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Ezekiel 37: Breathing Life into Dry Bones

Today, I welcome fellow novelist J.D. Horn, author of Witching Savannah, to the blog. Here’s what J.D. has to say about storytelling, character, and the crafting of a novel.

In Memory of Daniel Trujillo

I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.  I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. (Ezekiel 37:5b-6a New International Version (NIV))

In Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, this invocation causes a great army to rise up from the skeletal remains of long dead warriors, not just in the (still ubercool) Ray Harryhausen way, but in a manner that literally fleshes them out and returns their humanity to them.

Breathing a semblance of life, imbuing humanity into one’s characters (even the undead ones) is pretty much every writer’s goal. I am not one of those writers, though, who create detailed character biographies and map out every plot twist before beginning  writing.  I admire those who do, and admire even more those who can stick to their outline and manage to make their characters tow the line.

Like the denizens of  Ezekiel’s valley, my characters begin their lives as mere skeletons, usually nothing more than a compilation of ticks, traits, and quirks held together by my own admonition to them to live. I put these inchoate creatures together and see what situations develop as they interact with each other.

I watch to see which of them want to come out to play, to breathe, to love, to sin. I work and rework.  I add to or rethink their back story so that I can better understand their motivations. I know I am on the right track when a character begins to tell me her own story. I really know I am on the right track when a character disobeys. (That’s why Eve is the most interesting personage in the whole Bible. Without her we’d be left with nothing but a coffee table edition of “Above Eden.”)

WitchingSome characters claw their way onto the page. Mother Jilo Wills, Witching Savannah’s resident Hoodoo root doctor, was intended to be nothing more a name mentioned on a single page (in connection to another character). But she began talking to me, telling me her story. Before I knew what was happening, Jilo became the glue that held the series’ first novel (The Line, coming from 47North in 2014) together. When it came time to begin The Source, second book in the Witching Savannah series, Jilo’s was the first voice I heard.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies a character I had named Daniel Trujillo. I had intended Daniel to be The Line’s leading man. He was to be a sensitive, multicultural patriot who returned from his last deployment in Iraq with a souvenir he really needed help losing. His arrival in Savannah would be the inciting incident for all action that followed. He would be handsome, tough, loyal, brave. He would get even the girl. I fought hard for Daniel, but my skeleton warrior never drew a breath. In his last sad moments, he stopped being an individual and became nothing more than a plot device on legs.

HornAfter a couple sleepless nights, I realized that Daniel didn’t belong in the story of the Taylor Witches; the story that wanted to be told was very different from my original  inspiration. The only time I truly connected with Daniel was when I sensed his relief as I let him slide back into the limbo of characters who never fully develop. In another tale, Daniel might rise again, perhaps somewhat changed or maybe strikingly similar to the way I had originally envisioned him.  But for now he’ll lie sleeping in the sand-swept valley of dry bones.

J.D. Horn is the author of The Line (Witching Savannah), coming February 2014 from 47North. Yes, J.D. does carry on full conversations with his characters. Yes, they do often talk back. And yes, should the doctors ever calibrate his medications correctly, his career as a novelist will probably be over.

Stant Litore writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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The Night I Stayed Awake All Night Reading to My Daughter

The night before September 19, 2013, I had to keep my daughter up all night long for a stressful medical test in the morning. Little Inara suffers from epilepsy, blindness, and developmental delay, and she was scheduled for an EEG–a test designed to trigger a seizure in a controlled setting so that doctors can watch the electrical activity along her scalp and do their best to determine what on earth is going on.

As you can see, she wasn’t thrilled with the idea.

Inara2

So she and I talked it over, and we decided that rather than just endure, we were going to rock that night. With books.

Because when you have to stay up all night, nothing rocks harder than books. And coffee.

I had decided I would fly solo on this one. My wife suffers from chronic pain and I knew a night without sleep would wreck her pretty badly, especially as the following day would be a demanding one. Recognizing that all-nighters are not easy as they were in college, my wonderful wife cooked me a sinfully good dinner, shared a scented bath with me, and prepared a music mix for Inara and me to enjoy together. There is something to be said for having your loved one gird you for battle. I love her deeply.

Come 10 p.m., I sent Jessica to bed and sat down with baby Inara, a kindle, a stack of books, and a toy tyrannosaur, which Inara mauled.

