Interview with Richard E. Gropp, Author, ‘Bad Glass’


Richard E. Gropp was the winner of our Unbound Worlds writing contest, and we’re proud to announce that his first published novel, Bad Glass, will be released this week:

Something has happened in Spokane. The military has evacuated the city and locked it down. Even so, disturbing rumors and images seep out, finding their way onto the Internet, spreading curiosity, skepticism, and panic. For what they show is—or should be—impossible: strange creatures that cannot exist, sudden disappearances that violate the laws of physics, human bodies fused with inanimate objects, trapped yet still half alive. . . .

Dean Walker, an aspiring photographer, sneaks into the quarantined city in search of fame. What he finds will change him in unimaginable ways. Hooking up with a group of outcasts led by a beautiful young woman named Taylor, Dean embarks on a journey into the heart of a mystery whose philosophical implications are as terrifying as its physical manifestations. Even as he falls in love with Taylor—a woman as damaged and seductive as the city itself—his already tenuous hold on reality starts to come loose. Or perhaps it is Spokane’s grip on the world that is coming undone.

Now, caught up in a web of interlacing secrets and betrayals, Dean, Taylor, and their friends must make their way through this ever-shifting maze of a city, a city that is actively hunting them down, herding them toward a shocking destiny.

Gropp and I recently spoke about the art of writing, influences and more. Read our Q & A below:

You studied literature and psychology in college. While it is obvious how literary aspect of your education would prepare you for the life of a novelist, I was wondering if the psychology aspect did as well. Did it? If so, how?

I think studying psychology has helped me a great deal. Very early in my college career, I lucked into an entry-level science fiction class taught by Pat Murphy and Richard Kadrey. Up until then, I’d been considering dropping out of the psychology-side of my studies, and instead concentrating exclusively on creative writing. But in this class Pat Murphy talked about how it was all well and good to study writing and get better at your prose, but if that’s all you’re concentrating on, then when you finally sit down to write, you’re not going to be qualified to write about much. And maybe that’s why all of the serious MFAs, writing their serious novels, are writing about melancholy novelists trying to write melancholy novels. Because they don’t have any other passions in life, because they didn’t delve deeply into any other subjects. So I decided to concentrate more on psychology (my second love) and ended up taking very few creative writing courses.

I think the psychology side of my education helps me delve deeper into character motivation, perhaps creating characters who seem more multi-faceted, more alive on the page (at least, that’s what I’m hoping for). In the future, I’d actually like to focus even more on the psychological aspects of my fiction … perhaps make that the “science” in my “science fiction.” I think you actually see this quite a bit in cyberpunk – taking these internalized, personal spaces, and simulating them electronically, making them solid and letting a character’s psychological makeup alter the physical landscape. (Hmmmm … I’m getting ideas now, perhaps I should save this for a future book.)

How long have you been writing? This is your first published novel, but I’m guessing that this isn’t your “first’ novel—or is it? Are there any other unpublished works on your hard drive or in a drawer somewhere?

Bad Glass is my first published novel, but, yeah, I’ve got a hard drive full of cyberpunk and noir and horror stories. I wrote my first novel – a dystopian SF tale – when I was 16, and I kept pounding away at the long fiction all through my college years. After I graduated, however, I kind of lost my way. I entered the work force and put my writing on hold for about a decade, as I tried my hand at more practical careers. But I always wanted to be a writer, and I just couldn’t summon passion for anything else. Eventually, I realized that it was getting pretty late in the day, and if I wanted to be a writer – if that’s the only thing I had a passion for – I needed to try my hardest to make it happen. So I started writing again, and I submitted my fiction everywhere I could… But, yeah, I think I’ve got 5 unpublished novels on my hard drive. And fragments of a hell of a lot more.

When did you become aware of the Unbound Worlds contest? How did you find out you had won? What did you feel when you found out?

I learned about the Unbound Worlds contest on a forum for a different writing competition. I had a pretty polished first draft of Bad Glass at the time, and I genuinely felt like it was the best thing I’d ever written – better by leaps and bounds! – but it still had some rough edges, and I was planning on giving it another pass before sending it out to agents… But this was Del Rey! And I didn’t have to pay an entry fees! And the deadline was drawing near! So I sent it out and crossed my fingers. Luckily, after I won, my editors gave me plenty of time to polish up my prose (with incredible guidance from Editor-in-Chief Betsy Mitchell and David Pomerico).

