Michelle Kilmer is the author of When the Dead, a psychologically captivating and dramatic novel following the lives of numerous survivors during the apocalypse. I loved her book and knew I needed to pick her brain. The end of this interview has some questions that could be considered spoilers, but in my opinion they’ll just make you want to read her book even more.
EK: First things first: did you consciously make an effort to focus more on the human side of the zompocalypse, or did it come naturally?
MK: It came naturally for sure. Once I decided on my characters and their basic traits, they really started to write themselves and the dynamics between them became more complex. I kept trying to get more zombie in the story but the very basis of the book is a group of people staying put in hopes of staying safe. Because of the concept I found myself focusing more on the troubles that arise when personalities conflict or mesh in a difficult time. Even the original idea for the story (an extremely different idea) focused on two main, living characters with only occasional clashes with the dead.
EK: What is your process like? Do you write scenes in a linear fashion or just as inspiration strikes?
MK: My process, very much like the zombie apocalypse, is pure chaos. Seriously. I even feel like the word ‘process’ sounds much too organized for the way I work. I had the ending written early on and then I followed with some of the first scenes of Isobel navigating the crumbling world. At that point it was first-person narrated and I ran out of scenes that I liked. When I switched to third-person omniscient narration the story and the characters opened up. But still, STILL, I wrote unordered scenes. At some point I wrote the first chapter and then began to focus on finding some structure and flow to the collection of moments I had created. Near the end of my work on the book, I finally decided that I liked the way the chapters worked together and adding anything more might break or overstuff it.
EK: You have a unique array of characters. How did they come to be? (did you take influence from people you know, etc.)
MK: Like I mentioned, Isobel was first. She is not inspired by anyone and I actually feel like she is one of the least developed. This might have happened because of the strong/strange characters that she ends up surrounded by. Their stories tend to outshine her rather plain existence. The others were born more from the ideas I wanted to touch on and the scenes I felt hadn’t been written in the genre before. Not one of the characters is based on anyone I know. One of the group’s adversaries is named Rachel, after my younger sister. I did this in thanks for her being my first reader. (But some thanks it was ; ) ) Other than her name though, the character shares no traits. Oh, also the dog Cheddar is based on EVERY Golden Retriever I have met in my past as a dog groomer. Friendly dogs, those Goldens.
EK: Since you have quite a few characters throughout the book, do you have a favorite?
MK: I’m simultaneously in love with and saddened by Gabe. Children are so resilient and fantastic things come from their brains but I fear for any child that grows up surrounded by death and drama. People can be so fucked up by troubles in childhood. I like Vaughn too. He could almost be the badass savior of any other zombie novel but his love of booze, antisocial tendencies and bi-polar behavior make him a sad case destined for failure.
EK: How has being self-published been going for you so far? Any thoughts on the ups and downs of it yet?
MK: Being self-published is a mixed bag. I have the ‘I did it myself’ sense of satisfaction. I’m proud of the work I’ve done and excited to share it any chance I get. I love having creative control. On the flip side, if I slack in marketing efforts it shows in slowing sales. I appreciate that having a publisher would give me a built-in audience. As it stands now, I have to stalk people and ask at awkward moments if they “like zombies”. And then, even if they say no, I still plug my book. Hahahahaha. But seriously, I’ve secured a few sales that way. I’m getting ready to vend at Crypticon in May, which is amazing since a year ago at the same convention I hadn’t even finished the book yet.
EK: Do you have anything in the works? The fan in me always has to ask if there will be a sequel/spinoff, is there any chance of that?
MK: I have more in the works than I can remember half the time. I am currently working on a zombie short story collection with my twin sister. It loosely ties into When the Dead in a semi-prequel sort of way. Another piece I am writing is a short story for an anthology. The third project is something super secret that I cannot reveal and the fourth, a real prequel to When the Dead that traces the origins of the plague. Something else I’ve been kicking around is a super short follow up to When the Dead. Many readers have written to tell me they want to know what happens to the survivors of Willow Brook. Also, several of them have expressed concern over Cheddar’s unplanned abandonment. The outpouring for this fictional dog is incredible.