Some of the time I spent reading scenes from my own novels to her, like What Our Eyes Have Witnessed. Just not the ultra-violent-mayhem parts, because as dads go, I’m old-fashioned that way. My daughter listened, fascinated and (thankfully) awake, as Father Polycarp walked out there among the ravenous dead, casual as a Sunday stroller, on a mission to give them rest:

We also read the first four or five chapters of The Silmarillion (see below). I think that might be Inara’s favorite book in the world. She is mostly blind, but she enjoys touching the pages and hearing my voice.

Inara6

Melkor’s attempted takeover of Middle-Earth gave her fits of giggles. Melkor may think he is mighty enough to own creation, but my one-year-old girl finds that absolutely hilarious. In all of her baby wisdom, she clearly knows something Melkor doesn’t. (By the way, if you have tried to read The Silmarillion but found it less riveting than my daughter and I do, you need to read this hilarious paraphrase entitled “The Jam Session That Created the Universe.”)

Inara4

Finally, in our pre-dawn desperation, we watched the “Father’s Day” episode of Doctor Who together. And let me tell you, “Father’s Day” is a tearjerker. Especially when you’re a father. Who has been up all night. With his baby daughter.

All night, as Inara and I fought off the well-meaning gods of sleep, I posted photos and videos to Facebook, and I have to admit, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of kind comments, well-wishing, and just the sheer good from my friends and community and from my fans. I always knew that writing novels was something I needed to do to survive. What I could never have anticipated is the way that I would meet such an amazing group of fans and fellow bookworms, who would rally not only around the books but around my family. I am profoundly grateful.

The royalties from the novels patch holes in my household budget (and I can vouch for the fact that medical bills will riddle your budget with holes like almost nothing else). But hearing from all of you … that patches something in my spirit. Inara and I thank you all.

Stant Litore

You can read more of the story of Inara in Lives of Unstoppable Hope.

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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It’s a Wee Bit Wet in Colorado Today

UPDATE: 50% OF ROYALTIES WILL GO TOWARD FLOOD RELIEF

I will contributing 50% of royalties received for Sept 1-Nov 30, 2013 sales of my Zombie Bible novels to flood relief via the Grey Havens Group’s flood relief fund. Currently, the GHG fund is being spent on linens and essential household items for two newly-homeless residents of Boulder County and on providing food for relief workers and volunteers.

Here are today’s photographs from my beloved state of Colorado, suffering flash floods:

Flood1

Flood2
That’s Mother Nature. Proud job creator since 125,000 BC.

Flood3
This is within a half mile of my home. We are staying just above the water, however, and our neighborhood is not being evacuated.

I know people who have lost their homes. Those of you not living in Colorado, please keep us in your thoughts. Whether in Colorado or outside it, scroll down to learn how you can help.

My wife and I — our residence is unaffected, although the roads flooded today all around us, confining us at home. This made a bit of an afternoon holiday for my oldest, though. Previously, little River had been mourning the loss of her pond nearby; it had become a mere pit of rocks, completely dried out. Last night, she stared at the sky as it rained and said happily, “Storm come out. Rain bring more water!”

Today, her pond covers the entire field around it, lapping at the edge of a nearby home on one side and the top of a dike barring it from the street on the other. It is ten feet deep and seventy feet across. “Ocean!” River cried as she and I splashed out into the rain to look at it together, during a lull in the downpour. “River swimming in the ocean!” I helped her take off her galoshes and held her hand tightly as she waded ankle-deep along the edge. Then we hurried back indoors as round two of the downpour began to gather overhead.

Elsewhere, it’s Bad
For River it was a wonderful holiday. But nearby, others have lost cars and homes, entire towns have been evacuated, and there have been a few fatalities. The weather service predicts that tonight, a “wall of water” will hit Boulder, CO, and Longmont, CO to our north has been “cut in two” by the floods.

Nearer home, numerous streets and intersections within a half mile of our home have been closed, and many homes east of ours have seen flood damage. At least at this point, we don’t expect the water to flood ours, but other places in our city and our state are less fortunate.

Want to Help?
I have been told that LifeBridge Church on Ute Highway in Longmont, CO — http://lbcc.org/ — is serving as an evacuation center for Lyons. They are in dire need of toiletries and blankets for local evacuees. If you are in the area or have the means to send them supplies, please consider it.

