Today we have with us Craig DiLouie, author of over a dozen books ranging from zombie fiction to a second American Civil War. We discussed the divisive nature of social media, the perils of tribalism, and his upcoming novel Our War.
We’re happy to have you back at the Inn, Craig! It’s been nearly a year since you were here for our last interview. How’ve you been?
Fantastic. Thanks for having me back!
Speaking of interviews, I can see on your website you’ve got more than a few under your belt. Hopefully this isn’t getting too meta, but what inspired you to start seeking out interviews?
Reader/Genre blogs are so important these days as voices supporting good fiction. I enjoy doing interviews because it allows these blogs’ fans to get to know me more personally and how I approach what I do as a writer. It’s also a way for me to thank these blogs for taking time to read and review my work, and give the reviewer a chance to ask me questions that might have popped up for them while they were reading my book.
Your latest book, Our War, releases later this month. Can you tell us a little about it?
Published in hardcover, eBook, and audiobook by Orbit, one of the largest and highest-quality sci-fi and fantasy publishers in the world, Our War is a harrowing dystopian thriller about a second American civil war.
The novel is about a brother and sister who become orphaned by the war and end up joining militias on opposites in a besieged Indianapolis, along with the people whose lives they touch. This includes a UNICEF worker who wants to stop the use of child soldiers in citizen militias, a journalist seeking to expose it, and a rebel militia sergeant who begins to see the humanity in those he hates. The novel feels torn from today’s headlines, describes the horrors of civil war we’ve grown used to seeing in other countries like Syria, and provides a warning of what a war might look like here if the cultural cold war turns hot.
As for the war itself, I don’t see a second civil war being between “blue” (liberal) and “red” (conservative) states or similar geographic lines. Instead, it could be rural areas, which are largely red, against urban areas, which are largely blue. Look at any political map that breaks out blue or red (or purple) by county, and you can see how the battle lines would be drawn. The war would be everywhere.
You mentioned in our last interview that you write “big idea” novels. Last year, you tackled prejudice and the monstrous side of humanity with One of Us. What big idea are you trying to introduce to readers in Our War?
The big theme of Our War is it can happen here.
Notably, that the current tribalization of American politics is polarizing the country into different realities fed by different news sources. Ultimately, different stories of what America was, is, and should be. This is very dangerous, as without a unifying idea, America is really just another multiethnic empire. So Our War to an extent does what dystopia does best, which is to issue a warning.
Another aspect of this theme is nothing holds up American exceptionalism. If a civil war were to erupt again in America, it would look far more like Bosnia in the 1990s than the USA in the 1860s. City versus country, neighbor against neighbor, with civilians forming militias to do most of the fighting. The atrocities, floods of refugees, use of child soldiers, deprivation, dependence on foreign aid, etc. that occurs in faraway civil wars would happen here.
What role do you think social media plays in tribalizing people?
The Internet and alternative news sources play a big role in tribalizing people. Humans have a natural tendency toward confirmation bias, which is seeking out information that confirms rather than challenges one’s own beliefs. As a result, the Internet makes it very easy to come up with an outlandish theory and watch it bounce through an echo chamber until it spreads like wildfire and becomes accepted by many as the simple truth. This is how you end up with a lot of people on the Right believing Hillary Clinton ran a Satan child prostitution ring out of a Washington, DC pizza parlor, which prompted a man to enter the restaurant with a rifle. Ironically, some alternative media can also be very beneficial by informing the public sometimes better than the mainstream media does. So in the end, the Internet is like any other technology–it augments and benefits us, but also exacerbates our worst instincts.
The war between America’s liberals and conservatives lacks the speculative element present in Suffer the Children and One of Us. What drove this decision and how did it change the way you approached this story?
In Suffer the Children, a plague turns children into vampires requiring their parents to keep them fed. This served the theme, which is some parents would do anything for their kids out of the purest love in the universe, even acts they would consider good but the rest of us would see as evil.
In One of Us, a series of mutations results in a generation of monsters that are shut away in orphanages, which served the theme of prejudice and whether monsters are born or made.
In Our War, the war itself is really the speculative element, a sort of all-consuming god that wants to take everything from everyone.
There’s a powerful moment in the novel when a character attempts to apologize to a child soldier whose life has been forever changed by the war:
This is our war… We never should have involved you. I’m so sorry.
That line gave additional meaning to what I’d thought was a straightforward title. What were you trying to convey to readers by calling the book “Our War”?
