Today, we’re talking with Craig DiLouie, author of several novels including Tooth and Nail, The Infection and his latest, The Killing Floor.
Thanks for having me, James.
Can you provide a brief summary of The Killing Floor?
Absolutely. The Killing Floor, published by Permuted Press, is the sequel to The Infection, although it can be read as a standalone novel. It picks up right where The Infection left off, while introducing new elements and a new story arc to make the story fresh.
My first zombie novel, Tooth and Nail (Salvo Press, 2010), described by one reviewer as Blackhawk Down meets 28 Days Later, tells the story of a company of infantrymen deployed in New York City during the zombie apocalypse. As military forces in the city get chewed up by the growing numbers of infected, the Army decides to abandon the city, leaving behind Charlie Company to rescue an important scientist. Gritty, violent and realistic, the novel invites the reader to become embedded with Charlie Company and experience firsthand the thrill, brutality and horror of bloody pitched battles with the people they swore an oath to defend.
My next zombie novel, The Infection (Permuted Press, 2011), described by one reviewer as The Road meets 28 Days Later, begins a new story in a new universe, focusing on five people trying to survive as the country collapses around them. This novel has much of the same action, brutality and horror of Tooth and Nail, but with much deeper characterization. In The Infection, the survivors are not running around bickering while scoring perfect headshots. They are deeply damaged people surviving minute to minute against impossible odds in an environment that looks familiar but is now extremely deadly. It’s a story about survival, and its psychological cost, and the big questions that go with that.
The Killing Floor (Permuted Press, 2012) was written with the intent of combining the best elements of my first two zombie novels. It picks up right where The Infection left off, with Ray Young believing he is infected. He survives infection, but he is not immune. Instead, he has been turned into a superweapon that could end the world … or save it. This was my first sequel, and I worked hard to avoid phoning it in, so to speak. I wanted the reader to feel comfortable with the familiar while showing them something new and exciting. So we see all the same characters from The Infection while meeting several new characters, and with a story arc that picks up where The Infection ended, but stands on its own. Among our familiar characters, we get much more deeply into the head of Anne, who was something of a mystery for most of The Infection; she’s one of the best characters I’ve ever written, and adds a lot of strength to the read. We also meet several new characters, including a science adviser who witnesses the evacuation of the White House, and a sergeant in the military force tasked with retaking the capital from the Infected. New themes are explored, such as what responsibility we have to others during such a crisis, and whether one should be willing to give one’s life if it meant saving the world. While The Infection is written in episodes, The Killing Floor reads more like a thriller, with even more action than its predecessor. I’m happy with how it turned out, and I hope fans of The Infection will agree.
Your readers, by the way, can learn about any of these books at my website, www.craigdilouie.com, where I also blog about books, movies, short films, TV shows and other interesting items spanning the world of apocalyptic horror.
Some of your earlier works were science fiction, The Great Planet Robbery as one example, what led you to move into the zombie/horror genre?
For most of my writing career, there was no zombie genre. I’ve always been fascinated by apocalyptic fiction, and for most of my life almost all such works were in the science fiction section of bookstores, while the horror section was dominated by Stephen King and vampires. Then I became familiar with authors like Joe McKinney and David Moody, and subsequently Permuted Press, all of whom pioneered in my view what we now call the zombie fiction genre. I had an idea for a novel I always wanted to read—Tooth and Nail—and decided to try my hand at writing it. The zombie fiction reading community gave it a warm welcome, which led to The Infection, and to The Killing Floor. My next novel, for which I’m nearing completion, is also apocalyptic horror. It’s a fantastic genre with an amazing fan community, and I intend to continue writing in this genre as long as people keep reading my books.
Even though, Tooth and Nail, The Infection and The Killing Floor have zombies in them, there is still a touch of science fiction that bleeds through. Was this something you did to stay true to the sci-fi genre or was it just a little bit of your previous work slipping out?
