Fred Venturini grew up in Patoka, Illinois, where he survived being lit on fire by a bully, a neck-breaking car accident, and being chewed up by a pit bull. His fiction has appeared in places like River Styx, The Death Panel, Sick Things, Johnny America, and Necrotic Tissue, and he is a two-time Chuck Palahniuk anthology finalist. He lives in Southern Illinois with his beautiful wife, Krissy. The Samaritan is his first novel.

Where are you from?

Born in the Chicago area, but the bulk of my formative years were spent in Patoka, Illinois.  Great thing about Patoka, no traffic lights and you pretty much knew everyone.  However you had to keep an eye on your gas tank (the nearest gas station was about ten miles away) and McDonald’s fries would always be cold by the time you got them home.

Tell us your latest news?

I’m still giddy about the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup, we moved to a new town, and I’ve already been contacted with interest in movie and TV rights for The Samaritan, which scares and excites me at the same time.

When and why did you begin writing?

I began writing because it was assigned in school.  I remember dabbling with recreational writing in junior high, but never had the patience or time for it.  In high school English class, our teacher, Vikki Cleveland (affectionately called Miss C), really pushed us to write things, and I obliged, never thinking I had an ounce of talent until she told me I had a knack for it.  A high school kid’s ego reacts to such statements, so I started to tackle those assignments with a bit more fervor, until I was writing stories for my own satisfaction, outside of class.

However, the seeds of any writer are first planted through a constant dedication to reading.  I was reading at an early age thanks to my grandmother, who would literally spend hours each day reading me whatever books I picked out.  I would pick out novelizations of Friday the 13th movies, paperbacks with haunted houses on the cover, and Stephen King books.  I did a book report on Cujo in grade school and I think everyone about crapped their pants, the teacher included.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

When I wrote a rhyming poem called “The Midnight Walk” in sophomore English, and I was too shy (like everyone else) to read it aloud or claim

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authorship.  Miss C would read the stack of everyone’s work anyway, keeping the author “anonymous.”  She got to that poem (which was about two guys arguing and one turns out to be Satan, which I thought was trailblazing stuff at the time), read it, and everyone got really quiet, then slowly turned to look at me.  Everyone at the same time.  And my friend says, “Dude, you are screwed up in the head.”  Felt like a compliment.  Everyone identified me as the author immediately, and they looked a little freaked out . . . it was the first time I had really affected an audience, so that’s my watershed moment.
What inspired you to write your first book?

The Samaritan is actually my fourth novel.  The first three barely saw a second draft; they live in the digital “bottom drawer” of my hard drive.  The challenge of the long form inspires me.  Short stories are like building little houses in a subdivision; a novel is like building the Great Wall of China.

For The Samaritan, specifically, I was inspired by my friend Deb Garwood, who said in my MFA class that boys are friends forever, even if they’re bad for each other, and they stay friends long after they should have grown apart.  I was already working on the regeneration concept, but once I started adding the friendship thread to the book, I think it found its soul a little bit.

Do you have a specific writing style?

I don’t get too caught up with style definitions, but I discovered Chuck Palahniuk’s writing because someone accused me of trying to mimic him/rip him off in one of my short stories.  Then I read “Fight Club” to see what the fuss was about and was blown away; I hadn’t read anything like it before.  I won’t go so far as to say I have a Chuck Palahniuk style, but when I write first person, I find that some minimalist principles and black humor wiggle their way into the prose, depending on the narrator I’m trying to create.  Third person is a little different for me, exposition becomes tougher to slide in there without looking wedged in, so point of view is always an important choice I have to consider.

How did you come up with the title?

I get in trouble when I try to “come up” with titles.  When the title finds me, I’m usually in good shape.  In this case, the title just landed on the manuscript and stayed there.  “Samaritan” can mean so much, it’s a rich and Biblical word.  The novel began as a short story, and I “came up” with that story’s title, “Love in Standard Definition,” which should prove my point exactly.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Not specifically, there’s no quiz in the back of the book or anything.  You can break the fortune cookie if you try to doctor the message inside.  Perhaps a few readers will take a long look at the friendships in their lives, or how their adult lives match up with their childhood dreams, or examine the real motivations behind their acts of charity.

How much of the book is realistic?

The premise of a man who can regenerate things is unrealistic and comic-bookish.  I treated him as realistically as possible, and strongly focused on the events leading up to the discovery of his gift.  For me it’s always vitally important to consider who it happens to instead of what happens in fiction.

Are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

This is the question I get asked most about this book.  Stephen Graham Jones was onto me when he said, “It was like an autobiography I forgot I’d written.” I think it does have a memoir feel, especially early.  I wanted to ground the story so I dipped into experiences and people that shaped the early portion of my life.  I wanted the grit of a small town, the disappointments and dreams that fester there.  I wrote a blog on the subject about how experiences shape an author’s lens.  It’s a gray area, really—I can’t say it’s based on my life, but I can’t say it’s not a big part of the book.

