Interview: Dale Bailey

Tell us a bit about your story, "Death and Suffrage." What’s it about?

As the title suggests, "Death and Suffrage" posits a presidential election gone seriously awry when the recently buried dead arise to . . . cast their ballots. Seriously.

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

I’m a political junkie, so the initial impulse to write a story about the inside workings of a presidential campaign came, I suppose, from my own fascination with the news stories and memoirs that focus on how crucial political decisions get made–process stories, I think they call them in the media.  I’m also a zombie junkie–the kind of fanatic that actually drove an hour and a half recently to check out Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD.  I suppose the impulse to combine the two genres must have come from the legendary stories of corrupt Chicago politics, where the dead are rumored to vote long after they’re interred.  I just decided to take the metaphor literally–which is, I think, what a lot of fantasy, horror, and science fiction does.  I thought the idea would make a comedic little short story, and I was right except that the final piece turned out to be neither little nor short nor even very comedic except in the darkest of ways…

Tell us about the protagonist of the story.

The main character, Rob, is a thirtysomething political strategist who’s basically sold his soul for the process–the kind of guy who has gotten so caught up in the business of winning elections that he’s forgotten that they’re really about anything other than winning.  Like the protagonists of most zombie stories, he’s a kind of zombie himself, I guess.

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

The biggest problem I had was taking the idea seriously.  It’s such a ridiculous idea that the impulse to treat it as ridiculous was almost irresistible–which would have been fatal for the story, of course.  I think that’s the challenge in any fantasy piece–a challenge that many readers who disdain the genre simply aren’t up to:  you have to remember to treat the people in your story as real people, no matter how intrinsically absurd their situation.  Once I got my head around that–around the notion that my job was not to poke fun at the situation but to depict how somebody like Rob might really react to it–the story started to click.

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

Gosh–that’s a tough one.  I suppose the political issue at the heart of the piece–gun control–is one that I believe pretty strongly in, maybe more strongly now than I did when I wrote the piece.  And some of the anger in the story–the anger directed at the ways in which our political system has gone awry, at the ways in which it consistently fails to serve the needs of real people as opposed to corporate interests–some of that anger is definitely mine.  The sad thing is, I don’t think anything short of a zombie uprising is capable of really reforming the system.  What did Churchill say?  "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried."

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

Very little formal research.  Most of the story just grew out of following politics over the years.

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?

I think the appeal is two-fold.  First, it’s a nightmarish vision of our own mortality.  Zombies–until recently, anyway–don’t run, but somehow you can never get away.  They’re like death in that respect:  relentless and inescapable.  And of course, as Romero has shown us again and again, they provide such a rich and powerful metaphor for life in a mass consumer culture.  Even in the the most dismal zombie fiction, I think that dimension of social commentary is at least implicit.

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

For me, the central zombie text is still Romero’s ’68 film, Night of the Living Dead.  That film retains a visceral nightmarish power for me even now, and I think more than any other single work, it set the template for everything that has followed.  I know that Romero’s film was influenced by Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend–which I also love–but Romero’s decision to re-imagine the zombies as cannibals rather than vampires, and to render them as void of personality, will, intelligence–of anything but hunger–gives the concept a taboo-wrecking power that even Matheson’s justly praised novel lacks.

There has been some tremendous work since then, of course, most of it in film–Romero’s sequels, all of which have merit; 28 Days Later and its sequel [28 Weeks Later]; and Shaun of the Dead spring immediately to mind–but I think all of it is essentially working the same terrain that Romero pioneered.  He’s one of the few examples I can think of–maybe the only one–where an artist single-handedly summoned into being an entire genre–or sub-genre, anyway.

Before Romero, zombie stories were rooted in the folklore of voodoo.  Since Romero, the word zombie has come to mean something entirely different–and the two conceptions, I would argue, are at best only very loosely related.

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

Jack Slay and I are working on a new crime novel, The Clearing, for Heyne Hardcore.