Wednesday, September 5, 2012

ABSURD interview: Matt Darst

You've heard people complain that there are too many zombie books out there--and there most certainly are--but there are zombie books that take the genre to new heights and show you that post apocalyptic fiction really can make you think about our world. Matt Darst's DEAD THINGS is a perfect example of a smart, original, and ultimately profound zombie story that deserves to be read by everyone concerned about the state of affairs in the world today. Not to mention Darst's style is one that fledgling authors could take a lesson from to learn how to develop their own voice. But enough praise for this talented author, let's see what goes on in that head of his.

RCT:  What interests you about genre fiction?

MD: This is a great question, not so much because I have a great answer, but because it gives me an opportunity to rant.

Several years ago, Stephen King received the National Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. Awesome, right? No. Critics pounced, denouncing his selection as a travesty. Horror and science fiction [genre fiction], they said, should never be elevated to the level of “high literature.”

This bothered me. Still does. Stephen King is a great writer. Yes, he’s popular, but why must exposure be a bad thing? King has sold millions of books, and, as a result, has introduced millions—including me—to reading. I read Salem’s Lot as a kid. Then I tore through King’s other books. Soon, I was reading the Bachman stories. And when there were no Stephen King stories left to read, I began exploring works by other authors.

I hate labeling. I frankly don’t understand why mysteries, romance, and science fiction sit on different shelves than other works of fiction. And the folks at Barnes & Noble clearly don’t understand the difference either. Just last week I looked, to no avail, for Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King and Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth in the fantasy and horror sections. Instead, I found them hobnobbing with Dumas, Faulkner, and Twain.
What do I like about genre fiction? Really, all of the things I like about literature in general. Good genre fiction, like good literature, tells a story. There’s a plot, there are protagonists, there’s conflict, and there’s a conclusion. In some ways, though, one can be argue that horror and science fiction have more social import than the high literature. There’s catharsis, innovation, and social commentary. That…and originality are what interest me most.

RCT: What is the deal with Popeye's forearms?

MD: I could easily go for the Freudian low-hanging fruit here, but what isn’t Freudian in the world of Popeye? The cartoon is full of references to oral (Wimpy and hamburgers, etc.) and other fixations (Olive Oyl’s family members are named after various types of lubrication after all); conscious fantasies (Eugene the Jeep); and battles between the Id (Bluto), ego (Olive), and super-ego (Popeye). I’m more of a Jungian.

RCT:  Your book Dead Things is definitely a thinking man's zombie novel. How did you approach your book to make it different from what else is out there?

MD: My dad introduced me to Night of the Living Dead when I was a kid. That movie terrified me in a way that typical monster fare (“creature features”) had failed to do. Zombies represent a fate worse than death: the perpetual loss of individuality. That’s been a persistent literary theme (think “Fahrenheit 451,” “1984,” or “The Stepford Wives”) that continues to have relevance today (the Patriot Act, TSA enhanced pat downs, identity theft, etc.).

Zombies have, excuse the expression, been done to death. To ensure my novel was original (while staying true to George Romero’s classic roots), I took a break from the genre for a few years. I was very worried something that I might read or watch would subconsciously creep into my text.

Rather than write about the apocalypse as it happens, I thought it would be neat to set the story far in the future. Kind of A Canticle for Leibowitz…but with zombies. The setting—a world where science is subverted by religion—helped propel the characters’ forward on their journey of discovery.

RCT:  You've been cursed to listen to one song for the rest of your life. Your choices are the theme song from The Golden Girls, Fernando by ABBA, or Marry Had a Little Lamb performed by Cannibal Corpse. Which do you choose and why?

MD: I’m not sure it matters because I guarantee my life would be very short if those were my only options. Kidding aside, I’m a huge audiophile. I think that probably comes through in my writing. Dead Things, for instance, is full of references to early punk, Joy Division, and other influences. Some are in your face (like the chapter entitled “Plane in Vain, or the Clash”) while others are little more nuanced. I actually made a playlist that conveys the mood of each chapter.  

RCT: Dune Vs. Star Wars is such an amazing little treat in your novel. Where did that come from?

MD: I was reading Frank Herbert’s Dune again a few years ago, and the similarity struck me like a brick. I started to make a list of similarities for the hell of it, and it grew and grew and grew. The debate between the characters of Burt and Van provides a window into some of my own internal angst. I grew up on Star Wars. Is my favorite childhood movie nothing more than a series of ticks off a sci fi checklist created by Frank Herbert?

RCT:  Who would you rather make breakfast for: Honey Boo Boo, Andy Dick, or a dead goose?

MD: My choices: a child fool, a wild fool, or wild fowl? I guess I’ll take the dead goose. It’s less likely to crap in my kitchen.

RCT:  Who and what do you read for inspiration?

MD: I find inspiration everywhere. I mentioned music, but I’m also inspired by art and graphic design. Peter Saville and Andy Warhol, for instance, are amazing as are the photos of Edward Weston and Robert Capa.

I love science and trying to apply scientific theories to my stories. I can’t tell you many long hours I researched (and enjoyed the process of researching) the perihelions of different comets for Dead Things. Mary Roach, Richard Leakey, and Stephen Jay Gould are thought provoking. I cannot recommend Survival of the Sickest by Dr. Sharon Moalem, Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer, or The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett high enough. Still, despite all my research, I remain extremely frustrated by string theory. I even bought String Theory for Dummies. Dummies can comprehend string theory, but I can’t? Talk about doing a number to my self-esteem.

The oddest things will motivate me to create. For instance, “Children at Play” and “Dead End” road signs on my block inspired my initial cover sketch for Dead Things. When I see that “Children at Play” sign, I can’t help but think there are some demented kids in the neighborhood kicking human heads up and down the street. Some inspirations are more morbid than others.   

I’m inspired by countless authors. I mentioned King, Cornwell, Barlow, Moody, McKinnon, and McKinney above. I like Hemingway, Le Carre, Christopher Buckley, Michael Crichton, Kipling Tolkien, Gaiman, Roddy Doyle, Brett Easton Ellis, Palahniuk, Matheson, Thomas Harris, Stoker, Cooper, Conrad, Ira Levin, etc., etc., etc.  Amongst newer authors, please read Richard M. Cochran, Paul S. Huggins, and Eric Dimbleby. These guys are prolific. True writers.

RCT:  Would you fist fight a kangaroo? Why or why not?

MD: No, I don’t want to lose face to what might be just a giant mouse. The shame! Yes, that was a Hippety Hopper reference. Yes, I did just date myself.

RCT:  What's next form Matthew Darst on the novel front?

MD: I’m working on a superhero tale right now. With ghosts. And a past his prime rock star. Oh, and a werewolf. May be a mad scientist. A weird combination, right?

I really enjoy taking seemingly disparate ideas and characters and trying to weave them into a coherent story. There is no greater puzzle than a book waiting to be written.  

Thanks, Matt! Be sure to check out his website at

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