You’ve mentioned that “We Now Pause for Station Identification” was inspired by a throwaway line in The Rising by Brian Keene. Like kudzu, the story grew into something wonderful from that small seed. What was your writing process for it? Are you generally an outliner or a pantser?
Not sure how to answer that one, especially where this particular story is concerned. When I write anything—short story, novella, novel—I never outline/plan beyond the midway point for a couple of reasons: 1) Adhering to an outline feels to much like following a road map and quickly robs the process of any sense of discovery, and passion for the project quickly dwindles; and 2) The few times I have ever tried to follow an outline, something in the story takes over and usually changes things before I’m even halfway through. “Station Identification” was very much like that. I had the setup—I wouldn’t dare call it a plot—and knew the state of mind the narrator was going to be in when we enter the story, but I had absolutely no idea where it was all going . . . until I got there.
I’ve heard a recording of you reading “Station Identification.” Hearing the story—especially as you imagine it sounding—makes the DJ’s voice even stronger. Did you read the manuscript aloud to yourself as you wrote to develop it?
Absolutely. I do it with all my dialogue—you have to. It doesn’t matter a damn if you’re writing pared-down dialogue in the Hemingway/Raymond Carver mode, or the much richer, poetic dialogue of the Ellison/Bradbury/Blatty school—if it doesn’t ring true to the ear when read aloud, it’s going to sound hollow and false to the reader’s inner-voice reader. “Station Identification” is one of a baker’s half-dozen of monologue stories I’ve written over the years, and I’ve read each of them aloud. The “sound” has to be true both in one’s head and on one’s lips.
We don’t learn much about the DJ, yet we still feel an intimate connection with him through his voice. He sounds like a nice guy. Who is he? Did you imagine what his life is like outside of the studio?
A lot of people have asked me about that since the story was first published, and my answer is: his life beyond the studio is exactly as you imagine it to be. Yes, I have an idea what his life was like, but in the microcosm of the story, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is how this man reacts to the current circumstances, whether or not he rallies or crumbles, if he discovers any final grace notes in himself; it’s what his reactions in the moment reveal about his true Stuff. That everyone comes away from the story liking him is something I treasure, because it means that something he says, or his reactions to certain events, has rang true with the reader, perhaps reflecting the way he or she felt or reacted to something in their own life.
At one point, “Station Identification” had been optioned for a film. Any updates on that?
It had been optioned by one of the producers of Fox’s Prison Break, but the option lapsed during the last writers’ strike and was not renewed—so the rights are available, folks. Got ’em right here, all prepped and ready to go. Anyone? Anyone?
Speaking of movies, this story reminded me of the 2008 film Pontypool. Have you seen it? If so, what did you think of it?
“Station Identification” came out in 2005, and a lot of people called me after seeing Pontypool saying that someone had “borrowed” my idea. First of all, the idea of a radio DJ being isolated in the studio during some sort of major crisis is hardly a fresh concept, but, okay . . . Pontypool. Terrific movie. It was so good to see the excellent Stephen McHattie in a leading role where he’s not playing Generic Creep No. Two. I really dug that nearly all of the action was kept in the radio studio—it forced the viewer to envision the horror outside for him or herself. That was something I really wanted in “Station Identification.” That sense of intensifying claustrophobia is central to establishing and maintaining any sense of suspense or dread, and I thought Pontypool worked wonderfully.
I loved your non-traditional take on zombies, which made this story unexpectedly moving. While many people seem to have an appetite for mindless, hungry zombies, stories that depart from the classic tropes—such as the novel and film Warm Bodies—stand out because of their originality. What are some of your favorite recent zombie stories (in any medium)? How about radio programs or podcasts?
I’m a big fan of Jonathan Maberry’s work, but a lot of the zombie fiction I enjoy is in the short form; Dan Simmons’ “Last Year’s Class Picture,” Joe Lansdale’s Dead in the West or “On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks,” and Ed Bryant’s “A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned.” I think, with rare exceptions, zombie fiction works best in shorter works—another exception being Mira Grant’s Feed trilogy—but there again, you have a writer who wanted to do more than the dreary expected with zombies. Movies? Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, Warm Bodies, and an overlooked film called Mulberry Street (not only scared the shit out of me, but was jam-packed with character development and had the downbeat ending that the story required).
What other work do you have out now or forthcoming, and what are you working on?
Next year Evil Jester Comics will feature a comic book adaptation of “Station Identification” in an issue, scripted by Joe Nassise. 2014 will see the release—at looooooong last—of A Cracked and Broken Path (which turned out to be so long it had to be split into two separate books; the first in early 2014, the conclusion late 2014). I have numerous short stories coming out in various magazines and anthologies: the novella Clipper Girls from Tasmaniac Publications, the concluding third volume of the Collected Cedar Hill Stories from Earthling, and a new short-story collection entitled Rose of Sharon and Other Stories will be out from CGP by the time this interview sees print.
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