Frazer Lee is a potent double threat. A successful scriptwriter with a terrific film thriller out (Panic Button) and numerous published books and short stories in the horror genre. It’s great to peek into his mind this week at Twisted Tales from Tornado Alley.
SRW: Frazer, let’s start with your latest novel, The Skintaker. Tell the Tornado Alley readers what they can expect.
FL: Thanks for having me! In 'The Skintaker' you can expect murder, mystery and flagellation in the steamy Amazon rainforest. And don’t think for a minute that the heroine’s smartphone is going to save her, 'cos the period setting for the novel is the 1920s!
SRW: The book quite surprised me in many ways. The first three-quarters or so reads like a rollicking adventure tale with some quite exciting action set-pieces. Yet then you pull out the stops and let your horror flag fly high. How do you perceive this book? What genre would you place it in?
FL: It's a horror adventure for sure. As a youngster I loved 'She' by Haggard and I suspect that was a big influence. Horrific things do happen early on, but perhaps not in the way we might expect as voracious horror readers - Rosie's home burns down and she loses her family, Nimbo stumbles upon a killer's lair and his younger brother is taken. It was my intention to give a creeping sense that something is lurking on the edges of the pages and getting closer with each turn.
SRW: Clearly your villain, Richter, represents evil colonialists, hell-bent on raping and pillaging the poor Myahueneca tribe’s land and natural resources. Rosie’s vile aunt and uncle represent the flip side of the coin, desiring to rob the Amazon rain forest natives of their rich culture and long-standing spiritual beliefs. Poor Rosie seems stuck, uncomfortable in both worlds, feeling more of a connection to the tribesmen. Where does Frazer stand in the big picture?
FL: I'm with Rosie, stuck between the worlds of commerce and spirituality, wondering how on earth we honor the ancestors whilst pioneering the future. And like Rosie, I don't have any of the answers - only lots of questions about how this crazy world works!
SRW: Let me put on my pretentious beanie for a moment…Rosie, a very empathetic and well-developed protagonist, suffers from a strange skin blemish “condition.” What does this represent? Her inner rage? Her blossoming womanhood? Something I’m not quite able to grasp?
FL: (Tugs on his pretentious stovepipe hat) She's tainted by her past, marked out to be different. As with Harry Potter and his scar, and Darth Vader and his burns some transformative change must happen to move Rosie on to the next stage of her being. Will that skin-shedding moment be literal, or figurative? I hope you'll read the book to find out!
SRW: The book gets heady, in a metaphysical (“spiritual,” maybe?) way. Level with me, Frazer…how far did your research take you? Ever been to the rain forest? Been trippin’ on peyote over the last decade or so?
FL: Negatory to both of those my friend. I read widely, studied maps and documentaries, immersed myself in jungle soundscapes. Oh and drank coffee - lots of coffee.
SRW: Back to Rosie…why do you hate her so? You certainly put her through the ringer, having her burn up not once, but twice. And still live to tell her sad tale. (Gads! Belated spoiler alert!).
FL: Ha ha! I love dragging my characters through hell so they can learn something about themselves. I'd like to say that it makes me more well rounded as a human being. I'd *like* to say that...
SRW: As empathetic as Rosie is, I loved to hate your villains. One of the signs of good story-telling, I think. Richter is interesting. But he actually saves Rosie from a situation early in the tale, a seemingly brave effort. Yet his portrayal throughout the rest of the book is of a heinous, mustache-twirling bad guy. Bait and switch?
FL: Thanks so much for that. I think one-dimensional evil is too limited and boring. Bad guys think they're right, and in their eyes they are heroes too. Richter is a seeker as well as a destroyer. He sometimes likes to shake the dice just as much as he likes winning.
SRW: And as much as I despised Rosie’s guardians, the book seemed a lot lonelier once they exited the tale. But I’m wired somewhat sociopathically, I suppose.
FL: We all need those sources of conflict in our books to give us something to seethe at - but in life, we can sometimes have the pleasure of disappearing into our writer bunkers without having to deal with them. Job satisfaction.
SRW: The Skintaker’s (um, a most unlikely hero, Fraser!) brief POV chapters are titled with Latin terms. Thanks to my research assistant (Google), I discovered they’re the five layers of the epidermis. Briefly, what’s the significance of this?
FL: Good old Google, eh? Basically, with the Skintaker, the deeper he cuts into the flesh of life, the deeper you go into the mysteries of death. Maybe there'll be a secret sixth layer in the third book...
SRW: Hey, look at you, an anthropologist, too! So you created the mythical tribe, the Myahueneca. Again, I’m curious as to how far your research extended.
FL: Researching the tribe and its world was such a pleasurable part of writing the book. I assimilated into my fevered brainpan all of Bruce Parry's amazing documentary films, lots of National Geographic articles, maps, art, museum exhibitions and cd recordings of tribes and animal calls. Keeps me off the streets I guess.
SRW: It wasn’t until the end of the book, I found out this was a prequel to your first novel, The Lamplighters. I cry “foul,” sir! (Kidding. The book stands fine on its own). While I’ve got your attention, tell everyone about The Lamplighters.
FL: Thanks muchly, sir! The Lamplighters takes the action to Meditrine Island, a luxurious billionaires' Mediterranean paradise. Caretakers, or Lamplighters, are employed there to look after the mansions, pools and grounds. But new recruit Marla Neuborn discovers the billionaire lifestyle has a truly dark side when she encounters The Skin Mechanic.
