Interview with Stant Litore

"A genre is not a country with a map and a legislature"

StantLitore_jpgthumbnailBorn a farmer’s son in the Pacific Northwest, Stant Litore took the college road and eventually earned his PhD in English, but remains passionate for things that grow. He spent several years in a dim corner of a library, repairing bruised and battered books, before heading overseas to backpack through Europe. Haunted by the hunger and poverty he witnessed at home and abroad, he began spinning stories about the hungers that devour us and the hopes that preserve us. Today he lives in Colorado with his wife and their two daughters, writing about the restless dead and the restless living for his Zombie Bible series, published by 47North.

I recently interviewed Litore about his writing via email, where we talked about what inspired him to create the Zombie Bible in the first place, among other things…

WFR.com: What kinds of fiction or stories did you read growing up? Do you recall being drawn to weird fiction or horror early on?

Stant Litore: I read a lot of wonder tales – from Charlotte’s Web to The Lord of the Rings to Dune. As a teen, I first encountered the wonder tale’s darker sister through writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Gene Wolfe, and H.P. Lovecraft.

WFR.com: Who and what are your favorite writers and stories?

Litore: I might have a different answer to that depending on the week. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed reading anything as much as I enjoyed reading On Blue’s Waters and In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe. His fiction is a sort of dark drug — I can’t get enough of it. It’s like a canvas painted with vivid imagery from science fiction, fantasy, and horror that has had bullets made out of melted Borges shot through it. It’s glorious.

WFR.com: How would you classify your own writing, in terms of genre or where it fits within the wider scope of literature? What do you think are the most important influences on you and your writing?

Litore: I try not to classify it. I distrust the impulse toward classification. A genre is a vegetable organism — growing, putting out branches, and changing shape as it gets more contributing nutrients. A genre is not a country with a map and a legislature. If pressed, I’ll call it “dark fantasy.” If I were to list influences, I’d start with the Bible (it supplies the content, but more than that, I’m influenced by the questions and riddles it asks as well as the way it tells history), Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt (that saga blew my mind … it is a breathtaking exploration of the ethics, theology, and sociology of a world in which the Black Death wiped out Europe), and more recently, Cloud Atlas. I’m drawn to fiction that asks difficult ethical questions and isn’t afraid to wrestle with them.

WFR.com: I’m curious about your use of the term “wonder tales” from earlier, and the mention of their darker counterparts, especially in light of your views about genre classification. How do you define these terms, exactly? It sounds like they might be a useful countermeasure to rigid genre classification.

Litore: When Hamlet and Horatio encounter the Ghost, they are struck with fear and wonder. Those are two emotional reactions to the marvelous. These two reactions may be blended (in which case we are likely struck, paralyzed, with a sensation like awe or astonishment), or we may permit one to take dominance over the other. Either the marvelous and strange other becomes fearsome and horrific to us and our impulse is to flee it (maybe smash it with an axe, then flee it), or it becomes wondrous and we are drawn to approach it, perhaps ask questions of it or about it. That’s what Hamlet and the others have to decide about the Ghost – do they flee or do they approach?

In Borges’ weird story “There Are More Things” (the title is taken from a line in Hamlet), the protagonist ends the story with a choice. There is something weird and strange and other approaching, something Lovecraftian in its dimensions and its implications. The protagonist can either give in to his fear, keep his eyes shut, and scamper up the ladder away from the approaching creature, or he can turn toward the door and open his eyes to face it and discover it.

You know that I think genre classifications are not very useful, but one way of understanding the way that fantasy and horror are marketed separately is that both genres are often about the encounter with the strange other. One explores wonder as the primary response; the other explores the response of fear and dread. These are arbitrary distinctions, though. Like Hamlet, a story can help us explore both. The best examples in both genres help us grapple with and understand our own response to the strange other, through the medium of an entertaining story.

WFR.com: What prompted you to come up with the idea of the Zombie Bible series in the first place? I understand that you have experience in theological studies. Did it result directly from your studies, or were there other factors in play?

Litore: The initial idea occurred while I was watching Night of the Living Dead – the black-and-white film, which still chills me. I happened to be reading Judges at the same time. And Devora’s story just burst into my head: what if, rather than fighting a living foe, she were fighting the dead? After that, I started imagining scenes, and soon I was asking questions like: What does this all mean? How do we interact with others among the living when we are in a world devoured by the dead? How do we remember our dead? What happens when we look into the eyes of the dead and are confronted with a version of ourselves that is entirely defined by hunger, by the need to consume others? My studies influence the questions I ask.

