INTERVIEW: Gary Braunbeck, author of “We Now Pause For Station Identification”

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

Initially it’s about a talk-radio dj who’s been holed up in his broadcast booth for several days while the zombie plague worsens.  He keeps broadcasting in hopes that someone who’s still alive out there will contact him.  There’s a sea-change moment about halfway through his rambling monologue when he reveals what the zombies really want, and what they do once they reach a place of remembered happiness.  Ultimately the story concerns itself with the ability of the human sprit to maintain compassion and dignity in the face of a hopeless situation.

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

Brian Keene sent me an ARC of The Rising several months before the novel was to be released and asked me if I’d read it and possibly provide a blurb (which I did).  There’s a throwaway line early in the novel that mentions how one of the main characters listened to a radio dj go nuts and commit suicide on-air.  That little piece of peripheral information–a lot of The Rising‘s readers don’t even remember this bit–stayed with me; so, finally, I asked Brian if he planned to do anything with that idea.  He said he’d all but forgotten about that moment and that he had no plans of using it.  I asked if he’d mind if I took the initial idea and ran with it, and Brian gave me his blessing–which is why the story is dedicated to him.

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

Once I was able to establish the cadence of the narrator’s voice, the story almost wrote itself.  The difficulty early on was establishing that cadence.  Most talk-radio DJs have distinct speech patterns–compare, say, Howard Stern with Rush Limbaugh, and you’ll immediately hear the difference in the rhythm of their speech–but here, not only did the narrator’s individual cadence have to be established, it had to start disintegrating–naturally disintegrating–at the same rate as the narrator’s mind.

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

In this case, it dealt with, simply, having to face death alone and discovering the only companionship available is a memory filled with regret and despair.

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?

For the record, I have written only 4 zombie-/the living dead-themed stories.  I can’t see any point in writing a zombie story if it’s only going to be the same old rehash of something from a Romero film.  I think the appeal to readers is the cathartic release of the graphic violence often contained in the stories; the reader is powerless to express his or her own anger, frustration, and fury at the faceless entities that control much of their waking existence, so it’s a genuine release to read a 300-page novel where those faceless entities are given physical form and serve only one purpose:  to be destroyed as violently as possible.

I also think it’s a way for readers to fight off (metaphorically, anyway) the inevitability of their own deaths; kill a zombie, live an extra day.

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

Dan Simmons’s “The River Styx Runs Upstream” and “This Year’s Class Picture” are standouts because he concentrates on the emotional pain experienced by the survivors, thus making the acts of violence toward the end all the more powerful and heartbreaking.  Ed Bryant’s award-winning “A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned” manages to be terrifying, funny, grotesque, romantic, and heart-wrenching all at the same time — not an easy feat; it’s the type of story that, once you’ve read it, you find yourself wishing you’d written it instead.  Joe Lansdale’s “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks” has achieved the status of “modern-day classic”–a term that, when you think about it, is utterly meaningless, but doesn’t detract one whit from the balls-to-the-wall brilliance of the novella, which is the kind of story only Lansdale could have written.  The same goes for David J. Schow’s “Jerry’s Kids Meet Wormboy”–a nasty, viciously satirical piece of work, with a cadence that reads like it was written by Jack Kerouac while he listening to Tangerine Dream; Poppy Z. Brite’s “Calcutta, Lord of Nerves,” an exquisite tale that makes death, decay, and putrescence utterly and disturbingly seductive; in short, if it’s a story wherein a new spin is given to the traditional zombie tale, I’m all over it.