Friday, December 4, 2009

The Black Glove interviews Kim Paffenroth

Interview conducted by Nickolas Cook

This month we are proud to have famed zombie author/editor Dr. Kim Paffenroth as our feature writer. To zombie aficionados he needs no introduction because he's the author of the Stoker award winning GOSPEL OF THE LIVING DEAD: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth. But he's also the author of DYING TO LIVE: A Novel of Life Among the Undead, and its follow up, DYING TO LIVE: Life Sentence, the upcoming VALLEY OF THE DEAD, and he’s also the editor of the internationally famous, HISTORY IS DEAD, a collection of short zombie fiction by various well known and up and coming horror authors.

1. How did you come to write your first horror novel?

While I was working on GOSPEL OF THE LIVING DEAD, I got the idea that, as much fun as I was having writing about Mr. Romero’s zombies, it would be even more fun to create my own. That way, I wouldn’t be interpreting someone else’s work, but putting in the meaning and symbols I wanted. Of course, it’s not as easy as that, and I’m struggling to improve, but some people seem to get what I’m trying for, and some are quite patient as I work on my craft.

2. You mention both the religious philosopher St. Augustine and filmmaker George Romero in your dedication of DYING TO LIVE: A Novel of Life among the Undead. Why specifically these two gentlemen?

In retrospect, they’ve been the two biggest influences on me, personally and professionally. It’s my personality, I suppose, but I gravitate toward things that examine or explain evil and suffering in our world, and those two do so with great insight and honesty. And even if they come at it from such different perspectives, their answers are recognizably similar: there’s something wrong with us, deep down, and we’re not able to fix it on our own. Whether you want to call that “sin” or just appetite and selfishness, it’s the same basic idea.

3. Why do you think zombie fiction has become the spearhead of modern horror?

Well, zombies are really good at the multimedia aspect – films, video games, comic books, literature. I think zombies were exclusively a film monster for us older folks, but then the video games hit and made them the favorite target for the younger generation. Then it was a matter of timing too – Resident Evil predates recent apocalyptic fears (I didn’t know how old the game was until I just looked it up – 1996) but then we had Y2K and 9/11 and anthrax, and our fears of bioterror made a plague of diseased, contagious zombies a pretty potent icon of our current situation. And they’d shown their adaptability before that – as a monster that embodies our basic, timeless fears of death, but can also take on more specific nuances as the times change.

4. Can you tell us a little about your newest novel, VALLEY OF THE DEAD? Are we still firmly in the Romeroean world of the dead?

Hmm, yes and no, I suppose. It’s set in 14th century Europe, with the Italian poet Dante fighting zombies. It turns out they are what gave him all those horrible, grotesque ideas that he then used to populate his poem Inferno. So it’s not Romeroesque in its setting. But they are traditional, slow, plague carrying zombies, and the “hook” with Dante I think does homage to Romero: his insight into zombies is “They’re us!” and that’s what the damned are for Dante – just people, locked in their bad habits forever, like zombies.

5. Obviously, you're also an editor (HISTORY IS DEAD). What were some of the challenges you faced that you did not when writing your own fiction?

Editing other people is a very different pleasure than writing on one’s own. I suppose it’d be like coaching a winning team, rather than playing the sport oneself, or conducting an orchestra, rather than playing an instrument. I’m in awe of other people’s talents, and I can really say that with few exceptions, every story, even if it was rejected, gave me some interesting idea or image that I still remember afterwards. As the editor, one has to have the final product in mind more, and look at how to balance and connect different stories within it, and that’s not a consideration for the individual writer.

6. What do you think makes a Kim Paffenroth novel different than others?

Um, they’re really wordy and characters spend way too much time thinking about stuff? Hmm, no, probably not a good answer. Is this recorder on? Oh. Well, let’s say the same observation, spun a little bit more to my credit. I usually have the requisite kills and grotesque imagery that the zombie fans want, and I try to consider some ideas and problems and questions along the way. I’m learning to weave the subtext in more subtly as I go, and as I get better at that, I write stuff that I find satisfying and that I’m proud to show other people.

7. Who are some other writers out there that you feel readers should be watching?

Established writers? Braunbeck and Keene – different styles but both are very literate and sophisticated in their storytelling. New people? Sarah Langan – amazingly elaborate, elegant prose. People about to break on the scene? Carole Lanham and Christine Morgan – you’ll see huge, surprising things from them soon, I think, because they’re gifted with imagination and so talented in the mechanics of their writing.

8. With Romero having come round again to the world of the dead with LAND OF THE DEAD, DIARY OF THE DEAD, and the upcoming ISLAND OF THE DEAD, what do you think this will mean to zombie fiction?

I think the last one will be entitled SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, or at least that’s what I read last. I think we all live in Romero’s shadow, but at this point, new directors and writers are probably exerting more of an influence than he is, even if everything we do is based indirectly on him. So look to ZOMBIELAND or to the film version of WORLD WAR Z to really reinvigorate (ha!) the zombie genre, even though we can still be happy and intrigued that Romero’s still making stuff.

9. Besides the obvious classic zombie films, what other horror movies should every horror fan actively seek out?

You know, I was watching the AFI Top Heroes and Villains a year or so ago, and I was struck by how some “regular” movies have much more chilling characters than a lot of horror movies. So I’ll go against the horror grain, and recommend people watch Deliverance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and 2001: A Space Odyssey and I think you’ll see three of the more terrifying scenarios and monsters that you’ve ever witnessed.

10. My last question: When the zombie apocalypse finally, inevitably, arrives, where will you be?

Depends on the lead time. If there are reports of a strange illness spreading from some remote area, and this goes on for weeks, I think I might have time to head north. The cold should slow them down, and you’ve got to get as far away as possible from the East coast population centers. If it’s a matter of looking out the window and seeing them milling around, I’m thinking Max Brook’s scenario of ripping the stairs up behind yourself as you retreat to the second floor of the house is probably a good one.

Visit Kim Paffenroth online at:

--Nickolas Cook

(The Black Glove thanks Kim Paffenroth for his time and efforts)