My interview with horror novelist, Polly Frost (“Deep Inside”).
Cameron: How soon in life did you first discover writing? What were some of the first things you wrote?
Polly Frost: I started writing when I was around seven or eight. I wrote puppet shows, what I considered to be “novels,” but which were actually about five page stories, and I had my own newspaper about the Southern California neighborhood I grew up in. I don’t want this to sound like I was precocious. It was all really silly stuff, like the musical I wrote for my dog to star in, “Snoozy in Paris.” And my stuff was very derivative. I loved “Gub Gub’s Book” by Hugh Lofting so I wrote a novel about a duck called “Tugbarn.” I wrote a horror story in sixth grade that was very derivative of Poe in its tone. I don’t remember the name of that story, but it had to do with killing people by sending them spiders. I didn’t intend for my stuff to be funny, but people were always laughing at what I wrote. I didn’t want to become a professional writer, though. I wanted to be a horse trainer when I was in my teens. I also modeled a bit and made my own clothes and thought about being a fashion designer. Writing was just something I seemed to be able to do and which got me through school. I was a pretty indifferent student, but I could scrape by on the basis of my papers, which my teachers generally found amusing, if not very scholarly. But I also got into trouble through my writing. I went to UCSB where there was a famous literary critic who also ran the English department. He had this great reputation as a Chaucerian and as an expert on eighteenth century writers like Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson (who wrote “Clarissa.”) But when I took one of his classes, I thought he was the biggest windbag I’d ever heard. Plus he was having an affair with one of the students in the class. Anyway, we didn’t get along and we had a fight in class. I decided to mend fences with him by sending him a letter. I thought I would win him over by making fun of myself — and my part in our classroom argument — in a mock 18th century style. The letter was written by “Clarissa.” The professor called me into his office. He wasn’t amused by my letter. He told me that on the surface I seemed to making fun of myself, but that really I was making fun of him. He said I had a brilliant satirical style. And that he never wanted to see me again! (Yay, I got to drop his boring class.) After college I spent five years trying to do other things with my life than writing. But when I got into my late twenties I realized that humorous and satirical writing was one of the few things I was any good at. I started writing and sending humor pieces to magazines. One of the best things that happened was I met Ray Sawhill, who was my age, but a much better writer than I was. He helped me shape my humor pieces. (We got married 22 years ago and have often collaborated on writing since.) And I met Pauline Kael, who was the movie critic at The New Yorker. Pauline liked some of my early humor pieces and she very generously took them to Daniel Menaker, who was an editor there. To my amazement, The New Yorker bought some of my humor pieces. And Dan Menaker is not only one of the best humor writers and editors — he’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. I’ve learned a lot about humor writing from working with Dan over the years.
Cameron: What did your family and friends think initially? Did you pass your writings around to get their opinions? Arguing your points as to why the story/characters must be that way?
Polly Frost: Families are the last people a writer should ever look to for constructive criticism! Even if you have writers as parents. Because family members are not looking at your work objectively. If they’re smart they’re thinking, “Great, we have a writer in the family — now all our secrets and skeletons will become fiction fodder for the whole world to read.” And being related to a satirist is the worst. I wouldn’t want to be related to a satirist! But I’m lucky. My family has a great sense of humor. In fact, laughing together was one of the things we always did best as a family.
Cameron: How did you come to writing not only in horror genre but in the sub-genre: Erotic Horror? Was Clive Barker an influence? Anais Nin?
Polly Frost: I always loved horror. I grew up watching a lot of horror. Everything from Roger Corman movies to Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” I was lucky enough to be around for the sixties and seventies when you’d see one great, daring horror movie after another. And I saw them in movie theaters with shocked and outraged and titillated audiences. A movie Dario Argento’s “Suspiria” works well when you see it on DVD. But seeing it with an audience when it was first out — that was amazing. The erotic horror stories I wrote in “Deep Inside” were primarily influenced by the sexy horror movies of the 1970‘s. I do love Clive Barker’s stories. And I think that Anais Nin was herself a very scary character (someone should make a horror movie about her!) But really, I wanted to write stories that were homages to my favorite horror and sci fi films and filmmakers. I’m a huge fan of Roger Vadim’s “Barbarella.” Jane Fonda has never been better than she is in that film. She should have won an award for Barbarella, not for the boring crap she did later like “On Golden Pond.” “The Pleasure Invaders” — one of my stories in “Deep Inside” — is a futuristic story about a female cop in Miami who’s supposed to be wiping out the alien sex trafficking, but she’s hopelessly addicted to sex with the alien creatures herself. I like to think of the story as being influenced by “Barbarella” and also by Abel Ferrara’s “The Bad Lieutenant.”
