Monday, September 13, 2010

Interview with Joan Frances Turner

"That's Somebody's Mother":
Joan Frances Turner Approaches Zombies
from a Personal Angle

Interview Conducted by Mark McLaughlin

These days, zombies are popping up in books and movies like wild mushrooms in a forest after a thunderstorm.

Authors are even retrofitting zombies into literary classics, the most popular example being the novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Can Gone with the Zombie Wind and Zombie Quixote be far behind?

Authors are also letting us know that zombies have their sensitive side. In 2009, author Michele Lee's short novel Rot, from Skullvines Press, portrayed zombies as dead persons whose loved ones don't want to see them go. And this year, Dust, a new novel by Joan Frances Turner, forthcoming from Penguin Books, will feature another new take on zombies that shows that they are more than just moaning, shambling brain-eaters.

Like Michele, Joan isn't jumping on the zombie bandwagon. She is creating a more personal vehicle for zombies to drive into the blood-red sunset.

Joan took the time to talk with us about her new breed of zombies.

MM: In a pop culture currently inundated with all-things-zombie, your debut novel is being promoted as a new take on the whole zombie concept. What is your new spin on the ambulatory dead?

JFT: Dust approaches the undead using the three magic words: "That's somebody's mother." Zombies are the monstrous reanimated but they're also our friends, our family, our loved ones, our children, they're not just living dead but our once-living dead and in this story, that matters. The undead have minds and memories, they have a "life cycle" of their own (rot to dust), there are emotional ties between humans and the undead though both sides are also consistently murderous toward one another, and zombies aren't a walking contagion. They've always existed, humanity has always existed in an uneasy détente with them, and nobody knows or can predict whether a dead body will reanimate or remain in the ground. Now, however, the numbers of the undead are increasing at a record rate, humans are feeling increasingly hemmed in and pushed out, and there's a race on to reduce their numbers by any means possible, before they reduce humanity to mere meat. (Shooting them won't work, either.) And some humans, knowing that what they're targeting is those they once loved, start getting some subversive ideas of their own.

MM: What was your first exposure to horror media, your earliest memory of a horror movie or TV show?

JFT: This doesn't fit the traditional notion of horror, I know, but when I was young I was allowed to watch pretty much anything broadcast on PBS-- it was "educational" television, after all -- and the uncensored I, Claudius was quite the education for an eight-year-old. John Hurt's Caligula scared the hell out of me right out of the starting gate, clutching his head and screaming about the horses' hooves pounding inside it, and then there was the infamous (and cut from future rebroadcasts) scene where he decides to do to his sister's unborn child what Cronus did to Jupiter, and honestly once you've seen that Bela Lugosi can't really compete. A couple of years later--this was back when VCRs were still novelty items -- a friend rented the original Halloween and I remember her screaming out loud and me hiding my face during most of it, though it was downright decorous compared to the glut of slasher films that followed.

MM: What gave you the idea for DUST?

JFT: As I mentioned at the SDCC zombie fiction panel, it was a combination of a death in the family, subsequent nightmares about what must be becoming of their body underground, a great fondness for Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls (the original versions) and the sudden realization that although there were a few books from the zombie vantage point, nobody (to my knowledge, anyway) had really addressed, without being campy about it, what it means if a monster is merely the corpse of someone's loved one, somewhere. If you're going to speak of zombies in relation to who they once were when alive, they pretty much have to have emotions and memories and lingering ties to life of some sort, despite their essential monstrosity, and that was the genesis of everything that followed.

Also, since zombie fiction tends to go hand in hand with apocalyptic fiction, I wanted to address the idea of "everything" ending in a slightly different way. In the Ray Bradbury story "The Highway" a gas station attendant in a very rural part of Mexico gets a carful of American kids stopping by, and they're in a screaming panic about nuclear war finally coming and they have to flee to parts unknown and oh my God this is it the big one it's the end of the world, and as they drive off the gas station attendant thinks to himself, in very sincere confusion, "What do they mean, 'the world'?" I loved that last line to pieces, when my high school English teacher assigned us The Illustrated Man, and so this is "the big one" as seen by a version of that character, someone who's already very far outside what everyone else thinks of as "everything."

Tune in tomorrow for part two of this interview!

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