Interview: Kim Paffenroth, Author of Dying to Live: Life Sentence

Tell us a bit about your novel, Dying to Live: Life Sentence. What’s it about?

This is the sequel to my first novel, Dying to Live (Permuted Press, 2007). It’s set 12 years after the initial zombie apocalypse, in a community that has carved out a fairly safe, static situation for themselves in the zombie world. So mostly I look at that community and a few of the people in it. The "usual" zombie thing (shambling hordes, eviscerations, and head shots) is more of the background, against which the real story is set.

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

I guess I wanted to tell a smaller, more intimate, less violent story, but with the hyper-violent world of zombies always right at the edge of it – if that makes sense. To me "zombie world" is just a revved up version of our own: we fear death, we suffer loss, we don’t know how to cope with grief – but in zombie world it’s much more immediate and overt and over the top. That gives the story a kind of intensity, because the threat of violence is always just outside our field of vision, even if the scene in front of us is very calm and poignant.

Tell us about the protagonist of the story.

The main protagonist is Zoey, the baby they rescued in the first novel, now grown to a 12 year old girl. So it’s a coming of age story, and I loved focusing on those issues – alienation, puberty, not fitting in with people, self-esteem – all while learning to shoot ’em in the head so they stay dead! I found how vividly I remembered those years and those problems (besides the shooting people in the head one). There is a second protagonist, but I’m keeping him secret till the release, as he’s not really a traditional sort of character. He’s kind of the big surprise of the book, the part I think will make people say, "Oh, now that’s different and interesting!"

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?
Alternating the two POVs and trying to weave in more secondary characters was more complicated than I’m used to, but it needed to be done if I’m going to improve as a writer, and it was also the setup this story needed. Some of the secondary characters turned into real gems on their own, people I was glad to have created, who really pushed the story in new directions.

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

People often ask how does one write from a female perspective, if one is a man. But I say, "Look – the main character is a bookish loner who worries she doesn’t fit in and spends way too much time thinking and worrying about stuff: other than the gender, does that sound like anyone you know?" Well, it’s me, of course. All my characters are. Villains less so than heroes, but I can intensely identify with all of them. As for the plot, the coming of age story will always resonate with me, as those years are still very vivid in my mind.

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

I have two gun experts on call, and I consult with them constantly. There’s no sense having a trivial detail about firearms spoil someone’s enjoyment of a story. Other than that, I can’t think of any specific research I did. Now the next book – that was a lot of research.

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

Zombies are such an everyday monster. As Romero said, they’re your neighbors. So they are not as incredible and unbelieavable as other monsters. That’s given them a lot of resonance with modern audiences, especially in our paranoid contemporary world, when we worry about terrorists or insane criminals like the DC sniper. Of course, the chance of being killed by such people is negligible, but fear of them fills our imagination and the media, and therefore an ordinary looking person/zombie jumping out and taking a bite out of you strikes us as much more frightening and real than, say, the idea of a bat swooping in the window and turning into a vampire to suck your blood. 

Zombies are also us, as one of Romero’s characters announces it in Dawn of the Dead. So we often, I think, identify with the zombie, as well as with the live characters in a zombie story. We feel sorry for them, and they remind us that even in the real world, we’re just one step away from being dead at any moment. They’re a salutary reminder of our mortality and fallibility.

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

Keene’s The Rising is a tremendously taut story, very gripping and suspenseful. And Wellington’s Monster Island I thought was a very nice, straightforward zombie apocalypse, with lots of great action. I think the graphic series Walking Dead is a great look at human interactions set against a zombified world of death and destruction. And I think that’s what all these have in common, and what they have in common with all good literature – characters that you care about interacting with each other in really meaningful, complicated ways. And it’s the weakness of bad zombie lit: if a book’s just about killing and eating people, then it’s not about very much of interest to me. If it’s about love and loss and guilt – those are interesting.

Any new work of ours just out or forthcoming you’d like to mention, or anything else you’d like to add?

See, I knew we’d talk about the next book. Here’s the skinny: imagine that the great medieval Italian poet Dante personally witnessed a massive zombie uprising, and that’s what filled his head with all those horrible images (people being burned, eaten alive, boiled in pitch, torn limb from limb, etc.) that he puts in his classic, Inferno. Sound interesting? Well, when that idea came to me, I was floored. I couldn’t wait to put it all down on paper. It took lots of thought to work through the nine circles of hell, finding a "believable" zombie analog for all the stuff Dante describes in Inferno, but I was thrilled with how it worked out. It really is something that’s a tribute to the original, but also has its own ideas and new directions.

The Zombie Combat Club

Caught without your Pistol? Rifle? Revolver?

