Considered by many to be the one of the most talented horror authors of this generation, Greg F. Gifune has crafted a path of darkness all his own, with some of the best horror fiction for readers of the genre. One of several novels he released in 2016, Savages tells the tale of vacation gone terribly wrong in the South Pacific. A powerful and unrelenting storm… a boat crash on a small uncharted island… the dark secrets that have lasted for decades waiting to be awoken and discovered are brought to morbid and tense life in this book from Sinister Grin Press. We grabbed Greg F. Gifune to talk Savages along with the influence of pulp novels and films as well as the importance of crafting dialogue and relationships.
Jay Kay: Greg, thank you for taking some time to talk with me about Savages. This is well over thirty books that have been put out on Kindle. Each has a distinctive tone, face and darkness reflecting horror storytelling. Before we jump into the human, supernatural and survival horror found in Savages, has the evolution of the Kindle and Nook changed you overall as an author in any step of the process?
Greg F. Gifune: Honestly, no it hasn’t. The way in which a certain work may or may not be delivered to the public via the publishers really has no impact or bearing on my process as an author or the way I approach a project.
Jay Kay: Savages has familiar extreme elements, actions and description that we find in the storytelling through Sinister Grin Press. How was that experience with Sinister Grin Press pertaining to Savages? A seasoned author such as yourself, I have no doubt you continue to learn. Did the total process of Savages teach you anything new about your writing, self or the continuing process of getting a novel out?
GG: The folks at Sinister Grin Press approached me a while back and let me know they’d like to work with me, so we spoke, hammered out a deal, and I got to work. Working with everyone at SG has been great. Everyone there is extremely professional and passionate about the books they publish, and it shows not only in their dealings with authors, but in the final products. Seasoned as I am, I do continue to learn, always. It’s a must for artists. I don’t care how extensive one’s resume is, once you feel you know it all or can’t improve and continue to evolve as an artist, you’re dead in the water. It’s like spending your life climbing a mountain you know you’ll never reach the summit of, because that summit doesn’t exist. The climb, the journey, the process of attempting to get there is where the magic is, where the real power is as an artist. You just have to be willing to see it that way and not only accept it, but embrace it.
As for Savages specifically, I did learn some things writing it, yes. I’d never written anything exactly like it before, so it was a challenge, in that my goal was to do an homage to some of the great pulp novels and drive-in movies of the 1970s (like Shockwaves, for example), and I hope I succeeded in doing just that. Savages is more bare bones and less existentialist than most of my other work, more straightforward, so it was something I wanted to see if I could not only do, but do well, and hopefully I succeeded in that as well. Savages needed to be sleek, like a bullet, and the plot and character development had to keep moving, always being in motion. Like a shark, in this kind of novel, if it stops, it dies, so it helped return me in some ways to my crime writing roots and the James M. Cain school of sleek, bare bones prose that is effective but at times still poetic in its own way. In terms of getting the novel ‘out there’ SG has done a great job of that with their publicity and PR people, primarily through the work of Erin Sweet-Al-Mehairi, who is not only an excellent publicist but one of the smartest and nicest people in this business. A godsend, really, and it’s always a pleasure working with her. Been nothing short of that promoting Savages with her expertise and guidance.
Jay Kay: Savages opens with an incredible trauma that for many is one of several lingering and deep seated fears, travel. We see a ship supposedly crashing into a piece of land that was not mapped. This leads to the idea that this island in the South Pacific was never supposed to be discovered which builds the horror on several levels. With those pillars in place, where did Savages come from and did any personal fears play into the idea a ship crashing instead of plane? Was it difficult to construct that experience of the survivors being thrust into and dealing with a possible watery grave?
