Novelist Dennis Liggio grew up in New York, but somehow ended up in Austin, Texas, nearly two decades ago. A connoisseur of tea, Chinese food and cornbread biscuits, Liggio has published several books in genres ranging from horror to absurdist fiction.
His first published work, The Lost and the Damned, told the tale of John Keats, a private detective tasked with tracking down a missing rock star who has taken up residence at a mental hospital. Once inside the walls of the hospital, though, Keats is trapped and confronted by a supernatural darkness that seeks to tear him apart, and his rescue mission becomes a game of survival that threatens both his life and his sanity.
In January of 2014, Liggio published the first book in his Damned Lies series, Damned Lies: Things That Never Happened and a Couple of Things That Did, and has since released a pair of sequels, Damned Lies Strike Back and Damned Lies of the Dead 3D. Featuring magic, zombies, cloning and bare-fisted hobo boxing tournaments, the series is a madcap, genre-bending adventure in escapism.
Learn more about Liggio and his works at www.dennisliggio.com.
I’m the youngest out of four brothers who all had very different interests. Much of my early “babysitting” was being sat with my older brothers, who were watching things like MTV, old cartoons, or listening to heavy music. My earliest memories of non-lullaby music are the iconic riff from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and the chorus of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.” In college, a friend dubbed me “pop culture’s biggest victim,” and I can’t say the title is completely unfounded. I soaked up a lot of things from my brother’s personalities, their interests, and the things I was exposed to on television more than I did from people my own age. My parents thankfully gave me opportunities to explore interests; I was enrolled in art courses through my high school years, including a brief aborted time in art school after I graduated. I grew up raised on pop culture, greek myths, and pictures from my brother’s D&D manuals. I’d like to say all these things contributed to the man I am, but likely they just contributed to my skill at Trivial Pursuit and enjoyment of I Love The Eighties marathons.
What’s the biggest difference between New York and Austin?
The attitude and speed of life. In New York, you spend much of your time focused on going somewhere, getting there, being efficient, etc. New Yorkers always felt like they were constantly too busy for whatever they’re doing, because they’ll be late for the next thing. Austin, on the other hand, is more laid back. It’s a great place to idle and flow. It’s a terrible place to be if you are frustrated by commuter traffic or if you hate waiters that forgot your order because they’re kind of stoned. Texans like to say New Yorkers are ruder and worse people. Based on years of experience in both places, the douchebag ratio is equal; the difference is New Yorkers might be brusque in the first few minutes of interaction because they’re busy, while Texans might lie to your face in the first few minutes of interaction due to “Southern Hospitality.”
Creatively, who are your biggest inspirations?
I’m most inspired by many of the things I see, watch, read, etc on a regular basis and have the question “What if?” What if things went differently? What if this character was different? What if the writer played it all differently? My mind then spins out stories and inevitable conclusions, which have been the initial seed of my own works.
In terms of other authors, there are a few who are meaningful to me either because of the love I have of their work or the things I’ve learned by reading their works. Surprisingly, I don’t write like any of them. Jonathan Carroll, Michael Moorcock, and William S. Burroughs are three who I will eternally respect and don’t think get read as often these days.
What is the inspiration behind the Damned Lies series?
Originally, Damned Lies were to be a series of outlandish stories, “Burroughs Bits” as I called them to myself, where I would take one weird assumption, statement, or fact and run with it in a weird or humorous narrative. I then started a website in 2010, the Damned Lies Project (now defunct), to post them. But as I did final edits on the first few, I realized that there was something underlying them all. I turned them into a serial about the same protagonist with minor lead-ins to link them all together. This then turned into an outlandish memoir in the vein of Baron Munchausen. Where Munchausen’s stories fit his time, Damned Lies fit the outlandish tall tales of Modern American Geekery — clones, zombies, dark magic, vampires, giant robots, etc.
From there, the protagonist took on his own life and challenges, each book becoming a new parody. Damned Lies Strikes Back parodies sequels, Scooby Doo mystery gangs, college glory day memoirs, Lovecraftian cults, a few other things, and somehow, Transformers: The Movie (1986). Damned Lies of the Dead 3D became the inevitable zombie novel parody, as well as satire of ghost hunter TV shows, afterlife experiences, and returning characters. The next Damned Lies novels will each satire different genres and tropes.
