Sunday, December 30, 2012

Random thoughts on The Dead & Dying

I've been thinking a lot about The Dead & Dying lately, so I thought I'd drop a few random notes on the book into the 'ole Six Demon Bag.

Cover of the print edition
(art by +Daniel Galli )

The Title:  I like the book’s title because it works on two levels.  The Dying, in both instances, refers to Carl, the protagonist.  From the very first page of the novel, we learn that Carl has been ravaged by the undead and doesn't have much time left to tell his story.  The Dead, however, can refer to either the horde of corpses who've taken over a fallen world or the two ghosts who share Carl’s final hours with him.  It also matches the tone of the book, I think, which is pretty bleak.  I honestly feel this is the best title I've come up with for any of my works.

Weather:  When I was writing the novel, I wanted weather patterns to play an important role.  A healthy portion of the book takes place in the Midwest during the heart of winter and there’s a cold, lonely, desolation that I was trying to convey because I thought it reflected the characters well.  In other portions, a coming thunderstorm plays an important role.  It’s what keeps Carl clinging to life:  he just wants to live long enough to hear rain on the roof one more time.  One of my favorite scenes in the book finds two of our protagonists standing on the roof of a deserted building, watching a tornado tear across the countryside.  Swirling in all the dust and debris are zombies which have been scooped up by the twister, still flailing and alive (at least as much as a walking corpse can be alive).  I also chose to make one of Carl’s companions, a man called Doc, a meteorologist in his former life because I wanted the weather to almost be a minor character in and of itself with Doc bridging that gap.

Influences:   The biggest influence on The Dead & Dying, I think, was Ironweed by William Kennedy.  That novel perfectly captures the sadness I wanted to convey with my characters and situations.  While both works feature spirits of the dead who have an attachment to the main character, his never really stepped forward into the role of narrators like Josie and Jason did.  William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying had an impact on the novel as well.  The surreal sections of the book owe a lot to my love of Beat authors, particularly William S Burroughs.  Wow… there’s a lot of Williams here.  Never realized that before.

Spirituality:  One of the reoccurring themes in the book deals with spirituality.  On the one hand, we have Josie, who clings to her beliefs in reincarnation, karma, and so on.  On the other, we have Carl, who is somewhat of an existential nihilist.  He sees no universal justice in the world, nothing out there which would balance good and evil, right and wrong.  He states in one part of the book that expecting life to be fair just because you’re a good person is like expecting a zombie not to attack just because you’re a pacifist.  These two views were a reflection of the inner conflicts raging within myself when I wrote the novel.  I was struggling to hold onto spiritual beliefs I’d held for over twenty years while a series of life altering events steadily eroded my convictions.  

Perception:  Another theme I wanted to explore is how two people can experience the same event but perceive it in two entirely different ways.  Whereas Carl and Josie embodied the spiritual conflicts in the novel, Carl and the child tackled the issue of perception.  The fact that they had two opposing viewpoints on the same experience entirely dictated the paths their lives took.

Watchmaker:  One of the minor characters in the book is a blind old man, nicknamed Watchmaker because of his former profession.  His affliction and nickname, however weren't just random choices. In 1802  William Paley wrote Natural Theology and presented an argument for creationism.  He stated that if you happened to find a watch, you would inevitably infer from the complexity and precision of its construction that it must have been the work of a watchmaker.  British biologist Richard Dawkins alluded to Paley’s imagery and described natural selection as "the blind watchmaker" because it blindly fashions complex structures in nature without any foresight.

Box of Rot cover
Tie-Ins:  In one section of The Dead & Dying, our protagonists have formed a makeshift stretcher and are hauling Sadie, who is so fevered she is delirious,  through the snow in search of antibiotics.  Josie comments that she has a feeling of deja-vu, like maybe she’d been through this particular scenario before in a past life.  This comment is a direct reference to my short story, The Palomino and the Draft Horse, which is a zombie tale set in the 1800s.  I included her observation specifically for readers who are familiar with both works, subtly implying that Josie’s beliefs in reincarnation are correct.  The short story originally appeared in the anthology The Zombist: Undead Western Tales, but is also included in my short story collection, Box of Rot.  Box of Rot (and its companion collection, Box of Darkness)  is currently available as a free download on Smashwords in a variety of e-book formats.  Feel free to download a copy if you're curious about how the short story ties in with the novel. 

Sequel:  I've toyed with the idea of a sequel and have even explored a little bit of the first chapter.  However, one of the unique challenges I faced while writing The Dead & Dying is that from the very beginning all of the major characters are either already dead or soon to be so.  A lot of fiction creates tension by making the reader wonder if the characters involved will survive the events of the book, but the way my novel was structured precludes this.  While I definitely have a few ideas in mind of how this would work in a second book, I don’t know if it could really be called a sequel as such.

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