What Our Eyes Have Witnessed: An Interview with Stant Litore

Stant Litore is the author of The Zombie Bible, a series that retells biblical and ecclesiastical stories as episodes in humanity’s long struggle with hunger…and with the hungry dead.

Stant Litore, author of The Zombie Bible, provided Editor-in-Chief Seth M. Walker with an exclusive look at the series and Strangers in Land, its third installment, which was released last month. It was preceded by Death Has Come Up into Our Windows and What Our Eyes Have Witnessed – both released this past August.

Hi, Stant. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your interests as a writer?

I am 32, in love with my wife, and scarred by my fear and fascination with the lurking, hungry dead. I love history, and am alarmed at how quickly we forget our past. As a writer, what interests me most is the moment of wonder – the encounter with something that challenges everything we think about ourselves and our world and our responsibilities to others. I am intrigued by the existence of love and beauty in a brutal world. I am the father of two daughters, so the role and agency of women in that world is especially important to me.

Does that agency play a dominant role in your own writing?

I’m not sure how best to answer that. The agency of women plays a significant role in life and in our history, and I am writing the lives and the histories of fictional characters. Because my novels address issues of injustice – moments when the living or the dead consume one another – and because my novels are set in times and cultures in which the agency of women was not recognized, that agency is certainly at stake in my fiction.

In Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, Yirmiyahu experiences God as a female entity, and conflates his responsibilities to his wife, his city, and his deity. What Our Eyes Have Witnessed is in large part the story of Regina Romae, a freed slave who becomes the deaconess of a religious gathering; faced with oppressors who assert that she is in fact a slave and that her body is property, Regina has to find a way to keep faith in the name and the life she has adopted. Strangers in the Land is the story of Devora, an aging prophetess who sees the future and must rally her people against the lurching dead in a time when women are seen as chattel – and to do this, she must accept her kinship and sisterhood with a woman of another people who she blames for the evil that has fallen on their land.

Does the agency of women play a “dominant” role in my work? I have no idea. But there are women in my novels, and they are strong-willed, active agents in their stories, as are most women I have met outside the covers of a book.

Are there any authors or books that have particularly influenced your writing?

The Bible, clearly. I would say that the fantasy of Gene Wolfe has had a greater impact than anything else. Secondarily, I’d say Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, Pablo Neruda’s Los Versos del Capitan, Hafiz’ The Gift, and the fiction of Madeleine L’Engle have all shaped me. Also the histories of Herodotus and Plutarch and David Leiber’s Etz Hayim, a compilation of rabbinical commentary that has, year after year, challenged me to think and live deeper on questions of ethics, devotion, and community. As a writer, I also owe a big debt to science fiction writer C. J. Cherryh – who writes so powerfully about the way the ghosts of the past haunt us and the way the physical and social space that we occupy occupies us – and pulp writer Robert E. Howard, who taught me a lot about imagination, pacing, and adrenaline.

My reading is eclectic. Some of these influences are simply authors who entertained me and taught me something about the craft of telling good stories well. Others are those that have helped me interpret or question the injustices of life. Victor Hugo at times suffers from his own extravagance, but I have often turned to his fiction because he says things that I have seen to be true and says them better than I can. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt contextualizes those questions in the long sweep and dash of history, reminding us that our present and our past are not fully separable, that how we understand the injustices of the present is determined in part by how we remember those of the past. Our choice of which stories of the past we choose to tell informs the way we understand the story of our present.

Life teaches me what to write. Literature offers me questions and models for writing it.

Your Zombie Bible series has just entered its third installment. Can you explain to our readers what this series is about and why you chose this sort of undertaking?

The Zombie Bible retells biblical and ecclesiastical stories as episodes in humanity’s long struggle with hunger…and with the hungry dead. The series is about how we strive to live and love in a world in which people devour people and in which God is often silent.

I think this undertaking chose me rather than I chose it; it sprang on me one evening while I was watching a Romero film, and it wouldn’t let me go. The characters have become dear to my heart and the questions the novels ask are questions that matter.

The series combines two things I love: zombie horror and the old biblical stories, which are horror stories and wonder stories. We’ve largely forgotten that in the US because the stories have become so encrusted with politics. But the stories were written to amaze us, or shock us, or move us. A crucifixion is horrific. A child sacrifice is horrific. These stories try to shock us awake and then invite us to ask really tough questions, necessary questions. I wanted to bring these stories to readers in such a way that would horrify and amaze us again, move us again. The Bible is our greatest cultural treasure-house of stories; these stories deserve our attention, and we deserve the opportunity to let them touch our hearts and bring us to tears or anger. We deserve to experience these stories as more than just political slogans or ‘life application’ self-help messages. The shock and grief of zombie horror is a way of letting us do that. It’s a way of taking us back out into the heart of the storm on the lake, to that moment when the waves are high and the sky is crushing us down with its dark weight, God is asleep, and we are hanging on to the gunwale for dear life, learning who and what we are.

