I'm delighted to bring you yet another instalment in our ongoing interview series here at Smash Dragons. This week I had the opportunity to sit down with Philip Fracassi. Philip is one of a new wave of writers who are emerging within speculative fiction and blowing everyone's minds. We chatted about a large range of things, including his bizarre (and cool!) experience digging a grave whilst Christopher Walken read script lines to him.
Philip Fracassi, welcome to Smash Dragons.
First up, tell me a little about yourself and your writing journey so far.
It has been a journey, that’s a great word. Like most writers, I started very early, writing about monsters and aliens and killers in the night and heartbreak, at least what heartbreak was to a kid. I use to love writing poetry and still do, but that’s more for me than anything I’d ever consider for public consumption.
When I was older I wrote a few literary novels and hundreds of pieces about everything from relationships to madmen to philosophical essays. But I never really felt any of it was precisely what I wanted to be doing, and I didn’t feel any of it was good enough, again, to release into the wild.
Then, about five or six years ago, I got a gig writing screenplays. Kid movies. And that took off and I ended up making a semi-living as a screenwriter-for-hire kinda thing. Since I’ve always been a horror nut, and loved horror movies, I decided to try my hand at writing horror scripts. One of those was bought and made in 2015, which was a little indie thriller called GIRL MISSING.
Anyway, right around the time I sold that movie, I had this insane epiphany: Why not write horror fiction? Combine all my experience and labors of love from the literary stuff I’d been writing with my life-long love of horror.
Once that decision was made – and this was an incredibly exciting decision for me – blammo! The floodgates opened and everything sort of took off from there. And I haven’t looked back.
What led you into screenwriting? Has your exposure to the world of Hollywood had any influence on your creative path?
I fell into screenwriting. What happened was I’d self-published a novel (The Egotist), and was the owner of a bookstore in Venice Beach at the time and was meeting all sorts of great, creative people. One of these folks read my novel and we became friends, and it so happened she produced these movies for Disney and offered to let me have a crack at writing a draft of their next movie, which was called Spooky Buddies. I did it and they loved it and I really loved doing it so I just kept doing it. And as I mentioned, it became a semi-career from that point on. I’ve done many, many scripts as a work-for-hire (no credit), but have also sold a couple.
I have a movie going into production soon called VINTAGE (although that title may change), that I’m pretty excited about, and I have some other projects in the works, as well, that I can’t talk about. But it’s a lot of fun and can be okay money if you can get something made.
I don’t really think my exposure to Hollywood or production (my day job is working as a Location Manager for studio films and television) has had any direct effect on my fiction, but I do think screenwriting has. It definitely forces me to put “story” first, and a story’s “concept” second. Unlike a lot of modern Weird fiction, my stories tend to read like movies – they are structured and they have a beginning, middle and end. Not a ton of ambiguity in my stuff. And I think my work is very visual and visceral, mainly due to the fact that in screenwriting you need to really put the reader into the scene visually, and emotionally, so when the producer or director or actor is reading the script, they really feel like they’re “inside” the story.
My first experience of your work was Mother, and to be honest it freaked me out a little. Take me through the creative genesis of that particular story.
Mother was my first serious salvo into genre fiction. The story came from a very simple idea: What if the person lying next to you in your bed at night wasn’t the person you thought they were? What if there were secrets beneath the skin that you didn’t – or didn’t want to – see?
From that core idea came the characters of Julie and Howard, and all the nasty things that happen to both of them. The interesting thing about that story is that there really is no hero, no real antagonist or protagonist, no one to really root for. And it’s hard to pinpoint who exactly the monster of the story is… because they both have their faults and, as it turns out, their secrets.
That story was originally called something different, and it wasn’t until I was fortunate enough to get feedback on an early draft from Laird Barron that it really came together. I love that story because it’s the one that started my new career, and it was the one that really taught me how to write genre fiction. But mostly I love it because it scares people, upsets people, and makes readers squirm a bit. All the good stuff you want a story to do.
One of the things I love about your work is that it takes what are average situations (swimming in a pool for example) and flips them on their head, transforming the mundane into something more monstrous. What is it about every day activity that fuels your writing?
Yes, this is an excellent point. I do like to find horror in the everyday. But unlike some authors who did this with serial killers or the evil of humankind, so to speak, I like to mash it up with something completely supernatural or left field. Something that hopefully shocks you and makes you think both, “This is horrible and impossible,” but also, “Oh man, this could totally happen.”
As an example, my current novella, Fragile Dreams, which is about an earthquake. Again, average guy on a job interview. What could go wrong? That’s where I like to step in and shake things up.
