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Interview: January 29, 2010

January 29, 2010's Joe Hartlaub recently spoke with Gregory Funaro, whose chilling debut thriller, THE SCULPTOR, centers on a serial murderer who fashions replicas of the artist Michelangelo's most famous works out of his victims. In this interview, Funaro discusses what initially inspired this rather bizarre plot point and elaborates on what his book's antagonist represents in relation to the world and culture in which we live today. He also explains how he manages to find time to write amidst his teaching and familial responsibilities, lists several literary influences, and shares details on his current project --- a prequel to THE SCULPTOR. THE SCULPTOR involves a serial killer who utilizes the bodies of his victims to recreate the most famous statues of Michelangelo, as a tribute, of sorts, to a university professor whose book about Michelangelo and his work has made her the definitive American expert on the subject. Along with its horrific subject material, the novel also delves into Michelangelo’s life and influences. What compelled you to pick Michelangelo as a focal point for THE SCULPTOR?

Gregory Funaro: Michelangelo was the first artist to whom I was exposed as a child. My grandfather, an artist himself, was obsessed with his work, and his own reproductions of Michelangelo’s paintings from the Sistine Chapel covered the walls of my grandparents’ home in East Greenwich, RI. One day, during the summer of 2008 while stuck in traffic --- I had a convertible back then and it was a very hot day --- I began daydreaming about my grandparents’ old house. They had this huge backyard with a built-in swimming pool. Around the pool atop a low cement wall, my grandfather had installed a handful of classical statues --- one being a scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s David. As a child, I was convinced that David and the other statues came alive at night --- until one afternoon my younger brother went up to David with a pair of grill tongs and tried to pull off his penis. I didn’t think David would stand for that, and so from then on had to accept the fact that David and his friends were just statues after all.

The idea for THE SCULPTOR sprang from those memories. Sitting there, sweating in traffic, I thought, “Instead of the statue of David coming alive, what if a serial killer turned a living, breathing person into a reproduction of it?” As I consider Michelangelo to be the greatest sculptor of all time, it seemed only natural that my serial killer should be obsessed with him. However, the idea of serial killing as an art form --- that is, The Sculptor's use of dead bodies as a social critique with the purpose of fomenting a cultural Renaissance similar to that of Michelangelo’s time --- came together after I got the initial idea for THE SCULPTOR. In fact, there’s a scene in the book where the killer drowns his first victim in a pool --- that’s the pool at my grandparents’ old house. And since it was the memory of that pool that sparked the idea for my novel, I thought it only fitting that The Sculptor should derive inspiration from it, too.

BRC: A fictitious treatise entitled Slumbering in the Stone causes The Sculptor to focus his attention on its author. Was there a real-world version of Slumbering in the Stone that you relied upon in order to write the book? And did you do all of your own research while writing THE SCULPTOR?

GF: Yes, I did all of my own research. Going into THE SCULPTOR (which was originally titled SLUMBERING TOWARD DAVID, then THE MICHELANGELO KILLER), I already knew a lot about Michelangelo, but I still had to do a ton of research on him and his statues, the FBI, and the preservation process for the killer’s victims. There was no real-world version of Slumbering in the Stone that I used as a reference --- just a stack of art books and scholarly articles that became the basis for Cathy Hildebrant’s work, as well as The Sculptor’s “interpretation” of it.

BRC: One of my favorite elements of THE SCULPTOR was the backstory regarding Michelangelo, and how his personal life so dramatically influenced his work. With any work of art, whether it be music, books, film, or sculpture, the beholder is so often entranced with the finished product that the story behind the work isn’t immediately considered. What was it particularly about Michelangelo, as a man or as an artist, that caused you to feature him and his work as a primary element of THE SCULPTOR?

GF: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I consider Michelangelo to be the greatest sculptor who ever lived, so for me there was no other choice. Furthermore, his statues are so personal in their rendering that, once you know what to look for, they’re nothing short of a window into the artist’s tortured soul. But there’s also the fact that his statues are so well-known, and at the risk of sounding like my villain, I think that as a result of cultural over-saturation, people have become somewhat numbed to the beauty and utter genius of his work. With regard to the man himself, because of my grandfather I too became obsessed with Michelangelo as a child; but as I grew older and got into theatre, I became more interested in the man himself and the inner struggles out of which his masterpieces were born. I’ve often wondered what would happen if a tortured genius like Michelangelo were born today but got screwed up as a child and ultimately used his genius for nefarious purposes. The Sculptor’s struggle to negotiate his genius and with his inner torture simply mirrors Michelangelo’s on a much darker level. The Sculptor himself is aware of this --- it’s one of the things that attracts him to Michelangelo --- and the act of sculpting in this novel is a metaphor for the shaping of personality during childhood.

