Interview: Justin Gustainis

Justin Gustainis grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania and is now a college professor living in upstate New York. Prior to his career in academe, he was, at various times, a soldier, garment worker, speechwriter and professional bodyguard. He earned Bachelors and Masters degrees from the University of Scranton (a school that figures prominently in several of his novels) and a Ph.D. from Bowling Green State University in Ohio.

Justin began writing fiction in the mid-1990s while maintaining his academic job. He focused initially on short stories, and won prizes in a number of writing contests, including the prestigious Raymond Carver story competition. His stories won the Graverson Award for Horror twice, in consecutive years. In 2008 he was accepted for and attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

His books include the novels The Hades Project (2003), Black Magic Woman (2008), Evil Ways (2009), Sympathy for the Devil (2011) and Hard Spell (2011), as well as an anthology he edited, Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives (2011).

He was married to Patricia Grogan from 1997 until her death in 2007. He misses her very much.

To learn more about Justin and his work, please visit his website: http://www.justingustainis.com/


How would you compare your pre-Odyssey and post-Odyssey writing? What changed the most for you?

Of the many things I learned at Odyssey, one is that it’s important to get inside your characters’ heads. Don’t just describe what they do–understand why they do it. And if you can’t understand why a character is doing something you’ve just written, it may be time to rethink either the behavior or the character. Oh, and although I didn’t realize it at first, I came to Odyssey with a serious case of White Room Syndrome. Critique Circle cured me of that.

Is there a lingering lesson you learned at the Odyssey Writing Workshop that you’d like to share?

Yes–sleep is for wimps.

Congratulations on your recently launched books Hard Spell from Angry Robot Books and Sympathy for the Devil from Solaris Books. Can you tell us a bit about them?

Hard Spell is the first book in what I call my “Haunted Scranton” series (for which I have two more books under contract with Angry Robot). It’s set in an “alternate universe” Scranton, PA, where supernatural powers and creatures really exist–and everybody knows it. My protagonist is Stan Markowski, who’s a Detective Sgt. on the Scranton P.D.’s Occult Crime Unit, which everyone (including him) calls the “Supe Squad.” If a vampire puts the bite on an unwilling victim, or some witch casts the wrong kind of spell, Stan is the man who gets the call. Hard Spell had its genesis as a story that I wrote at Odyssey called “Demons Don’t Die”–in fact the story, with some changes, is part of the book.

Sympathy for the Devil is the third book in my series featuring occult investigator Quincey Morris and his partner, “white” witch Libby Chastain. In this one, Quincey and Libby find out that a contender for the Presidency is possessed by a demon (as part of Hell’s plan to destroy humanity). Any resemblance to actual political candidates, past or present, living or dead, is unintended and purely coincidental. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

I am pleased to report (who am I kidding–I’m ecstatic) that Sympathy for the Devil has been optioned by a Hollywood production company, with a view to a possible TV series. The odds of the series ever being produced are slim, of course. To paraphrase Scripture, “Many are optioned, but few are chosen for a pilot. Fewer still are ordered to series.” But still . . . pretty cool, no?

The sub-genre of urban fantasy is very popular these days. How have you been able to carve out a distinctive, original area for yourself in this crowded field?

I don’t know how distinctive or original my area is, really. I write about what are loosely called occult detectives, because that’s what I like to read. There are a number of very good writers who have their own occult investigator character(s). I ought to know–I buy every new book as it’s released. Quincey and Libby are a bit different from the usual urban fantasy protagonists (although I didn’t write them the way I did just to be different). In this male-female pairing, the female is the one with occult powers, and the man has none (although he has several abilities and talents of the human variety). Also they’re not lovers, which some readers have told me is refreshing. As for the other series–how many urban fantasy novels do you know of that are set in Scranton? I mean, really.

But there are no new stories under the sun (or the full moon, for that matter). Jeanne made that clear during the first week of Odyssey. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it doesn’t matter–what’s important is how you tell your version of the story.