I think that’s what makes a story sticky. If you feel like it could happen to you, but that it’s also so fantastic that you’re madly entertained by it. I have a new story I’m working on called “The Wheel” that plays into this philosophy, and I’m very excited about it. The story literally takes place on a Ferris Wheel, and the idea is to make the reader think, “C’mon, what could possibly go wrong?” And then reveal the horror, hopefully surprising them and scaring them all at once. Stephen Graham Jones said something to the effect of horror writers needing to one-up the wildest expectation of the reader, because that’s what they’re paying us for, right? So I try to do that as best I’m able.
You write from a number of fascinating perspectives in your work, ranging from children through to sociopathic adults. I’m curious, is it hard to get your head around these different mindsets when you’re writing?
Again, I think my screenwriting experience has served me well here. I’m used to having to write dialogue for different characters, who all have different backgrounds, different philosophies, different characteristics. Men, women, young, old, kind, nasty… whatever the story calls for. I think this has allowed me to get into a lot of different heads and I’ve parlayed that skill into my fiction.
Plus it helps to hear voices and have psychopathic tendencies.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? What works for you when writing?
Plotter. I definitely know where I’m going before I write Word One. That doesn’t mean I don’t change my mind, but I absolutely have the beats laid out in my head before I write. I don’t want to be worrying about what happens next when writing the prose, I want to be able to concentrate solely on the prose itself and make it the best it can be. It also helps to know where you are going so you can drop hints, foreshadow, etc. I like to do that kind of stuff.
That said, as I mentioned, I might change my mind and go a different direction that I think is better, or scarier, or stronger. Then I’m a pantser for a little while, I suppose. But overall, yeah, I know where I’m headed.
What’s your take on the horror genre at the moment? What do we, as an industry, need to do better in your opinion in the years to come?
Here’s my take. I think it’s generational. I think the resurgence of horror now has a lot to do with the fact that folks who grew up in the 80’s are now hitting their 30’s and 40’s, which is when your combined life experience and creative skillset really culminate to allow you to be the best writer you can be. Folks my age grew up in the renaissance of horror – King, Barker, Koontz, Freddy, Micheal and Jason. I think there’s a very solid reason why you’re seeing a surge of great writing right now. The kids have grown up and they’ve got some warped childhood shit in their heads, ready to spill.
In regards to what the industry needs to do better? Heck, I don’t know. I just got here. I’ll have a better answer for you in ten years or so.
Tell me about your upcoming collection Behold the Void. What stories will it include? Does it have any new work in it?
Behold the Void includes nine stories and a wonderful, humbling introduction by Laird Barron. Most of the stories are longer pieces, novelette-length, and the final story, Mandala, is a full novella. Of the nine, Mother, Altar, Coffin, and The Baby Farmer are reprints. Soft Construction of a Sunset, Fail-Safe, Surfer Girl, The Horse Thief and Mandala are original to the collection. So half-and-half, I guess.
You’re a big admirer of Laird Barron, and I can see his influence on your work. Who else has had an impact on your storytelling?
Laird has definitely impacted my work, both as a writer and as a friend. I would likely not be doing this at all if it weren’t for him.
Regarding influences, I think many of the writers that have influenced my prose, if not the plots, are the more literary giants like Faulkner, Hemingway and poets like Charles Simic and Frank Stanford. On the modern horror side, King is the biggest influence as far as how to write with flair, and keep folks engaged. Ralph Robert Moore and Jack Ketchum’s work taught me a lot about using brutality, violence, physicality and sex to create texture within a story. The rest of my influences are buried deep in the subconscious, I’m sure, because I’m constantly reading a wide swath of work in order to fine-tune my prose.
The story ideas themselves I take full credit for, and I’d prefer not to think too much on where they originate.
What’s the one trope that you wish horror writers would move past and abandon?
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. Folks can write whatever makes them happy. I don’t really care. More power to anyone willing to put pen to paper, so to speak.
I suppose if I had one pet peeve it’s ambiguity. I’m not a fan. I don’t mind a little bit of letting the reader fill in the blanks, but you still got to tell a story, in my opinion. I read too many stories where I finish the thing and couldn’t for the life of me tell you what the hell happened or why. But that’s just me. I like a story that tells you something that you could tell somebody else over a beer or a cup of coffee (without giving away any spoilers, of course!).
If you could spend the day with one other writer, dead or alive, in order to pick their brain who would it be and why?
Oh, that’s an easy one. Stephen King. I’d love to just listen to him talk about writing for a few hours – his approach, his method, his philosophies on story development, characters, prose… that would be something where at the end of the day I know, without a doubt, I’d walk away ten times the writer I was at the get-go.
There’s been a surge in horror novellas the past few years, and big industry names such as Ellen Datlow and Stephen Graham Jones have come out in support of this format as the perfect medium for telling a horror story. What’s your take on it?
