Patrick Freivald is a horror writer. Twice Shy is his debut novel. Dealing with the teenage experience of high school, its central character is a zombie who has to take Ritalin-like injections to stop her from eating her friends. Patrick met me at The Slaughterhouse where we talked about horror and surveillance.
Do you think the appeal of zombies lies in the sense of dystopia they convey?
Perhaps. I think zombies mean a different things to different people. Romero considered them an allegory for capitalism, and a lot of people go in that direction. I like them for the oxymoronic sense of simultaneous claustrophobia and agoraphobia they force on characters–there aren’t many people left on the whole planet, but dammit, you’re stuck in a mall with nine people just as annoying as you are!
Thinking of the Romero concept, do you think capitalism has created a dystopia which is masking its own entropic nature through propaganda that fiction is able to confront?
I really don’t. I think that, as imperfect as it is, no economic system has even come close to creating the general, wide-spread wealth that capitalism has. I do think there’s a perceived entropic plunge into dystopia in a lot of peoples’ minds, but as far as I can tell, that’s because they don’t really have perspective on how harsh life was even a hundred years ago for the vast majority of people.
Anyone able to complain about how hard their life is on the internet is so vastly richer than the norm in history that I can’t help but laugh at the irony, while worrying about the sentiment.
As a teacher of physics and robotics as well as a novelist, you must be used to switching paradigms. How do you view the role of religion in the historical improvements brought about by capitalism?
I’m not sure that I’m able to differentiate between religion specifically and culture in general. What parts of Western culture are because of Christianity, and what parts of Christianity are that way because of Western culture? (Ditto any other culture/religious pairing.)
I think that the Western economic engine of the past few hundred years could have come about independent of Christianity, and I think that arguments can be made for and against religion in general and Christianity in particular’s compatibility with capitalism. But to be honest, I’m talking out my rear-end a bit on this one. I’m confident that a younger me would give you a surer answer, but I’m too old to know everything anymore.
Tell us about Twice Shy.
My work as a teacher inspired Twice Shy. The theme that dominated my brain throughout the writing process is that teenagers are funny, sometimes on purpose. They tend to trivialize the important, and obsess over the trivial. I’ve always had a soft spot for slavering monsters, so instead of making my protagonist’s dark secret something real–like she’s a kleptomaniac lesbian with AIDS–I made her a closeted zombie who has to take Ritalin-like injections to keep from eating her friends; a ludicrous premise for a ludicrous time in our lives.
I never intended it to be YA. It never occurred to me that anyone would read it as straight fiction instead of satire, but that’s how most people read it, and it’s been a load of fun watching it evolve into something I never meant it to be. It’s nice to have teen readers tell me how much they just love Ani, and I kept that in mind when I expanded the story with Special Dead.
On the zombie side of things, I tried to be true to the tropes of the genre and upend them at the same time. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine how well I pulled that off.
Do you think satire has unintentionally become a form of realism and if so why?
I think to some extent satire has always been a form of realism, though intentionality may vary. Mankind drowns in irony on a daily basis, and sometimes our ability to poke fun at things is overshadowed by how ludicrous they really are. Look at the satire sites today–The Onion, Private Eye, NewsBiscuit, The Daily Currant–and how often their articles are swallowed as real on Facebook and Twitter. Good satire skirts the real, and all too often the line between them knots up and snaps.
Special Dead deals with a post-apocalyptic situation that explores a totalitarian education system. What are the issues you dramatise in the novel?
While Twice Shy is satire of high school life, Special Dead is satire of the institution of education (and special education in particular), where I take the general dysfunctions of a school and ramp them to a Spinal Tappian eleven.
I took a “kitchen sink” approach. The students are chained to their desks, threatened with fiery death from the flamethrower-toting guards in the back of the room if they misbehave. Parents and community members protest the programs they despise, corporations interfere with the educational process, underqualified teachers use high-performing students as teaching proxies, qualified teachers are treated poorly and prevented from doing their job as well as they want to, students celebrate mediocrity and are socially promoted.
Mixed into that is a zombies-as-civil-rights court case, where higher and higher courts consider the radical position that the zombies who can for the most part control themselves through medication are in fact sick people and thus entitled to constitutional protections, and not creatures to be exterminated on sight. The idea grew in my mind from an entertaining aside to a comment on the dehumanization of “the enemy”, and it led me to fold some medical ethics and religious bigotry into the narrative as well.
