INTERVIEW: John Skipp & Cody Goodfellow, authors of “The Price of a Slice”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

CG: Just a glimpse of daily life in a post-zombie apocalyptic city.

JS: Specifically, San Francisco: a city uniquely positioned to keep the lights on, and determined to survive at all costs. To not fall, when almost everywhere else has fallen.

CG: With so much of the genre fixated on the initial zombie outbreak, and the collapse of society…

JS: Like they can’t wait for it to happen…

CG: …we wanted to see how society would rebuild itself, and how the end of death would become just another change that soon becomes commonplace. Far more unsettling than whatever the universe throws at us is our ability to adjust to, then profit from it.

JS: So we focused in on a handful of characters: a young video game virtuoso-turned-virtual warrior, commanding a troop of specially-equipped assault zombies; a soldier-zombie, controlled by this guy; and a pizza delivery boy with a street-level view of how all that shit plays out in real time.

Then we had their worlds collide, in a variety of alarming ways that we hope you will enjoy.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

JS: You said you were doing The Living Dead 2. [laughs]

CG: We did the Borderlands book signing in San Francisco after the World Fantasy Convention, spent a couple of hours running around town, and fell in love with the city all over again. Gorgeous setting and a uniquely fried charm, but the City has a fetish for social engineering that makes the unthinkable almost mandatory. They really seem to believe they can compel enlightened behavior with extra crazy laws and taxes.

JS: So in the five-hour red eye overnight drive back to LA, we concocted this insanely elaborate science fictional post-zombie San Francisco. Turns out that Cody’d already put considerable thought into the military applications of zombies, if properly rewired, and of the technocracy that might make such a thing possible. And he had an incredible sense of what might happen, while I immediately sped toward the interpersonal implications, the new social structure for the survivors.

I’d also just come off editing Zombies: Encounters with the Hungry Dead, and was thinking a lot about how zombies originally started out as slaves. Why else would you want them around? To do the shit that nobody else wanted to do. But which still needed to be done.

So we pretty much never stopped talking. And by the end of that drive, we had a novel’s worth of material to play with.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

CG: Keeping it from metastasizing into a full-blown novel before it got off the table was a ferocious challenge. One value-neutral feature of the zombie apocalypse story is that the now-familiar setting sells itself, and the story can be as lean as the author’s ability to cut it.

With this one, we had to fight the gravity of a world that REALLY wanted to be built.

JS: For me, it was the fact that I’d never lived there. So I had to make a special trip back up, walk the streets, chart the routes our pizza delivery guy might take, get the feel, soak up the atmosphere, engorge the afore-mentioned love.

Once I’d done that, things on my end fell together pretty quick. All I had to do was try to catch up with Cody.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

CG: The personal weight was projected through a lot of lenses for both of us here. But Skipp was a foot messenger in New York, and I worked no end of service jobs, so we know intimately how the anonymous little people doing the shit work make a city into a home.

And with the ongoing wars, hardship and uncertainty of our time, we were personally driven to point out the deep and heavily fortified disconnect that insulates us from the real consequences of our actions.

JS: There are no surrogate Skipps or Goodfellows in “The Price of a Slice,” so it’s not introspectively personal on that level at all. No individual mouthpieces for our respective divergent philosophies of life, or any of that.

But there’s a guy named Eagle who delivers food in Los Feliz, and I like him a lot, so I personally invested my like of him into that fictional character. So that part’s a personal salute. ROCK ON, MY BRUTHAH!

Past that, what’s personal is that it deals with issues we care about, and tries to humanize them in ways that feel real. Just putting yourself in everybody’s place, seeing things through their eyes, is the honest core of the mission.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

CG: I lived in the Bay Area and wrote a book on San Francisco before, so we had a huge stockpile of history and maps to draw on. Skipp toured the setting extensively, and ate lots of pizza. Critical details and troubleshooting were handled by our man in the Tenderloin, Steve “Psycho Kitty” Cordova.

JS: One thing you gotta know about Cody is, he breathes research morning, noon, and night. What he hadn’t looked into already, before we got started, he dug into the second we got back to LA.

My research was primarily tactile: running around San Francisco on foot, experiencing the landscape, imagining what it would feel like if this happened there. Getting a sense of place, for our people to maneuver around in.

The rest of my research was just living, and knowing what it’s like to be alive. And also, some genocide. [laughs]

What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?

