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Fran Friel: Introducing Horror's Newest 'Mama'

By, Vince A. Liaguno

At first glance, Fran Friel would appear to be an anomaly. Although her debut novella, Mama’s Boy , is chock full of horror, the writer behind the pen is anything but. Sweet, personable, and talented as hell, the amiable dark scribe sits down to chat about the pressures of early success and the things she’s learning on her way to greatness.

Dark Scribe: Tell us a little something about Mama’s Boy . thMBCover_Big.jpg

Fran Friel: The story takes place in the fictional Penn's Asylum where severely disfigured Frank Doe is coaxed from twenty years of mute silence by a gifted young doctor. Newly hired, Rebecca is far more talented than Penn's normal mediocre staff. In the doc's confidence, Frank begins to reveal the dark secrets of his past, one the doctor is both horrified and excited to discover. Seems she's come to the right place.

Ultimately, Mama's Boy is a tale of the creation of a human monster and his legacy. During the early part of the writing, Mama’s Boy was a very uncomfortable story to write. I know it sounds crazy, but it felt like Frank was sitting behind me, urging me on. It was dark stuff, darker than I'd ever attempted, but in the end I'm grateful for Frank's pressure to tell his story. I learned that I could go where a story needs to go, to be truthful, even if it makes me uncomfortable. And I also learned not to be so quick to judge my characters, because they are likely to have something important to teach me. Frank was a monster, and his actions were inexcusable, but he was a "made monster," not born that way. How would he have been different if someone stopped the monster that made him?

Dark Scribe: Where did the inspiration for Mama’s Boy come from?

Fran Friel: The inspiration for Mama's Boy was a twisted path, to say the least. I was a member of a literary fiction writer's group at the Zoetrope.com Virtual Studios where members offered the occasional writing prompt to get the creative juices flowing. For Valentine's Day a phrase was offered as a prompt.  I wasn't writing horror at the time, but the phrase sparked the image of a man trailing the tip of a sharp knife from the neck to the navel of a naked woman, while he spoke the words of the prompt, "And that's why I love you." I guess getting such a twisted image from a sentimental phrase was a clue to my future--horror writing or a visit to the asylum. Fortunately, I chose the horror.

I never forgot that Valentine's image, so a few months later when I took a writing class, I expanded the flash into a short story told from the victim's point of view. When my classmates critiqued the piece, I got the usual, I don't like horror, so I don't like this story line, but the teacher, Terri Brown-Davidson, really liked it. And her encouragement got me through a lot of difficult "rejection" days to come.

Later I expanded the story again to novella length for an anthology submission, but I rewrote it in first person, this time told by the antagonist. It wasn't intentional, but writing from multiple perspectives was a great way to get to know the characters. Thankfully (in hindsight, of course), the novella got rejected, so I submitted it to Insidious Reflections magazine as a possible series. It was one of those timing and dumb luck moments, because it turned out that Insidious Reflections was embarking on publishing a novella series for their Insidious Publications imprint. They loved Mama's Boy and offered to publish it as their first limited-edition. I expanded the story yet again for the book, adding a subplot told in third person to help break-up the long first person narrative. I'm a recycler...can you tell?

Dark Scribe: The novella has received widespread critical praise and a Stoker nomination. Does such success at this early stage in your career create added pressure for the follow-up?

Fran_Friel.jpgFran Friel: Yes, it does a bit. I'm a perfectionist and Mama's Boy is far from perfect. At this stage, I'm still learning a lot of the fundamental craft of good writing. I can tell a story, which is vital, of course, but it's my goal to be a good writer, as well as a storyteller. Mama’s Boy's Stoker nomination puts more light on all my work with the expectation of Stoker quality writing. I'm not there yet. Some folks have asked why they don't see more of my stories published. Truth is, I've been practicing the craft of writing, but I didn't want to publish stories that, frankly, sucked. I didn't want a bad story to be the first thing a reader saw of my writing, perhaps forever turning them away from my work.

