After reading his book Our Lady of the Inferno, I was an immediate fan of writer Preston Fassel’s work, and I’m glad we’re getting yet another widely evocative story from his genre-obsessed mind this summer. Set to release in June is The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov, a novella that mixes together horror and Attitude-Era wrestling with important (and timely) themes involving LGBT issues.
Daily Dead recently caught up with Fassel to discuss the long journey of writing The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov, the inspirations behind his story, creating a sympathetic monster in his titular character, and more.
And to grab a copy of Fassel’s first novel Our Lady of the Inferno, head to Amazon HERE. And to pre-order a copy of The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov, click HERE (the Kindle version of the novella is currently available, but the paperback version should be arriving soon enough).
The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov is quite the title (in a good way, of course). Can you explain a little bit about the story here and the inspiration behind it for our readers?
Preston Fassel: I can trace the story’s origins back to a late-night walk I took with my brother back in 2006. We were in college in Houston and he was talking about moving back to the town in Oklahoma where we’d grown up. I have a very complicated relationship with what I consider to be my hometown. It really shaped me and contributed in a major way to making me who I am today. I have a lot of Oklahoma pride; but, I also came of age there in the early 2000s, during a period I jokingly called The Third Great Awakening, when this culture of hardcore evangelical, mega-church driven, “non-denominationalist” Christianity was flourishing and I really got to see the dawn of MAGA-ism. The culture of politicized Christianity I grew up around was very conflict driven; it seemed that people’s personal relationships to God were always second to their fighting a war against some external, common enemy to serve as a uniting force.
There was a big problem with drugs, divorce rates were some of the highest in the country; but there seemed to be this idea that if you could go to church and unite against some common, outside enemy who sinned in a way you didn’t, that could give you a sense of identity and purpose. And that common enemy was Catholicism and Jews—whether it be ethnic and/or religious—and atheism, but especially homosexuality. Homosexuality was my generation’s boogeyman. It was an incredibly homophobic environment. Potentially being gay in our high school in 2001, 2002 was almost tantamount to a death sentence. And sometimes it was a death sentence.
One of my most profound high school memories is coming into the cafeteria Junior year, and this girl I was kinda-sorta friends with—she let me eat lunch with her and her friends because I didn’t know anyone else that period—was just sobbing and sobbing uncontrollably. And I found out her best friend’s brother had recently come out to his family and his dad had kicked him out of the house, and he’d gone and hanged himself at the field where he used to play Little League. That’s a memory that haunted me in a profound way for a long time and which still looms large in my mind. I’d always known how toxic homophobia was, but this was the first time that I saw there was a real, human cost to it. That’s why when I sold the book to Mark Miller at Encyclopocalypse, I asked that a portion of the proceeds go to The Trevor Project. I’m glad he was as enthusiastic about it as I was. I believe in and know firsthand the importance of their mission.
So, flash forward to ’06 and I’m trying to convince my brother not to move back. And I’m coming up with reasons not to go and one of them is reminding him of this environment of homophobia. And my brother and I, when we talk, our conversations go down these weird rabbit trails and it turns into us just shitting on all these homophobic guys we knew in high school; and my brother brings up the disparity between the most homophobic guys we knew also being the biggest fans in the world of pro wrestling. You have to understand that even the appearance of homosexuality was a huge problem. Dressing in a way that read gay, having stereotypically non-macho interests, those were huge taboos. I had a teacher become suspicious of me because I was reading Mrs. Dalloway my Junior year—a book about a woman buying flowers was suspect. I think he only laid off when he heard me talking about how I got interested in it because of The Hours and what crushes I had on Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore.
