Preston Fassel is the author of Our Lady of the Inferno and an editor at Cinedump.com; here is a link to his Amazon page:
Q: What is Our Lady of the Inferno about?
A: Literally, it’s about the intersecting stories of two different women in 1983 New York: Ginny, a runaway from the Midwest who ends up overseeing the prostitution operation of a Times Square gangster in order to help care for her disabled sister; and Nicolette, a waste management executive who moonlights as a serial killer, kidnapping prostitutes and ritualistically hunting them down in her own dump after hours. At the start of the book, Ginny has sort of become a criminal kingpin in her own right, but the moral compromises she’s made are beginning to take a toll on her, and a series of personal tragedies and professional missteps push her over the edge. Meanwhile, Nicolette is entering her third year as a serial killer, and her ability to isolate her “normal” persona from her “killer” persona is slipping. Nicolette learns about Ginny while scouting for victims one day, and she becomes obsessed with making her the next victim.
Thematically, it’s an ode to the 80s movies I grew up watching that had these very vibrant, appealing female characters like Night of the Comet and Modern Girls, and I used that template to explore a wide range of ideas and topics, like PTSD, and retaining your identity after trauma; body image; and gender relations and gender roles.
Q: Who inspired the characters of Ginny and Nicolette?
A: Ginny is an amalgamation. Consciously, I started her out as the kind of girl I’d have liked to have dated in high school, mixed with 80s archetypes—I once referred to my original concept as “the valley girl from Hell”— mixed with bits and bobs of several women I’ve known and worked with. Her surname “Kurva,” for example, is a bit of wordplay inspired by something that a filmmaker named Jen Soska once said to me during an interview. As I got deeper into the book I started to steal bits and pieces from my wife. She used to be an inner city high school teacher and I took a lot of Ginny’s interactions with her girls from the way I saw my wife handling her rougher students. My wife’s also very good at convincing people to get things done and I took Ginny’s talent for talking people into doing stuff from her, too. Physically, I modeled her on Andrea Rau’s character Ilona in the film Daughters of Darkness, on whom I had something of a crush in college.
Subconsciously, I realized after I’d finished the book, a lot of Ginny’s darker elements had come from me—her drinking, her depression— but so does her fascination with outer space, her scientific background, and her taste in music and movies. I don’t know what it says about me that I made my literary analogue a strong, sexy, 21 year old woman…
Nicolette was initially born out of my desire to write a story about a serial killer who thinks they’re the Minotaur. It’s such a scary idea but so many people have tried and failed to do it well. Dexter had like one episode where he was the throwaway killer of the week. The Venture Bros. had an episode where the Monarch thinks he’s the Minotaur, and it’s all played for laughs. American Horror Story had their minotaur die pretty much offscreen after one episode. So much wasted potential. I also wanted to create a frightening female horror villain, and I figured that if Ginny eventually emerges as this feminist ideal—independent, brilliant, ambitious, nurturing—then Nicolette should be the opposite of that. She’s the sort of woman who thinks that all women should conform to her standards, who views women solely through the lens of their sexuality and who sees the world very narrowly, who figuratively and literally cuts down other women to get ahead in the world.
Q: What makes them worth reading about?
A: I tried to make Ginny a real, strong, yet flawed female protagonist, and that isn’t something there’s really a lot of. Writers are still trying to figure out how to do that. They think that “strong woman” means either she just beats a lot of people up, or she makes a lot of sarcastic remarks, or she’s super disaffected. And when a female character is strong she’s 100% strong and when she’s vulnerable she’s 100% vulnerable. They have about as much complexity and depth as an 80s action movie hero, and that’s not interesting. I wanted Ginny to be real and I wanted the reader to fall in love with her. I made her funny, and smart, and vicious and petty and loving and spiteful and strong and weak. She’s the kind of woman that most other women would want as their girlfriend. She’s the kind of woman most guys would want to date.
Nicolette is, I think, genuinely terrifying. I tried to make her, to all outward appearances, seem simply shy and withdrawn but otherwise very normal. And inside she’s completely and utterly consumed by hate and also very rapidly losing her mind. Her sections of the book are focalized through her deteriorating mental state, and the things she thinks and sees become more wild and hallucinogenic as the book goes on. At the same time, though, I also put a lot of dark humor into Nicolette’s sections because the more unhinged she becomes the more bizarre her thought processes get. Like there’s a point where she sees a woman at her office wearing the same blouse as her, and she has to look down at herself to make sure that the woman didn’t steal it from her when she wasn’t looking.
Q: What interested you about the 1980’s?
A: I’ve had a fascination with the 1980s since I was about twelve. I think part of it is that every generation tends to romanticize the era they were born into, either because it’s colored through their fond childhood memories or because there’s a natural tendency to feel like you “just missed out on something”. Another reason is because I grew up in a fairly rural town in Oklahoma called Broken Arrow, and into the late 90s and even the early 2000s it still pretty much was the 1980s there. If you look at my high school yearbooks some of the photos look like outtakes from a John Hughes movie.
