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Underground Reading: The Gray Flannel Shroud by Henry Slesar

PK Interview: Fred Venturini (Part 1)

On Friday, we reviewed Fred Venturini's mind-boggling debut novel, The Samaritan. To top it off, we've managed to score a few words with the man himself. In the first part of the interview, we talked high school bullying, being on reality TV, and - of course - the dreaded influences question.


The Samaritan PK: A large part of The Samaritan takes place during middle school and high school. Or whatever they call those ages over here in the UK. Do you see that as the defining time in a person's life?

FV: Absolutely. Because everything is your “first” during these years, they have an intensity that puts a fossil in your memory. Your first love is the love of your life, your first heartbreak is the end of the world, your first varsity basketball game might as well be an NBA finals game, that first broken bone is the worst pain in the history of the planet. These events and how we react, overcome, fail, or shape ourselves around them helps create who we’re going to be when the concrete finally firms up and we’re stuck as adults.

PK: Just judging by a cryptic note in your author profile, it sounds like you had a pretty interesting (and not in a positive way) experience in your own youth. Was Dale Sampson's school experience inspired by your own?

FV: Maybe not so much the school experience, because honestly, I went to school with the kindest, warmest people in a small town high school. I think I connect with Dale when it comes to the healing process, and that's where my experiences come in.

When I was younger, I was called the luckiest guy and the unluckiest guy, sometimes in the same sentence. Sure, someone lit me on fire, but hey, I survived and the scarring could have been a lot worse. Sure, a dog tried to eat me, but that was just a few stitches and a shot. Broken neck, check, but no halo, no paralysis, no problem. I spent a lot of time healing, and that’s where Dale and I connect—we agree that healing is the worst. People confuse healing with healed—not the same thing. To be perpetually healing is a heinous fate.

As for Dale’s “pre-tragedy” adolescence, I think with the exception of the freak injuries, I had a pretty typical middle to high school experience. I think Dale did as well. So yeah, it’s fair to say it was inspired, though it’s far from actual events. We didn’t go through the same things, but he’s still created from the material I gathered during those years—it’s a twisted, funhouse mirror image of all the stuff I encountered when we were the same age.

PK: There are a few moments in Dale's youth where he's on the verge of a cinematic, John Hughes-style triumph - including Dale's glorious mental picture of his own ideal graduation. How much of the pressure (and disappointment) on kids that age comes from external influences on what their lives *should* be like at that stage?

FV: I think even without external pressures, Dale and Mack and kids like them put the pressure on themselves. They really idealize things, want to reach the pinnacle, want to accomplish crazy things. “I want to be an astronaut,” sure, I mean every kid wants to be an astronaut. Every kid wants to play in the major league. The pressure is all internal, at least at first. I think it’s sweet when someone says “You can accomplish anything, you can be an astronaut, never give up the dream” and then you have both internal and external pressure for something that probably isn’t going to happen.

The earlier these idealistic tendencies are shattered, the faster the individual grows up and learns what’s real. For life to begin, the damage must be permanent. I truly feel that getting burned and wearing those scars since the age of 10, I grew up a lot faster. You learn that “shit happens” and you have to get the skillset to deal with it. Which brings me to this tangent—the problem I see today is that kids aren’t allowed to fail. All the greats in industry and sports will tell you, you learn more from failure than you do from winning—and here we are, not keeping score in youth games. Seems that every time a kid is in trouble or gets a bad grade, it’s not the kid, it’s the teachers. Used to be, my teacher would straighten me up by saying “I’m telling your mother.” Nowadays, that’s how kids threaten the teachers. Something’s wrong there and then you end up with a clean cut kid, just turned 22, degree in hand, and he’s just not ready the first time he steps into the adult world and someone tells him to go fuck himself.

PK: I know that, growing up in the Midwest, there was a certain mystique to the LA "experience". The Samaritan captures that expectation - but also both the surrealness and the disappointment of the city and the TV industry. Is this a journey you've undergone yourself or seen close at hand?

FV: When you live in towns that are as small as the ones I experienced, any big city has a mystique. I trekked to California on training once, and I was shocked that it seemed just like any other big city, only the weather was nicer and the vegetation was different. Having spent time in New York, Chicago, San Diego, I at least got a little flavor to draw upon, and the rest was done on research. Lucky for me, my wife had visited LA. To be honest, I don’t know if it would have done me any good to experience it myself—I did want to capture a bit of that awe, and I just know that being there in person would shift a tectonic plate in my brain and I would have written it with a little more of that disappointment.

