Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores talks with
CRES:Today we’re talking with David Gray about his new book, Moonflowers. It’s just come out and has been selected for Apple Books’ Most Anticipated summer reading list! Welcome, David, and Congratulations. So far so good.
David: That’s the perfect way to put it. After many years in magazines, being on the receiving end of book PR queries and pitches, it’s a whole new world being on the other side of the fence. And so far, a fun one. At time of typing, I’ve a print copy of the book with a big VFX studio, who heard about it through word of mouth, and thinking about making a trailer, to showcase their own muscle and creativity. That would be simply amazing, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the media, it’s that you can’t assume anything, so fingers crossed. Or, some of Jinx’ luck, please.
CRES: Your story, which I didn’t want to stop reading by the way, takes place as an uneasy truce lies upon the Earth in the aftermath of angels and demons pouring through a portal and wreaking havoc. Did you develop this scenario over time or was it more like a sudden flash of inspiration… like a portal opening?
David: It came to me like a sudden beam of sunlight piercing a cloudy sky. No, wait, that’s …what’s the word … oh, yes, a lie. The truth is, it was slowly forged from a heap of scrappy ideas that were rattling around in my head. The protagonist’s “gift” – being able to into the very immediate future – was a quirky and undesirable superpower I’d wanted to play with and never found a vehicle for. And H. P. Lovecraft’s The Horror at Red Hook made an impression on me a while back (he was no fan of Brooklyn). Also, there was a compulsion to write a small story in a big world, where the daily grind isn’t so different from now, but set against a backdrop of something marvelous. I was playing with that feeling in various shorts, including “Watchers”, which you generously published on this site. Normal-ish people doing strange things in abnormal worlds, has always appealed. It came together over a summer visiting my favorite place in NYC: Governors Island. And in the form of a literal walk through post-Armageddon-Lite New York City (not that I’m saying the “angels” and “demons” are what they seem, all right? Thus the lowercase h). I knitted it into a short story – that was one of the first I had published – and then let it expand from there, while wrapping the whole thing up in a tangle of old-style plotting and scheming.
CRES: Speaking of “Watchers”, which I encourage everyone to read, you have a scene there where a dying man is surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. You have something similar In Moonflowers. You let us know the crowd’s got an emotional disconnect, suffering is spectacle to them, but it’s just there for us to figure out, you don’t hit us over the head with it.
David: I trained as a newspaper reporter (anyone remember newspapers?), and found people’s reactions to catastrophe to be fascinating. Wherever there’s an accident, a crowd gathers, most of them just to watch. In a way, people’s reactions to an event, frame it and give it context. Also, if you look at faces in a crowd around a terrible event, you see the whole range of human emotions on display. We’re all guilty here, so I’m noting rather than judging.
CRES: Petal is the wise-cracking Moonflower whose talents include seeing a few scant seconds into the future, recovering from injuries with blazing speed, and making just about everyone angry. Was there any real-life inspiration for Petal?
David: A month ago I’d have said no, but those people who know me and who’ve read the book have cruelly – but accurately – said he’s me, to the extent that he’s an annoying smart-mouth. Really, Petal is every young adult who doesn’t know when to keep quiet, or express empathy for other people. His inconsistent but heartfelt determination to do what he thinks right is that quality we all have as kids, and lose over time.
CRES: Re Petal’s “heartfelt determination to do what he thinks right” – will there be any transformations to his character? Will any of the people from his horrible past come back to make things horrible again?
David: His isn’t a traditional journey from a good life, to hard times, and back again to that good life with an earned sense of perspective. Nor is it a redemption arc. He’s gone from terrible hardship to mild hardship, and potentially some friends, plus a clean bed to sleep in. And the high likelihood of an early death. His scorn for most people and entities, and his too-casual references to past brutalities are masking a pretty awful set of life experiences, but one that isn’t exactly unique, in the world he lives in. I’ve gone into more detail in book two, as explanation for some of the things he does, and some of the people who re-appear. Also, he’s learning, as we all do, that confidences are earned, and that people will want to know things about him in return. Will he change completely? No: we’re all pretty set in who we are by late teens/early 20s, I think. If you met Petal, and got to know him, he’d be one of those people who you described as, “amazing, but …”
CRES: The story is set in modern day Brooklyn. Did the real Brooklyn inspire any elements of the story?
