A best-selling author in the genre with work ranging from numerous styles over his career, Craig DiLouie is a talented and prolific author with numerous credits to his name. Now, to honor the release of his upcoming novel "Episode Thirteen," I speak with him about his start in the genre, his general writing style, and the book itself.
Me: Hello and thank you for taking the time to do this. First off, when did you get into horror in general?
Craig DiLouie: Thanks for having me as a guest!
How I got into horror is a classic case of one thing leading to another. Back in the nineties, I was writing science fiction and ended up drawn to writing a zombie novel, which did so well I ended up writing more. This landed me an agent, which led to the publication of my first horror novel, Suffer the Children, with Gallery Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
From there, I started working with the Orbit imprint at Hachette, a terrific relationship that resulted in their publishing four novels and another soon-to-be-announced. Getting ahead in publishing is about being at the right place at the right time with the right book, which boils down to a lot of hard work and terrific luck. That I’ve come this far is both gratifying and humbling.
Me: Were you into genre films growing up? What films specifically got you into watching horror movies?
CDL: I grew up in the creepy “don’t open the basement door” era of the seventies and the slasher era of the eighties. They were fun for me as a kid, but I’m much more into modern horror films. Many are smart, innovative, and evoke a sense of wonder as well as scares.
Me: Who were some of your favorite writers growing up? Do you try to take influences from their style with your own voice in your work?
CDL: Aside from Star Wars, my first fan experience was reading Robert E. Howard. I hunted down and read every single word he wrote. As a teen growing up on a farm outside a small town, I lived a life of deep imagination and yearning for something bigger. Howard is pretty over the top and some of his themes haven’t aged well, as he wrote during the pulp era, but back in the eighties I loved it. It made me want to create these worlds as a writer and run around in them as a reader. For me, writing felt like playing Dungeons and Dragons but on a much larger, more permanent scale. I read a ton of Heavy Metal and Epic, which were mind-blowing.
So yeah, Howard was probably my first big influence. Colson Whitehead once said something along the lines of you read and read and read to find out what kind of writer you want to be, and then you write and write and write to find out what kind of writer you are. My first handwritten epics were basically me trying to be Howard. Over time, I developed my own voice and kept leveling up through dedication. Today, though, I’m still a big reader, and I’m always learning from other authors whether it’s in their writing or at cons. Nietzsche said one sentence can change your whole world, and I’m always on the lookout for that one thing—even a seemingly tiny takeaway—that can level up my writing.
Me: What was the starting point of becoming a writer? Were you always into writing growing up?
CDL: When I was nine years old, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I loved how books made me feel and wanted to be the creator exploring and sharing his imagination with others.
Me: What is your writing process? How do you stay focused on writing?
CDL: For me, writing is always primarily a labor of love even when there’s money involved, as it’s so emotionally demanding and requires so many hours. Often, a novel will start with an idea, which I try to boil down into a high concept pitch of one or two sentences and internalize. After that, I start sketching out the theme, the basic plot points with a keen eye on the ending, and the major players and their character arcs, which serve as a basic blueprint. All the while, I start researching the background. For example, my latest novel, Episode Thirteen, is about a ghost-hunting reality TV show. This led me down more than one rabbit hole learning about ghost hunting, how reality TV shows work, and the science of the paranormal—information I integrated into the characters and their world.
After all this planning and researching comes the hard part, writing that first sentence, one that hooks the reader and spells out the theme in some way. Once things break, the floodgates open, and I go on a manic tear and have a first draft finished in say six weeks. As I work at home with a job that is flexible, I can make time for all this as I need it. From the outside, this part is not very exciting. Basically, it’s me sitting in utter stillness and silence for countless hours, though all hell is breaking loose in my head.
Me: How did you settle on the plot for "Episode Thirteen?"
CDL: I’d always loved the idea of a “house within a house,” which can be creepy, provides a mystery to explore and conveys that titillating sense the world is not what it seems. Think His House, Relic, House of Leaves, Angel of Darkness, The Night House, and so on. While hashing that out with my editor, who is a big fan of found-footage horror films, I couldn’t come up with a story that hooked him. This happens, sometimes, as a writer, you come up with a great situation but can’t make it a great story.
