My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guests are Jennifer Spiegel, Lynn Marie Houston, and Susan Allspaw Pomeroy, the editors of Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies. The literary collection brings together twenty-six poems and six essays inspired by the zombies and characters of AMC’s hit television show The Walking Dead. More about the editors can be found at the end of the blog post.
My First Monster
We’re a pretty diverse team of academics, real-world professionals, and writers. The big commonality—not the only one, but the major one—is our crazy love for AMC’s The Walking Dead. So we made an anthology, edited it, and each contributed to it. Dead Inside: Poems and Essays About Zombies is our baby together. Lynn’s very own press, Foiled Crown Books, published it; Susan’s poems inspired it; Jennifer is the most obsessed. But gathering around the topic of “firsts” is, in itself, tough. So we decided to discuss our first monster.
Jennifer: Well, in all honesty, my first “monster” was probably Jaws—which scarred me for life. I also had a recurring dream with a gold, metallic sea monster who looked strangely like C-3P0 (but predated him). The sea monster used to “seduce” my mom into a big pool. I’m not sure this counts, though. I have body-of-water issues. The water as monster.
In truth, I’ve spent minimal time in the horror genre. I’ve only read the first graphic novel of The Walking Dead. I’ve read Frankenstein. One Stephen King novel (The Stand). Some Benjamin Percy. I never got into the Vampire thing. I miss all the horror flicks. I can’t remember the last one I saw.
But zombies. . . I like the zombie-thing. The zombie is really my first monster. What are each of YOUR personal monsters?
Lynn: I actually started with the horror flicks at a young age, maybe too young. While my mother was getting the weekly groceries, my father used to let me and my younger brother watch the scary movie that came on every Saturday afternoon from 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. But as soon as we heard the car in the driveway, he would change the channel. There were so many “B” movies from the seventies and eighties whose final moments I never saw. But later, at night, I would imagine their endings. And that’s probably how I developed the mindset of a writer—lying there in the dark imagining the endings to scary movies I wasn’t allowed to finish watching.
Jennifer: Are we talking The World Beyond (wasn’t that a thing?) or the slew of demon-possession films that haunted Gen X youth?
Lynn: Mostly haunted-house-type stuff, with some Satanic-children stuff thrown in—
Jennifer: Oh yeah, I forgot about all those Satanic children!—
Lynn: Which is exactly what my devout Catholic mother didn’t want us watching. (P.S. I have the best dad!). But my mother wasn’t totally wrong. My early childhood fascination with monsters led me to some dark places. It prompted me to have a recurring nightmare about a female werewolf who made me bring her men so she could eat them. I’ve had this same dream numerous times even into adulthood, and I always wake up right as she comes crashing through a glass elevator to claim her prey. It’s too bad Freud didn’t do more with monsters. I’m sure he would have had a lot to say about werewolf pimps. Zombies seem tame, almost comical, compared to the fang and claw nightmares of my childhood. That is, until zombies started moving fast, à la 28 Days Later. How about that for a “first monster”? The fast zombie was an incredible way to make the whole genre scarier. Although so many of these recent innovations on ancient monsters (think sparkly vampires!) are indebted to supernatural and paranormal fiction. I haven’t read much Stephen King, but even he has written a zombie story!
Randall Flagg, evil with a man’s face. Not only did I read everything King had written up until then, but I sought out any apocalypse-like stories. My first zombie movie was Night of the Comet, which was about as eighties-themed as you could get. I was obsessed...partly because the worlds of these novels and movies tapped into our basest survival instincts, and at that time in my life, I needed stories in which people survived the unthinkable. I (poorly) wrote horror stories throughout high school, and even though I left fiction behind in college, the obsession stuck.
Zombies are the easiest way into my apocalyptic-survival obsession, which is really about all the rest of the humans.
Jennifer: I share this obsession with the apocalypse. And, really, it’s about the humans. Less monster-centric, more human-oriented. I think it’s interesting to note that there are different kinds of monsters out there in pop culture- and literary-land. When we were little, there seemed to be this preponderance of demon-possessions, haunted houses, The Exorcist, The Omen, et al. The monster came from within, maybe? There was also this lack of control. Escape seemed to have less to do with strategy, and more to do with luck. The move to the apocalypse and zombie stuff has to do with externalities. The essential human being is put in dire circumstances and forced to deal.
So we’re writers. As a writer, what is the monster appeal?
Lynn: I think I’ve always been curious about what part of me was monstrous enough as a child to invent the fantasy of a werewolf pimp. Beneath the surface somewhere, I was both parts of that narrative—femme fatale and innocent, villain and heroine. And it reflected something complex about my interpersonal relationships, even at an early age, how I felt, even then, like I was constantly mediating between bullies and their victims.
