Earlier this month, I read and reviewed The Children of Red Peak, the disturbing, haunting, and utterly terrific new novel by author Craig DiLouie.
The author has kindly agreed to answer some questions, which I so appreciate! So without further ado, please enjoy these fascinating responses.
Did you always want to be a writer? How did you get started?
Thanks for having me as a guest, Lisa! I grew up on a small farm outside a small town in New Jersey. It was a great place to grow up but awfully boring. During my teen years, I discovered Robert E. Howard and fell in love. Though he’s best known as the creator of Conan, he wrote short pulp fiction in a number of genres back in the ‘30s. For me, it was the perfect escape. After a while, I caught fire with the idea that I could not only visit these worlds, I could create them. From that day on, I wanted to write. While most of my career has in been in writing—journalism and education in the electrical industry—it’s only in the past 10-15 years or so that my fiction writing career has really taken off. While it’s taken me so long to get where I am, I’ve gone so much farther than I ever dreamed. It’s been a gratifying and humbling journey.
Can you describe your path to getting published?
Well, I started back in the ‘90s. Back then, writers faced a Catch 22. The best way to get your work published was to already be published, which is still true today, though you now have more options for publication. I felt like a character in a Kafka novel, given a lavish invitation to a party I’d never actually be allowed to attend. In the early ‘00s, I lucked out selling a psychological thriller direct to a small press, which led to two more books getting published with them. One of these was Tooth and Nail, a zombie book I wrote on a lark. Sales exploded, a matter of having the right book at the right place at the right time. Its success led to two more zombie books, an agent, and finally publication of four books with Simon & Schuster and my current publishing home, Hachette. Along the way, I discovered a model for self-publishing that’s been a lot of fun and keeps me incredibly busy as a separate venture.
What are your favorite genres to read?
I tend to read the kind of thing I’m writing at the time, so I’ve been reading a lot of horror lately. That being said, I recently fell in love with Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles, a fantastic retelling of Arthurian legend I highly recommend, and his Saxon Chronicles, which was adapted for Netflix as The Last Kingdom.
Do you have certain books that you’ve read over and over?
A few, and these are the books that stay on my bookshelf, while I tend to give the rest away to people I think will enjoy them. 1984, Blood Meridian, The Road, The Iron Heel, The Killer Angels, and The Handmaid’s Tale come to mind, among others.
Who are your favorite writers? Are there particular writers who’ve inspired your own writing?
This is a great question but one that’s a bit complicated for me to answer, as I love writers in different ways depending on whether I’m thinking about them as a writer or a reader. As a writer, I admire people like Jonathan Maberry, Josh Malerman, Peter Clines, David Moody, and many others who exemplify how to do great in their art and profession, handle success with grace, and remain generous and kind to colleagues. Then there are authors I admire as a writer simply for things they’ve taught me through their fiction—Jack Ketchum to not be timid when it comes to pushing boundaries, John Skipp for so perfectly finding the subtle comedy in horror, Michael Shaara for the well-placed, evocative adjective, and so on. As a reader, I probably most admire writers like Naomi Alderman and Claire North who can come up with brilliant concepts that challenge me and make me think.
What would you most want new readers to know about you?
Another great question. I guess I’d want them to know that with each novel I write, I try my absolute hardest to give them a few hours of escape into a realistic world where ordinary people they can care about will undergo extraordinary challenges, and that after they close the covers they will be invited to reflect on interesting themes. Fiction is very YMMV, so if I don’t succeed with every reader, I’d want them to know I cared and that I worked my heart out trying.
What made you decide to focus on cults in The Children of Red Peak?
The Children of Red Peak is a psychological thriller with elements of cosmic horror. The story is about a group of people who grew up and survived the horrific last days of a religious group that devolved into a cult. When one of them commits suicide, the remaining survivors come together to confront their past and the entity that appeared on the final night. It’s told in two timelines, one where we see them as kids growing up in a group and how everything goes wrong, and the other years later where they’re adults coping with trauma and ultimately trying to find closure on the tragedy by returning to Red Peak.
I picked cults because, well, they’re fascinating and mysterious. I wanted to show the only difference between a cult and any religious or similar belief group is in the level of harm. Thematically, I wanted to explore belief as a basic human trait—one could argue it’s actually a survival trait—and show how it can produce great moral achievements and happiness but also some of the world’s worst evil. The difference between a happy religious community and a hellish cult is a slippery slope as one can logically lead to the other. For me, that was fertile ground for horror and an opportunity to explore challenging ideas.
Otherwise, I was inspired by a reading of Genesis. God tells Abraham to take his son Isaac to a mountain and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham does this only to be stopped by God at the last moment. I wondered: What would that story be like if told from Isaac’s point of view?