Then something sparked and I proposed a found-footage novel about a reality TV show ghost-hunting crew that gets way more than they bargained for while investigating a notorious haunted house. The story is the mixed media they left behind. The editor loved it, and that was that. But not really, as I had to actually write it, and I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into trying to do an epistolary novel, something I’d never done before.
To do it right, I wanted to play to the format’s strengths and mitigate its weaknesses. I wanted short chapters with a lot of variety of media to keep things titillating and moving forward at a brisk pace. Every time you finish a chapter, there’s something intriguing in the next to keep you turning pages. At the same time, I didn’t want the reader to be purely a voyeur but a participant in the story, which meant I needed depth and a way to empathize with the character. For that, I had the characters keep journals of what they saw and felt in the house, which was part of their job. So alongside video transcripts, emails, and the like, we see them express everything they’re feeling.
The result for me was quite beautiful. I absolutely loved writing this, and I think the result is engaging, different, and immersive for readers.
Me: Was there any special significance to making the characters leads on a ghost-hunting show?
CDL: Absolutely. I wanted to get a group of people in a haunted house with cameras and an interest in provoking the paranormal. A ghost-hunting reality TV show was the perfect fit. Think Ghost Hunters, Ghost Nation, Paranormal Lockdown, or any number of other shows like them. They go into haunted houses with various techniques and gadgets to try to capture evidence of the supernatural. For me as the writer, this couldn’t be more fun. A haunted house with its own weird backstory, ghost hunting, reality TV, people pushed to the edge in their pursuit of something dangerous and possibly unknowable, with the whole thing feeling real and coming together like a jigsaw puzzle revealing a dark picture.
To distinguish my show, Fade to Black, I had the two lead investigators be a husband-and-wife team who are kind of like a real-life Mulder and Scully from The X-Files. Matt’s a true believer who had an imaginary friend as a child who turned out to be something else, and Claire is a born skeptic who has a PhD in physics. Their emotional connection and intellectual conflict are part of the interpersonal drama that makes the show and the novel compelling. Everyone here has a different take on the supernatural, a different reason to be here, a different breaking point.
Me: Was there any part of your real self injected into the characters?
CDL: All of my characters are me, and none of my characters are me. It’s kind of like acting where you inhabit another person and interpret them as a performance. That unlikely Zen thing you hear from some writers about characters calling their own shots is actually absolutely true. If you really know your characters, they take on a life of their own and will say and do what they want, and they start driving the story.
Me: Due to the structure of the book, did that provide an extra hindrance while writing it?
CDL: The epistolary approach was challenging for me writing the first act in that I wanted to let the format breathe and do its thing, but I wanted to hook the reader into a narrative that was under propulsion. This was a balancing act until the two come together as the story hit its stride.
Me: Once it was finally written, what was the process for having it published?
CDL: I’m very lucky to have an established relationship with Hachette, so for me, it was a matter of getting the editor on board with the concept, outline, and sample pages. This led to a contract and me writing it, with multiple editing cycles. Because big publishing is very slow, you gain an advantage in spending time away from your story and then returning to it, which delivers multiple chances at giving it a fresh eye. Again, I’m very lucky to work with that editor and his company, both of whom are simply fantastic. Overall, I do not miss the days of sending out mass batches of pitches to agents and publishers.
Me: How has your writing style evolved compared from your first works to now?
CDL: Well, like I said, in my first stories, I was trying to be someone I admired as I hadn’t discovered my own voice yet. Over time, it evolved to a point where I’d say my books have what I’d call signature elements but overall are each distinctive. While with some authors, you can pick up a book without knowing the author and figure out who wrote it, I don’t think that would be the case for me. For me, every story is different and needs a different voice, tone, style, and so on. This varies by character as well, especially if we’re in a deep point of view where the narration is put through that filter. I don’t know if that benefits me as an author brand, but I do believe it benefits each novel I write, and for me, the story is all-important.
Me: How do you keep your creative energy flowing?
CDL: I love the writing process and can’t imagine ever not doing it.
Me: Lastly, what else are you working on that you'd like to share with our readers?
CDL: Right now, I’m deep into a new horror novel for Hachette, which will likely come out in 2024.
Me: Thank you again for your time!
CDL: Thanks again for having me as a guest!
To follow his work online, check out his official website: