Former McSweeney's writer abandons humor to write psychological thriller
Kevin Guilfoile wrote his first book in 19 days. It wasn't by choice, but he and writing partner John Warner had less than three weeks to put together 2001's My First Presidentiary, a satirical scrapbook pillorying President George W. Bush's first days in office.
Though contracted by The Modern Humorist website to write it with plenty of lead time, the two had to wait for the Supreme Court to finish its bridge game and decide a winner.
"That was a pretty crazy time," Guilfoile says. "We'd be at FedEx at closing time, scribbling with colored pencils on a page, trying to get one more to the publisher that night. The FedEx guy was there, tapping his foot."
Guilfoile illustrated the book himself, creating such gems as a kid's (i.e., our president's) rendering of an ambulance on a memo about the veep's heart condition. Despite the book's hurried production, Presidentiary spent seven weeks on The Washington Post's best-seller list.
His literary past includes other comic work, such as writing under various aliases for McSweeney's and goofing as one of Dave Eggers's merry pranksters.
Guilfoile has taken a serious turn with his first novel, the upcoming Cast of Shadows. The thriller's protagonist, Davis Moore, is a doctor who specializes in reproductive cloning. After his 16-year-old daughter is found raped and killed, Moore clones the DNA from the scene so he can look into the murderer's eyes years later.
It's not colored pencils and presidential malapropisms, but Guilfoile insists his new work isn't exactly a quantum leap.
"I think writing is writing, and humor writing is good practice for whatever you go into," he says. "People think humor writing and genre writing are almost opposites, but really in both you're trying to elicit involuntary reactions from the reader."
A native of Cooperstown, New York, Guilfoile pulled the idea from the very same place much of his humor comes from: television. In 2001, he was watching O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden on CNN when he hit upon a joke.
"I started thinking it would be darkly funny if [Darden] could have cloned Nicole Simpson's killer," he says, "and then brought the clone out in front of the camera and said, 'Does anybody recognize this 12-year-old boy?' "
Guilfoile spent the next two years on the novel while working for Chicago advertising agency Coudal Partners, writing mornings before work and on weekends. When his wife, Mo, got pregnant, she encouraged him to write full time before the baby was born. So he took three months off and finished Shadows just before his son Max's birth in January 2004.
"I'm actually glad I finishedbefore he was born, because it was easier for me to imagine the anguish of losing a child," he says.
The book begins in the Chicago suburbs, in a fictitious future when human cloning is legal.
Though it has the trademark noir elements—a reporter tracking down a story and private eyes investigating the suspicious behavior of husbands—the book quickly becomes a meditation on the nature of evil.
"At heart, what the book is about is how most, if not all, of our decisions are made with imperfect information," he says. "And each of the characters make these decisions, mostly bad ones, based on what they think is true. There isn't much redemption in the end."
Because the story begins in the present and continues 15 years out, Guilfoile had to tread carefully, slowly changing the world without having Marty McFly cruising around town on a hoverboard.
"I didn't want to be a futurist and have to get into flying cars and stuff like that," he says. "I thought it would be distracting and date the story pretty quickly."
He also needed to find a way to make the Chicago suburbs recognizable but not specific, so he created an intentionally ambiguous Northwood, Illinois.
"I put it on the North Shore because I live in the western suburbs and didn't want any of my neighbors to think I was writing about them," he says.
Although the book hits the stands Tuesday, Guilfoile is already working on his next project. It's a story involving a father with questionable motivations and a Skull and Bones–type secret society, the kind that produced our last two presidential candidates.
Guilfoile is no stranger to mystery and misdirection, and that may be the link between his humor and horror careers. He used to craft funny and bizarre word puzzles for McSweeney's under the name Carlton Doby.
When told readers were wondering what happened to Doby, he replies, "He sold a book."
Cast of Shadows comes out Tuesday 8 from Knopf. $24.95.