Interview by Ian Reilly
“You should never meet your heroes.” So the saying goes, as if it is impossible for a grown-up to manage their expectations when meeting another grown-up. Not only is this oft-repeated expression a broad generalization, but it also deals in absolutes, as if every person you meet will be a disappointment, regardless of your expectations or their reason for meeting with you.
As underground author Bob Freville tells me in our interview, “I have no heroes, I don’t believe in them, and I don’t think others should either. Heroes are always co-opted by causes. I admire books, music, movies, but I don’t admire men.”
Like Freville, I don’t have heroes. I can’t say I would feel comfortable at 29 years old calling someone “my hero.” That said, I do admire people’s work, and Mr. Freville’s work has been on my radar since 2016 when his debut novella, Battering the Stem, appeared from Journalstone’s Bizarro Pulp Press imprint. At the time, I was trying (and mostly failing) to write an essay about the emergence of bizarro fiction for my college English class and I was looking for recent examples of the genre.
Battering the Stem did not fit comfortably into the bizarro genre; it was billed as an “urban crime thriller,” but that description didn’t suit it any better. There was something literary about the author’s digressions and segues, the ways in which he would divide up his chapters, interrupt action and introduce tension. The style, with its phonetic dialogue and run-on sentences, felt like it had been written in longhand by a coked-out criminal in need of confession.
The pace was intense and the dialogue impressively authentic. Having grown up in New York before moving to New Jersey in my teens, I recognized the voices that barked from its pages. I was hooked.
Five books and two movies later, I’ve familiarised myself with most everything Bob Freville has written, directed or otherwise been involved with. While some of it was definitely not for me (I’m thinking about his mind-numbing emo vampire movie Hemo), I have appreciated the consistency in overall quality. Freville is a skilled craftsman who makes the most of any topic or genre that comes to him.
This is why I was beyond shocked when I received an email from Compulsive Reader informing me of an opportunity to read an advanced copy of Freville’s latest novella, The Filthy Marauders. When I received an email from Freville himself, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Here was a guy whose words I had so admired, but whose subject matter might also be evidence of a grade A grump.
I can’t speak for Freville’s state of mind, but I can say that his generous nature surprised me. After reading The Filthy Marauders in one very cringe-worthy sitting, I had to immediately reread it in order to confirm my suspicions: this is a bad book, at least subjectively. The arbitrarily violent imagery and gross-out humor wasn’t for me, but I’m sure it will please many other readers.
As someone who wishes to support indie fiction, I am never one to say something negative about a book I’ve read…but The Filthy Marauders was a new low and I didn’t feel comfortable saying nice things about it. I decided it might be best to ask the author if he would like me to shelve my honest review. Astonishingly, Mr. Freville responded immediately and told me to run my review as is.
“If you didn’t like the book, you should tell people what you didn’t like about it,” he said. “Give them a proper warning. Your criticism may be as useful to me as it is to a prospective reader.”
When asked why he would encourage a negative review, he said, “I’m not a masseur, I’m not in the business of making people happy, and I don’t need people to lick my ass. All publicity is good publicity.”
I wouldn’t call Bob Freville a hero of mine, but after our exchange, I feel comfortable encouraging others to interface with those whose work they appreciate. The experience has taught me that good artists can be objective about their own work and inviting of alternate opinions.
The following is a transcript of my conversations with Mr. Freville. I was struck by how polite and professional he was, as a part of me was expecting a rude and hostile Gen X type with a dependence on four-letter words, but instead I got an email reply from a generous and well-spoken guy who seemed surprised that anyone would want to speak to him.
His influences proved as sordid as the events of his writing, ranging from esoteric post-prog rock bands (Anathema, Slowdive, etc.) and forgotten philosophers (Diogenes, Unamuno, Zeno) to bad boy playwrights (Letts, Mamet, Schaffer) and long-departed novelists (Gombrowicz, Moravia, Perec, Von Kleist, as well as Berger and Bernhard or, as Freville fondly called them, “The two Thomases”).
He stressed the meaninglessness of naming influences because, as he stated, “A writer should be influenced by everything and, yet, resistant to any influence whatsoever,” adding, “It is impossible to list all of the books that I have admired and even more difficult to count all the books that I have detested.”
