Awhile back I interviewed fellow zombie author Kim Paffenroth.
Here’s what went down:
A.P. Fuchs: I’m a big fan of the “how it all began” when it comes to writers writing or artists drawing or whatnot, so that said, how did all begin, Kim? When was your first exposure to the undead and when did you start writing about them?
Kim Paffenroth: It’s been a long and strange confluence of events and changes in my life. When I was in middle school, I watched Night and Dawn. I wasn’t a fan of horror movies in general, but Romero’s vision fascinated me and stayed in my mind when other monsters and mayhem did not. I also constantly wrote short fiction of a very dark nature at that time. The darkness of the fiction increased with my mother’s death when I was 14. All of my writing at that time was, of course, amateurish and shallow, but it was a good outlet for what I was feeling–all the uncertainties and changes of puberty, with an extra level of grief laid on top.
When I went to college, literally starting with the first day of class, all of that changed. I didn’t think about or view any zombie films. And although I had always read a lot, in college it became a constant obsession and pushed out writing as my main way of handling and exploring my feelings. As part of the program at St. John’s College, I read the classics of philosophy, theology, history, political science, and literature. I was so hooked I went on to graduate school so I could study more. And in grad school, I started to write nonfiction, first as work for my classes, and then ultimately as part of my job as a professor. I assumed nonfiction would be my outlet now for my ideas, and I’ve had some mildly successful books on theology and literature over the years. But then I saw the Dawn of the Dead remake, and I remembered what had fascinated me about zombies so much 20 years before, though now I had the critical and intellectual tools to analyze the films and discuss them intelligently. So I wrote Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth (Baylor, 2006) and that was more popular than any of my other nonfiction. It even went on to win the Bram Stoker Award. And while I was working on it, I thought that it was fun to analyze Mr. Romero’s zombies, but maybe it would be more fun to create my own zombie fiction, in which I could make the zombies do and mean whatever I wanted them to: I wouldn’t have to analyze them to see their message–I could just put the message in directly. I really didn’t know what would come of it, but my fiction has been well-received and I’m having a great time with it.
A.P. Fuchs: When did you start work on Dying to Live and how long did it take you to complete it?
Kim Paffenroth: I’ve thought of a zombie novel for years. I actually sat down to the computer and started typing in May 2006 and finished in August 2006.
A.P. Fuchs: Do you have any writing routines? I know what mine are and, for me, if I don’t go through my pre-write rituals, I have a hard time putting down the words. Don’t ask me why. Anything like that for you?
Kim Paffenroth: Boy, I never thought of that. The closest I can think of was way back when I was writing my dissertation. That was pretty nerve wracking, and I’d always load up with a big dip of Copenhagen before trying to write. But I quit that, so I can’t think of anything equivalent for the years since. I need my coffee in the mornings, and I don’t write nearly as much late at night as I used to, but no rituals or habits.
A.P. Fuchs: So Dying to live was completed in August 2006. How did you land a deal with Permuted Press?
Kim Paffenroth: I looked around for presses that take submissions without an agent. I looked in particular for one that does horror. When I saw Permuted’s site, and how focused they are on zombies, it seemed a perfect fit. I sent it in and it was accepted and put into production fairly quickly.
A.P. Fuchs: Well, it is a good book. I’m enjoying reading it.
What I’m particularly curious about is how you view blending religion with the undead. To clarify, and given your background, I’m assuming you’re a Christian, an authentic one, and not just a Christian in name only (as quite a few people are). That said, it seems strange to me that a Christian would write about zombies. I’m a Christian and have my own zombie book out and have my own rationale and motives for doing so, but what are yours? Truly it can’t merely be rooted in a fascination with monsters and that and that alone is the driving force (aside from the obvious need to write and create, of course).
Kim Paffenroth: Well, I think there are two parts to your question, or two objections one might have, depending on one’s own brand of Christianity. First, some Christians are very literal about what is a legitimate, Christian outlook on magic and the supernatural–they won’t read Harry Potter, for example, even though it’s a very moralistic book, because it contains magic. Zombies would seem to violate certain “rules” of Christian belief–the tagline of Dawn of the Dead is pretty straightforward about that, because it says “There’s no room in Hell,” but that’s really not possible, literally, from a Christian perspective. I am not that literal.