JS: Well, fuck. My love of modern zombie horror began with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead: the film that single-handedly changed my life, and our perspective on the shambling dead, forever.

And I’m trying to figure out how to say this without sounding like an asshole, but honest to God, there was no body of post-Romero zombie fiction until 1987, when a conversation I had with Romero himself led me to this sudden lucky flash.

We were talking about something else, and I said, “George, hang on a second. We’ve been meeting all these amazing horror writers, many of whom love your movies almost as much as I do. What would you think if Craig and I edited a book full of stories set in your zombie universe, and got a bunch of great writers to expand upon what else happened when the dead got up to eat the living?”

His response was, “That’s just crazy.”

“Yeah. I know. But what if we did it? Cuz I bet you we could. I bet people would love to do it.”

“Well, you’d have to watch the legalities, but if you didn’t use any characters or scenes from the actual movies, Richard Rubenstein (his production partner) wouldn’t have any legal problems.”

“No, no, no,” I emphaticized. “All new completely batshit stories, just riffing off your mythos.”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “I don’t see it happening. But if you can pull it off, I will eat my hat.”

The result was Book of the Dead, in 1989, with original stories by King, Schow, Lansdale, McCammon, and a slew of awesome others. King was actually the first one out the gate, with “Home Delivery,” just two weeks after I sent out the invite. And then it began to pour.

Weird as it is to think about, that’s how it all began.

As for why I love zombies so much–or, more to the point, fear them–it comes down to human beings flensed of soul, heart, intelligence, and everything else that makes us worthwhile. Reduced to the basest level, driven only by the bottomless need to feed, for no good fucking reason.

So it’s the cannibalism, the fear of being eaten alive. The terrifying emptiness of a husked-out human. The rotting flesh. The vacant eyes. The fact that it’s happening everywhere, so that everybody’s world is being intimately invaded. The apocalyptic angle. The feeling of Hell’s doors opening up. Stuff like that makes it a ripe, astounding playground.

Seriously, I’ve written so many essays about this shit, I could talk all year. So I’ll shut up now. [laughs]

Incidentally, Romero claims he put spaghetti sauce on a Steelers cap before he ate it. But I remain skeptical.

CG: They’re the ultimate Other, disguised as us. They elegantly hotwire our unspoken social fears of the mob destroying our individuality to our most primal fears of being literally eaten. Add zombies, and any mundane daily situation becomes a harrowing adventure.

For me, the appeal itself is almost frightening, because it accepts the fall of society and condones or demands constant violence against humanity at large. Being the Last Man Alive becomes a sociopathic fantasy.

JS: A libertarian survivalist wet dream. Exactly.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

JS: Obviously, I love every story I ever purchased, and it’s a rainbow spectrum, more than sixty in all. Makes it real hard to pick twenty or thirty, much less two or three.

The most impressive zombie novel I’ve read to date is World War Z, by Max Brooks. Also a big fan of Brian Keene’s revisionist The Rising, although it seems more like demonic Lovecraftian corpse-possession than actual zombiedom to me.

I think Douglas Winter is the poet laureate of zombie fiction. Elizabeth Massie’s “Abed” is probably still the hardest-punching zombie short story I’ve ever read, and it broke my heart that I couldn’t include it in Zombies. But it just punched too hard, knocking out teeth in a way Black Dog and Leventhal couldn’t swallow.

But if I had to pick one short story that, to me, nails the quintessence, it would be “Dead Like Me” by Adam-Troy Castro. Lays it all out, and kills me every time.

CG: I grew up with zombies in comics, mostly, and my favorite zombie is still Swamp Thing. In my head, every zombie I write about still looks like it was drawn by Berni Wrightson (don’t add the E!).

Beyond the Romero and Raimi zombies we both so love so well, I like works that force zombies to evolve and show more initiative, and anything that questions our treatment of death itself. Dead And Buried is a great, though flawed, examination of our compulsion to insulate ourselves from the truth of death. And Return Of The Living Dead still stands apart, for its zombie Rapture being a call to all flesh, no matter how decayed, brainless, dissected or laminated.

Although I’ll still sit still for anything where people eat people, I’m really partial to Body-Snatcher movies (Invasion Of The Body-Snatchers, Invaders From Mars, Slither), where what takes us over is an arguable improvement on the original…