Today we have a special interview to present, with debut author Gabriel Squailia, just before his novel, Dead Boys, hits the stores, fresh off the press. Do pull up a chair, a favorite drink, and settle in to join us in learning all about the talented and adventurous Mr. Squailia.
I want to talk to you about Dead Boys, but first, please introduce yourself. What should we know about the scribe known as Gabriel Squailia?
I am thirty-five years of age, but I only remember the first two and the last three, so essentially you’re talking to a five-year-old. I make my living as a DJ, a fact that still bewilders me approximately every Saturday. And I really really really like books: my underpants are all made of them.
Your bio on Goodreads mentions “an unconventional education in India, the Middle East and Europe.” Tell us how you came to explore this diverse span of countries?
I went to Friends World Program (now LIU Global), an experiential college that required international travel, so I had help. At that time, there were seven regional centers around the world, and while I started out with a plan for where I’d go and what I’d do during those four years, I ended up following other student recommendations to those particular places. At eighteen, my notion of a writer’s ideal education was to travel widely, listen to a lot of people, and scribble all the time. I’ve never regretted it.
I imagine this exposure leaves an indelible mark on how one sees the world and thus, how they write, if they are story tellers. Can you tell us how the experience affected you as a writer?
I’m indebted in different ways to different people, and, in a sense, to different cultures. In India, I lost the sense that I’m living in a knowable world. The director of the South Asian Center often said that you couldn’t “know” a single city, let alone an entire Indian state, and that trying to comprehend the subcontinent was futile. Bangalore, for instance, is a city that swallowed up numerous villages as it sprawled, so making any assumption about how things work from one neighborhood to another is patently ridiculous. This informs my worldbuilding to this day — I’m suspicious of any fantasy culture that follows orderly rules and doesn’t contradict itself.
My studies in Bethlehem and Jerusalem taught me everything I know about storytelling as a tool of militarized politics. Watching events become stories, watching those stories go to war even as their tellers do, is something that still frightens and obsesses me.
And spending a good deal of time in Ireland over the years gave me permission to treat language as a playground, to revel in the fun of storytelling. But let’s not lay the blame for my whimsy on any specific Irish citizens. They were generally very nice to me and don’t deserve that responsibility hanging over them.
Can you tell us of a specific experience from that time that sticks in your mind?
The semester I spent at Cholamandal Artist’s Village, near Chennai, India, was one of my favorite times as a writer. I rented an apartment built by an artist who incorporated hundreds of colored glass bottles in the construction. A tower made of green, brown, and clear bottles rose through the ceiling over my bed, and in the mornings the sunlight shone through it. I was surrounded by Indian painters and sculptors engaged in daily creative work, and I woke up jazzed every day. I ended up leaving with a much clearer sense of my own limitations as a writer, mind you, but that’s a gift that pays off down the line.
Now, you have a novel, Dead Boys, coming out on March 10. Can you give us a taste of the premise?
A band of misfit corpses quests across the underworld, searching for the legendary Living Man, whose path may lead them back to Earth. It was envisioned as a coming-of-age story in which all the characters are already dead, and “Gaiman meets The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” is the go-to comparison.
How did this unique story regarding the Land of the Dead come about for you?
I had the idea while drunk in Dublin. We’d just come home from a night out at the largest pub I’ve ever seen, and I had a vision of an even bigger one — an underground pub the size of a football field, packed with rotting corpses who could pull off their limbs to beat one another over the head. I could never get the idea out of my mind, so I tried to concoct a story that might justify it.
What was the writing process like for Dead Boys?
Long! I was twenty-one when I had the idea, and I started and stopped a lot before it really gelled. For a while I considered writing it entirely in sonnets, then broke the whole thing down into a three-act play, at least in shorthand. That was when I saw the way to the end, and from then on, it just took time. I’d write a chapter, then rewrite it over and over again until I could stand it. The finished version of each serial installment was read and reviewed by my wife, my father, and my best friend, each of whom have radically different reading styles, and once they’d passed judgment I felt comfortable continuing with the story. It’s an odd process, but I came to novel-writing with a lot of baggage, and it got me through.
Do you have any favorite books, or any particular influences you’d care to name?
Don Quixote is the big one. China Mieville’s The Scar expanded my notion of what fantasy could do. Anne Carson’s poetry breaks my brain. I’ve re-read Roberto Bolaño’s novels far too often. Samuel Delany is my spirit animal. I can’t account for my literary life without mentioning my early-nineties obsession with Stephen King. I collect editions of Alice in Wonderland. I have recently enjoyed discovering Catherynne Valente. Edward Said’s Orientalism is the book that I’ve dreamed about the most. Between Borges and Burroughs I have severely limited my chances for mainstream sales. Dead Boys was hugely influenced by a short retelling of the Mahabharata by C. Rajagopalachari. I wanted it to read like a longer book condensed in translation by an overenthusiastic narrator. That is a weird thing to want to do.
Any advice for authors on novel writing, or how to bring a completed novel from first draft to the publisher’s desk?
Summon more patience than you actually possess. You’ll probably need it, both for the writing and the publishing.
I don’t believe there are any tricks to writing novels except for putting your ass in the chair. It does get easier, in some ways, after a decade or so, at least in terms of producing a greater number of words in a shorter period of time. The rest remains maddeningly difficult, at least for me, no matter how many times I go through it.
And remember that plenty of authors — including successful ones! — have books they can’t sell.
Your bio also mentioned time spent as a DJ. Some writers listen to music while they write. Care to reveal any secret, motivational playlists? Or even your personal soundtrack to Dead Boys?
Dead Boys was largely written under the influence of Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine, Burial, Flying Lotus, Saint Vincent, Sonic Youth, Tom Waits, and Miles Davis. But the essential album, the one that calls Dead City forth from the first guitar squall, is King Crimson’s Red.
You can listen to Gabriel’s playlist here, on Spotify.