I’ve known author Matt Serafini for well over a decade now, and it’s been fun to watch his career evolve as he blazed his path as a writer in the world of horror fiction. Serafini’s first novel, the werewolf-centered Feral, was published back in 2012, and since then, he’s published a handful of other projects, including Under the Blade, Ocean Grave, Rites of Extinction, Island Red and Devil’s Row (Feral #2).
And since we’re celebrating authors all this week for Indie Horror Month, I thought this would be the perfect time to catch up Serafini to talk about the evolution of his writing career, the inspirations behind a few of his different novels, his love of slashers, and more.
Can you start by talking about the transition of writing about film online and in various magazines to embarking on a career as a horror fiction writer? Was there a catalyst behind that decision?
Let me start by thanking you for including me in this month’s indie horror celebration! For those who don’t know, Heather and I were colleagues writing up horror news and reviews for Dread Central back in the day. It’s kind of incredible when you stop and think about how we’ve known each other since 2009 (despite having never met!)—where does the time go?
You know, I always wanted to write novels. Going all the way back to the 1980s, when I was a kid devouring Stephen King and anything else my mom would bring home from yard sales and used book shops. It was so thrilling to stay up late, turning pages on some really crazy and creative fiction. And that definitely informed the person I wanted to be.
I sort of used film journalism as a way to grow my platform. I always thought of it as something more short term. But don’t get me wrong, I loved doing it! Covering new movies, evaluating Blu-ray transfers, writing book reviews… such a blast. But the deeper I got into fiction, I started to realize that it was increasingly difficult to exist in both circles. Not comfortably, anyway. Not for me. Like, once I started to feel I couldn’t objectively evaluate a peer’s novel or a screenwriter pal’s movie, I figured it would be best to step aside.
I do miss it, though. And I still love talking movies and books and right now I’m gearing up to relaunch my newsletter, so if you’re curious about what I have to say about older genre stuff (as well as my career news), you can sign up at my website.
For Under the Blade, you take so many elements that I love from slashers and find a way to breathe new life into them. Without giving too much away for any potential new readers, can you discuss your approach to the story of Under the Blade, and what that initial writing process was like for you?
Matt Serafini: Under the Blade grew from my love of slasher movies, naturally. That story, specifically, sprung from ongoing conversations with a friend about the usually dismal treatment of final girls in slasher sequels. Like, they’re knocked off in the opening minutes, or written completely out (some line about how they “went crazy”), or made to be hyper dysfunctional as a means of illustrating their trauma. And I’m not taking potshots at any specific films here, like I love Friday the 13th Part 2 even though I hate seeing Alice get bumped off so fast and so brutally at the start. But it was through those types of conversations, my friend asking point blank what I would do with a final girl, that started the ball rolling…
I also made a conscious decision to go with an older protagonist in Under the Blade. Slasher movies are by and large youth-oriented things, but to me there always seemed to be an opportunity to contextualize a masked killer into some kind of metaphor for midlife malaise. The book is about someone who survived the slasher killing spree as a teenager, but is now an adult and has to contend not only with the bullshit rigors of day-to-day life, but also a resurrected psycho killer. Who has time for that when you’re trying to make ends meet?!
On another level, I wanted a mature protagonist for the movie adaptation. Keep in mind, I was writing this book in late 2012 and 2013 and roles for actresses in their 40s and beyond weren’t what they are now. I remember reading an interview with Nicole Kidman when the film Rabbit Hole was released (in 2011) and she was like (paraphrasing here), “Hollywood roles dried up so now I have to produce my own.” And that just blew my mind. One of our best living performers can’t get work? Thankfully, that sort of thing seems to be improving. And I don’t mean to imply that Under the Blade was conceived beneath some sort of savior complex on my part. Just that I wanted to contribute a (hopefully) interesting character to progress the conversation in a small way.
And the book was a really tough sell! I’d written it at a time when almost nobody was publishing slashers (though Stephen Graham Jones’ amazing The Last Final Girl was out there giving me hope). Just like with Feral, with publishers telling me that “werewolves are played out,” I got rejections saying “slashers don’t work as novels.” Of course, if you’ve read Under the Blade, then you know the story goes a bit beyond what a slasher is, but that’s a moot point. Bottom line is that nobody really wanted to take a chance on it. But now legacy publishers are releasing slashers. Great authors are writing them. That’s so cool (and validating).
In Feral, you give readers a taste of small-town werewolf lore which I loved (it reminded me of being a kid reading the non-illustrated version of Cycle of the Werewolf at like age eight). Considering we’ve had such a lack of werewolf stories for so long in the genre—although they seem to be coming back in vogue now—was this your way of tipping your hat to this classic monster?
Matt Serafini: Thanks for the kind words on Feral! Your instincts are correct. When I started writing it, it was with an eye toward getting it published through Leisure Books, who at the time was publishing all the latest and greatest: Brian Keene, J. F. Gonzalez, Sarah Pinborough, Ed Lee, Bryan Smith, etc. If you knew me in college, I’d always have one of those paperbacks underneath my arm along with all my textbooks. Leisure was pretty much all I read during that time and so those authors that I mentioned were like direct influences on my decision to sit down and actually write. Some of their work was so wild and extreme and it brought a real sense of liberation. Like anything was possible. I always had the fiction bug in my blood, but it was really those Leisure authors in the early 2000s who kind of helped me make up my mind once and for all.