BRC: Another element of THE SCULPTOR that I enjoyed was your description of the house and carriage house where The Sculptor carried out his work. Is that setting based on a real place? If so, where?

GF: Yes, it’s a real place --- my aunt’s old house in West Warwick, Rhode Island --- but the carriage house was pretty dilapidated while she lived there and was eventually torn down. As a teenager, however, I always thought that, with a little fixing up, the carriage house would have made a great music studio; and even before I had solidified how The Sculptor was going to murder and preserve his victims, I knew I wanted him to use my aunt’s carriage house as his “studio.”

BRC: The Sculptor is one of the most frightening characters I’ve encountered recently in a novel. From what nightmare land of yours did he arise?

GF: I think, in part, from my own biased views on what I see as the gradual “dumbing-down” of western civilization --- not just in terms of education, but mostly with regard to celebrity as a substitute for substance. I don’t want to get into a whole philosophical debate on the subject (Cathy and Markham talk about it enough in the novel), but I suppose The Sculptor is simply the extreme manifestation of that point of view.

BRC: From first concept to final draft, how long did it take you to write THE SCULPTOR? In hindsight, is there anything in the process that you wish you had done differently? What advice regarding the writing process could you give to our readers who are working on their first novel?

GF: I wrote THE SCULPTOR in the late summer and fall of 2008. It took me about three months of getting started every morning at 5 and just chopping away at the chapters. Looking back, I’m not sure what I would have done differently. I simply don’t remember a lot of the process. That’s the truth. I was so exhausted while writing THE SCULPTOR --- that is, trying to find time five days a week in order to get at least 1,500-2,000 words per day --- that there are whole chunks of the novel that I have no recollection of writing. As for advice about the writing process? You have to take control and set a schedule and stick to it no matter what. Be realistic in your goals, but say to yourself that you’re going to carve out x-amount of time to write per day, or that you’re going to get x-amount of words down, and don’t let yourself off the hook unless something drastic happens. You’ve got to treat it like a part-time job where you’re afraid of your boss --- only in this case the boss is you! Lack of sleep is never an excuse. The right combination of coffee, Diet Coke and Gatorade G2 works wonders for me.

BRC: What do you think, and hope, the future holds for you with respect to writing? Are you interested in penning thrillers to the exclusion of all other genres, or are there other genres that you’re interested in exploring?

GF: Although I’d hate to give up teaching, I hope someday to be able to write full-time. I have a bunch of ideas swimming around in my head --- all thrillers, some of which cross over into historical fiction à la THE ALIENIST or THE DANTE CLUB. I’m also interested in playing with paranormal elements in my stories --- ghosts and dreams and such --- and my third novel has some supernatural twists to it (although the reader is never sure if those twists are real or imagined by the protagonist). We’ll see what happens with it, as the thriller genre is really where my heart is. I think someday I’d like to write a straight-up horror novel, too. Stephen King and Peter Straub are two of my biggest influences.

BRC: Your biography states that you are an associate professor in the School of Theatre and Dance at East Carolina University. What was the impetus behind your decision to turn to writing a novel?

GF: This is going to sound like a copout, but I really don’t know --- it just sort of happened. One day in the spring of 2007, I began writing down ideas in my spare time, and over the course of a year those ideas gelled together into a string of stories that made up my first novel --- a 210,000-word mess that I’ve since rewritten and now consider to be my third novel. It relates to the Sam Markham series only tangentially --- a mystery-thriller set in Rhode Island in the summer of 1940, and that focuses on some ancillary characters who appear and/or are mentioned in THE SCULPTOR. I didn’t start considering myself an actual “writer” per se until I got my agent, whom I just adore and respect immensely. After my first novel went nowhere, I wrote THE SCULPTOR in a frenzy of early morning power sessions. That’s when I began sticking to a schedule and treating the whole thing like a part-time job.

