Posted on January 13, 2011 by Flames
They are safe in a night club, doors closed and barred. The undead can’t get them. They are safe, right? Who will protect them from themselves? There may be chaos outside, but inside the “asylum” isn’t all that much better.
Mark Allan Gunnells recent novella, Asylum (The Zombie Feed/Apex Publications), takes Romero-style zombies and situations and populates them with complex (and deeply compelling) characters who, as Gunnells says below, happen to be gay.
“My focus isn’t on the zombies themselves—though there is flesh-eating goodness to be had, don’t get me wrong—but instead on the characters trying to survive,” said Gunnells. “In many ways, Asylum is a character study of this group of survivors.”
The resulting novella is simultaneously rich in tradition and fresh with contemporary relevance. Most importantly, of course, Asylum is a damn good story well told.
Gunnells is a horror writer living in the small South Carolina town he grew up in. He’s been writing horror fiction since he was a kid, publishing stories since he graduated from college.
“Horror is about limitlessness, about anything being possible,” said Gunnells, “and I embrace the freedom of that.
Elsewhere, Gunnells has joked about using fiction as a way to seek revenge on the bullies of his past, yet his stories are too layered, too richly textured to be simple wish-fulfillment.
Now he has three books out or forthcoming in the next few months. Ironically, he went almost a year without publishing a story and now the floodgates have opened. In addition to Asylum, Gunnells has Tales from the Midnight Shift, Volume 1 (Sideshow Press) and Whisonant (Sideshow Press) due out in early 2011.
So this interview finds you in the midst of three releases, one out in December 2010 and two more in early 2011. Has it sunk in yet?
No, I’m still very much in the mindset of “I can’t believe they are going to give me money for stuff I made up in my head.” And honestly, I hope I never lose that. This comes at the end of a very dry year. Last month I published my short story “Dancing in the Dark” with Darkside Digital, and it was the first thing I’d published all year. It’s nice to close out a dry year like this. Helps boost my confidence going into 2011.
What do you enjoy about writing? What do you not enjoy?
I guess what I enjoy most about writing is finding out what happens next. For me, writing is an act of discovery as much as it is creation. [I write] whatever comes to mind. I find inspiration for stories in many things—something that happens to me, a conversation I overhear, a song on the radio—and if it occurs to me, I write it.
I start the story, but when it’s really going right, the story takes over at some point and leads me. I love that. My least favorite part of the process is revision and editing. It’s a necessary part, vital even, and I accept that, but for me it just lacks the rush of actually being in the middle of the writing.
You’ve described yourself as a small town boy. In what ways, do you suppose the ethos of a small town permeates your fiction?
I’ve never really thought about it, but I rarely write stories set in big cities. Most of my stories take place in small towns. I think there’s something about small town life that lends itself to horror. Everyone seems to know everyone else’s business in a small town, but also small town folks can keep a secret better than anyone else.
I admire your use of gay characters. They appear naturally and function as characters first, gay second. Do you have advice for other writers on using gay characters in their stories?
I have actually been asked this by straight writers before, and I always say that a gay person and a straight person are not really all that different, at least no more so than two straight people or two gay people. Don’t go in thinking, “I’m writing a gay character.” Just write a character, build the foundation, and let the sexuality just be an aspect of that, like eye color or height. Nothing more or less important than that. I always say don’t write a “gay character” but write a character who happens to be gay.
How do you balance your day job as a security supervisor and an accelerating career?
Well, I don’t know how much acceleration there is, but I am actually very lucky in that I have a job that allows me time to write. I’m a security guard, and throughout the work day I have pockets of downtime in between my duties, and I use that time to sit down and write. It’s a very nice set-up and I am grateful for it.
When you write a horror tale, what comes first – character, setting, plot, image, sight, sound, or something else? And how does it grow from there? Is it the same for stories and novels?
For me, it usually starts with a general notion. Like, “What if a guy thought a certain song was cursed and would cause bad things to happen if played in his presence?” Or “What if someone got stuck in a traffic jam that never ended?” Once I get the notion, I start asking a lot of questions. Who is this happening to? How does he or she react? How does the situation resolve itself? What complications arise in the seeking of that resolution? As I answer these questions, the story starts to form itself in my mind, connections being made. I tend to work that way for both shorts and the few novels I’ve written.
The idea for Asylum came to me in college. Some friends had taken me to a gay club and I thought, “What if zombie attacked and we were trapped in this club?” It all initially came from that simple thought.
How has your understanding of the form changed since your first efforts?
My early fiction makes me cringe. You’ve heard “show, don’t tell.” Well, my early efforts were all telling. I like to think I’ve gotten better at it since then, allowing the story to be told through character action, dialogue, and not just a laundry list of “This happened, then that happened, then this happened, the end.”
“Jam”—which will appear in my collection Tales from the Midnight Shift, Volume 1—was the first story I ever sold, and it was a big deal for me, despite netting me very little actual cash. But the story that really feels like it changed things for me is “God Doesn’t Follow You into the Bathroom”, which is also in the collection. I sold that story to Black Ink Horror, run by Tom Moran, and that began my association with Sideshow Press.
I want to constantly improve at my craft, and I believe the only way to do that is by simply writing, writing, writing.
If you could see around corners and into the future, what do you think the literary landscape will look like in ten years?
It depresses me how little people seem to read these days. You occasionally have your phenomenons like Potter and Twilight, but by and large reading seems to be viewed as an antiquated past time by a lot of people. So in ten years I think there will probably be fewer people reading for recreation and enjoyment, but the base of hardcore readers will remain passionate about it. I think digital will play an even larger role in the publishing business but will never “replace” actual books.
Who are you reading these days?
Joe R. Lansdale is awe-inspiring. I read him with a mix of exhilaration and envy. I’m currently reading some Michael McBride, whom I only recently discovered but has greatly impressed me. James Newman and Brian Knight I think are two of the best and most underappreciated writers working today.
What’s next for you?
I have a few projects in the works with Sideshow Press for 2011, but it’s a little too early to give any details. I’m also working on a novella entitled “The Summer of Winters” that I will shop around when I’m done. After that another zombie novella, “Fort”, which isn’t a sequel to “Asylum” but is connected. Mostly I just plan to keep writing.