But, as they say, the cat's out of the bag, and I can't goof around using the excuse that I have to wait to get better for my work to be "seen," now. Weston Ochse's Storytellers Unplugged blog, gave me a great wake-up reminder when he spoke about being caught unprepared when a publisher approached him with a great opportunity. I'm determined to live-up to Weston's challenge. I've started a new work schedule that provides full focus time for my writing, less Internet lollygagging, and a withdraw from a lot of extra-curricular writing activities that were drawing my focus away from my own work. Since I have a tendency to do stuff for everyone else before I focus on my own work, this has really freed me up. I know it's cliché', but I'm really excited about writing, like a kid in a candy store.

Dark Scribe: If you were casting the movie version of Mama’s Boy, whom would you cast in what roles?

Fran Friel: I see my stories like movies in my head, so I have some strong visuals, but it's tough to find the right fit. Frank Doe is pretty easy, though. I see Edward Norton in the role with that wicked energy he embodies so well, along with his boyish charm. Rebecca I envision as a younger version of Jennifer Connolly--long black hair, feline in appearance, deeply intelligent...or perhaps, Natalie Portman. Mama? I'd say a younger Susan Sarandon in the early scenes, but she's perfect for Frank's adult years. However, if I could morph Kathy Bates into a slender redhead, she would be the essence of Mama.

Dark Scribe: Insidious Publications released Mama’s Boy as a limited edition and a lot of readers missed out on a terrific piece of horror fiction. Any plans in the works to bring the novella to the masses?

Fran Friel: Thanks for the wonderful compliment. It's been over a year since Mama’s Boy sold-out, and I'm still getting requests for the novella, and as of yesterday, folks are still asking to do reviews. Since Mama's Boy was a limited-edition, Insidious Publications is honoring the agreement with their customers and not taking advantage of a call for another printing. It was a tough call for them, but I really respect their integrity on this issue.

With my Insidious Publications contract complete, I'm now free to take the work elsewhere for publishing. I'm thrilled to report that I’ve finalized plans to re-release Mama's Boy along with a collection of short stories with Jason Sizemore at Apex Publications in 2008.

Dark Scribe: What has been the biggest mistake you’ve made as an emerging writer?

Fran Friel: Not starting my serious pursuit of writing earlier in my life was a mistake. I spent a lot of my life doing what I was "supposed" to do rather than what I longed to do. But with that said, everything I've done outside of writing has made me a better writer, plus the maturity level helps. Things like rejections and delays don't upset me like they would have when I was young and impatient.

However, time management is the major mistake I've made since starting my writing career. I have plenty of time to write compared to most people, but over time, I've frittered a lot of it away by spreading myself too thin in online writing community projects, as well as general messing around online. Granted, it was all writing related and it helped me in many invaluable ways, but it reached a point of diminishing returns so I had to cut and slash my activities. Now, my work days are writing specific, with weekends and occasional evenings for networking and playing online. It was hard to extract myself (Internet addict, that I am), and I'm still "clearing my desk," but frankly, it was a relief to finally get my head fully in the game.

Dark Scribe: Conversely, what has been the smartest thing you’ve done to hone your craft?

Fran Friel: Writing classes, critique groups and reading! I started out with a couple of local adult education classes, that
got me on track with prompts and writing basics. Since then, I've studied with Terri Brown Davidson (Gotham Writers' Workshop), Paula Guran (Writers Online) and the masters I mentioned earlier from Borderlands Press Novel Boot Camp. I'm a ravenous student, so guaranteed, I'll continue to study the craft. Don't tell my husband, but I'm considering an MFA program. He thinks I should stop all this crazy studying and just write. He's my greatest (and most critical) fan, but if I'm going to teach at the college level some day, I'll need that MFA.

I was unable to find a local writing group that would accept a newbie, so I started my own. Then I found Zoetrope.com Virtual Studios, founded by Francis Ford Coppola in the 90's, and I dove into those literary shark infested waters of critique and be critiqued. Blood was spilled, but I hung tough, got better at writing, and ultimately found the genre underground
at Zoetrope -The Horror Library. The HL was like a soft warm horror hothouse for new writers. I won their Slush Pile contest, and eventually joined the official ranks of the Terrible Twelve. 1559369-1037720-thumbnail.jpg

Author Nick Grabowsky finds himself on the receiving end of one of Friel's patent motherly hugs.


