Bricks of the Dead: Reading over your published works you had me trying to recall everything I learned in Catholic school as well as a few Comparative Religion type classes. Do most of your story lines draw inspiration from the Old or New Testament?
Stant Litore: From both, as well as early ecclesiastical writings. Death Has Come Up into Our Windows is based loosely on ‘Jeremiah’ and ‘Lamentations’; Strangers in the Land on Judges 4; and What Our Eyes Have Witnessed on the acts and sayings of St. Polycarp.
The next volume will be based on three episodes from the Gospel of Luke.
Have you any interest in writing any other historical fiction?
I am fascinated by history, but am likely to always write historical fiction with a fantastical element – mostly because the encounter with the marvelous or the uncanny or the horrific throws into sharp relief a culture’s great strengths and weaknesses, and allows us to ask questions that at most other times we forget to ask: questions about ethics, and the nature of heroism, and how we respond to those who are different from us.
What is the writing process like for you? Do you put much effort into an outline or do you explore ideas as they come to you?
I don’t know that there is a short answer to this question. I always begin with an image or an idea. Then I find the characters in the scene, I keep writing about them until I know who they are. What they fear, what they hope, what they regret. At that point, a story emerges, and I start asking questions: What will challenge these characters? What is the most tense way I can tell this story? What is the moment where this character finally breaks down and weeps or laughs, and why? If it’s a zombie story, I ask: What is this person’s relationship to their ancestors, to their dead – and how do the hungry corpses threaten that?
Once I have, say, a third of the word count down, then I start outlining. But I don’t outline chapters and scenes. I create a character arc outline for each character. I chart the five scenes that matter to that character – the five scenes that represent moments of choice or moments at which a terrible choice is possible. Then I look for what the reader needs to know or experience before each of those scenes, and what the character needs to know or experience before each of those scenes. That’s when the magic happens – when I start rearranging and upending a story based on those questions. This kind of outline is useful because it is a tool for digging deep into a developing story and looking at what the real points of tension are, and what moments are most important to the story. They are not always big plot moments in the expected sense; often they happen immediately preceding or following a ‘big moment’ in the action. Sometimes an entire story pivots on a small gesture that has been invested with enormous significance.
Poking my nose into your past I see we share a previous working experience in repairing old books, do you still fix tomes? Personally I realized the best chance an old book has at extended life is for me to leave it alone.
Only my own, as I no longer work at a library. But yes, nursing old books back to health is a passion of mine. Paradoxically, I am also an outspoken fan of the Kindle. Like readers in the sixteenth century who owned both manuscripts and print books, I love both print and ebook.
You draw favorable comparison to another writer named Kim Paffenroth. Have you two ever discussed working together?
We haven’t, although we have corresponded, and I would welcome the opportunity. Kim is among the busiest men I know. He teaches, he produces some really intelligent scholarship, and he writes zombie novels. That’s a lot on a man’s plate. He handles it with grace. Working with Kim would be exciting.
What draws our fascination with the undead? Or do you perhaps see it as more of a fascination with the Apocalypse itself?
A little of both. I’m a little tired of Apocalypse stories myself; my zombie tales are set in the ancient past. To me the true horror is the evil that repeats itself again and again with each generation, threatens to destroy each generation. I think we can learn a lot about ourselves – and have a very entertaining time – reading THAT story.
Zombies are fascinating because they embody a number of our deepest fears. They are defined totally and irrevocably by their hunger, and we fear giving in to our hungers until we become mindless and defined by them. Even as our hungers are what make us human, they are also what strip away our humanity. Our hunger for security. Our hunger for community. Our hunger for sex. Our hunger for food. Our hunger for rest. Zombies force the question: Are our lives finally defined by hunger, by the eaters and the eaten?
If zombies rose up today and we became a society of survivors, what place would religion have in the life of the survivor? Do you think new religions would spring up or would faiths in established religions strengthen?
Yes and yes. Religions are organic. Would there be new ones? Possibly. Would the old ones persist? Inevitably. Think about it. The world’s leading religions are not leading by accident. They have taken hold of empires and they have taken hold in ghettos. Christianity survived Rome’s throwing of every Christian they found to the lions, and then the fall of Rome, and then the Black Death, then the epistemological crises of the modern world. It has adapted itself to seven continents. Islam survived the Khans’ genocide of half of the Islamic world, and even today is the world’s fastest growing religion. Judaism has survived one attempted genocide per century. Confucianism has underwritten eastern cultures for thousands of years. The big religions survive because they adapt, because the way they each define the “problem” of the human condition and how to address it is compelling enough across enough cultural boundaries that they persist. As long as a religion has a great story to tell about who we are, why we’re that way, and what we can do about it, that religion will survive and will influence our communities and our history.
Would religion have a place in a world of the walking dead? In a crisis, religion always has a strong place. But crises change religions and crises change people. The same religions we know now would look different to us in the future. It may be tempting to look at fundamentalism in the US or in some parts of the Middle East and note how inflexible it is. But you have to remember that fundamentalism in the US is only the tiniest percentage of Christianity in the world (most Christians, in fact, live in Latin and South America, and many of them are Pentecostals), and extremist forms of Islamism in the Middle East are the tiniest percentage of a religion that can be found on every continent, in every skin color, and in nearly every cultural tradition on the earth. To answer your question, we have to realize how much the way that we look at religion is biased by our own local politics.
Are Zombies evil?
I’ll take a shot at this question. Evil is the devouring, consuming, or exploiting of the other. Good is advocacy, justice, love, and honor for the other. Wait. Let me say that differently, bringing in my Levinas. When you look in another’s face and they look back, and your gaze meets, that meeting of the eyes is a demand and a request that you recognize in the other’s face another who is like you, who suffers and fears and dreams and loves, even as you do. They may be strange to you, but they are familiar also. When you respond without fear and you love them, you undertake good action. When you don’t meet that demand in their eyes, when you see in them only food or fuel for your fears, your prejudices, your ambitions, or your lusts, then you are likely to undertake or permit some evil action. The question of ethics – and of religion – is actually a simple one. Are other people friends or food? Do you feed each other or do you feed on each other?
Zombies look on the living and see only food. Nothing but food. They will never see anything but an object to eat, to put to their own use. That is evil. Zombies are one of the best ways we have of illustrating evil.
That is also terribly sad. Zombies are scary and evil, but they are also sad and evil. They will feed, and feed, and feed, and never, ever be full.