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Author Interview: Justin Gustainis

To the rejoicing of your fans (this one, certainly!), your new Morris and Chastain novel is now available – and our heroes take on a demon-possessed candidate for United States President. Did the story germinate in the obvious ways (“The President is a Creature from Hell” being a frequent reaction of innocent bystanders during the W. years), or were you trying to dig a little deeper?

The plot came about in an unusual way. The book, under the name The Gehenna Candidate, was going to be the sequel to my very first novel, The Hades Project, published in 2003. That one is about a scientific experiment that goes awry and accidentally opens a gateway to Hell – just for a nanosecond. But that was long enough for the demon Asmodeus (known in some medieval circles as “Lord of Lechery and Prince of Corruption”) to cross over to our plane. But since demons, like angels, are pure spirits, they need a human body in order to do anything on this side. So Asmodeus takes over the body of the closest member of the scientific team, and begins an orgy of rape and slaughter that starts in the lab and then spreads along the East coast. To make a long story short (literally), Asmodeus is eventually bested by my hero, Mike Pacilio, and his friends and sent back to Hell. The next book was supposed to be Asmodeus’s chance to say “I’m baaaack!”

However, by the time I’d written about a third of it, the thought occurred to me that sales of The Hades Project hadn’t exactly been in Stephen King country, and that a sequel to a book that didn’t sell well didn’t make any sense. So I put it aside and eventually started work on Black Magic Woman.

Eventually, it was time for the third Morris and Chastain book, and the publisher understandably wanted a synopsis – and I didn’t have one. Not even an idea. Then one day, the idea of adapting the plot of the abortive sequel to Hades hit me in an instant of total gestalt. I even had the title. The rest, as they say, is history. Or literature. Or something.

The first thing that possessing demon does to your candidate, Howard Stark, is amp up his telegenic charisma, his ability to please and work the crowds and effortlessly charm the press. Using these criteria, it seems certain that President Nixon was NOT possessed by a demon – are you hinting there are worse evils than supernatural thralldom? Or perhaps that Nixon was … Satan himself?

Although I did not have this in mind when I began the book (in either incarnation), a guy named Joe McGinnis wrote a book decades ago called The Selling of the President, 1968. It’s about how the Nixon campaign (whose media director was some guy named Roger Ailes) decided to rely on TV commercials to sell Nixon to the public, instead of a lot of personal appearances and speeches. They were aware, apparently, of that old saying concerning sows’ ears and silk purses. It’s amazing, apparently, the things you can do with lighting.

The idea that Nixon was Satan is absurd – although he may have been the antichrist. It’s possible that Woodward and Bernstein performed a greater service for the nation – and the world — then they knew.

Your heroes, Quincey Morris and Libby Chastain, have by this point eased into a well-worn rapport of complete trust and sharp repartee – do you hear their voices, when you’re writing them? Have you dream-cast them in your mind, to aid in keeping them in character? And if so (or even if not!), care to divulge? For me, it’s Matthew McConaughy and Sandra Bullock (as Morris and Chastain respectively, in case that wasn’t clear), but that’s probably a tad predictable.

 I just follow Quincey and Libby around, and try to take down what they say accurately – although sometimes they talk too damn fast. Dream cast? Twenty years ago, Tommy Lee Jones would have been perfect for Quincey. He’s even a Texan. Of male actors currently in the right age group, I’d be inclined toward Edward Norton. Matthew McConaughy – not so much. Quincey doesn’t take his shirt off a lot, so Matt might not have a chance to do what he does best, and I’m not sure he has the acting chops to carry off the role. For Libby, although Sandra Bullock would be good, my choice has always been a character actress named Catherine Keener.

As for who would actually play Quincey and Libby – we may get to find out. See below.

Tell us a little more about Libby Chastain! Morris gets the big action-sequences in the books, but your Libby scenes often glow with an extra element of affection for the character.

In some respects (even down to her first name), Libby is modeled on a therapist I had some years ago. She saved my life, I think. Like the other Libby, she could work magic when she needed to.

Given the plot of Sympathy for the Devil, it’s inevitable that our heroes and their allies should come into conflict with the Secret Service, and the whole world of the Service is portrayed perfectly in the book. What extra research did that entail?

I looked at a book called In the President’s Secret Service, by former agent Ronald Kessler. Also, there are some great documentaries about the Secret Service (which originally aired on places like the Discovery Channel) to be found on YouTube.

Speaking of characters who sell their soul to the devil: have you had any Hollywood feelers for the Morris/Chastain books? They seem like naturals for a smart, funny cable-TV series, and the bagloads of money would finally allow you to spurn all your worshipping fans. A win-win, surely?

This is what I was referring to above. Within the last two weeks, Sympathy for the Devil was optioned by a Hollywood producer, with a view to exactly what you’ve suggested: a series on cable TV, like AMC or Starz. But I’m not putting the house up for sale just yet, and probably never will. To paraphrase Scripture, “Many are optioned, but few are chosen for a pilot; fewer still go to series.” But, still, it’s nice to be optioned.

Spurn my fans? Never, ever, ever. Ever.

One final question, no less heartfelt for being predictable: can we have some more of these wonderful books, please?

That depends on Solaris books. I asked them if they wanted a fourth Morris & Chastain, and they said, “Let’s see how the current one sells.” So, if you want to increase the chances of Quincey and Libby going out to fight evil again, buy copies of Sympathy for the Devil in bulk lots. They make great birthday or bar mitzvah gifts, and Christmas is only four months away….

Two more things before I go, if I may.

I’m running an “Easter Egg” contest in conjunction with the publication of Sympathy for the Devil. You have to do more than just make a comment somewhere, but the prizes are much cooler, too. First prize is a $50 Amazon gift card, and I’ll name a character after you in the next Morris & Chastain book, if there is one. And if there isn’t one, I’ll name a character in my new “Haunted Scranton” series after you. Details are on my website, www.justingustainis.com.

The second thing is kind of … weird. In my book, there’s this Senator named Howard Stark who is, in effect, Hell’s candidate for President. But it seems there really is a Senator Howard Stark, and he says he really is running for President, and his website is just … creepy. It’s at www.starkforamerica.com, but I wouldn’t recommend you visit. The content is just too disturbing. I mean, here’s one of his campaign buttons – you be the judge.

 

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