Interview with Dr. Kim Paffenroth and a contest!

Posted on: April 9, 2010

Dr. Kim Paffenroth is a professor of religious studies. He has authored many books on theology and The Bible. In addition, he has penned some of the best zombie fiction around. Dr. Paffenroth has been kind enough to sit down with me for a short interview.

You are a college professor of religious studies and have written several books on theology and the Bible. You’re also an author of horror novels. Could you explain a bit how you went from Point A to Point B?

A few years ago, a couple things came together in my professional life. I was having some success publishing my theology books, but I noticed they didn’t really sell many copies – a few copies to libraries, and that was it. You need to publish such books to get tenure and promotions, so you are “paid” indirectly by advancing your career, but it was still very frustrating to spend two years working on a book and see that it only sold a couple hundred copies. At the same time, I noticed there were lots of books out there with the title The Gospel according to _____, books that tried to tease out the relevance or compatibility of some pop culture phenomenon with the Christian message. Some filled in the blank with pretty straightforward examples (e.g. Tolkien or Lewis, both of whom were devout Christians), some filled it in with more of a stretch (e.g. Harry Potter, which is often criticized by some Christians because it contains magic, but on the other hand, is a deeply, conventionally moral tale), and some really stretched and made you wonder how they’d glean even a very broadly Christian message from the work they were examining (e.g. The Simpsons or The Sopranos). Then I went to see the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) and it all clicked – I’d write Gospel of the Living Dead (2006), looking at how Romero uses the undead to offer some social criticism, and examine human nature, in ways that are not foreign to Christianity. While I was working on that, I got it into my head that, as much fun as it was to analyze other people’s zombies, maybe I could write stories about my own, and make them mean and symbolize exactly what I wanted them to. It’s been a fun, unpredictable ride since.

Do you catch much flak from your professor colleagues about your zombie books?

No – people are so funny, to think professors are cheerless scolds all the time. Think more the Robin Williams character in Dead Poets Society! Okay, most of us aren’t that lively, but we’re tolerant of our students’ and colleagues’ idiosyncrasies. And I think we all appreciate most attempts to make our thinking and scholarship accessible and relevant to a wider audience. Now, they haven’t all run out to watch Zombieland at theaters, but I think they mostly get a kick out of what I do. If anything, horror fans are a bit more suspicious of a pointy-headed “intellectual” interloping on their genre and giving all these meanings and interpretations, when some of them think that’ll mess up or diminish their enjoyment of their reading or viewing: more often I have to reassure those people that no, I’m a fan, and I bring my own perspective to it, and we can have an intelligent conversation and increase our enjoyment.

Why zombies? What drew you to that particular sub-genre?

I was hooked with the original Dawn of the Dead (1978): the strategizing about where to hide, the gore, the idea of a new world without rules and limits – that’s a pretty potent mix for a teenage boy. But then I didn’t think of them for years. When I came back to them recently, I’d read and thought enough in the intervening years that I could say something more than “Zombies are cool!” and that’s what’s been fun.

What book or movie served as your introduction to the post-apocalyptic genre? What are some of your favorite post-apocalyptic works (books, movies, whatever)?

The original Dawn, and that remains my favorite. The remake, though, I thought was very good – not as somber and moody, but a good action movie with some good acting and characters that made you feel for them. I enjoyed The Rising by Brian Keene and Monster Island by David Wellington. I haven’t kept up with every issue of The Walking Dead (Image Comics), but I liked what I read. And then I have to say The Road by Cormac McCarthy really gave us some legitimacy – it told a powerful, personal story with nearly-zombified humans (they threaten to kill and eat the protagonists, after all) as the backdrop, but was still an artistic and critical success.

I don’t think one could argue there are some great end of the world books, a few horrendous ones, and a whole lot of mediocre ones. What do you think sets the great ones apart from the rest?

As above on The Road – give me characters I care about, doing something that’s relevant to me, then it doesn’t matter if they’re on a pirate ship or an American suburb or a post-apocalyptic landscape. Give me stereotyped characters doing the usual stuff – maybe if the writing’s engaging enough and the action’s thrilling enough, it’ll hold my interest for a while, but it will be just one among many typical reads, as you say.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your Dying to Live series?

We move through two generations of a post-apocalyptic world. First we’re following one guy a year after the outbreak as he joins up with a community that’s somewhat safe and secured themselves from the zombies; it’s still pretty typical zombie stuff, with lots of fights against the zombie hordes. The second volume follows the community as it grows and gets back to a more “normal” existence, but one that is remarkably different from our world – not just in terms of corpses walking around, but in terms of their values, their rituals, their lifestyles. There’s less zombie fighting, and more fighting between the community and two other groups of survivors they encounter. Then the third volume takes some of the characters from volume two and throws them among another survivor group that more closely resembles contemporary American culture, to see how their values conflict.

One of the things I really liked about DYING TO LIVE, the first in the series, was the focus on building a community from the wreckage of the past. Obviously this is something of a running theme in post-apocalyptic fiction. Was this facet of your story researched and planned out beforehand or was it something that just seemed to come together as you wrote?

I didn’t know every detail of the community, if that’s what you mean, but I had the general outlines of it in mind when I started. I wanted them to be much more communitarian and humane than our current society. It got more fun in volume two when I could work in some of the growing pains of the community, and also some of their regrets and fondness for the past – the things they miss about our current world. It gave the story more depth and poignancy.