I love novellas as a format. I think they’re a near-perfect page-count for horror. Sometimes you’ll read a horror novel (Cujo is an example I like to use) and be like, why the heck do I care about half the stuff going on here? It’s pointless side-story, filler anecdotes, unneeded character background, etc.
I think the novel format is great for world-building, and if a story has a lot to say then there’s nothing wrong with a novel. But novellas are convenient because horror tends to be situational. Meaning, this happened, then this super-crazy thing happened, it ended poorly, and now these folks are dead. The End.
Cujo should have been a novella. That book is 50 pages of horror and 250 pages of cereal marketing jargon and a bad marriage. I would have preferred just the horror.
But The Shining needed to be a novel, right? There was some major world-building there. That’s my take, anyway.
What’s your favourite book? Why?
The Fountainhead is a perfect novel. The Sound and the Fury is the most well-written novel I’ve ever read. The Shining is the scariest. But I think my favorite novel is A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley. It’s the most perfect blend of madness and comedy I’ve ever read. The man was a genius.
You’re a regular guest on the Lovecraft Ezine Podcast (in fact that’s how I discovered you as a writer). How cool is it to sit down with that amazing bunch of people to talk about the industry at large?
It’s incredibly cool. But I’ll let you in on a secret – I’m not a very smart guy. Borderline dumb, in fact. The only time I’m smart is when I write – it’s like a channel opens up inside my head and all these words and ideas pour out – but when I’m talking or trying to remember facts or ideas or rationalize or discuss something of a scholastic nature, my brain just sort of sputters and spits and I lose the words.
So when I get to sit in on the eZine it’s sort of like being in a classroom with a handful of these really smart, really advanced students who talk circles around me. It’s a lot of fun to listen, and I try to chime in when I can, but mainly I’m just there to play the role of lowest common denominator, and it’s a role I cherish, believe me.
What new writers have impressed you recently?
Truth be told I’m a fairly new writer to the scene, so I’m not sure any of the folks I’d mention would be any newer than I am. That said, I love the work of Michael Wehunt, Christopher Slatsky, and Ted Grau, all of whom have had a debut collection come out the last year or so. You could do worse than starting there.
Tell me something random about yourself?
Geez… something random… well, I’m on record as having produced the first ever live streaming concert over the internet. Blind Boys of Alabama live from the House of Blues. Early 90’s. Wall Street Journal interviewed me and everything. Oh, I also once dug a grave while Christopher Walken delivered his lines to me during filming of the movie The Prophecy.
I’ve had a few different lives
I’ve had a few different lives
What scares Philip Fracassi?
Honestly? And I mean this sincerely, the thing that scares me the most is the frailty of life. I feel like I have so much I want to do, so many stories I want to write and share with the world, and something inside me is constantly ticking, a clock that reminds me every minute of every day that this could be the last day, the last hour, of my life, and that drives me to create, to write, to push everything else aside and Get It Down. That’s what pushes me to write as much as I can, whenever I can. I do it out of fear.
When you’re not writing or reading what do you do to ‘chill out’?
Read. Sorry, but yeah, read. Honestly, I’d love to say it’s something else, but it’s not. I read every possible moment I can squeeze in between work, writing and my family. I play the occasional video game with my son, or see the occasional movie, but mainly my life revolves around books. Fishing would be a more interesting answer but the truth is I hate worms.
What work is in the pipeline for you after the release of Behold the Void?
Next up is a novella called “Sacculina,” coming from JournalStone in May 2017. It’s a really fun story about a small group of guys who charter an ocean fishing boat in order to relax, bond, all that good stuff. I won’t say what happens once they’re out in that water, or what kind of bad they run into, but I can tell you with pretty firm conviction that it’s not what you think.
I also have stories coming in the next Dark Discoveries magazine, a bug alien story called “Ateuchus,” plus stories coming in future issues of Ravenwood Quarterly and the Lovecraft eZine. I’ve been commissioned for a few other things that’ll keep me very busy, but nothing I can announce as of yet.
Otherwise I have a new movie going into production, and, as I mentioned before, a couple other script projects. I’m also working very hard on a novel that is going through that all-so-annoying revision process with my wonderful agent.
I’d like to line up another collection of stories for 2018 or early 2019, so we’ll see if that happens.
Philip Fracassi, thanks for stopping by Smash Dragons.
You can buy all of Philip's work online and at all good book retailers. Behold The Void, his upcoming collection, is available to pre-order here. You can also stay up to date with Philip by checking out his website. Finally, be sure to check out The Lovecraft Ezine. They do a regular podcast every week or two that features special guests and fascinating discussion about genre fiction.