And at the same time, to answer your question, I felt like whenever we saw werewolves in the genre throughout the 2000s, they were largely sanitized or romanticized and almost universally boring. I’ve taken my share of licks for writing a book as hypersexualized and grotesque as Feral, but that’s absolutely why it is that way. A reaction to where the genre was then. Like, werewolves are these instinctual creatures, like all animals, and that leads to some pretty uncomfortable places—especially when you’re exploring characters who’ve transformed and embraced their ugliest urges and desires.
If I wrote Feral today, it would be completely unrecognizable from the novel I wrote back then (I started working on it in 2006 and it was finally published in 2012). I’m glad it’s out there, though.
Did you know from the onset of writing Feral that you were going to do a follow-up book for it, or did it just click for you one day that you wanted to return to that world with Devil’s Row?
Matt Serafini: Devil’s Row was almost part of Feral! That is to say, my first draft of Feral was so absurdly long (approaching 150,000 words) that nobody in their right mind would’ve published it at that length. So, the first thing I cut from the manuscript was this extended flashback sequence built around the Elisabeth character. I realized that it didn’t necessarily fit within the contemporary setting of Feral and so kill your darlings and yada yada yada. Nevertheless, I thought it was a great sequence that added considerable depth to one of the main characters (as well as the broader world these creatures inhabit). I found that I couldn’t let it go.
Part of why I couldn’t is because when I was first outlining Feral, I had done a ridiculous amount of pre-writing. What the hell did I know about writing a novel? I hadn’t done it before, so what I started out with was reams and reams of character notes and werewolf histories that date all the way back to the beginning of time. Just ridiculous.
In preparation for this interview, I actually dug out those notes for the first time in over a decade. I could probably publish like a Silmarillion-like work for my werewolves if I wanted to. I sketched out that much lore, and it kind of rattles around in my brain from time to time. That’s how Devil’s Row came to be, and I was happy to show a little more of my world in a second book.
Rites of Extinction feels like such a different beast of a book versus your other work, and I was a bit disturbed at times reading (which is a good thing). Can you discuss your approach to that story and the inspirations behind it, especially since it has this really great hook of a mother looking for knowledge and revenge, but it becomes so much more than that along the way?
Matt Serafini: That’s a fantastic compliment, thank you! Rites of Extinction is probably the only (published) book I’ve written that came out exactly as I intended. I mean, in terms of what I envisioned before writing, not just story, but also tone and style. Once finished, I looked back and thought, Yeah, that’s it. Exactly what I wanted.
I’m not entirely sure where it came from, honestly. Obviously, it’s commenting on parenthood, which was something I had spent the last few years prior to writing it adjusting to. And while I love being a dad, one of the things that you have to come to terms with is that your life is no longer 100% your own. You’re making sacrifices every day for your children and that’s just what you’ve signed up for. So, all of that realization got funneled into what is, admittedly, a very dark and strange story about a detective searching out her daughter’s killer… and the unexpected direction that story takes.
Except it’s darker than that because a lot of my fiction is how I channel my fears and anxieties. The stories in the news that always get me are when you have young people committing some awful crime and then the reporters go and talk to their parents who have no idea any of it was happening. And I can’t help it, it makes me look at my kids and I think, God, please let me be able to see the warning signs. That’s where the rest of Rites of Extinction comes from.
You’ve explored slashers, werewolves, creatures in the sea, and other threats in your work—is there a certain subgenre of horror fiction you’d love to explore?
Matt Serafini: If I am lucky enough to be able to keep doing this, then I hope to ultimately have explored every subgenre to some extent. I also wouldn’t mind going back and revisiting some of the areas I’ve already explored. Werewolves and slashers are probably my greatest loves in terms of subgenres, and so I think I’m always a little tempted to see what else I can say there.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout the process of writing your novels over the years, and are you planning to work on any more fiction in the near future?
Matt Serafini: A writing career is an incredibly personal journey and you’ve got to stay true to yourself while walking the path. I think my earliest years of writing were me trying to locate my voice. Really hone in on a style, as well as the stories I wanted to tell. When I look back at my first decade of work as an author, all I see are the things I should’ve done differently. And you can waste a lot of time and energy obsessing over that, or you can chalk it up to a learning experience and move on. Which is exactly what I’d recommend. I don’t think you get to experience real growth unless you do.
And don’t compare yourself to other writers. As I said, the process is a personal one. And that makes it sacred. Everybody gets to where they’re going at a different pace. Just recognize that you can always get better. Keep one ear open for constructive feedback and be open to making changes. Then, keep your head down and do the work. Don’t worry about how much work you do and when you do it. Just keep moving forward.
As for future work? Publishing moves at the speed of molasses, so there’s very little I can actually talk about right now. Lots of exciting irons in the fire, though!