When Kim Paffenroth released his first undead novel, Dying to Live, no one really knew anything about him, and some even assumed he was a female author because of his name. Several novels and anthologies later, Paffenroth is easily one of the most recognizable faces at the horror cons, and has become the Stephen King of zombies (back when King wrote classics like The Stand and Night Shift), thus becoming a familiar household name among zombiephiles.
The Dying to Live series begins with the story of a man who finds a survival group at a museum, dealing with the typical obstacles survivors have to overcome in order to hold on to their museum-turned- fortress. One of the main characters was a boy named Popcorn, who becomes Will years later in the sequel, Dying to Live: Life Sentence. Will discovers a thinking zombie that he names Truman. With this new twist introduced by Paffenroth, the story was eventually continued in Dying to Live: Last Rites, where getting infected no longer meant the end of life. Truman is joined by Lucy, another thinking zombie, with more depth and emotion than most survivors. If you haven’t read this series, you are missing out on a big chunk of the literary evolution of the undead.
In addition to his popular series, Paffenroth has worked on other projects such as Gospel of the Living Dead: George Romero’s Visions of Hell on Earth, History is Dead: A Zombie Anthology and The World is Dead. He wrote the chilling novella, Orpheus and the Pearl, originally illustrated by Bob Freeman, and later re-released in a “Duel” Novella Series, with a brand new story by David Dunwoody. Paffenroth also co-authored the unique non-fiction book, The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction.
Last but certainly not least, Paffenroth again expanded the boundaries of zombie fiction with his novel, Valley of the Dead (The Truth Behind Dante’s Inferno). Valley of the Dead is an original story inspired by Dante’s Inferno (the first volume of The Divine Comedy) of how Dante survived a zombie plague, revealing the lessons that Dante learned while he was in exile. The zombies in this book are nothing like the ones from the Dying to Live series, but you can still expect the same level of thought-provoking writing from Paffenroth.
After having reviewed Paffenroth’s books several times at various sites, I thought it was time to ask him a few questions about the past few years of his foray into the zombie community.
When you wrote the first Dying to Live novel, did you plan to pursue a serious writing career, or were you just testing the waters?
Totally just seeing what would happen. I assumed it would amount to nothing. I mean, I assumed I’d finish the book, maybe I even assumed it’d be published, but I never thought it’d be popular enough for me to keep writing.
How did you get involved with Permuted Press in the first place?
Another happenstance – when I was looking for a publisher, their name kept coming up, associated with a handful of successful zombie novels they’d published by that point. (I think there was just Day by Day Armageddon and Plague of the Dead, and maybe an anthology or two on their website.)
Did you make a conscious decision to move away from the traditional Romero zombies, or did they just evolve as you continued the Dying to Live series?
Smart(er) zombies just happened in the second volume, I had no initial intention of going in that direction – though maybe I should’ve guessed that’s how it would go, since Bub and Big Daddy fascinated me in their Romero stories.
You went in a different direction with Valley of the Dead, blending zombie horror with historical fiction and classical literature. Was it easier or more difficult to write than your other works?
Harder to start, much easier once I got going. I had to really get into character, as it were. I knew Dante’s Divine Comedy pretty well, but it was only when I took a long time thinking about him as a person (and in particular, studying the concept of courtly or troubadour love from outside sources) that I could make him a character in a story. So there was much more lead-up to the actual writing, than if I’d started with a character that I just constructed on my own for that story.
You’ve also edited a number of anthologies. Do you prefer the role of editor to author, author to editor? Do you consider yourself a writer who happens to be a professor, or a professor who writes on the side?
Editor is like being coach – you bring out other people’s talents and assemble a team that’s right for the task at hand. So the finished product is very nice, and is something you couldn’t have done on your own. But the actual process isn’t nearly as much fun as writing one’s own stuff, I don’t think. And as much as I’d like to sleep in and not go teach early morning classes, I really do enjoy them and I still think of myself mostly as a teacher.
Do you think you might write another Dying to Live novel? Would you ever consider going back in the timeline and writing about the River Nation?
If the editor at Permuted asks me, I certainly will. And I do think it’ll be something back in the timeline and not a continuation, as we’ve met a couple characters that people ask about all the time.
Are you working on anything right now, zombies or otherwise?
I’m halfway through a zombie novel, tentatively entitled Pale Gods. Not so much about community as the D2L series – more of individuals and how they cope. And more a tale of madness and obsession than one about zombies.
Bonus question: when are you going to do a signing at the D2L fortress, otherwise known as the Grand Rapids Public Museum?
I’d love to do that. I’ve never approached them, and I did sign all copies when I was at Schuler Books last summer. So the next time I’m in town we’ll set it up!