If you visited the blog yesterday, you would have seen my glowing review for the new zombie/addiction novel, Fiend by Peter Stenson. I’m so in love this this book that I want to help promote it anyway possible. I recently interviewed Peter where we talked zombies, drug addiction, writing, and horror. Check out our interview below (and when you’re done, don’t forget to pick up a copy of Fiend).
While some may say the zombie genre is getting a bit tired, you found a way to write a unique narrative – the notion that meth addicts are the only survivors. What steered you in that direction?
I believe the parallels between a severely addicted meth addict and a zombie are fairly obvious—sores, stumbling, somewhat incoherent speech, violence, an insatiable need for more—so combining the two was natural. I thought it would be interesting to see how the two groups played off one another. Of course any horror novel is really “about” something other than the monster/zombie/creature, and having personally experienced drug addiction in the past, I knew I could use the physical manifestation of zombies to illustrate the horrors of addiction.
As someone who has a past with drug addiction, was Fiend tough to write, or did you find it more cathartic?
I actually found it pretty darn cathartic to write. For the most part, Fiend is an examination of how miserable addiction is. I wrote about the losses and the loneliness and guilt and remorse and the deterioration of one’s moral compass as the disease progresses. For me, it’s good to remember those moments when all you want to do is hit restart. To undo every choice you’ve made. To be the person you know you’re capable of being. Remembering these moments is humbling, in a good way. However, I will say it was a little difficult to write the scenes where my POV character was experiencing the pleasurable side of ingesting a drug. Those memories are a little dangerous to linger over for too long.
I loved the book, and one thing that really stood out to me was your characterizations of the major players. What character was your favorite to write?
The Albino was definitely the most fun to write. He was vile and disgusting and paranoid, yet he turned out to be the only one who was actually prepared for an apocalypse of this sort. Initially, I intended for him to be a little creepier than he was, but everything he did made me laugh, so I rolled with it. He was a happy surprise in the first draft.
What prompted you to give your zombies the chuckling trait?
I don’t think anything is scarier than a person who takes pleasure in violence. Nothing. When writing Fiend, I wondered how to add real menace to my zombies, and laughter seemed like a good choice. I’m not insinuating my zombies are conscious enough to take pleasure in killing, but the laughter suggests a maniacal mindset, one that would find some perverse enjoyment in terrorizing others.
One thing that got to me on more than one occasion is the horror of drug addiction vs. the horror of a zombie apocalypse. At one point, I had a hard time determining which would be more horrifying. Because of this, Fiend worked on so many levels and left me with such a feeling of dread throughout. It’s been over a week since I read the book, and I still think about it daily. I’m curious if my reaction to the book is similar to what you’ve been told?
I’m glad you had that reaction (although I’m sorry for the continued feelings of dread). I would have to say that yes, there are a lot of people who’ve commented on that dual threat in the book and how well these threats played off one another, which prompted a questioning as to which horror was actually worse. I’ve heard a lot of feedback about people reading the novel in a single day, but being hung up on it ever since. This makes me happy. But there are also some people out there who hated the book. Maybe that’s because it’s dirty, violent, and explicit—or maybe it’s just not the straightforward zombie action story many genre readers expect. It’s definitely not a book for everybody, but I think that’s ultimately a good thing.
As someone with an MFA, I’m curious what advice or lesson you learned while working towards your degree that stuck with you and made you a better writer?
My advisor and mentor at Colorado State University, Steven Schwartz, told me it was okay to write about my obsessions. When he told me that, it was like he was granting me permission to infuse my stories with addiction and heartbreak and sexuality and broken people struggling to trudge on. For whatever reason, these are things I’m interested in. That single piece of advice was invaluable—it suddenly made me feel liberated from trying to conform to much of the contemporary fiction out there.
Do you plan on staying in the horror genre with your writing, or will you be branching out?
I’ll be branching out. I’ve recently finished up two novels. One’s on the literary side of the spectrum, kind of a five-person narrative about infidelity and art and sexuality and raising children. The other novel is my take on the superhero genre—part satire about the rising Right, part hero narrative—which was beyond fun to write.