What books have most influenced your life most?

Fight Club, Slaughterhouse Five, The Stand, and Skeleton Crew.

If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?

Let’s call this a tie.  Chuck Palahniuk’s website has an amazing writer’s workshop, and he would often post “lessons” and writing tips.  I learned a ton about writing just by being part of that workshop environment.  I love his books and his workshop (disclosure: Chuck himself doesn’t partake in the workshop, but he’s the reason it exists), so Chuck is indeed a mentor.  I later moved on to an actual MFA program, and I wasn’t sure what to expect, but my very first instructor was Michael Nye (who is now the managing editor at Missouri Review, as well as being an author of some pretty outstanding fiction) and I was just blown away by the way he could break down a story and inspire discussion.  So smart, well-read, articulate.  I was jealous of the contents of his brain.  I think every class he would say something about writing that you could carve into a slab of rock and put at your writing desk; something that you just knew you’d have to come back to time and time again.

What book are you reading now?

“The Ones That Got Away,” by Stephen Graham Jones, but by the time anyone reads this, I’ll be done.  I have a soft spot for an amazing anthology of stories, and this is one of the best I’ve read in a long, long time.  I’m trying to savor it by rationing out one story per day.

Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Absolutely.  Two guys I met via the Chuck workshop are Brandon Tietz and Richard Thomas; their short stories just scream at you to check out their debut novels.  Also, I recently read Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper and that man has the goods; I’ve never been so delighted to read footnotes.

What are your current projects?

I’m working out the details on a new novel, but between novels is a great time to pound out a few stories.  I’ve got a notebook of story ideas I promised myself I’d explore once The Samaritan was finished.

Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.

The “Loose Amalgamation of Writers,” Deb, Sarah, Erik . . . fellow MFA’ers that became trusted friends and a valuable sounding board for advice and feedback.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?

I can’t sit here and say with a straight face that I wouldn’t.  There’s always a nugget I run into that I would have loved to have gotten in there and explored.  I can’t read the book without wanting to twist a sentence or add something or delete something.  That’s just me as a writer.  I would refine forever if I was immortal.  But you can refine things into dust; you can polish a car’s paint until you get to bare metal.  Sometimes you just have to say, “I’m done with this project” and move onto the next one.

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

Time and attention.  I sometimes wonder if I have attention deficit disorder.  I hear of writers going into these twelve-hour trances.  Well for me, anything over an hour is a trance.  I have many sessions where I burn out and can’t continue after fifteen minutes, maybe a half hour.  It’s a constant battle, so I aim by volume—the more sessions I force myself into, the more opportunities I have for those one hour plus jackpots.

Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

I’ve read Stephen King forever, and my fanboy loyalties lie with him.  One of the first books I ever read was Skeleton Crew, and if that wasn’t a kick-ass pack of short stories, I might not have been hungry to keep reading and writing.  That first taste was top notch, and got me hooked on the craft.  I can recite the end of “The Jaunt” even today, the first story that absolutely fried my ability to sleep.

Now that we’re both older and wiser, I’m astounded by his absolute dedication to the art, which shines in his writing; the volume, the detail, the diversity.  Here is a man that has come about as close as a human can come to completely exploring the complete expanse of imagination; a man that can inspire you with Shawshank or crush you under the weight of a cellular phone caused zombie apocalypse.

Who designed the covers?

Jane Colvin, a graphic designer for Blank Slate Press.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?

The writing was easy compared to the rewriting.  The toughest part is cutting a paragraph or line that you love, but know it has no function or place in the novel.  That struggle is like playing “Operation” after six Red Bulls, hoping you’re pulling out the right piece, hoping your hands won’t shake while you go in for the attempt.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

I learned a lot about the black market for organs and how the organ donation system in our country is pretty much a broken system, simply because it’s based on altruism—a model that doesn’t work.  I also learned about the human side of doctors—a profession where perfection and almost omniscient knowledge is expected from the outset of one’s career.  No one wants to have a doctor-in-training operate on them, and we’re short on cadavers for them to practice on, yet we expect our medical professionals to be the best and will sue them if they make a mistake.  Sounds like a screwed up situation to me.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Finish your first draft, no matter what, and always read your work out loud as part of the rewriting process.

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

At this stage in my career, I have an immense gratitude for anyone who humbles me by spending a few hours of their valuable leisure time reading my book.  I have pledged to be as interactive and accessible as possible, so no email will go unanswered, no comment will be ignored.  Readers always come first, because without them, a novel is just another tree falling in the forest that no one gets to hear.

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