Horror is what I cut (or perhaps, sharpened) my teeth on as a young adult and my love for the genre has definitely influenced me as a writer. Peter is one of my favorite authors, not just in horror but overall. He takes ordinary people and places them in extraordinary circumstances but he does so without losing the nicks and scars and flaws that make them so real. His novels tend to resonate with me in ways that I never could have anticipated. His latest, Beyond Anon, is no different.
Today, we’re discussing both Anon novels along with Peter’s upcoming projects and what keeps him awake at night.
Gwen: When I first read Anon, it hit me like a hammer because it reminded me of my days working retail. There’s a line in a Radiohead song, actually, that sums that whole period up for me: “…a job that slowly kills you, bruises that won’t heal…” And that’s the sense that I had while reading Anon—the idea that there’s a corporation that owns you but that doesn’t even know what it is that they own.
So, Pete, where does Anon come from? Is there a similar connection between you and previous life experience that contributed to conceiving this novel?
Peter: Oddly, I had great workplace experiences. But I followed the world banking crisis closely. I’d also been reading a lot about Nazi Germany. These things came together at the right time. Then one night I was watching an old re-run of Cheers, of all things, and Shelly Long (aka Diane Chambers) used the word “Anon.” I wasn’t interested in the modern use of the word, a shortening of “anonymous.” I was more interested in the real meaning of the word, and the concept of anxiety and how that feeling leads people to accept things they normally wouldn’t. The trains did run on time during Hitler’s reign of power; he was even Time Magazine’s man of the year. And his system of evil wasn’t his alone. He was so popular that he was able to sell his brand of evil wholesale. Considering the evil of our financial organizations, I thought about everyone who was able to get a mortgage and seemingly achieve their “American Dream,” whether their loans should have been approved or not. Again, the banks were able to sell wrong by giving people what they wanted.
Anxiety! People worried they’d never own a home. Anxiety! Europe was anxious for stability! Anxiety! That was where I wanted to take Anon. And that archaic word—which means soon, presently, shortly, immediately, forthwith—rang through my head. That’s what financial organizations had promised—Anon! Why wait? You can have it now. Who cares that there might be a bigger price to pay in the long run. You want it now, don’t you? So I dredged up my past in Corporate America and twisted every experience into something useful.
Gwen: Anon was published in June of 2011. Since that time, we’ve seen a lot of change—or attempted change—directed at institutions. I’m going to use Occupy Wall Street as an example here but there are others. Do you think that readers can identify more with a story like this in the wake of economic and political turmoil than they would during a period of economic prosperity? Did you have any of that in mind as you were writing the novel?
Peter: I was more interested in human nature. But it’s ironic that the “Occupy Wall Street” folks have taken up the word “Anon,” meaning anonymous, as a battle cry. The irony of that isn’t lost on me. I find it humorous. But the book Anon was really pro-individual and anti-establishment. It’s more counter-culture, in my humble estimation, than the “Occupy” movement. After all, the “Occupy” movement is just another organization, though clearly not as organized. Many are there just to feel like they belong to something, with no understanding of what they really stand for. That’s dangerous. I’m not anti-establishment, per se, but I do question groupthink. My views are humanistic and very pro-capitalism. And I do believe that win/win situations exist, as long as people are put first. If you have to kill thousands or bankrupt millions to make a profit, however, I’m not down with that.
Gwen: What motivates you to tell stories, particularly one like Anon? Many authors would take a concept like this and sterilize it, but I found it compelling because I could relate to so many of the themes within. I suppose what I’m really asking here is… when you began writing Anon, what came first? The characters? The plot? Tell us a little about how it developed.
Peter: I kind of hit that above. It was reading about Nazi Germany, following the banking crisis, and listening to Diane Chambers, one of my earliest crushes. Who can go wrong with that strange marriage of ideas, huh? The twins came before Rory, and I originally opened the book with them. It wasn’t working. I needed an impending evil, something we could see coming that they couldn’t. I knew Rory’s story, but he was going to come into the novel as something mysterious. That didn’t work either. So I opened the book with him, made it look like he was going to be the protagonist, then subverted the hell out of traditional structure. As soon as I made those decisions, I knew I’d cracked the code. I knew I had something original. While I was sad that Michelle didn’t get introduced for 15,000 words, the book benefited. It’s a strange book. Thank God it’s a strange book!
Gwen: One of the things that I’ve always loved about your work, whether it be this novel or one of your other pieces, is your ability to write characters who manage to be both sympathetic and horrifying. Your villains are rarely just villains and your heroes sometimes fall down on the job. Let’s take Rory, for instance—did you plot out his journey through the course of the novel or did the changes in his personality and character develop organically?
Peter: Anon developed more organically than anything I’ve written. I created character profiles for everyone, then I let them determine direction. If I couldn’t channel them, I stepped away. I hit a roadblock at one point and abandoned the novel for two months. At another point, Anon was 150,000 words long and a big, fat mess. I had to work the book into a new shape, around 80,000 words, and take out all the parts that didn’t work. It was my first book, so I learned a lot writing it. Things come easier now. So glad I had that experience. For the record, I don’t like archetypes. I like people. If all your good guys wear white and all your bad guys wear black, I don’t want to read your book or watch your movie.