I love the classic zombie formula of total strangers forced to work together to survive while their world goes to hell, and everyone they knew and loved is now hunting them. This follows the classic horror formula of here’s the normal, here’s the horror element that changes everything, and then we end up with new normal. But I have my own take. I am more fascinated with the apocalypse itself—the outbreak and collapse—more than the post-apocalyptic world when the collapse is over and it’s just a few people against hordes of zombies. The actual collapse is the most exciting part—take the first thirty minutes of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, for example—and in my view offers many more opportunities for interesting stories to be told. I also interpret “zombie” more broadly than the purists would prefer—I define it as any normal person turned into a violent automaton. My zombies are living people infected with a virus that compels them to attack others to communicate infection, so they’re alive and fast and only eat the dead when they have to for food. That kind of scenario to me is simply more realistic and frightening than the shambling dead. As a reader, though, I love all kinds of zombies, as long as the story is well told. Namely, that the story is about people I care about responding realistically to what is happening to them in a realistic setting. Give that to me, and I’m happy.
The Infection and The Killing Floor contain a significant science fiction element in the nature of Infection itself, and various mutations among the Infected that spawn things best described as monsters, which are disgusting, vicious and scary. While I believe in the classic zombie formula, I also believe writers should innovate in some way to distinguish their work and keep the genre fresh. I was writing The Infection, and after a certain scene where the survivors fight off a small horde of Infected, I thought, well that’s great, but where do I go from here? The reader now knows my zombies and the rules governing their behavior, which would have made the story somewhat predictable. Some writers deal with this dilemma by injecting conflict between the people in a group, or conflict between the group and other groups, such as marauding biker gangs. I wanted the threat to remain focused on the creature element, and so I created various monsters that spawned among the Infected. These monsters are explained in The Killing Floor; Infection, it turns out, is an organism whose sole purpose is to create life in endless competition to produce the perfect life form. Unfortunately, humans are now part of the food chain, somewhere near the bottom. I believe this innovation enhanced the book by keeping the threat focused on the creature element, making the story unpredictable and much more terrifying. While many readers have enjoyed this, resulting in the commercial and literary success of The Infection, some purists hate it, and that’s okay—the genre is now filled with writers offering quality novels for every taste. It’s truly a great time to be a fan of this genre, as there are so many choices of good writers out there.
Some authors put themselves on a strict schedule of achieving a certain word count each day, is this something that you adhere to or do you have another set of motivators?
I don’t believe in writing when you’re not ready to write. While discipline is vital, writing should never be forced. For me, I can produce a novel a year, as I have huge demands on my time and energy with two young children and a very rewarding technical writing and consulting business. That being said, I’m always writing, as I don’t define writing as typing. When I’m not typing, I’m constantly thinking about my current novel, imagining scenes and dialogue while my subconscious works on various plot questions and problems. You can always find me with a notebook in my back pocket and a pen; I fill up tons of these notebooks over time, and when I’m ready to start typing, I know exactly where I’m going. I also constantly read other authors, from whom I am always learning about the craft.
When you sit down and write what is your perfect writing environment, i.e., quiet, music, a specific room in the house?
What helps get you in the mood? Watching classic horror films or…?
Writing a novel is a massive labor. I don’t believe in filler copy; every page, every sentence, has to entertain the reader, deliver conflict and plot questions that compel the reader to turn the page, and accelerate the plot towards its climax. What drives me to go through all of this, when I could be doing something else, is a vision of what the book will look like when it’s done. I picture myself reading it; I picture other people reading it. That drives me more than anything. Seeing the finished story in my mind, and seeing it as something beautiful I want to create. As far as the right environment, I’m afraid there’s nothing exciting to tell you. I sit in my quiet home office like a statue for hours, eyes glued to my monitor.
Placing yourself into the ‘Universe’ of Tooth and Nail, The Infection and The Killing Floor, do you think that you could survive such events and who would you choose to be part of your group?
