Sunday, January 06, 2008

Horror World Interview

Horror World doesn't archive its interviews, so now that a new one has gone up on their site for January, my interview has disappeared into cyberspace. So I thought I'd post the contents here, to be preserved forever.

Horror World: So, doc, most religious people I know try to steer people away from things like zombies. Here you are asking us to get up and dance with the undead. How does a professor of religious studies come to be so interested in zombies?

Kim Paffenroth: I know what you mean. I think many people, whether religious or not, try to ignore the dark, painful, evil parts of the world. And that’s come to be associated with religious people in particular, because I suppose any religion has to have an ultimately rosy picture of the universe: according to every religion, everything will finally work out, there can be no ultimate triumph of evil (Ragnarok is a partial exception, but there aren’t too many followers of that creed today). But, at the same time, if religion seeks to end or explain suffering and evil, the first thing it must do is acknowledge those realities – acknowledge them, examine them, explore all their nuances and details. It’s a loss to modern spirituality or piety that “Christian” or “inspirational” literature only means “feel good”: part of any religion is that in order to feel good, you first have to understand and appreciate how bad things are. There are plenty of places in the Bible that are worse than anything Romero or I could come up with, as there are scenes of hideous, painful revelation in Dante, Dostoevsky, or Flannery O’Connor.

HW: We’ve all heard the adage that university professors must publish or perish. Is that what got you to writing? If not, what did it? Why do you write?

KP: That’s been a strange learning curve for me. When I was in middle and high school, all I did was write weird, grotesque fiction. Talentless, of course, but it was how I needed to express myself then. Then when I got to college, I started reading more, and more varied types of books – not just modern fiction, but ancient and medieval history, philosophy, theology, drama, and poetry. I don’t fully understand why, but it seems to have been what made me stop writing. Maybe it was just seeing all those great and complex ideas stated so beautifully made my own work appear insignificant and pathetic, but I did stop writing and just read everything I could, all through college and for years after. Then, as you say, part of my job as a professor was to write about the things I read, and I eventually had some great successes publishing books and essays about the Bible and other theological and literary topics. But while I was working on the Gospel of the Living Dead, something told me I was ready again to try my own fiction writing: why just write about other people’s zombies, when you can write your own? I didn’t know what would come of it, maybe it’d just be a nice diversion, but I’ve been amazed and happy it’s been as successful as it has been. And all those books I’d been reading and ideas I’d been studying for so long have found their way into my writing in ways that just thrill me every time I sit down to write – and even, in a way that makes your heart skip a beat, when I go back and reread what I’ve written and realize that I didn’t consciously, deliberately put some image or idea in that passage, but there it is. For me it’s a better and more exciting tribute to my favorite authors and artists than it would be to write scholarly essays about them that only a handful of people will ever read.

HW: In Gospel of the Living Dead you compare Romero’s zombie films to the Bible and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Why? Give us a quick summary on how they’re similar.

KP: I came to two basic insights in that book. First, in terms of his social criticism of materialism and racism, Romero often comes across like an Old Testament prophet – fed up with his society, disgusted by its excesses and misplaced values, and telling his audience that they’re all going to die and suffer for the mess they’ve made of their lives. His is a powerful, angry, embittered voice for reform, in other words. And in his depiction of the zombie state to which we’re all headed, I think he takes up Dante’s basic insight that the punishment for sin will not be God or the devil poking you with a pitchfork because you’ve been naughty. Sin itself is ultimately the punishment, as you’re doomed to repeat the sin over and over, doomed to continue the boring, empty, repetitive actions and attitudes to which you have addicted yourself. That sounds a lot like a zombie to me.

HW: Now, I’ve seen some reviews that take you to task for including the remake of Dawn of the Dead but not the remake of Night of the Living Dead, a project in which Romero was actually involved. Tell us what led you to that decision? Any regrets?