Cameron: Being a writer, what was it like with boyfriends growing up? Did you typically date creative people or were they upset you spent so much time putting words to the page?
Polly Frost: I grew up in Santa Barbara and the L. A. area. Which would make you think I’d have been dating surfers and jocks. Dammit, I was always attracted to the arty types. Since I didn’t write until I was in my late twenties, my writing was never an issue. However, I was taking notes! I later based male characters on the guys I knew in my teens and twenties. The high school jock in my story “The Threshold” in “Deep Inside” is based on the guys I knew in my teens. Not that I dated jocks, mind you. But I observed them!
Cameron: I know you have written at least one play with your husband, Ray Sawhill, in NYC. Can you talk about the writing process with someone you’re married to? Do you keep strict office hours and just get on with it, or is it an all day, all night bang it out type of thing? Who does the writing and who does the pacing?
Polly Frost: We collaborate really easily with each other. We always have. We just finished co-writing a psychological suspense novel. I’m really proud of it (just sent it off to my agent to read). It’s a much better suspense novel than I would ever have written alone. I think our collaborations work because we have such different and complementary talents when it comes to writing fiction. Ray is great at structure and description. My strength is in creating story hooks and characters.
Cameron: How do you get in the mood to write erotic horror? Music? Films? Taking a drive? Relaxing in a warm bath? Making love with Karo Syrup?
Polly Frost: All those mood things you’re mentioning sound great! But were I to do them I’d end up having sex rather than doing any writing. There’s a story in “Deep Inside” called “Viagra Babies.” The way that story came to me was that I met this couple over dinner once. They were this very good looking, actually pretty sexy couple. But really kind of scary. They were very right wing and very into talking crack addict mothers out of having abortions. They had this gleam in their eyes, this mission they were on. Maybe they were nice, well meaning people. But they were the kind of people that inspire the erotic horror writer in me. Shortly after meeting them, I started thinking: What if there were these people who were addicted to Viagra and they got pregnant and their children were affected by all the Viagra they took? So instead of crack babies you had Viagra babies? And I started writing the story as though it were being told by one of these Viagra babies, who is now 18.
Cameron: After writing intense imagery all day long, what is the best way for you to unwind?
Polly Frost: I don’t unwind well at all. I’m terrible at it. My husband, on the other hand, is just great. He can let things go very quickly. But when I write a story, I get so far into the characters that they possess me. And I have a hard time coming out of that and back into my own life. So if you or anyone reading this has any tips on how to unwind after writing, please let me know!
Cameron: Have you ever written something where you thought, “That’s too much?” Or have you ever punched up a story because you thought it needed more bite?
Polly Frost: I’m not of the “less is more” school of writing. I’m of the “more is always better” camp. But I don’t tend to punch up my writing because I think of the story as coming out of the character/s. If the character wouldn’t do it then I don’t write it. On the other hand, in my erotic horror, the characters are pretty extreme to begin with!
Cameron: Tarantino once said the best way to write dialogue is to just let your characters talk. How do you go about creating dialogue?
Polly Frost: Tarantino is right. I agree. But I think it helps to know what the subtext of characters’ dialogue is. I took acting classes for a couple of years and that was one of the best things I ever did for my writing, especially my dialogue writing. Because in acting class you are always asking: What is this character after? What are they really trying to get by saying this? So I think it only works to let one’s characters just talk if you have that clear idea of what they’re really saying beneath their words.
Cameron: Do you conduct any research for your stories or are they simply a product of a wonderful imagination? Ever actually done any of the things you’ve written about?
Polly Frost: It depends on what kind of story it is. In co-writing our suspense novel, Ray and I did a lot of research to ground the story in the reality of the places it is set in. But one of the stories in “Deep Inside” is about women who make voodoo dildos. Now, that would be a hard one to research and even if I turned up such women, they’d scare the life out of me to meet! And yes, I have done some of the things I write about. But if I told you which ones they were, I’d have to kill you, right?
Cameron: I know you have cited many classic horror films, but how do you feel about horror films that tap into a child’s psyche? Such as “Willy Wonka,” “The Watcher in the Woods,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” “Gremlins.” Sometimes, I feel, they are far scarier than just teenagers being knocked off by a manic. Stephen King once wrote that “The Exorcist” was scary for a completely different reason at first. You see, the book/movie came out at a time when kids and teens were disobeying their parents, protesting the war, growing their hair out, smoking pot and the parents needed an answer as to “Why?” I like that your work tells a surface story but that there are many layers to be discovered underneath (ala “Blue Velvet”).