Gwen: As a horror author, what frightens you personally? I’ve noticed a lot of social and political themes in your work which is something that I personally find more terrifying than most monsters. Do you feel the same? Or is there something more mundane that you tap into when you write your novels?
Peter: I’m not terrified of vamps or zombies, because, guess what, they don’t exist! I’m afraid of real things: crazy drivers, idiots with power, wild animals, and heights. I worry about heart disease and cancer and…you get the idea. I don’t worry about a zombie apocalypse.
Gwen: Now if I understand right, Pete, the sequel in this series, Beyond Anon was one of those books that nearly didn’t get written. That was surprising for me to discover as a reader since from the moment I put Anon down, I wanted to know more about what happened next. What changed your mind?
Peter: Like I said earlier, I am a capitalist. Anon didn’t sell for the first six months it existed. How could I write a sequel for a potential readership of 50 people? Other things I was doing were starting to catch fire, so I thought Anon would be the forgotten first novel. I’m really glad I got to write the sequel, because it means the first book has readers. In fact, it’s my most widely read piece of work.
Gwen: What was the most difficult thing about writing a sequel?
Peter: Finding Michelle six years later. She was always going to be the focus of the sequel. But who was she? I didn’t start writing ‘til I found her, and I found her a lot sooner than I expected.
Gwen: The thing that pulled me into Beyond Anon immediately was Michelle, your protagonist (who happens to be gay). As a bisexual woman myself, I find it rare that I see my own feelings reflected so clearly in fiction, much less in fiction where the point of the story is not homosexuality. I loved the way that you managed to give us a sense that sexuality was a part of Michelle’s life but not the whole of it. Can you tell us a little about the challenges of writing a character who was dramatically different from yourself? Or was she really that different?
Peter: She’s a lot different than I am. I never went through anything remotely like what she did. So I had to consider who she was. I had to find her anger, and I had to embrace it. I consider myself an empath, so I enjoy looking at things through a new set of eyes. Getting into Michelle’s head was challenging and fun. I had to ask a lot of “what if?” questions and figure her out before I could write the book. Like I said, it all came quicker than I expected. I revisited Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy a couple of times so I could avoid making the same mistakes he did. I love Michelle deeply. And I always knew that if I could find a way to love her without sexualizing her or playing out cheap male fantasies, I would succeed. I think I did.
Gwen: I definitely feel that you did.
Did you or do you have any fear in telling Michelle’s story? I know that there is often a perception that people outside of a particular class or group, particularly one of minority status, can’t tell their stories. Personally, I disagree but what’s your take on it?
Peter: I think we all have to tell human stories. Michelle told me she was gay. I could ignore that revelation or explore it. I explored it. To ignore her wishes would have betrayed the character. And to turn the character into something cheap or tawdry because of the revelation would have missed the point. Strong gay characters are prevalent in romance fiction—as if they are only defined by rules of attraction. And when they are in other types of shows or movies or books, they are generally over sexualized. It’s important to note that I’m not a revolutionary. Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap & Leonard books showed me the way. Joe often leads, and young writers would do well to pay close attention to everything he does. Everything!
Gwen: Michelle is also compelling for the way that she attacks not only Anon as a corporation but other social institutions. There are a lot of themes woven into this novel and references to struggles that all of us are facing today (religious discord, gay rights, social justice)—tell us what inspired you to go deeper into some of these issues.
Peter: I was working themes of organizational evil. It was all a natural progression. Ignorance and hatred, after all, are taught.
Gwen: Now that you’ve closed the door on the Breedloves, what’s next on the horizon?
Peter: Several new books, short stories, and screenplays. I wrote a novel with Scott Bradley that’s coming soon from Ravenous Shadows. It’s called The Dark, and it has received positive advance reviews from many respected novelists and screenwriters. And Scott and I have written a slew of short stories that will appear soon in various anthologies, including John Skipp’s PSYCHOS, which also features work by Neil Gaiman, Ray Bradbury, Thomas Harris, and many others. Not too shabby, huh? I have a two year option on the screen adaptation of Rick Hautala’s Little Brothers, which I plan to write with Scott, and we’re still shopping our feature-length adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Night They Missed the Horror Show,” endorsed by Joe. I’m also working with Eric Shapiro on a few projects that are top secret. And I have my next two solo novels outlined, as well as a couple of short novels with Scott, all of them waiting patiently for me.
Gwen: If readers want to find out more about you and your work, what’s the best way for them to do so?
Peter: The best way to find out about my work is to buy a book and read it. If you’re not ready to buy, go to www.petergiglio.com. But, seriously, the Anon eBook is $2.99, less than the cost of a McDonald’s value meal or a fancy drink at Starbucks. I spent a year of my life writing it, not 20 seconds frying cheap mystery meat or frothing fattening cream and overpriced coffee.
[Editorial note: I’d like to add that while Peter raises a good point about the price and availability of his novels, you don’t buy a Peter Giglio novel because it’s cheap. You buy it because it’s good.]