Dust and Light: Interview with Fred Venturini

Welcome back! Today I’m excited to spotlight author Fred Venturini. Fred is the author of numerous books, including The Heart Does Not Grow Back, The Escape of Light, and his latest, To Dust You Shall Return.

Recently, Fred and I discussed his new book as well as his inspiration as an author.

When did you decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

I can’t remember making a conscious decision. I always wrote stories, and I’m not sure why. I remember playing an NES game, Dragon Warrior, and writing spin-off stories about the game on a legal pad.

My grandmother valued reading. We’d sit on her porch, and she would just read and read, I don’t know how she had the endurance to do it. Her rule was letting me read anything I wanted to, so I gravitated to the dark and weird stuff. I did my 4th-grade book report on CUJO.

So, it’s cliche, but I grew up with Stephen King, the man who launched a million novelists. I’m a Constant Reader. FIGHT CLUB blew me away, and I’ve been a raving Chuck Palahniuk fan ever since. I can’t read enough David Foster Wallace, especially his essays.

And there are just so many great authors right now, and I can’t read everything from everyone. Malerman, Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones. Richard Thomas has a new collection I’m excited about. Gabino Iglesias talks the talk (his Twitter feed is a must for authors and readers alike), but man if he doesn’t turn a phrase with the best of them.

And you! Rust Maidens was legit.

Your new book, To Dust You Shall Return, is due out soon from Keylight Books. What can you share about the book? What was the inspiration for it, and how long did it take you to write it?

My wife writes in a journal. One night, she was jotting something down, looked at me, and said: “If I die, bury this with me. Don’t read it.”

Felt like an invitation to speculate, and eventually, the journal became a MacGuffin of sorts, and a way for a strong-willed female character to take control of tropes and cliches to her own ends.

I also wanted a way to toy with my favorite character archetype, the “reactivated badass” that has popped up in many different genres over the years like westerns (Unforgiven) and sci-fi (old Luke in The Last Jedi).

So, the book is most succinctly described the way Jed Ayres did and I’ve been ripping it off ever since: JOHN WICK MEETS THE WICKER MAN.

A revenge character past his prime shows up in a small town to investigate the death of his wife, and quickly learns this isn’t just any small town, it’s more like a Stephen King, Castle Rock small town ruled by cultists.

The heart of the story is the teen girl who grew up there, caught between two destructive forces, nurturing a dream to escape and lead a normal life.

If I may be dramatic and drop the tagline:

A man ruled by darkness. A town ruled by evil. Only one can survive.

What is it about the horror genre in particular that appeals to you?

I get asked this quite a bit, why horror appeals to me. Especially by my wife. I think I finally wrapped my head around an answer.

First, it’s fun. Horror movies are related to comedies: they’re audience films with a release of built tension. My most memorable moviegoing experiences were seeing films like SCREAM and the first chapter of IT with a date and a packed theater. Reading a Paul Tremblay book and then thinking of it when I have to cross the dark to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night? It’s just hard for any other genre to have a lasting effect on me like that.

Second, it’s healthy! Yes, healthy. King once said horror is a rehearsal for death. I think horror is a way to do “negative visualization” that the Stoics and Marcus Aurelius prescribed.

I think horror fans are a resilient bunch because when you’ve considered what it’s like to be stalked by a slasher, haunted by a ghost, or hunted by a serial killer, putting on a mask to go to Home Depot doesn’t seem so bad. Having a tough day at the office? Leatherface could be mounting you on a hook. Trouble in your relationship? Jack Torrence could be swinging his axe at you.

I’ll never forget being at the World Horror Convention as a panelist and getting to meet heavyweights like Joe Hill, Jack Ketchum, Peter Straub. Everyone was just so . . . nice? Polite, well-adjusted, generous, cool people.

At the artist level, writing horror is therapeutic, a release of negative emotions and tension. It also helps that it is the genre that can really get a reaction out of an audience. That’s why I’ve always compared horror to stand-up comedy: free therapy AND art that can be measured by audience reaction.

You’ve written both short and long fiction. Do you find that your approach varies depending on the length of the project?

I don’t prepare for short fiction writing. I just have a premise, and tackle it. A short story, you can rewrite it and open up new layers lots of times without taking up too much time. It’s like building a watch or crafting a joke.

A novel, I need to know where I’m headed. I don’t outline, but I need to know my characters, I need to know my big midpoint setpiece, I need a general ending in mind. A novel is like a 100,000 piece puzzle. First, you have to sort out all the pieces into little piles where you think they may fit. Then, start testing pieces. Oh, the feeling when they click!

If forced to choose, what is your favorite part of the writing process: writing dialogue, establishing setting, or crafting characters?

Dialogue, no question. I love writing cinematically. I love the first-person POV because it’s all dialogue, right? It’s all dialogue coming from a single character.

Dialogue can do the heavy lifting of crafting character. I like to think that what they DON’T say crafts the most character.

Dialogue can also establish a setting AND the character’s relationship to the setting in one go.

Dialogue is where I can slip humor into the darkest story.

Dialogue is also the one piece that skimmers don’t skip. Fast readers never skip over dialogue.

I just love dialogue. Most of my friends would say I like talking, but dialogue sounds more artistic.

What projects are you currently working on?

I have a backlog of ideas that I’m trying to execute as short stories. I haven’t written and submitted short fiction in a long time, and I think that would be a fun way to spend 2021.

As for a new book, I’m always working on my next long-form story, but in my head. I think walking and thinking is writing, and the time at the keyboard is just transcribing, sometimes.

Big thanks to Fred Venturini for being this week’s featured author. Find him online at Twitter and Facebook!

Happy reading!