I am also helping to organize a small, financial relief effort.

GreyHavensFundI am a member of a wonderful Colorado nonprofit dedicated to celebrating the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and promoting literacy along the Front Range. We host reading days, symposiums, and events for children; partner with one of the region’s several most active independent bookstores; and hold a number of seasonal festivities, including a “Nerd Life Sing-a-long” event (Firefly, Star Trek, and other nerdy themes abound.) We are called the Grey Havens Group. Some of our members–friends of mine–have seen horrific damage to their homes in today’s flash floods. Also, a number of members had to evacuate their homes and we have not heard back from them yet.

The Grey Havens Group is going to be collecting funds for flood relief for members and people in our community. To help, you can contribute at http://greyhavensgroup.com/support/ and then send an email to Kelly Cowling at greyhavensgroup@gmail.com to specify that your contribution is to be used for the flood relief fund.

I can vouch for the fund — the more so as I was the one to propose the idea. You can learn more about GHG at our website greyhavensgroup.com, and I hope you’ll consider lending a hand. Thank you.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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In Memory of September 11

12 years ago.

It was my first day of teaching college English. I didn’t turn on the news. I was focused on getting ready for that morning class. First one ever. Breathless, I dashed to the humanities building, trailing papers and pencils in a blaze of enthusiasm and desperation. Reached the building, walked into the English Dept atrium, found everyone milling about with pale faces. Walked up to the secretary.

“Did I miss something?”

“Someone flew a plane into the tower.”

“Oh.” Staring at her. “Well. That’s…that’s something.” Shock setting in. “A plane?”

Nods.

I was trying to find out if she was serious.

“An airplane?”

Nods.

At which point I walked off numbly toward the TVs and those horrific images of fire and death. And I kept thinking: This is a science-fiction movie. This isn’t real. Who the hell did this?

I remember the horror, the anger, and also the incredible gratitude I felt when I watched images later that night of people holding vigil around the world — Christians in London and Rome and Berlin, Muslims in Lebanon and Pakistan and Iran, people on every continent grieving with us. I have never forgotten that.

I remember the horror and the promise of that moment, when for the briefest time, national, ethnic, political, and religious borders were forgotten (by all but an angry few) in the common need to comfort each other in that moment of human suffering and loss.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Why God is a Woman in “Death Has Come Up into Our Windows”

A Feminine God
Readers have responded, alternately, with fascination or horror when they’ve found that God in Death Has Come Up into Our Windows (The Zombie Bible) is female, and I’m often asked why I made this choice as a storyteller.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about it:

  • How I made the choice
  • Why doing it was easy
  • Why doing it was important

Hang on. Here we go…

How I Made This Choice for the Story
Death Has Come Up into Our Windows retells the story of Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah), the “weeping prophet” in the Old Testament who witnesses the destruction of his city. The idea that in this novel Yirmiyahu conceives of God as female actually developed very late in the writing of the story. I had already written the story arc of Yirmiyahu’s marriage with Miriam, and the fierce desire to protect the woman and the People he loves were firmly established. I was looking for a way for readers to engage with the culture and the struggle of these characters to live as human beings when surrounded by atrocity. I knew the way the characters related to God would be key to this.

The Old Testament sources of the story emphasize both the wrath of God and the grief of God. Modern readers have a hard time tapping into the wrath-of-God passages; we’re desensitized to it. But we rarely ever talk about the profound grief of God.

Lamentations in the Bible tries to express the inutterable grief of both the prophet and his God for a city that’s dying. Those passages move me. In Jeremiah, we find God imagined as a spurned lover, watching the city destroy itself while it rejects the passionate, anguished advances of its deity.

In my novel, I did two things.

First, I flipped the gender. Yirmiyahu is male, and passionate (heroically but problematically so) about protecting the women in his life: wife, city, God.

Second, I began working with the Jewish concept of the shekinah –the feminine presence of God that comes over the Ark of the Covenant behind the veil in the Temple, and that plays such a role in the Old Testament. That gave me all the imagery I needed to really let us tap into an intimate and painful relationship between God, prophet, and city.

God’s feminine presence is weeping behind the veil in the Temple.

