Zombies and villains and ghouls – oh my! It’s one thing for life as we know it to all come undone. It’s quite another when whoever – or whatever – is left starts calling the shots in a most unpleasant way. After the undead apocalypse, a warlord, a robber baron and a cult leader struggle against each other for control of the remnants of civilization in Stephen Kozeniewski’s taut horror novel, “The Ghoul Archipelago.”
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: The title alone is a grabber! How did you come up with it?
A: Why, thank you! You’re going to laugh but I have had people (educated people, lawyers, for instance) come up to me and say, “Hey, did you ever hear of this guy Solzhenitsyn? He wrote a book with a name just like yours!” But, yes, basically the pun seemed like a slam dunk when I came up with the idea of having a nautical zombie adventure. I hope this does turn into a popular series because I’ve come up with a bunch more Russian lit pun titles: GORE AND PEACE, NOTES FROM THE UNDEAD, THE WIGHT GUARD…
Q: In your opinion, what do you suppose accounts for the longstanding fascination that book lovers and movie goers have with end-of-the-world themes, dystopian societies, and scary undead folks?
A: That’s a whole bunch of things to address. The scary undead folks thing I think is a pretty primal fascination. We’ve always wondered what happens after we die, and the flip side of playing a harp amongst the pink fluffy clouds with Katy Perry is the secret fear that we’re really just rotting bags of bones and nothing more. I think the obsession with the end of the world and the dystopian future, though, is a function of the fact that every generation thinks that it was the pinnacle of achievement and when they hand it over to those rotten kids everything’s going straight to the sewer. Actually, I guess I handled both of those complicated sociological issues pretty succinctly. Go Team Me!
Q: Is the zombie genre playing itself out or do you think it’s going to linger for the foreseeable future?
A: I think the zombie genre won’t ever be played out for the same reason mob movies won’t ever be played out. As long as you have a good story to tell, there’s no reason why it will suddenly become bad just because it contains braineating corpses (or mafia thugs.) Now, that being said, there is an issue with far too many zombie novels being dimestore ripoffs of The Walking Dead, which was itself a dimestore ripoff of Romero’s Holy Trilogy. People are bored with having the same old “survivors refuse to believe at first then slowly enter the grim world of the apocalypse” story rehashed over and over again with only superficial changes. The good news is a whole new generation of authors are starting to break the old mold. Check out almost anything Severed Press has released if you don’t believe me. (Shameless plug!)
Q: What attracted you as a writer to delve into the world of modern horror?
A: In two words: Brian Keene. The dude made me believe that “zombie novelist” was a viable career choice.
Q: Is this your first foray into publishing?
A: THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO is actually my sophomore novel, and it is very different from my debut, BRAINEATER JONES. I like to describe it this way: GHOUL is 90% horror, 10% humor and BRAINEATER is 90% humor, 10% horror.
Q: Are there limits or taboos in crafting this type of story?
A: The short answer is no, and that’s part of the joy of writing horror. I truly, truly, truly appreciate when people tell me things like, “Your novel made me want to vomit.” I think every horror novelist (of a certain stripe) desires to push the boundaries of what went before. And horror fans are a jaded type; they demand the ultimate in cutting edge gore. I did ask my publisher what it meant in my contract that the work was not “defamatory or obscene” considering that this was a hardcore horror novel and he responded “that just means things like scat or child abuse.” So, I guess there are some limits, legally speaking, but the urge to transgress further and further is integral to writing horror.
Q: What was your favorite scene to write?
A: Oh, the puppet scene. Hands down. I have a morbid and possibly unwholesome fascination with puppets. I almost never find my own work funny, but writing that scene I was laughing so hard it made me cry.
Q: Editors and publishers typically advise against “head-hopping” – the practice of writing from multiple points of view. What are your thoughts about that?
A: I think it’s extremely important not to change POV mid-scene or mid-chapter. That’s just going to give your reader vertigo at best or nausea at worst. That being said, I think that once you see those three magical asterisks or a page break, then all bets are off. Head-hopping over the course of a narrative allows you to put together a much more complete story, like providing the reader with overlapping Venn diagrams until they finally see the “truth” in the center. This is the approach I used in THE GHOUL ARCHIPELAGO, and I even made sure to identify each POV character in the chapter title, a method I shamelessly stole from George R.R. Martin.
