Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Chat with Jasper Bark about Way of the Barefoot Zombie

Way of the Barefoot Zombie is a satirical novel that paints a picture of what unchecked greed in a capitalist system can look like. Using zombies as role models, the very rich and powerful learn to cast off whatever might remain of their humanity so they can become more efficient at making money and gaining more power. There are also those who wish to free the zombies, a group of young people who see them as noble monsters.

This was a very enjoyable, fun read, but it was also one that made me think and had a few creepy moments as well. That blend of satire and horror is difficult to pull off, but Bark does it very well.

And now that you know a bit about the book, here is most of a chat with Jasper Bark, myself, and a few others. This was a free flowing conversation so I did edit out the parts that were not relevant to the book. I think it is safe to say we all enjoyed reading Way of the Barefoot Zombie, and getting to ask questions about it proved to be quite entertaining.

Me:  So Jasper, did you originality want to write a book about social and economic justice, or zombies? how did you wind up with the two together?

Jasper: I was originally asked by my publisher to pitch two novels, one was a post apocalyptic story and I chose to use that as a metaphorical exploration of the War on Terror and the redemptive nature of faith. The other was for a zombie novel. I was trying to think of something that had never been done with zombies and hit on the idea of using them as role models for the aspiring super rich. At this point I realised it would be a fantastic model for exploring the crisis in modern capitalism. This was in 2007. My publisher wanted to go with the post apocalyptic fable first. This proved to be fortuitous as by the time I got around to writing WOTBZ the whole credit crunch hit and my topic was suddenly topical. Basically, I like to write more than just simple horror. I think horror is a whole lot more effective if it stands as a symbol for very real terrors. The world is a frightening place at the moment and the standard horror tropes are often an effective way of exploring some of its more complex and terrifying problems.

Monica:  I love your writing style! what was your inspiration behind the characters?

Jasper: there were different inspiration behind different characters. The Deathwalkers, Benjamin, Tatjana and the others were inspired by the what I saw at the time as a growing interest in zombie movies. I thought this would balloon into a movement similar to Goths and it has. Miriam was my attempt to present the positive side of voodoo. Papa Doc was just villainous.

Dianne: As crazy as this sounds, I did find your story to be inspirational in that you go for what you want and you work hard for it. At least that is something I took from it.

Jasper: Thanks Dianne, I'm really glad you say that. I wanted the story to be inspiring. As much as I wanted to send up and satirise a lot of the self help courses and the business gurus, I also wanted to put out a positive message too.

Me: What made you pick voodoo as a way of producing the zombies vs. something like an experiment gone wrong?

Jasper: Ann, I love all the Romero inspired zombie stuff like Walking Dead and stuff but for me Zombies have always been intertwined with voodoo. That element of the mythos has largely been abandoned now and I wanted to return it to the canon. I also wanted to write an accurate and unbiased depiction of voodoo as a religion as it is probably the most misunderstood and misrepresented religion in the world.

Misty: Hi, Jasper. :-) As a reader, I'm influenced in my reading of stories by what I already understand and recognize. I couldn't help but notice pieces of romanticism in your story. (By the way, I really enjoyed your novel.) Did the romantic authors influence you as a writer, and if so, which ones? :-)

Jasper: I think the really classic romantic authors inspire me, the Brontes and Jane Austen especially. For me the relationships between the characters are key to a whole story. If you don't care about them you won't care about what's going to happen to them and if you don't care about that you don't buy into the story.

Dianne:  How much did you know about voodoo prior to researching for this story? And did you realize that there was more to voodoo than just casting evil spells? Cause I certainly learned that voodoo is much more than that from your story.

Jasper: I knew very little about Voodoo, but I did a huge amount of research. I sought out actual practitioners and asked them a ton of questions and they in turn gave me loads of books to read. It's a really fascinating subject actually and strangely it answered a lot of really big questions for me about the life the universe and the nature of the soul.

Me: you found practitioners in England?

Jasper:  I found a couple here in England, they put me in touch with people in your neck of the woods and others in Haiti who were willing to talk to me. It's an international religion.

Me:  oh I knew it was, it's just not a very popular one outside of this area and the caribbean I don't think

Jasper:  I think it's actually one of the fastest growing religions in the world strangely.

Dianne:  I grew up in St. Croix learning that voodoo was definitely used for evil. Actually Obeah it was called so not sure if the two are the same or one is a variation of the other. Did you find different variations of voodoo while researching.

Me: Really?! yeah that is surprising to me :) Dianne oddly enough it's not that way here. That is to say it is not portrayed as something that is only used for bad. People certainly practice it openly.

Jasper: Dianne there are definitely many different paths for voodoo practitioners to walk. Some are benign and some are quite purposefully malevolent. The two best known are Petro (malevolent) and Rada (benign). I think Voodoo is kind of similar to wealth, power and capitalism, in that as a system it can be used to help people and to hurt them too. Ann, I think it's the fastest growing because it is lumped in with all the other syncretistic religions who worship the Loa or the Orisha, like Yoruba and Santeria.

