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.