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Michael McFarland Kicks Zombie Ass [Interview]

Okay,zombiephiles…remember when I said that D’Orazio and DiLouie set the bar for 2011? Well, Michael McFarland met that challenge with his novel, Wormwood. It reminded me of The Jakarta Pandemic, but with the most wicked reanimating virus I have ever come across in any plot. Wormwood was as emotionally devastating as the ending of Dead Sea by Brian Keene. Divided into eight parts, the POV switches between characters, depending on who is the focus of each section, and has a great mix of action, gore, drama – everything you could want in an apocalypse story.

The cast of characters had a terrific range; McFarland didn’t rely on typical stereotypes, and the imperfections of the group of neighbors living on Quail Street added to the realism of the story. Wormwood hooks the readers with a description of graphic video footage in the beginning, and then the survivors keep the story going with striking dialogue and thoughts of inner turmoil, emphasizing how quickly some people can change when others exploit a bad situation.

In the part titled, The Navaros, McFarland zeros in on one family’s personal reaction to the approaching outbreak ( a few days back in the timeline), which was heart-wrenching. In another part, when a search party is sent out for more medical supplies, readers catch a glimpse of the devastation beyond the cul-de-sac, and new survivors enter the story. Those characters carry the theme of losing one’s faith. Only one character, Shane, shows us a glimmer of hope, suggesting that even an underdog can rise to the occasion.

After finishing Wormwood, I couldn’t wait to chat with McFarland…

Okay, Michael, could you please tell us a little about your background, and when did you start writing?

I was born in Colfax, Washington in 1963, got my degree in Psychology 15 miles away at Washington State University, and have lived the rest of my life in small cities and towns around central Washington.

Holy crap, are you serious?!

I’ve been east only as far as Wallace, Idaho — a fact that amazes and embarrasses me — and I’ve tried to make up for that by lots of reading.

And the writing…?

I took a firm interest in writing during my final year at WSU, when it became clear that Psychology — though an interesting field to study — wasn’t exactly calling to me as a career. The creative writing class I attended my senior year wasn’t inspiring (the instructor played one or two favorites and told the rest of us we needed to be more like them) but it did get me in the habit of writing. It’s been a part of my routine for over twenty years now, as inevitable as reading or walking my dog.

Have any specific apocalypse movies and/or undead books inspired or influenced your writing in anyway?

Absolutely. I read Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ when I was 15. It packed a wallop that still lingers with me today.

Even The Stand had a virus…

My fears of epidemic, of social breakdown, come out of its pages, and that’s what my novel ‘Wormwood’ is chiefly about. Zombies linger about the edges and then jump in with both feet around the halfway mark, but for me, the most frightening aspect is the panic generated in anticipation of the plague. People are capable of doing the most terrible things to one another, especially when they don’t think there’s any future.

That’s a nice way of saying, “people are assholes.” Were there other books besides The Stand?

Another heavy influence was John Skipp & Craig Spector’s ‘Book of the Dead’ (1989), which handles the premise of a zombie apocalypse through a collection of short stories by different authors, giving it a feeling of embedded field reports from a war zone; disturbingly effective when taken as a whole.

I wonder how many zombiephiles have read that book. What affect did it have on you?

It influenced me to try my hand at a similar premise and structure: a series of short stories as snapshots of a zombie epidemic which, taken together, would create a greater whole. The first story was called ‘The Yellow Wind’, and it appeared last year in Anthony Giangregorio’s ‘Book of the Dead 3: Dead and Rotting’. So far I’ve written 5 of these ‘Yellow Wind’ tales and have a good premise for a 6th. ‘Wormwood’ was supposed to be one of them — sitting at the point where the plague collides with suburban, middle-class America — but it quickly outgrew short story length and took on a life its own.

I’m glad you didn’t try to limit the storyline of Wormwood.

I’d also be remiss not mentioning George Romero’s ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

I’m starting to think it’s an unspoken rule among the zombie community…Romero could start his own religion like L. Ron Hubbard.

I can remember paging through monster movie books and magazines as a kid and seeing stills from them, thinking this was a stark and unglamorous horror, like turning over a rotten log. Seeing the films later, when I was 19 or 20, was an epiphany. The rules were so simple, but the individual circumstances you could apply were endless: life or death hanging on something as simple as a key or a nail or where you last parked the car. I loved it!

What is it about zombies that lured you into this particular genre?

A couple of things. In ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, the premise was that you changed into the enemy in your sleep. I still get chills when, in the final reel of Don Siegel’s classic, an exhausted Dana Wynter changes on Kevin McCarthy in the middle of a kiss. That sort of instantaneous transformation has always fascinated me. Since ‘Night of the Living Dead’, zombies have also been imbued with that power; you don’t have to wait until sundown or the next full moon for the change to happen, and sometimes you don’t even have enough time to get them out of the house.

