Greetings from the Ethereal Plane,
To conclude our review series of Philip Fracassi’s recent work, we present to you an interview with the dark fiction author. Following the success of his collection, Behold the Void, and our reviews of Fragile Dreams, Sacculina, and the aforementioned debut collection, it was exciting to delve into the mind of an author with such immense talent. We are beyond thrilled to share this interview with you, our readers, and hope that the fellow writers out there reading this article can garner some helpful information from Fracassi. Huge thanks go to Philip for agreeing to this venture and we cannot wait to put the interview into print with this month’s edition of Hinnom Magazine.
Alas, let the interview begin!
CP: With the release of Behold the Void, the attention you’ve received from audiences along with the responses from critics and authors alike have all been well-deserved. You have been writing for a while now, between film scripts, short stories, chapbooks, and novellas. What does it mean to you, as a writer, to have a debut collection receive such praise?
PF: I don’t know if writers have the ability to ever feel truly satisfied. For me, at least, my brain works like a demonic Stairmaster. The second I feel I’ve achieved something, I immediately click to the next tier of accomplishment and burn to achieve that higher step. When I published my chapbook (MOTHER, 2015), I was happy for about ten minutes, then started thinking about what to do next. Same with the collection. The minute it came out I immediately thought, “Okay, now what? What’s the next step to reach for?” After the New York Times piece hit, people were saying stuff like, “Hey, you’ve made it!” But my attitude was much different. All I could think was, “Great, that should help. But now the bar has been set and the next thing I write has to be better than the last. How do I make sure I get better? How do I grow as a writer?”
When I see a 4-star review all I see is room for improvement. I live in fear of disappointing readers, so I’m always pushing myself to get better, and hopefully, in doing so, reach a wider audience.
So to answer your question, great reviews are nice, and I’m delighted people enjoy the work. But in my mind all it really means is that the bar has been set higher, and it’s my job to clear it.
CP: As with Fragile Dreams and Sacculina, two of your works we previously reviewed, it is evident that your ability to handle characters and visual imagery is unrivaled. This technique carries on into Behold the Void. How do you handle your characters and settings with such depth, and what processes go into bringing them to life?
PF: Thank you for saying that. Yes, I focus a lot on character in my stories. I think it adds empathy and emotion when you feel for a character that’s going through something dramatic or terrifying. If you don’t care about someone, it makes the story less impactful, so I take my time with development.
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m pretty good at voices. Personalities. I’ve got an army in my head ready to go, it’s just a matter of picking the right character and seeing what they can do. I’m as surprised as anyone at some of the things my characters think, or how they act in a certain situation. I suppose it’s really about visualization. If I can put myself into someone’s head, and into a specific situation, from there on out it’s just recording what I see, what I hear, what I feel. It’s inherent, I think. One of those things you just discover you have. A talent. That said, I can’t play instruments or learn foreign languages.
CP: Something that you do as an author that we have rarely seen, is change your writing style drastically to fit into the narrative in which you are telling. Even when your stories are in third person, you still manage to invoke the setting, and often geographical location of the story into your language, like in Behold the Void’s “The Baby Farmer.” Can you tell us a little about the malleability you have in your writing? The decisions you make regarding the language?
PF: I think tone is the most important element of any story. Whether it be a short story, novel or screenplay. It’s the first thing I decide before starting a project. And with prose, the style in which you write has a massive impact on tone. “Altar” is very visual, and the tone is nostalgiac. “Mother” is a modern gothic, so the dialogue is a bit more formal, the descriptions more dense.
“The Baby Farmer” is essentially a period piece, a story about a woman (serial killer Amelia Dyer) who lived at the turn of the century. I decided the best way to capture her was to let her talk directly to the readers, which is why the framework of the story is built around her journal entries. I also researched actual letters and diary entries from her I was able to find online, and duplicated nuances of both her personality and writing style into the story. Small things, like the fact she tended to ramble and use little punctuation, or never wrote “and,” just “a”; to larger things, like the fact that she was protective of her grown daughter, despite having killed hundreds of infants. Again, it allowed some empathy for me, and hopefully for the reader, to present her more fully, and, in this case, as she really was.
CP: Your stories often cross between weird fiction, dark fiction, horror, and stronger themes of a literary nature. Fragile Dreams and Behold the Void’s “Mother” held a more realistic approach, while Sacculina and stories from Behold the Void such as “Coffin” and “Altar” cross the genres aforementioned. Do you find varying interests in all of these genres? Or do the stories usually evolve on their own?
PF: I don’t think about classification at all when telling a story. Other than, “This is a horror story.” The stories tell themselves, and the chips fall where they may as to how the story might be described or classified. I just wrote a piece called “Shiloh” that I fully intended to be a more thoughtful, slow-paced, quiet story with a kind of duotone feel, versus Technicolor, if that makes sense. But beta readers keep telling me how relentless and fast-paced it is, which was a huge surprise to me. So it’s really out of my hands, I guess.
