Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Conversation with Fred Venturini

I met Fred Venturini at the World Horror Con in Austin, Texas back in 2011.  He was talking with Paul Tremblay and Stephen Graham Jones, and when I joined the conversation, Fred, admittedly drunk at the time, handed me a copy of his novel The Samaritan saying, "Hell, these guys have copies.  You should have one, too - booyah!"  (No, really, he did the "booyah" thing.)  Fred and I wandered to a party later that night where Fred told a lot of "your mom" jokes and the story of how he was once lit on fire.  To be honest, with that foundation I didn't have a lot of hope for the novel.  Man, was I wrong.  The Samaritan is a great novel that, while arguably reminiscent of Chuck Palanhiuk in style, has a lot more heart and rings a lot truer for me, despite its strange premise.  Over the last few days, Fred and I had the following conversation.

Me:  Okay, Fred, let me get this straight - you wrote The Samaritan, somehow sold it without an agent to Blank Slate Press, ended up on Shelf Unbound's "Best from Indie Publishers in 2011" which then ends up running in USA Today, are married to a woman clearly leaps and bounds out of your league, and now the two of you have a brand new baby.  So tell me, did you approach Satan for this deal or did he come to you?

Fred:  As we all know, due to the demon code, Satan is not allowed to decline a rock-off challenge, so I did an amazing Tenacious D impersonation (I like to call it Tenacious V when I’m channeling Jables) in order to get three wishes. I used one wish on my beautiful wife, used the other to get an inordinate amount of lucky breaks when it comes to literary pursuits, and I used the third to get a crave case box of 30 White Castle hamburgers one night. I’m pretty sure I should have used that last wish on the Cubs, but I was pretty hungry and it was 3 a.m.

I hope the literary breaks keep coming. The beautiful wife wish has paid off in the beautiful daughter category, and the sliders were delicious so it was a win-win-win.

Me:  Well at least you're willing to admit your need for supernatural/demonic help in all parts of your life.  So let's talk about The Samaritan.  Admittedly, it's not the most commercial novel, but thankfully it's definitely found a market and an audience.  Were you thinking about an audience as you wrote it?  Or were you just fumbling around in the dark like a teenager in the backseat with his girlfriend, hopeful but uncertain?

Fred:  No audience in mind. Thinking like that can get you in trouble. But to me, of course, it's a commercial idea. I equate "commercial" to "entertaining to a lot of people." Now, was the execution commercial once I got into the actual writing of it? Probably not. Barrel-of-the-gun rape-age combined with everything that Mack Tucker says combined with some what I hope are physically cringe-worthy injury scenes tend to reduce the sheer commercial appeal. It's an R-rated flick that condenses the potential audience, if you get my drift. But I tried to service the idea, fully. I had this jotted down for a long time in my notebook: "Guy can regrow organs, gives them away on a reality show" but I wanted to service that idea and it took a few years to finally fit the right characters into the "strange attractor" that I was sitting on. I actually have a lot of strange attractors waiting around for the right characters. That's sort of how ideas come to and appeal to me--something weird; a one-line hook that might make a movie producer salivate, and then the real work is inhabiting it with characters that get the most juice out of the hook.

The writing of this book was actually quite focused. I had confidence in the characters and the idea. What I didn't have confidence in was the writing itself. I thought that Blank Slate Press was about to publish a terrible novel and I'd be blacklisted forever. That fear is now replaced with that old "your first book will be the noose by which your second book hangs" syndrome that's paralyzing my rewrite of the new novel, which is much bigger in sheer pages, scope, characters, a bigger POV.

 One last thing about the commerciality of the novel--I did have a nice discussion with a movie producer (who has a couple 100 mil hits under his belt, chalk that one up to Satan's influence as well) who loved the novel and called it a "quirky drama that would make a great indy film." That one stuck with me because people have called it science fiction, literary, horror, drama, I mean, I'm not sure what it is. But he sort of nailed it, I think, and we'll find out if it's commercial at all once it gets shopped around a little bit. "But Fred, it's sold and published, by shopping, what do you mean?" I know, I know, but soon I'll be able to talk more about that, but the ink's not dry yet and I don't want to jinx it.