David: I love Red Hook and the people there, and I see in its delicious variety something that’s slowly but steadily washing out of New York City. I cycle around the neighborhood nearly every day, and there’s always something that makes me stop and take a few pictures. I think that’s a quality that you see in places that are defined by the water they butt up against. It’s one of those places that are full of possibility, no matter how outlandish. I hope no-one’s too upset that I picked it as the future home of a demonic enclave of debauched sin. For balance, I set lower Manhattan as the place the money-grabbing, uptight, hypocritical “angels” grabbed.
CRES: About Red Hook literary influences, there’s Thomas Wolfe’s 1930’s “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” where one character warns another against walking around Red Hook. It’s changed a lot since then hasn’t it?
David: Yes! That wonderful line, ‘ “Jesus! Red Hook!” I says. “What-cha do down deh?” ’! The ships and warehouses he mentioned are mostly gone, now. Red Hook is changing incredibly quickly. I’m not flatly opposed to change: there’s a tendency for incomers to fetishize an industrial neighborhood and the people in it. But when you have money pouring into a city without any apparent limits, and multi-family homes are torn down for $5m single-family townhouses, then care needs to be taken. I’m a (skulking) member of some local social media groups, and the one over in very gentrified Cobble Hill has people posting yoga classes and requests for home makeover contractors, while the Red Hook one has things such as “pair of hardly-worn size 11 men’s sneakers on the corner of Conover and King streets!” It’s about balance – we all want a safe neighborhood, but we should remember the importance of a sense of community.
CRES: Was making Red Hook into the home of demons at all inspired by the giant IKEA that was built there by demolishing many historic buildings?
David: Well, I worked the IKEA in there as Club Alighieri, where the damned (for a night) dance in the flames. So clearly I have a gripe about replacing unique landmarks with bland boxes. Red Hook is in danger of going too far down that path too quickly. As I write, there’s a furore over the tearing down of an historic red brick warehouse in Red Hook (opposite the book’s site for the Petting Zoo) to make way for a UPS building. The complaints by local activists are not that it’s happening, so much as that there seems to have been scant thought given to incorporating something of the old building into the façade. But no, the demons didn’t get Red Hook for that reason – they could just as well have landed the financial district, but I did think possibly that was too obvious. And there was that Lovecraft quote driving me to put the demons in Brooklyn.
CRES: Have any Manhattanites complained about their island being chosen for the site of angels of money-grubbing hypocrisy?
David: You think they’d notice any difference? Wall Street would have welcomed the angels and their particularly focused view of profit and loss, at least until they kicked the traders out. But that was more of a hostile takeover than a sustained moral judgment, and I feel sure that more than one financial company did all right out of the deal.
CRES: The action is pretty much non-stop, and packed into a few breathless days’ time. Is that pace the way you generally like to write?
David: I’m not sure I know any other way: I started out in news journalism, where I was taught brevity: “bring out the bear!” was shouted at me more than once, meaning cut all the sideshow crap and get to the main attraction. Later, I was given a lovely piece of advice by an editor, who pointed me to an interview with the legendary sci-fi author Alfred Bester, who said “you know damn well that when you write, a scene is no damn good, it’s not valid unless it moves the action.”
I love tales where the protagonist wakes up hoping for an uneventful day, and stage by stage, it all goes to Hell/hell in a handcart.
I wanted to pull the reader along with the same sense of stumbling “what the …?” bemusement as Petal feels. I love those old radio and tv serials where there’s no time to relax and think too hard.
CRES: Well you brought out plenty of bears. As a reader I enjoy the constantly compelling prose. As an editor I appreciate how well you self-edit.
David: That’s very kind. Thank heavens (Heavens?) I started in newspapers, because that process soon strips you of any ego when it comes to making changes and having the confidence to look at something you’ve written and admit it’s just not right. Or taking an editor’s advice to heart. I think that with a debut novel, you need to go in hard, and keep it moving. I always feel guilty, or maybe self indulgent, when I think about stopping the action and describing the background. Maybe that’s just me…
CRES: I liked Jezzie, the succubus, and have to ask – is there a future for Petal and Jezzie?
David: Are you saying “future” with the raised eyebrows my granny would use when a girl’s name was mentioned in relation to me? Well, Jezzie is possibly the smartest person (not that she’s a person) Petal knows, and one of the most dangerous. And by her own admission, utterly self-interested. It’s not really a maternal relationship, nor exactly a budding romance. But it has elements of both, and something else entirely. If I was Petal’s friend (if he HAD friends) I’d advise him to stay well clear. But then, who could steer clear of a witty, reformed succubus who runs a dive bar and a book club?
