Yesterday I reviewed Dana Fredsti’s Plague Town—out today from Titan Books. I was offered a chance to speak with the author about her new zombie book and how her exclusive background in horror influenced its writing.
Dana Fredsti: Hi there, and thank you for having me here! Plague Town is my take on the start of the Zombocalypse experienced from the point-of-view of a twenty-something, divorced liberal arts major who has no idea what to do with her life until she’s attacked and bitten by zombies and discovers she’s one of a very small percentage of the population who is immune to the virus. This puts her and her fellow “wild cards” in the unique position of being able to fight the undead hordes without fear of infection. Wacky—and gory—hijinks ensue.
There’s a lot of zombie stuff out there—from movies to video games to television shows. What made you want to write a series of zombie novels, and how is Plague Town different from its peers?
Oh, I could go on at length here … First of all, I am not one of those people who think that zombies have “jumped the shark.” Folks like me (people who have been total zombieholics since the early ’80s) have been waiting a long time for zombies to get even a little of media exposure of their hairier and fangier cousins. And I don’t see any end to werewolf and vampire novels any time soon. Not even taking into consideration the variations writers and filmmakers have been coming up with on the original flesh-eating ghoul “theme” started by the Father of All Zombies, George Romero. The best of the books and movies are as much (if not more) about the characters and human relationships as they are about people getting their intestines pulled out. So … maybe I should answer your question now.
I was approached by Lori Perkins with Ravenous Romance to develop a series of books that were “Buffy … except with zombies. And different.” I said yes ’cause … well, zombies! The series was then sold to Titan Books, and I worked very closely with my Dark Editorial Overlord, Steve Saffel, to tone down the romance, tighten up the pacing, and bridge the gap between readers of paranormal romance and the zombie genre. Plague Town is unique in that it probably has more humor than your average zombie novel, and has one of the few female protagonists in the genre to this point. I think my narrative voice (okay, Ashley’s narrative voice) makes it stand out as well. There are some other elements I think are unique, but talking about them would be major spoilers at this point.
Did you have any influences when writing Plague Town? How much of the rabid zombie craze did you absorb, and how much did you block out for the sake of originality?
In answer to your first question, there’s definitely an element of Buffy in Plague Town given that my first directive was to write “Buffy … except with zombies. And different.” I love Buffy and the referential pop culture Joss Whedon brings into her world. It’s the kind of humor and sensibility that resonates with me, and that influence definitely shines through in Plague Town. And the original Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead left their scars … er … marks on my psyche many years ago.
I have been watching zombie movies and reading any story or book that’s in that genre since people have been filming/writing them. Zombies have been my favorite monster since I first saw the original Night of the Living Dead when I was thirteen (and no, I’m not gonna tell you how long ago that was!), and there were many years where you could count the number of movies and books on one or two pairs of hands and feet. So when zombie movies, novels, and anthologies suddenly began popping out of the woodwork, I read and watched every book and movie I could get my hands on. But I’ve been writing long enough that I’ve developed my own style and sense of story and don’t feel in any danger of being unoriginal. A lot of zombie books have come out in the last year, which means the authors were writing their books at the same time I was working on Plague Town. If some of us come up with similar plot elements, it just goes to show we’re all incredibly creative. Sure, there are certain elements that show up in most zombie fiction, but that’s okay. Fans expect certain tropes (shoot ’em in the head!), so there will be similarities in a lot of zombie fiction, but as long as authors deliver unique characters and compelling stories, that’s okay. Which is a really long-winded way of saying I absorbed everything, but still feel Plague Town is original.
You’ve worked on Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness and other films, so you have some first-hand experience in the zombie genre. In what ways were you involved?
I started working on Army of Darkness as the onset armourer’s assistant. My then fiancé was the onset armourer and yes, I was qualified for the job. It was a lot of fun, doing things like distressing (as in making look used/old/rotted, not as in upsetting it) the plastic armour for the soldiers and the Deadites; repairing broken straps and various bits and bobs; and suiting up the extras. When it came time to film the Deadite scenes, I switched over to one of the sword captains for Dan Speaker and Jan Bryant, the fight choreographers (and my theatrical combat instructors at the Academy of Theatrical Combat), got myself fitted up with a cool latex Deadite “onesie,” and spent the rest of the time I worked on the film doing choreography, fighting, and trying to figure out how the hell to unzip my Deadite costume quickly when I had to pee.