GG: Savages was really born from the pulp novels and movies of the 1970s, as I mentioned. I had always wanted to write this novel, and the concept had been in my head for years, but I’d never really had the chance to do it. It never seemed the right time for it, until the deal with SG came through. I felt it would be a good fit for them, so I went ahead with it. It came also from some of my favorite novels, including Lord of the Flies and Deliverance (which I believe is one of the great American novels and one of the great novels period), and other works like that I have always been fascinated by. As a writer, I am of course a student of human behavior and the human condition, and that’s what interested me about this kind of premise. The idea of these people, all their usual safety nets and luxuries stripped away, trapped together in a scenario they could not escape, having to deal not only with each other and the breakdown of their civilized selves, but an outside evil as well. There are also personal fears at play, sure, I think that’s always part of it and Savages is no exception. That fear of the unknown, the fear of survival itself, the breakdown of civilized behavior and the fight, the literal fight for survival. Because that’s ultimately what survival is, a fight. It being a boat rather than a plane was just easier and made more sense to me, but sure, while I’m not the type of person who scares easily at all, I do have personal fears like anyone else, and plane crashes and shipwrecks are on the list. I’ve flown since I was a kid but I’ve never enjoyed it. And although I’ve grown up around water and the ocean and spent most of my life in or around it, I also have a deep fear of it when we’re talking about the vastness of the ocean and a primal fear of the possibility of dying at sea, so those personal fears were part of the process, sure, they’d almost have to be, I think.
Jay Kay: Once the crash happens and we find the survivors on the island, we meet a very diverse group that is connected by their profession and social interactions. Talk to me about that group and how much of your personal life influenced these characters? How much did you want to play with the ideas of denial and reality with the characters overall?
GG: I have a connection in some way to all of my characters in any of my works, it’s just a matter of degree. All the characters in Savages are based on people I’ve known or know, and to some degree, there are aspects of myself in them as well. Most are a compilation of people I’ve known. I know all these people on some level, and I wanted the reader to feel they knew them too. I wanted fully realized human beings, not just caricatures or one-dimensional types, and to get that you need to go deeper into who they are and why they are who they are, because that will tell you who they’re likely to be and become as the story unfolds. That depth also gives layers not only to them, but to the novel, which is important. The whole denial and reality thing is difficult, because it’s human nature to embrace both in times of enormous stress and danger, it all comes down to the individual and which better motivates them. If you know your characters, you know where and how to drop them into these scenes so they’ll react and behave as you intend them to, but also in a way that is seamless, because that’s who they are. That’s the key.
Jay Kay: As we move into the story, we see certain roles established by each member of the group. As part of those alliances and roles, we see the dialogue find a balance of fear, acceptance and survival. We have sarcasm, humor and tension that floats with each sentence for different reasons. How much was the dialogue also reflected in your life and experiences? How much does fear and humor mirror each other as part of communication?
GG: Dialogue is huge for me. I think maybe it’s because I come from an acting and theater background, where you learn the power of language and how it relates to not only the characters but to plot as well. Many of the conversations in Savages are similar to ones I’ve had with people over the years, albeit slightly different or set in different circumstances, the essence of them are real. I think in terms of using humor, you have to be careful, and it also depends what you’re going for. I love comedy, but I don’t care for comedy horror or comedy suspense. I like them to be separate (for the most part) as both a reader and writer or even as a moviegoer. That said, I think humor can be a great tool as long as it’s real and not forced or injected for a cheap laugh. The humor in Savages is natural to the characters who use it, and most of it (at least in this novel) comes from a place of uncertainty or fear, nervousness, that kind of thing, so it fits not only the piece but the characters as well, because you feel that when they use humor this is how a person like that would use humor. This is how you avoid humor being clunky, out of place, or sudden and distracting. It has to be carefully woven into the fabric of the piece and true to those delivering it—the same as fear—or it becomes less about the piece and more a self-indulgent kind of thing, which I try to stay away from. For example, I’ve just finished a crime novel called Dangerous Boys, about young guys in the early 1980s who are low-level criminals trying to find their way through a difficult landscape and teetering between becoming something better or falling forever into that kind of life, and most of the characters are based on guys I used to run with when I was 17, 18, 19 in there. There’s a lot of humor in the book (most of it less than PC), not because it’s a comedy by any stretch of the imagination, it’s a very dark story, but because that’s how these guys talked and dealt with each other and interacted with the world around them. It’s an edgy humor, sometimes a very dark humor, a rarely kind or gentle humor, but a humor that helps in some ways to not only define them, but to protect them as well, and end of the day, it’s true to who they are and how they behave, so it works, it fits. In Savages, the humor is used much the same way. It’s a natural extension of who they are, applied in situations where they’d likely use it.
Jay Kay: The island for me makes me think of the television show Lost. Like the television show, we see details develop as we go deeper into the island and explore. You also explore the island with very lingering and micro description. Was the island originally constructed as part of the planning and pre-write or did it fully become flushed out as you went through each draft?
