Picking Brains with Wednesday Lee Friday: Stefan Petrucha

This week’s Zombie Zone News reprint is my interview with Stefan Petrucha, who wrote a really good novel about an undead detective. Turns out, he’s also a fascinating cat. This interview is from January of 2012.

If you’re not familiar with American writer Stefan Petrucha, you should be. He’s taking zombies in some groovy new directions–an innovator, pure and simple. And he knows his stuff. Petrucha writes adult and YA fiction on a variety of supernatural and speculative topics. And of course, he wrote the TimeTripper series. He has a plethora of books and graphic novels under his belt. I recently had the pleasure of reading Dead Mann Walking, A Hessius Mann Novel for review here at ZZN. In case you missed it, I liked it a lot. Happily, Stefan Petrucha was kind enough to consent to an interview—which is awesome, because I had a bunch of questions. Luckily for us, he’s an interesting and articulate cat.

WLF/ZZN: Hey Stefan, thanks for taking the time to answer our Q’s. Lets start with an easy one, was this book inspired more by your love of zombies, or your love of detective books?
Thanks for having me, and for the lovely review!
To answer your question; both and neither. I’ve been a fan of zombies and noir for ages, particularly George Romero, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. In the past, I’d done some noir work in graphic novels (Boston Blackie and the satirical Lance Barnes, Post Nuke Dick), as well as a Dawn of the Dead satire back in college called Afternoon of the Airheads – so the genres are always percolating somewhere in my fetid mind.
That said, I’d wanted to write a zombie novel for a while, but, not wanting to repeat the obvious, I was waiting for a good idea. Some great work has been done, and unless I had an intriguing concept, I didn’t think it would be worth the effort.
One day I was listening to an NPR show about the death penalty and one of the speakers said something like, “The reason the death penalty is so controversial is because you can’t take it back.”
I immediately thought, well, what if you could? Naturally, we wouldn’t be very good at it, making the results kinda horrific. At that moment, the basic concept of a detective wrongly accused of murder, then brought back, lodged in my brain with long, sharp talons that have yet to let go.

WLF/ZZN: Tell us a bit about Hessius Mann.
In some ways he’s the typical gruff noir detective – Chandler’s Phillip Marlow, or Hammett’s Sam Spade, the one man in a corrupt world trying to do some good. Marlow and Spade have their shortcomings, but Hess one-ups them in terms of flaws. He’s not only dead, his memory, which was photographic when he was alive, has been left more like something out of Christopher Nolan’s film, Memento.
There are also things he’d rather not remember, like whether or not he actually did kill his wife. He knows he’s got a short temper, so, despite evidence indicating his innocence, he’s not really sure what went down. He’s struggling not only against the bad guys and the corruption, he’s struggling with a failing body and a failing mind.

WLF/ZZN: The cover design is creepy and cool. Who was the artist? How much input did you have on the concept?
Glad you like it – I think it’s a great cover. It was designed by Ray Lundgren, whom I hope will be working on the next cover as well. .
I was asked at the onset to contribute ideas, but I’m not a great cover designer, so I was happy to have them ignored. I was then presented with the cover image pretty much as it stands. I thought it was great. I wanted to have a hat added, to lean a little more toward classic noir, but a stock photo had been used and couldn’t be changed. I did niggle the text a little, changing “First in a New Series” to “A Hessius Mann Novel” which sounded more like classic detective to me. I think Ray did a fantastic job – I’m very pleased with it.

WLF/ZZN: Many of the “Livebloods” in Dead Mann Walking are, to put it bluntly, complete asshats. Is this indicative of your own annoyance with humanity in general?
Ha! Partly, I suppose, but I’m also trying to turn the trope on its head. In the usual zombie story, the living are surrounded by the violent dead, so here, the dead are surrounded by the violent living. That’s the interesting thing about monsters – there’s really nothing they can do than humans haven’t already done.
My own attitude is that I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.

WLF/ZZN: It is widely agreed that the sci-fi genre deals with themes on society, and the horror genre deals with the human condition. Where does that leave Dead Mann Walking?
Hm. I’m not sure that particular division is so widely agreed upon, at least not in film/TV. Romero’s first three Dead films all make some pretty heavy commentary on society, while something like the revamped Battlestar Galactica deals as much with the human condition as anything else. But the best work always crosses genre lines, and I prefer rules that ask you to test their limits.
With Dead Mann, Hess has a lot to say about both society and the human condition. I don’t think that makes it closer to science fiction, though. If anything, the science fiction elements are minimal, just enough to establish the existence of the zombies, and even there the “science” is intentionally vague. It’s not magic, but I didn’t want the man on the street to particularly understand how it works. How many people know how the pictures and sound come out of their TV?
I think both elements come partly out of Romero, but mostly out of classic noir, which always deals with (generally corrupt) society, so the proper category for Dead Mann would be something like noir/horror. Urban Fantasy always struck me as kind of a catch-all anyway – but the bookstores do need to shelve these things somewhere so folks can find them. Personally, I’d almost rather see Dead Mann in the mystery section, or next to something like Dexter – though this would involve me changing my last name for alphabetical reasons.