CP: Writing scripts for films and founding your own bookstore are among the many achievements you’ve had. One might say you are a jack of all trades. Do you have a singular passion that is stronger than any others? Where do you see yourself in the next twenty years in terms of career path and aspirations?
PF: I’ve lived a lot of lives. I started in the film industry early on, then I was a music executive for seven years, then started my own business—a bookstore and publishing company—which I ran for seven or eight years, then worked for a marketing agency for a while, and now I’m back full-time in the film industry.
But during all that time, and all those careers, I never stopped writing. It has always been my passion and my dream. I spent decades writing literary short stories, and even wrote three novels. And I’ve been writing screenplays since 2011, and in that time have had two scripts produced—one for Disney and one, a thriller, for Lifetime.
It wasn’t until I started writing genre fiction in 2015 that things have left the station in the prose world. And to answer your question, that’s my primary focus now. I’m still writing screenplays, and have a couple very exciting projects in the early stages, but my long-term goal is absolutely to make a career out of writing horror fiction. In the last 2 years I’ve published two novellas, a collection, and have sold over a dozen stories. I’ve also found an agent, who is currently shopping a novel and a second collection. So things have gone okay so far.
I look at the careers of guys like Laird Barron, Adam Nevill, Paul Tremblay, Ronald Malfi . . . guys who are making a living from the work, and I see a potential future. That’s really my ultimate goal—not to be rich or famous, not to win awards and all that stuff, but to be good enough, and read widely enough, and be prolific enough, to be able to write for a living. But to reach that goal will take a lot of work, a lot of perseverance, and, frankly, a good chunk of luck. So I’ll keep my head down, keep doing the work as best I know how, keep pushing myself out there, and keep my fingers crossed. After that, it’s out of my hands.
CP: You mentioned earlier that you are often surprised at the evolution of your characters, the old term “a book writes itself” coming to mind. The climactic final novella in Behold the Void, Mandala, is a jarring, exciting, and emotional journey. Your ability to throw characters into simple situations that become outright terrifying is prevalent throughout the collection, putting ordinary people into extraordinary situations. Could you delve a little into techniques you have when developing tension in a story? Any golden rules of thumb you use when creating these situations?
PF: I think a lot of building tension is feel. In other words, having a good feel for how far to go with a scene before cutting away, or changing POV. I like to “cut away” from a scene when it’s getting to a burning point of tension. If done correctly, switching POV during a particularly tense sequence can be a lot of fun for the reader. I do this in MANDALA, and also in ALTAR.
It also has a lot to do with pacing. If you’re writing to build tension, you might want to speed up the pace by using cleaner, shorter sentences, less description, etc. You don’t want to have your hero tied to the conveyor belt while the giant, screaming buzzsaw is getting closer and closer to his heels . . . and then write a couple long, languid sentences about the history of the mill. Or maybe you do. Extending those moments can be delicious, as long as you don’t overdo it. Again, terrible answer I know, but it’s really a “feel” thing.
So, short answer, mechanically speaking: quicker pacing in the language and strategic cutaways are two of the tricks I employ.
CP: Staying on the topic of character, many believe that the heart of horror or dark fiction lies in character-driven studies. Why do you think this is so much more prevalent—than say, science fiction or fantasy where the worlds are at the epicenter—in the darker realms of literature?
PF: I think horror relies heaviliy on psychological aspects, much moreso than any other genre. In horror, its vital that you know what a person is thinking and feeling in order to bring the reader into the world you’re creating. A big part of writing horror is to make a reader scared, or uncomfortable, or thrilled. And unless the reader can truly identify with the characters in a story, they’re not going to feel those things as strongly as you’d like.
A good plot can bring tears, or tension, or joy . . . but you have to go deeper if you want to bring chills, or a sense of danger, or even outright terror. You can’t rely on plot alone, you need to make sure the reader feels what the characters are feeling and understand what’s going on inside their heads. You need to get a reader involved emotionally. Look, I can write a scene about a hundred spiders eating the flesh off a screaming child, and that’s great fun, right? But if the reader just spent some time getting to know that child – learning how he thinks and feels, what he likes or dislikes, his plans for the future – then those spider bites are gonna hurt a little bit more. You’ll feel it, and hopefully it will haunt you.
CP: You spoke of your experience in the film industry. Can you tell us how, if at all, working with film and penning scripts has helped your writing? If so, do you think it has made the act of writing fiction easier or more difficult?
PF: I think scriptwriting has a lot to offer prose writers. There is a ton of great knowledge about how to construct a 3-Act story, character arcs, building tension and conflict, etc. Also, screenwriting is very visual and dialogue-oriented. A screenplay needs to – very sparsely – give detailed visuals and action, so a director or producer can visualize everything quickly and easily. And the dialogue is a massive element of a script. It needs to convey so much – how a person thinks, what kind of a person they are; it needs to convey emotion, and information. Lastly, dialogue needs to be unique to each character. The cowboy at the bar uses different words and has a different speaking style than the big-city lawyer, or the single mom with three kids, or the homeless guy living under the steps, etc.