Were there any particular influences (literary, academic, personal, etc.) that led to this conceptual vision driving The Zombie Bible?

The Bible was a big one, as you might imagine. The horror firms of George Romero, Max Brooks’ World War Z, and a great many influences that do not include zombies. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt, an alternate history in which generation after generation we struggle with the meaning of faith, justice, religion, and community. C. J. Cherryh’s Merchanter’s Luck. And my wife. She approaches stories in new ways, and asks questions that make me think.

Romero and Brooks both tell zombie stories that are more than monster stories – they are stories of how the living treat each other; both storytellers invite us into gripping tales of characters learning what it means to live and love, because an encounter with the living dead throws the need to learn that into sharp relief. The goal in a plague story is to survive. The goal in a zombie story is not just to survive but to not become them – to remain those who live and love, those who are not hunger-driven zombies. Romero and Brooks taught me that.

What drives the vision for The Zombie Bible are the things that I am passionate about outside of literature. And by passionate I mean that in the original sense of the word: the things that bring suffering to my heart. Poverty, injustice, apathy, the blindness of a man or a woman who will not look into the eyes of another and see there another being who is like them. And the things that bring wonder to my heart: An old man’s courage in standing against an unstoppable social machine. Two women of rival cultures who form a bond that cannot be severed. A woman who has given birth less than a week before but who must flee and carry her infant for days up hills and down hills in search of safety. Those are the stories I write because these are the type of things in real life that demand my attention. When I see the bars on basement windows in a neighborhood near my home – bars that were placed there not to keep burglars out but to keep women in – or when I read of children being burned as witches in central Africa, I am driven to act, to protest, and to tell stories. Because it is unthinkable that the stories of such suffering go untold, unwitnessed, inviting no response. And I tell stories of seemingly small heroic acts because it is those acts and the stories of those acts that we hold up against the encroaching dark; it is those acts that inspire us to live likewise. To live lives of hope, action, and advocacy for those who suffer.

I tell these stories amid a zombie crisis because small acts of heroism are all the more meaningful and visible against a world that is disintegrating, and because the zombie story makes visible and irrevocable the question of whether we live in a world defined by the law of the eater and the eaten or whether we can make a different world than that.

Was there much research involved as you bridged tradition-specific historicity with the “zombie” genre, or do you have a professional background related to the subject matter?

I have a doctorate in English, and have read innumerable histories, theological texts, treatises on ethics, and devotional and rabbinical commentaries – “obsessively,” according to a close friend of mine. History is my passion and my curse. Ancient languages are a hobby, as well. Most of the world of The Zombie Bible comes out of that ongoing reading. I of course do a furious amount of research near the beginning of a novel to answer questions I have about the cultures involved.

Typically, I will embark on two research projects while in the early stages of a novel. I’ll brush up my knowledge of the culture and the time, what people wore, how they talked, what terrified them and why. And I’ll be reading up on theoretical texts that help me ask smarter questions about the themes that are emerging in the novel. In Strangers in the Land, for example, Devora the prophetess is wrestling with her belief in the infallibility of divine law. So I read Derrida’s essay “Before the Law,” and that led me toward some interesting questions about justice and ethics.

Is there any particular message you are trying to convey to your readers throughout these novels?

No, but the stories do convey messages or at least possibilities. But the messages are born in the story, the story isn’t born out of the message. If you are looking for themes, try these two:

First, the necessity of gazing into the eyes of the other and answering the demand for justice and love and kinship that you find there. The dead gaze at living people and see nothing but food. How often do we encounter the other and attempt to destroy and consume them? How often is the other mere food for our ambitions, our desires, or our fears?

Second, living lives of unstoppable hope. The world in The Zombie Bible is one of heartbreak and suffering, because that is the world I acknowledge that we live in. A world where slavery today is the third largest black market industry. A world where children die of hunger each minute. A world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. That’s a dark world. My books ask which will prove stronger – hunger or hope.

The tone of the first two novels presents an interesting existential dynamic: the main characters struggle with their own divinely-appointed tasks, trying to relish at least some sort of meaning and purpose amid the ensuing chaos surrounding them. Does this search for meaning and purpose reflect any of your own life experiences or circumstances?

