Amelia Beamer is a debut novelist who also works for Locus Magazine. She has published short fiction in venues such as Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Interfictions 2, and Red Cedar Review. She has also published non-fiction in the form of articles and essays both alone and in collaboration with Gary K. Wolfe. She has a BA in English Literature from Michigan State University and attended Clarion East in 2004.
Her novel, The Loving Dead is currently available in bookstores.
Karen Burnham: Love, Lust, and Death. Universal human themes, not often seen coexisting in zombie stories. Vampires have historically been sexy–zombies not so much. What did you find appealing about these themes, and the idea of combining zombies, romance, and adventure all at once?
Amelia Beamer: I came up with the title early in the writing process. The goal was for the title to make it clear that this was a zombie novel, and a romantic comedy, so I tried to come up with a pun that could do all of these things. And what better text to pun on than the central text of the zombie canon, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead? I was astonished that The Loving Dead wasn’t already taken.
Adventure is inherent to zombie stories, at least in the sense that adventure and plot are the same thing. The characters have to take actions and make decisions under pressure, and it’s exciting because we don’t know how they’re going to fare. So that part’s easy.
Why make the zombies sexy? I’ve heard a theory about how zombies represent anxieties about sexuality, and I found some works (i.e. Zombie Strippers, with Jenna Jameson in a “serious,” non-porn role) that supported the idea that zombies could actually be seen as literally sexy, if through a distorted lens. The challenge of fulfilling the title was coming up with a way that my characters can overcome the revulsion people are supposed to feel about the prospect of intimacy with the living dead. Zombies have saturated popular culture from commercials to Zombie Walks and I think that Western culture at the moment does have a deep fondness for zombies. I decided that it would be my personal challenge to push it further and make zombies sexy in their own right. Vampires are easy to make sexy because they’re elite, they have money and power and wisdom. Zombies are the working class, plus they’re pretty dumb, so all they have is muscle. Plus there are a lot of them; they know they’re not special.
What I now have to do is dodge the implication of necrophilia, and it’s a complicated question as to whether or not the zombies in my novel are actually dead. Nobody rises from the grave, first off, but my characters are discovering the new rules of their world based on the things that they see and do, and I switch between two perspectives of people seeing and believing very different things about whether zombies are alive or dead, and how the transmission works, if it’s just biting or if there’s something else. So what should be my elevator pitch — zombieism as an STD that makes victims horny and infectious before they turn into fully fledged zombies — is also giving away one of the major discoveries the characters have to make. But there are reasons why we look at flap copy and reviews, or read plot summaries before we watch movies. We want to know what the story is going to be about so that we can decide if we care.
And all of this love and lust and death is meant to probe the powerful emotions that people have, particularly in a crisis. Zombieism is the cake that we have and eat, too; it’s the wrenching disaster that doesn’t actually risk making light of real disasters (like those brought about by hurricanes or war), so it’s a safe playground, and we need to play. We can be violent in the playground, because we know we’re playing. One of the reasons we need to play, just like kittens play at fighting, is so that we have skills and maps to deal with new situations.
We don’t literally expect the zombie uprising, but part of being alive and caring about people is the possibility that your relationships and even your understanding of who you are could radically change at any moment. A car accident, say, or discovering that your child has cancer. The entire world changes, and it’s a realm of extreme emotions. I don’t pretend that my novel or any novel is particularly useful in terms of people who have experienced trauma — and we have all experienced trauma — but ultimately every novel ought to give the reader a new emotional and intellectual experience that, hopefully, has some application or meaning.
KB: Your short fiction has spanned a wide range including literary, sf, and fantasy. But The Loving Dead is much different from any of your short fiction. Did you approach writing your first novel quite differently?
AB: I’m glad you see a range! It’s all my own voice, and so it’s hard to be analytical. The Loving Dead was an attempt to write a literary novel, where the focus is on the characters’ relationships, and at the same time write a zombie novel, where the focus is escaping from the shambling hordes. And this juxtaposition of various genres couldn’t be done without also making it a comedy.
I’ve been learning how to write humor. In The Loving Dead, characters are telling each other jokes and trying to entertain one another with clever lines, and this level of humor doesn’t actually have to be funny, because if people are telling jokes to fill an awkward silence, that’s building character and furthering the story. And if the joke works, too, then we’re rocking! A friend who had been one of my first readers started telling me a joke about Jesus filling in on St. Peter’s day off at the Pearly Gates — and I doubled over in laughter. Not only was he telling me a joke from my novel, he’d forgotten where he’d learned it!
But the really fun stuff came from giving myself permission to show the kind of absurd juxtapositions that are inherent to real life. So I have absurdly goofy things happen: zombies humping people, and a character going on a contemporary Zeppelin ride with her secret sugar daddy, and an unbelievably convenient iPhone app. Novels are long enough to set up lines and situations that pay off much later, which you can’t really do in short fiction, and I really like that.
My story “Smiling Lessons“, originally published in Sotto Voce and reprinted on my website is an example of me trying to ape Lorrie Moore, the kind of writer whose punchlines you tell your friends about (and they laugh). It’s about a car accident, and it’s a comedy, and it’s also kind of horrific, and it’s told in second person, which is a literary technique that’s tricky to do well. So that’s an example of me working on some of the same elements that made it into The Loving Dead.
KB: What sort of research did you do for this, and was it fun? Have you now seen every zombie movie ever made?
AB: I spent months watching zombie movies and reading zombie fiction (notably The Living Dead anthology). I also toured Alcatraz, thinking that the case can be made that it is the safest place in the Bay Area, even if one of the creepiest. Favorite zombie movies include Fido, Shaun of the Dead, and, of course Night of the Living Dead. I was observing zombies in their native environment, and figuring out what I could add to the genre. Of course it was fun!
That’s the thing about writing your first novel. There are no expectations. Sure, I’m in the industry; I’m an editor at Locus and I have a few stories out, so I wanted to impress — or at least not disappoint — my friends and colleagues, but I’d convinced myself at some level that this novel would only be seen by a handful of friends, so I figured that I could have fun and be daring. I could depict a romantic relationship with a vast difference in power and experience; I could have characters who cared for each other and lied to each other at the same time; I could have a Zeppelin and graphic sex and BDSM. And it had to be a comedy; I couldn’t do all of this stuff without a sense of humor.
KB: That brings us neatly around to my next question: being a first-time author. Obviously being in the industry means that your experience has been slightly atypical, but how has your first publishing experience gone? What was your experience with agents, publishers, editors, cover art, etc?
AB: I read a study in the New York Review of Science Fiction that had (unless I’m misremembering) the average “first novel” sale being about the third or fourth book that the author had written. In this case my industry connections were useful; this was the first novel I completed (I’d made several stabs at other novels but hadn’t finished anything) and my first choice for a publisher accepted the book. We decided to publish in July 2010, and I sold it in September 2009, which basically meant I had to get an agent and have the contract finalized within about two weeks so that the book could be announced with Night Shade’s summer schedule. Any agent worth having is going to want to read your work before agreeing to represent you, so I had to move fast.
I spent a few days calling and emailing some friends in the industry, asking for advice. This is a luxury of having been in this industry since before I was old enough to legally drink (I worked for Clarion East before I joined the Locus staff). Working in publishing doesn’t pay immensely, but the upshot is that the contacts I’ve made probably shaved at least a few years off of the “pounding the pavement” portion of my writing career. And while there’s an argument for writers to get the kind of job where you don’t have to care, and can put it out of your mind at the end of the day, I’m just not good at doing that; I care too much.