Interview: w/ Author Sean Munger (Zombies of Byzantium)

Sean Munger is a historian, teacher and author residing in Oregon. He is probably most well-known for the science fiction novels of “The Giamotti Trilogy,” which include Life Without Giamotti (2006), All Giamotti’s Children (2008) and Giamotti in Winter (2009). His other books include Romantic, Memoirs of a Great Liner (2005) and Beowulf is Boring (2009). His new book, Zombies of Byzantium, was published by Samhain Publishing in February 2013.Sean has also written for various heavy metal music publications, including Painkiller Magazine, the largest heavy music magazine in China.

UncannyDerek: I have to ask what the first thing is on everybody’s mind: where did the idea for zombies and the Byzantine Empire come up?

Sean Munger: It came mostly from my love of Byzantine history, and my frustration that this civilization has virtually no visibility in popular culture. I got hooked on Byzantium about eight years ago and one of its fascinations for me was that medieval Byzantium seemed a lot like a made-up world in a science fiction or fantasy story–like Middle Earth or the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yet you’ve never seen Byzantium portrayed in a Hollywood movie, for instance, or a video game like Skyrim. After I did Beowulf is Boring I was interested in another writing project that played with medieval history with sort of modern sensibilities that today’s readers could relate to and enjoy. So, I hit on the zombie angle. Most zombie stories are essentially modern, often taking place in a big city where the urban setting both enhances the danger and the opportunities for the characters and their undead foes. I got to thinking, Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, was the most modern city in the world in the early Middle Ages. What if a zombie outbreak happened there?

UD: It’s obvious that a lot of work with history was put into the story. Where did you first get your knack for history, let alone the drive to write a fictional horror story based upon it?

SM: I’ve always loved history. For me a good history book is like a thrilling big-budget Hollywood movie: it’s got a cast of thousands, epic battles, world-shaking events, and everything you’d want in a gripping story, and it has the added virtue of having really happened. Since I was a little kid I loved those big epic historical movies they used to make in the 50s, 60s and 70s, like Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur. My desire to be a historian and a teacher of history was mainly a means to be able to “play” in this fantastic toy box as my profession. I love teaching history and introducing it to people, and I think fiction is one of the best ways to do that. I mean, if you give a 13-year-old boy a copy of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he’ll look at you like you’re crazy. But that same kid will go to see Gladiator and probably really enjoy it–and that, although not historically accurate, is at least part of the same story.

As for telling a horror story in a historical setting, I think it’s a way to tap into the possibilities of the genre in a way that fans won’t necessarily have thought of before. One of the reasons horror fascinates us is it plays on our fears. Zombies in particular symbolize our fear of our modern mass society turning us into an anonymous horde of unthinking drones. But our fears aren’t unique to our own time. People in the past had their own fears and anxieties, and even though they’re long in the past they still have the capacity to terrify us.

UD: How much of the story would you say is part of real history compared to the fictitious parts?

SM: Readers might be surprised at how much of the book is historically accurate. Except for the zombie outbreak, virtually all of it is accurate. The war between the Saracens and the Byzantine Empire depicted in the book did occur, and the Saracen siege of Constantinople in 717-18 was one of the most epic battles of the entire Middle Ages. Emperor Leo III was a real person, as was the Empress Maria, Maslama, Artabasdos and many other characters. The description of Constantinople is accurate–every building, street or landmark mentioned in the book was really there in 717. The weapons, clothing, military tactics, and those sorts of details are all accurate. A subplot of the book concerns a religious controversy about whether it was acceptable to depict Christ in visual form. That controversy, called Iconoclasm, was one of the major events of Byzantine history. People went around killing each other over Iconoclasm for over 100 years.

I took some liberties with the interplay of the characters, as most authors do with historical subjects. We don’t know much about the personality of Leo III, for instance, so the way he comes off in the story is my own invention. The final scene of the book–I won’t spoil it for anyone–is literal history and written from an eyewitness account. I thought the editors were going to make me take it out, but they let me get away with it!

UD: There’s an obvious religious take in the story – our main character and his friend are both monks. Why did you take that route rather than peasants, or knights, or kings?