But these same guys who’d flip out over a dude reading a book about a woman would sit together in a room for three hours and watch half-naked, oiled-up sweaty dudes in leather thongs grope one another. And I can’t remember if it was me or my brother who said it, but one of us said, “If those guys ever found out one of their favorite wrestlers were gay, their heads would explode” because it would be this huge cognitive dissonance for them, these guys were so insecure they’d probably think it somehow made them gay by watching this stuff, they wouldn’t know how to handle it. And then my imagination just exploded, and I started telling this story about a wrestler who’s outed, and he’s blacklisted, and he gets turned into a dinosaur and goes back for revenge, and by the end of the walk I had the very rough outline for what would become Quentin Sergenov.
I was just discovering John Waters at the time and marathoning all of his movies I could get my hands on, and I drew a ton of inspiration from his films for the story; I’d always loved stuff like Absolutely Fabulous, Mary Hartman, and seeing Female Troubles really helped me codify for myself what camp is and how much of a camp imagination and sensibility I have. I wanted Quentin to be this simultaneously very campy but also very sincere look at subcultures and countercultures and people left behind by the “straight” world. I wanted it to be funny and for the gay character to win and for it to be this life affirming but still very off-the-wall story, as an antidote to the toxicity of homophobia. And because I wanted to approach it with this sense of fun, it sort of became a grab bag of all my own personal interests; this is the story I’ve had the most fun writing. I was a huge pro wrestling fan in the ’90s, so I was able to inject a lot of my own love of the sport into the story, and also make it this sort of backhanded love letter to the WWF Attitude Era, which I have a lot of mixed feelings about. And of course, Jurassic Park, Star Trek pops up, ’80s movies, pop culture conventions, synth music, men’s clothes…
And the more sensational the story became, the more sensational it seemed the title needed to be. I’ve always been a fan of those old, over-the-top, 1970s exploitation titles that were sometimes more exciting than the movie they were advertising. I can’t recall specifically when I came up with “Despicable Fantasies,” but it stuck and it’s one of the few things I’ve written that never had another title even in consideration.
You mention at the end of the book that this was a 15-year-long journey for you. Was there a reason in particular that Quentin Sergenov’s story ended up being this big of an undertaking for you?
Preston Fassel: There were two big reasons, one narrative, one practical. I finished the first draft of it in 2008, about two years after I started work. Because it started as this very vague idea, the plot was very thin, and I had to figure out ways to expand the world while still keeping the narrative tight and the story funny. At different points I was figuring out ways I could potentially expand this into a full-length novel, but every time I did, the story stopped being funny and took on a more dire, serious tone, which wasn’t conducive to what I wanted to do. So there was a process to figuring out the beats and the structure.
At the same time I was working on this, my mother had recently been diagnosed with leukemia, and I was working almost a full-time job and going to college, and also working on the novel that would ultimately become Our Lady of the Inferno, so a lot of creative headspace was being taken up. And then I finished the first draft of Quentin in 2008, but I could tell that it wasn’t quite ready to do something with yet. I’m, of course, a straight guy writing about gay characters, and I knew there was probably come unconscious bias in there, some stuff that it didn’t occur to me might be offensive or problematic, and I wasn’t going to put this out into the world if it was going to be harmful to the LGBT community in any way. I intended it as work of love, not hate. I never wanted the joke to be “haha, these guys are gay.” It’s a comedy about homosexual characters, but the comedy doesn’t derive from their homosexuality. That was never my intention. But I was also 21 when I started it and had grown up in that toxic environment, so I was sure I had some unconscious bias. So I’d let it sit for a while and revisit it years later from an older, more experienced perspective.
And I’d also have friends or acquaintances from the LGBT community read it and give me their thoughts and feedback, which was really valuable. I always took their perspective to heart and in a lot of cases changed elements of the story or characters based on their feedback. And in every case, it made the story better. There was originally a scene, for example, where Quentin is dressed as this iconic female character from a 1980s movie, and the joke was meant to be the absurdity of a talking dinosaur in this iconic costume, but one of my readers told me that it could potentially be read as making fun of trans people, since Quentin is talking about how much he identifies with this character, and that wasn’t my intention at all. It was all about visual absurdity and the idea that a dinosaur would see personal significance in this character. So I changed the iconic costume this character is wearing, and the character he identifies with, and it works much better now because in talking it out later with my wife, I realized he would identify more with this character than the first.