SRW: Some of your prose is exquisite, very beautiful to read. I see you teach writing and screenwriting at several London universities. Lucky students! Please make this Midwestern yokel a happy man and tell me you wear a tweed jacket and smoke a pipe! (Send photos, too).
FL: Ha ha, thanks for that. I’m not entirely sure my students would agree! And no pipe I'm afraid - and definitely no tweed! (Yet...)
SRW: Let’s move on to your other career: screenwriting. Actually, I stumbled upon your scripted film, Panic Button, before I knew you were one of my stable-mates at the late Samhain Publishing. Tell everyone a little about the flick, Frazer.
FL: Panic Button shows what can go horribly wrong when you share too much information online. Four strangers win an all expenses trip to NY on a private jet. Once airborne, they participate in a new social media networking game. But when the questions start getting just that bit too personal, they realize their host is not all he seems - and they'll be forced to face their ‘sins’ in order to survive.
SRW: How did this all come about?
FL: I've worked in the film industry for many years, everything from runner, through lighting teamster to writer, director and producer. I made a couple of short horror films that won awards on the film festival circuit, and I was developing some feature length projects. One of those scripts landed on the desk of Movie Mogul, an indie outfit based in Cardiff, Wales. They invited me in for a chat and told me about an idea they had for a contained horror/thriller movie. I looked at their outline and was completely hooked by it. So they hired me to write a few drafts of the screenplay, and after that the movie novelization.
SRW: Okay, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. It certainly fits the tried and true tropes of the Saw genre, what with a mysterious killer doling out vengeance to those he deems deserving. Yet unlike the Saw films, you wisely stay away from the over-the-top gore and rely on suspense and character development. But are you wary of being lumped into the reviled “torture porn” genre with Panic Button?
FL: I honestly don’t mind how people label it, so long as they are watching it. A lot of audience reaction has been that they were expecting a full-on Saw-esque gorefest but were surprised by the amount of suspense in the film. But there is some amputation, spontaneous human combustion and the occasional headshot to keep the bloodthirsty viewer happy too. Win-win.
SRW: Frazer, I gotta ask…why an alligator?
FL: Ah, that came about when the producers settled on the name ‘All2gethr’ for the movie’s fake social network. The name kind of looked like ‘Alligator’ and the logo of a reptilian creature having a stranglehold on the globe seemed to fit well with the theme of the film.
SRW: One of the things I like to do is find thematic unity in writers’ work. But try as I might, I can’t find a single similar thing in common between The Skintaker and Panic Button. Is there a common theme I’m missing, Frazer?
FL: I try to do something a little different each time. Keeps me on my tippy-toes. But maybe if The Skintaker is where we start out as modern human beings, then Panic Button is where we end up as a species.
SRW: Panic Button is the ultimate in voyeurism. Right down to the confessional scenes shot in an airplane bathroom. Everyone’s worst nightmare (except for maybe, um, Chuck Berry, of course. Just sayin’). Does the invasion of privacy frighten you, Frazer?
FL: Ha ha! Yes, it does. It repulses and fascinates in equal measure. Who hasn’t had a good look at those bizarre and revealing moments captured by Google Earth’s street cameras for example? What I find most fascinating of all is that we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of where we are going with our technology. Generations to come might have an entirely different definition of what ‘freedom’ means.
SRW: I haven’t checked out the credits on Panic Button’s cast yet, but I’m guessing they’re close to noobies. Yet they’re a very strong ensemble cast. We have the requisite jack-ass, the potential hero with a secret, the strong “final girl.” Were you involved in casting? Does a writer pretty much have no say once the script leaves their printer? I know in England, writers are more revered (particularly in TV), than they are here in the States.
FL: I’m not sure writers are revered anywhere, especially in film and TV, ha ha! If the show is a success, the director will get the kudos. And if it’s a failure, then the writer will get the blame. I had no input into casting, beyond describing the characters in the screenplay. As the writer, I respectfully let the director get on with what he or she wants to do. From what I understand of the industry, a lot of casting is based on geography – where the money is coming from dictates the casting to a certain degree. When I direct films though, I usually make the final decisions on casting.
SRW: I hate to keep hearkening back to the Saw films, but unlike those messes, Panic Button ties everything up nice and tidy with a satisfying explanation and conclusion. Still…has there been talk about a sequel?
FL: Oh, yes. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the film biz, it’s ‘never say never’.
SRW: Is this film a veiled Big, Important Issue flick about the dangers of social media? Frazer…social media: friend or foe?
FL: I hate the lure of the ‘like’ and dislike the shallowness of the ‘share’, but as writers and filmmakers we are all kind of expected to do it. So you’ll find me on Farcebook and Tw*tter just like every other Z-list hopeful trying to peddle his wares!
SRW: What’s up next for Frazer Lee?
FL: I’m hard at work on The Skindred, a YA sci-fi/fantasy series with tinges of Lovecraftian, otherworldly horror. I’m writing the trilogy of novels and am also on the writing team for the movie scripts. It’s a big project with huge set pieces and amazing characters that you can really root for, or boo and hiss at! The next novella in my occult series The Daniel Gates Adventures will be sent out to publishers soon. My first novel The Lamplighters was a Finalist in the Book Pipeline contest, so I am also working with their team in Hollywood to adapt the book for the big screen.
SRW: Thanks for visiting, Frazer.
Check out his flick, read his books:
Official website: www.frazerlee.com
Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/Frazer-Lee/e/B002L2PVAE