By Tony Williams.
I had no intention of sending off Romero in anything less than grand style.”
As discussed in my review essay, novelist Daniel Kraus began conceiving The Living Dead (New York: Tor Books, 2020) with Romero at a time when creative frustration with the film industry began to dominate the filmmaker, even more than it did before. Below, Kraus discusses the collaboration, based, in part, on initial drafts written by Romero, two chapters from the earlier conceived “The Death of Death” written for a website, a short story “Outpost #5,” a nine-page letter where Romero described where he intended to take various plot threads, and Romero’s published “John Doe” which outlines the opening chapters of The Living Dead.
First please excuse me for not reading more of your work. The current pandemic made this impossible and I managed to read as much as I could of your Zebulon Finch novels available in my local public library.
In your Afterword, you mention that George’s manager Chris Roe asked you to complete this unfinished epic novel. Obviously, you were familiar with his work but from the critical reviews I’ve read of your other books, I detect a familiarity with the cultural context that influences you both such as the family horror film and social critique. When I attended his talk at the Siskel Center in Chicago during 2000, George mentioned that at the time he was keeping up with other horror films and liked Scary Movie (2000).
The picture I received from his wife Suz was that, at least in the last decade in his life, he wasn’t keeping up with horror at all. But of course his interest in social ills kept going strong; in that same last decade, he did all of his writing with CNN on the TV in front of him, so he had a direct funnel of disaster pouring directly into conscious and subconscious mind. I don’t work like that, but have a sensitivity to it, for sure.
The offer came at a time you must have finished the second Zebulon Finch book. What were your feelings towards writing another epic novel?
If it were anything but this project, I probably would have been wary of it; the Zebulon Finch books, written at top speed for various reasons, were draining. But I was actually excited to see that Romero had set up something epic with his manuscript. I have given his work a lot of thought over the years and felt I might have something to contribute. I had no intention of sending off Romero in anything less than grand style.
The Zebulon Finch novels show a deep awareness of the dark side of American history while The Living Dead reveals many aspects of the its present dark side such as gender and racial discrimination. I assume this is part of your exploratory interest?
Yes. Growing up as I did with Romero’s films, his concern for such issues became my own concerns fairly naturally. His distrust of American institutions is seeded inside me, and in the years since Romero’s passing, there have only been more reasons to solidify that distrust, and to reflect it with all of my books, this one most of all.
The Afterword supplies us with much information concerning the process of constructing The Living Dead especially when you mention that two chapters of “The Death of Death,” “Outpost 5,” and George’s 9 page plot threads appeared when you work was in progress (p.645) Helpful, though these were, it must have created some headaches in revision?
It did! It felt like solving a constantly shifting, revolving puzzle. But it also gave me a bit of the pushback that I crave when working with a collaborator; it slowed me down and made me reconsider plans in light of sometimes contradictory ideas. Romero’s text was finite so anything that I could find a way to incorporate, I did. These were positive headaches.
You also mention (p. 747) that George intended to supply an ending as he wrote on his old site when he received a terminal diagnosis but when this happened “all business ceased.” Did Suzanne (Romero’s widow) supply any ideas as to what exactly he had in mind?
No. Suzanne reports that, after Romero received his diagnosis, all work matters ceased immediately and there were no further discussions regarding the book. Thankfully, pieces of the manuscript indicated to me how the story should end, sometimes explicitly, and I found further evidence in his other work and his commentary on it.
Is the Toronto section your own work or does it have some of George’s ideas there?
Honestly, it’s a bit hard to remember at this point who did what in that section! I believe the lion’s share of it is mine, but it works in pieces of his manuscript at the very least, and definitely follows the direction of the notes and passages he left behind. Much of it was based on my read (explained in the Author’s Note) of the general arc of the zombie uprising, following logically from the advent of zombie animals, the realization of the non-cannibalistic nature of zombies, and the simple facts of what would happen in a world where zombies had nothing left upon which to feed.
I believe in an interview you gave earlier this year you mention The Living Dead was intended to be a “capstone” to his work, “the final word on the topic” to conclude the story. I like the fact you emphasize that George was more interested in character rather than zombies and had little interest in the horror genre itself.
Well, that’s my interest, too. Again, that’s based on a youth spent watching Romero films and Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. I do think it’s important to realize that, though this does end the zombie story in some ways, the zombie universe as he sketched it out remains expansive, and in theory, there could be more stories to tell inside it. It’s also important to recollect that zombie films were only part of his filmography.
It is early days now so how do you hope readers will approach The Living Dead? (Between us, I hope they will understand the zombie element as “perfunctory” and see the wider picture.)
It’s a tricky balance, because I want the book to exist as a story that can be read by someone who has no knowledge of George Romero; I think that’s how he approached his zombie films. That said, I also wanted to reward those who have studied his work more carefully. I think the book, more than the films, might stymie those fans only in it for the gore. Romero’s manuscript made it very clear where his interests lay and I tried to honor that.
The creative process in writing and film is difficult to articulate. I’m not expecting a detailed reply but could you mention something about how you felt when you went on this artistic journey. The interview states you collaborated according to what you saw in his films and felt where his “spirit” was. (Perhaps you can elaborate on filling in the gaps and it being a Romero-Kraus book as you do in that interview?)
As hard as I worked to develop the book in the spirit of George Romero, the hard reality of it was that my task wasn’t one of simply gluing together the seams. A lot of the book was going to have to come from my own imagination, and for that reason, it has to be read as a Romero/Kraus book, not strictly a Romero one. To present it any other way would be dishonest. I tried to tread carefully, but pointedly too—I don’t think George would have wanted someone to tiptoe around safely. He liked to stir things up and make a noise, and I tried to keep that in mind too.
The point you make about “hardening the heart” is a very central and poignant one. It occurs in both your Zebulon Finch novels as crucial towards understanding The Living Dead. I’m assuming that you also find this very important towards understanding George’s work?
That’s right. If you are as cynical as Romero seems to be in some of his work, and me in my own, why would you carry on with life? You have to protect a bit of your own heart when moving through what, for both Romero and I, was/is an increasingly unfair and unjust world. One reason you might carry on is to help or inspire others so that they can forge a happier life by being aware of the darker forces among us. To me, Romero’s catchphrase of “Stay Scared” means to stay vigilant. For an artist, that means to create art that reflects, and thereby cautions against, complacency to evils, perhaps especially the insidious, slow-moving evils. Zombies are slow too, remember—but after a while, they catch up to you.
1) See Op. Cit. pp. 638,643-645; George A. Romero, “John Doe,” Nights of the Living Dead. Eds. Jonathan Maberry and George A. Romero. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017, pp. 97-114.
Tony Williams is an independent writer and a Contributing Editor to Film International.