An Interview with Kim Paffenroth

Kim Paffenroth is the author of the acclaimed book series Dying to Live and many other books, and his book Gospel of the Living Dead won a Bram Stoker award.  I reviewed the first book in the series called Dying to Live: A Novel of Life Among the Undead and thought it was a fantastic read.  I wanted to learn more about the book and the series and Kim agreed to an interview to answer some questions.  The interview took place through e-mail over the past couple of days.

Q. Hello Kim, I want to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions about your book, Dying to Live: a novel of life among the undead.  I read the book in a couple of sittings, refusing to put it down – it was that entertaining.  You are a professor of religious studies, and it seems to me that zombies and religion are a dichotomy of ideas.  How does a professor of religious studies come to write apocalyptic zombie novels?

As you might expect, I get that a lot! As I’ve read and studied different books and ideas, I’ve come up with some analyses or interpretations I want to express or explore in writing. Sometimes I do that in prose essays or books, but my novels do that in a different way: I don’t have to state and defend a thesis, but instead I build the plot and the conflicts (implicitly) around some thesis I have of how people, God, and the world work. And I don’t have to draw a conclusion or “prove” anything – I just have to make the interactions plausible and interesting, and let the readers consider what lies behind what they’ve read. That’s been a very exciting new way to approach and present my ideas.

Q. OK, that makes sense, but what about your colleagues in your profession?  I’m guessing that many of them have read your work and I suspect that has led to some great discussions.  Are you becoming known as the zombie expert at work?

I am. Fans appreciate someone who takes zombies seriously and says thoughtful things about them, and I think most academics like to see our scholarship relating to works that “regular” people would read or view and enjoy. I must say, though, that most of my colleagues just aren’t into zombies, so they show polite interest, but it doesn’t go past that for most of them.

Q. I suffered from gender confusion as I started the book, because I (mistakenly) assumed you were female (Kim) and that your protagonist was also a female since many female authors write from that perspective.  The main character Jonah was tough, yet gentle with emotional feelings.  You didn’t mention his name or gender for a full 35 pages so it took me that long to realize he was male.  Was this intentional on your part or just a coincidence?

Total coincidence – I hadn’t thought of that problem. I might have to stick something in there earlier to counter that (though I thought the reference to wife and children was nearer the beginning). But, if part of what you’re observing is that my male characters are more emotionally expressive (and some of my female characters are decidedly cold and calculating in other books I’ve written) than a reader may be used to – yes, gendered expectations are definitely a dynamic I like to play with or undermine. Not out of any particular solution or agenda I might have – I just think it makes their interactions more interesting and less predictable.

Q. Your book is full of references, some subtle and some not, and this tells me you are well read in historical works.  Your character Milton, the mysterious leader of the compound that Jonah stumbles across reminds me of the 17th century English Poet, John Milton, particularly his epic poem Paradise Lost concerning the fall of man and the struggle of free will vs. God’s will.  Did I make this up?

Not at all, though he’s based on a sort of mish-mash of references to literary works that deal with that (among other problems). What I wanted with him was a quasi-mystical balance to Jack’s pragmatism (and with Jonah somewhere in between). It’s not so much that they’re in conflict, but that the community needs both if it’s going to thrive. This continues on into the second book with younger characters who take up those same tendencies.

Q. Your character Jack is a military man, capable of leading the defense of the compound yet is also compassionate and understanding.  What life learning or experiences did you draw upon to create this character – he seems “deeper” than a normal soldier.

I try not to make any of my characters too monochromatic. All right – the villains are pretty one-dimensional, but even that I’d like to work on as I continue writing. But any main character that I expect readers to spend some time with, and whom I’ve spent some time getting to know – I want him/her to have some depth and not just fulfill a narrative role. So Jack has to have a softer side, as it were. And most of the stereotypically macho guys I’ve known – if I got to know them a little better and spend some time with them and learn what they value and what they find challenging or frightening in life, then I find that they have that dimension to them. Of course, I guess if they didn’t, I’d give up trying to get to know them better, but as I say – if I make a main character along those lines, I’ll want some of that complexity or ambiguity to him/her.

Q. Well, you’ve done a great job with the depth of the main characters.  Back to Milton – the other players in the story begin to think of him as Jesus, and it seems as the zombies do also.  The zombies won’t hurt Milton, and he can even lead them around almost like they are disciples of his.  This is not something I’ve ever seen in a zombie novel; how did you come up with this idea? You mentioned that other characters take on his role in the later books, and I’m wondering if he still has a role to play in the series.

He’s prominent in the second volume – again, for the humane influence he’s had over other characters. But I was surprised at how “zombie Jesus” got picked up by some readers and reviewers. It’s really a casual observation at the end of the book – and one I’d think would be unavoidable if you saw a guy with a stick shepherding zombies around to safety. And I didn’t even mean it as a necessarily good thing – the one character who gives him that label says that it’s creepy. But anyway, I wanted Milton to have some special power, but nothing too outrageous or overpowering. I didn’t want all the survivors’ problems to be solved by some mutant in their group who can defeat all enemies. I just wanted someone who could help out in little ways, if they were patient with him, and if they didn’t meet any really bad people (which they do).

Q. Do you think we’ll ever see a zombie apocalypse, and if so, when?  In my mind, the zombie apocalypse doesn’t have to be corpses rising from the dead; it could be a viral or bacterial infection causing violent, maniacal behavior, or a nanotechnology agent controlling the brain against someone’s will much like the original Haitian zombies.  What are your thoughts?

Stephen Hawking has said that it’s a mathematical certainty that we’ll engineer something that will kill everyone on the planet. He also thinks it’s likely that we’ll have colonized other planets before that happens, and those colonies will survive. I think he has such an interesting and mixed sort of faith in technology and in human ingenuity – they’ll inevitably kill us even as they will provide us with a way to survive. I guess I’m more pessimistic and limited in my views of either technology or human nature: I don’t know that we’ll necessarily have some big catastrophe that does us in. But we may live very stunted, unfulfilling lives, because of our technology and our social arrangements. We may, for example, wander around the mall aimlessly and pointlessly, without having any virus in us that makes us do that. We may just choose such trivial distractions.

Q.  That’s very thought provoking – the fact that we may already be zombies in the making and not even realize it.  I can’t wait to read the next two books in the series Dying to Live.  Would you mind telling us a little (without giving too much away) of what we can expect in the second and third book?

What I got interested in while I was working on the second was the whole idea of smart zombies – zombies who are becoming more human, even as some of the human characters in the story degenerate into further barbarism and violence. And the issues of community building permeate all three volumes: how do we set up a community to instill or perpetuate certain “values” in people, what do we give up in terms of personal freedom, and do we navigate clashes of values (either within one community, or between communities)? The second volume is very contemplative, but the third goes back to some brutal violence. So I think fans will find things familiar and unfamiliar to like.

Q.  I just want to say thank you one more time for answering our questions about your writing and the Dying to Live series.  It is much appreciated.  Is there anything else that you like to say to your fans or perhaps any would-be authors out there?

First, I appreciate your contacting me. And to my fans – I really appreciate your supporting my work. It’s been a great time these last couple years, meeting some of you at cons or reading your emails.

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