INTERVIEW: Steven Popkes, author of “The Crocodiles”

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

“The Crocodiles” is about zombies in Nazi Germany, how they were deployed and how they were used and how they got out of control.

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

It was my son Ben’s idea. Zombies and Nazis are everywhere today. Ben is a big Hellboy fan (hence, the Nazis). One day Ben came up to me and said: Nazi Zombies! How cool is that? Using concentration camp victims as subjects was my original contribution.

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

It was. I have this terrible urge to put things in the real world. In this case, it was how to thread the zombies through World War II, when they would have change the nature of the war, when they would have been deployed, etc. Fitting the zombies into Germany realistically was mechanically hard. But it was also metaphorically difficult. The connection of the “living dead” to what Nazi ideology did to its adherents is an obvious one. One problem was not to preach about it and just let the characters speak for themselves.

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

It took a while to get a particular “take” on the story. I have worked in an military lab with engineers who designed weapons of violent and miserable destruction. My father worked in such labs much of his life. These were wholesome, interesting people who happened to be instrumental in designing or supporting weapons that would end life on the planet. They were cheerful, good people, nice to their kids, members of the PTA, tutoring poor children. I find this dichotomy very interesting. Most scientists and engineers are not Oppenheimers who agonize about what they do. They are people working towards a goal. Teller was such a person. Von Braun was such a person. My father was such a person. That their goal is building a device of unimaginable destruction is beside the point. That was the personality I was trying to capture.

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

The biggest part of the research was getting the details of WWII right. Making sure the dates matched. I had a great deal of help from a friend, William Aldrich, who is much more knowledgeable than I. The physiology of the zombies I worked out on my own though I had a bit of heart burn for some of the scientific devices and when viruses were discovered.

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 don’t know about general appeal. I can only say about my own. I don’t care much for traditional zombie fiction since there are only so many changes one can ring on George Romero’s work–it seems a significant amount of zombie fiction (like vampire fiction) has been “commoditized.” There should be a contents placard on the side of the book: contains 80% of the daily requirement of zombie fiction.

For me, the interesting idea of zombies is their transformation, from living to dead to “living,” when someone you know is changed into someone or some thing you don’t.  The change of the zombies forces an analogous change on the person confronting the zombie. This had been a human being, now it is a thing that merely looks like a human being. This brought it into an area I was interested in. This is your nice German engineer. This is your nice German engineer under Nazism. The German engineer turning concentration camp victims into zombies isn’t so different from your nice German engineer using a dying slave labor force to build V1s and V2s. Calling him evil is just a convenient name to put on him so we don’t have to understand him.

Zombies aren’t interesting. People interacting with zombies are.

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

In my opinion, the best work on zombies has been in film. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, of course. Zombieland more recently.

But there has been some very interesting short fiction I’ve seen about people who are living dead but outside of the normal label of “zombie.” And, of course, there’s World War Z. As I said, zombies aren’t interesting; people interacting with them are.

I think a lot of the better zombie fiction is playing against type, satirizing or extending the concept. Let’s face it, pretty much everything you can say about the original zombie  concept was explored in Romero’s first zombie movie. Once you have that down, there’s not much more to be said.

The interesting material takes the original idea and responds to it or reconsiders it. Probably one of the better treatments of this was the reimagining of Shadowman, in Acclaim Comics. Shadowman brings zombies back to their voodoo roots and made it interesting.