Interview with David Dunwoody
by Michele Lee
David Dunwoody is the author of Empire and the sequel this year Empires End.
ML: Your specialty, if you can say you have one still so early in your career, is zombie tales. How did you become the up-and-coming zombie writer? Is it a topic you pursued on purpose or did it just work out that way?
DD: It wasn't the plan (not to imply I ever had one). In 2004, I hadn't subbed anything to any market, and had no idea how or where to begin. I also didn't know what "market" meant. Eve Blaack of Hacker's Source magazine, for which I was writing film reviews, passed along word of a new publisher, Permuted Press. It had just opened to subs for a zombie anthology. "Grinning Samuel," which appears in THE UNDEAD, was my first sale, and I think I was so energized by that success that I became focused on the walking dead, and what other creeps perhaps lurked just outside the frame in Samuel's world.
ML: Especially lately, the zombie genre has been gifted with a surplus of titles to chose from. How do you think your stories stand out from the rest?
DD: I try to write tales that will surprise hardcore zombie fans, twisting the basic rules of the undead. A lot of my fellow fanatics feel the Romero rules are sacrosanct, and so they might not be into all of my rotters, but stories like those in the EMPIRE universe are written with respect for The Master and gratitude for the creature he’s given us - perhaps the last great monster, one whose impact and resonance was immediately recognized and who is already on par with the vampire and werewolf.
That said, my zombies range from slow and brainless to fast and/or smart - some almost human, others very far from it - and sometimes a headshot only pisses them off. There's often an element of dark fantasy too, as with the Grim Reaper hunting zombies in EMPIRE.
ML: Your lauded first novel, Empire, first showed up as a free serial, then was published through Permuted Press. Now Empire will hit bookstores through Pocket books in the spring. Can you tell us a little about the differences you've encountered with each new edition?
DD: There's not a ton of difference between the first and second print editions in terms of content. But in the transition from a 2006 web serial to a 2008 book, there were many minor tweaks and some major additions. I think the novel grew by twenty percent as I prepared it for print, mostly in deeper exploration of the military perspective and the 105 years of the plague prior to EMPIRE's opening in the year 2112.
I think the greatest difference will be between EMPIRE and its sequel - you can still detect EMPIRE'S episodic origins in the print version. The process of writing the second book was very different, and from its first pages it begins hurtling toward a climax far bigger, and of far greater consequence.
ML: Your short story “Shift Change” in the Fried! Fast Food, Slow Deaths anthology remains one of my favorite zombie stories to date. How do you manage to keep the zombies interesting, and yet not change their essential nature?
DD: I try not to tweak everything at once and lose the source. Dan O'Bannon recently passed away - his RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is a big influence for me, a beloved zombie classic that nonetheless plays fast and loose with the rules. Zombies that can run and talk, chowing down alongside desiccated corpses with nary an ounce of meat on their bones. Split dogs - SPLIT DOGS! The wild variety of zombies like Trash, Tarman and the jaundiced cadaver set my mind racing.
I do think some would say I've lost the essential zombieness on more than one occasion. Sometimes when I look for new undead, I dredge up something else entirely (as in "Shift Change"). But we gotta keep digging! There's something moving down there, dammit!
ML: Some say there's a divide between literary writers and genre writers and the debate between writing for art or writing for entertainment is a monster of its own. Which side do you stand on? Do you think zombies have a place in high literature?
DD: I think the divide only exists for those who choose to take a side. The rest of us are somehow walking on air in the middle of that chasm. Like Wile E. Coyote, I will not fall into that debate until I look down. And then I will die.
I don't think art and titillation are always mutually exclusive. There are definitely works of mine in which I invested more thought and passion, works that meant something more to me - and for that reason I would consider them closer to art than, say, the one about sentient strips of zombie bacon. But that's only because I say so - art is intent.
As to the question of quantifiable literary sensibility, I don't really know what that is. I know I don't have it. I'm not trying to be Rodney Dangerfield sticking it to the dean here, I just know that I write for me and other crazy people.
ML: Empire isn't the only work you've released for free. Do you believe free online content is merely a trend, a valuable tool for today's writers, or is it absolute essential in the new digital age?
DD: With so much out there, and with virtually anyone able to publish and make it available to the general public, I think free online content is a good way to get noticed, to connect and communicate with readers. The immediacy of posting an entry and reading someone's reaction to it in the same hour is pretty cool. It's also a sort of intimacy that might make you uncomfortable at times. But that's the story of the Internet.
I don't think it's a passing trend, but I don't know if it will become an essential either. For me it was an experiment from which I expected nothing, and I was lucky to be on the radar of a press who is all about looking for new permutations in horror fiction.
ML: Likewise, how do you believe that your choice to include readers in the actual writing of the book has affected your career?
DD: When I had the Halloween 2006 "Who do you want to die?" poll for EMPIRE, I think readers liked being involved in that way. I don't know if anyone thought it was gimmicky or that I wasn't taking the story seriously. Probably, but I was fully prepared to go along with whatever the results were, and was excited at seeing how it might challenge me. The essential plot wouldn't have really changed, but...well, if they'd killed Voorhees (who came in second place), the sequel would be completely different.
ML: So if you couldn't pick on zombies, what topic, if any, would you find similar fascination in?
DD: I think werewolves, which are tied with zombies for my favorite creature feature. I have some ideas for a werewolf story - nothing's fleshed out yet, but it's another case of trying to think of weird angles that'll intrigue diehards.
ML: Where do you think the zombie genre, and horror in general, is going?
DD: Zombies are never going away. They may peak in the mainstream in a few years, but they're definitely never going away. The Romero-type zombie can be taken in so many different directions, and speak to so many themes. I don't know anything about trends, but I think the horror genre overall is gaining more and more legitimacy, and that’s certainly reflected in how zombie fiction is evolving.
ML: Finally, what do we have to look forward to when it comes to David Dunwoody fiction?
DD: Later this year, EMPIRE'S END, the sequel to EMPIRE. The Reaper discovers where he came from, and where he's meant to go - undead aberrations encroach from both ends of that long road, and this time the great reckoning will take place not in a ghost town, but a snowbound city.
This year Library of Horror Press will release a collection of very weird horror tales called UNBOUND. Permuted Press has picked up my other serial, THE HARVEST CYCLE, which mixes Lovecraftian aliens and genocidal androids in a post-apocalyptic world.
I am currently at work on a volume of all-zombie short stories. I really think it'll be my best stuff yet. I was burned out on the undead after EMPIRE END, but some things just won't stay...well, you know. Thanks Michele!
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