Joe Sullivan: I know you’re a lit guy and a poetry guy, but you’re definitely a dark lit guy, too. You have an impressive lineup of dark fic stories on your resume. What keeps you coming back to the dark art? What horror media inspires/has inspired your creativity?
Corey Farrenkopf: I do live between a lot of genres these days…but most of them, if not all of them, end up being on the darker side. I’ve been on a big dark fantasy kick for a while now, which is always fun. As far as what keeps me coming back to it, I don’t think I have much of a choice. All of the ideas that come to me are definitely macabre. I’ve tried to write uplifting stories, or more humorous stories, but something usually seems off about them…or they turn dark anyway. I usually try to address something going on in the wider world, and most of what is going on out there is dark…so I can’t really get away from it. I often focus on environmental issues, so that’s not a particularly bright topic either…though I wish it were.
As far as horror media that has inspired me…that is a long list. For movies, I’ve loved Tim Burton’s work since I was like four years old. Guillermo del Toro is probably my favorite director out there, and everything he does, whether it’s a fairy tale, or sci-fi, or a coming of age story, it’s always dark. I’ve loved a lot of the newer horror movies coming out like Hereditary, Get Out, Suspiria, If Follows, The Lighthouse, and Mandy. Somehow I’ve missed a lot of the classics though, so I’m trying to catch up there. On the literary side, I love the work of Laird Barron, Caitlin R Kiernan, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeff VanderMeer, John Langan, Livia Llewelyn, Paul Tremblay, Stephen Graham Jones, Gemma Files, Andy Davidson, Brian Evenson, Kelly Link, and Karen Russell. Those last two straddle a billion genres, but definitely have several stories that fall squarely onto the horror spectrum. And finally, I always like to mention Daniel Danger on the physical art front. He does these prints of crumbling buildings and rotting forest-bound architecture that really speak to me. If you haven’t checked out his work, definitely give it a google.
You were the only writer with two stories in Campfire Macabre, so I was familiar with your stuff, but I think it was “What Friends Don’t Tell Friends About Basements” from Bourbon Penn that made me stop and think, ‘Oh, Corey’s really focused on the short form.’ Even better, I find out you run discussions and seminars on flash fiction, so you’re really a specialist. This stands out to me, because it seems there’s this race to go from a few pub credits to a story collection, to a novella/novel, in order to check off a few boxes of what it means to have a writing career. I don’t know if you want to speak to it, but I’m curious if you’ve had a strategy for your writing? Because I think you’re an excellent example of a writer with a solid foundation.
I’m really flattered by that. Thank you. I’ve kind of had a weird trip when it comes to my publishing career. During my undergrad, I took a year long intensive writing course to complete a specialization in Creative Writing. While I was taking it, I asked everyone I could find how to make a career of writing, and between different professors, visiting writers, and a ton of articles, I was basically told there were two options. Either you write a really good novel, get an agent, then they get it published. Or you write a bunch of really great short stories, an agent will notice them and reach out to you, then they take the novel (that you hopefully have already written) and get it published. So that was my starting point. I pursued both roads and managed to get my agent, Marie Lamba, on the strength of one of my novels. Right now, we’re working on edits for a different novel. Years ago, I knew nothing about the small press world, so I only thought there were two options, so that’s how I planned things out. Because of this, I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on my novels in terms of pushing my career forward…more like something I really really need to do as a requirement…but because of that, short stories became something I did/continued to do out of love. I really enjoy the challenge of writing novels, but I get my true joy from shorter works.
With flash fiction, you get the challenge of restriction, but you also get the freedom to create outlandish plots that couldn’t be sustained for longer than a thousand words. It’s one of those forms where, after reading enough of it, you can see all the little moves and flourishes a writer makes and really appreciate the conscious effort that goes into it. This is why I teach flash classes at the library where I work. I also think it’s a less intimidating structure to get into for first time writers (who I work with a lot in these classes). Give someone the option of writing 80,000 words or 1,000, I think they’ll usually choose the latter.
But back to my career strategy. All of my longer works, mostly novels, have always been Horror or Dark Fantasy. My short stories weren’t always like that. Now that I’ve been honing in on what I want to do as a cohesive style, I’m discovering more places that publish Weird/Horror/blended-genre fiction, tracking open anthology calls, learning from what other authors in my adjacent genres are doing, and seeing where I fit into all of it. I love the challenge of themed anthologies. I love the hard deadlines. I love the chance to be published alongside other authors I admire. I love the chance to be part of a community. I view every short story acceptance as a small piece of bone in the spine of my overall body of work. When my agent subs my novels, it’s good to have a solid list of publications to use as a proven track record, it shows that you aren’t a one story/book kind of writer, who (hopefully) has many other stories/books ahead of them. That’s how I look at it anyway.
