INTERVIEW: Paula R. Stiles, author of “Zombieville”

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

“Zombieville” is about a group of aid workers (several of them Peace Corps volunteers) surviving in West Africa after the Zombocalypse–and doing surprisingly better than you’d expect.

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

I got into zombie fic through the back door–I sold a story (that I didn’t originally consider zombie fic), “The Gingerbread Man,” to Permuted Press and got involved in their writing group, The Pit, over there. Zombies are popular and I like to get published as much as the next writer, but also, I was hanging out with a lot of people who loved zombies. So, I wrote some more, like “Burning Down the House,” which was a take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers I’d had kicking around in my head for a few years, only with fungus.

As I recall, I wrote “Zombieville” for a Permuted Press anthology and it didn’t get bought. So, I shopped it around and Something Wicked seemed like a good fit (which turned out to be true). Plus, I liked the idea of appearing in an African ‘zine (and their covers are fantabulous).

“Zombieville,” more specifically, came out of two motivations. First, I kept hearing they wanted to do a Resident Evil movie set in Africa and I groaned a little, thinking about how many boring clichés they’d come up with for that. Then I thought, “Well, self, why not do your own take on an African Zombocalypse?” Not like anybody else was doing it.

I made the protags PCVs because I used to be one. I could have had Cameroonian protags (I’ve done them before), but I really didn’t think the Cameroonians would be freaked out enough by a zombie pandemic to generate much drama. So, I used expats.

As for where Bruce came from–one, he’s an homage to Bruce Campbell in a small way, of course. But on a larger scale, he came from a conversation I had a couple of years back with two Chinese lads I was tutoring at the time. They were both teens and absolutely huge. And we got to talking one day about stereotypes about Chinese expats in the West (all short and sneaky and inscrutable and all that). They were complaining about how they never got to see any good Chinese protags in western fiction, especially fic of the speculative variety. So, I took some of the issues I knew some Asian volunteers had in Cameroon when I was there and came up with Bruce, who was Chinese-American.

Naturally, his name is also a play on the great Bruce Lee.

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

Yes and no. The background was not hard to write, more to cut back down. I know that it’s YMMV with editors on infodump, but I’m a bit of an infodump nazi on my own. The problem was trying to get in an adequate amount of background to make Cameroonian society coherent to an audience I knew would need as much explanation as possible–and tell a story–all in less than 5,000 words, if possible. I’ve managed to sell two novelettes, but it’s a bear to sell anything over five thou, usually, so I avoid it when I can.

The other challenge was one I run into a lot. I’ve done some pretty wild and crazy things (Peace Corps was neither my first nor last Big Adventure). It…frustrates me when I see so much clichéd drama out there. When you do wild and crazy things as a lifestyle, you quickly learn that excess drama is stupid. So, you minimize it as much as you can. I actually find a lot of “adventure” fic (not to mention horror) seriously irritating because the characters act like complete idiots as part of a lot of artificially-generated drama. I absolutely refuse to have my characters act like fools just to move the plot along. And if that makes things too “linear” or not hysterical enough, so be it.

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

All of my stories are personal in some way. I wouldn’t feel very motivated to write them, otherwise. In the case of “Zombieville,” it’s probably obvious at this point in the interview that the story stems from my Peace Corps experience. I didn’t actually live up in the Extreme North (I was down in the East Province), but I visited there twice when I was living in Cameroon and I absolutely loved Maroua. It’s a beautiful place and, except toward the end of tourist season in February when the locals are a bit fed up with the tourists, much friendlier and less aggressive than a lot of the rest of Cameroon. I found it…restful.

Also, I was in Cameroon during the early part of the AIDS epidemic and it was already having a serious effect on the culture. I knew Cameroonians who died of it, volunteers who went home HIV-positive. I was also working in EMS back in the ’80s when it was hitting the medical community for the first time. We PCVs were all tested before we went and when we came back and even so, I’ll never be able to donate blood again. Let’s just say that the UN either has been lying about the rates in Cameroon, especially, or was severely misinformed. They now know that the disease originated about 100 kms south of where I was (hell, I could’ve told them that back in ’94).

AIDS was already at epidemic proportions in Cameroon by the time I left in ’94 and that’s a pretty scary atmosphere to be in for two years (on top of all the other fun stresses)–and yet, you know, life just goes on. What else are you going to do? So, when I was reading all these zombie stories in The Pit and seeing people talk about the Zombocalypse as if it would be this catastrophic event, I kinda laughed and thought, “You know, I should just write a zombocalypse tale that’s a metaphor for AIDS in Africa.” It’s not actually the first AIDS-in-Africa metaphor tale I’ve written. Probably won’t be my last, either.

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

Not really that much, considering so much of it came from personal experience. There are lots of little personal-history details in there that just might get my car put up on blocks on the freeway some night if some of my old RPCV buddies ever read my stuff (not that anybody else would notice). Fortunately, I don’t own one right now.

But I did look up things to confirm them–country facts that might have changed since the ’90s, mostly.

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?

Well, as I said before, I came into it by the back door. Mostly, I’m in it because I like the zombie fic community and all those crazy kids out there writing it. They’re just good fun to be around, don’t really take stuff seriously.

In terms of what I find appealing about zombies, I’m going to be a heretic here and say I like the fast ones, or the ones that seem nearly normal until they get close enough to take a chunk out of you. I don’t consider Romero’s zombies to be “traditional,” anyway (they’re more like medieval vampires, in fact). Zombies are originally a Caribbean monster and it irritates me a bit that the “Americanized” version has taken over so completely that there are fans of zombies who just won’t accept anything else as a “zombie.”

But I find it really creepy when you have these relentless and mindless people after you, who exist only to eat you or convert you into them. Or both. It’s very, very disturbing.

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

Mostly films and television and they may seem unusual: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (though they’re technically plants, they’re still zombie-like and relentless), the original Dawn of the Dead (love the commentary on mindless consumerism), Shaun of the Dead (a great Brit-culture spoof that’s also scary), Five Million Years to Earth (AKA the Quatermass Experiment, scary as hell when the mobs are taking out anyone who isn’t brainwashed by the Martians).

Also the Supernatural episodes “Croatoan” and “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things.” I love the use of the Lost Colony mystery in “Croatoan,” and how these ordinary people can seem smiling and normal even as they’re lifting their knives, how we never do find out exactly what happened. I also love how one of the brothers, Dean, is really almost as much a monster as any of the Monsters of the Week in both episodes. In “Croatoan,” he’s gone all I Am Legend (he even says he feels like Heston in The Omega Man) on the zombies, even to the point of shooting people before they’ve “turned.”

In “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” Dean has just been brought back practically from the dead. Physically, he came back fully, not so much emotionally. The zombie girl of the episode was brought back part-way by Ancient Greek necromancy, but continues to rot and has turned from a sweet kid into a homicidal maniac. Both of them have this sexual edge to their rage and he’s downright obsessed with hunting her in a very disturbing way. So, you’ve got this more-successful zombie fanatically hunting a less-successful zombie throughout the episode and the both of them scaring (or killing, in the case of the girl) all their loved ones. It’s like Pet Sematary on crack. I think you could say the message is: “If you love someone, don’t bring them back from the dead. It’ll really screw them up!”

And I can’t believe they got that staking scene past the censors at the end.