Lori Safranek spent several years as a newspaper reporter in Nebraska before trying her hand at fiction writing. In addition to her Freaked Out series, she’s contributed to the anthologies Simple Things, Final Masquerade, Dead Harvest, Fifty Shades of Decay: Zombie Erotica, Cellar Door II, and Slaughter House: Serial Killer Edition. She also contributed a short story to Tim Baker’s novel, Unfinished Business, and has published stories in The Sirens Call eZine.
Most recently, Lori put her sideshow characters into the Zombie Apocalypse with her story, “Freaked Out Zombies,” which was featured in Tales from the Zombie Road.: The Long Haul Anthology.
Lori has a great sense of humor and a quick mind. We discussed several things, including: her past occupation, the creation of characters, and her love of zombies.
NTK: Hi, Lori. Thank you for chatting with me today.
LS: No problem!
NTK: You were a newspaper reporter before you became a fiction writer. How did this occupation shape your work?
LS: I believe, and found to be true, that every person has a story to tell. An interesting story! So, I love hearing those stories, from the person I sit next to while waiting for a haircut to an old college friend. If you listen, everyone has done something that makes a great story.
Fiction of course, can be anything I create, but I tend to call from the stories I’ve heard over the years and use them for inspiration.
NTK: Did these stories inspire your Freaked Out series?
LS: Yes, in a lot of ways. I met a woman tattoo artist on a visit to New Orleans. She was pretty much covered in tattoos, but I also met a young man who is in the Guinness Book of World Records as being the most tattooed man ever. His name is Matt Gone and he was a cook in Cooper’s, a great bar/restaurant in the French Quarter. He, like so many people, left the city after Hurricane Katrina. He’s been on TV many times. He’s a very nice guy. Anyway, their willingness to devote themselves to all this beautiful artwork inspired my character, Smudge, The Tattooed Man in the Sideshow.
The Snake Handler, Lily Dean, came from a cousin’s love of snakes. And, my fascination with the snake handling churches back in the Appalachians. I’d see TV shows about those churches and found it fascinating. And, I’ve written articles about people who own snakes and how they keep it safe, etc.
Steiner, the owner of the Freak Show, his name comes from a bar in the neighborhood I grew up in. My parents thought that was hilarious.
NTK: You also have a character called Marie. Where did she come from?
LS: Oh, Marie! I have to admit, she’s got a lot of me in her. Sassy, fat, and not willing to be ashamed about it. But, years ago, I found a graphic I was going to use in some artwork I was doing. It was a painting of a fat lady from the circus, her name was “Sweet Marie.” I fell in love with the image. She was eating in the painting but her hands were dainty and she was quite pretty. So, when I decided to do a Fat Lady, I made her lady-like and sexy, and also confident. That was important to me. I made sure Marie wasn’t stuffing food in her face on stage. And, I made her have a successful online video cam career, because wow, do you realize how many men are into big girls? I never knew until I joined Facebook!
Marie’s tattoo of wings on her back comes from my nephew’s wife, who has the same tattoo and I love it.
And, the reason I had the other character attack Marie out of jealousy was representative of how women are so often jealous of one another. We think it’s based on attractiveness but Marie weighs nearly 500 pounds! And, she’s still pulling in male fans all the time! It makes her attacker so jealous she comes to hate Marie. I think that’s so sad. Marie is my favorite character in the Freaked Out series.
NTK: Do each of your characters allow you to explore a different theme?
LS: Yes, they do. My snake charmer, Lily Dean, is a lonely person. She’s rejected by her father because she refused to use her abilities to trick churchgoers, thus making her dad and the preacher money. When Lily Dean shows up in the Side Show, she’s down to her last dollar and all she cares about is feeding her snakes. She needs a family and luckily, she is hired and pulled right into the Steiner group. Marie mothers her, of course.
One of the things about the series is that I have Steiner insist that all his freaks be honest. No trickery. If you say you can charm snakes, no tricks! Lily Dean can use her mental powers to get the snakes to do what she wants them to do. Smudge, the tattooed man, can prove his tattoos really do move around on his body. And Jason, that Alligator Man, does indeed have skin that looks like alligator hide. He has a medical condition (I looked it up, it’s real!) that causes his skin to look that way.
NTK: How much control do you exert over your characters? Some writers are god-like and decide everything their characters do, while others give their characters more free will. Where do you fall in the spectrum?
LS: They really don’t give me that much choice, the little devils! They tend to do what they want. I’m kidding. But, it does feel sometimes like the character takes over. I can have a plan in my head, but I start typing and suddenly the character is smarter than I gave them credit for or possessing traits I never even knew about. That is a wonderful feeling for a writer.
NTK: So, they become real not just to you but to the reader as well?
LS: I hope so. I have people tell me they really love Marie. And, my husband thought Smudge was a very authentic character. Smudge is a rather rough guy, covered with tattoos and very tall and built. And, he swears quite a lot. He reminds me and my husband of some of my family members, which is why he says it’s a realistic character. It’s hard not to use those characteristics, I think.
Oh, but I did get a bad review on Amazon, that said Marie was a terrible book because it was obvious the writer (me) had never been fat. Of course, I’m pretty darn big and I have no idea what she meant. Evidently, Marie did not seem real to that reader. I got a kick out of that, though.
NTK: What got you interested in freakshows? Why did you use this as a background for your horror?