I think the idea of a monster is like a blank canvas for representations of moral questions—what makes us human and are those qualities good? The monster-figure tries to account for what is not wholly good in us, the parts of ourselves we want to hide away in the dark. The cultural space of the monster allows that discussion to come into the light.
Susan: Exactly, Lynn!
Jennifer: So, in philosophical terms, monsters are an opportunity for exploring the problem of evil. I like the word Lynn used: canvas.
Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates. This was an incredibly fast and dark book that really isn’t about zombies….It’s the mind of a man who wants to escape his own mind. Incredibly creepy, it haunted me, but gave me leave to strive to a more artistic approach to our base darkness.
Also, writing zombies is fun.
Jennifer: I have to admit that I have never tried my hand at zombie fiction. A friend of mine told me about Sarah Lyons Fleming, who—I don’t want to get this wrong—wrote some self-published zombie books, and I read the first one. Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven did actually whet my appetite for writing something apocalyptic. But it hasn’t happened. Definitely, though, the appeal is in how humans deal.
Susan: So if our monsters are mirrors, what do you think about the obsession for writers at large that helped create Dead Inside?
Jennifer: I think it really makes a lot of sense. Dead Inside, zombie-inspired, a tribute of sorts to The Walking Dead on TV, comes together in the midst of a perfect storm. The stakes are high; the plot is well-drawn. The monsters are externalities in form, and brainless—which means that it’s all about the humans, being human. A friend of mine liked the show less because the zombies were brainless. She said they were too easy to outsmart. I’d suggest this contrasts sharply with what is human. It sets us up to focus on the quandary of being human. The show is character-rich. Time is strained. Setting is booby-trapped. Tone is somber (this, I personally think, is one of the biggest strengths of the show; it refuses to degenerate into cheesiness, always going for realism. The painstaking humanity under pressure is the appeal).
Lynn: I like the classic nature of the zombies—slow-moving, brainless—in The Walking Dead. The writers of this show haven’t tried to re-invent the monster. Zombies are dangerous for the same reason democracy is dangerous—sheer masses, brute force. When enough of them pile on one side of a fence or door, they get through it. No brains needed. And that, for me as an intellectual, is the scariest thing ever. Our country run by brainless idiots, laws decided by people who couldn’t pass a basic freshman composition course because of the logical fallacies they commit. It scared John Adams, too, when he helped found our country. In a letter to his wife on July 3, 1776, he writes about his anxieties over the concept of majority rule: “The people will have unbounded power, and the people are extremely addicted to corruption and venality.” This next election feels like the apocalypse, amiright?
Jennifer: Someone just asked me if I think the zombies are symbolic. I think they may be, but I wouldn’t push this too far, probably. I think it’s really focused on the people, and the potential for symbol is mostly in the people. Rick as symbol, Morgan as symbol, Daryl as symbol, Carol as symbol, and Negan as symbol. The brainlessness draws our attention to those with brains. That said, I think there’s symbolic value—quite a bit of it—in the zombie horde. The horde of brainlessness...
I Am Legend haunted me for just this reason—what is left when we are reduced past the facades we put on every day to our most basic humanity? How is life changed for us, and how do we change the world around us, when we become the monster in the dark (Negan), or the man desperately clinging to his mask (Rick)?
Jennifer: I Am Legend got to me, too.
Susan: But I am married to a scientist. And part of the draw of zombie stories for me is our ability to imagine a feasible (albeit far-fetched) reality in which we might be able to reason our way to resolution. If the story isn’t character-rich, as Jennifer says, if the story doesn’t present us with danger that we know but ignore, as Lynn says, then the story is too far removed from me for a visceral response. And that’s the key that I think every writer strives to evoke in his or her audience—a visceral response.
Jennifer: Well, to be very writer-specific, we might ask what our own “writing monsters” are, or what challenges/obstacles do you face as a writer, especially as a “professional writer” (if we can call ourselves that)?
I could identify a ton! First and foremost is the vocational challenge. I’d like to think that I’m trying to make candor part of my aesthetic; I really try to be honest in my writing (who doesn’t?). So, in the interest of candor, let me say that choosing to go “professional” is my biggest monster. I’ve found that I’m a devoted writer; I’ll write like a fiend, meet deadlines, edit and revise, read voraciously. I’ve simultaneously found that I lack business savvy, and I offer little to the world of “real work.” Whatever that is. I’m sounding too cynical. I can hold down a job; it’s just that I’d always rather write or talk about writing. That’s my biggest monster.
Then there are the little monsters. My fiction voice tends to be more serious than my nonfiction voice. I don’t know what’s going on there. A monster?
