Frank Cavallo

 Rites of Azathoth

Frank Cavallo

I had the pleasure of reading your book “Rites of Azathoth”. One of the things I really enjoyed about it was how original it was. Where did you come up with the idea for this book?

Thank you! I appreciate that. The idea for this book came together over a long period of time. It went through several versions before I settled on the one that you ultimately read. One of the things that I’ve been doing with earlier books is taking ancient myths and mashing them up with more modernist settings. I did a book called “The Lucifer Messiah” which took classical Greek myth and plunked it down in a 1940s gangster story. Another book called “The Hand of Osiris” grafted Egyptian mythology into an old western setting. But what I’d been itching to do for a long while was something in the cosmic horror vein, so I ended up treating Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos as another type of ancient mythology, which I blended with a police-procedural story. The result was “Rites of Azathoth.”

How long did it take you to write “Rites of Azathoth”?

I suppose it depends on how you measure it. In the broadest sense, I started writing the first draft of the book that became “Rites of Azathoth” about 10 years ago. But that version never quite “worked” and after about a year of tinkering with it, I put it on the shelf and left it there for several years. Once I came back to it though, and decided to re-vamp the earlier, failed version in light of some new ideas I’d dreamt up, it took about a year. I incorporated about 50% of the original draft, I’d say, and the rest was newly-written material.

I am always fascinated by how Authors come up with ideas/storylines for their books. How do your book ideas come to you?

I always try to write a book that I would want to read. Writing a book means spending months, or maybe years with those characters, and in that setting. So it has to be a place that you want to be in, and they have to be people you want to be with. Sometimes it comes out of what I’m doing in my normal life. About 15 years ago my grandparents retired to Arizona, so for years after that I was going out to Phoenix once or twice a year. I got so enamored with the desert setting: the stark blue of the sky; the dry, dusty air; the hard, hot sun; that I had to write something about it. What I was doing fueled what I was writing.

You have written both short stories and novels. Do you have a preference?

Great question. I actually prefer novels. I’d love to be able to write a really good short story, but I find that process more challenging. To me, a novel is usually a character study, on a fundamental level. And the scope of a novel gives you the space to develop a character fully. Three-to-four hundred pages is a lot of room to delve into backstory, to get into their head and to really understand why a character is motivated to do certain things. It’s also a lot of time to spend with them as a reader, so hopefully that builds up a bond with the audience. They don’t have to like the character, but they should care about their choices and what happens to them.

A short story doesn’t give you as much room for that. There isn’t enough space for that sort of depth. So you either have to focus on one trait or one moment and filter what you’re doing through that alone, or you have to do something that is more plot-focused, which I have a hard time doing.

Someone once told me that a short story is a little like telling a joke: set up, delay, then punch line. I’m notoriously bad at telling jokes, and I find short story writing just as difficult.

I have seen other book reviewers compare your work to that of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. How do you feel about those comparisons? And how have those two Authors influenced you and your writing?

You try not to make too much of that stuff, as a writer, because what I think the reviewer is really doing is trying to let readers who’ve never heard of me (most of them) know what to expect, and well-known authors are points of comparison that will be familiar. I’m not going to lie though, when you see someone even mention your book in a Stephen King comparison you do get excited.

Lovecraft is a huge influence on my writing, and this current book is squarely set in the universe he created, so I can’t give his work enough credit.

Ironically, the Stephen King book I love the most isn’t any one of his horror novels. He wrote a book called “On Writing” that I absolutely love. It’s a love letter to the art itself, and a bit of a practice guide for aspiring authors. It’s some of the best writing about writing I’ve ever seen.

I have never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft. If you could recommend one book to me by Lovecraft which one would it be?

You have read a bit of his work, in a secondary sort of way, from reading my book. Without spoiling too much, one of the “old legends” that is discussed as back story in “Rites of Azathoth” is lifted directly from one of Lovecraft’s best known works, the “Dunwich Horror.” That one happens to be one of my favorites, so if you were to embark on a Lovecraft-for-beginners tour, I’d recommend that story. It contains a lot of the things he was great at, and well-known for in his day. It’s dark and creepy and a little bit stilted by today’s standards, which is basically true of all his stuff.

You write in a specific genre. Obviously, you are a fan of horror and science fiction. Do you have a favorite book and movie in either of those genres?