Me:  So it sounds like the new novel is finished, at least that it's in the revision phase.  What paralysis have you felt doing the rewrite?  Second guessing yourself?  Wondering if you'll be able to keep the audience you created with The Samaritan?

Fred:  I  wouldn't toy with the word finished, not yet. These are some massive revisions from a larger book, and rewriting is always a grind for me, especially since I'm not a full-time author. Mix in a job and a few hobbies and a newborn, the writing time gets a little scarce. The paralysis comes from leaving the project for a few days (to cut the grass and take Krissy to dinner and whatnot) and then when I return, there's a certain level of "refreshment" that's necessary to pick up where I left off. Which means the front end of every session is usually catching up on notes and "where were we, where am I going." I sort of waste time re-orienting myself into the world instead of knocking out the real work at hand. What I really need is about 3 days of nothing but the desk to get this rewrite done. I think subsequent rewrites will end up a little lighter, making them a tad easier for my schedule to digest.

It's less about second guessing, not that I don't do that as well. I just think the next book is going to be quite different from The Samaritan and yeah, I'm not sure folks who really, really loved that book are going to love this one. I like to loop love stories into weird circumstances, so that's still there. We've moved on from high school angst to college angst, so there's that. But the POV is third person, so I think it loses a little bit of the humor and the voice that comes when I really devour a character in first person. But it opens the lens up, allows for a little more narrative juggling, witholding of information, building suspense. I've had early readers really love this one and I do think the hook is juicy, but I do look in the mirror and wonder if I'm really slicing this thing wide open and getting the guts out, not wasting a single bit of the idea's potential.

Me:  I should probably mention at this point that your novel has nothing in common with the recently released Samuel L Jackson movie The Samaritan.  (Or maybe it is the same thing, but the producers butchered your book beyond recognition.)  You mentioned earlier talking with a producer who said TS would make a great indie film.  So, play casting director.  Who's playing who and why?

Fred:  At least the Sam Jackson Samaritan movie makes it easy to vet who actually read my book. Doesn't even matter if they've seen the trailer, they can just see the poster and I know they didn't read a page due to the simple fact that you have to reach a long way to cast Samuel L. Jackson as a young, white high school loner who doesn't chew scenery.

Dirty little writing secret: I cast all my characters in my head when I do a novel. I think it helps divorce them from my own reality a little bit. When I was writing The Samaritan Dale was Leo from Basketball Diaries, Mack was James Franco, Doc Venhaus was Nick Nolte and the twins were dark haired Claire Danes (don't ask me why).

If you asked me for a real casting decision with today's actors and I can't travel through time, I would definitely just say Will Smith. Will Smith movies make 150 million minimum. But since there are no aliens or robots in this film, we won't get Will Smith. I like Andrew Garfield for Dale (always have, even pre-Spiderman) and Amanda Seyfried for the twins and if I don't have to worry about looking like a legit high schooler for the first part of the film, Gosling for Mack Tucker. Definitely Gosling and that has nothing to do with me going fanboy for Ryan Gosling. Interpolation: I do like watching his star rise and battle against the looming eclipse of Michael Fassenbender, who's also kicking some major ass.

Me:  Nice, and here I was hoping to make it through one conversation where you don't mention Fassenbender's eclipse-inducing member.  (Obviously you didn't directly, but we all know that's what you were thinking about).

To wrap this up - want to give people a one sentence pitch on your next novel?  Or are you of the (common) mind that doing so may derail the project?

Fred:  I have a harder time writing whole novels than good loglines, so that one is tough. Let's try: College kid learns he is the fourth horsemen and he's responsible for ending the world, but he just fell in love so he battles the other three to prevent the rise of the Beast. I'm truly hoping for a cameo by Michael Fassenbender's penis if it's ever filmed, possibly as the Beast that rises from the sea. That would be quite a sight and no CGI is required.

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