LS: Good question. My good friend, Jim, is constantly going to rock concerts and when we were in college, he would often stop by my house after the concert to give me his review. One night, he told me about this really different opening act that was a freakshow. It included fire eaters, sword swallowers, people who could hammer nails into their tongues—all kinds of things. It was called the Jim Rose Circus. I thought that was amazing. It seemed after that this Circus was everywhere I looked. I watched a documentary about it, read a couple magazines about it. Pretty soon, I couldn’t get freak shows out of my head.
I also read a true crime book about a man who was known as “The Lobster Man” (Grady Stiles.) His son and wife conspired to kill him. It was a fascinating look into the circus world.
I kept thinking about the freakshows and like I said, I had that Marie graphic. One thing led to another.
NTK: Do you find your newspaper background affects your style? Hemingway and Jack London wrote like reporters. Do you write with a Who, What, Where, etc. mentality?
LS: It really does affect my fiction writing and sometimes that’s not a good thing. It can become dull. My editors have told me to “add description!!!” more than once. I sometimes challenge myself to be flowery and overly descriptive just to kind of break my “just the facts, ma’am” style. I don’t really enjoy reading overly descriptive fiction though.
Having been a reporter also impacts my ability to suspend disbelief when reading and writing horror. I’m often thinking, “Wait! That could never happen!” And, of course, it’s FICTION! Anything can happen! (Laughs.)
NTK: Were you interested in horror before writing the Freaked Out series?
LS: Sure. I had a couple short stories published in horror anthologies before I wrote Marie. And, I’ve read horror all my life.
I’m not into horror movies, though. They scare me too much.
NTK: Who are your favorite authors? Who inspires you?
LS: That changes over time, I think.
The last few years, I’ve read a lot of zombie fiction, which I love. Mark Tufo is wonderful, of course, I love how he tempers the violence with humor. His characters are well done, too. David Simpson is a new favorite, really good writer.
I’ve always been a big mystery fan, and people like Lawrence Block (who writes dark stuff) influence me.
One of my biggest influences, since I’ve been on Facebook, is Trent Zelazny. He’s been a good friend and his writing is unique and just inspires me to strive to write more clearly and with less muss and fuss.
NTK: Is Trent related to the writer, Roger Zelazny?
LS: Yes, Trent is Roger’s son.
NTK: Are zombies your favorite monsters?
LS: Yes, zombies are my favorites but I do like vampires. I was really into werewolves for a while. Zombies, though, they’re the big deal.
NTK: What is it you like most about zombies? Is it the apocalyptic aspect?
LS: That is really important to me, it creates great tension, of course. I like the driving hunger of zombies. Shoot them in the guts, they keep seeking brains! Chop off their arms, still, they move forward! It’s hard to survive them. I don’t like fast zombies, really. I like them slow and dumb. Like my men. (Laughs.)
NTK: You recently wrote a short story about zombies featuring your Freaked Out characters. Tell us a little about that?
LS: Now, that was fun! David Simpson, author of the Zombie Road series, created an anthology where he allowed writers to use his world to write a short story. He invited fans, whether they were writers or not, to contribute. The proceeds went to the Wounded Warrior Project, which is a great organization.
I love David’s books which are about a group of truck drivers, mostly vets, who survive the apocalypse and travel to Oklahoma to set up a small town. These truckers are resilient and smart. Anyway, I used my characters, Jason, Blade the Sword Swallower, Lily Dean, Smudge, and Gypsy the psychic/medium. Jason, Blade, and Gypsy were traveling to pick up Lily Dean and Smudge in an RV. They bring weapons (Blade’s swords and knives) and in exchange, get some fuel to get back to their fellow freaks who are holed up at Marie’s home.
David’s characters are all so down to earth and pretty tough and mine are really…um…freaky! It worked pretty well, though.
NTK: You said you don’t watch horror movies. Do you watch Zombie movies? What about The Walking Dead?
LS: I don’t watch The Walking Dead. I watched a couple episodes and I didn’t like it. I do like Z Nation, even though it can be silly as hell. I recently binge-watched iZombie. It’s a pretty interesting concept, but not realistic based on the usual zombie tropes of unthinking zombies. The main character eats brains, but also other foods, which isn’t normal for zombies. It’s good, though.
And, zombie movies—I loved Sean of the Dead and The Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse. And, of course, the George Romero movies.
My favorite, horrifying horror movie I really enjoyed was 30 Days of Night. Awesome.
Psycho was the first horror movie I saw and it scared the pants off me. I was about 12.
NTK: What are your future plans? What do we have to look forward to?
LS: I have a couple ideas for books but the first idea just hasn’t blossomed and I may have to give up on it. The other is about the zombie apocalypse but it’s a comedy. And, I’ll keep writing short stories, which I enjoy so much. My stories have been published in a few anthologies.
NTK: In your story featuring Smudge, he must deal with a curse. And, as you know, Season 12 of HorrorAddicts.net is CURSED. Do you have a favorite curse? If so, what is it?
LS: I think curses have to be individual. As in, if I wanted to curse someone, I’d have to know them a little and make it their worst nightmare.
If someone wanted to curse me, they’d say, “Lori, you are cursed forever to watch sports on television, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year!” I would just curl up and die.
I think, with most people today, the worst curse would be to make their cell phone not work. Or, only work sporadically.
NTK: (Laughs.) Thank you for the chat, Lori.
LS: Thanks so much!