Then, too, I just grew up on the pop culture of the 1980s, both what I lived through myself and then what was on television growing up, the movies my parents owned, the music on the radio, stuff I’d rent from Hollywood Video and Blockbuster… There was a certain je ne sais quoi about films from the 80s that no other decade has ever produced or been able to reproduce. In a lot of ways I had a great adolescence but in a lot of other ways it was also very traumatic, and in those darker moments the 80s—more specifically its’ pop culture—became an escape for me. A safe place. I saw the 80s as this romantic time full of bright colors and incredible music and the sort of possibility I felt was missing from my own life.
Q: You work for an optical magazine and website. How did you come to work in that industry?
A: After I graduated college I got a job as an optometric assistant and optician for a Texas State Optical location in Magnolia, Texas. The office subscribed to a magazine called 20/20, and its’ online supplement, The Optician’s Handbook. One day, during downtime, I was reading Optician’s Handbook and came across an article that I thought was just terrible. In addition to it being written very poorly, it also advocated, I felt, lying to patients about certain aspects of their lenses in order to get a sale. So I wrote this super-pissy letter to the editor explaining what I thought was wrong grammatically with the article—I actually copy-and-pasted the text into the email and dissected it line-by-line— and also taking them to task for running it in the first place. I didn’t think anyone would actually read it. Instead I got a letter back from the editor, Mark Mattison-Shupnick, thanking me for bringing it to his attention and saying that they were going to pull the article. Then at the end of the letter he asked if I would be interested in writing for them and inviting me to submit a sample story.
In retrospect I really think that it was more backhanded than anything, like, “Oh, you know so much about writing, why don’t you try writing something for us?” At the time, though, I took it literally and I submitted an article about the history of Pince Nez glasses. I was really surprised when Mark accepted it, and even more surprised when he offered me a consistent, paying job writing monthly articles for them.
After about a year of writing for The Optician’s Handbook, I got an email one day from a man named James Spina, the editor of 20/20, the print magazine, who said he was impressed with a piece I’d done on the influence of Mad Men on optical fashion. He said that he wanted to start having me write articles for the print magazine, as well. My first article ran in the late fall of 2013, and I’ve been consistently writing for them ever since. When I entered journalism, James—who used to be a music journalist himself—became a sort of mentor to me, and helped me get my footing in the entertainment writing world and gave me advice on interacting with celebrities.
Q: You are an editor at Cinedump.com. How do you go about procuring writers for your site?
A: We don’t really actively pursue anyone. We have an open-door policy that anyone can submit material at any time. Our editor-in-chief, Jessie Hobson, will review it and if he likes it he’ll share it with my assistant editor, Jason Howard, and myself, and if we all like it then we’ll run the article and offer the person a consistent position writing for us. We recently added a fourth writer, Pennie Sublime, with whom I’ve worked at Rue Morgue in the past. I’d really like to see a few more people come on board through 2017 to generate more content for the site.
Q: What defines a “Grindhouse” movie?
A: Grindhouses were movie theaters on 42nd Street in New York (and more rarely the Tenderloin in San Francisco) that specialized in playing films that couldn’t or wouldn’t be shown anywhere else: really sleazy horror movies, violent kung fu movies, more mainstream pornography, and even some foreign arthouse films that were too sexual or violent for more commercial arthouses of the time. The term “grindhouse” itself comes from the 42nd Street theaters, which tended to run double-and-triple features back to back, continuously “grinding out” films. Over time, “grindhouse movie” became a catchall term for the sort of movies that would be shown at these theaters.
Q: What steps did you take to get your book published?
A: I sought out small, independent presses and submitted to them. It’s very hard, if not impossible, for a first time writer to get his or her debut novel published by a major press, and it’s just as hard for an unpublished writer to find an agent. My high school writing teacher was P.C. Cast, who’s now well known for the House of Night series, and she was my earliest writing mentor. I remembered that she’d gotten her first novel, Goddess by Mistake, published through a smaller press and built her career from there.
On top of that, all the places I submitted were horror and thriller publishers. I always intended OLOTI to be a literary story with horror elements, as opposed to a straight horror story; but there was also enough there in the way of horror, and so much of the story was an homage to 80s horror movies, that I didn’t feel dishonest shopping it around to horror publishers. It’s much easier to get attention from a genre press than one focused on “straight” literary fiction. At the same time, I was also doing book reviews for Rue Morgue and developing contacts in the horror publishing world who could act as advisors or guides.
Several horror presses turned down my pitches and query letters; a few asked for the complete manuscript and then ended up passing anyway. I think about a dozen places passed on OLOTI before Fear Front picked it up.
Q: What compels a person to write movie reviews?
A: There’s a degree of narcissism to it, I guess. The idea that you’ve got unique enough a perspective on a movie, and that you can articulate it in unique enough way, that it warrants you putting it down in print for other people to read. Then, too, I think there’s a sense of ownership of a movie once you’ve critiqued it. Anyone who reads that review is going to be made to see the movie through your eyes. You’re literally changing other people’s perception of a work of art. And when you do that, you are, in some small way, changing the art itself; and there’s a sense that, in doing so, you claim a piece of it for your own.
Q: What famous person would you most like to have Nicolette meet at the dump?
A: What famous person would I like to have my deranged serial killer hunt down and axe to death… I don’t think there’s an answer that I can give to this question that won’t result in a visit from the FBI.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects.