Fred Venturini’s debut novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back, just came out yesterday, and he kindly answered a few of my questions on the new book, why he writes, and much more! Please give him a warm welcome!
Will you tell us a bit about The Heart Does Not Grow Back and why you wrote it?
The novel’s about Dale Sampson, who can regenerate his organs and his limbs, and eventually starts giving them away on the reality show. Healing is the one superpower that everyone shares, and I wanted to contrast limitless physical healing capabilities with emotional wounds that were beyond the reach of his powers. Every superhero story is a test of the hero and his powers, usually through a supervillain, but in the novel the real tests are ones we’ve all experienced—heartbreak, tragedy, failure.
The book has already gotten some great buzz. Why do you think readers will connect with, and root for, Dale Sampson?
I never think a reader necessarily needs to like or root for a character to be engaged with a story, so I never really design them that way. I just shoot for interesting and complicated. I think Dale makes decisions that many readers won’t agree with, but will hopefully understand in the context of his life and circumstances. All that said, I have noticed many readers enjoy Dale as a character, mostly because he dredges up a lot of high school nostalgia and everyone it seems has felt a little oppressed, lonely and heartbroken during their teenage years, so they connect with that.
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I dug into the black market for organs and body parts, but only a small portion of that made it into the story. I also wanted to get the way reality TV is produced at least mostly right, so that was another foray into books and phone calls. Finally, there’s a surgical procedure from a doctor’s POV that he gets wrong, so it’s hard to replicate a mistake in surgery without really doing your homework. Thankfully, I have great resources and friends and this wonderful thing called the Internet, so I think I got it mostly right.
Have you always wanted to be a writer? Will you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?
I have always loved to read and write, but I didn’t want to be a writer until I had a poem of mine read aloud in class, “The Midnight Walk.” I lost it and don’t remember any of it, but it had a little twist ending and was very dark. Everyone was totally quiet, and my friend just blurts out, “Man, that’s f’d up.” It was the first time I realized I could affect an audience, and that’s the reason I love to write stories—I want to affect an audience. Sure it’s nice to have fun and entertain myself, but getting that silence, or a laugh, or a gag—that’s the goal.
What’s one of the first things you remember writing?
In seventh grade we had a short story assignment where you turn in a chapter every week. I distinctly remember the hook of the story, because for a seventh grader, I think it was actually pretty good—it was about a blind man who gets a procedure to restore his vision, and then he starts to see supernatural things and hunts down the doctor to figure out what went wrong. Why do I know it’s a good hook? Because a few years ago I’m watching TV and I see a trailer for “The Eye,” starring Jessica Alba, and I was like “Wait a second, that’s my grade school short story!” I think that kind of stuff happens all the time, but I thought it was pretty cool.
What is your writing process like?
Sporadic bursts of writing from multiple locations. Sometimes it’s me on a laptop with earbuds in on the couch while Jake and the Neverland Pirates is on, sometimes in bed, sometimes in the recliner, sometimes at my desk. I probably hit a writing session three to five times per week, with various word counts. I can usually blast 2k words within an hour. If I’m going good and it’s the right chapter, I’ll go longer. I always listen to music. Dead silence just messes with me when I’m trying to think and write. I will play music without lyrics dependent on the mood of the piece. I’ve noticed that faster paced music actually makes me type a lot faster.
Who are a few of your favorite authors? Is there anyone that’s influenced you more than others?
My Mount Rushmore has two faces locked in right now, and that’s Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk. My grandmother was reading me Stephen King books at an incredibly early age. I think my fourth grade book report was on Cujo. Perhaps this is why I’m messed up in the head a little, but I still tip my cap to her for the habit. I know it’s almost cliché to have King on a pedestal, but his work seeded my passion and my reading habit.
Chuck, on the other hand, I discovered much later in life, but they were key, formative years in my twenties. I discovered his website and he was generous with his essays on writing. He was the first guy that made me realize there was a craft element to this, that you could teach it, learn it, and get better at it. It inspired me to pursue my MFA, and his books showed me how much you could achieve with minimalism and first person. His books also show that there are no limits in fiction. He goes places few people go. And I can’t mention Chuck without mentioning that I got to share a stage with him in New York in a truly “full circle” moment of my writing career.
He’s incredibly generous, engaging, and holds court like a true rock star.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Tie for first—Fight Club and The Stand. I envy people that get to read those for the first time. It’s almost impossible to read Fight Club cold, it’s permeated the culture so much that most first-time readers have already seen the movie or know the twists, but even then, it’s still a ride worth taking.
What are you currently reading?
“The Weight of Blood” by Laura McHugh. I met Laura at the Lit in the Lou festival. We did a panel and had a pretty good time, so of course I picked up her book. She’s got a lot of buzz going and if you crack open that novel, you’ll see why. She’s got the goods.
What’s next for you?
Another page. Always another page. I could leave it there, but that’s a lame attempt at an artsy answer. The truth? I don’t know. The novel just came out and it’s incredibly hard to stand out as a debut novelist. I have basically just always written the next page, the next story. I like to say “on to the next thing.” If the book explodes and has a movie with Brad Pitt, it’s on to the next thing. If it tanks and I’m labeled a failure, it’s on to the next thing, you know? It’s just always been a hobby and that won’t change no matter what. I’m not going to lie and say I’m not rooting for this to be a success, but I already feel like I’ve accomplished a lot on my bucket list just by having a novel out in the world. Since I finished the original version of HEART back in 2010 or so, I haven’t stopped writing. I do have multiple novels in the early to mid draft stage, and if I ever did a sequel to HEART, I know how it would go. The roadmap is there. So I’ve got a few irons in the fire. Perhaps you haven’t heard the last of me.
About THE HEART DOES NOT GROW BACK:
EVERY SUPERHERO NEEDS TO START SOMEWHERE…
Dale Sampson is used to being a nonperson at his small-town Midwestern high school, picking up the scraps of his charismatic lothario of a best friend, Mack. He comforts himself with the certainty that his stellar academic record and brains will bring him the adulation that has evaded him in high school. But when an unthinkable catastrophe tears away the one girl he ever had a chance with, his life takes a bizarre turn as he discovers an inexplicable power: He can regenerate his organs and limbs.
When a chance encounter brings him face to face with a girl from his past, he decides that he must use his gift to save her from a violent husband and dismal future. His quest takes him to the glitz and greed of Hollywood, and into the crosshairs of shadowy forces bent on using and abusing his gift. Can Dale use his power to redeem himself and those he loves, or will the one thing that finally makes him special be his demise? The Heart Does Not Grow Back is a darkly comic, starkly original take on the superhero tale, introducing an exceptional new literary voice in Fred Venturini.