Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Rebecca Frost. We met in the most unusual way! When my mom and I read two books with serial killers in a row (highly unusual for us), she asked if the obsession with serial killers occurs in other countries. I tried Googling the answer, as one does, and came upon a dissertation called “Identity and Ritual: The American Consumption of True Crime.” I started emailing with Frost, and over the last couple of weeks we learned that we have a friend in common! Weird. Frost earned her PhD in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture and seems to have a yarn habit, too; she says all the sweaters she’s wearing in her photos below are ones she knitted.
Grab the Lapels: What kind of writing do you do? What kind of writing do you wish you did more of?
Rebecca Frost: At this point my publications are all nonfiction and academic, but I’m actually working about 50/50 between nonfiction and fiction. I can’t say anything official about the second half quite yet, so that’s sort of a “keep on eye on this space” teaser, but I’ve been writing original fiction for fun since I was 15 years old. I’ve also participated in National Novel Writing Month since 2010, and my friends will tell you I totally light up when I talk about it. (Have you heard the good news of NaNoWriMo?)
For my nonfiction, I do both chapters for edited collections (shorter works, usually around 8,000 words) and my books on serial killers — and, coming up, on Stephen King’s novels. The chapters are usually built around a theme and let me take a step away from a larger project to focus on a different angle. The books take more time, both because of the research and the fact that the nonfiction writing process just feels so much slower to me.
I wish I had the time to do more blog posts for my website. I like being able to share insights into my writing process and facets of my research somewhere more accessible than either conferences or my books. It’s fun to have the engagement of comments and responses, so it feels like it’s more than just me and the blinking cursor.
GTL: In what ways has academia shaped your writing?
RF: I think the classes I took and the academic experiences I’ve had, including conferences, have made me almost excruciatingly aware of word choice. It’s made me deliberate in what I say and write, depending on the audience and purpose. Writing is harder than speaking in some ways because you can’t judge your audience’s reaction and adjust based on what you see.
There are very specific ways of engaging with an academic audience in writing, and a lot of pitfalls or pushback for not sounding “academic enough,” so it’s helped me figure out how to word my thoughts on that expected level when I have to. I want my work to reach more people than just those in the academy, though. Since my research deals with true crime, serial killers, and Stephen King, it straddles that line and is actually interesting to a wider audience. A lot of my friends note people’s eyes glaze over when they start talking about their work and the conversation stalls, but I rarely have that problem. Some people smile and change the subject anyway, but a lot of people lean in and want to talk more.
GTL: In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?
RF: I get to have many interesting conversations with people about my research when we’re not stuck in the world of academia. It’s very freeing to have someone ask me about what I do and not have to think about methodology or how to justify my response. We just get to talk about it, and go back and forth about what we’ve heard or read or watched, without having to try to prove that the topic is “worthy.”
It’s also been helpful to read widely and be able to talk with people from all sorts of different backgrounds. I have friends who’ve had some of the most amazing experiences — worked 25 years as a prison librarian, moved to New Zealand for a decade, works behind the scenes on TV shows and movies you’d recognize — and it’s just so much fun to hear about their lives (and fact-check the experience if it’s relevant to my writing). Talking with my friends, especially outside academia, is really grounding and helps provide a more well-rounded perspective on things. I think there’s a tendency on both sides to draw a hard line between “this is academic and this isn’t,” and to make strong arguments for which is better, but at this point I’d have to say anyone who tries to keep things separate is just missing out.
GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
RF: When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be four things: an astronomer, a marine biologist, a teacher, and an author, since I didn’t think there was any job that would pay you to just sit around and read books all day. I wanted to explore the places that are hard to get to and that not many people see first-hand. I ended up gravitating more toward English classes as school went on and figured out that I could still explore without having to carry an air tank and wear a special suit.
I think I’ve kept that sense of curiosity even if I’m a bit more practical about it — reading a book about Carl Sagan instead of wanting to become him, for example. But I do still read widely, and my academic work shows that interdisciplinarity. I started writing about Stephen King, for example, when I’d only been working on true crime, because I read his novella “A Good Marriage,” based on the real-life serial killer known as BTK. I’m always looking for connections between what I already know and the new things I’m learning, and those help with both my fiction and nonfiction writing.
GTL: What are your current writing projects?
RF: There’s a reason my friends will come to me with questions about how to juggle multiple projects at once. Right now, at this very moment, I have four different books in different stages of the process. My upcoming book, Surviving Stephen King: Reactions to the Supernatural in Works by the Master of Horror, will be out later this year, so I’ll be doing proofs and indexing soon. I have another academic manuscript due to the publisher this summer, and I’m working on the final touches for that one.
I think the most I can say about the other two projects right now is that I have signed a contract for my debut novel, due out summer 2022, and that I am in negotiations on another novel. Those will both involve editing and then promotional schedules, which aren’t usually a “thing” with academic books, so I’m looking forward to being able to talk about my fiction, too. Usually I finish what I’m writing and move on, but this will mean engaging with more people about my work and finally being able to talk about these characters who’ve been in my head for at least four years.
Then, in the background, I have my notebooks with ideas floating around for my next project. Whenever I have an idea, big or small, I make sure to write it down so I don’t forget it. Sometimes the notes just sit there, but other times they spark more and more connections until I can build an entire piece out of it.
GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?
RF: Right, so that’s basically any day that ends in Y.
I used to teach college composition, and I’d tell students the same thing: we’re absolutely the worst judges of our own writing. We’re too close to it. With my own work, I try to schedule some smaller deadlines so I can create a draft and then let it sit, untouched, for at least a month before I come back to it and give myself space that way. The other option — the scarier option — is actually sharing it with someone else whose opinion you trust, and then forcing yourself to believe the good things they say.
If I’m working under a deadline, I can’t always let things sit that long, but I’ll still take some time anyway. When I notice that I’m feeling nothing but grumpy about my writing, I’ll save it, close the laptop, and go do something else for a while: get some air, hit the treadmill, what have you. Then, after a break, I’ll come back and look at it again with fresh eyes.
The other biggest tip is “Don’t stop.” You learn to write by writing. The more you do it, the better you’ll get, even before you take the next step of sharing it with someone and getting feedback. I have folders upon folders of writing that only one or two people in the world have ever seen, and it’s going to stay that way, because I look back on it now and cringe, but I kept going. I don’t know if you really have to write a million words before you get any good at it, but I do know that stopping means that is the best I’ll ever be.
In grad school, I had a professor who said, “Writing is never done – it’s just due.” There’s always something I think I could (or should) change in a piece of writing, but I have to let it go eventually. Nobody’s ever going to read it if I only ever keep it to myself like some sort of dragon hoarding (presumably) bad pages. Take a break, come back with fresh eyes, and just keep writing.