Q: How does this interface with the pros and cons of using first and third person narrative to move a story forward?
A: I’ve now published two novels, one in first person and one in third. First is very limiting because you almost have to be constantly using deus ex machinas to ensure that the viewpoint character, and consequently the reader, receives all the information necessary to the plot. It’s a whole lot of “Ooh, look, I found a letter” and “Ah, here’s a character who will tell me what I didn’t know!” Third person allows for a different level of dramatic tension – say, the reader can know what the villain is doing but the hero doesn’t. Still, the limitations of first person are offset by the lived-in feeling of actually occupying someone’s headspace. There’s an intimacy to first person that can’t be achieved with any other form of writing.
Q: Which do you suppose is a greater challenge – for a male to write strong female characters or a female writer to capture the mindset and motivations of a strong man?
A: Three of the viewpoint characters in GHOUL are strong females. I think I found it easiest to write for LtCol West, because I know what it’s like to be a genuinely competent officer but maybe a little too sensitive for the military. Writing for Eve I also drew on my own experience, because I’ve more than once felt the frustration of being the only intelligent person propping up a foolhardy boss. Butch was the biggest stretch for me, because I’ve never really had to fight to survive relying only on my charisma. I think the key to writing any character well is getting to the emotional core of that person, and since we’re all people, we’re all capable of it, regardless of gender. But I won’t deny it’s harder for me to write females than males. Did I just dodge the actual question like a crooked Southern politician? No comment.
Q: Writing has been described as a solitary craft where you spend a lot of time inside your own head. How, then, does one become part of the author community and interact with kindred spirits?
A: Based on the voluminous correspondence of Lovecraft, for instance, I think the practice of authors reaching out to one another from behind their desk is nothing new, although the internet is making it far easier. I talk to other authors literally daily on Facebook. Less so on Twitter, though there are some semi-famous authors who I’m pleased to have a “sometimes he tweets me back” relationship with. The community has been incredibly welcoming and I think there’s a certain expectation that peers have to take care of one another and the old guard always has to “pay it forward” to the next generation. That’s definitely been my experience so far.
Q: Share with us your experience publishing through an independent press, as well as what governed that decision for you.
A: Oh, Severed is one of, if not the world’s premiere zombie horror press. I jumped at the opportunity to sign with them. Gary Lucas and his crew have been quick, responsive, and extremely professional. I got to work closely with them on my editing and cover design. And they were lightning fast in turnaround on everything. Plus: how many people can say their publisher is in Tasmania?
Q: In today’s Internet age, authors are required to do more and more self-promotion to get the word out. What resources and venues have you found to be the most helpful in terms of generating a buzz for your work?
A: Well, buzz and sales are different, so right off the bat I’ll say for sales, BookBub. But for buzz it’s been blogs like this one. Most of my reviews at this point are from bloggers, and a number of readers have told me that they only picked up my book to review because they saw it on a blog they liked.
Q: Does every author who’s not JK Rowling suffer from impostor syndrome?
A: I certainly do. I’m in constant fear that some bouncer is going to eye me suspiciously one day and shout, “You’re not a real author!” and toss me out of the velvet rope. Every author I know has confided the same concern to me. Of course, it’s not like I know authors on every step of the professional ladder. It’s mostly just beginners. Overall I get the impression that everyone’s afraid if they don’t have the sales of E.L. James and the critical acclaim of Jonathan Franzen then they’re not a real author. It’s probably partly the media’s fault, but it could also be something inherent in the psyche of a writer.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: I have nine tattoos but I’ve been under the needle thirteen times. (Tantalizing, right?)
Q: So what’s next on your plate?
A: You know what? Since you asked me, I’m going to make the big public announcement right here on From the Authors. I just signed a contract with Permuted Press for my third novel, tentatively titled EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED. As a post-apocalyptic sci-fi political satire, it’s a bit of a departure for me, but I’m very excited about breaking some new ground and hopefully finding some new fans.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: Thanks so much for having me!