GG: From the earliest planning stages of Savages, I knew I wanted the island to be small but dense, and I wanted it to essentially act as another character that would slowly show who, or in this case, what it was and what it was hiding. It’s alive and at once beautiful and dangerous, and I wanted to portray it that way. It also appealed to me in the sense that it was almost another planet—or, as one of the characters says, may as well have been—it’s so foreign to the people shipwrecked there. And that’s important because it adds to the isolation and feeling of being so far from home and anything they know or recognize or can take comfort in. Even the beauty is treacherous, so nothing can really be trusted. As one draft became the next, the island continued to deepen and sharpen and I continued to hone it best I could. Hopefully the end result reflects what I was going for,
Jay Kay: What was your favorite aspect of the island in Savages? What was the thinking with the island detail and effect during the daytime versus the night?
GG: Probably the unknown aspects, the mystery of it, at least initially and for a while, and the way it acts almost like another character unto itself. The detail and night versus daylight angles again had to do with fleshing the island out in a sense, fully revealing without giving away all its secrets just how dangerous and unknown this place was. I wanted it to be frightening at night for all the primal reasons darkness is frightening to human beings, but also to be frightening in the light of day as well, in the beautiful sunshine, so that the level of danger and fear never truly lessened, but rather continued day and night, getting worse with the passing of each sunrise and sunset, as the truth of what they are dealing with (beyond themselves) begins to emerge.
Jay Kay: As we move deeper into the story and island, we realize that there is something truly terrible, insidious that has happened during a very violent and horrible time in our worlds history. War can change people, transform people and bring out worst as well as best in them. How much research did you do looking at the idea of torture, testing and occult during the war time?
GG: Enormous amounts, and it’s something I’ve researched a great deal prior to this novel. The whole occult/torture theme appears within war and outside war in some other works of mine, and I (unfortunately) am aware of it and know quite a bit about it on several different levels.
Jay Kay: These terrible events we come to learn are connected to a juggernaut monster. He is a hunter, a predator and something supernatural, where did this monster come from and when writing it, did you pull from any of your other works?
GG: It’s difficult to answer this without giving a lot away, but I can say the being came from research and the stories of human versions of this happening on islands in the past. Once that concept was coupled with the occult aspects, I knew I had something. This being has not appeared in any of my other works, no. Not even in part. The things that make him possible have, but this juggernaut, as you rightly call him, is unique to Savages.
Jay Kay: The line “The longer we’re stuck here, Dal, the less human we’re going to get,” is terrifying. Survival horror is terrifying because we see characters we connect to and come to endear turn out to possibly be the worst and most truthful versions of themselves. We see this with several characters’ in very tragic and disturbing ways. Talk about this theme of finding the character’s true selves in Savages and why survivalist horror is so effective and connecting?
GG: I think the answers to this can be found in my answers to previous questions about character and truth. That line is born from reality. Once people are taken from their safety zones and thrust into a world where none of the rules or basic elements of ‘civilized’ behavior apply, they do become less human in a sense, or at an absolute minimum are vulnerable to becoming so. The act of survival is violent and fairly horrific. Nature can be beautiful but also brutal. It’s both. So is survival. It can and will bring out the best in people at times, and also the worst. The entire process fascinates me, and that’s what I was most interested in while writing Savages.
Jay Kay: Talk with me about how each character faced trauma? We see it in different ways to cope, express and deal with it. Which character was the hardest for you to see go through all these traumatic events?
GG: I’d have to say it was difficult for me that they all had to go through these things. Some characters you feel for more than others, but when you’ve created them and know them inside and out (and in a much deeper way than is ever expressed on the page), you know the good and bad in them, you understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, or not doing. It’s hard knowing these people will be dropped into a meat grinder, essentially. I can’t say which character was hardest without giving away too much, so I won’t use names. But there is one character, who is sort of the moral center of the group, that I had the hardest time putting through the ringer.
Jay Kay: The overall theme that is realized and established is that there will be no rescue or recovery for multiple reasons. Does this overall heavy conclusion affect you as author of this world?
GG: Absolutely. As the cover states, there is no escape. And even if there eventually might be, it won’t be what they’re hoping for really. There is a bleak nature to it, I guess, but I wouldn’t say it’s totally hopeless (and without giving away too much, there is a rescue, of sorts, at the end). But this is also the power of the piece for me. It’s a trade.
