Publishing the Undead: Scott Kenemore reveals braiiins behind horror writing
Interview by Ben Kowalski
Scott Kenemore shambled into the world of horror writing with his 2007 satire The Zen of Zombie: Better Living through the Undead. Now the author of four horror novels, five zombie-themed satires, and 2011's Zombies vs. Nazis—which is listed as an "unclassifiable found-document" on his website—Kenemore has made a name for himself in both zombie-themed and general horror writing.
Hair Trigger had the opportunity to speak with Scott Kenemore about his literary inspirations, his view of zombies, and his creative process.
Ben Kowalski: How did you first enter the world of horror and zombie writing?
Scott Kenemore: I’ve always liked horror. I think the formative moment in my life was being about 10 years-old, riding my bicycle to the public library and checking out a book by H.P. Lovecraft—who is my favorite writer now. I had sort of heard about [him] in connection to things like roleplaying games and was oddly curious because I never liked scary stories. They had one of his books. I took it down at the library and I read the first two stories, which were “In the Vault” and “Pickman’s Model.” I remember putting the book down and thinking, “This might be the best thing that anyone ever did, ever. I know I’m a dumb 10-year-old—I don’t know much about the world—but I feel pretty confident this is the best thing anyone ever did ever.” I’ve largely continued to feel that way as an adult.
BK: How has your view of zombies changed since you began writing about them?
SK: Being someone who does something creative with zombies has given me a better sense of how elastic they can be. I have noticed that some of the works of art involving zombies that are my favorites and mean the most to me were made by people who were taking a chance and, if not breaking the rules, bending rules.
I really like, for example, [The] Return of the Living Dead, my favorite zombie film. That’s the first film [where] zombies say “Braaaiiiins.” It’s just delightful but so much of it is risk-taking. Dan O’Bannon, the writer/director [came] up with a coherent story for where zombies came from, [tied] in Night of the Living Dead to the mythology of [The] Return of the Living Dead, [came] up with zombies wanting to eat brains, why zombies want to eat brains, [and] new rules to what can and can’t kill a zombie—really interesting stuff.
I would say my favorite zombie short story is “What Maisie Knew” by Davis Liss. In his world, zombies can remember a little bit about their former selves when they are either in extreme pain or having sexual intercourse. The way he uses that in fiction to create a world where zombies hungering after a little slice of their own former consciousness—or consciousnesses—is awesome. I came to identify a little bit with the people who may don’t totally reinvent zombies, but bend rules in the service of being creative.
BK: You’ve written both zombie satire and zombie horror. How do those writing processes differ for you?
SK: Those tend to come from me personally feeling hatred and contempt for other people and thinking [things] suck. At least, that I could be doing a better job of them or that they deserve to be made fun of. If I think they deserve to be made fun of, then I will go with satire. If I think, “God, this guy f----n’ sucks, this gal f----n’ sucks,” then it becomes the motivation to do my own creative work and try to do a better job than what I’ve just read.
BK: Your most recent novel, The Grand Hotel, is a collection of interconnected short stories and a departure from zombies. Can you tell me more about that?
SK: I don’t only write about zombies. There is what you write and there is what gets published, and yet, readers only see what gets published. I also write horror fiction and straight-up scary stories, but that sometimes is a little bit trickier. I feel like I’m mostly a zombie guy.
I’ve always loved collections of short stories and loved when they were interconnected—it was this little world. I was getting dinner along Demott Avenue in Chicago, and something I do when either I’m early or other people are late, is browse the curiosity shops and book shops along Demott Avenue. There are a lot of English language books for sale in these stores that are imported from India for English-speaking Indian audiences. One of the books I came across was something totally new to me: The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie by Sivadasa, a story cycle from ancient India that was written down several hundred years ago but probably existed orally before that. I love the idea that this was something that had been updated and changed. [It] showed that interconnected story cycles were elastic and created people that played with and found certain uses for it again and again. It was really interesting and I wanted to do something with [it] in a cultural appropriation sort of way. I looked at what I thought was interesting about it and it was sort of the inspiration for The Grand Hotel. If anyone reads The Grand Hotel [and] the only thing they take from it is [that] they get curious about The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, then I did something good.
BK: What would you say is your favorite aspect of the horror genre and the process of writing it?
SK: An important function—maybe the most important function—of good horror is that it makes you question what you know. As Freud identifies in his essay “The Uncanny,” [he] says that the root of all uncanny horror is that we are realizing that something we thought we knew for sure, we don’t know for sure, or [somewhere] that we thought was a safe place is not a safe place.
Not all horror does that—some horror is just about creating likable characters and putting them into danger—but the best horror, the horror that keeps me writing, makes us ask: “Do we really know things for sure? Do we really know—in the case of a zombie outbreak, say—how we would act during a crisis? Do we really know how other people would act during a crisis?” I can make people question things like, “What would community mean during a crisis?” or, “What would working together mean during a crisis?” For me, those are really interesting questions that keep me interested in horror.
BK: Is there anything you’d like to add?
SK: If younger people are reading this interview that are doing something creative, if you are interested in writing about horror [or] zombies: Come on in, the water’s warm. There’s a lot of interesting stuff still to be written. With respect to all the people who are working in the genre now, I think a lot of us feel like the great zombie novel still has yet to be written. Maybe you could be the person to do that. If you’re interested in zombies, if you’re interested in that kind of horror, absolutely go for it and do something creative.
Visit Scott Kenemore's site here.
Ben Kowalski is a BA Nonfiction senior at Columbia College Chicago, creative nonfiction writer, copy editor and contributor at the award-winning Columbia Chronicle (2015), and music critic at Pop'stache.com (2014–2015). Ben is currently working on an essay collection about music, and his album reviews can be found at http://popstache.com/author/bkowalski/.
December 12, 2016