CRES: Maybe she can help him mature a bit? You say the relationship has elements of “something else entirely”. Could you expand on that?
David: The trouble with Jezzie (or, as Petal might say, “one of the many troubles with Jezzie” – good god, clearly when asked about Moonflowers I write like Petal speaks. That’s a worry) is that we all anthropomorphize her. She herself warns against that. But, as you pointed out, there’s a genetic compatibility to some extent, between demons and angels and humans. So perhaps all the “I’m not like you” stuff is a double bluff and she does think and feel in a way we’d understand a little. Petal himself thinks that angels and demons are opportunistic mimics, and for whatever reason, delight in assuming human reactions and emotions that they don’t feel. But, she’s certainly fascinated by him, and is invested to some extent in his survival. And if you strip all human emotion down to instinct and self preservation, then who’s to say Jezzie’s apparent affection for Petal isn’t every bit as valid as the genetically-driven love of a mother for her children? Or for one’s partner in life? She might well be his best friend in the world, or more. Or less. Which is kind of wonderful and very sad. Not to say dangerous.
CRES: Is Ovid’s name just a reference to his past genetic metamorphosis or might there be more on the way, for him and other Moonflowers?
David: Well, you just know the captain thought of it, whenever Ovid and the other war vets arrived. But those DNA-altered vets can have kids, and so they themselves are contributing to a colossal change in what might be considered human identity.
CRES: A couple of the characters with smaller roles had a good deal of emotional resonance for me, perhaps because they weren’t much part of the ‘action’ and we could see a different side of them – Wishes Eddy, head of hospital for the strange and wounded, and Phasers, slowly fading out of known reality.
David: I’m touched that you thought so. As much as I avoid a lot of specific physical description of most characters, in part because you see them through Petal’s self-absorbed lens, I tried to convey that he’s drawn to kind-hearted, damaged people. He thinks he shows up at Wishes Eddy’s hospital every few weeks to help Eddy, but it’s clear it’s more of a two-way thing. It’s not a reach to say that Eddy and Phasers are our own fears (ok, MY fears) made flesh – you burn bright, then break, or fade away without anyone remembering you.
CRES: When Petal’s not bringing the wrath of angels and demons upon himself, he podcasts about it. What does he do non-work related?
David: He feels sorry for himself, and mopes around being unhappily happy. There are some mentions of all the things that were missing from Petal’s early life, and though he has little time for the freaks (reclaiming that word, here, thanks) he’s ended up with, deep down he feels like he’s come home. Even if he and they don’t know he cares. I see him walking around the island just doing very small things, happy to have enough to eat and a place to sleep and people to irritate without necessarily being killed on the spot for doing so.
CRES: The ending left us with a few intriguing mysteries unsolved: Is Petal really a Moonflower?
David: He’s not a reliable witness, and since it’s all first person, his word is all we have, at least for now. But he’s correct in that he’s not a Moonflower by strict definition. Though whether the distinction is what he thinks, or whether anyone else would care, remains to be seen. He’s not about to get all “Dark Phoenix”, any time soon. Or ever.
CRES: Are the Angels and Demons really angels and demons? They are genetically sufficiently compatible with humans to produce offspring – does this relate to what they really are?
David: Yes, that very much relates to what they really are. The genetic compatibility mentioned is significant, as is mentioning that Petal refers to the “old” DNA of humanity as having been thoroughly messed up by the new arrivals. In some extreme cases, such as the Moonflowers, from conception. Some veterans and lucky (or unlucky) humans such as Ovid were genetically altered by the war, and so are their children. And the wash of energy globally, not to mention the genetic mixes that happened through intermingling, plays a part. Over time, there will be precious few “pure” humans left.
CRES: Why and how did they come through the portal?
David: Very pertinent questions, that I will now spend a great many words not answering. Rest assured I did spend an indecent amount of time on the Moonflowers universe. But I can’t give that away yet. The quest for the truth is not one that consumes Petal: he was born into a world turned upside down, and for him, (alleged) angels and demons are an irritating part of daily life. He hates them, and senses that they’re bullshitters, but it’s hard to be an active and energetic conspiracy theorist when you’re surrounded by the impossible made real. But I will say that the why and how are important, and will make sense within the confines of the Moonflowers universe. And Petal resents being taken for a fool, so won’t be letting this go.