PK: What about reality TV? Which shows are you watching or helped inspire The Samaritan? And which have you tried out for? (We all did it. Confess!)

The Death Panel FV: I actually spent more time reading about the spine of reality TV than actually watching it—how they cut footage together and how it really isn’t all that real. It’s almost like a cultural experiment, getting just the right mix of people to make a toxic batch of good television. But a common reality TV thread is from the crapper to the castle, and I think the king of that brand of reality TV is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. So I went for Extreme Makeover: Transplant Edition.

As for applying for reality TV, here’s a story . . . the show Dedications that Mack tries out for? I caught a pilot (I think it was a pilot, anyway) for that same type of show on VH1. They had a music star meet with someone, and they would write a song for someone special. The guy proposed, she said yes, and at the end of the show they put up information for the casting call. I emailed them my story (I was dating a lovely girl at the time) and got a call from VH1, ended up doing a video follow up, got good feedback on that, and then they said I was good to go for the show, but they needed to know if I would propose. Well I had been dating Krissy, now my wife, for about a year, and it didn’t seem like I could say yes—not because I didn’t want to propose, but because I didn’t want to propose on a cheesy TV show. So I said no and they didn’t call me back. I never saw another episode, I think it got cancelled, and I was thinking—what would happen if I proposed at the taping to get on TV and then they never ran the show? How awful. And that experience sort of made it into the novel.

PK: I've seen a huge variety of comparisons come out in earlier reviews (including a few spurious ones from us, too). It'd be good to know from you - the dreaded influences question...?

FV: I don't consider myself well-read, actually. I find what I like and I burn through those books. I grew up reading Stephen King, so he's definitely an influence. His formula of "weird crap happens in a small town" connected with me. His stories scared the bejesus out of me, as well. I can still recall the final paragraphs of "The Jaunt" and "The Boogeyman."

But for true, writerly influence, it has to be Chuck Palahniuk and all the writers I've discovered or met through his website, The Cult. Strangely enough, I wrote a short story and someone ripped into me in a writer's workshop because I was "trying too hard to sound like Chuck Palahniuk." This was in college, and I had no idea who Chuck was. But I wanted to see for myself, and I was blown away. Fight Club, man, there's just no topping that. And then I went to meet Chuck on tour, and discovered Donald Ray Pollock. And being part of Chuck's Cult workshop, I discovered Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger, and budding novelists Richard Thomas and Brandon Tietz. Before I did my MFA, I was sharpening my skills in the Cult workshops, which were geared toward polishing fiction lessons from Chuck himself. I always loved first person, but Chuck Palahniuk helped me learn how to write first person much better.

Sick Things PK: Although this is your first novel, you've got a body of shorter work published already. Which would you suggest that fans of The Samaritan go to next when they're looking for their next fix of your writing?

FV: If you liked The Samaritan, I suggest picking up the anthologies The Death Panel and Sick Things. Not only am I aboard with some excellent authors such as Tom Piccirilli, Simon Wood, and Scott Nicholson, but my stories in there are written in first person, and when I write first person, I tend to carry a much different voice than third person. “Detail” is one of my favorites, about a car detailer who cleans up criminal messes and he gets caught up with the exact wrong woman. "Threshold" is about two Dale and Mack type high school kids who go home with a couple of girls who are bait for a demonic presence. What I found so amusing about writing that one is how they absolutely know something is amiss, but the lure of sex keeps them around until the inevitable happens.

PK: And what are you working on now?

FV: A stack of short story ideas I promised myself I would get around to writing, and I’m just letting my next novel idea germinate, writing down notes, lines, possible turns of plot. Looks more and more like I’m going to play in an area of great interest to me—apocalypse, mythical beings, religion, and of course the battle starts at a small lake near a small town. I think. Who knows, these things always have a way of adjusting themselves.


The second half of our interview will be posted on Wednesday. We talk about Mr. Venturini's recent "virtual tour" experience -  a must-read for writers and marketers alike. The Samaritan is out now from Blank Slate Press.