So yeah, I think scriptwriting taught me a lot about structure, and character, and dialogue for sure, as well as being visceral with descriptions of people and places.
That all said, there are some things you need to unlearn when going from script to prose. Especially with novel writing. There are different rules for POV’s and scene structure that is way too extensive to get into here, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that knowing all the rules and techniques for short stories, novels and screenplays are great to have in the toolbox, but ultimately they are very much three different art forms, and each has its own methodology you have to adhere to.
CP: We were speaking of your style earlier, and I wanted to focus on the unique aspects of your writing. While reading these three works of yours, we couldn’t really compare the style to anything we had read before. The pace is fluid, the imagery vivid and alive, though executed with sharp, concise language that is often poetic, often straightforward. Do you have any major inspirations as an author? Any writers whom you feel factored into your choices of technique and language?
PF: There are a lot of authors I enjoy reading, but there are only a handful of authors who inspire my technique, or language, or style, however you want to coin it. I always mention Laird Barron, who taught me both through his writing and through many conversations about the work. The things he does with language are mind-bending. I also take lessons from Ralph Robert Moore, a favorite of mine. His work taught me about brutality, physicality and sensuality, and how to use it to sweeten a story. Brian Evenson is the master of the unhinged, and no one is better at creating a genuine unease and a disassociated sense of tension. I read poets like Frank Stafford, Charles Simic, Kenneth Patchen, Anne Sexton, and countless others. All of them are great resources for how to use language toward different ends. Lastly, I’d throw Dennis Lehane and Raymond Chandler, Hemingway and Faulkner into the mix, for different reasons but they’re all a small part of my prose or the way I choose to structure a story.
CP: You mentioned a novel and a second collection in the works. Can you possibly give us any information on those endeavors to look forward to in the future?
PF: The working title of the novel is A CHILD ALONE WITH STRANGERS, and it’s being shopped right now by my agent. It’s straight-down-the-middle old-school horror, with some (hopefully) intense emotional elements. It’s likely at least a year or two away, seeing as how we haven’t sold it yet.
Regarding the collection, it’s hard to say. I have a mock ToC of stories that I feel really good about, but it will likely be sold as part of a package with the novel, or put out separately at a date, and with a publisher, to be determined. I’d like to think that I’m sort of in the eye of the storm right now, as I’ve had a lot of output and now I have to wait and see how things shake out, then hopefully I’ll get back to putting stuff out as fast as I can write it. I’m a bit handcuffed at the moment while I try to strategize a bit more of the big career picture. It’s frustrating, but exciting as well.
That said, I’ll continue putting out stories when able, so hopefully the drought won’t be too extensive.
CP: On a final note, many of our readers are writers themselves. We always like to end the interviews with a question for them. Do you have any advice or wisdom you could bestow upon budding writers? Any information you find invaluable in the industry?
PF: I think the biggest piece of advice is to keep a steady ship. Don’t get high on the highs or low on the lows. Don’t get overly-discouraged by rejections, or if things aren’t moving as quickly as you’d like. Perseverance is the name of the game. Slow and steady wins the race. Keep your head down, do the work, and keep grinding.
Also, be professional and courteous. Accept rejections and criticisms graciously, don’t push your work on folks too hard, and be kind to others in the field. It’s a pretty great community, but like any community, it takes time to fully integrate. I’m still in the early stages myself.
Lastly, be yourself. Be true to your voice. Not everyone is gonna like what you do (some are gonna hate it), but that’s part of the business of any artist. It’s all subjective, and people will have their opinions. That’s why they call it Art. But if you work hard, and keep at it, you’ll find your audience, and then the real fun begins.
Philip Fracassi, an author and screenwriter, lives in Los Angeles.
He has worked in the entertainment industry for over 20 years and was the founder of Equator Books, a publishing house and rare, out-of-print bookstore in Venice, CA.
Philip currently works full-time in the film industry and on his writing. His screenplay credits include “Girl Missing,” distributed by Mar Vista Entertainment (2015) for Lifetime Television and “Santa Paws 2: The Santa Pups,” distributed by Disney Home Entertainment (2012). Films in development include “Escape the Night,” “The Boys in the Valley,” “Gothic,” and “Vintage.”
His horror novelettes, “Altar,” and “Mother,” are currently available from Dunhams Manor Press. His literary novel, “The Egotist” is available online.
His newest novella, “Fragile Dreams,” is now available from JournalStone Publications.
You can follow Philip on Facebook and on Twitter (@philipfracassi), or at his official website at http://pfracassi.com.
Thank you so much for stopping by. It means more than we could ever express. If you liked this interview, be sure to follow us on social media and stay tuned for more interviews with amazing authors!