Amy: I recently spoke with a voodoo practitioner and she stated that they are doing more to share information about the religion, especially since it has such a negative portrayal in books an movies. I was glad to see that you included elements of both. I have to say the incorporation of voodoo made the book even more enjoyable for me.

Monica:  I know some authors will base their characters on people they know or have met, just curious as to whether that was the case with you ;)

Jasper:  none of the characters were directly based on people, they were composites of people I know, I put bits of one person into some of the personalities and bits of others too. There are lots of direct quotes that people said to me in the book actually.

Adrian:  Good to hear the original source for zombie creation has made a return! Have you read Wade Davis's "Serpent and the Rainbow"?

Jasper: yes I have, it's an excellent book, though I don't agree with all his conclusions.

Dianne: There were definitely lessons to be learned from your story. For example, greed being the one thing that can end up destroying you. Greed for money or greed for power. Was this intentional? Cause Doc Papa sure got his in the end. :-)

Jasper:  yes it was. As well as reading up on a lot of Voodoo I read a load of books on economics too. I ended up realising that trade and capitalism in itself isn't bad, but when it is used to exploit and hurt people then something is very wrong with the system and the people using it for their benefit. That's why there are positive and negative characters on both sides of the wealth divide in the book.

Dianne: I have the say that the creepiest part of the story for me was when Palmer got his in the end by the male zombie. He definitely deserved what he got. Was his role in the book on purpose? To show the cruelty that was being done to the zombies?

Jasper:  I was definitely walking a line with that scene. I realised that if I put even a single foot wrong my editor would have probably cut the scene. So I tried to imply everything rather than describe it graphically and to leven the scene with humour. I think it's certainly an original scene in that I've never read anything like it before in a horror novel so I was pleased with that. I think it would also be a bit difficult to film.

Michael:  Following on from the success of Way of the Barefoot Zombie are there plans to write another zombie novel?

On a similar note, I wonder if you have considered adapting it as a graphic novel or serial? I imagine elements of WotBZ would translate well as a graphic novel, such as the rich backstory.

Jasper:  I have a graphic novel with the publishers Markosia, which is currently stuck in development hell that is about zombies set in the Prohibition era. It's probably some of the best work I've ever written and it's taking years to come out. Fingers crossed that gets sorted soon. It's a whole different take on zombies.

Me:  Back to Palmer, he was one of my favorite characters. I felt that you did a good job with fleshing him out and allowing the reader to see where his fetishes came from.

Jasper: Thanks Ann, once again I did a lot of research into necrophilia. I have to say that it did rather disturb me though. I have a pretty open mind about most fetishes and had thought that I wouldn't mind someone taking pleasure out of my corpse once I was gone. However, the more I learned about it the more it turned my stomach, hence the rather nasty end for Palmer.

Dianne: I have to say Doc Papa was my favorite thought he was evil as evil can be. lol... He certainly did Miriam wrong though I loved her too. She had a sense of calm in the face of crisis.

Jasper: Thanks Dianne, Doc Papa was a tough character to write at first, in that he never really opened up. He actually refused to speak at all at first. I would introduce him, he'd walk out on to the stage and refuse to say a thing. When he eventually did speak, it wasn't about himself it was in these huge, pretentious rambling monologues, so he was a hard character to get inside. Yes he was an ass when it came to Miriam, who was one of my favourite characters. She too had her faults though but she learned to address them.

Misty: Benjamin was my favorite because for him to be a complete ninny in the beginning, I really liked him in the end. He was redeemed with admirable qualities

Jasper: , I liked Benjamin too. He did start out as a bit of an idiot. He was quite young after all and we men are often idiots at that age. But as the novel progressed I got to learn lots more about him and he discovered his better nature. Both he and Tatjana did as a result of their experiences of death and also the divine.

Me:  what made you decide to use humor mixed with horror? or is that just your writing style? I enjoyed that about the book, by the way

Jasper: I used to be a stand up and a comedy writer so comedy is something I learned how to do. I knew this was going to be a satire and it was going to go into some very dark places, so to make it a little more bearable to the reader I used quite a bit of dark humour. Horror and humour are very similar in that they're the only genres based solely around a visceral reaction (except perhaps for erotica). The problem with horror is that if you misjudge it even slightly you can get a laugh when you wanted a shudder. So if you make the reader laugh where you want them too, you can hopefully get them to be frightened in the right places too.

Me: the humor came across very well to me, and I think you hit just the right blend of humor and horror to really drive your points home. It worked for me!

Jasper:  I'm glad about that. My previous novel 'Dawn Over Doomsday' had a similar mix of genre tropes and social comment, but it wasn't as well received. Many people missed the jet black humour and found the post apocalyptic background to be too bleak. So when I came to write this novel I made a conscious decision to make the humour more upfront and obvious

Michael:  I was going to ask if you had any plans to write a straight-up comedy, but on reflection a more interesting question is whether it's possible to write a comedy without letting bleak and darker elements filter in? Are the two inseparable?

