INTERVIEW: David Barr Kirtley, author of “The Skull-Faced City”

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

“The Skull-Faced City” is a sequel to my story “The Skull-Faced Boy,” which appeared in the original The Living Dead anthology. In “The Skull-Faced Boy” we saw Dustin, an intelligent zombie, organizing hordes of mindless zombies into an army and declaring war against the living. “The Skull-Faced City” picks up a year later, by which point Dustin has been totally corrupted by power. His zombies have constructed a city for him, which he rules in totalitarian fashion, as head of both church and state. He has an officer corps of intelligent zombies, some of whom he sends out to hunt and capture living prisoners, for purposes unknown. One of these hunters is Park, a former scout sniper. He’s our main character, and he’s got his own agenda.

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

When “The Skull-Faced Boy” appeared on the Pseudopod horror podcast, it was very well received, and several listeners requested more material set in the same universe. So it was in the back of my mind for a while to maybe expand “The Skull-Faced Boy” into something longer. Then John Joseph Adams told me he’d be editing The Living Dead 2, and encouraged me to a submit a sequel story, so then I really had to sit down and work out just what I was going to do.

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

It was, yes. This is the first sequel I’ve written, and it’s hard. I have a lot more perspective now on why movie sequels are often so terrible. A sequel has to make sense and be enjoyable whether or not you’re familiar with the original story, and has to stay true to the established characters without just repeating what came before. For a long time I was stuck, since by the end of “The Skull-Faced Boy” the conflicts and agendas of the characters are all pretty much on the table, and I wasn’t sure how to maintain tension carrying things forward. My big break came when I considered creating a new main character, Park, whose agenda and relationships to the existing characters would be completely fresh. And so as not to repeat myself, I made him completely different from my original protagonist, Jack. Jack is an ordinary young man, sensitive, kind of a doormat type, whereas Park is a very, very dangerous soldier.

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

“The Skull-Faced Boy” was a very personal story for me, written during a very dark period of my life. Fortunately the events that prompted that tale are now far enough in the past that I was able to have a lot more fun writing the sequel. I was a very young writer when I wrote “The Skull-Faced Boy.” Now I’ve become much more assured about putting words together, and “The Skull-Faced City” is more complex, more polished, and more epic in scope. I realized as I was writing it that if “The Skull-Faced Boy” is my Night of the Living Dead, then “The Skull-Faced City” is my Dawn of the Dead–everything you loved about the original, but with a bigger budget.

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

Over the past few years I’ve read a few dozen memoirs by soldiers and law enforcement types to try to improve my ability to portray those kinds of characters. One book that really sticks with me and that was definitely relevant to this story was Shooter: The Autobiography of the Top-Ranked Marine Sniper, by Jack Coughlin. When I started writing the first scene of “The Skull-Faced City,” the way I imagined it in my head required Park to make a rather difficult shot with a rifle. I wondered if readers would believe that he could do it. That’s where the idea came from of making him a trained sniper, which ended up being a major part of the story.

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?

I think one of the appeals of zombie fiction, and post-apocalyptic fiction generally, is that it makes each survivor vitally important. When there are six billion plus human beings on earth, it’s hard to feel very special, particularly if, like most people, you don’t feel that your job is all that indispensable. But if you’re one of only a handful of survivors, then every action you take is of grave import–people are counting on you, the human race is counting on you, you matter. In many ways that’s an appealing fantasy, and I’d argue it’s actually much closer to the role we were prepared for by evolution. After all, being part of a small band, in constant danger of being wiped out, surrounded by creatures who want to eat you, basically describes what life was like for our ancestors stretching back billions of years. I think another appealing thing about zombies is that they’re the kind of enemy that an ordinary person can fight back against. So many of our fears are about things that we feel utterly powerless to resist–global warming, mass unemployment, lack of affordable health care, an unresponsive government totally corrupted by money. Zombies are a threat, but at least it’s the sort of threat that you can hit with a baseball bat.

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

My favorite examples of zombies lately have been in the graphic novel format. Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead continues to amaze, and the recent zombie/superhero crossover Marvel Zombies was original and creepy.