When prodded to name five books writers should be reading, he chose a grit lit deep cut from Harry Crews (The Gospel Singer), a literary deep cut from a crime novelist (Excelsior by Randall Silvis), a divisive collection of negativist aphorisms (The Trouble with Being Born by Emil Cioran), a nineteenth century novella about an unscrupulous horse dealer (Michael Kohlhaas by Von Kleist) and a book-length rant by a disgruntled dinner guest (The Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard).
Within hours of receiving his email responses, my phone rang. The voice on the other end of the line was hoarse and downcast. It was Freville, calling to tell me that his responses to my inquiries were an “awful disaster.” He begged my pardon and asked for the opportunity to clarify his thoughts.
At one point, I noted the stylistic departure between his latest work and his first book. I asked if this was a conscious attempt to go in a different direction or merely a symptom of his growth as an artist.
“I hesitate to call myself an artist,” Freville countered. “I think I’m a student of narrative forms. Growth is inevitable, especially given my background. I was in my twenties when I first conceived of Battering the Stem and I was under the influence of painkillers when I wrote it. Consequently, the writing is addled and the language is questionable. It’s not a book that I would go out of my way to read, though I appreciate what I was trying to do with it. Most artistic endeavors are failures to some extent; you never end up writing the story you set out to write, something is always lost in the process.”
This loss, Freville says, is part of what makes the literary form unique from other mediums. “If a scene is deleted from a film, you may sense that something is missing, it may disturb the flow of visual information or comic delivery. If a song is edited for radio, you can usually tell that something has been subtracted. The same cannot be said of the novel, where omissions and digressions are equally beneficial to the form. More than any other discipline, the literary form allows for the elusive, the crudely sketched, and the incomplete.”
When I point out the enormous stylistic difference between Battering the Stem and his Godless bestseller The Proud and the Dumb, he says he does not recognize this difference. “I don’t believe I have changed all that much stylistically, though I try not to concern myself with style as much as substance nowadays. Having something to say is far more important to me now than the way in which I say it.”
I ask about how he got his start as a writer and what compelled him to pursue so many avenues, from journalism and music to filmmaking and, finally, literary fiction.
“I worked as a part-time freelance writer for many years – newspapers, magazines, websites and more recently, blogs. This was not a path that led to fiction, they were mutually exclusive. I decided to pursue fiction writing after many years on the outskirts of the film industry. It was always my intention to write books, but I never met anyone who could connect me to the publishing world. I had to find my way on my own, which is always the way.”
I point out that his work has been praised for its comic dialogue and Rabelaisian wit. I ask if this humor is intended from the outset or if it grows out of the themes or situations.
“I think when people use the term Rabelaisian they really mean diogenic,” he says. “Certainly when you consider the definition of Rabelaisian, it sounds less like a description of the guy who wrote Gargantua and Pantagruel and more like the Stoic cynic who said of his public masturbation, and I’m paraphrasing here, ‘Would that I could banish hunger by rubbing my belly.’
“I’ll try to answer your question,” he adds. “But I’m not sure that I am the right person to ask. I know going into a project that satire will be implemented, but I’m not overly concerned with being funny for comedy’s sake. I take most of my work very seriously, even if I am keenly aware of the absurdity and relative meaninglessness of the material.
“Sometimes the humor is obvious going into it,” Freville admits. “When I started writing The Proud and the Dumb, I started from a place of crafting these low-life characters with awful ideologies and nasty things to say. I knew from experience with those types of people that humor was going to be unavoidable, it’s the nature of writing about people whose baseless prejudices and beliefs are so inane and misguided.”
“In the past,” I say. “You have written some stories that are less than subtle. In certain ways this is true of your last book and it is especially true of your new one. Is everything you have to say right out in front or do you intend to leave certain things unsaid?”
Freville obviously struggles with this question before saying, “I don’t know how to answer this, I think much of what I write is subtler than it may seem at first blush. The best material from my first book is the stuff that occurs within the margins, the events that happen in between the main narrative thrusts.
“I hope that there are questions or themes the reader comes away with that are tacit; they have to be tacit. I am not in the business of writing pop songs or sitcoms. The job of the novelist is to pose questions, not to serve as some cheat code for the game of life. That is one of the things I love about literature that you can’t get from any other medium – you are free to interpret, dissect, ponder, absorb. As a reader, a book should give you enough material to do all that.
