A day in the life of a zombie writer
I climb out of the car, step into damp October leaves and stare up at the Logan Square apartment building across the street. A chill rushes up the street. I notice a man standing in the front yard, shuffling back and forth. He does not appear rabid. He appears to be in his mid-30s, with black-frame glasses, maybe a graduate student. He is behind a black fence, and as I take a tentative step in his direction, I realize: He is Scott Kenemore, zombie writer, the most prolific zombie writer in a subgenre I had assumed was dead.
Indeed, until recently I might have even assumed the entire zombie thing was dead. Except "The Walking Dead" on AMC, in its third season, remains a hit, and David Wong's zombie novel, "This Book is Full of Spiders," just became a best-seller (it's about how the proliferation of zombie books and movies sets off a zombie outbreak).
Incidentally, Kenemore is not dead. He is not a zombie who is a writer, but a writer with a single subject.
To be frank, however, Scott does share a couple of key traits with zombies. He is a member of a burgeoning demographic (albeit within the literary world), and he is unceasing. He has written seven zombie books in five years. The first was 2007's "The Zen of Zombie," which sold more than 50,000 copies and led to "Z.E.O.," which led to "The Art of Zombie Warfare," then "The Code of the Zombie Pirate," then "Zombies vs. Nazis." Last year he wrote a novel, "Zombie, Ohio," about a man who wakes up to find he's a zombie; this year he has "Zombie, Illinois," a very long, very clever, heartfelt, at times indifferently written epic about what might happen if the mayor of Chicago were eaten by a zombie on television and aldermen instigated an armed overthrow. (Think "Night of the Living Dead" meets "Seven Days in May.") Also, every murder victim ever dumped in Lake Michigan sits up and walks ashore. Also, there is a very thinly veiled subplot involving a South Side funeral home that has been illegally burying bodies; also, a subplot about a cop who tortured people for years. Also, Al Capone appears. (Considering this is a work of zombie lit, I feel somewhat dull-witted pointing this out, but: If Al Capone did climb out of his grave in 2012, chances are he wouldn't be recognizable as Al Capone.) Therefore: zombie writer.
Also, in case you weren't aware, zombie lit is a thing. In fact, more than a subgenre.
"Ten years ago I would have said zombie lit was a subgenre," says Brendan Riley, an associate professor at Columbia College who teaches a course on zombies, "but ever since Max Brooks proved with (his novel) 'World War Z' that you could write an intelligent zombie book and make it a best-seller, zombie lit has been as full blown as any genre. Scott is one of the zombie guys who found a way to make it inventive. In 'Zombie, Ohio,' he really gets at that dilemma between wanting to stay human but wanting to eat people."
Zombie lit is not my thing.
I have read my share, but my general problem with zombie lit, as with horror films, is not the subject so much as the scarcity of compelling examples. Metaphors overwhelm, characters go through motions. Even when a literary novelist like Colson Whitehead takes a swing, as he did recently with "Zone One," the desire to be more than a zombie book sucks out whatever fun might have crept in.
"You often see in this profession a cool subject driven into the ground or run past its prime," said Jason Katzman, Kenemore's editor at Skyhorse Publishing, "but I think the Scott Kenemores of this genre are what keep it alive by moving it in original directions — believe me, people will get sick of dystopian fiction for the same reason."
Incidentally, Skyhorse, based in New York, is also the American publisher of Mo Yan, the Chinese author who recently won the Nobel Prize for literature. Until Mo Yan, Kenemore was Skyhorse's best-selling writer.
We lumbered into his apartment.
It was sad, frightening and charming. He has a framed postcard from H.P. Lovecraft — the first thing he bought with his first publishing advance. He has a framed poster of the movie "The Return of the Living Dead." He does not have much else on his walls. He lives the life of a bachelor. He has a leather video game chair.
He grew up in Indianapolis, went to Kenyon College, got his Master of Fine Arts at Columbia University in New York. He works by day as a publicist at the University of Chicago. He started out writing all sorts of horror stories: ghost stories, haunted house stories, demon stories, supernatural detective stories. None of it caught on.
"I didn't know I wanted to be a zombie writer," he says. "Only about 40 percent of what I wrote had anything to do with zombies. The thing is, of that 40 percent, 100 percent has been published. My agent couldn't sell anything else. But zombie stories? Always sold." Now Skyhorse suggests new zombie books: "They suggested a politics book, zombie Republicans and zombie Democrats, 'Do something with that, Scott.'"
Zombies aside, he is like any author: He would like bigger advances. Unlike other authors, however, he doesn't have an overwhelming desire to be taken seriously and does not worry about typecasting: "The goal is to be a zombie writer nine to five." He is a celebrity at horror conventions — ZomBCon in Seattle, Aliens to Zombies in Los Angeles — and though he worries that the recession is killing horror conventions, he is not worried about zombies themselves: He expects their rotting corpses to stick around indefinitely.
Which depresses me. All this talk of zombies and employment is making me paranoid. Here I am, trapped in this sunless apartment with a well-meaning zombie writer and little food and no evacuation plan should the undead rap on the door. I shiver and suggest we get some air, maybe point out locations in "Zombie, Illinois."
We step out onto Kedzie Avenue. The night is dark. We shamble along.
"For me the zombie has become a stress test," he says, "and so in 'Zombie, Illinois' I wanted to subject Chicago to that stress test, to use the zombie to show the problems here, and why it wouldn't be cool to give your dumb relative that government job and not hire a smart person instead. Zombie writers, I think we hold certain places in high esteem by attacking them with zombies and seeing how those institutions hold up. What I saw when I've worked in low-income neighborhoods was how strong community centers are. It's like the people there have picked teams and watch out for each other. Places like Logan Square, more affluent neighborhoods, there just isn't a good idea of who is on your team, and since there are security systems and police, people don't worry. But they would if there were no power and zombies walking in their streets."
We trudge on.
"I find myself meeting friends for brunch, wondering what it would be like to have a zombie here," he says. "I've developed a zombie filter. Zombie writers have it. We instinctively ask: What if zombies attacked this?"
But don't zombies get boring, I ask. After all, zombies are silent, predictable, monotonous by nature, more metaphor — for consumerism, tribalism, conformity, pestilence, thuggishness — than compelling character.
"That's like asking a hairdresser if they get bored by hair," he says. "When I go to horror conventions and get famous for an afternoon, I'm never bored by how serious people take zombie literature. I hear, like, 'I know this is just a zombie book, but it helped me get through my divorce.' I've gotten letters from paralyzed people who said 'The Zen of Zombie' taught them how to turn a negative into a positive. I have been to funerals and, no (expletive), I'm walking by a casket and an acquaintance will say, 'Hey, zombie guy.'"
We reach the large marble column at the center of Logan Square, the one that marks the centennial of Illinois' birth. It's here where, in "Zombie, Illinois," Kenemore describes a pair of young women who have clambered up the base and are fighting off "stiff, lumbering" zombies. I ask Kenemore why he prefers the traditional slow, dumb zombie to the trendy, new fast zombie. He says, "I'm really a big-tent zombie guy."
We stare for a moment at the statue and let the zombie nightmare that never happened here sink in. The night is getting darker now. I ask Kenemore if he has any Halloween plans. After all, zombies are the new hobos, the lazy man's costume, the go-to idea for those who don't want to give a Halloween get-up much thought.
"Not much," he says. "I usually dress up as something that offends people's belief systems. ... Never a zombie. When you work in the candy factory all day, do you really want to go home to … well, you know."