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Interview: March 11, 2005

March 11, 2005's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) interviewed Kevin Guilfoile, author of CAST OF SHADOWS. Guilfoile talks about the cloning and retribution plotlines in his debut novel, as well as his characters, the integral role that gaming plays in the story's development, and the authors who have most influenced his writing. CAST OF SHADOWS has so many well-developed plotlines that each enhances the book. When you were writing, which storyline came to you first? Cloning? Gaming? The anti-abortionist/cloner? Retribution for a child's murder?

Kevin Guilfoile: A few years ago I was watching either CNN or Court TV. Christopher Darden, one of the OJ Simpson prosecutors, was talking, not about OJ but some other case. I thought to myself, wouldn't it be darkly funny if Chris Darden had been able to clone Nicole Simpson's killer and held a press conference where he brought out this 13-year-old kid and said, "Does this look like anybody to you?" I wrote that down --- almost as a humor premise --- and it evolved into an idea for a novel over the next few weeks. Many of the other storylines were created for practical reasons: Mickey's character allowed me to demonstrate the political climate in the book in a way that was more exciting than long paragraphs of exposition; I initially conceived of the video game Shadow World as a way to mark time as the story progressed.

BRC: On a related note, we were impressed with the novel's meticulous plotting. When you first began working on CAST OF SHADOWS, did you have a clear idea where you were going with it, or did the plot come gradually to you as you wrote?

KG: I had a pretty detailed outline in place before I started --- maybe twenty pages --- but you don't really get to know your characters until after you start writing. And what I found out was that some of these characters just wouldn't do what I had planned for them to do. So your choice is to either force them into this story or have them act in a more consistent way. And then you have to rethink the consequences of each of those actions and that will take the plot in a different direction. So the second half of the book in particular is quite a bit different from my original outline. At one point I actually threw out about six months work.

BRC: CAST OF SHADOWS tackles many controversial issues regarding ethics in the medical and scientific community. When we think of cloning, we don't think of it being used, as Davis Moore does, to solve his daughter's murder. As you wrote the book, did you contemplate how readers would respond to the ethical issues posed in the book?

KG: There's an epigraph at the start of CAST OF SHADOWS taken from Mary Shelley's introduction to FRANKENSTEIN in which she warns readers not to assume too much about Shelley's views from their own interpretation of the book. I don't imagine CAST OF SHADOWS will change anyone's mind about, say, stem-cell research, but no matter how they feel about that issue (or others confronted in the story), if the book causes them to consider their opinion more thoughtfully, then that would certainly make me happy. Nevertheless, the opinions expressed in the book are those of the characters and aren't necessarily my own. Ultimately these controversial issues are in the book to create tension, not because I believe I have a lot of wise things to say about them.

BRC: None of the characters in CAST OF SHADOWS was entirely sympathetic. Everyone, from Davis Moore to Sally Barwick, was tainted in some manner. The only one who really seemed to rise above himself was Justin Finn, who was more of a victim than anyone else. Did you originally plan your characters to all be flawed in varying degrees, or did this evolve as your story unfolded?

KG: I think most of the characters in the story want to be good, but frequently aren't because of selfishness or greed or anger or simply because they don't have all the facts. I think that's the way most people are in life --- both people we love and people we dislike. Mickey, the clone clinic terrorist, is quite evil, of course, but he's also able to defend his actions, or at least rationalize them in his own mind. He's probably a sociopath, but he doesn't see himself that way --- he thinks he is doing good by committing evil. Many people who read the book ask me who I think the hero is, and I love hearing that question because I think there's more than one legitimate answer. I hope each reader will decide that for himself or herself (I have my own thoughts, but saying more would probably reveal too much about the story.)

BRC: You very subtly explore the issue of "nature vs. nurture" in CAST OF SHADOWS. Do you believe that an individual's die is cast genetically from birth, as Justin seems to suggest? Or do you believe in the concept of free will, which, ironically enough, Justin also demonstrates in CAST OF SHADOWS?

KG: I guess I'm an existentialist at heart. I think the self is constructed of the choices we make. Davis has the ability to make choices (he makes a big one at the start of the book) but eventually he allows Justin to make choices for him --- perhaps because that is easier or maybe because it's a way of abdicating responsibility for his actions. Because Justin believes in predetermination, their combined fate, in a way, becomes predetermined. Although I believe free will exists, like Davis I think many of us choose not to exercise it. We let other people and circumstances determine our fate for us. On the other hand, the book ends with one character making a clear choice and it's up to the reader to decide whether it was right or wrong.

BRC: Do you have a background in the sciences discussed in CAST OF SHADOWS? Or a background in criminal investigation? How did you conduct research for the book?

KG: I was an American studies major in college and my professional background is advertising and media relations. Even so, I did as little research as I could get away with. I looked a few things up in books and on the Internet. I had the manuscript vetted by a doctor and a Chicago cop, mostly to make sure I got lingo and terminology right. But I didn't want the story to get bogged down in the technical aspects of cloning or multi-player video games or whatever. I wanted to explain enough that you would accept, for instance, that human cloning was possible in the universe of the book, but then I wanted to move on very quickly to the consequences of that reality. I think the story goes from Davis's decision to clone AK's killer immediately to Justin's birth. I was interested much more in that decision and its consequences than I was in the lab work.

BRC: CAST OF SHADOWS explores issues that were originally raised by writers such as Robert Heinlein, Aldous Huxley, Frederik Pohl and Theodore Sturgeon in the first half of the 20th century; you arguably continue the work that they left undone. Were you influenced by any of these authors? And what other authors, if any, influenced you in CAST OF SHADOWS?

