Interview: David Barr Kirtley

Tell us a bit about your story, “The Skull-Faced Boy.” What’s it about?

“The Skull-Faced Boy” is about how a pair of friends — two young men with opposite personalities — react to the fact that they’ve become zombies.

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

When I wrote “The Skull-Faced Boy,” during the summer of 2000, I was on a horror-writing kick, and I wanted to try a zombie story. In order to brainstorm ideas, I sat down and started drawing pictures of zombies. I tend to identify with individuals who are looked down on and mistreated because they’re different, so it was natural for me to start thinking about telling my story from the point of view of a zombie. Finally, I drew a zombie whose face was just a skull, and above him I scribbled “the skull-faced boy.” I felt immediately that this was a great character (and also a great title). I drew another picture of the skull-faced boy, in which he was leading an army of zombies, and another one, in which — well, I can’t say, because it would spoil the surprise. Let’s just say I drew a picture that depicted the skull-faced boy in a creepy, surreal situation, and that situation ultimately became the climax of the story.

Tell us about the protagonist of the story.

The protagonist of my story, Jack, lives in Maine, is a recent college grad, and is basically just a nice, ordinary guy. But he’s also a bit naive and weak-willed, and that causes some huge problems for him when the dead start coming back to life.

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

I had a little trouble while I was writing it dealing with the terrifying reality of just how awesome my story is. No, just kidding. I honestly can’t think of anything. As with most of my stories, I spent about six weeks planning it out before I started writing, so there weren’t really any huge unexpected obstacles that popped up.

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

Well, a few months before I wrote “The Skull-Faced Boy” I’d had a very painful falling out with one of my best friends, whom I felt was really mistreating his girlfriend and who was just generally acting like a complete jerk, and all of our friends were mindlessly going along with whatever he did and repeating whatever he said, so yeah … the story is kind of personal.

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

I watched about a dozen zombie movies and read about half a dozen anthologies of zombie short stories.

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?

Two reasons: 1) I think there’s an enormous segment of our brain that’s evolved for running away from packs of predators, and zombie stories give us a rare opportunity to take this primal part of our psyches out for a spin, and 2) zombies are a great metaphor. The great mass of humanity often comes across to us as unreasoningly hostile and driven to consumption, and the image of the zombie captures this perfectly.

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

The 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead holds a special place in my heart, since it was the first zombie movie I ever saw, and it has some great twists. 28 Days Later is the most accomplished zombie movie I’ve seen — the part where the father gets infected is just heartbreaking. I also really enjoyed Shaun of the Dead. The part near the beginning where Shaun keeps channel surfing and missing the news of the zombie apocalypse had me laughing so hard I could barely breathe.

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

My story “Save Me Plz” appears in the anthology Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008. I have a website at www.davidbarrkirtley.com.