclemancers. Graphic artists become illustromancers. And the protagonist, a paper-pushing bureaucrat by the name of Paul Tsabo, becomes a bureaucromancer, able to turn paperwork (with the help of flex) into a magical beast.

The only problem is that with flex comes flux–a pushback from the universe that re-balances any magic act with disaster.

Below are highlights from Steinmetz’s New Books interview.

On what he learned at Clarion Writers’ Workshop:

“Bit by bit they kind of stripped away my illusions and showed me how lazy I’d been and how much more effort I had to put to make my stories top notch. … I thought I was a one and a half draft person, but realistically I have to put in 5 drafts before the story starts to get good.”

On how paperwork can become magical in Paul Tsabo’s hands:

“He’s basically useless in a firefight but can send a SWAT team through your door by dropping a magically completed warrant for your arrest on a cop’s desk.”

On why he why a world with flex also needs flux:

“Flux evens out the odds of magic…. I really hate novels where magic is this thing you can do … without any kind of cost…. Frequently what I see is, ‘Oh, I’m a magician. I’ll raise an army of the dead and make my castle out of magic,’ and where is any challenge in that for your characters? Where do they have any stopping points to what they can do?… A big tension in the book as to whether the mancers should even use their magic.”

On his approach to writing:

“I’m what’s called a gardener writer in the business. There are plotters who basically sit down and plot out all their books beat by beat and know their ending the minute they start their first sentence. And Flex, like every story I’ve ever written– basically I wrote an interesting first paragraph and followed it randomly until the end of the book.”

On 9/11 as an inspiration for Flex:

“To a large extent the magic system in Flex is driven by a reaction to 9/11, where something really bad happened–and yes it really was bad… but we really overreacted that wasn’t helpful at all and in fact may have made it entirely worse for us.”

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