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Scene from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

WFR.com: So, what are your thoughts on post-Romero depictions of zombies in movies and fiction, then? Are there any stories that stand out to you in a similar manner to Night of the Living Dead, in terms of thematic richness and the ability to evoke genuine horror?

Litore: Certainly. It has actually proven a surprisingly rich subgenre. I think Max Brooks’ World War Z was a tour de force, entertaining, emotional, and highly intelligent. Kim Paffenroth’s Valley of the Dead: The Truth Behind Dante’s Inferno is a haunting pairing of zombie fiction and theology; Carrie Ryan’s YA novel The Forest of Hands and Teeth and Jonathan Maberry’s Rot & Ruin both use zombie narratives to explore how we deal with grief. Both of those novels have haunting, bring-tears-to-your-eyes moments. Hugh Howey’s recent I, Zombie – which places you inside the minds of the trapped dead, who are continuing on the same hungers and obsessions of their previous lives – that novel offers both metaphysical speculation and genuine horror. There are others.

WFR.com: Were you initially surprised at how well zombies fit within the milieu of the Bible? That combination actually makes sense, when read in context of reasons for kosher rituals and rules, etc. And then there’s always that eschatological notion in movies like Dawn of the Dead where the dead walk the earth when Hell is full, or some similar sentiment. So, in a way you’re making the apocalyptic tone of parts of the Bible even more explicit.

Litore: Not at all surprised. Anything can  become a metaphor for the themes and questions the Bible explores, because the Bible is a massive collection of texts. Zombies are particularly a good fit because the Bible is about love and it’s about hunger. What do you do with the hungry among you (both the physically hungry and the spiritually hungry)? How do you restrain your own hunger? Can love be stronger than hunger? Is God a hungry God or a loving God? Are we a hungry race or a loving race? What might we be? Etc. The encounter with zombies – who have been entirely overwhelmed by their hunger – is an occasion that demands answers to such questions.

WFR.com: What, for you, makes you want to adapt a given story from the Bible through your zombie-stricken interpretation of things? And are there any other Biblical stories you’re dying to adapt for your series?

Litore: That is such a good question, and it’s caught me off guard; I haven’t thought about why I pick the particular stories I do. I think it’s because there is some contradiction in the characters involved, some tension that I don’t completely understand yet but am drawn to and excited by. I just have to start writing it, telling that story, to find out who these people are. That’s fascinating to me. Devora, the prophetess who rebuked military leaders in a tribal culture that treated women as property – what made her who she was? St. Polycarp’s willingness to walk into a fire: what shaped him? Jesus spending an entire night healing an entire town and then finally slipping away into the hills to pray and weep, exhausted – what drove him? I want to know. These are people we may only have glimpses of, but they fascinate me. History pivots on such lives (or, at least, the way we remember it does).

WFR.com: Do you see yourself writing the Zombie Bible indefinitely, or do you envision a definite stopping point later on? What other kinds of fiction or nonfiction do you write or want to write?

Litore: I have joked that I want to write 47 novels in The Zombie Bible, keying off of my publisher’s name 47North. I’m only half jesting. I think there is a lot of potential in this series, and I think I’ll write it as long as there is something new to do in each book. When I run out of new things, I’ll stop. I don’t like writing the same book twice. The convenient thing about The Zombie Bible is that each novel is a standalone, so potentially any of the books is a stopping point (or, for the reader, a starting point).

I’d definitely like to write some other dark fantasy set in very different worlds; I have a project in its earliest stages, but I don’t anticipate doing any serious work on it for about another year.

WFR.com: Finally, what is the weirdest thing you’ve ever read, and why?

Litore: Pat Murphy’s “His Vegetable Wife” (1986). I don’t know if that story would usually be named as an example of weird fiction; you could certainly read it as straight SF. But that story … it’s only four pages, and every paragraph I read filled me with a mounting unease and dread, and a sickly fascination. In the story, a man — a colonist, a farmer — grows a wife from a seed. She is a vegetable stalk that grows increasingly human, feminine characteristics as the stalk matures. And she is grown purely for sexual use, and the farmer’s use and then harvesting of her becomes increasingly disquieting. And you are never certain how much plant, how much woman, how much human is involved. I’m not describing the story very well. It’s a smart tale, and disturbing, and weird, and the physical, metaphysical, and moral identities of the two characters are up for grabs.