But even for those Christians who are less literal, I think horror in general and the undead in particular can be a problem. At one point in Dante’s Inferno, Dante’s guide, the Roman poet Virgil, tells Dante to stop looking at the damned, because to look on such evil is, in itself, debasing and evil. But that’s ironic, because all during the rest of the journey, Virgil is telling Dante to stop, look, and learn from the damned. So horror is, I think, always a balance between, on the one hand, looking at something ugly and horrible in order to learn from it, and, at the other extreme, a sadistic indulging in others’ suffering in order just to be titillated or entertained by it. And given the images that normally go along with zombies–decapitations, head shots, eviscerations, cannibalism– it’s especially hard in the zombie genre to argue that you’re presenting something meaningful and not exploitive. But I’m trying.
A.P. Fuchs: I know what you mean especially since Apostle Paul writes about focusing on what is good and pure and such and to focus on those things. Zombie literature in general contains none of that on the surface.
I agree it’s an issue of motive and an issue of the heart. A lot of folks hated The Passion of the Christ because they viewed it as just one big bloodbath. Others, like myself, viewed it from the point of view of seeing what Christ did for everyone. That, to me, was what made the impact, not the gore of it. Yet, ironically, that gore was needed for that impact.
You talked earlier about putting your own message is in your stories. Is there a specific message you want to convey or is it more an issue of whatever message results from the manuscript once it’s completed and that’s the message you end up sending? Do you have a goal from the outset regarding the themes you want to explore or do you just let the themes rise on their own?
Kim Paffenroth: As to the message–I think it works on a couple levels–the general and the specific. My general message is always going to be something along the lines of “The world is a F***ed-up place, but it is still possible to find ultimate meaning and happiness within that F***ed-up world.”
But that’s a very general message. The specific message of any individual story has to be allowed to evolve and mature on its own. I just finished a very nice little zombie story in collaboration with R.J. and Julia Sevin, and I focused on the relation between the good and the beautiful: that’s not something I usually think about, and I’m not sure it’s ever been a theme in any other story I’ve written, but it just worked in this instance and made the aesthetic experience what it was supposed to be, what was demanded by the narrative. Every author has a personality, an outlook, a worldview, but it’s expressed in individual circumstances that can shape and direct it very differently each time. That’s the fun and revelation of the creative experience.
A.P. Fuchs: Are you the type of writer to outline or do you fly by the seat of your pants when crafting a story?
Kim Paffenroth: I outline pretty closely: not so precisely that there aren’t lots of developments as I write (where subplots and new characters have been added as I go), but definitely enough to know where it’ll end up and most of all the high points along the way.
A.P. Fuchs: Do you write primarily zombie fiction or have you dabbled in other genres? I know you’ve written some non-fiction books as well. What are those about?
Kim Paffenroth: I had a long career writing academic nonfiction. Those books were on various topics in theology, including the New Testament, St. Augustine, and Christian themes in literature. It was when I started looking at Christian themes and images in Romero’s zombie films that I began to think I might be able to create my own horror fiction.
A.P. Fuchs: Any other academic works on the horizon?
Kim Paffenroth: I’m the editor of a series of essay collections on St. Augustine’s thought, published by Lexington Books. It’s an engaging project for me, because the goal of the series is to have people who are not Augustine scholars in conversation with Augustine and with people who are trained in patristics. That way we can see Augustine’s influence on politics or literature or science from people in those fields. It’s opening up a discourse and trying to break down barriers between disciplines, and that’s always exciting to me as an academic.