Why Doing This Was Easy
Though this may seem odd to some, imagining the female side of God wasn’t difficult at all. The God one encounters in biblical stories and the Psalms has both masculine and feminine attributes, though the masculine are more emphasized. It’s all there: the creating of new life. The nurturing. The fierce demand that any who would seek her or talk of love to her act first to provide for and feed her children. The Spirit brooding, dove-like, over the deeps in Genesis 1. God as a mother hen drawing chicks in beneath her wings in the Psalms. And so on.

The prophet Yirmiyahu believes men and women are created in God’s likeness. To write a feminine God, I just focused on the women in my life. If they are made in the likeness of God, what would I, knowing them, then assume God to be like?

Why Doing This Was Important
Why was this important? Because we can’t tap into the story fully if we are fixated on our own, idolatrous image of a white-bearded God visiting wrath on a disobedient city. We miss out on all the weeping that’s in the story, all the desperate hope and profound despair. We miss out on the poignancy of a story that is about a prophet and his God crying together as the prophet fights to save the city.

And most of all, in our indignation at the idea of an elderly male God punishing us, we’d miss out on the demands this story makes on our minds and hearts: what are our responsibilities to God and to each other?

The story of Jeremiah is not a story about crime and punishment; it never was. It’s a story about broken relationships.

Portraying the sorrow and vulnerability of God made this story possible.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Stant Litore on the Bible: How and Why I Read It

Hello, friends. If this post interests you, please consider getting a copy of the book–Lives of Unforgetting (What We Lose In Translation When We Read the Bible, and a Way of Reading the Bible as a Call to Adventure). This puts food on my family’s table, and it makes me very happy to know the book is being read and used. Thank you for enjoying my posts!

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Now on to the post…

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Stories that Live in Our Blind Spot
I write because I love stories, because I can’t go a day without telling a story or listening to a story. And as a child I encountered the Bible as a wondrous collection of shocking, horrifying, empowering, and troubling stories (sometimes, all four at once). When I embarked on The Zombie Bible, I wanted to share these stories, I wanted to make them new again, I wanted people not to walk past them but to live the horror and the wonder that I found when I read them. At the risk of sounding like a bully, I wanted to make readers cry.

I suspect that the majority of people in the U.S. ignore biblical stories. Religious people ignore these stories because, most often, they read merely for examples to corroborate or elaborate on what they’ve been taught. Secular people ignore these stories because, as a rule, they are unwilling to separate these ancient stories from the political slogans and agendas that refer back to them. To me, this is a tragedy. We are talking about one of our oldest and most diverse treasure-houses of stories, and it is the one such treasure-house that everyone talks about and no one really experiences.

These are horror stories and wonder stories, but we’ve largely forgotten that. In many cases, these 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 they would horrify and amaze us again, move us again.

These stories deserve our attention, and we deserve the opportunity to let them touch our hearts and bring us to tears or anger or joy. 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.

How Not to Read (Seriously)
Let me try to explain what I mean more clearly. If you’re reading this, skip any part that gets tedious.

I think that most people, whether religious or secular, assume that you should read the Bible as one coherent narrative, novel, or history book. This is true whether you’re ransacking this text for a consistent religious doctrine or whether you’re trying to dismiss it in entirety.

But it isn’t one narrative.

It’s a whole nest of different texts from different times in which different people struggle to understand both God and humanity. Whether you “believe” in God or not — whatever your relationship (or lack thereof) to religion may be — the Bible provides a polyvocal record (a record consisting of many voices) of man’s developing understanding of man, ethics, and God.

This record opens with two ethical statements in Genesis 1:

  • God looked on creation and pronounced it to be “good.”
  • Male and female, we were each created in the likeness of the divine.

The thousand-odd pages that follow consist of 66 books (slightly fewer, slightly more, depending on which Bible) that debate these two ethical propositions (and others), across three continents (Asia, Africa, and Europe), three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek), and nearly a millennium of writing. You have a collection of legal texts, historical chronicles, poems, sermons, letters, testimonies, hagiographies, collections of proverbs, and dream-stories that wrestle with what these ethical statements mean, what these statements imply about God or about people, and whether/how/in what ways these statements might be lived and practiced in real life.

The Bible is an ongoing wrestling match, not a plotline.

Let me give you an example.