SeanMungerauthorpic_zps21ea0424SM: I did it that way because Byzantium was an extraordinarily religious society, and religion defined people’s lives, from the Emperor down to the guy in the street. I made the main characters monks because monks were very prominent in Byzantine society. Taking one’s vows was a very popular “career choice” in Byzantium–one historian estimated that at one point, half the entire population of the Empire lived in monasteries or convents! I also thought it would be fun to have the main character a religious figure who challenges our perception of monks. You think of a monk as a quiet gentle guy with a bowl cut who never speaks and spends all day praying. But in the book Stephen, the main character, is a wisecracking gregarious kid, he fights with a sword in each hand, romances the Empress and swims through a pool of fire! I mean, you don’t see a lot of monks doing stuff like that!

Byzantium was also very different than other medieval societies. There were no “knights” as we think of them from Western Europe, and Byzantium also never developed feudalism the way other countries did. That’s why, although this is a medieval story, you don’t see a lot of the typical tropes–castles, knights in armor jousting, the obligatory banquet scene in the lord’s manor with wenches and minstrels, that sort of thing. It will be a fresh approach for most people, I think.

UD: Speaking of the story, I found the characters spoke relatively modern. What was your intention with having these historical characters speak like someone from more recent times?

SM: It’s funny that you mention this, as this was a big issue with the test readers I tried the book out on, and it’s already been mentioned in some of the reviews. I made a conscious choice to have the speech of the characters seem very modern, even though it’s an anachronism. First of all, it would have been impossible to try to replicate in English the way people speaking Greek in the Middle Ages would have talked. The best I could do would be to make the speech sound artificially archaic with a lot of “thee” and “thou” and lofty-sounding wording that evokes Shakespeare or Chaucer. But people in medieval Byzantium didn’t talk like that either, so what would be the point? I also wanted to emphasize to the readers that these characters were real people with everyday lives. Their speech sounded as normal and casual to them as ours does to us. It just brings the reader into something more familiar.

UD: That being said, how much of todays culture impacted your story and how it was written?

SM: Well, I had to write a story that was intelligible and interesting to modern audiences. The story is constructed kind of like a Hollywood action picture. There’s a small skirmish at the beginning, enough “wow” to draw you in–like the pre-credits sequence of a James Bond movie–then the story builds, the characters develop, there are more battles and increasing tension, and finally there’s the huge set-piece climax with a cast of thousands and a final epic battle that’s totally over the top. The zombie battles themselves, the way I wrote and blocked them out, are deliberately evocative of video games. I grew up on games like Wolfenstein 3-D and Doom, but it’s the same today–some of the battles you have in a modern game like Fallout or Skyrim, which themselves are heavily influenced by movies, emphasize a very frenetic pace, close quarters with enemies coming at you from all sides. But I also wanted to sort of go beyond this. The battle with the zombies that occurs in the little church, for example, is very much like a video game battle, except it happens in the dark–something you couldn’t do in a movie or a video game. 

UD: I’ve always found “ghoul” gives you the ambiguity of what the creatures are, but “zombies” are what most are familiar with. In your book, you use the term “ghoul” to describe the un-dead quite a bit. What’s your take on the choices you made in defining these monsters?

SM: I was hoping someone would notice that, with the exception of the title, the word “zombie” never appears once in the entire book! The word “zombie,” which I believe is a loanword from Creole or another Caribbean tongue, did not appear in our language until 1891. Certainly there is no medieval Greek word that even approximates what “zombie” means to us, so the Byzantines would have struggled to define what these things should be called. Interestingly, the Saracens refer to the monsters as “alksala,” which I had to check with a native Arabic speaker. It roughly means “zombie” in Arabic, but it’s not precisely the same. I thought portraying the characters’ confusion at not knowing exactly what to call these creatures would demonstrate how alien they would be if they appeared in this medieval world, especially one where most ideas and language were defined either by classical (ancient Greek and Roman) influences or by religious texts. 

UD: What drew you to zombies? Why not ‘Vampires of the Byzantium?’ Isn’t that what all the popular folks are doing now?

