A Zombie Discussion with Robert Swartwood

Robert Swartwood is a talented writer. His work has appeared in such venues as The Los Angeles Review, Postscripts, ChiZine, and The Daily Beast.  His novel The Dishonored Dead is a fun new take on the zombie novel, and it’s one everybody should pick up (it’s available for the Kindle here).  Seeing as we both have zombie books out at the moment, we decided to discuss the rotting little bastards a little.

Once you’ve read my interview with Robert, go pick up The Dishonored Dead, and then go read his interview with me.

NS: What can you tell us about The Dishonored Dead?

RS: The Dishonored Dead is what I like to call a nontraditional zombie novel, in that there is no flesh eating going on. It’s about our world in the not-so-distant future which has begun to decay and most of the population has become the animated dead. They function just like us — adults working nine-to-five, children attending school — but they have no emotions or imagination. Those that do are the living and they’re called zombies. The Government has taught the dead to fear the living and so the living must be hunted down and destroyed. 

The book’s main character is a zombie hunter and what happens when he hesitates one night in killing a living child and begins to question not just his profession but his entire existence. I originally pitched the book as Fahrenheit 451 meets Night of the Living Dead and, despite the flesh eating going on in the latter, I think it’s pretty accurate. 

NS: What is it about zombies that suits this tale so well? Was there any particular inspiration that brought The Dishonored Dead together?

RS: Looking back, this novel definitely had a very strange journey. It all started out with the story idea of a boy who heard this strange music coming from somewhere in his backyard. And then, when I sat down to actually write the story, that changed to this first line: “Like everyone else he knew, Steven’s heart did not beat.” And the story that grew from there — “In the Land of the Blind” — was a world where the majority of people were dead but the world still had some life left in it. That story won one of the ChiZine short story contests. Later, after it was published, a friend told me his wife had read the story and loved it but said she wished it was longer. At the time I said something along the lines that I didn’t think I was ever going to expand the story, but, as is often the case with us writers, the story stayed with me and I wondered what might happen if I tried to tell a longer story from one of the zombie hunters’ point of view. The story that I had in mind would be nothing more than a novella (I never outline but can usually gauge the length of a story in my head). But then as I started writing it, a character appeared out of nowhere, a very minor character that was nothing more than stage decoration. While the protagonist and another character were leaving a building, they passed a janitor. Why there had to be a janitor there, I had no idea, but the janitor appeared in my head and so I placed him there. And it wasn’t until a few chapters later did the real reason for the janitor’s appearance become apparent, and suddenly what had only been a novella-length work turned into a full-blown novel. The first draft ended up at around 120,000 words. Then, after a major revision a few years later, it came down to a respectable 100,000 words.

And to answer your first question, I guess the reason zombies suit this tale so well is that, ultimately, zombies represent the complete opposite of us living humans. And the original short story — and the novel — plays with a subtle social commentary about our world and why we think the way we do and have the prejudices we do and whatever else. Plus, the idea of a world overrun by the decaying dead just seemed like a cool, fresh idea. 

NS: Sounds like a fun journey.  The Dishonored Dead is such an interesting angle on zombies.  Have you considered telling a more traditional zombie story, or do those not interest you as much?

RS: I certainly wouldn’t be against telling a more traditional zombie story, but there would have to be something really different about it to make me want to do it. And it’s not just in regards to zombies but anything, really. My next book is a serial killer novel but told from the point of view of a serial killer’s wife. I think the challenge in storytelling is coming up with new ways of telling an old story (though telling new stories is even better, of course). A lot of people rag on the zombie mashups out there, but truthfully Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a brilliant concept because it was just so new and fresh. Unfortunately, because of its success, everyone and his mother has jumped on the bandwagon that the original’s brilliance has dimmed.

NS: I remember watching the original Night of the Living Dead when it came on after cartoons one Saturday and really getting a sense of what dread could be for the first time in my life.  Was there any particular moment, whether from a movie, book, or story, that you realized there was zombies presented a different kind of horror?

RS: You know, this may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t think there’s really anything horrifying or fascinating about zombies in general. Sure, you have some authors like Brian Keene who create zombies with some kind intelligence and they become antagonists, but most zombies are mindless flesh-eating creatures that are really only there as a plot device. The real conflict almost always comes in between the living characters and shows their true nature (like you had mentioned, the final big reveal is almost always “We are the monsters,” but there is also that whole survival aspect, too, and it shows that while some of the living are in fact monsters, not all of them are; some actual find a way to step up and become heroes). It’s almost like zombies are part of that whole man vs. nature narrative conflict; in theory you could easily switch them with, say, hungry man-eating lions and it would pretty much be the same book. Because the majority of zombie stories and novels and movies deal mainly with the living characters and how they come to terms with the zombies and manage to survive. One of the most horrifying scenes that comes to mind is in 28 Weeks Later, when at the beginning of the movie the zombies attack and Robert Carlyle’s character flees with his kids through the house. His wife gets left behind, and there’s a moment when he has a chance to either try to save her and possibly get himself killed in the process or save himself and keep going. He chooses to save his own ass and he leaves his wife behind for the zombies. He even lies about it later to his kids. Of course, there’s more to the story, but still, man, that moment puts you right in that situation and you can’t help but picture yourself in the same position. That, I think, is true horror.

NS: Thanks, Rob!