Jay Kay: Every character in Savages is well crafted and evolving. However, the trio of the survivalist Gino and the couple of Dallas and Quinn especially are the pillars of this story. Can you talk about these three characters in regards to dealing with their lives before the crash and after as well as their evolution in the pages? With Quinn, what was that experience like to construct empowering female characters?
GG: In terms of Quinn, it wasn’t difficult. Most of my work features strong characters, male and female. I don’t write wilting female characters who sit around crying and waiting to be rescued. My female characters tend to be just as tough, if not tougher, than their male counterparts, and Quinn is certainly no exception. My characters tend to be deeply damaged and flawed—sometimes even virtually destroyed emotionally—but rarely weak. The challenge in writing Quinn specifically was to balance her heroism and physicality with her intelligence and humanity while not losing her vulnerability or femininity. She’s tougher and smarter than anyone else there, and that’s not in spite of her being female, but rather precisely because she’s female—it’s born from her femininity—and that’s exactly how I wrote her. Her actions, her toughness and power were natural parts of who she is as a human being, so again, knowing the character, all I had to do was be true to her and who she was. With Dallas, it was much the same, but from the other side of the coin. Dallas is sensitive and smart and less physically tough than his wife Quinn, but doesn’t lose his masculinity or any of his vulnerability as a man either, because this is who he is, the man he is. Gino. Well, Gino is what he is. He’s a guy who sees the world and people in it as a challenge, a game in a sense, and he plans to win and be in charge and lead the pack, so to speak. He’s the alpha male, whether he should be or not, and while he talks the talk, he also does walk the walk for the most part, and he, simply by virtue of his training and previous experiences, is the best equipped (at least initially) to lead and to help the group survive. He’s an Italian guy with a chip on his shoulder (something I’m familiar with being one myself), and while I’m very different and nothing like Gino really beyond that, we do share certain things. The difference is Gino has a coldness to him, a cruelty he views as necessary. It’s not about right or wrong for him, it’s about results, and the result he wants on this island is to live and to make sure his friends live too. The evolution of these characters and how these traits all come into play was what was most interesting to me, as they both help define who these people are and keep the story rocketing ahead and toward its deadly conclusion. In terms of the before and after aspect, all the characters are the same after the crash as they were before, the situation simply reveals them. As things get worse, it is revealed more and more, through circumstance and necessity, who they really are, who they’ve always been. It’s just that they’ve been in different situations, ones that didn’t necessarily require the same level of self-exposure. And that’s really how it goes down on the island. These people are (eventually) fully revealed, not only to the reader, but to themselves as well.
Jay Kay: How much did being a senior editor at DarkFuse Publishing reflect the process of your works including Savages?
GG: To some degree, my experience as an editor always helps and influences my work as a writer. It helps in knowing how to do things correctly from a technical aspect and also helps in breaking things down to the bone, where they need to be, so you can build out from there. But listen, every writer, I don’t care how good you are or think you are or others think you are, benefits from a good editor. And editing one’s own work, while a skill unto itself (and it really is), only goes so far. Someone in my position can edit my own work to a much greater degree than someone without my experience, sure, but that doesn’t mean I also don’t benefit from a superior editor, because it’s much like a doctor treating their own child. It only works until you reach the point where you can no longer be objective. That’s when a good editor can be invaluable. With Savages, I turned in a pretty clean manuscript (which I have always prided myself in doing over the years), so generally, my manuscripts tend to need less editing than some, but we can all benefit from a strong editor. The key is to work with good ones. Just like there are a lot of people out there calling themselves writers who have no business doing so, there are just as many calling themselves editors who have no idea what they’re doing. Any good house, even smaller or independent ones, have editors on staff who are professionals, but if you need help prior to that point, do your research and find a pro, someone who knows what they’re doing and understands what an editor is. Quick hint, it’s more than copy editing, more than someone who simply catches your typos and grammar mistakes. But for me, yes, I find that experience very helpful as a writer, and continues to be.
Jay Kay: What is next for you and where can we find out more about you?
GG: I have several upcoming projects, including some new novels and novellas coming in 2017, and also First Impressions, another of my short stories, is being filmed right now, directed by the amazing Eric Shapiro (who directed the film version of my short story Hoax this year), for the DarkFuse Presents series. Lots of exciting things happening I can’t talk about publicly yet but stay tuned. The best way to find out more about me or keep track of what’s happening is to check me out on Facebook and Twitter. My official website (gregfgifune.com) is being redone and is down right now, so social media is the best way to find me.
Jay Kay: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Greg!