KP: No regrets for including the Dawn remake. I think the prejudice against the movie is a good example of some of the limits of fan culture, how they demand a kind of purity about the art and reify it so that it can’t be tampered with. That’s just as silly as any kind of fundamentalism or literalism that we see in religion. The Dawn remake was what revivified my interest in zombie movies, which I hadn’t really thought about for years, and I’m sure, together with Resident Evil, it did that for a lot of fans my age. As for the Night remake, I still don’t think it warrants a full chapter on its own, but for the sake of thoroughness, and for some of its differences about gender issues, I would include it, maybe as an addendum to the original Night chapter.

HW: You followed that up with the novel Dying to Live from Permuted Press. How did you go about deciding what zombie lore to use and what to create new?

KP: The basic setup I think almost has to be the same at this point. The zombie mythos as defined by Romero is pretty solidly a part of our culture. The only fiddling I did was around the edges, even if one of those minor points ends up providing a part of the resolution to the plot.

HW: That brings us to the new anthology, History is Dead, also from Permuted Press. What made you want to become an editor?

KP: I’ve edited a lot of academic books, and the motive is the same for both fiction and non-fiction: editing lets you explore a topic that you find interesting, but let’s you do it from many different perspectives. No matter how much you try to push yourself and get out of your own limitations and preconceived notions, you can’t do it as thoroughly as a fresh set of eyes and minds. Never mind fast versus slow zombies: what about zombies that don’t eat people? Zombies that fall in love? That fight crime? I think a lot about zombies, and I wouldn’t have thought of those, but now we have a collection of just such insights and twists.

HW: I’ve only had the chance to skim over the anthology, but it’s easy to tell this is not your standard zombies-and-people-under-siege collection of stories. You’ve also included work from newer authors. How did you go about choosing the 20 stories in the book?

KP: First, the sheer quantity: by the end, I must’ve had well over 300 submissions. (I didn’t start counting until a few days into it, because I had no idea of the deluge that was approaching, and I counted 250 from that point on.) And the vast majority of them were the standard fare. Some of those were well-written, and I had nothing against reading those and enjoyed them for what they were, but I could see early on that there would have to be something unique for a story to rise to the top. And in the final cut, there was some jockeying between similar stories: I put the Viking stories against the Viking stories, the Western ones in comparison to the other Westerns, etc., so as to have a good mix across the time periods.

HW: What has the response been so far? What is your hope for the book?

KP: No one has a hard copy yet, so I haven’t heard anything. My hope is first for the new authors – there are some really eloquent, vibrant voices in here, and I hope this gives them their first step to some success in writing, as they clearly have the skills for it. My second hope is for my undead friends, that this is another boost to people understanding that zombies are here to stay and they have more to offer than just spectacular kills on screen.

HW: Gospel of the Living Dead is from Baylor University Press. How does the university press differ from the small press?

KP: They’re similar in some ways. Each university press, like a small press, has a certain, quite small niche they fill, and they have to be very conscious of continuing to satisfy their “base,” although they almost always talk about how they want to expand into new subject areas. The main difference is the process of judging a work. With a university press it’s much more set and formal. Even if the editor likes what you’ve shown him, it still has to go to at least two independent scholars who have to recommend it for publication. This is not only more drawn out, but means you have to be very careful to not offend anyone, to do the proper obeisance to existing scholarship, even as you claim to be offering something new. That’s a tough balance that takes a lot of concentration to do just right.

HW: Rumor has it there’s a sequel to Dying to Live. What can you tell us about that?

KP: It’s done, and it’s in the (longish) queue at Permuted. It is very different, either from the first novel, or from zombie fiction in general. With the first novel, I just had to see if I could even do this, if I could actually carry out the process of writing correctly and clearly, since I hadn’t done this kind of writing for so long, and had never done it on the scale of a novel. With the second, I felt like from the start I had a vision of what I wanted to say, the feelings and ideas I wanted my audience to come away with, so I could work in a lot more parallelism and echoes and foreshadowing throughout the book. The first book has some good thrills and frights – it’s visceral; the second gives me chills and aches that are much more in the heart and mind than in the guts.