I’ve also been lucky enough to act along side Ken Foree and Josef Pilato (if you’re a zombie geek, you’ll recognize the names) in the pilot for Pale Dreamer. The movie didn’t get made, but working on the trailer was an amazing experience ’cause I would so rather work with those two than any A-list Hollywood actor. Brinke Stevens was also in the cast and a sweeter, sexier scream queen you could not ask for.
Being so close to these films and the people who made them, you must have picked up a few secrets and fun stories. Care to share any?
It’s funny, after I read this question I spent quite a bit of time trying to pull up specific memories during Army of Darkness. It’s been [drops voice] over twenty years since it was made and some things tend to vanish into the mists of time. The thing I remember the most about Sam Raimi is how unfailingly polite and gracious he was to everyone on the set of Army of Darkness. At the end of filming each day (or night) he would go around set and thank everyone for the job they did, from the stars to the extras and film crew. That made a huge impression. Bruce Campbell was very much like Ash. What you see is what you get. It was great fun to watch the interaction between him and Sam (and yeah, it really did seem like Raimi truly enjoyed putting Bruce via Ash through the ringer). I also remember having to hear “This is my BOOMstick!” ad nauseum as they did take after take of the scene when Ash escapes from the demon pit. Yes, it’s a funny line if you watch it on screen. But at the end of the day, I had fantasies of taking that boomstick and … well … moving on.
Favorite memory of working with Ken Foree: being dragged to the Hollywood YMCA to work out with him as he tried to bulk me up for the role. His nickname for me was Spaghetti Arms. We got along really well, albeit with the same sort of snarky back-and-forth baiting one another that the characters we played were supposed to have. It came very naturally. I’ve worked with Josef several times and I love his ability to take the worst script and tweak it until at least his dialogue sounds believable. His ability to improvise is amazing. And the biggest compliment he ever paid me and one of my writing partners, Brian Thomas, is that our dialogue was so good he didn’t feel the need to improvise. Much. We filmed the trailer for Pale Dreamer, btw, in two days of shooting on sets built in the producer’s living room. He did amazing stuff with paint, foam rubber, pieces parts of computers, and Styrofoam. Late nights, lots of fun.
Anything you’ve learned from Sam Raimi himself or other experts that have proven invaluable when writing Plague Town?
The Evil Dead movies definitely show that humor and horror go hand-in-hand. And since humor is a part of Plague Town, along with the gore and what I hope are pretty horrific scenes, I’m gonna give some credit to Mr. Raimi for that.
How many books are you planning for the series?
So far there are three in-the-works. If more are asked for, however, I’m sure I will not say no.
Did you encounter any new challenges when writing this book? What’s the hardest and easiest part of the writing process for you, in general?
I have never worked as hard on any writing project as I did on the revisions for Plague Town. Steve Saffel is a hard taskmaster and an amazing editor (hence my nicknaming him Dark Editorial Overlord), and even though there was some kicking and screaming (I won’t say on whose part) during some of the revision discussions, I love the finished product and feel it’s infinitely better than it would have been without this intense editing process. It was definitely challenging, though, because while I’ve worked collaboratively before (especially on screenplays, which included getting some truly interesting requests from executive producers, such as arbitrarily making a character a werewolf who uses a magic sword to kill vampires, and yes, this movie got produced), I’ve never worked this closely with an editor on any of my stories or novels.
As far as the hardest part? Outlining. I hate it with hatred as deep as the ocean, with a fire as hot as the heart of a volcano. DEO, however, would have his outline for Plague Nation (the next book), so after much kicking and screaming (you guess on whose part), he got one. It was revised two or three times before I started work on the actual book. The easiest part? There isn’t one. There are the times when the writing just flows and I feel invigorated instead of exhausted when I’m done for the evening. I love it when that happens. And I don’t have to think about inserting humor into my work. It shows up on its own.
You’ve written a few sex and romance books, like Secret Seductions and What Women Really Want in Bed, along with a few other steamy bodice-rippers. Does any hint of romance make its way into Plague Town?
