I recently enjoyed sitting down with Jaron Lee Knuth, author of AFTER LIFE and other books.
Craig: Welcome, Jaron! What have you contributed to the genre? What’s your best known work? Tell us about it.
Jaron: My first novel was a love story, set during the zombie apocalypse, entitled AFTER LIFE. It follows the two main characters as they face the extreme measures they must take in order to ensure their own survival, and adapt to the changing world. I wanted to deal with both the emotional fallout of their relationship and the end-of-the-world scenario that is happening just outside their door.
Craig: What type of storytelling in the genre do you consider your niche?
Jaron: I really like character-driven stories, yet I love the action, horror, and gore that goes with zombie and post-apocalyptic writing in general. Speaking of zombie literature specifically, one of my main goals was to tell a “classic” tale. Sometimes I have a hard time getting into zombie stories written by authors that stray too far away from my comfort zone, all in the name of “adding their own spin” to the mythos. While uniqueness is a admiral trait, I tend to want something very specific from my zombie stories, and if they are suddenly able to climb walls like a spider, speak intelligently, breathe fire, or whatever random twist you may find, it doesn’t scratch that very specific itch that I have. I write the book I want to read.
Craig: What makes zombies so interesting to write about?
Jaron: Obviously, every story is different, but for me zombies represent so many things, in such a beautifully metaphoric way, that they become powerful symbols of my own fears of death, mob mentality, gluttony, mindlessness, and amoral murder. Yet, beyond those fears is an enemy that is conquerable. Perhaps it’s an unrealistic fantasy, but there is a certain satisfaction in the idea that no matter how bad it gets, I might have a chance of surviving this kind of apocalypse. Nuclear fallout doesn’t leave me with the same hopefulness.
Craig: As writer, do you prefer fast or slow zombies, and living or undead? Building on these basic themes, what do you consider to be your own trademark or unique innovation as an author?
Jaron: I need to give two answers. Fast, living zombies scare me more. First, the speed just makes them more of a threat, and the fact that they are still living creates a moral conundrum that would make me hesitate for far too long before pulling the trigger (or swinging the machete as it were.) Slow, undead zombies are just more fun. It feels much more easy to survive, and the idea that they “aren’t the same person we knew” makes it much easier to cave in their skulls.
My own take on the monsters is a simple one. I never understood the combination of “viral infection through biting” and “hunger for flesh” at the same time. Do they want to eat you, or do they want to enlist you in their undead army? Can it be both? In AFTER LIFE the zombies hunger only for the flesh of the living, and anyone who dies becomes a zombie, whether they are shot by another human, or killed when a zombie bites into their neck. And the zombies start out fast, if the corpse is fresh, slowing as the corpse decays. I wanted to keep the mythology simple, yet unexplained. Most likely supernatural, without any real answers.
Craig: Which writers do you particularly admire, and what did each teach you about the craft or profession of writing?
Jaron: My personal list of influential authors is huge, and continues to grow with every book I read. J.D. Salinger taught me at a young age that novels could speak directly to me. F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell taught me about symbolism, and the meaning behind (and in between) the words. Stephen King taught me the glory of unpretentious, blue-collar fiction, written for entertainment. Douglas Coupland taught me not to shy away from the mediocre things, and that even the smallest, dullest item can have a powerful meaning in someone’s life. Bret Easton Ellis taught me to stop writing such long sentences, and keep it concise. Brian Michael Bendis taught me to write dialogue realistically, with stops and starts that reflect a character’s own indecisiveness. Mark Millar taught not to shy away from big ideas. Even the authors I don’t admire, or that I actively despise, have taught me what not to do. If I don’t try and learn something from their writing, than reading really would be a waste of time.
Craig: What’s the last book in the genre that you particularly enjoyed?
Jaron: One of the reasons I wrote AFTER LIFE was because I had started so many novels that I couldn’t finish because of unconventional mythology that was too far away from what I was looking for. But the few zombie novels I’ve read and enjoyed are probably quite obvious. I really liked WORLD WAR Z, CELL and I’m not sure I will ever read enough of THE WALKING DEAD comic series. In the post-apocalypse genre, I liked THE ROAD and perhaps less conventional: ARIEL.
Craig: Which of the following appeals to you most about the genre—zombies, survival horror, apocalypse—and why?
Jaron: I think the survival aspect of the genre has always been the most appealing, and that stems from my childhood. I was raised in the eighties, during the Reagan administration, with the Russian superpower looming over me at all times, and the threat of nuclear war just around the corner. My father had a large stockpile of weapons (for “hunting”) and I was raised on movies like RED DAWN, MAD MAX and THE DAY AFTER. I would daydream about exiting my fallout shelter and finding a barren wasteland to roam around, scavenging for food with a gas mask strapped to my face and my trusty dog sidekick to alert me to danger. It may have been a twisted fantasy for a child, but it was one that appealed to a boy that possibly needed to believe that outcome was possible, when during dinner the nightly news was telling him that total annihilation was perhaps more of a realistic endgame.
Craig: What is your approach to writing? How do you complete a novel?
Jaron: My approach is complete obsessiveness. I drown myself in my work. When I have gotten past the outlining stage and actually start the writing process, I write full-time, every day, until the first draft is complete. I usually take a break after that, (no less than a week) and step away from the words to let myself recuperate. The second and third draft are hammered out after that, then submitted to my editor. We try to work together during that process, going through the entire novel, line-by-line. I’m lucky enough to trust her viewpoint completely and she truly makes my words shine. It’s possibly one of my favorite parts of writing, because the story gets all of it’s rough edges smoothed out, and I finally start to see something I can be proud of. Up to that point is a self-destructive, self-loathing spiral of contempt for every word I write, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Craig: What are the key elements to a great story, and how do you approach them?
Jaron: I’ve read interviews with so many authors who say something completely different, but I have to admit that when I’m writing, I always start with the plot. Once I have a complete idea (three acts, and I have to know how it will end) I move onto the pacing. I want my story to flow right. I start as close to the end as possible, and I don’t linger after the climax. Once I have this, I get to my favorite part: The characters. No story is worth while if it isn’t filled with characters you care about. Characters that you can relate to, yet show you something you’ve never seen before. Characters that make you feel safe, yet surprise you at the same time.
Craig: What are you working on? What can we expect next from you?
Jaron: I just published my fourth novel LEVEL ZERO, a dystopian cyberpunk adventure targeted at young adults, yet the story has been warmly received by readers of all ages. Every new book I write has been completely different from the last, and I’m having fun exploring different genres. I’m still in the early development process of my next novel, but I’m always tempted to return to the post-apocalyptic genre. I’m sure I have a lot more to say about the wastelands…
Craig: Thanks for joining us today, Jaron!
Jaron: Thanks Craig! Those were really enjoyable questions.