It depends on human nature. If human nature is truly every man for himself, I would do everything in my power to protect my family, but would ultimately have a hard time surviving. But I don’t believe human nature is that way. I believe people are essentially collaborators. Looking at previous disasters and how people have responded, I believe most people would band together around a strong leader personality and try to help each other survive. This would be my best chance, as I simply lack the resources and skills to be completely self sufficient.
Are there any plans to add to the Universe you’ve created as in a sequel, maybe a stand-alone novel or novella that continues the storyline that’s already been established in previous novels?
I’m currently working on a new novel that is apocalyptic horror, but an entirely different story. I have an agent highly motivated to represent it, and my hope is that it will be placed with a major publisher, which would give me bookstore distribution. While sales have been incredible for my zombie novels through online retailers, store distribution and the positive marketing benefits of being affiliated with a large publisher would be a major step up for me as a writer, and so I will give that a shot. That being said, there are two projects that might be in the works. First is a possible movie deal for Tooth and Nail, and second is a possible anthology of short stories, written by a collection of great authors, set in The Infection universe. And one never says never. One day, I would love to revisit the world of The Infection and The Killing Floor, and add a third novel.
Tooth and Nail was a separate novel about a military unit cut off on New York City during a zombie or what you refer to as a ‘mad dog’ outbreak. Was there a lot of research involved for that book in regard to streets, locations and buildings that you wanted to use in New York? What about getting the information on military units, tactics and weapons?
I lived in New York City for seven years, and know its streets and neighborhoods well. For The Infection, I wrote a lot about Pittsburgh, which I’ve visited but didn’t know well, so I did a ton of research, including using Google Map video to “drive” from Pittsburgh to Steubenville. I try to research almost everything in my books to make them as realistic as possible for several reasons. I believe that the more realistic the setting and action, the more horrifying the monsters will be that populate it. I also believe that realism immerses the reader more deeply into the story, enhancing their willing suspension of disbelief, which is that magic that allows writers and readers to connect with a shared vision using words on a printed page. For the military aspects of my novels, I research everything fairly meticulously because I also want to provide a fairly realistic depiction of how the military might actually respond during an apocalyptic event, and to show some basic respect for what people in the service do for a living. This involved reading military manuals, books written by veterans, and a ton of Internet reading. For my latest book, I was happy to work with you to help me vet and enrich the accuracy of the military content. You were a big help.
Your publisher, Permuted Press, has a lot of authors that write in the horror/apocalyptic genre, was this a publisher you sought out or did they seek you out based on your work?
I sought Permuted Press. They were a major pioneer of the genre and at that time they were the major player. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get Tooth and Nail completed in time for their review cycle, so I worked with Salvo Press, which published my other two novels. While Salvo is a great company, Permuted specializes in quality zombie fiction, and so I wanted to work with them. After Tooth and Nail became successful, the feeling became mutual, and Permuted quickly agreed to publish The Infection and signed me up for its sequel. Permuted is great to work with. They’re a small press, but they provide proofreading support and some marketing, and the publisher is a good guy who is responsive and honest in his dealings. I would recommend them to any writer interested in getting published in this genre.
As you’re attending Crypticon Seattle 2012 in May, is this your first horror/zombie con?
My first horror con was ZombCon last September in Seattle. It was an opportunity for me to meet fans, sign some books and talk shop with some of Permuted Press’s other great authors such as Peter Clines, Bowie Ibarra and David Snell. I was sad when it ended; I could have talked shop with them for another week straight. So I’m jazzed about attending Crypticon May 25-27.
Is there any advice you can pass on to authors who are attempting to ‘break into’ the horror genre?
I wrote an article that answers this very question, which I would offer as a much more comprehensive response than I could give here: http://craigdilouie.com/writing-the-zombie-novel-lessons-on-craft/.
Thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and your readers, James! I enjoyed it. On a final note, I wanted to say it has been an incredible experience to see these novels achieve the success they have, which has been both gratifying and humbling, and I’m thankful for the many people in the zombie fiction reader community who keep this genre going with their enthusiasm and support. These people keep me writing.