HW: Some people credit that Brian Keene guy for bringing zombies back to the hot list. What’s your scholarly opinion on that? Are there trends in society that make us ready for the zombies?

KP: I don’t know if I have a scholarly opinion about Brian Keene. It’s not like I’m his shrink or biographer or something. But on a personal level, he’s an incredible guy, very welcoming to new people, and a great writer in his own right, who is still humble and working on his craft. When you asked me about the difference between academic and fiction writing, that’s one of the first things I’d point to as a big difference: fiction writers like Brian have so far been extremely helpful, friendly, and generous, whereas we’re locked into a much more competitive, uncooperative model in academic publishing that I find disheartening, counterproductive, and unnecessary.

But as for Brian and zombies, it’s like saying Napoleon caused all that trouble in Europe. Of course he did, because of his unique personality and skills, and any other man would never have gotten out of Corsica or rural Pennsylvania. But he was only able to do so because the society was ripe for that kind of change. And one also has to factor in multiple influences: the zombie renaissance was spawned just as much by the popular video games that feature them. (And again, it’s a feedback loop: those games are popular because there’s something in the culture that craves that particular monster at this particular time.)

HW: Obviously Romero’s work ranks up there, but what are some of your other favorite zombie movies?

KP: As I said, the Dawn remake is an amazingly effective, entertaining film. And even though it’s such a different film, it pulls off the same ironic twist as the original – to be both nihilistic and uplifting at the same time. I think the Resident Evil franchise is fine for what it is – eye candy, though the last installment does make some nods towards a little more drama and deeper meaning, which I appreciated. And everyone asks me about Shaun of the Dead: great British, dark humor, and an excellent way to introduce people to the genre. I think most people would be too shocked and scared off by a full on zombie apocalypse with guts being flung across the screen and heads exploding. But some of them have now seen Shaun and come away entertained, thinking maybe all that zombie stuff isn’t so bad, and maybe they even went on to pick up the paperback of World War Z and thought it was pretty cool, and pretty soon you’ve got another fan. That’s good for all of us.

HW: Romero pretty much redefined what a zombie is by giving us flesh-eating ghouls instead of the Haitian-style labor force undead. How was that significant, and why did it work?

KP: The cannibalism is a big part of making the zombies into social criticism: Romero sees American society as preying on itself. It’s a shocking and effective metaphor for our own self-destructive behaviors, and for the ways our affluent society is held up by hordes of workers who are being pushed down into a sub-human existence. Making zombieism a disease rather than some voodoun curse also secularizes the tale, which I think helped make it more “believable,” and which now plays into our fears of epidemics and bioterrorism.

HW: What advice would you give an author looking to take on a well-known horror trope?

KP: I think the first thing is to read outside the genre. If you’re trying to distinguish yourself as an author, you need to learn from great authors, and most of those write outside the horror genre. It’s where you’ll see good models for all the techniques of the craft of writing, and also where you’ll get ideas that are universal and not confined to one genre – how to treat themes of memory or grief or betrayal, for example, which are crucial to many horror stories, but which are themes found throughout world literature. And as you turn to apply these ideas to the given trope, try to focus on why you’re writing that particular kind of story – what does a zombie or vampire tale offer you that’s particular to that subgenre? And love your characters: they’re not just targets or victims or monsters. I can think of many characters who are as real and alive to me as most flesh and blood people. One of the most endearing comments I read about Romero was how he rewrote the ending of Dawn so that Fran and Peter would live, just because he liked them too much to kill them off, even though that’s how it originally ended. And his sense turned out to be narratively correct, too: again, that irony of uplifting nihilism is so powerful and beautiful at the end of that film and gives it its unique appeal.

HW: Do you have any literary aspirations that don’t involve zombies? If so, what are they? If not, why not?