And of course, I read everyday. Science fiction is my favorite, but I read widely in the horror genre. I'm actually trying to catch up, because I didn't read much horror before I started writing it. I also enjoy fantasy, classics, mainstream - I'm just looking for a good story. I recently read Treasure Island for the first time. Wow! Now I'm a pirate story lover for life. Errol Flynn here I come!

Dark Scribe: Any crazy fans yet?

Fran Friel: Only one, but they were fairly harmless. I've actually been blessed with incredibly gracious and supportive fans. When I didn't win the Stoker, I really wasn't upset at all for myself (kind of secretly relieved...hence, the pressure question reply), but I felt very bad for all the folks who were rooting for Mama's Boy. They'd been so excited for me, I felt like I'd let them down. But I've promised them all, I'll keep trying!

Dark Scribe: You possess one of the sweetest online presences of any writer out there, always lending words of support and encouragement to other writers and skillfully dodging the contentious issues that pop up from time to time on message boards. Is horror writing an outlet to unleash your darker side?

Fran Friel: (laughs) That's a very kind assessment! Thank you so much. Author, Maurice Broaddus, told me that "sweetness" makes me scary, because "they don't see it coming."

I suppose writing horror is an outlet for the dark side for most of us in the genre. For me personally, I guess you could say I've been exploring the extremes. I worked for nearly two decades as a holistic therapist, and I spent years studying holistic technique and philosophies, and teaching folks how to explore all aspects of themselves--light and dark.

My training, my personal process work and the work with my clients exposed me to a lot of the darker side of human nature. Lots of people call this profession, Lightworking. I guess in some ways, writing horror is similar. The work I'm exploring as a writer also exposes the darker side of our world, and I hope it also allows a little of the light to seep into those thirsty cracks in the facade.

When I first started writing seriously, my work tended to be light in nature, but it was missing the depth of what was lying beneath the surface. It was nice, but unsatisfying. I guess after all those years working "in the light," now exploring the opposite for a time is necessary to help find the balance in my life and in my writing.

Dark Scribe: Which writers do you most look up to?

Fran Friel: I can't possibly name them all. There are so many writers that have provided little sparks to my soul, igniting my passions and literally steering my life's course. I know it may sound trite, but as far back as Dr. Seuss, I've been inspired. He taught me to love words, and I literally became obsessed with them. Bradbury's Illustrated Man sent my imagination into overdrive, and Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm forever changed my view of the world. Then Arthur C. Clarke and Gene Roddenbury expanded that view beyond my world. These people, and many others, made my youth magical.

More recently, the word magicians that pushed me over that "I'm a writer now" cliff, were Julian May, Peter Hamilton and Neil Gaiman. May and Hamilton for the sheer scope of their imagination and laser brilliance, but there was something about Gaiman in particular. Reading Gaiman's work always feels so intimate, like he's chuckling or whispering secrets between the lines...and doing it just for me. I think he's a wizard, perhaps. Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts and Craig Davidson's Rust and Bones have effected me similarly. Damn, I want to write like that!

And then there are the mentors, and they don't even know they're my mentors: Gary Braunbeck, F. Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone, Elizabeth Massie, Tom Piccirilli, Christopher Golden. These wonderful people teach by example. They write like fiends with Faustian contracts, and they treat fans and "young" writers (like me) as if they were their family. Again and again, they show kindness and a amazing generosity of spirit. When I grow-up, I want to be just like them.

Dark Scribe: Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

Fran Friel: Grayer! And a better writer, I hope. Of course, I'd like to have a repertoire of well-read novels, and I'd like to also be doing some teaching. It's been a great joy in other professional areas of my life, and I miss it, so I hope to combine my love of writing and my love of teaching at some point down the road. To start the process, I've been considering offering workshops at the local high school to see if I can inspire a few new writers (and readers). Eventually, I'd like to teach at a small private college.

Posted on Thursday, September 13, 2007 at 11:47AM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine | Comments2 Comments

Reader Comments (2)

Great article. I never heard aout her, ut now I'm interested in reading her work.

Thank You.

C. Day

November 17, 2007 | Registered CommenterCharles Day

Great interview, Fran! I certainly learned lots about you I had no previous idea of. Keep writing!

November 21, 2007 | Registered CommenterRichard Hipson
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