Posted on August 27, 2010 by Eric Pollarine
What is there that hasn’t been said about author Kim Paffenroth? I mean come on, the guy practically invented the thinking man’s zombie story with his “Dying to Live” series, used the original Romero movies as the main focus for a book entitled “Gospel of The Living Dead,” is a Professor of Religious Studies and his latest work has taken him into the depths of the 14th century poet and author of “The Divine Comedy,” Dante Alighieri’s soul.
How is that for a resume?
But really all you need to know about Kim Paffenroth, is that he is a prolific writer and larger than life figure in the Zombie/Survival Horror genre. A man that, in today’s scene of lumbering unholy living dead, needs absolutely no introduction from the likes of a opinion pusher like me, so let’s get into the bone and sinew of this interview, with author Kim Paffenroth.
So let’s start at the beginning, Gospel of the Living Dead, why, in 2006, did you decide to take on the Romero franchise and explore its effect and symbolism on society? Was it that you knew the publishing field was ripe for something more base and real than the Vampire smut that they continually push in modern “horror” or something else?
You know, I didn’t even know about the vampire/paranormal romance stuff until I went to WHC 2007 and heard it discussed. I had no idea that’s what people were doing with the monster, because it wasn’t the world I moved in, up until that point. The world I had been moving in was the world of religious academics and journalists writing about the interface of religious (mostly Christian) ideas and pop culture. There was a rapidly growing field of books with the title The Gospel according to _____. Some were straightforward, like “Tolkien” or “Narnia,” where the author had a clearly stated, Christian faith that he wanted to allegorize in his work – so the analysis was to unpack the allegory for interested fans. Some went a little further, like “Harry Potter” – clearly a very moral and upbeat series of books, but one some Christians had avoided or derided because of its use of witchcraft and magic. So the purpose of the analysis would be more to win over people, who might otherwise be suspicious of the work as anti-Christian. That’s where I wanted to contribute something on my zombies, who had fascinated me since 1978, but I hadn’t thought specifically and deeply about them. I knew there was something more going on with them than all the blood and guts, but I knew a lot of Christians would never think to look there, because of the gore. So partly I was writing for them, to put their fears aside, and also for the zombie fans – to show them the deeper ideas a lot of them already saw, just with more detail and analysis.
It seems as if, at the time, both you and Permuted Press, along with Max Brooks and Bryan Keene, all hit the nail on the head when it comes to the public’s want, or need for all things flesh eating, as in the last 4-5 years everything seems to have involved zombies in some way. What is it about zombies Kim? Why do you think they fascinate and terrify us?
They’ve got some of the usual monster fears – of being killed, of being eaten, of turning into one of “them.” But they also have this overwhelming sense of ordinariness – of how we already are them, we just don’t realize it yet. You see them wandering in the mall, and it’s a nervous laugh you give, because you know you look just like them, to some other objective observer. That gives them a different, steadier kind of dread, rather than just the adrenaline rush of being chased and killed.
In regards to the “Dying to Live: A novel of life among the dead”, you’ve got philosophy, horror, zombies, hubris, the distrust of authority, and the juxtaposition of survival and conquest. Did you consciously set out to address these issues or was it something that naturally progressed?
Some themes were definitely there from the beginning: theodicy and how the living can be more evil than the undead, for example. Those were in my mind before I started. But I’m open as I go to introducing more ideas, as they organically grow out of the characters and plot. I might be writing dialogue, and the way a character phrases something makes me want to pursue a different line than I’d thought when I started writing the dialogue. That goes for plot, too, to an extent, but I feel it more with larger themes – they often grow out of small details that I hadn’t planned.
It seems that the theme of your work, when it comes to fiction, well, you seem to use the structure of the classic hero’s journey- but then frame it in a more metaphysical, or religious context, with your most recent work, “Valley of the Dead,” Dante goes through the hero’s journey internally as well as externally, is that something that you have consciously strived to do in your work, or is it that, that structure is one that comes naturally to many writers and the subtext is implied?