EK: Now, moving onto some other things. You have an amazing trailer for the book. What was it like creating it? Any funny moments during the process?
MK: Making the trailer was an incredible experience. I’ve been dreaming of making my book into a movie for a long time. I can see it so clearly in my head, you know? Having an opportunity to turn my words into movement and mood was something I couldn’t pass up. I had great and talented people around me including Shayla Jones of Phantom Light Media (she hired the videographer, storyboarded with me and an illustrator named Sarah Altenburg, and directed on set with me), my twin sister Becky (on zombie makeup), Domenic Barbero behind the camera (providing creative solutions and beautiful video work) and a friend of mine on the table as the infected. I did the post-production work as well and secured the song from a local band. It went so smoothly and turned out better than I imagined. So overall it was a huge learning experience for me. I want to make another video for a zombie song I wrote. We’ll see!
As for funny moments, there is a scene where I am picking up tools from a disgusting drawer. Well, during filming the fake blood was making the gauze tissue stick to my hand and the tools. It was near impossible to get a good shot. Also, the actor on the table had to put up with a lot. He lay half-naked on a steel table for five hours in a cold cement garage. We put onion in his eyes to make them watery smelly liquid latex on his lips to mimic chapping. We also iced his skin and blew a fan on him to create goose bumps. If there’s an award for ‘putting up with shit’, he won it that day.
EK: What are your favorite zombie movies?
MK: Dawn of the Dead (remake 2004), Shaun of the Dead, Boy Eats Girl, Otto; or Up with Dead People, Return of the Living Dead 3, 28 Days Later (if it counts). I could keep listing them but I think these ones top my list for creative, creepy and cool. And I have to mention that I love Dead Island for xBox 360 and I am eagerly anticipating Riptide.
EK: Realistically, what do you think your chances of surviving the zombie apocalypse are? Why?
MK: Realistically: My machete needs to be sharpened and my apartment lacks enough storage to keep an adequate food stash. I’m scared of guns and my husband says I talk too loud. I live within ten blocks of a major hospital, a police station and a mall. I’m fairly confident that I have no more than a 40% chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse.
What I have going for me: I’m smart. I know my adversary. I have a machete, albeit dull. I don’t want to die (and that counts for something!). There are plenty of options for looting around me and I live on the third floor of an apartment complex. If pretending to be a zombie could work (think Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies), my makeup skills would do the trick for easier travel. I have a shit ton of medical supplies. But still, zombies complicate everything.
EK: Molly. Whoa. What made you wonder what the zompocalypse would be like for a bulimic?
MK: I’ve had it in my head for a long time. I wanted to focus on specific issues that alter a person’s ability to function normally or fit into usual social situations and then bring them over to an unusual situation. Food is such an important part of survival and a major focus of many zombie stories. Binging and purging just doesn’t fit into a rationing system. They are at opposite ends of the consumption spectrum. I can’t believe it hasn’t been touched on before. But I’d glad because it’s mine!!!!!
EK: Vaughn. Also whoa. I’m partial to emotionally dysfunctional/sociopathic characters. I hated Vaughn, but also had moments where I really connected to him. Did you intend for him to be totally villainous, mostly, or just plain ‘ol complicated? How did you approach writing his character?
MK: Villainous and unpredictable. He’s the guy the group should be able to lean on and look up to but he never fills the role. I needed those moments where the reader might think he was coming around because it made his reversion to his shitty self that much more horrible and unfortunate. Writing his character was the most fun for me. I am a naturally good person that likes rules and structure and Vaughn is my opposite, my rebellion. He is the tiny bit of dark inside of me. Any time I wrote a scene I had the option of throwing his evil at it and that was exhilarating. He doesn’t filter himself. He says what many people would keep inside. He doesn’t care and my worrying self is envious of that.
EK: Did you have a hard time killing off any characters?
MK: The hardest part about killing characters: too many options. : ) But to answer the question, no it’s not hard for me. Nothing brings me more joy than hearing that readers yelled “Noooooooo!” aloud to an empty room when one of their favorite characters died. I am connecting with people emotionally and if someone had to die for that to happen, so be it. Death can be such a great story builder too, a catalyst. Just like the zombie plague, it can bring people together and it can tear them apart.