KG: I was a big fan of Heinlein and Huxley and Pohl when I was younger. Also Ray Bradbury, who I would still rank in my top ten. My favorite writer is probably Walker Percy (who dabbled a little bit in speculative fiction with LOVE IN THE RUINS and THE THANATOS SYNDROME) and his influence is certainly present in the existential tangents touched on throughout the story. The writer who probably most influenced this book might be Ira Levin, and not just because of the Hitler clones in THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. I'm not sure if anyone reads Levin much anymore because his books have been made (and sometimes remade) into such popular movies, but he had this incredible, matter-of-fact style. He presented his novels without judgment or hysterics and he let the reader bring their own horror and outrage and humanity to the experience. I think that is such a powerful way to tell a story and I hope I was able to achieve something modestly similar.

BRC: CAST OF SHADOWS literally has "something for everyone." Readers of literary fiction, thrillers and even science fiction should find the book appealing. It has a blend of genres including suspense/thriller and a touch of science fiction. Are these genres that you read often? Which authors have inspired you both as a reader and writer?

KG: First of all, thank you for that compliment. I have a really eclectic reading list, but basically I'm drawn to good stories. I think a lot of good writers are afraid of stories for some reason and that's such a shame because storytelling and myth-making are so central to being human. To tell stories and to hear them told is one of the most basic needs we have. (Or maybe it isn't but I just think so because I'm Irish.) So as a reader I rarely think about books in terms of genre --- I never think, I will like this because it's a mystery and I like mysteries ---although I'm not afraid of being labeled as a genre writer either. I think you have an opportunity to surprise people in genre because the expectations are so rigid. I love it when an author can write something that feels familiar enough to let the reader in and make him comfortable, but then explodes the cliches and expectations on the page. Elmore Leonard and Larry McMurtry and Margaret Atwood and James Ellroy --- I would never compare CAST OF SHADOWS to their books, but I so admire how those writers are able to transcend the expectations of their genres without abandoning the thrill of a good story.

BRC: Gaming plays an important role in CAST OF SHADOWS. Are you a fan of online games or other "traditional" video games yourself? We are not fans of gaming, or role-playing, but we were fascinated by the Shadow World game that provided the important backdrop to CAST OF SHADOWS.

KG: I have a one-year-old son so my gaming days are behind me (although I hope they return in about six years). I think I had a ColecoVision when I was a kid, and there is probably a Sega Genesis in the attic from my college days. I actually brought Shadow World into the story for logistical reasons. The story begins in either the near future or in some alternate present and takes place over twenty years. But I wanted the beginning and the end of the book to feel much like today. I didn't want to try to predict what the future was like and have to explain to the reader how Lindsay Lohan is president and we all drive flying cars and whatnot. But I wanted the reader to feel like time was passing somehow. So I had this idea to introduce a computer game halfway through the story and the game would get more sophisticated as the years went by as a way of marking time. But I quickly realized how useful Shadow World could be both to the plot and as a metaphor. Most of the characters have some sort of double in the story (and many characters have more than one). The idea that people were creating characters just like themselves and living a duplicate life in the game --- in effect cloning themselves --- became very important to the story. I wish I could say I had that planned from the beginning.

BRC: Have you thought of taking your concept of Shadow World to a gaming developer?

KG: No no. I'll be very happy if they just keep asking me to write more novels.

BRC: Has there been talk of adapting CAST OF SHADOWS for film or television?

KG: I suppose there has been talk. I worked in advertising for eleven years where I wrote and produced dozens and dozens of television commercials. As a result, I have just enough experience with film production to know I don't want anything more to do with it. Basically I told my agent to call me when it's over. They might already be rolling film before I even hear about it.

BRC: You're primarily known for writing essays for print and online magazines. Did you find the experience of painting on a broader canvas to be a liberating one? What did you like the most about it? Was there anything you did not like about it?

KG: I started writing my first (horrible, horrible unpublished) novel just because I wanted an ongoing project, something I could work on every day when I didn't have an idea for a short humor piece. I didn't really expect to finish it but when I did it gave me confidence that I could do it again. Only readable this time. Writing CAST OF SHADOWS I was very much conscious of how the reader would encounter it, which is different from everything else I've written. I thought a lot about what the reader would probably know about the story before she picked up the book, and what her expectations would be as she read. In the very early stages, even before the outline, I considered telling the story from the point of view of Justin's mother and making the fact that he's a clone a twist late in the story. But I realized quickly that the book would be just about impossible to talk about: "Um, it's about a boy with a secret, but it's not really his secret, it's somebody else's secret I can't tell you about without ruining everything, but it's a really good secret so you should just read it..."

Stories and essays exist in a vacuum. People find them and read them without any prior knowledge. But a reader knows a lot about a novel before he commits to reading it and the novelist needs to be mindful of that when he's writing. I once heard Phillip Roth say that writing a novel was all about problem solving and I think that's exactly right, both internally in terms of the conflict confronted by the characters, and externally in terms of the structure. How much do you reveal to the reader? When do you reveal it? How do you reveal it? Figuring that out is lots of fun. The only thing I don't like about writing a novel are the days when the problems aren't getting solved. Unfortunately, those are many.

BRC: What can you tell us about your current work(s) in progress, and when can readers expect to see it?

KG: Well I haven't been very successful yet at boiling it down to a short premise. I guess you could say that it's about a spooky secret society --- something like Skull and Bones --- in a time, the information age, when it's becoming difficult to keep secrets. It's also about religion and math. Wait, math sounds lame. Let's stick with "spooky secret society." Of course, remember with CAST OF SHADOWS I threw out six months of work at some point so don't be mad if it ends up being a farcical coming-of-age story set at a teenage fat camp.