WLF/ZZN: The character Misty seems to denote an empathetic, yet hopeful attitude toward conquering addiction. Comment?
I love Misty. I’m very proud of the way her relationship with Hess plays. They’re both at the bottom of the heap, but rather than sink, they try to drag each other up. She’s certainly a sign of life and light, and to that end, works much in the same way as the standard detective secretary, smart, perky and worried about her boss. Her past life gives her something more, though – she’s earned whatever she’s got, in terms of optimism, the hard way.
That plays a key factor in the second book, Dead Mann Running, where things get a lot darker for Misty, leaving Hess, when he needs her most, to fumble through things on his own.

WLF/ZZN: Do you have a planned number of novels for the Hessius Mann series?
Nope. I plan to keep writing Hess novels as long as I live – afterwards, too, if possible.

WLF/ZZN: What kind of social services might improve the lives of the undead Chakz in Fort Hammer?
Bleach showers for one. Rot is a chakz worst enemy. Also, a roof over their decaying heads and a repair kit, complete with needle, thread and Krazy Glue, for reattaching lost limbs, sewing up gashes, and so on.
Speaking of social services,I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that at the end of Dead Mann Walking, official chak camps are established. In the second book Hess visits a couple, witnessing some surprising results regarding how the campers fare.

WLF/ZZN: Hessius mentions that Night of the Living Dead scared the crap out of him. Can we assume that you feel similarly?
Absolutely. It was one of those magical things I first saw all alone at midnight on TV. The opening graveyard scene has yet to be topped. Fast zombies are great, too, but the slow, relentless attack by that corpse is amazing. There’s also a sequence where a child-zombie winds up chomping on her dad and killing her mom that still gives me chills.

WLF/ZZN: I know Hessius prefers to carry a tape recorder to an iPod. But if he had an iPod, what music would he have on it? Any podcasts you think he’d be a fan of?
Ha! For the podcasts, Wait! Wait! Don’t bury me! As for tunes, Hess’ actual taste would probably run toward mopey jazz and pop, but that’s no fun. I actually wrote a column featuring my favorite zombie songs, so let’s say he’d like those.
First and foremost would be Dead Mann Walking, the song actually written for the novel by the hard rocking creative madman behind Carnival Comics, Jazan Wild. It’s available as a free download at my website. As for the others, there’s Alice Cooper’s I Love the Dead, The Gonk, from Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, All the Men in My life Keep Getting Killed by Kandarian Demons, from Evil Dead, the Musical, Zombie Jamboree originally by Lord Invader (quoted at the beginning of the novel), and last, but definitely not least, Re: Your Brains by the amazing Jonathan Coulton.

WLF/ZZN: Zombies do not appear to be your only area of interest. You also write about ghosts, vampires, werewolves—would it be fair to say you’re a renaissance man in the world of horror?
Much as I like it, “Rennaissance” sounds kinda haughty. I see myself more as working down in the trenches. I’m an old Dark Shadows fan, and they really ran the gamut in terms of supernatural tropes, so it feels natural to move from one to the other.
Past that, my interests have always varied, including mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and superheroes. My next book, a young adult thriller from Philomel called Ripper, takes place in New York City in 1895, and has a bit of a steam-punk feel. I like to describe it as being like Harry Potter, except without magic and with a serial killer.
At least I’ve never felt stuck in a rut, creatively!

WLF/ZZN: What do you do when you aren’t taking horror icons into exciting new places?
Starting this month I’m teaching an online class through the University of Massachusetts called Writing for a Living. There’s also TV, time with the family and the occasional video game. I’ve been playing Settler 7, but I’ll have to drop that and get serious about the sequel to Ripper, which I’m currently working on.

WLF/ZZN: How has writing about Hessius Mann altered your personal zombie apocalypse plan?
I now sleep with two guns under my pillow instead of one.

WLF/ZZN: Do you have any advice for young writers who want to truly innovate within the genre as you have?
Thanks for the compliment!
My general advice to new writers is not to simply write what you love. First, develop great taste, then write what you love. As for innovation, I think that involves taking an abstract step back and figuring out what makes a genre work, and playing around with those basic concepts, and bringing it back to an emotional heart.
As a final word of advice, take my online, course Writing for a Living.

WLF/ZZN: Thanks so much, Stefan. Any parting words for your fans?
Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your years of loyal support, but, really, you need to buy a lot more of my books – and force your friends to do the same.

Tags: ,