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INTERVIEW: Justin Gustainis on Hard Spell, Writing, and Police Procedurals

Justin Gustainis is a college professor living in upstate New York. At various times in his misspent youth he was a soldier, garment worker, speechwriter, and professional bodyguard. In addition to a number of short stories (two of which won the Graverson Award for Horror in consecutive years) he is author of 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 editor of the anthology Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives (2011). He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop.

Lexie Cenni: You’ve probably answered this question a billion times, so let’s be a bit different–what is Hard Spell about, but in only 140 characters

Justin Gustainis: Does the 140 include spaces?  Can you tell that I don’t tweet?

Stan Markowski is a cop in an “alternate” Scranton, PA where the supernatural is real.  If a vamp bites the wrong person, or a witch casts an illegal spell, they call Stan.

140 exactly.  Hah! (unless you count spaces)

(LC: it does include the spaces, but its a weird rule so we’re ignoring it!)

LC:  Inevitably comparisons will rise between Hard Spell and your Quincy Morris Supernatural Investigations books, do you think that fans of Quincy Morris will enjoy Hard Spell as well or were you aiming for a slightly different audience?

JG: I would think that anyone who enjoys good urban fantasy will like both books.  Some people have said that the Morris/Chastain stories are like private eye novels.  I guess I can’t argue with that, although most private eyes don’t have to deal with vampires, sorcerers, demons, and the like.  Hard Spell (and the other books to follow in what I call the “Haunted Scranton” series) is more of a police procedural – with vampires, sorcerers, and demons.

LC:  In other interviews you mention that famous noir detectives like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade have a tone that’s similar to Stan, but the difference being Stan is a cop, not just a private investigator.  If Stan had some of the freedoms Philip and Sam enjoyed by not being bound by the shield, do you think he would do things differently?

JG: Well, knowing Stan, I expect he’d hire a hot-looking secretary (who also had a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and could shoot the eyelashes off an ant).  And he’d be a lot more hard-ass in dealing with suspects.  In fact, I think Stan would be more like Mike Hammer than Spade or Marlowe.  I’d have to write books about him with titles like My Stake Is Quick, and Bite Me, Deadly.  Which, now that I think about it….

LC: Do you have any distractions that you try to avoid while in writing mode?  Anything that helps you focus?

JG: Somebody told me that there was porn in the Internet, although I’ve never come across any of it, and wouldn’t look at it if I did.  Ahem.  But I do go to a lot to check the forecast.  I’ve been trying to do that less.

What helps me focus?  Fear.  You know: fear of failure, fear of having to give back the advance, which I’ve already spent, fear that my agent will kill me — stuff like that.

LC: You set Hard Spell in Scranton, PA, your hometown.  For those familiar with the town would they be able to spot establishments and stores that you snuck into the book?  Any inside jokes that locals would get?

JG: Just to set the record straight, I grew up in Pittston, which is about seven miles outside of Scranton.  But I did spend a lot of time there, including the time it took to earn two degrees from the University of Scranton.  So I’m almost a native.  Anyway, setting a whole novel in Pittston would be … difficult.  As Dorothy Parker once said of Oakland: “There’s no there there.”

(LC: and this kids is why we don’t use Wikipedia for quick researching guides.)

Most of the places I describe in detail are “supe-related” (“supe” is what Stan calls supernatural creatures) — like Renfield’s, a supe bar that Stan spends some time in while trying to get a line on a new wizard in town who may be killing vampires.

There are some “inside” jokes, but they mostly involve people – especially people at the University, which figures prominently in at least one scene.

LC: If Stan could have his pick of any fictional world to play around in, where do you think he’d enjoy the most?  Any particular literary figures he’d want to investigate or meet?

JG: I think Stan would want to hang out with Joe Friday in the Dragnet universe.  Stan would love it there – all the bad guys are human, and the cops win every time.  Plus, you get to say cool stuff like “Just the facts, ma’am.”  In his world, Stan is more used to saying things like “Just the vamps, man.”

LC: This is more for my own piece of mind, but any chance of a crossover between the Quincey books and OCU books?

JG: I’m afraid not, for the simple reason that Stan operates in a universe fundamentally different from Quincey and Libby’s.  In Stan’s world, the supernatural is out in the open, and people are used to it, whereas the Morris/Chastain books take place in a world with what the RPG folks call a masquerade – most people don’t know that supernatural creatures exist, and the supernatural creatures like it that way.  Makes it easier for them to hide, and to find victims.

(LC: new plan, create a pocket universe in which Stan, Morris and Chastain can run around without breaking the laws of reality.)

LC: Are there any tropes or cliches you’d like to play around with and twist in future books (for the OCU or Quincy or unrelated stories)?

JG: I’ve been thinking about a character who is kind of an “occult burglar.”  If you need something stolen from a wizard, or witch, or vampire, or whatever, he’s the guy to do it.  He can overcome the protection spells, avoid the hellhounds patrolling the property, grab the goods, and get out again.  I was thinking about placing the guy in a World War II, scenario, where the government sends him into Germany, because the Nazis have some occult object locked up – but frankly, that whole “Nazis-have-a-supernatural-weapon-that-will-win-the-war-if-we-don’t-stop-them” thing is pretty trite.  It was old when Indiana Jones was doing it, which means it’s positively ancient now.  Hmmm… but what if the Japanese government had the occult object?  You don’t see much written about that in fantasy.  I’m gonna give it some thought.  My occult burglar may soon be on his way into Tokyo.  Covertly, of course. 

(LC: I want this. Now please.)

LC: Typically how many drafts do you go through for your novels/stories?  Are there deleted scenes, characters or story lines you took out and kept for future reference?

JG: With stories, I keep fiddling with them until I’m happy, which is almost never.  I eventually make myself send them out anyway, despite their imperfections.

Novels go through as many drafts as necessary to satisfy both me and the publisher.  Minimum (so far): two drafts.  Maximum (so far): six.  My editor at Solaris made me take some sex scenes out of the manuscript for Sympathy for the Devil.  He thought they were a little too “edgy” for an urban fantasy audience.  My response was two words: Anita Blake.  But I had to take them out, anyway.

I doubt I’ll ever be able to do anything with those scenes, unless I start writing erotica (that’s porn with adverbs, BTW) as a sideline – and most of the markets for short erotic fiction pay very poorly.  Or so I understand.

LC:  And lastly–any sage advice for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves on the wrong side of an investigation led by Stan?

JG: Be very polite to the nice policeman.  Do exactly as the nice policeman tells you –otherwise he’s likely to go upside your head with the business end of a wooden stake.

Justin thank you so much for the interview!  And readers if you want to learn more about Justin or his books check out Justin’s website and as a special treat, check out the Hard Spell trailer below!

Interviewer Lexie Cenni: Lexie has been spending an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer. Not doing anything fun, but work related things that tend to drive her insane.  Her co-workers are extremely worried.  In her off time she’s cooking (moderately well), reading (to moderate success) or video gaming (L.A. Noire anyone?).  You can find her at her blog Poisoned Rationality or her twitter stream–and please don’t feed her after midnight, its never a good idea.