Less traditionally, I’m hoping that my future fiction is considered as meaningful and helpful by my academic colleagues. Right now, they look at it as interesting, and potentially profitable, but not “real” work. My next novel is, I think, deeply scholarly, because I use it as a way to explore the theology of Dante’s Inferno, to analyze his dissection of how sin works and why one sin is worse than another. A few years ago, I tried to do that with a more traditionally academic book called The Heart Set Free: Sin and Redemption in the Gospels, Augustine, Dante, and Flannery O’Connor (Continuum, 2005); it was one of the books that disillusioned me with academic writing, because the sales showed that I’d never reach an audience that way. But this time around, I’ve done it by writing a novel, in which Dante fights against a zombie uprising, and the things he sees during that battle–people being eaten alive, torn apart, set on fire, boiled in pitch, etc.–are the images he goes on to use in Inferno. As I wrote it, I had to think for each scene how it made sense of Dante’s theories of sin, but also how it would fit narratively into the plot and characters I’d created. It was one of the most exciting scholarly projects I’ve ever done, for the understanding it gave me of Dante’s thoughts, so in that sense I think it’s academic, but has the potential to reach a large audience.
A.P. Fuchs: I’ve read most of Augustine’s confessions but I had no idea that he was perceived to have such an impact on science, politics, etc. Yet, I admit, the only knowledge I had of him as a historical figure was basically Augustine’s confession book and that’s about it.
Kim Paffenroth: Indirectly, I think Augustine has a lot of impact on many issues, positive and negative, for and against. The Reformation and the Enlightenment could both be considered “Augustinian” or “Anti-Augustinian.” So it makes for lots of fun thought experiments and research into how we think of things today, and how differently we’d see them if he never lived, or if so much of his writing hadn’t survived.
A.P. Fuchs: So is it safe to say that non-fiction, on the whole, is no the backburner right now and fiction is where it’s at for you these days? If so, what you got cookin’?
Kim Paffenroth: Let’s say–non-fiction simmering, fiction boiling over. I have three novels and one anthology currently in the pipeline.
The first tells the real story of Dante’s Inferno. In his wanderings, Dante stumbles on a zombie infestation, and the things he sees there–people being devoured, burned alive, boiled in pitch, torn to pieces, eviscerated, impaled, crucified, etc.–become the basis of all the horrors he describes in Inferno. Afraid to be labeled a madman, Dante made the terrors he witnessed into a more “believable” account of an otherworldly adventure with demons and mythological monsters, but now the real story of the risen dead can finally be told. The deluxe HB with art by Alex McVey will be available for order from Cargo Cult Press starting June 1. This is my first publication as a deluxe, limited edition, and I’ve been breathless at seeing the artist’s conceptions of my work. I think it’s going to look so good, and people will get something they’ll really appreciate for its physical as well as literary beauty.
I just finished a modern day ghost story. It’s a more emotional story of a family torn apart by secrets and lies, and how they find some healing and reconciliation. Not my usual gut-munching zombies, but it felt good to write something different, and much more emotionally draining.
Everything’s done with the next zombie anthology I’ve edited for Permuted Press, The World Is Dead, which will be out later this year. This time we set the parameters at zombie tales that take place significantly after the uprising, so it’s more about the coping mechanisms and communities people (and zombies) have set up, rather than all about fleeing and fighting the undead.
And I’ve just begun the third zombie novel set in my Dying to Live universe. Look for more smart zombies and bad people, as that’s my favorite combination for mayhem, madness, and meaning.
A.P. Fuchs: What about shorter work? Or is it just novels for now?
Kim Paffenroth: I just had stories in Shroud, Coach’s Midnight Diner, and Cthulhu Unbound. I check Ralan and Duotrope from time to time, but I don’t usually have long range plans for short fiction. I just let it happen when it does. I find short fiction very time consuming, relative to the size. Once a novel is kind of set in my mind and outlined, I can write 2500 words/day. But to write a 2500-word short story seems to take so much longer, and requires so many more revisions. The two kinds of writing are really very different, as many people have observed.
A.P. Fuchs: You had mentioned doing a ghost story. Any plans to do more non-zombie stuff in the future?
Kim Paffenroth: “Plans”–in the general sense of “Things I’d like to do.” But my other writing projects at the moment are all zombie-related. We’ll see if I can’t break out of this subgenre, once I further lock down this niche!
A.P. Fuchs: Well, hey, that’s how things go sometimes. I’m in the same boat right now, too. Just doing gut-muncher stories before getting back into my superhero work.
Really enjoyed this, Kim. We’ll have to do it again. Thanks.