Perhaps just a wee hint of romance. But it’s NOT a kissing book. In other words, there aren’t any sizzling moments of passion when the characters should be battling zombies instead. I firmly believe that no matter what the circumstances of the world that people will continue to have sex and develop relationships because it’s what we’re hard-wired to do. And for those people who think sex and/or love have no place in zombie books, I’m gonna point out that there are lots of rape scenes or threats of rape in post-apocalyptic books, including zombie ones. So … it’s okay to have rape, but not consensual sex and love? Feh to that, says I! Sure, there probably won’t be a lot of time for a candlelight dinners … er… unless you’re Fran and Steven in the original Dawn of the Dead. And if it’s good enough for George Romero …
You’re also a cat lover. (Me, too!) Any zombie cats in your book? Perhaps a wild zoo scene?
Heh. No zombie cats. And I definitely have thoughts on what I’d do if I knew there were animals in a zoo in danger of starving and I had the opportunity to let them out. This will not, however, be addressed in Plague Town. As to the presence of cats? Let’s just say I heartily endorse Ripley going back for Jones in Alien.
You’ve written and published two zombie short stories, and you’re a confessed big reader of zombie fiction, like Max Brooks’ World War Z. Obviously reading gave you a deeper exposure than only watching movies would, but how has your experience in writing about zombies on a minor level culminated into Plague Town and the forthcoming novels? In other words, how have you learned from writing those short pieces and used that knowledge to make Plague Town better?
The two stories, “You’ll Never Be Lunch in this Town Again,” and “A Man’s Gotta Eat What a Man’s Gotta Eat,” are so radically different, both from each other and also from Plague Town. “Lunch” is Hollywood satire all the way, about a first-time director trying to finish his debut film when the zombie apocalypse starts, while “A Man’s Gotta Eat” is zombie noir (think Sam Spade meets Night of the Living Dead. I didn’t do research for either of them, as I had all the info I needed via experience in the film industry and a love of film noir combined with my zombie obsession. And honestly, some of my non-zombie related work showed me the value of research both for digging up valuable information and for sparking off ideas that lead to some really fun stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise thought to incorporate in the plot. I also think with every story and novel I’ve finished, I’ve matured as a writer. At least I hope so!
Tell us about the book’s protagonist, Ashley Parker. First off, she’s a girl in horror fiction—that immediately makes her stand out. She’s also the star. How did you approach creating her character, and what kind of skills and personality does a girl like Ashley need to survive a zombie apocalypse?
Ashley was easy to write. From the first chapter where her voice kicks in, I heard her talking in my head (I hear voices in my head a lot) very clearly, and her narrative voice crystallized almost immediately. With the narrative voice came her personality, and quirks and character traits clicked into place. I wanted her to be a normal person without any major chips on her shoulder, kind of lost as far as what she wants to do with her life (hence the Liberal Arts major) and sort of floating along at college trying to figure it out. The zombocalypse forces her to make some pretty major decisions pretty quickly—and by doing so, she discovers that she’s a leader in spite of herself.
The most important personality trait I can think of would be adaptability because if you can’t accept the fact that your world has just gone FUBAR [Stephanie’s note: For the acronym-challenged, “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition/Any Repair/All Reason”] (walking dead people and all that), you’re not going to be able to keep your wits about you to survive. Skills would definitely include how to shoot, but even more importantly, how to utilize anything and everything as a possible weapon against the ravenous hordes.
Can you tease something awesome about the book—anything that will get people reading?
Heh. I actually asked my editor what he thought stood out the most about Plague Town because my response to that kind of question about my own work is a blank stare, followed by: “It’s real good and haz ZOMBies!” With the help of my DEO, I have a slightly more intelligent (and hopefully intriguing) answer. I’ve had the chance to dig into the emotions of the characters suddenly facing something unimaginably horrific, from an average housewife watching her family disintegrate—literally—before her eyes, to others who have relatives out there yet have no idea whether or not they’re safe. And I get to hint at much bigger issues, with conspiracies and shadow groups that go way beyond a bunch of rotting corpses. And … it haz ZOMBies!
Thanks so much to Dana and Titan Books for the interview opportunity. Plague Town was hands-down one of my favorite reads in a while, and I greatly look forward to the next book!