What’s was the genesis of your story, "Everything is Better With Zombies"–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?
This one actually began as a joke. I had a list of things that everything was better with. Monkeys was on the list. Also, pirates. One day in the summer of 2004, I was in a chatroom with several writer friends and I said (for reasons not clear to me now), "Everything is better with zombies," and then thought, "Hmm." One of those writer friends, I believe, challenged me to make a story out of it, and so I did.
Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?
Yes and also no. I’d always thought of myself as slow, but this was a little ridiculous. The story is 3,500 words long, but it took about two years to write, with many fits and starts. The writing itself was nigh-on effortless, and it turned out there were a lot of facts (and also "facts") about zombies rattling around in my head just waiting for me to hang a story on them. But this was one of the first stories I wrote without knowing where and how it would end. It was an exercise in faith, in a way: I was writing blind, a section at a time and then a long break, trusting that the next scene would sort itself out eventually. I do know that I expected the story to be about half again this long. In retrospect, I think I was hoping that if I waited long enough, a different ending would present itself. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I lulled myself a bit into thinking I had all the time in the world and then this ending snuck up on me–a little like zombies, actually.
Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?
I have been known to joke that writing was a whole lot easier when I didn’t realize what issue(s) I was working through in a story until the story was done. I’ve struggled with the idea of loyalty, and with the question of what you do when what seems like the loyal, faithful thing conflicts with what’s the right thing for you. It didn’t feel like a major or immediate problem while I was writing the story, but it became one not too long after I finished it. I can’t say whether I sensed the trouble brewing while I was writing or whether the time I spent with the story, working it through, changed the way I felt about the issue, but looking back at the story now, it feels much more relevant than it did when it was just a fun little challenge piece.
Also, I grew up in Illinois–in the Chicago suburbs, but I went to college in a struggling little city surrounded by farmland. Emily’s town in the story isn’t a copy of my college town, but the feel is similar, and the story holds the things that I loved about the Midwest–my Midwest–and the things that scared me: the claustrophobic sense of winding down in the middle of all that glorious _space._ I live in Boston now, and maybe it’s important that I wrote this story during my last year in Illinois and my first out here. I always swore I was never going to write a small-town Midwestern story, but having done it, I’m glad that I did. In my head, this story is half horror story, half love song, and that feels about right.
What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
Not much. I think I did a wee little bit of Googling to verify that I hadn’t completely made up my zombie facts. I did play a lot of Resident Evil. Does that count?
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?
Of the holy trinity of monsters–vampires, werewolves, and zombies–zombies are the only ones that haven’t been a bit defanged and sexed up (at least so far, though I hear there’s a book or two on the way…). I grew up reading young adult books and urban fantasies in which the vamps and werebeasties were as likely to be angsty and misunderstood as they were to rip out your throat, and while that can be interesting in its own right, it does demystify them a bit, and makes them a little tough to take seriously.
With zombies, though, there’s nothing to demystify. You know exactly what they want, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it, and if you slip up or get worn down, you’ll be one of them: mindless and shuffling. Maybe your neighbors or your family members already are. There’s an awful lot of paranoia out there. And for me, personally? An opponent that can’t be reasoned with–that, worse, can take away two of the things I value most highly: my own ability to reason and my engagement in the world–is about as scary as it gets. The werewolf just eats you; that sounds to me like a much better deal than not being able to think or care.
What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?
This is where I show my ignorance; the only zombie prose that comes immediately to mind is Kelly Link’s "The Hortlak," which I like primarily for non-zombie reasons. The first movies are the 28 Days Later… and 28 Weeks Later… films. The former for the end-is-extremely-fucking-nigh aspect–I’m a sucker for the end of the world–and the latter for that wonderful, horrible moment when the military can’t (or doesn’t choose to?) distinguish between the infected and the un- and everything really does fall apart. They’re flawed movies, especially the latter, but there’s something visceral there.
Did I mention that I played a lot of Resident Evil?