The other aspect I love about zombies is their sheer relentlessness. They’re like ants; one isn’t necessarily a problem, but there’s always more than one. They don’t sleep, take bathroom breaks, worry about supplies or ammunition, and you’re all they care about as far as food is concerned. They are completely and single-mindedly devoted to you. Simple and poetic.

Zombies have caught on in such a big way that even commercials are featuring the undead now. Do you think the zombie genre is in danger of being overdone? Or do you think that authors will be able to expand the social commentary on the infected even further?

Any subject can reach a saturation point and zombies are no exception. In some ways that point has already come. Films like ‘Shawn of the Dead’ and ‘Zombieland’ parody the genre, and it’s hard to make a successful parody if the general public doesn’t come to the theater with an understanding of the finer points and conventions of the genre. As a writer trying to peddle a short story in the pro or semi-pro market, I don’t like to even mention the ‘Z’-word in my pitch, because most editors will reject it out of hand, without reading a word of it. That’s not a criticism (or if it is, it’s a sympathetic one) because these days they’re literally flooded with zombie stories. People think that zombie stories are easy to write, and the bad ones are. ‘Ex-marine or Navy SEAL must fight his way through a city of the living dead to reach a loved one on the other side, or reach a place of safety while protecting a woman he’s met along the way.’ They’re getting to be legion out there and while I might enjoy playing that scenario as a video game, you’d better have some pretty good writing chops to sell it to me as literature. That said, there will always be unique voices that deserve to be heard, the problem comes in separating them from the growing background of mediocrity. Hopefully, websites like Zombiephiles will act as a filter in that respect.

No pressure, Michael…heh heh

There’s such a variety of zombie stories out there, and everyone has a different opinion on the undead, living infected, etc. How do you think the ongoing debates are affecting the development of zombie literature?

I believe that the tale should set its own rules rather than be narrowed or dictated by the conventions of any particular genre. Variety prevents stagnation and keeps the literature vibrant and exciting for new generations as upcoming authors and filmmakers put their own spin on traditions or throw them away entirely. ‘Re-animator’ is a new take on Frankenstein, ‘Twilight’ on the vampire legends, and ‘Paranormal Activity’ on the haunted house. You may not like the way your favorite genre is tending toward these days, but historically, it keeps the genre alive and, oftentimes, the backlash will send it rebounding in other directions.

Was there anything in your head that you wanted to put onto paper that you held back because of a fear of backlash from the zombie community?

Truthfully, I wasn’t even aware that there was such a strong zombie community until a few weeks ago, at least not one capable of being offended enough to create a backlash… so I guess the answer would be ‘no’.

You’re one of the lucky ones then…

I’ve had second thoughts about putting certain things down on paper because I thought it might offend my wife, my family, or my friends, but in the end, I’ve always let it stay in place for the integrity of the story, hoping the people in my life will understand. As a writer of horror fiction, it’s not my job to make anyone feel safe or comfortable, nor cater to anyone’s expectations. My first published novel just so happens to feature zombies; I’ve written four other novels and dozens of short stories that have nothing to do with zombies, so I’m not trying to court any specific community. I write, first and foremost, to please myself.

So, what do you have planned in the future? Where can readers find out more about you?

Well, let’s see… I plan on self-publishing a novella called ‘Duplex’ sometime this fall, via Kindle’s Direct Publishing service. If ‘Wormwood’ does well there, I’ll likely put out another full length novel in 2012. I’ve got two completed that could go up anytime, though (sadly for you Zombiephiles) neither of them features zombies.

*laughs*

One of them — ‘Blood on the Tracks’ — is a fractured story of a police detective investigating the suicide of a rock star in the basement studio of a legendary haunted house. The other — ‘The Fold’ — is a 700 page epic about pregnancy, kidnappings, and a very creepy little town hidden away in the Palouse country of eastern Washington. I’ll also continue to try my hand at the short story market, which may well see a zombie tale or two from me in the near future. So, there you go.

Zombies are addictive. Anything else?

As far as finding out more about me and upcoming works, I’ve tried to make that as difficult as possible.

Afraid of stalkers or what?

I don’t currently have a website devoted to such things — which is really inexcusable, in this day and age — but will probably become inevitable in the near future; or at least a Facebook profile that’s geared toward writing rather than friends and family.

None of it will matter after the apocalypse anyway…

For now, I’ve made rudimentary progress at creating an Author’s Page at Amazon (if you call uploading a photo of me having a drink in a local tavern ‘progress’), and that’s likely where info will be posted in the interim. I’ve always been wary of publishing personal stuff on the internet and don’t like to use it as a soapbox to spout raw opinion either. When it comes to writing, I guess I’d rather have you looking at my story and not at me… because it makes me a little nervous.

Zombies moan. Zombiephiles moan back.

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