What challenges did you face in bringing the story of Damned Lies to life?
Much of it was in the evolution. Most of the content were unconnected bits and funny little stories that had nothing in common but the voice of the protagonist. Connecting everything required inventing a whole background and mythology, which added more and more stories and adventures. When it started to become its own full novel, the next challenge was making it feel cohesive and making the stories feel important even when some were kind of short. I tried to massage a flow out of them, so there was not a whiplash of here to there to there to here when read.
How have you evolved as a writer over the years?
My writing style has definitely evolved. For all aspiring writers, the best advice I can tell you is to keep writing (as if you’ve never heard that before). Writing is a skill that improves as you do it more. You find new ways, new ideas, and new approaches that you would have otherwise missed. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like what you’re writing now, you’re never going to get to the writing you want by not doing any. I still think my earlier writing was pretty good, but there’s an understanding to story, dialog, pacing, and more that I have now that I can only credit to continuing to write. I also may have fallen into the possible bad habit of no longer giving a damn about what genres do well and writing whatever I actually want to. We’ll see how things works out for our intrepid hero.
Does writing come easy to you? If so, has it always?
Writing has always come easily. Plot ideas and twists have not always come easily. Especially when younger, I was good at writing, but bad at figuring out where a story was going, so I wrote a bunch of short stories about people spinning their wheels or very short pieces that were almost inert from such character inaction. As I’ve grown older, my simple ideas have turned into real stories, but for a while I was very poor at that very key element needed for novels.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your life?
I don’t remember the exact wording, but something I’m paraphrasing to “Be honest to yourself… which means being more honest than you think” (or alternately, “Know thyself really really well”). I’m not sure if everyone does this, but I always interpreted being honest to yourself/be true to yourself a little more superficially. I used it as: don’t lie to yourself, don’t be a bad person, and know who you are, which are all still good advice. But I realized what I really needed was to be honest to myself about the choices I needed to make, even if they countered the good advice from someone I respected. I often even agreed with their advice, but somewhere inside me, I eventually realized there was dissent. I realized being truly honest to myself was making choices I deep down wanted to take the risk on, but I had kept away from due to sound advice from someone else. The problem was, at the end of the day, that was someone else’s wisdom, someone else’s truth, and not my honest truth. When I finally took some of the risks I had long stayed away from, yes, some worked out poorly, but some worked out like some amazing magic, and the regrets I have are only taking so long to try them. Good advice is good advice, but if, being completely and utterly honest to yourself, you have a feeling that you need to risk doing the opposite, give it a try. Something amazing might happen… or things go poorly and you just transform that good advice into personal experience — but then it’s yours, not just something someone told you.
If you could jump back to any point in your life and do one thing differently, where would you go and what would you change?
That’s actually one of the underlying themes in The Lost and the Damned — if you could change some of the events in your life, what difference would that make on now? Would you be freer, would you be a different sort of person if only you could change or delete some traumatic events in your past? It’s only directly mentioned by Keats, the protagonist, and his answer is that he wouldn’t change anything in the past, no matter how bad, because he would wonder if he’d find himself a different person — a prospect which scares him. The events of his life, good or bad, made him who he is and he wouldn’t want to risk changing that. He freely admits that’s sort of arrogant.
My own decision would be similar. For all the bad things in my life, they were learning experiences and I am very fortunate that none have ever permanently hurt me or limited my life. I don’t think I’d actually do things differently. What I would do is just make the good, life-changing decisions sooner.
You can only eat at one Austin-area restaurant for the rest of your life. Which do you choose?
This is a tough one, since Austin has so many great restaurants. I’ll have to be pragmatic and pick based on what foods I would never attempt at home. This would lead me to pick either the Roaring Fork for their inventive menu that includes some choice seafood, or the County Line simple because of barbecued beef ribs.
What are you working on next?
In the next month or two I should be releasing a new novel about four people whose lives are disrupted by a sorcerer. They band together and pursue him across America to stop him from resurrecting a god. It is a prequel for The Lost and the Damned. I am currently doing early draft writing on an urban fantasy story about two monster hunters. I hope to start work on Damned Lies #4 late this year.