“As a novelist, you shouldn’t be trying to write a series bible for Hulu or a screenplay for some producer. The novel has always been its own unique form, unlike any other. It is the only medium that allows the reader to bring themselves to the story and the only one that affords the writer the freedom to build a facsimile of existence as they know it. That is something that no film can truly achieve and that is coming from someone who has written many failed screenplays.”
I note the irony in his remarks by alluding to his IMDb page, which includes credits on the H.P. Lovecraft thriller The Deep Ones and something called Hell Broth. “Is that something you’re still involved in?” I ask. “Do you intend to turn any of your books into movies?”
“Unlikely,” he tells me. “There are plenty of great films and television shows, but there are few great novels right now, especially in the United States, the Land of the Dumb. The novel is where my head it at right now and what I am working toward.”
Finally, it is time for me to address the elephant in the room.
“You didn’t like it,” Freville laughs weakly during our phone call. “Hit me.”
I remind him of what I said in my email: “I read your novella almost immediately after finishing The Proud and the Dumb. What was I thinking and more importantly, what were you thinking?”
“I can’t really say,” he tells me. “I don’t know. I was thinking of the dirty blues classic ‘The Dirty Rooster (Fuck Off),’ which was the original title of the story. I was thinking about a lot of things, but it all ended in disaster and shame. My thought was, maybe this can be the Candy to my Terry Southern, but then I remembered that Southern had a co-writer and I don’t play well with others. This one was uncontrolled by design. It would be insincere to say that it wasn’t fun to write, which is why I admitted as much in my author’s note. However, it isn’t something I’m particularly concerned with being remembered for, if indeed I’m remembered at all.”
“Are you satisfied with how it turned out?” I ask.
“It is what it is,” Freville says. “It gives me great satisfaction to say I’ve written the only so-called splatterpunk story to reference Emil Cioran.”
I point out an odd choice he made midway through ‘Marauders’ wherein a book called Free to Choose by Rose and Milton Friedman is referenced in the middle of a suspense scene. I express how astonished I was to discover that the book was a real text about the economy and how bizarre its presence seemed.
“Thank you for noticing,” he says. “I felt that there was an opportunity to mock free market capitalism. It was an opportunity I didn’t want to pass up in light of the economic downturn we’ve experienced throughout the pandemic. The supply chain shortage has exposed some of the worst instincts of big commerce and revealed to the casual consumer exactly who they are dealing with when they buy certain brands of meat and other provisions. This was merely a subtle way of stimulating thought, of forcing the reader to meditate on what the economy looks like and how these characters figure into it.”
I tell him that The Filthy Marauders feels like the kind of book that might set up a series. I could see how certain kinds of readers might want to spend more time with some of these crazy, funny biker characters. I ask if he has any plans in this regard.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “One and done. I wouldn’t want to dwell too long in that particular house.”
The most compelling part of our conversation comes when I inquire about his out-of-print books—Celebrity Terrorist Sex Bomb and Long Walks, Short Piers. The former was released on March 31, 2018, while the latter was self-published a mere two years ago.
“Normally, a novel will fall out of print after a publisher goes out of business or loses a lawsuit,” I remind him. “That doesn’t seem to be the case here.”
“I made a conscious choice to pull my self–published collection of novellas,” Freville tells me. “I was not satisfied with how it turned out. I was also miserable after making a concerted effort to promote it, an effort that cost me money, time, and no small measure of unhappiness, but which yielded little to no reaction. No one reviewed it, no one bought it, and no one talked about it. This worked out well in a way because I’m not a fan of the book. I may reprint one of the novellas in the future, but the collection as a whole simply did not come off.”
As for his 2018 political satire, Celebrity Terrorist Sex Bomb, Freville says he kindly requested that its publisher pull it from circulation because he considered it another failure on his part.
“The story I set out to tell was far more elevated than what ended up on the page and I felt it ran a dangerous risk of being misread. It was also my most sophomoric work to date (this was before The Filthy Marauders) and felt like a blight on the record I aim to build before I’m dead. For these reasons it had to go.”
That this revelation about Freville’s perfectionism was followed abruptly by a reference to his mortality tells us all we need to know about the man behind the words. It would seem that Freville really is the fatalist that he so frequently writes about.
About the reviewer: Ian Reilly is a New Jersey writer with a rich history of saying the wrong thing. When he’s not reading too many books, he’s dreaming of leprechauns with gold-plated watches. Follow him at: Ian Reilly | Facebook