KP: I’ll be writing about my zombie brethren for a while yet. But ultimately, I think every author wants first to get beyond the trope that launched him, and then outside of the genre in which he began, to talk about the things that really matter to him, whatever creatures may populate his fictional world – zombies, time travelers, suburban housewives, or Buddhist monks. We all want to write about what it means to be human. For me right now, zombies are a useful metaphor for that, but I’d hope to have others in the future.

HW: If I’m not mistaken, you came of age in the 1980s. I know you’ve mentioned being a fan of Judas Priest and other top metal acts of that glorious decade. What influence did the ‘80s have on you that readers will see in your writing?

KP: That’s a funny question. I like irony, so almost all my academic books about theology begin with a quotation of Judas Priest lyrics. (One of my thrills early on in my academic writing career was to get an email from their agent, granting me permission to quote them!) But so far my zombie novels start with quotations from the Bible and Shakespeare. So the specific references I put in are reflecting the 80s less than they used to!

It’s also funny, but when you put the question that way, this is what occurs to me, even though I’ve never connected the dots this particular way before. One reviewer took me to task for using the stock phrase that “the Reagan-Thatcher years” were “reactionary,” as though I needed to parse that out and defend it more thoroughly. Well, I guess having been a teen during those years, you really don’t have to spell that out more, do you, because it’s intuitively, instinctually obvious to everyone your age? Puberty and adolescence have been a strange and tumultuous time in every person’s life, but there was some extra little rub added by growing up in a decade so conflicted and split between a pervasive cynicism, selfishness, and greed, on the one hand, which was somehow combined with a supposed return to “the good old days,” when men were men and the good guys didn’t negotiate with terrorists, they wore white hats, and they defeated the evil empire. (And now the terrorists we armed back then against the evil empire are flying airplanes into tall buildings in New York.) I think being an adolescent in such a context meant that one’s youthful idealism, suspicion of authority, and eagerness for novelty and expression were even more out of place and discordant than they have been in other time periods. So my visions of society are always going to be pretty dystopian, as were many of the films and other art of the 80s – for example, the Mad Max and Alien franchises, Escape from New York, anything by Alan Moore, anything by Paul Verhoeven, and of course Romero’s works.

HW: What should I have asked that I didn’t? Anything at all you want to add?

KP: You didn’t ask what it was like to win the Stoker Award! It was incredible, but I had the added twist that when they opened the envelope, they read the name of one of the other nominees, and I was crushed down into the floor in utter defeat. It was only after 10 seconds or so of thunderous applause for the other guy that one of the judges said, “Oh, wait, there’s another slip here in the envelope! It looks like we have a tie!” I perked up, but didn’t want to let myself inflate completely, lest it happen again. Only then did they read my name and I could finally feel the relief and elation.

But, other than that, you covered a lot of territory! I can only thank you for taking the time and hope we can talk again!


Blogger John W. Morehead said...

Kim, thanks for archiving this here. I had not seen it and it was good to get some more background on your views and work.

I noticed that you did not mention the zombie comedy "Fido" in your list. Have you seen it yet? It received little distribution, but in my view it is on a par with "Shaun of the Dead." Very enjoyable, as opposed to "Black Sheep," the zombie mutant sheep comedy from New Zealand that came out at about the same time. Funny initial premise, but the film does not deliver on development beyond this.

Hope to see you in Utah at the World Horror Convention.

4:38 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Thanks John. I had seen the trailers for both Fido and Black Sheep, but as you say, they were not widely distributed. I had heard good things about both from people who saw them, but haven't yet seen them myself.

5:21 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:21 PM  
Blogger B-Sol said...

I picked up your book Gospel of the Living Dead late last year. It looks fascinating, and I am greatly looking forward to reading it. Quite a unique work.

The Vault of Horror

4:48 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Thanks, B-Sol, and you got a link now in my links section on the right!

4:59 PM  

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