Yes and no. I’m acutely aware of meaning and purpose: what gets trickier is having the courage to pursue it, and to pursue it in the absence of any clear theodicy. What my characters and I both struggle with and strive for is the passion and the hope and the love and the commitment to keep working for change in a world that doesn’t want it, in a world that will devour you.

Does the latest novel in the series, Strangers in the Land, continue this same sort of perspective and framework?

Oh yes, in spades. I have said that Death Has Come Up into Our Windows is about social justice, What Our Eyes Have Witnessed is about witness (in all the meanings of that word), and Strangers in the Land is about doubt. It is the darkest, though also the most hopeful, of my novels. It draws heavily on Shoah literature and imagines a holocaust of the dead that consumes the promised land – not only physically, but eating away, one after the other, every certainty on which you stand. Devora has to face the fact that her land is dying and God is silent. And there is a moment when she straightens and says, “When God is silent, I must act as though he is not so. Nothing else will suffice.” That is her struggle and her strength.

Is there anything in particular that you find challenging as you retell these narratives in this way?

What I find challenging doesn’t have much to do with the retelling; it has to do with stepping deep into the moment of suffering in a decomposing world. That is psychologically and emotionally wrenching. In Strangers in the Land, the woman Hurriya suffers losses and cruelties that I cannot even imagine suffering, cruelties that make my heart flinch. Yet I had to step into them with her in order to write them, in order to tell the story in a way that would be true to her and true to my readers. That is the hard part and the best part of this work.

How have these retellings been received by members of Jewish and/or Christian communities?

For the most part, positively, more so than I expected. I have had Jewish readers write to me asking me if I am Jewish, and I have had Catholic readers write to me asking me if I am Roman Catholic. I am neither Jewish nor Catholic, though I am a deeply religious man. What their letters tell me is that I told the stories truly. I got to the heart of the story. That awes me.

I haven’t heard much “backlash,” though some in religious communities have had a knee-jerk, dismissive reaction to the novels on first hearing of them, and it is a reaction shared by some secular readers. The reaction is: “Zombie Bible: not another parody, not another tongue-in-cheek riff on biblical stories…” And a few of my gentle-hearted readers have flinched at the insertion of the flesh-eating dead into sacred tales: “It’s just wrong!” one reader wrote.

But actually the stories are solemn and serious. Most of those who have read them and reviewed them have been drawn in, inexorably, to find themselves nearly gasping for air. As far as the treatment of the subject, this is not “religious fiction” as we usually think of that (as an insular genre in one corner of the bookstore). I would say that The Zombie Bible is both reverent and unflinching. Good fiction looks at the world, then tells the truth and takes no prisoners.

Are you planning to continue the series?

I have a pretty ambitious scope in mind for the series, and hope to continue it for a while. The next novel will dig into the gospels as source material.

Can you give our readers a “sneak peak” of the next novel?

In their fury and grief, the people of Kfar Nahum in the Galilee have dropped the walking dead into their sea, and now the fish have stopped coming. It is 26 AD, and the arrival of Yeshua of Natzeret (Jesus of Nazareth), fresh from the desert, brings back up both the fish and the hungry dead, and everything this small town has refused to face. It will be a gripping read. The working title is Silence Over the Water (forthcoming in 2013).

Have you thought about the possibility of bringing these stories to another medium (e.g., television/web series, film, graphic novel, etc.)? 

What writer hasn’t dreamed of that? But the adaptation would be someone else’s project. I would love to see that happen.

I would take it as a high compliment if someone undertook an adaptation, and I would be likely to take a mostly hands-off approach once I licensed the rights to them. The story is my own while I write it; once it exists as a book, it belongs to my readers.

What does the future hold for your writing beyond The Zombie Bible?

Fantasy novels, primarily. That is my genre, and that is the genre of The Zombie Bible – the series just happens to occur in a dark world of horror and suffering. But I have a number of projects I would like to pursue later that are more wonder tales than horror tales. Although…the world will always have a dark edge to it. That makes the moments of hope and wonder and the encounter with the marvelous all the more beautiful and all the more to be valued.

Discussion and Comments

  1. The bible is rife with resurrection, the dead coming to life, and stories and illiterations to the end of times. Perhaps, the plague God uses to wipe the earth clean is a plague of Zombies. You can also point to end times prophecy references of Locusts and say that zombies could also be considered as a locust, devouring all life. At this point, all we can do is speculate and prepare. We don’t know how or when the world will end, but we can be ready if it is survivable.

  2. What, for you, makes you want to adapt a given story from the Bible through your zombie-stricken interpretation of things? And are there any other Biblical stories you’re dying to adapt for your series?