I’d like to give a shout-out here to my final round of readers, B.J. Colangelo, Jacob Larimore, and Robin-Anderson Forbes, who were the last three people to read the book and give me their feedback and perspective and help make sure the book is in its best possible form. And I also have to shout-out my wife, who’s also my editor, and who’s been on the whole crazy Quentin journey with me. She read a draft while we were still dating, about two years after I finished the first draft, and she’s been instrumental in lending me alternate perspectives and helping me craft the book into its best possible form.
At the same time I was tweaking narrative stuff, I was also tweaking factual content. I’ve become much more of a stickler for historical accuracy in my writing since I wrote the first draft, so I was changing the story to reflect more recent scientific findings on the deinonychus, the dinosaur Quentin becomes. In the first draft, he’s a velociraptor and I describe him like the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park, but real velociraptors were only about two feet tall. The ones in the movie are more closely based on the deinonychus—supposedly, Spielberg intentionally changed the name because it’s easier for kids to say “velociraptor” and Michael Crichton gave him his blessing. We also know now both velociraptors and deinonychus were covered in feathers and had beaks, so I retooled Quentin’s entire physical appearance and species. I also went back and did research on early 2000s technology, what TVs characters would’ve had, when certain DVDs would’ve become available, and I also dropped in some background stuff on early 2000s internet culture that helped add some verisimilitude to the story.
On a more practical front, I’d occasionally reach a point where I felt the book was in its most perfect form, and I’d shop it around, but a lot of publishers are very skeptical of novellas. And in a few instances, I’d find a publisher who did work with novellas and they’d read this and the response I got back was usually something along the lines of, “What the hell is this?” “Gay dinosaur wrestler slasher” is an elevator pitch that either really excites someone or really puts them off, and, as it turns out, readers tend to fall into the first camp and publishers into the second. I submitted this at different points to St. Martin’s, SoHo, I think I managed to get it in front of someone at Tor at some point. The closest it ever came to getting published was under Fangoria’s short-lived publishing wing, but I could never really move it past the “consideration” stage. I think it’s found its perfect home with Encyclopocalyse now, though, and in retrospect I’m glad it didn’t work out in the past.
I think you do a fantastic job of creating a sympathetic monster here with Quentin, which reminded me of a lot of my own favorite characters in horror. You find a way to perfectly ebb back and forth here between a creature you really feel for, because of what he’s endured, but also are completely horrified by the violence he can unleash at any given moment. Can you discuss the challenges of writing a character like Quentin and how you viewed him alongside the pantheon of other misunderstood monsters of the horror genre?
Preston Fassel: I wanted Quentin to be 100 percent sympathetic, and for the audience to be able to root for him. I love slashers—I’m on record talking about my love for Friday the 13th in numerous places—but there’s this cognitive dissonance and moral complication about loving the monster and rooting for the slasher. Jason Voorhees may look cool and he may be this sympathetic character in theory, but he’s also killing innocent people. Very few people in slashers deserve to die, and the slashers have little to no justification for their actions. So in conceptualizing Quentin, I thought, “It’d be cool to have a slasher who’s a complex character, but, in terms of what he does, he’s pretty morally uncomplicated.” With the exception of one scene in the book, everyone Quentin goes after kind of has it coming, in one way or another. They’re all homophobes who’ve used various degrees of power and authority to actively harm queer people. And even in that one scene, you at least understand why Quentin does what he does.