And I think I did it all without shoving it in your face. If you just want a good story without worrying about the social commentary, you’ll find it.
What are your views on the uses of authority and social engineering in education?
Education is social engineering–at the very least, the act of educating the masses is an attempt to engineer a better-educated society. Beyond that, political and social indoctrination have always been a part of the experience, and I’m not sure that they’re avoidable. Even if all you want to do is promote an open mind and teach kids to think for themselves, that in and of itself is a type of political indoctrination; you’ve made the implicit assumption that open minds and independent thinking are good things, and to hell with whoever disagrees with that.
I believe that open minds and independent thinking are good things, but I also accept that these are societal judgments that are not universal–so when we’re educating kids that come from families or societies that do not value or support these things, to that extent we’re indoctrinating those kids. The question comes down to what, not if, social engineering and indoctrination happens. Disagreements thereof can get pretty sticky and heated, fast, by and large because people who agree with a particular vein of social engineering don’t see it as such; it’s not even that they think their indoctrination is right and the “other side” has it wrong, it’s that they don’t see that they’re guilty of the same thing as the “other side”.
I try to keep that in mind when I’m teaching young-Earth creationists about cosmology and the Big Bang. Just because I’m right doesn’t mean it isn’t indoctrination and social engineering.
My thoughts on authority in education are this: we want to teach kids to think for themselves, but not when we’re telling them what to do and expecting them to do it.
How does your view of the world as a physicist influence your writing?
I write fiction, so I’m not that concerned about the technology in my novels being accurate per se (the zombie virus, for example), but I try very hard to make it believable given the general suspension of disbelief needed to read about monsters and so forth in the first place. It irks me in movies and in books when I see/read something where the author just threw together sciency-sounding words, and the “Gamma Neutrino Atomizer” or somesuch makes an appearance.
In Blood List, Phil and I took care to make all of the technology believable, and indeed, in the time between when we wrote it and publication, several of the amazing-but-believable devices we’d invented had become reality. The medical aspect of the novel proved to be a challenge, because neither of us have a background in medicine or even biology, so we consulted experts in medicine and virology and depended upon their insight to make the fanciful aspects at least plausible.
Other than that, I don’t feel too constrained by physics. Demons and devils and ghosts and psychics and dimensional gates are all fair game, as are all-to-human monsters who follow all of the laws of the universe as we understand them. But come to think of it, physics might be why I’ve never felt all that inclined to write science fiction.
Do you think that horror is most effective when it draws on the unconscious?
What constitutes horror–indeed, what’s even scary–is subjective. I don’t even blink an eye at the Saw movies (or The Hills Have Eyes, Wrong Turn, and the like). Jason and Freddy amused me more than anything else. But these same movies will scare some people out of their wits. The same is true with books–I thought Carrie better than Cujo, the Books of Blood better than anything by Dean Koontz.
Horror is a personal emotion, and for me it’s tied to some degree with hopelessness. The more tangible a horror is, the less likely I am to find it scary. Unless it’s spiders. Spiders freak me out.
Do you think we live in an age of surveillance?
Very much so. Just this morning I posted an article on Facebook about the FBI hijacking the webcams on laptops without turning on the indicator light that tells the user it’s on. From loyalty cards at grocery stores to credit cards to e-mail intercepts to traffic cameras, to keystroke loggers and data loggers and web history loggers, to drones and satellites and cell phone GPS data, I don’t know that there’s much of anything that isn’t under surveillance anymore.
There used to be a pragmatic control on surveillance, and that was that you had to choose your targets. The resources didn’t exist to spy on everyone all the time. But both RAM and storage memory have become so cheap, and the devices used for spying so ubiquitous (I mean, I’m typing on one and have another in my pocket at this very moment, and I live in the middle of freaking nowhere and don’t even have my wallet on me), that we can not only collect unbelievable amounts of data, we also have the capability to mine it.
Give people the ability to acquire power, and they’ll do it. Not everyone, but enough of them. We now have the ability to spy on just about everyone just about all the time, so it’s a no-brainer that it’s happening. Anyone paying any sort of attention didn’t need Edward Snowden to break that news.
Thank you Patrick for a perceptive and informative interview.
Patrick Freivald’s website