What kind of research did you do?
I always do a ton of research for my books to ground the story and make its world as realistic as possible. In The Children of Red Peak, I made an even bigger effort as the survivors all have professions that relate to the ways in which they cope with the trauma they still carry with them so many years later. Beth is a psychologist specializing in trauma, which required a great deal of study to get right. Deacon is a musician who purges his despair onstage, which required a deep dive into the life of an indie rock band. And David is a cult exit counselor, which allowed me to study and present cults from a more scientific point of view. The result is a lot of challenging and intriguing information that enriches the narrative.
The depiction of the Family of the Living Spirit in their original setting seems mostly peaceful and positive, yet it was scarily easy for them to shift to a doomsday mentality. How does this relate to real cults that you’ve researched?
Yes, that’s where the real horror in the novel is buried—in how easily and quickly this isolated, relatively happy, devout religious community goes to hell on their slippery slope of good intentions. They believe God is constantly interceding in their lives and will end the world soon. As the author, I treated them and their beliefs respectfully but took them seriously at their word, that they really believed what they believed with all their heart. Then an authority figure in their lives comes forward and says yes, God talked to me, he’s waiting for us on a mountain, and we’ll be severely tested when we get there so that only the worthy can ascend. Of course, most of them are going to go, and when Heaven is the reward, what wouldn’t you do to get there?
This was a fascinating product of my research. I was far less interested in trying to recreate the Manson Family or the Peoples Temple or Heaven’s Gate and far more interested in exploring the psychology of why somebody gets into a group like this and how it can all go wrong. The product, again, is great horror, but the main horror doesn’t come from Red Peak but instead from within the human spirit, its yearning for meaning and life after death and its potential to be misled.
I was so distressed by the characters’ lives and traumas in The Children of Red Peak, and I remember feeling really moved by the characters in your other books as well. What’s the key to bringing your characters to life?
For The Children of Red Peak, producing the characters was challenging as I wanted them to start as children with basic personality traits that as adults have run amok as coping mechanisms, give them professions that reinforced and allowed them to act out these mechanisms, and then give them a very difficult choice when they return to Red Peak. This process started with a basic need for the character, and I went from there. So for David, he starts out as this kid who’s dragged across several state lines to live in an isolated community that’s very alien to him. The first thing he does when he gets there is hide. Once I pinned him as somebody who hides, I knew everything about him as a kid, adult, what job he’d have, even how he takes his coffee. By going right to the core of the character—what they want, what they need, their flaw or misbelief, and the wound that created the flaw—I have everything I need to create a living, breathing person on the page. By the end of the book, the characters really did take on a life of their own, and more often than not, they surprised me by telling me what they wanted to do and say next. I really came to love them, which is a hazard for writers of horror, a genre where you have to hurt your darlings.
I’ve been haunted by Our War ever since I read it, and the closer the 2020 election got, the more it was on my mind. Did you have our current political situation in mind when you wrote it? The scenarios in Our War seem terrifyingly possible to me. Did you mean the book to be a cautionary tale?
The book is absolutely a cautionary tale. When I wrote it, I saw the potential in growing polarization and tribalization in America to explode in civil unrest, violence, and possibly a far more catastrophic fracturing of the country. This is not new with our current president, it’s been in the works for decades. I could talk to you all day about this, so I’ll stop there before I dump an essay on you. I’ll just say I hope the novel stays fiction!
I know this is a terrible question to ask an author, but is there one particular book among all you’ve written that you’re especially proud of? One that feels most representative of your work as a whole?
I don’t mind the question at all, though my answer may sound like a bit of a cop out. First, I love all my books equally, though for different reasons—of course I would, right, as in a creative sense, they’re my children! But in the end, the work I’m most proud of is always my most recent. I say this because today I’m a better writer than I was a year ago, and not as good a writer as I’ll be next year. I’m constantly growing and learning as a writer, and I’m excited about what I’ll end up working on in the future.
Can you share anything about your next project? What can we look forward to in your future books?
I’ll be pitching some ideas to Hachette soon for my next big standalone novel. In the meantime, I’m working on a new self-published series about a carrier pilot in WW2 I hope to roll out by mid 2021. These stories are simple, fresh, fun dime novels and serve as a sort of palate cleanser for me between the bigger, more emotionally intensive novels.
Thank you, Craig DiLouie! I can’t wait to read your next books! Thank you for taking the time to provide such fascinating answers to my questions.
Craig DiLouie is an American-Canadian author of speculative fiction with notable works including Our War, One of Us, Suffer the Children, The Infection, and the Crash Dive series. His most recently work is The Children of Red Peak, now available from Hachette’s Redhook imprint. Learn more at www.CraigDiLouie.com.