In addition to writing zombie books, you have also edited zombie anthologies – HISTORY IS DEAD and THE WORLD IS DEAD. As an editor, what do you look for in a good zombie story?

Well, good writing is the baseline: some people ask “What if the story’s really good, but the writing’s kind of rough – will you work with it?” The short answer is “No.” It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare, but there has to be clarity and even elegance for me to proceed. Then for the story to stand out above all the others that are technically well-written, I have to see that the author’s used the trope appropriately, but added something unexpected and interesting – in other words, not just something new for the sake of novelty, but something new that holds me and takes me somewhere I’d like to explore.

Your latest work, VALLEY OF THE DEAD, is a bit different from your other zombie books. Could you give us some background on how the story came about?

When I was working on Gospel of the Living Dead, one of my main insights was how close Romero was to Dante’s ideas of sin and damnation – that most sins are appetite gone berserk, and without reason to hold it back and restrain it. Well, that’s a zombie, right there – mindless hunger. And the sins that are worse than that, in Dante’s estimation, are those that are based on perverted reason – cruelty, sadism, deception, betrayal. And looking closer at Romero, it seemed to me he had some of these built into his stories, too, with characters like Rhodes and Kaufman. So, I mulled it over for a while, and thought, “If I can analyze Romero in terms of Dante, maybe I could take Dante and put him through a Romero-esque zombie infestation.” I went over Inferno closely and tried my best to weave together a zombified journey that could plausibly be behind Dante’s more overtly religious symbols – a secularized, de-mythologized version of Inferno, if you will, but still very much recognizable if you know the original.

Do you recommend readers be familiar with Dante’s Inferno before diving in on VALLEY OF THE DEAD?

I recommend everyone be familiar with Dante’s Inferno – it’s just an awesome, hilarious, grotesque, beautiful book! But, if you mean, will they enjoy my version less if they don’t know the original – no, it’s not written that way. It’s like The Lion King and Hamlet: once you see the parallels, it makes more sense, but most people love The Lion King without connecting it to the Shakespeare. If anything (and this is where my scholarship and teaching hopefully overlap with my zombie fiction), several readers have already said they wanted to go find the original, after reading my version, and see how the two compare. That’d be cool, if people read mine, liked it, and then went back to Dante’s original.

What’s up next in the Dr. Kim Paffenroth plan for world domination?

The German edition of Dying to Live was just published by Festa Verlag: I’m waiting for my copies now and it’s exciting – I’ve never been translated before! The third installment of Dying to Live will be out early next year (2011). The Simon and Schuster / Permuted edition of the original Dying to Live will be out October 2010. (I’m sure you know – Simon and Schuster is in a cooperative publishing deal with Permuted to reissue some Permuted titles; these will now be more widely available at all your large book retailers.) In September 2010, my novelette Orpheus and the Pearl will be reprinted by Belfire Press, bound together with a brand new story by the awesome Dave Dunwoody. I have a story, co-authored with the great team of Julia and R.J. Sevin, that’ll be reprinted in the new The Living Dead II anthology. I guess the biggest thing I’d hope for this year would be finally to publish a non-zombie novel: I think all of us who are known for our zombies really want that validation and breadth to our work, even if we go back to our favorite monster over and over.

Thank you for taking the time for the interview. I and our readers really appreciate your comments and insight. Readers can keep up with Dr. Paffenroth on his blog.

Contest details:

How would you like to win a signed Advance Readers Copy (ARC) of VALLEY OF THE DEAD? Or a copy of THE WORLD IS DEAD signed by the editor Dr. Kim Paffenroth? We also have a very rare chapbook co-written by Dr. Paffenroth and Julia and R.J. Sevin, also signed.

There are three ways to enter the contest.

1) Post a comment below.


2) Post a link to this interview on a message board, your Facebook page, or on Twitter. Once you’ve done so, you need to email me a link to the post. Send the email to Jim (at) SurvivalWeekly (dot) com.


3) Send out an email to your friends who might be interested in the interview or our site. BCC me on the email so I know you’ve done so. Again, use Jim (at) SurvivalWeekly (dot) com.

If you do all three of the above, you’re entered three times. You have until 5:00PM CST, Friday, April 16, to enter the contest. We’ll choose three winners at random from all entries received. There will be one winner each for the prizes listed above. I will email each winner no later than Monday, April 19. Good luck!

12 thoughts on “Interview with Dr. Kim Paffenroth and a contest!

  1. Thanks all! Steve – it’s hard to be oneself in front of a crowd. I’m not as open and comfortable around my students as I am around my fans. I’m sure some of your teachers were way cooler than I – they just didn’t show it!

  2. hey – I hope you like VALLEY. I think, at least, you’ll see some crazy stuff you haven’t seen before! That’s always fun!

  3. Nice interview.

    I can’t wait to read Valley of the Dead.

    It sounds like my kind of story.

    Keep up the good work gents!

  4. I’m looking forward to reading Valley of the Dead. It’s great that some depth has been added to the story of “mindless” zombies. I haven’t read The Inferno yet, but this may be the impetus to get me to finally read it.

  5. Did I donate all that swag? Man, you talk me into all kinds of stuff!

    And I’ll surely post a link on my blog! Thanks!

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