I’ll expose myself in crazy ways for my writing; I really will. I like, very much, the idea of using my own life as an artistic palette. For the sake of narrative, I will truly violate my own privacy. The monster is, however, that I am not an island—not even close. I’m married with kids. So, I have to consider their privacy. This definitely introduces a tension in my writing—not a bad one. But I feel more drawn to fiction because I get to mess with the truth. Writing well, for me, often involves balancing on this tightrope of self-exposure and self-protection.
Lynn: I get how monstrous it is to live as a writer in terms of the ways you expose your personal life. I had a boyfriend once accuse me of purposefully creating drama in our relationship just so that I could write about it later. What does that Facebook meme say? Be careful not to make a writer mad or she will write about you? Yeah, that ex-boyfriend has become the villain in some of my creative nonfiction stories.
The thing I struggled with about that writing situation was ethical: if it was emotionally abusive of him to claim that I was “crazy” when I pointed out his wrongdoings, is it emotionally abusive of me in turn to write him as “crazy”? My essay in Dead Inside asks questions about this dynamic: how can the victims of abuse avoid creating more victims?
There’s no easy answer here, but this touches on probably my biggest writing monster, and it’s the reason I switched from academic writing (where five people will read your dissertation, if you’re lucky) to creative writing—the fear that no one will know me. The monster that haunts me, that pushes me to write, is the desire to be known. (And loved? I’d settle for known. It’s already asking enough).
Jennifer: Kudos to you for acknowledging that. My guess is that most writers want to be known.
Susan: My writing monster has always been the obsession…which includes this latest jag of zombie poems. I will create a maelstrom around a particular topic, and sometimes this obsession is the thing that gets me to write about the thing that really matters. For instance, when I was writing my first poetry collection, I started obsessing about Antarctica; lo and behold, a book of Antarctic poems was born. While trying to focus on Little Oblivion, I wrote poems (an entire book’s worth) about two fictitious men and their relationship. So I suppose I’m saved by my writing monster, even though its distraction means I take longer to get where I’m going.
Jennifer: Do monsters figure into your own work, apart from this project?
I think my fiction “worries” over the problem of evil, the monster within, the monster with a human face, how seemingly normal people are secret monsters, how everyone might really be a monster, how the monster is not so far-fetched. How’s that for stream of consciousness?
Lynn: Like Jennifer was saying earlier in her reading of The Walking Dead, in my work people are the monsters. I write a lot about relationships between men and women in both my poetry and my creative nonfiction. Romantic relationships are filled with monstrosity because Hollywood narratives have led us to believe that true human connection is something other than what it really is. Although I don’t often deal with the fairytale genre, I essentially write about how Snow White and her prince become The Munster family.
Susan: Someone once told me that my poems seemed to be a distiller of identity; that they hold a mirror up to the self and allow us to see ourselves as strangers, all the better to experience and react to our raw emotions. So while these are my first external monsters, the monsters in my other work come out of the self.
Lynn: I wanted to conclude by saying that the zombie horde is a powerful force because of its numbers, just as the survivors of an apocalypse can do better things for each other when they band together. We saw this in the Alexandria community in The Walking Dead, and also in the Hilltop community. When the survivors collaborate, they can get haircuts again, hot showers, grow crops. We won’t mention how that is also how things start to fall apart, when you want to stand up for and protect a larger group, your tribe, or how individual morality can corrode a group. This project, Dead Inside—the three of us producing this volume of twenty-six poems and six essays on zombies—is a testament to the power of the group. It has been a fantastic experience to work together with the two of you.
Jennifer: Likewise, I’m sure.
Susan: Indeed! The human, thinking collective wins over the horde every time.
Lynn Marie Houston holds a Ph.D. in English from Arizona State and is currently completing her M.F.A. at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of The Clever Dream of Man (Aldrich Press), a book of poetry about her relationships with men which won 1st place in the 2016 Connecticut Press’s statewide literary competition and then went on to take 2nd place in the nationwide contest of the National Federation of Press Women. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Word Riot, Squalorly, Bluestem, Full Grown People, Cleaver, and other journals. She has held writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Sundress Academy for the Arts. For more about her work, visit lynnmhouston.wordpress.com
Susan Allspaw Pomeroy defies writerly expectations by marrying the life of a poetess with that of a scientist/techie. Not surprisingly, the poet takes precedence. She is the author of Little Oblivion, a poetry collection that gives voice to Antarctica’s stark, impressionable landscape—which came out of her voyage to the South Pole during her 15-year tenure with the US Antarctic Program. Though equipped with the requisite English and Creative Writing degrees, she’s also a security program manager for an email service provider. Additionally, she’s been a visiting writer for universities in Denver.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (a story collection) and Love Slave (a novel). Currently, she is at work on both a novel and a memoir-in-almost-real-time. She is also half of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing gig with Lara Smith (onelitchick.com). Besides writing, Jennifer teaches and does the mom-thing. When she watches TV with her husband, she pretends it’s an academic endeavor.