Can you tell us about the process of selling your two recent novels to Angry Robot and Solaris?

The story with Angry Robot is fairly simple. Marc Gascoigne, who’s the Editor-in-Chief there, was at Solaris when I wrote the first two Morris/Chastain novels for them. Then Marc left to start Angry Robot, and he sent me (and doubtless a number of other writers) an email letting me know about his new publishing venture, and inviting me to submit any novels (or plans for same) that I might have lying around. I told him that I had a partial manuscript about a cop investigating supernatural crime in Scranton. We were both planning to attend World Fantasy in Calgary (this was in 2008), and arranged to get together there. I had just finished taking part in a panel on urban fantasy and was on my way to lunch with Marc to make my pitch when I had my infamous impromptu experiment with the force of gravity off the back of the speaker’s platform. I ended up making my pitch some time later, by email. Fortunately, it worked. Maybe he felt sorry for me.

The real story with the Morris/Chastain books involves the first one, because the contracts for the others all flowed from that. I’d written a novel called Black Magic Woman about this guy descended from a character in Dracula and his witch partner who go about fighting supernatural evil. I’d sent queries to all the publishers that didn’t require agented submissions (I didn’t have my wonderful agent, Miriam Kriss, at that time), and been turned down by them all. One day, I was reading Realms of Fantasy magazine and saw an ad for a novel about some woman carrying out a covert war against vampires. That’s the sort of thing I like, so I circled the ad to put the book on my want list. Then I noticed the name of the publisher: Solaris Books. I’d never heard of them. My thought process went something like this: “These guys publish the kind of stuff I like to read; I also write the kind of stuff I like to read; ergo, these guys publish the kind of stuff I write! Holy shit!” All very Aristotelian, apart from that last bit.

I went to the Solaris web page and saw that it was a relatively new, but legitimate (i.e., not a vanity press) British publisher. So, okay, I send them an email query (the usual letter plus three chapters). Three days later, I get an email asking for the whole manuscript. Four days after that, I answer the phone and some dude with an English accent says, “Hello, is this Justin? This is Christian Dunn from Solaris books. We’d like to offer you a contract for Black Magic Woman.” I’d made it from slush pile to sale within a week–if you don’t count the two years I’d already spent trying to sell the book elsewhere.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but Solaris had decided to open a one-month window to consider new material; then they weren’t going to look at new stuff for about two years. I hit them right in the middle of that window.

This story illustrates what I believe are the three keys to getting published: persistence, luck and (if I may flatter myself) talent. And it’s my opinion that if a writer has the first and last, the middle one will eventually fall into line for you.

When and how did you make your first sale?

The first time I received money for my fiction was in a contest–I don’t remember which one. I went through a period in which I entered a bunch of them (and won prizes in several). Most didn’t charge an entry fee, and you can enter the same story in a slew of contests, if you like. Sometimes you get helpful critiques, too.

My first sale was a short story called “Bargain” to something called Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine. It was a crime/suspense story, as were the next few that I sold. I didn’t get into supernatural territory until I wrote my first novel, The Hades Project.

Everyone is talking about how much the publishing industry is changing. What is your opinion of these changes?

I hate the fact that so many bookstores are going under, especially independent, specialty bookstores that specialize in science fiction, fantasy, or mystery. Even the chains are coming apart. The Borders in my town (like Borders stores everywhere) is going out of business, and although there are some good bargains to be had, it’s sad to watch a bookstore die (even if it’s a soulless corporate clone of all the others). Particularly since it was the only real bookstore in town.

On the other hand, I really like Kindle. I don’t own a reader myself, and might never buy one –but right now my two new books are selling better in Kindle editions than in hard copy. Ergo, I love Kindle.

What are you working on now, and when can we expect to see it?

I’m currently working on Evil Dark, the second “Haunted Scranton” book, which is due out at the end of February. I’m also fooling around with a script for a Sympathy for the Devil pilot. You never know .  .  .


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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