The Zombie Combat Club urges civilians to ease their dependency on firearms and concentrate on alternate forms of self-defense. Club goals are simple: "to educate the public on effective hand-to-hand combat techniques to eradicate the threat of the living dead."

The club provides, free of charge, a wide variety of combat manuals that include analyses of training patterns, descriptions of combat techniques, and details of zombie anatomy. Each section offers elaborate diagrams, safety statistics, and estimated risks of infection that one should anticipate while engaged in various styles of combat.


In the event of a zombie infestation, statistics show that 98% of survivors will need to defend themselves without a firearm. The ZCC asks, "Will you be ready?"

Library Journal: “Highly Recommended”

One of publishing’s top trade journals, Library Journal, has reviewed The Living Dead, giving it a starred review, which indicates a book of exceptional merit: “Editor Adams does a remarkable job of collecting a sampling of variations on this theme. … Highly recommended for all horror fiction collections.

Also, the Sacramento Book Review reviews The Living Dead: “A collection of short zombie stories from some of the greatest horror writers of all time.” [PDF]

As does Realms of Fantasy: “It’s hard to find fault in almost five hundred pages of zombie stories.” [not online] & Weigh In

SF Scope covers the Oct. 7 “Readings of The Living Dead” event presented by the New York Review of Science Fiction reading series: “At a time when the scariest stories are found on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and on the very evening of a Presidential debate (on top of which, I’d just been to the dentist and told that I need a root canal), zombies have a lot of fierce (dare I say stiff—get it? "Stiff", dead body?) competition to terrify us, but Kirtley and Langan successfully managed to affect us, haunt us, creep us out, disgust us, and even raise the odd hollow chuckle.” also reviews The Living Dead, giving it an “A” grade and calling it “One of the best zombie anthologies published in recent years.”


Good news! Apparently if there’s a zombie apocalypse, the folks at International House of Pancakes will save us:


Photo by my mom, while on vacation in Florida earlier this month.

Zombies at 99.5 FM

Last weekend, I appeared alongside David Barr Kirtley on Jim Freund’s Hour of the Wolf radio program on WBAI 99.5 FM in New York to discuss The Living Dead and Seeds of Change. Dave came along and read his story from The Living Dead, "The Skull-Faced Boy."

Here’s me, relaxing in the studio as Dave reads his story:

John Joseph Adams

And here’s Dave reading:

David Barr Kirtley

You can listen to the whole show by streaming it from the WBAI’s website, or you can download the following MP3s. Dave edited down the show into an abridged “good parts” edition for your listening pleasure:

Part 1 – Discussion
Humorous zombies?, Joe Hill, Owen’s King’s Who Can Save Us Now?, Seeds of Change, The Living Dead cover art

Part 2 – Reading
"The Skull-Faced Boy" by David Barr Kirtley, read by the author

Part 3 – Callers
Andy Duncan, Zora Neale Hurston, George Romero, From Dusk Til Dawn, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead

5 Takes on The Living Dead

There are a couple new reviews to share:

USA Today’s Pop Candy blog: “a cool new anthology.”

BookLoons: “A fascinating collection which proves to the reader that no zombie story is the same and shows what amazing settings and situations authors can create to involve zombies.”

Subterranean Online: “The Living Dead features some great seminal tales [and] several lesser-known stories that definitely deserve more attention.”

Bookgasm: “Contains its fair share of pleasant surprises. … Filled with tales that take the zombie in wildly different directions.”

Textual Frigate blog: “There was a lot of variety in this book. … There really is something here for any type of zombie fan.”

The Living Dead is “A-grade zombie goodness”

The Living Dead was recently mentioned on, which called it “A-grade zombie goodness.”

The Living Dead is also currently one of the featured books in the Barnes & Noble Fantasy & Science Fiction Book Club.

More Free Fiction!

I’ve just added the following two free stories to the Free Stories & Excerpts page:

The Dead Kid by Darrell Schweitzer  
HTML | PDF | Mobipocket

Beautiful Stuff by Susan Palwick 
HTML | PDF | Mobipocket

There’s now six free stories here on the website in their entirety, plus all the excerpts. Be sure to keep checking back to see more!

Paranormal Restraining Orders

Relentless undead got you down? Sick of the zombie hordes clawing at your doorstep? Afraid to go out at night because of a shambling stalker who just doesn’t get the message that you’re just not into brains? If so, it might just be time to get a paranormal restraining order.


For just $5, you can lay all your fears to rest. This legal document will require that all members of the living dead keep at least 100 yards away from you at all times. Or else.

If your concern is zombies, act fast–the judge presiding over zombie cases is only in session during the month of October. However, restraining orders against other supernatural annoyances, such as Bigfoot or Death, are available year-round.

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