CRES: There’s a lot of compelling imagery in Moonflowers. For future books (or second editions of Moonflowers) might we get illustrated versions? Please?
David: I’d LOVE that. I’ve never given much specific thought to the link between visuals and words, in the way I write, but a few people have been kind enough to say similar, and I realize that I write by describing the images I see in my head. Which is probably the most common way, so please don’t think I’m getting all “it’s a gift!” about it! I have a list of wonderful illustrators and artists I follow on Instgram, and if I ever landed @mishmadoodls @hideyoshi_art @stephen_todd0 @ imad.n.awan or @paperbluenet I’d be thrilled.
CRES: And speaking of imagery, Moonflowers would do well as a serialized show or movie. Did you retain the movie rights?
David: I did. My publisher – the wonderful Maer Wilson at Ellysian Press, is always saying “you must get a deal for a series! I wish only that you do well!”. Which is incredibly sweet. I didn’t write it with that in mind, but I can absolutely see someone taking the storyline and doing something mind blowing with it on the screen. Don’t ask me who’d play Petal, though.
CRES: So now I just have to ask — Who would play Petal?
David: Hmm, that’s a hard one. I steered away from describing most characters’ ethnic makeup in definitive terms. I am wary of books that made the choices for the reader. But I’d be very pleased if readers could assume Petal looked like they do, or like they might want to. I admit, I did state he’s skinny (he’s had a hard life, with not enough food: a lean tough existence where he had to move fast and often) and dark hair, though the hair was more that blond hair makes people assume a character is white (not a given in Moonflowers’ world).
Or if they decide he doesn’t look like them, then they’d be free to come up with his exact appearance without many limits imposed by me. Also, Petal is in his first-person descriptions of the world, not an objective or straight-line thinker. He notes a lot of physical traits about people, but mentions only those that to him matter as worth commenting on in a world where the extraordinary is the ordinary. Hair, size, attitude, walking style. I struggle with books where there’s a need for the protagonist to make an early and unsubtle point about their own appearance (“She glanced in the mirror and pursed her lips critically – too-small button nose, dusting of freckles that some found cute, blue eyes…”) that hands the reader a picture they might not have needed. Some main characters’ own life experiences have been influenced by assumed gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, but it’s not something I like to hit people over the head with, so much as drop details in where they might help.
That aside, yes, for screen of course it matters. I could see Petal played by a young Rami Malek, Finn Wolfhard or Justice Smith.
CRES: Too bad David Tenant isn’t a kid enough — did you see him in Good Omens (and all the other great stuff he’s been in of course)?
David: Ha, did I say that David Tenant is the person I am most told I remind them of – tho the accent is probably a part. Mind you I also got a cab driver ask if I was James Cameron. Not a lookalike, but THE James Cameron, who’s over 60…. my goodness… anyway, I love every Gaiman (and Pratchett) book but find the screen adaptations a little disappointing. Especially Stardust.
CRES: Will you be giving us a sequel where all will be resolved?
David: Yes, though I would hate for the answers to become the whole point (case in point: Lost, the TV show) and to be an excuse for all kinds of inexplicable plot points. There will be more books, and an answer will be forthcoming. Or at least, Petal’s interpretation of an answer. In fact, book two is complete, at least as a promising first draft.
CRES: Can you give us any hints?
David: Only that I can’t see Petal being impressed by the real story, any more than he is the official one. Or by anything else. Surprised, I’m sure. But not pleased.
CRES: Where can we buy a copy of Moonflowers?
David: It’s available through Amazon.
CRES: Any last comments…?
David: Only to pass on my heartfelt thanks, first of all to you for indulging me, and then to new readers. If I manage to convey even a little of that feeling, when you’re reading a fun book and you forget the outside world for a moment, then I’m very happy. Also, as I said in the dedication, remember the middle of the bell curve is boring. There’s nothing wrong with being an outlier. Or indeed a Moonflower (or something close).
CRES: Okay, thank you David for joining us for this interview, and I wish Moonflowers great success.
David Gray is a Scots-born writer and creative director, living in Brooklyn NY. He would like to be considered notoriously private, if only he was well enough known for anyone to care.
His website, which is a running update on work and Moonflowers, is davidagray.com and his instagram is david_a_gray