I also wanted Quentin to be completely real from a psychological perspective. I thought a lot about his motivations, the way he sees the world, what makes him tick. At the time I started writing the first draft, I’d just recently broken up with my first girlfriend. I didn’t date in high school and then when I was 19I fell in love for the first time and had this very whirlwind, 18-month-long romance with an older woman that ended badly, and I was still reeling from it. She’s the one who got me into John Waters, there was a point where we were talking about moving in together. I’d thought that she was “the one” and then when it fell apart it left me feeling unloved and unlovable and like I’d missed out on my only opportunity for romantic human connection. I think a lot of people feel that after a breakup, especially if they’re the one who gets dumped, and especially if it’s been this very intense relationship, first love, you know. So I funneled all of the pain and worthlessness I was feeling into Quentin.
There’s this great YouTube sketch show “Crispin Glover and David Lynch’s Big Box Office Blockbuster,” whose premise is that Glover and Lynch are making a sequel to Blue Velvet together; and in one episode Lynch is pitching the sequel as a romantic comedy and he says, “Frank Booth is back and he just wants to love and be loved.” And that’s Quentin’s whole motivation—he’s not evil, he’s not hateful, he just wants to love and be loved. And I think all of us have had this one magical moment in our lives where everything felt perfect, where in spite of whatever else may have come before it or what else may have been happening at the time, we felt like everything was right in the world; and I think we’ve all had bad moments later on where all we want to do is return to that one special moment in time. And that was the headspace I put myself in when I was writing Quentin, that’s what drives him—he just wants to go back and live inside of this one, perfect, beautiful memory. Even the stuff he does ostensibly out of revenge is still motivated in some degree by that desire. I think that’s a lot more relatable and human motivation than the vengeance or bloodlust that propels Jason or Freddy or their ilk.
How great was it to find a home for The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov with Encyclopocalypse and team up with them for the book’s release in June?
Preston Fassel: It was really amazing, and I’m endlessly grateful to Mark Miller for the opportunity. I’ve been working with Mark for almost two years on the audio drama adaptation of Our Lady of the Inferno with Barbara Crampton, Mick Garris, and Doug Bradley, and he’s just been a dream to collaborate with. He gave me total creative control over the adaptation in terms of casting, music, execution; he’s got this tremendous respect for writers that can sadly be rare, and he’s got these fantastic talents as an audio guy that he contributes to making his audiobooks the best they can be. We’re just waiting on finalized proofs of the audio for that now before it releases, which will hopefully be any day; with as aurally complex as it is, it’s taking longer than your average audiobook, but it’s going to be so worth it.
So Mark called me out of the blue last October, as all of last summer’s turmoil in the horror world was settling down, to tell me about the new print line he was launching under his audiobook company to reissue tie-in novelizations for old horror movies, and he told me he wanted me to know that if I ever had any material that was too off-the-wall or provocative or outside-the-box for traditional publishers, I had a home with him and he wanted it. And immediately Quentin came to mind and it was this “oh shit” moment. And I pitched him on the phone, totally off-the-cuff, and by the time we hung up, Quentin had a home. And it’s been an excellent journey. Just as with the audiobooks, he’s given me total creative control; I chose the cover artist, who’s a friend of mine named Dan Gremminger, a very talented painter who was super excited to help bring Quentin to life and who put just as much thought into the cover design as I did into creating the Quentin character. So Enyclopocalypse has just been the perfect home for Quentin and Mark, the perfect steward, and I’m glad he ended up there.
What has been your biggest takeaway from your experience of creating The Despicable Fantasies of Quentin Sergenov—from living with this character for so long, and now, you’re getting ready to see him released into the world via a book this summer?
Preston Fassel: My biggest takeaway is that a labor of love is worth it, no matter how many years it takes, and that something can succeed out of nowhere, no matter how old you are. I’d never have guessed when I finished the first draft of this thing at 23 that it’d be being published when I was 35 by the guy who produced Nightbreed. And I’d never have guessed when I was fielding all the rejection letters over the years that someone would actually finally look at this and be like, “Yes, we’re doing this.”
I’m also excited for people to discover and embrace Quentin, because he’s a character I feel a lot of affection for; he’s the creation of mine I’ve lived with the longest and who’s waited the longest to be unleashed on the world. And I hope people love him as much as I’ve grown to love him.
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