Polly Frost: That’s a great question. I think the horror movies you’re listing tap into primal fears — they’re not just the fears of children, but deep fears that we all carry around for the rest of our lives. I’m not a fan of much of the current YA fiction because a lot of it seems to be written to address very PC fears — fears that librarians, rather than teens — have. And when it comes to the “Twilight” books and movies which are, of course, hugely successful with teens, I think they’re successful because they’re not really horror. I don’t think the “Twilight” stuff taps into any primal fears except maybe that you won’t grow up good looking enough to be one of the stars in a Twilight movie. And King is right about “The Exorcist.” And not just disobeying their parents — but seemingly perfectly okay kids suddenly turning into Manson followers.
Cameron: What is the scariest image you have created (to date)?
Polly Frost: I think my humor piece about designer dog breeds — which has some drawings I did of new dog hybrids like the iDog, the EcoDoodle and the Shih-Tube — has the scariest images I’ve ever created. But I’ve discovered I’m alone in this. Many people have told me they find that humor piece and the drawings in it adorable!
Cameron: I know you write in all sorts of genres, including humor–so what’s next for you?
Polly Frost: I’m always writing humor, even when I write horror. I like to think the stories in “Deep Inside” are funny as well as hot. My current humor project is my one person show “How to Survive Your Adult Relationship with Your Family” which I’m performing in Santa Barbara on August 18th at Oreana Winery, on September 21st at Studio Live in Sedona, on October 22nd at Cornelia Street Cafe in NYC and on November 3rd at Bard’s Town Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky. This show was the toughest thing I ever wrote because it’s somewhat autobiographical and I was turning some difficult experiences into humor. During the time I wrote it, I was pretty impossible, I have to admit. Ray twice threatened to divorce me! But the first time I performed it in NYC in June, I heard people laughing at all the stuff that had been painful to access and write about. And that was great. I may be unusual in this as a writer, but I love performing. What can I say? I’m an audience whore. And as a humor writer, I love hearing the laughter directly. I mean, it’s nice to have someone write and say they laughed out loud over your humor piece — but there’s nothing like connecting with a live audience.
Cameron: Can you talk about the sci-fi web series you produced?
Polly Frost: “The Fold” is a comic sci fi web series that I co-wrote and co-produced along with my husband and the director of it, Matt Lambert. Matt is the best. He’s this incredible young director who is super talented and yet the nicest guy in the world to work with. I know he’s going to make some amazing films. And he loves horror, god bless him. The three of us made “The Fold” for 8 grand. We cast NYC actors and burlesque peformers — and we were lucky to have some of the best in it: Karen Grenke, Julie Atlas Muz, Jake Thomas, Josh Matthews, Jeremy Lawrence. And we’re pleased that so many people like “The Fold.” You can watch it here: http://blip.tv/the-fold
Cameron: Any chance we might see some of your stories produced into short films or features?
Polly Frost: Matt Lambert and I have wanted to turn my story “The Pleasure Invaders” into a feature film. Matt would be the perfect person to direct it.
Cameron: You are an amazing, talented writer. How can one follow you on social media?
Polly Frost: Aw, that’s so nice of you! I’m on Facebook more than Twitter. I try to have fun on Facebook and I have enjoyed meeting a lot of interesting people on it. One thing I’ve learned about Facebook is that it’s not a great place to promote yourself in any hardcore way. People quickly resent anything like that and they’ll just hide you. So I ask what I hope are fun questions and try to keep an enjoyable atmosphere on my page.
Cameron: Any famous followers of your work?
Polly Frost: My favorite famous follower is porn legend, Ron Jeremy, who wrote the most wonderful praise for “Deep Inside.” He said it gave him a boner. I’m a huge fan of Ron.
Cameron: What’s the best advice someone has given you about writing and/or life?
Polly Frost: The best advice I ever got was from my father who wrote me a letter when I was thirty and said that I should give it up and that he would have told Tolstoy the same thing. I treasure that letter! And I have never let my dad forget it. The two of us find it hilarious and when he turned 75 I roasted him at his birthday party over it. But honestly, it was great advice because it made me think about how much I wanted to be a writer. I see a lot of young people who’ve been given all this positive feedback — too much positivity — about being artists and writers. And then when they get into the real world of it, they can’t handle the ups and downs and they quit. Really what my dad’s letter made me realize is that I hadn’t chosen to be a writer. Writing had chosen me. It’s my karma and I gotta live it out in this life as a writer.
Cameron: Where can others find out more about you?
Polly Frost: http://pollyfrost.com
Cameron: Thank you for your time, Polly. It was really nice talking with you.
Polly Frost: Thank you–and I’m very excited about your upcoming film “Bird with a Broken Wing” (http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/Bird-with-a-Broken-Wing/122071967874279)— best wishes for a great success with that.