The title has multiple meanings, all of which tie into the central meaning of the war being extremely personal and directly affecting all Americans. In civil war, everybody fights, and nobody wins. For every character, the civil war is “our war,” regardless of who they are or why they’re saying it.
Empathy for the “other” is a powerful theme in your novels. How exactly do you make readers care about characters that could easily be unlikable? Can you give any examples of specific techniques you use?
There are two types of “other” in my books–the strange and the bad. One of Us is rife with both. The mutant children are strange, but they are not necessarily bad, as a theme of the book is that the morality of one’s actions, not appearance or heritage, define a human being. Some of the townsfolk like Dave Gaines are bad using this definition.
In Our War, we have one character, Mitch, who is a sergeant in a rebel militia. He has a black-and-white, ironclad, sometimes brutal sense of justice and what America should be, and he’s willing to kill and die for his ideas. The war is happening because of guys like him.
At the same time, he’s not a comic book villain but a real person with his own needs, wants, history. He has a real affection for his squad, and he felt screwed as a grunt in Afghanistan and coming home. When his daughter dies, he snaps and find a story that makes a terrible world make sense. Ironically, his wife interprets the exact same event with an entirely different story, and ends up fighting on the opposite side as a result of it.
So with a character like him, but far more so with somebody like Gaines, they may not be people I admire, but as the author I have to empathize with them so their point of view comes across. I have to get in their head and advocate for it, because that’s their point of view, and their scenes are not about me but them. The reader is smart and can make their own judgments without me as the author telling them what to feel.
Another technique is to always have a real villain in the story, Bowie comes to mind in One of Us, and Sergeant Shook in Our War. Shook gives lip service to the politics but he’s fighting because he likes it and it allows him to do anything he wants. In contrast, we may not agree with Mitch, but at least he’s principled, and in the end, he earns his small redemption.
Let’s take a step back from the craft of writing to talk about the life of being a writer. What’s it like to have a partner who’s also a writer? And how did your daughter manage to publish a book when she was only 10 years old?
Chris Marrs is a horror writer who cut her teeth on shorter works and is now working on a powerful novel, her first. It’s wonderful to have a partner who shares the same passion and compulsion for writing. We share everything, often have writing dates at home or in the nearby mountains, and root for each other.
As you point out, my wonderkind Mieka wrote her first story at 10. I’d always encouraged her to read, but sometimes, it takes a certain book to ignite a real passion for reading, in her case the Harry Potter series.
She became inspired to write her own story, and knowing the tendency of the young to chase squirrels as it were, I told her if she finished her story, I’d publish it. To her credit, she took up the challenge and worked hard on her story all semester. And so She Tamed a Dragon was born, which I edited, Mieka’s grandmother proofed, and a friend gave a beautiful cover and layout.
We donated all the profits to Inn from the Cold, a local charity, and the publication led to some wonderful experiences including a book signing event at a local bookstore (Owl’s Nest), a TV breakfast show interview, a tour of the Inn from the Cold’s wonderful facilities, and Mieka and I presenting at a local young writers’ conference. It was a fantastic learning experience for her and one I hope will fuel a lifetime love of the written word.
You recently announced the next novel you’re publishing with Orbit. What can you tell us about it? Do you have any working titles in mind? What big idea(s) do you plan to explore and what questions do you hope readers will be asking when they finish the book?
The working title is Mysterion. The story is about a group of people who grew up in an apocalyptic cult, survived its horrific last days, and reunite years later to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. Thematically, the novel is about memory, trauma, belonging, and faith. It’s emotionally powerful and visceral, unsettling, and hopefully will make people think as well as feel. The book should come out late in 2020. If you liked IT and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, you’ll love this.
Okay, let’s end on an easy question. What books/movies/etc. have you enjoyed recently? What did you take away from them?
I’m currently watching The Boys on Amazon Prime and loving it. Before that, I binged The Terror, Chernobyl, and Stranger Things (season 3), which were fantastic. Also caught the movies Us and Midsommar recently and enjoyed them. My most recent reads were The North Water by Ian McGuire, We Eat Our Own by Kea Wilson, and Three Laws Lethal by David Walton, all of which I thought were great.
Thanks for returning to the Inn and chatting with us! Anything you’d like to say to our readers to close off?
The only thing I’d like to say directly to your readers is if you like a book, please take a moment to leave a review, as you will be doing the author a huge favor and supporting them in writing another. And if you love a book, don’t be shy about writing to the author. More often than not, you’ll make their day.
Thank you for inviting me back to the Inn!