It’s very conscious on my part, as I think those stories based on an inner and outer quest appeal the most to me and stay with me years later. The outer quest gives you all the concrete trappings of the plot and action, but the inner quest is what the book’s really about. I try to craft both as carefully as I can, to keep the reader engaged in both.
What prompted you to explore Dante as a character?
That was the hard part, because I knew him as a writer, not a character. I could talk about the themes and theology of the Commedia but I struggled with how to make him come alive as a person. Then I read The Romance of the Rose for my Honors class two years ago. It’s a poem that lays out the idea of “courtly love” that Dante would’ve believed in, and which he himself wrote some early poems about. Then I could finally portray him as a character, I think – I knew more of his outlook and motives. It was a thrilling moment, because I’d had the idea of the book in mind for some time.
How does Kim Paffenroth work, is it quiet refection, balls to the wall heavy metal blasting through out your house while you furiously type, maybe a combination of the two, or something completely different?
It’s too much multi-tasking is what it is. I seldom have the quiet time I’d like, so I have to get used to my train of thought being derailed, then getting back to it. It goes slower for that reason.
I’ve read that you are currently working on the next “Dying to Live,” book, care to give a little bit of detail on the general plot? What’s next in the series?
The four people who went into exile at the end of the second book continue, with new challenges. They find a new city of people and find it very hard to fit in there, though it’s not nearly as clear as in the first book that these new people are “bad” – they just have a radically different set of values and behaviors. It’s that whole clash of civilizations thing, but on a very small scale.
You’ve also announced that there was another book in the works; care to discuss what that is about?
Which one? My first ever non-zombie novel will be out next year from Belfire Press. It’s a ghost story. Not bloody at all. Right now I’m working on another zombie novel, not using the Dying to Live characters, but in a post-apocalyptic setting. Your question of the inner/outer journey definitely resonates with that story, as the main character is younger and is trying to define himself in a zombified world, while going on a journey to forage for fuel and supplies in the zombie infested areas.
Your work is, comparatively “heady” when put next to the normal tropes of survival/zombie fiction- I know that most fans of the genre find that refreshing because it seems that many writers entering the field treat the readers as if they enjoy the same story, over and over again, do you feel as if the zombie could ever be used in a strictly literary fashion-or do you think it will always be relegated to “Adult fiction,” or “Genre fiction” category?
I think we’re getting close to that, with novels that take a zombified world for granted, but then tell a story that isn’t just about survival and killing. I’d take that all the way back to The Road – not zombies per se, but the whole story is about the two main characters trying not to be eaten by their cannibalistic fellow survivors. And the story is really about love and sacrifice and what kind of “values” the son will inherit. I think you’ll see more zombie tales like that.
The telltale bad interview question, what are your influences, in any genre or realm?
Melville and Flannery O’Connor. They’re both so overwrought, but I love them. If I could write like that, and then tone it down on a rewrite to sound more “normal” – that’d be some good writing. Of course Heavy Metal, that goes without saying, though there’s something so unfocused in the music’s anger. I like to have characters who are that angry and violent, but who direct it and mull over it more.
Another sign I have peaked in this game, when not writing- what is a day in the life of Kim Paffenroth like?
Long drive to work if it’s one of the days I’m teaching; long drive back late at night. If not, then it’s up at 8am, read the NYTimes online, fuss around with email and Facebook, then I usually have a bunch of writing projects – academic and non-fiction – going at the same time and I have to juggle those for the rest of the day, along with whatever familial obligations I have.
With regards to Permuted Press, it seems as if they are committed to putting out some of the best books in the genre, was Permuted your first choice?
I totally stumbled on them. I hadn’t read a lot of zombie fiction at that point, but I saw that’s what they did, and I saw I didn’t need an agent to submit, so I did. The rest is history, as they say.
I ask all the authors/writers that I interview this, Do you have any words of wisdom, or advice to struggling writers working in this or any other genre that you’d like to pass on?
Persistence. No flame wars (especially not over your writing, but preferably none at all). Oh, and read a lot outside of the genre. You can’t learn to write horror (or be an erudite, interesting person in general) if you read just horror.