An Interview With
Frank Coffman is a retired professor of college English, Creative Writing, and Journalism. He has published speculative poetry and fiction in a variety of magazines and anthologies. His poetic magnum opus, The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems has been followed by his rendition into English Verse of 327 quatrains of Khayyám’s Rubáiyát. A second large collection of poetry, Black Flames & Gleaming Shadows was published in March of 2020. All are available from Bold Venture Press and on Amazon.
A traditional formalist in his poetic work, he is especially interested in exploring and experimenting with the patterns of verse found across the world’s cultures and ethnicities and across time from ancient to modern. His special love of and interest in the sonnet has led to invention of several cross-cultural meldings of various traditions with the 14-line restriction of the sonnet form.
A collection of seven of his occult detective stories, Three Against the Dark, will be published in early 2021.
He has published speculative short fiction in Black Veins I, Eldritch Tales, Test Patterns, Hell’s Empire, and elsewhere.
His scholarly interests include the poetry and fiction of the “Weird Tales triumvirate” of Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, with a more general interest in all of the poets who contributed to that great pulp magazine. He selected and edited Robert E. Howard: Selected Poems.
A member of the Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. He established and moderates the Weird Poets Society Facebook group.
Check out his work before you get to know the man?
Often it is in our childhood days that we realize what we’d like to do when we grow up. Stories are now an essential part of your life. When was the first time you fell in awe with a story, and consequently, the art of storytelling?
I’m sure I’ve loved stories since before I could read. The oral tale is a diminishing art form, but its magic is still sorely needed. But the first time I considered writing was my sophomore year in high school when I entered a city-wide high school writing contest with a short story. I got second prize—which encouraged me greatly.
Wow, that’s awesome! When someone validates our writing talent it really feels great. I had an English teacher who motivated me to write a poem. I wonder if things would have gone differently if our paths hadn’t crossed. And it’s true. Now that I think of it, I believe it was my grandmother who indirectly set me on the course of writing, by telling me some of the best oral tales.
Can you recall the very first story you wrote? When was this? What was it about?
That story for the high school contest was science fiction blended with a bit of fantasy. It was about space travel at first, but the crew of the ship eventually realized that they’d gone out farther than they expected. Their return trip to Earth—after the evident but un-narrated destruction of their ship and, by implication, their own deaths was, of course, without a ship—but facilitated by their wings! A bit hoaky, I know—but the judges evidently liked it.
It does sound like a story I’d enjoy.
What inspires you to write?
Almost anything we encounter can be an inspiration. Sometimes these sort of flare up serendipitously. The world itself—more especially the natural world for me. Through my studies of myth and folklore and legend through my college career, with special interests in pulp and popular literature (across the speculative genres), the supernatural also became appealing. I’ve written quite a bit more poetry than fiction, and while much of it—especially in my earlier years—was what might be thought of as focusing on “traditional” themes and topics, the past few years I’ve been focused on the genres of Horror & the Supernatural, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Detection & Mystery, and Adventure. I’ve found a sort of “niche” in the Speculative.
Yeah, people think I’m kidding when I say I get my best ideas in my bathroom. Lol. But yeah, stories do come out of nowhere. And man that’s a lot of genres!
You’re a creator of many different beautiful stories. For an author, stories are like kids, and it’s impossible to pick a favorite. But will you still try?
I think my favorite short tale is the one that appeared first in Test Patterns I and was, subsequently reprinted in THE GREAT VOID BOOKS’ Black Veins I, “The White Terror.” It’s a “monstrous critter” tale set in India in the days of the Empire. One reason I like it so much is that it owes a lot to the extensive research I did on the era. I do research on all of my fictional work, but my general interest in the Victorian Era and Colonialism helped greatly for the background. It “springboarded” originally from my discovery of the legend of the “Indus Worm” attested from ancient Greek sources and since. Close behind that one would be “Reinforcements” that appeared in the alternate reality collection, Hell’s Empire, stories about the forces of Hell attacking Victorian Britain. That one is in diary mode, the entries of a young soldier in the Royal Welsh Grenadiers.
Your research is clearly visible in the stories. I think that’s one of the things why I liked The White Terror so much.
Which authors do you look up to? Whose works do you enjoy the most? Your favourite quote?
My three favorite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and G.K. Chesterton. But I’ve been influenced by many others and specific stories: the masterful use of viewpoint and detail in Hemmingway’s “The Snows of Killimanjaro,” some of the messages in Faulner’s “The Bear” (the longer version), the excellent symbolic details and flow of Crane’s “The Open Boat.”