Finding out I had won was perhaps the most surreal experience in my life. For an unpublished writer, getting a phone call and seeing the words “Random House” displayed on your caller ID … I think I was immediately ejected from my body, suddenly staring down at myself from the ceiling. Betsy Mitchell introduced herself and told me that I’d won the contest – the prize was a complete edit from her and $200 worth of Del Rey books. I think my response at the time was something incoherent, like “Buh?” And then she dropped the real bombshell: Del Rey liked the story so much that they wanted to publish it. I think I was pretty much incoherent for the rest of that phone call, and I’m sure Betsy suddenly had doubts about my abilities as a writer. But, luckily, they didn’t back down, and I was left bouncing around the house for the rest of the week.

What is Bad Glass about? What does the title refer to?

Bad Glass is about an aspiring photographer who sneaks into a quarantined city in order to document the strange happenings that have been rumored to be going on there. The government has locked down the borders and refuses to say why, so Dean – my main character – figures he can establish a name for himself as a photojournalist if he’s able to discover the truth of the much-rumored situation. Of course, as soon as he gets into the city he finds himself in way over his head; he’s beset by grotesque bodies merged with solid objects, creepy spiders, disappearing people, and a general breakdown in the laws of physics. He hooks up with a group of young holdouts – including an enigmatic young woman named Taylor – and they fight to survive and retain their sanity while delving deeper into the labyrinthine city.

“Bad Glass” is actually a photography term. Good glass would be a sharp and fast camera lens that provides clear, pristine images; bad glass, on the other hand, would be a flawed lens, something that distorts the picture you’re trying to get, maybe giving it a subtle warp, an inexplicable darkness, or a fuzziness that just doesn’t scan. In writing this story, it became clear to me that Spokane – my quarantined city – was, in itself, “bad glass.” Everything seen inside its border is warped and wrong and destructive, tainted by the apocalypse.

There are some of the elements of the plot that sound like they would make an awesome sci fi/horror film. I was wondering if there are any movies that influenced your writing. Were there?

Just an aside: If there are any interested film or TV producers out there, give me a holler! I’m thinking a nice, long, expensive episodic drama – think HBO or AMC!

Now that the pimping is done… I love films with inexplicable horrors, things that are terrifying and you don’t quite know why. The work of David Lynch, the creepy body-horror of David Cronenberg. I love the film Jacob’s Ladder, and the stomach-gnawing tension of Alien. And really, I’m sold on anything that appeals to my sense of awe and wonder and mystery (I’m a great fan of Lost, and the way the writers and producers were able to constantly pull the rug out from under my feet and re-invent the rules, while never falling back on step-by-step explanations).

Are you a big sci fi/fantasy reader? What are some of your favorite books? Also, now that you’re a DelRey author, are there any authors that you’re especially excited about sharing a publishing imprint with?

I grew up on SF/F, and I still read genre work fairly exclusively. Stephen King’s always been an idol of mine, with The Stand and The Gunslinger being frequent re-reads. Dan Simmon’s Hyperion Cantos and Carrion Comforts. Everything by Philip K. Dick. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series and The Left Hand of Darkness. Those were all big for me. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren absolutely blew my mind (and fans of that book will see echoes on pretty much every page of Bad Glass). I’m also a fan of hardboiled detective fiction. Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is probably one of my three favorite novels. As is Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. And the work of Caitlín R. Kiernan is a huge influence on me right now – there’s such a sense of wonder and dark honesty in her fiction.

As for Del Rey authors, you can’t get much bigger that Terry Brooks and China Miéville. It still seems weird to consider my name in the same paragraph as those guys, much less working with the same publisher. (Oh, and Richard K. Morgan. He’s pretty freaking good.)

You’ve had a lot of interesting jobs. Have you learned anything from them that helped you as a writer?

Probably the biggest lesson I learned from working retail, driving a forklift, and being an accountant is the fact that I don’t want to work retail, drive a forklift, or be an accountant. I want to write. And those other jobs just lit a fire under my ass.

Do you have any advice for other struggling novelists?

Finish stories, enter contests, and submit, submit, submit! For the longest time I was afraid to send my work out into the world, for fear of rejection, but really, nothing’s ever going to happen for you if you don’t let people read your work. (And honestly, some of the best editorial suggestions I’ve ever received have come in the form of rejection letters.)