SM: I think vampires have been overdone, frankly. I know the Twilight books/movies have been very popular, but I think the genre of vampire fiction will need a couple of decades to recover from the pretty-boy-who-sparkles image it’s gotten lately. Zombies were more pertinent to the kind of story I wanted to tell, which was the response by a group of characters to a large-scale, catastrophic threat that has the potential to wipe their entire civilization off the map. Vampires are much better suited to stories where the tension and threat is on a much smaller scale. A gloomy castle with a hungry vampire can be a great set-up for a story–Nosferatu, for example, one of my favorite horror movies, is like that–but it wasn’t really suited for what I wanted to do.

UD: What is it about the horror genre is it that makes you want to get involved with it in such an intimate way?

SM: Well, strangely, I had virtually no experience in the horror genre before I wrote Zombies of Byzantium. All my previous writing projects have been science fiction or historical. In a way I’m sort of coming into horror as an outsider, which I think provides an interesting perspective. It’s maybe a subtle difference. I came at the project thinking “I want to write about Byzantium, and I think I’ll put zombies in it” rather than, “I want to write about zombies, and I think I’ll put them in Byzantium.” That said, I have come to appreciate the depth and richness of the genre far more than I ever did before, and that’s been one of the great rewards of doing this book.

UD: What are some of the “quintessential” horror books or movies do you think people should be aware of? Also, what are you favourite horror films and horror books, and how much did they impact your story telling?

SM: The classics. Always go back to the classics. They’re classics for a reason. In horror literature, the original Dracula is one of the best exemplars of the form. It’s still a riveting novel today, and the character of Dracula (as well as his imitators) resonate in our culture like few others have. I also love the original Frankenstein, another absolute starting point in the horror genre. Lovecraft, of course, is justifiably a staple. I think it’s still too soon to judge whether more modern horror fiction is as durable as these old classics, but time will tell.

As for movies, I already mentioned Nosferatu, the original 1922 silent version by F.W. Murnau. I watch it every Halloween and it still scares the hell out of me. My answer on the “quintessential” zombie movie might surprise people. The zombie film I admire most is I Walked With a Zombie, which was made in 1943 and directed by Jacques Tourneur (he also did the original Cat People). It’s a masterpiece of minimalist filmmaking, very scary and atmospheric, and I think more modern zombie films owe more to its style than people realize. Pre-1968, that is, before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, zombie movies focused on Haitian-style voodoo zombies as opposed to undead flesh-eaters, but that doesn’t mean there’s no continuity between today’s zombie films and the pre-1968 ones. Again, always go back to the classics and you’ll never go wrong.

UD: What’s next on the writing block for you?

SM: More zombies! Samhain Publishing, the publisher that’s putting out Zombies of Byzantium, has bought my second horror book, which will be called The Zombie Rebellion. It will be out sometime in 2014. I’m really excited about it and my editor is too. It takes place in backwoods Pennsylvania shortly after the American Revolution, against the backdrop of a little-known event called the Whiskey Rebellion. So in addition to lots of zombie battles we’ve got Indian uprisings, volleys of musket fire, tomahawks whizzing all over the place, and bootleggers swilling homemade moonshine. Oh, and George Washington. I think anyone who likes Zombies of Byzantium is going to love The Zombie Rebellion. I’m also collecting some ideas for a third zombie book.

In addition to that I have a few other projects. I’m working very slowly on a more serious piece of science fiction called The Valley of Forever which has been on the drawing board since 2010. I’ve also thought of trying my hand at some serial fiction, which is coming back in a big way, but there’s nothing definite there yet. Suffice it to say I plan to be very busy!

UD: Do have any words of wisdom for aspiring horror writers out there?

SM: Yes, two things: keep writing, and write what you love. The one factor that is most important in carrying you through, and getting you into print, is perseverance. The other is passion. Taking a long view of history, you can make an argument that this is the best time in the last 500 years to be a writer. E-books, small presses like Samhain and self-publishing have opened up a brave new world for writers. But you have to get down into the trenches and do it. Don’t write for the market. Write the kind of story that you, as a horror fan, would want to read. There’s so much fun stuff out there. Everybody loves a good scare. If you write for long enough and take the time and effort to perfect your craft, you will make it. It’s not easy, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. That’s the most sincere advice I can give to any aspiring writer.

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Twitter: @Sean_Munger
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