As far as a favorite quote, it’s impossible to narrow it down to just one. So many great words have been uttered and recorded. My favorites would form a large book of lists—likely briefer than Bartlett’s, but not by much.
They all seem tempting. Yay, few more titles to add to my TBR pile!
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Do you come up with ideas spontaneously or you lay some groundwork before you actually start writing?
It’s a mix of the two usually. Inspiration and spontaneity usually first—leading to hard work on necessary research.
What are the steps in your creative process? How many drafts do you go through until you’re satisfied with the end result?
I do consider my first draft of anything the “zero draft”—knowing that revision is always an essential thing. The old “less is more” rule I abide by pretty closely. I agree with the idea behind Mark Twain’s “I apologize for the length of this letter. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” Will Strunk’s old rule of “Omit Needless Words” is one of my rhetorical mottoes Orwell said the same thing: “If a thing can be left out, always leave it out.”
True, ‘Less is more’ is also one of my favourite rules of writing. And at times it’s so hard to enter the delete mode. But it’s all worth it.
Do you have any writing rituals?
It’s actually more of a revision ritual. I use a sort of simple style checker to “activate” both my prose and my poetry. I do a FIND command in WORD (which includes REPLACE) and I seek out and replace all instances of every form of the TO BE verb and highlight those in red and bold and other emphasis. Example: IS. Then I ask myself if there’s an active/action verb that would enliven the sentence. I also look for articles THE, A, and AN and ask if there are adjectives or adverbs that could replace these bland function words.
In a week, how many hours do you usually write? What’s your secret to keep writing regularly? Do you prefer writing in the wee hours of morning, or after midnight?
Since my retirement from teaching a couple years ago, I have much more time for writing. But I’d say the “eight hour day” is rare. It happens in fits and starts for me. I’ll sometimes get an idea and produce a sonnet in a half an hour. Once started on prose fiction, I sometimes do the longer stretch—as long as the words keep flowing. But stopping, mulling the thing over, letting it sit a day (or a few or several) often brings one back with fresh ideas.
Is your family supportive about your creative endeavors? Who is your go to buddy when something goes wrong and you need a shoulder? Do you belong to any awesome writer circles?
My immediate family includes my wife, Connie, and our two cats, Buffy and Binx. Connie is proud of my publications when they happen. She also reads them : ), but her real love is Mystery Fiction. Although I’m pretty sure she’ll read my occult detective series when it’s published. The cats mostly either sleep at my feet or on my desk—or get in the way when I’m in the middle of writing some key part. I receive many “attaboys” from my more extended family.
My writing circles include The Weird Poets Society (Facebook group—open to published speculative poets), the Horror Writers Association, and the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association.
I’m sure your cats are just trying to give helpful suggestions. Listen to the meows and mentally replace it with ‘cut’. Lol.
How do you spend your free time? What are your hobbies? Do you watch TV shows or listen to music?
I have quite a bit of free time in retirement. Most of my hobbies are things somewhat or significantly curtailed by the current pandemic situation. I’m a pretty fair photographer and have a keen interest in stereography (3D photography). As a younger man—teens through thirties—I was an accomplished golfer and played in many amateur and open tournaments. My interest in golf of late has been with the revival of the hickory-shafted game—using old fashioned clubs (both 19th and early 20th century equipment) and even reproductions of the older styles of golf balls: gutta percha rubber and even “featheries.” The modern game has become too technologized for my taste. I love sailing, and I’ve done two excursions to the Bahamas on small sloops—now many years ago. But nothing of late.
I have an eclectic taste in music, influenced by everything from the “Old Rock” of my boyhood and teen and early college years (50s and 60s), but including bagpipe music, Gregorian chants, folk music, the Blues of Huddy Ledbetter and other black masters of that genre, Country & Western—and the list goes on.
I see you have lived your life to the fullest. My only hobby is sleeping. I’ll try stealing some of yours. Lol
Is there anything about you—strange likings or personality quirks—that no one knows yet? Would you like to share them?
I’m a certified Field Investigator for the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON). I’ve never seen anything that would qualify as a UFO myself, but I believe SOMETHING is up there (“theirs” or ours)—and I believe “The Truth is Out There.”
Definitely. The universe is big enough to accommodate all the possibilities. And I’m working on this big first contact alien space opera, so it’d pretty lame if they didn’t exist XD
What are your big writing goals?