Jasper:  I have a few ideas for comedies but nothing looming on the horizon. It suffuses so much of my work that many things I write border on being out and out comedy. I think comedy is often the best way of dealing with bleak situations, so it's the dark and the bleak are not necessarily essential to comedy but, I think humour is essential to dealing with the bleak and darker elements of life.

Dianne:  Jasper, when I first set out in reading your story, I was scared. Really, I truly believe that zombies will take over one day and it will be the death of me, or not. But in continuing to read your story, I felt very sympathetic towards them. More so after Miriam recounted her story. Thank you for showing zombies in a different light, though I am still scared of them. lol I truly enjoyed your book.

Misty: I agree with Dianne. I learned compassion for them and their state of being. Zombies had always terrified me until then. I mean they're still scary, but you made me think, "Who is really the monster out there in the world?" The Noble Monster or its creator?

Jasper: Thank you Dianne that's really lovely of you to say. The scariest thing about zombies is how relentless they are. Most zombies films or books end with them eating everyone and when I read or watch them I do wonder if I was in that situation if I wouldn't eventually just lie down and think 'okay let's get this over with, I just don't have the strength to fight you'. But in WOTBZ I did try to get the reader to sympathise with them and to suggest that there are worse monsters amongst the living. Namely many of the financial traders who've dropped us in the current mess we're in.

Me:Yes you make the distinction there between the zombies, who aren't capable of making moral judgments, vs. the business people, who are more than willing to do away with any sense of empathy they may have had

Jasper: There's an irony in the fact that the financiers want to be like the monsters they've created even though these people are victims of their worst excesses in both life and undeath. So they try and justify their acts by denying themselves the humanity that the zombies have been denied against their will.

 Michael:  I think the frozen turd death on the opening page established that there would be a strong comedic element to WotBZ (and if there are people in this chat who haven't read the novel, surely this sentence alone is enough to pique your interest).

Misty:  The frozen turd death had me laughing out loud.

Dianne: LOL! Yes... death by

Michael: There are a few books I've read that have taken far too many pages to get going, when the shit hit the man JB had me hooked!

Jasper: That was my intention, to signal to the reader that there would be death and mayhem but that this was a satire. Also the frozen turd kind of appealed to me. It occurred to me a few months before starting the novel and I thought I have to find a story to put that in. It seemed kind of perfect to begin the novel, to set up the tone and let the reader know what to expect from the next 320 odd pages.  Michael that quote is going in my publicity somewhere.

Jasper: By the way, if anyone reading this thread hasn't checked out This Is Horror, you're denying yourself a huge treat. One of the best resources for horror, in all its forms, that you can find on the web.

Michael:  Remember to e-mail me your bank details and I'll wire the money to you right away for the mid-chat advert!

Jasper:  Did I ever mention that my weirdest job was as a bottom model?

Me: how the hell did you get a job like that? 

Jasper: someone took some photos of me naked at a performance and showed them to a client who then requested me for a shoot. One job led to another and for about six months I literally worked my butt off, or worked off my butt

Me:  Jasper you must have a fantastic ass! be proud :)

Jasper: This is the great thing about writing. You don't have to be quite so young and virile to sell books as you have to be to sell your ass.

(and well, the conversation just went downhill from there, but then there was a bit more  serious discussion later- when Laura came in late and had a few more things to say)

Laura:  So lots of what I was hoping to talk about has been covered. But I did want to just say that I was pleasantly surprised by how many layers the book had. It's all been discussed at length already, but I have really enjoyed the political and social commentary along with a very well constructed story.

Jasper: Thank you, that's extremely kind of you to say, and it means a lot to me.

Laura: I also wanted to mention my favorite quote from the book. It struck me when I read it, and it keeps coming back to me.
"She still wondered what it felt like to believe in something that sounded so impossible, and to be filled by so much hope because it was impossible yet you knew it was true. She couldn't think of a single thing she believed in that much. She wasn't sure she even wanted to."

Jasper:  I'm glad you picked up on that. Thanks for flagging it up. Faith and redemption are big themes of my work. I keep coming back to them as it seems there is so much disillusion with the political sphere at the moment that faith seems one of the few frontiers where lasting and positive change is actually possible these days.

Me: oh yeah! I wanted to ask you about religion in that respect.. your characters all seem to be going through religious transformations, do you practice any sort of religion yourself?

Jasper:  I've written in depth about Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Voodoo and in all instances I've converted myself to those faiths in the process. I do attend church with my family, though I'm not certain I would describe myself as exclusively Christian. I do believe in God, though I don't conceive of God as a big bearded man who lives in the sky and sits in judgement on us all. I love the teachings of Jesus though he's not my exclusive prophet. So I guess I have a capacity to accept the truth in all faiths without exclusively committing solely to one.  Faith is very important to me though, so it does impact on many of my characters. I started as a complete atheist and as I've grown as a person I've realised the importance of faith as a fundamental core of our being.

Jasper:  I love the old Jewish saying: 'follow the man who seeks the truth, but run from the man who claims he's found it'. 

I give it four cocktails.

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