If anyone ever has any questions on this sort of stuff, I’m always happy to talk over Twitter. DM’s are always open.
Your flash ideas (stories under 2k words) are consistently creative and well executed. This type of short story is really the legacy form of horror to me, it’s what I’ve been reading since I was a kid. What parts of the formula can you share with aspiring horror flashmasters? Do you have any tips or tricks that serve brevity, the twist?
I’m always a fan of the weirder the better, so that’s one of my favorite things to nudge people towards in flash. Like I said above, you can get away with certain moves/twists/premises in flash that might not be sustainable for a 5,000 word story, let alone a novel. Flash also allows you to play with tropes in a very immediate way. You can spin an unusual haunted house tale with a few good introductory descriptions to anchor the atmosphere, and then role from there. Longer passages aren’t necessary to establish what we are familiar with/already know, so you can be more playful with it, in my opinion, in this form.
As far as advice goes, basically cut everything that isn’t necessary. Find your “weasel words” as Matt Bell calls them and kill them off. Dialogue really needs to serve its purpose in flash, so make sure all of it either pushes the plot or expands the characters. You can’t really think of a couple of lines as a lead in to the real meat of an interaction…it has to be all meat (or tofu if you are a vegetarian). Quick anchoring is necessary. Give readers something they’re familiar with, then get running. I often do this through setting. I know a lot of advice says to start with action, but I often start with setting/atmosphere for a paragraph or two, make that establishing shot, and then let the plot move from there, all encapsulated in this established world. Either that or one of my characters (or the 3rd person narrator) makes a shocking/interesting statement about what is to come/some odd character trait, and then the story begins. Both ways work well for me, but they might not for others, which is why Flash is great. You can do so many different narrative moves, approach the writing from so many different angles, and because you have limited word space, it takes a bit of the pressure off to “do it right.” (When I say “do it right” I’m mostly referring to standard story arcs, rising/falling action, etc…).
As far as twists go, I’m always a huge fan of the question Will it be supernatural?/Will it be realism? Sometimes that might feel a little Scooby-Dooish, but I love it. If you’re able to pull it off on either end of the spectrum, it will be my jam. So, for example, I have a story called Exorcism published in Monkeybicycle a few years ago. It’s about a young woman who pretends to be an ordained exorcist to help pay her student loans. The whole story builds to a final encounter, where, hopefully, the reader wonders, “will she actually be encountering a person who is possessed or will there be a different explanation, and what does that say about our world.” I won’t ruin the ending, but I love using this structure in my flash and I love to see it done in other people’s work. A good example of this is Pedro Iniguez’s story Caravan in Tiny Nightmares. It’s perfect. Definitely check it out if you can!
And the final thing I’ll say on Flash is sometimes it expands naturally and you shouldn’t fight that. If your story wants to be 3,000 words, try not to wrangle it into 1,000 words. Sometimes this can work, but sometimes it feels too clipped. I’m trying to be better at this myself, letting my stories be the length they need to be, which can be hard with word count restrictions from different anthologies and mags. Trust in what you’re doing and let your stories be what they want to be… and if you really need to make that word count for an anthology, try to chop out an entire scene or start the story further on…maybe that opening paragraph wasn’t what you actually needed…maybe the whole story actually starts on page two?
The opposite also works. Maybe you wrote a 5,000 word story that doesn’t work. What is the bare bones story there? Can you write that instead (usually from scratch) and see what shape it takes? Maybe that whole story only wanted to be a singular scene and that’s where the actual story lies? I’ve done this several times and have come away with awesome results.
I know you’re working towards your own books, that you have a few novella and novel-length stories in mind. Can you speak to the themes you hope to explore with your longer works?
Of course. I focus most of my efforts on the issues I see around me on Cape Cod. I’ve lived here for most of my life, so I’m very concerned with the environmental and economic issues that face the region and the people living here. The novel I’m working on deals with potential environmental collapse, despeciation, global warming, land conservation…but it’s also a love story…it’s probably mostly a love story if I’m being honest…and a bit of a cryptic, almost gothic, family saga. It’s definitely Weird fiction, with a bit of a literary thriller/slasher element going on, and it’s very supernatural (again, my stuff ends up living between so many genres). I’m a big fan of nature writing, so there are a ton of descriptions of the landscape and the species that inhabit it…and the other things that inhabit it…but I can’t talk about them, it would ruin the surprise…whenever that happens.
At some point I’ll hopefully have a short story collection that revolves around those same themes as well. Right now, like I said before, my short stories are all over the place, and the cohesive themes aren’t perfect. At some point they’ll align. That’s what I tell myself anyway 🙂 Thanks so much for the thoughtful questions! I really appreciate everything you guys do over at Cemetery Gates Media to promote new voices in Horror and all of the awesome dark Flash you put out. All horror writers should keep an eye out for your open submission calls!
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