Kim Paffenroth Interview
with Michele Lee
Dr. Kim Paffenroth is the author of the recently released Valley of the Dead. He has also written Dying to Live, Dying to Live: Life Sentence, Orpheus and the Pearl, and Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero's Visions of Hell on Earth which won a Bram Stoker Award in 2006. He has edited the zombie anthologies History is Dead and The World is Dead. He is a professor of religious studies, and the author of several books on the Bible and theology.
ML: All your books have been impressive with their depth, but Valley of the Dead is a really impressive work. It's clear you tried to bring the same feel and poetic style to the book as that in Inferno, how difficult was it?
KP: It wasn’t difficult at all, once I started, but it’s exactly what held me back from starting the book, which I’d been thinking of for a long time. I’ve read Inferno probably ten times since the first time in college, so I knew I had that aspect of the work down – how to depict the sinful and monstrous, the kinds of imagery Dante would use, how he’d think of and analyze evil and grotesque things. But I struggled to get a feel for him as a man, as a character – to round out his reactions and analyses and make him less of an observer and more of an actor in the story. Then it clicked in 2008, when I read this Medieval work called The Romance of the Rose – it spells out the idea of courtly love to which Dante would’ve subscribed. I knew some of the ideas from reading the endnotes in Inferno, but reading the fuller treatment and discussing it with students in class made it clearer and more vivid to me, and I finally thought I could tackle Dante as a character and not just a thinker.
ML: Religious and sociological musings are heavy factors in your books, and yet it never ends up sounding preachy. How do you open the paths to discussion and consideration, without crossing into evangelism?
KP: Great question, and let me be honest: I don’t think anything I’ve ever written is preachy, but my early stuff is definitely heavy-handed. I’ve worked on that, here and in the sequels to Dying to Live, which are just as religious as my first novel, but I worked hard on the language and dialogue to make sure people were talking only obliquely about the subject, and the narrator didn’t step in to “tag” things with their meaning. I learned to trust the reader more, and the stories are stronger. But as for preachy – I’m not, because my usual message is that the world is a wonderful but awful place, and different characters react differently to that reality. How would you preach such a message? It’s not something someone needs to “convert” to, it’s not an overtly or specifically religious (let alone Christian) message. It’s just an observation, so you lay out the images that would lead one to that observation and you let the readers connect the dots.
ML: Despite your skill and critical acclaim, you appear to be devoted to the genre small press. Can you tell us why, and how this has affected your writing career?
KP: No hidden or mysterious or altruistic motive there: Permuted’s been very good to me. We sell a ton of books, and they now have a deal with Simon and Schuster to reprint some of their earlier titles (including Dying to Live). It gets me noticed and gets me other, related work. For example, I’ve gotten several speaking engagements because someone at a college heard about the “zombies and theology” guy and they asked me to come speak at their school. So it’s worked out well for me.
ML: There are a lot of literary plus monster mash ups going on. Care to comment on the trend or recommend any favorites?
KP: Well, it depends on how it’s handled, doesn’t it? If you take the public domain words of a classic and intersperse them with your words – that was funny the first time it was done, but now I don’t think there’s any point or anything to be accomplished by that. If you read classics and let their ideas influence you, sometimes in quite specific ways that readers can pick up on – that’s a good thing. Every book about a journey should be influenced by the Odyssey. In fact, I’d say I’d love to see more zombie stories influenced by someone other than Romero (may his name be praised) – but I don’t want to see more that are just adding words to an already existing text. That shouldn’t even need to be said, but I guess it shouldn’t have to be said that I don’t want another film made from an SNL skit or a 1970s television series, but they keep getting made, don’t they?
ML: Why zombies? Have you ever considered writing with another kind of "monster"?
KP: Zombies are a very handy trope for me, as I want to deal with issues of sin and theodicy, and they fit the bill pretty well. But one thing I’ve tried a couple times is to go to the opposite end of the undead spectrum: if zombies are bodies without minds, then ghosts are minds without bodies, and they’d represent an opposite set of problems and conflicts, so I’d like to work more with ghost stories.
ML: Horror is a difficult, and much maligned genre. Why do you write it?
KP: What compels me about the Christian worldview is how seriously it takes evil in our lives. So ironically, though many Christians eschew horror as inappropriate or even opposed to their lives and faith, I’d see it as the worldview most congenial to horror. And there’s another element that comes from all religious traditions equally, I think – the idea that the universe is – from a human perspective – essentially unfathomable, mysterious, and, most of the time, fairly hostile to our needs. Again, that seems like the worldview espoused by any horror writing.
ML: Why do you think people should read it (and that it's so important to include in public collections)?
KP: I’d say horror is simply a “given” of our existence, and to ignore it would be to ignore an essential part of my life. Zombies aren’t real; serial killers are, but they’re pretty rare. But real evil – either committed against us or by us, in all different levels of severity or frequency – is something most all of us will have to confront. All literature ultimately helps us deal with the real world, and horror has a part to play in that education.
ML: Despite some pretty gory, brutal (and just plain depressing) scenes an element of hope always remains through Valley of the Dead. What do you think keeps people (and characters) going in hopeless situations?
KP: I’ve never been asked that! You took me by surprise. I’d say, in my experience, it’s a devotion to something other than oneself, something one gives a higher value to than one’s own comfort, well-being, or life. And it can be any number of things, either personal, societal, or religious – honor, love, one’s children, the Common Good, or God. It could even be something negative, like revenge or hate. The trick, as a writer, is to make the motive believable, and to get the reader to appreciate the motive, even if s/he doesn’t share it.
ML: Do we, like most of the valley dwellers in Valley of the Dead, just fail to see the depth of either our misery, or our blessings?
KP: Two in a row that I’ve never been asked! I think that’s a very good way to put it, and reminds me of the terrible self-knowledge in the Oedipus cycle: he’s fine, so long as he doesn’t know the truth, but he has to know the truth. Living a lie isn’t really an option, and the truth will be revealed regardless. That’s the real power of Dante’s vision – not all the cool tortures, but how he sees the afterlife as revealing who we really were, all along. It’s not punishment or reward – it’s just living (eternally) with ourselves and our decisions. That’s why I could move the whole story into a secular, earthly realm, and not lose his message, because his observation is simply to extend our present situation out into eternity.
ML: What else can we look forward to reading from you in the future?
KP: A novelette I wrote a couple years ago, Orpheus and the Pearl, is going to be reissued by Belfire Press this fall. A short story I wrote with Julia and RJ Sevin, “Thin Them Out,” will be in John Joseph Adams’s anthology The Living Dead 2, also this fall. The third installment in the Dying to Live saga will be out in spring 2011. I hope you all like what I do with zombies in all of them!
Return to the Main Page