Joe Sullivan: You’re a music teacher living in New England. I feel like Stephen King should’ve had a music teacher protagonist somewhere along the line–if he hasn’t already–he has enough English teachers in his stories. There’s something unique about music that I think most people miss out on. Everyone gets the creative aspect, how it makes you feel, but it takes rigor and an analytical mind to put it all together and birth a song that resonates, even just to satisfactorily perform a piece. Do you think your skillset as a music teacher has colored your writer’s tool kit at all?
Brennan LaFaro: First off, thank you for having me. To my knowledge, Uncle Steve has never used a music teacher as a character in one of his stories, but it’s possible I missed one. He’s written a fair few stories after all.
You’re absolutely dead-on. Music, especially the theory side, has a lot of critical and analytical thinking to it, and teaching that side to young musicians is a challenge, albeit a rewarding one.
The most easy to identify way music has affected my writing is in describing sound. Engaging readers using sensory description is key. You can tell a great story, but in order to immerse the reader, they have to be part of the sights, sounds, and smells. Having spent a substantial portion of my life studying sound, I have a lot of terms in my toolbox that I’ve been just waiting for an excuse to throw out. Writing a haunted house story, for example, where the characters are waiting for something to happen, gives you a lot of opportunities to play with sound to build tension.
Music teachers are also faced with a task most teachers aren’t. In an average week, I see about 500 students. A month or so into the school year, I know them all by name, know what to expect from them during a 45 minute class, and have a sense of their personality. Not to take anything away from classroom teachers, but it lends itself well to keeping track of a large cast, something I discovered I could do while co-writing a horror/dark fantasy novel.
Being a teacher and a writer walk hand-in-hand together nicely. Day to day, you always have to look deeper because all these kids are three-dimensional characters in their own right. You can’t work with them if you don’t make every effort to understand them. Teaching music, at the elementary level at least, forces you to constantly take an in-depth look at all the characters, even the ones who might be considered minor.
Your story from the Shiver anthology “A Shine In The Woods” is pretty straightforward and effective: there are monsters outside our cabin and we have to figure out how to get to the car to escape them. I believe it’s one of your first published short stories? What was the impetus for you to begin submitting your fiction for publication?
“A Shine in the Woods” was my first published piece and my first attempt at a creature feature. I was honored to have it accepted into Nico Bell’s anthology. It’s written from the perspective of a young girl. Calling back to the first question, writing from the POV of children is something I find myself doing quite a bit in my short fiction.
I wanted to write for a long time before I first gave it a shot in Summer 2019. Mostly, I didn’t know how to get started, so I didn’t start. I had some ideas, but felt there was a skill set required that I didn’t have. Discovering how much incredible independent horror fiction is out there lit a fire. I sat down one day and started writing what would become Slattery Falls longhand in a notebook. I’d write in bursts, then step away for weeks at a time, convinced I didn’t know what I was doing.
In April 2020, I submitted a short story on a whim. It didn’t get accepted, but the personalized rejection gave me some much-needed confidence. I never really looked back after that.
I’ve been following the news of your debut novella with Silver Shamrock: Slattery Falls (July 2021). Congratulations on that, by the way! The brief reads along the lines of: a group of college kids who check out haunted locations find themselves in danger at one of the infamous locales. We here at Cemetery Gates live for horror fic set in real life locations. Is Slattery Falls set in, or based-on any real life places you’ve lived or visited?
Thank you! So mostly no, with a dash of yes. Being a novella, we learn about the town of Slattery Falls, mainly its history, but at 140 pages, there’s more to explore, and I plan on revisiting down the line. Unless it’s buried deep in my subconscious, Slattery Falls is not based on a real town. I’m a lifelong Massachusetts resident and in the book, some surrounding towns are listed. Conway and Deerfield are real places in central/western Mass, but Hobson is a fictionalized version of the town I grew up in, which I’ll leave nameless here.
I wish I could tell you that town had some rich, interesting, creepy history, but I tend to pull more from small-town dynamics and geographic features than anything else. Hobson features prominently in a story called “Piece by Piece”, which will be published in the inaugural anthology from Snow Capped Press, due out later this year, and if you look carefully, you might even see Slattery Falls get a nod.
Regarding things up Cemetery Gates’ alley, Slattery Falls pays a visit early on to the Nathan Hale house in Coventry, Connecticut. All the background information written into the book, including the reports of paranormal activity, is factual. Everything that happens after that is a story, one I hope people will enjoy.
Would you say Slattery Falls is a haunted house book? What horror themes and tropes most interest you as a storyteller?
Slattery Falls certainly fits into the haunted house subgenre. Travis, Elsie, and Josh—three characters I loved every minute of writing—visit multiple haunted locations throughout the book before winding up at the Weeks house in the titular town. It’s got elements of occult as well, and some coming-of-age even though the characters are out of their teens at the start of the story.
I’ve got a special place in my heart for haunted house horror, be it books or movies, but mainly I just need to invest in the characters. I think that’s true from both the reader and writer perspective. I’ve abandoned stories where I loved the premise because I didn’t have a handle on the character, and I’ve written some of my favorite things without any idea where the story was going until it got there. Simply because something about the main character clicked for me.
Since that answer feels like a total cop-out, I love what writers are doing with splatter and weird westerns. Coming-of-age is such an expansive sub-genre and there are so many ways to sprinkle that spice. Finally, I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who would disagree, but I think there’s still material to be explored in the zombie genre.
What themes do you hope to explore with your future books? Do you have a career trajectory in mind regarding your writing projects?
Being a father and keeping my/other people’s children safe is a theme I’ve explored in several pieces, and one I will continue to hit. There are so many ways to go about it, and when you discover the story by writing it, sometimes everything turns out alright. Sometimes it doesn’t.
I’d like to write a true coming-of-age novel. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve written some short fiction from the perspective of children. The book I’m currently working on, as well as a few co-written with Patrick R McDonough (my co-host of Dead Headspace podcast) have taught me the process for writing longer-form fiction. I won’t pretend to know what I’m doing just yet, but I’m walking in the right direction. A coming-of-age novel is something I don’t want to learn by doing, which is why I haven’t gone there yet.
As far as career trajectory is concerned, I’d like to keep seeing my stories get picked up and my future novellas/novels find homes. If I’m lucky enough to be invited to write something for an anthology, I’ll be happy to mark that on my career path. I want what I think most writers want—to see my stories resonate with readers. To see something I wrote matter to another human being. Long-term, I don’t have any illusions of giving up the day job to write full-time, but I wouldn’t say no to making enough to quit my second job. Mostly, I just want to keep doing what I’m doing, because I’m having a blast.
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2 thoughts on “New Voices in Horror with Brennan LaFaro”
Love this interview!