I’m a big fan of both Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker. Both of them blend horror and fantasy elements together in a way that sets them apart. Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” is one of my all-time favorites and I always mention Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” on my lists of most-loved horror books. Despite that, I’m not a huge fan of horror movies. It’s a film genre that seems uniquely prone to shlock, and so even when they’re adapting high quality books, it often comes off cheesy. I do have a soft spot for the first “Hellraiser” movie though, despite is flaws.

Has your work as a Criminal Defense Attorney influenced your writing?

For this book I was able to draw pretty heavily from my work, for the first time really. As a defense attorney you need to understand what the state is going to do to convict your client of a crime, to evaluate the evidence against him or her and then try to figure out how to de-construct that case they’ve built.

So when it comes to sitting down to write a book about a criminal investigation, I’m not a cop or a special agent, but my job requires me to read a ton of police reports, detective’s notes, coroner’s reports etc. I watch police body cam footage, I look at crime scene photos, I go to crime scenes, etc. I know the little details about those things that the general public generally doesn’t see, and those are the things I tried to add to this book. Hopefully it lends the narrative a sense of authenticity. The idea was to kind of ground the police procedural stuff in a detail-rich, believable environment, in order to set the stage for the supernatural stuff.

Since I mentioned Stephen King earlier, he speaks quite frequently about his writing routine: music he plays, drinks he has nearby, sitting in the same seat, the time he writes etc. Do you have a writing routine?

I have a routine, but it differs depending upon what I’m working on. In terms of physical location, I have a bit of a circuit that I run. I’ve got a desk at home that I work at, but I need to change the scenery from time to time, so I make the rounds of a group of local libraries and coffee shops in my neighborhood. This way I’m not always writing in exactly the same place. I do however have a set spot I take in each of these locations, and if I can’t get my usual seat it throws off my whole mood, so I am definitely a creature of habit. I sometimes listen to music while I write, but only when I’m writing certain things. If I’m writing a fantasy-action scene, for example, I might put Basil Poledouris’s Conan soundtrack on a loop to keep me in the moment. One of my books was written almost entirely with “Alice in Chains” albums playing the entire time. When I look at the pages now I still hear Layne Staley’s voice in my head.

I see that you are an avid traveler. What has been your most memorable trip?

The best trip I’ve ever taken was to Mongolia.

The world is smaller than ever and it’s shrinking day-by-day. What I mean by that is, technology and media saturation have created a world in which people in widely diverse countries now share common points of reference in terms of pop culture, TV, movies, music, etc.

I went to Prague a few years after communism collapsed in the 90s. It was already getting touristy but still retained that magical charm it’s known for. I went back a few years ago and it had turned into a Disneyworld version of itself. There are souvenir stands all along the wall of the Jewish Cemetery.

I walked into a bar in Botswana a few years ago, in a place called Lekawen Drift, and Neil Diamond was playing on the speakers. People are coming in from safari and “Love on the Rocks” is there to greet them.

I could go on. At a border crossing between Cambodia and Thailand I saw a stall selling baseball caps. New York Yankees caps on sale there every day.

I’m not necessarily against this. People want to be happy and they want access to the same stuff we crave in the west. They should have it. But it does leave you with a sense that there are few truly authentic old-world places anymore.

Mongolia was one of them. It’s wonderfully empty. The people are incredibly nice and welcoming, and many of them still live in the traditional fashion. We went camping out on the steppe one day and randomly encountered a family of nomads. They invited us to spend the night with them, in their yurt, drinking their home-made fermented horse milk.

There aren’t too many places left in the world where you can do that.

Tell me about the cover of your book for the “Rites of Azathoth”. Did you design it?

Not really. I did add one element, which is the star pattern in the background. The book is unabashedly Lovecraftian, but I wanted to do at least one or two things that were entirely my own. Plenty of post-Lovecraft stuff has been added to the Mythos over the years, and that’s pretty much as he intended it. Lovecraft wanted other artists to add to his universe.

The two symbols you tend to find most often with this stuff are the “star spawn” symbol, which is just a funky five-pointed star that I never really liked. And the Necronomicon symbol, which is kind of an overly-busy take on a pentagram. I wanted to design something that had a creepy, occult feel but was different than either of these. The book references a thirteen pointed star, painted in blood. The background image on the cover is basically that, one star within another, which is my attempt to make a very tiny contribution to the Mythos aesthetic.

The rest of the cover is a collaborative effort between a fantastic artist, Erik Wilson, who has done several of the paintings for my books, and Dave Barnett at Fat Cat Graphic Design, who turned Erik’s tentacle-themed, brooding art into a full-fledged cover design. They both do amazing work and I’m so happy to have the chance to work with those guys.