BRC: What sort of writing schedule have you set for yourself? How do you balance the obligations of family and full-time work with writing? How do you stick to a writing schedule? And what advice can you give to our readers about keeping the promise to write on schedule?

GF: In addition to what I’ve described already, it’s imperative that I get my writing done first thing in the morning --- that way I’m not preoccupied and obsessing about it all day (also, if I don’t get it out of the way before I have to deal with people, I can be one grumpy SOB to be around). I give myself a target of at least 1,500 words per day and don’t quit until I get it. If I still have time before my first class (or in the summers, before noon), I keep going until I hit 2,000. It’s really difficult balancing my full-time job and my familial obligations with my writing --- especially now that I’m a father --- but luckily I have a wife who is really supportive of me and my work. I don’t think I could have written THE SCULPTOR had she not had so much faith in me. My advice about sticking to a schedule is to whine less about how little time you have and do everything humanly possible to protect your blocks of writing time --- even if that means conditioning yourself to need less sleep, or promising your wife you’ll treat her to sushi if she lets you have Saturday morning to yourself instead of going with her to Wal-Mart.

BRC: Are there any authors or books in particular that have exercised an influence upon you, either personally or professionally?

GF: Where do I begin? I’ve already mentioned Stephen King and Peter Straub, but every time I read something by Cormac McCarthy, I just want to hang up the writing career --- the guy truly is the Hemingway of our time, and if someday I can harness one one-hundredth of his talent, I’ll consider myself golden. Two novels have brought me to tears in my life: the first, Richard Adams’s WATERSHIP DOWN; the second, McCarthy’s THE ROAD. That I cried over the former when I was 12 (at the beginning of adolescence) and the latter when I turned 40 (at the beginning of a mid-life crisis) must say something about me, but I’m not sure what. William Peter Blatty’s THE EXORCIST and Jay Anson’s THE AMITYVILLE HORROR had a profound effect on me growing up (I read them when I was 11), and thus solidified my love of horror. Stephen King’s SALEM'S LOT changed my life (I read it and James Herbert’s THE RATS while convalescing from a ruptured appendix in the sixth grade), and I swore to myself that one day I would write a novel, too --- it just took me almost 30 years to keep my promise!

Off the top of my head, other random faves as a youngster include THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE HOBBIT, and anything I could get my hands on with a ghost in it. Early teens: THE STAND, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, THE CALL OF THE WILD, DOWN THESE MEAN STREETS, THE LORD OF THE FLIES, and issue after issue of Fangoria magazine. Late teens: THE GODFATHER, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, ANIMAL FARM, and THE GRAPES OF WRATH (everything Steinbeck, for that matter). And as an adult, Robert Pirsig’s ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, anything Maupassant, WAR AND PEACE, TROPIC OF CANCER, Michael Shaara’s THE KILLER ANGELS, THE SATANIC VERSES, Robert Greene’s THE 48 LAWS OF POWER, Herrigel’s ZEN AND THE ART OF ARCHERY, Erik Larson’s THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, and Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN. There’s that damn Cormac McCarthy again!

BRC: What books have you read in the past six months that you would care to recommend to our readers?

GF: I had so little time to read in 2009 --- and much of what I did read I didn’t care for --- but here goes. It took me a while to get into Dan Simmons’s THE TERROR, but I ended up loving it. Josh Bazell’s BEAT THE REAPER was a trip, and LOST BOY, LOST GIRL by Peter Straub had me from page one. Stieg Larsson’s THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO was brilliant, and I finally got around to reading Anne Rivers Siddons’s THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR --- beautifully written, scary as hell, and made me feel ashamed that I hadn’t read it years ago. I won’t mention the books I didn’t like.

BRC: I’ve read that you are currently working on your next novel. What can you tell us about it? Will it feature the return of any of the characters from THE SCULPTOR, or will you be working in a different direction?

GF: The first draft of my next novel was actually just accepted by my editor, and I’m going to start rewrites on it as soon as I work out the remaining details in my head. It’s a “prequel” to THE SCULPTOR, and features Sam Markham on the trail of a serial killer who makes The Sculptor look like Mother Teresa. I don’t want to reveal too much about it, but let’s just say the killer’s modus operandi should have readers squirming in their seats. And I mean that literally --- squirming!

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