I’d like for my writing—both poetry and prose—to become more widely known. And I’d like to have some “feedback” on its merits in the form of reviews and, possibly, even awards or acknowledgements. I’m not looking to get wealthy from my work, but broader appreciation would be a goal.
Do you have any dreams that go beyond the field of writing?
Live a good life and leave legacies of various kinds that might endure—at least for awhile. A full and fulfilling, exciting and eventful life is about the best thing anyone can wish for.
Now the most important question: are you a foodie? What sort of food do you love?
Just as with music, I have an eclectic taste in foods and many cultural varieties. I enjoy trying new things, but there are a few “foods” I’ve seen sampled by “food adventurers” on TV shows—that I’m very sure I wouldn’t try or enjoy.
I know right! Some of them are just too weird.
You’re a terrific writer. What writing tips would you like to give to upcoming writers? What is the most important rule of fiction? What makes a story brilliant?
I’ll do this in “bullet points” to be briefer than such a response might be:
1. If you think you’re a writer, the first thing to do is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and begin scrawling or hammering something out. If you write a page a day, at the end of a year you’ll have a 365 page novel. It might not be very good, but you’ve actually written something. Feel free to stop at 14 lines if you’re going to be a sonneteer—or far fewer pages if you want to be a short story writer or essayist.
2. Always revise your first draft of anything. As Hemingway writes: “The first draft of anything is shit.”
3. READ voraciously. No good writer was ever NOT a good reader. No great writer was ever NOT a great reader. See how others who have gone before use words well—and not so well. READ all kinds of things. READ poetry, even if your misguided school teachers or professors told you it wasn’t important. READ.
4. Keeping a book of notes and jottings and ideas CAN help. BUT don’t leave the ideas in the little notebook. They need to be expanded.
5. Find true friends and fellow writers who will be TRUE CRITICS—people who will tell you what they really think of your work or word choices, etc.
6. Be your own toughest critic.
7. If you want to be a poet, study the rules of Prosody (Traditional Form, Meter, and Rhyme). Even if you want to be a “free verse” poet, know what rules and tried and true traditions you are breaking—and see if you can come up with reasons for breaking them.
8. If you want to write anything powerful and persuasive, study the Arts of Rhetoric and the use of rhetorical devices: Figurative Language. I recommend Richard Lanham’s A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms.
9. You’re not going to be a serious writer unless you submit your work for publication. Yes, it might be—and early on, likely will be—rejected. If something comes back to you rejected, immediately send it out again—after doing one more critical overview of it yourself and re-revision if needed.
10. Keep accurate records of your submission, your rejections, your acceptance, your earnings. This is part of a writer’s job also. Accurate bookkeeping.
Wow, thank you for giving us so many suggestions, Mr. Coffman. I’m sure they’ll be of great help to our aspiring writers. And I really like how you urge writers to read. It’s very important, and if you don’t do it, it shows in your writing in the form of very embarrassing mistakes. Moreover, there’s so much we can learn. Even if the book is bad, you’ll know why it’s bad, and you can then avoid those mistakes.
Every writer is a thinker. What are your ideas about the current picture of the world?
My views are the same as they were throughout my teaching career. Ignorance and Evil are self-perpetuating things. Wisdom and the Good must be worked for by society. All ages of the world have been part of a great pendulum swing between these two extremes. The Wise and Good are fighting a great “holding action” against the forces of Ignorance and Evil. It is a battle we can never win, but one which we must never lose.
Tell us about your upcoming projects!
I’m collaborating with my great friend and fellow poet, Steven Withrow on a collection of our poems that includes two long collaborative sonnet sequences and a dozen poems by each of us as individuals. Title: The Exorcised Lyric. It will be illustrated by the great Mutartis Boswell—who did the illustrations for my second poetry collection Black Flames & Gleaming Shadows (Bold Venture Press and on Amazon). This should be out late this year.
A collection of my occult detective stories on seven adventures of my occult investigator, Dr. Anaxagoras “Nax” Venn and his “sidekicks,” Father Azor Sullivan, a clairvoyant, exorcist Jesuit and Miss Rhiannon Jones, a lovely young Welsh empath will be out in early 2021. This book, Three Against the Dark, will be illustrated by the wonderful line art drawings of Yves Tourigny—who did the illustrations for my first poetry collection The Coven’s Hornbook & Other Poems (Bold Venture Press and on Amazon).
That was a terrific interview. Thank you so much for answering the questions so patiently, and I’m very grateful your time, Frank. All the best for your upcoming projects! I’ll definitely check them out.