Strangers in the Land
You probably recognize Strangers in the Land as the title of my third novel, a nightmarish story of zombies and genocide in 1160 BC. It also refers to one of the core ethical statements in the Old Testament, one repeated again and again throughout the book of Exodus. Moses the Lawgiver instructs the Hebrews that, as they were strangers in the land of Egypt, they must treat the stranger in their own land well. There must be one law, both for the home-born and for the stranger. Strangers’ rights must be protected, vigorously — because the Hebrews, too, were once strangers in a strange land, and because the Hebrew and the stranger are both made in the likeness of the divine.

Now this ethical proposition flies in the face of some of our most basic instincts. We would rather fear the stranger, wall the stranger out, or possibly get rid of them; we want to protect our own. But Moses says no, you have to “shelter” the stranger.

One way to read significant passages in the Old Testament is to read them as dozens of different views of how the Hebrews struggled with two directions that often appeared contradictory: Shelter the stranger on the one hand; on the other, keep your own people safe and secure as well as separate and sacred as a “chosen people.” An ethical conflict that we get to watch in action:

  • Exodus is the story of the wrath of God falling upon a nation that fails to shelter the stranger.
  • In Joshua, tribes of Israel invade the promised land, displacing strangers
  • In Ruth, a stranger from a strange land immigrates to Israel and is, at first, treated horribly — shunned by the Israelite women, starving, in danger of rape in the fields. Yet she is the heroine of the tale (and an ancestor of Jesus). The man who marries her is a man who goes out of his way to shelter the stranger.
  • In the erotic poem, Song of Solomon, the Shulammite bride is a stranger in the land, and she is not liked. Other women in the city taunt her; the watchmen find her in the night and beat her. Yet her lover and husband finds her breathtaking. The poem is a breathtaking song of their union.
  • In Daniel and Esther, the tribes again try to survive as strangers in someone else’s land, facing genocide, slavery, and several attempts simply to annihilate their language, their names, and their way of life.
  • In Ezra, a priest demands that the people of Israel, who have newly returned to the land and have taken strange wives, cast their wives away as strangers, shunning them.

And so on, back and forth. In some accounts, the view that is privileged is “shelter the stranger.” In others, the view that is privileged is reject the stranger — violently, if need be. In the New Testament (in Galatians), Paul says that there is no Greek, no Hebrew, no male, no female, no master, no slave in God’s sight. In other words, race, gender, and class are seen as arbitrary and manmade distinctions. But then Paul has to wrestle with how to make this practical. What if a Christian woman has married a man who worships the old gods? What then? He wrestles with the issue, indicating what he thinks is right, and concludes with the direction that his readers must search their own hearts.

They must wrestle with it.

As readers, these stories, poems, and letters invite us into the wrestling match. Because make no mistake, we have to ask the very same questions that were asked thousands of years ago. Are we to shelter the stranger? How does this impact our views on immigration? How does it effect what we do when our child brings home someone of another race for dinner?

“Who is my neighbor?” one listener asks Jesus, and gets a very uncomfortable story in response. Who am I responsible for loving and sheltering?

You can take any number of ethical statements proposed in the Bible, and watch it get wrestled with, generation after generation, story after story, letter after letter. The Bible is not a consistent plotline or a manual; it’s a record of centuries of intense wrestling and it is an invitation for us to wrestle — openly, honestly — with these ideas. Ideas that have shaped and troubled our world. Ideas that are radical and important.

He Wrestles with God
In fact, the word “Israel” literally means “He wrestles with God.”

Think about that.

I mean, really think about that.

What if reading the Bible is not an act of taking in information (which you may then either adopt or reject), but an act of wrestling? How might that be a different reading activity (maybe an exciting one — regardless of whether you are religious or not)? What if the reading experience is supposed to be tense and contradictory and sometimes laden with horror, and what if that isn’t a bad thing?

What are we wrestling with, when we read the Bible?

Well, God, clearly — regardless of whether or not God exists.

We’re also wrestling with ourselves — with our own assumptions.

And we’re wrestling with the dead. With our past, which always (if we ignore it) rises up to devour us.

Wrestling with the Dead
There is a 1800-year-old Judaic tradition of reading the Old Testament which stands in stark opposition to the literalism of modern fundamentalist Christianity (and of much modern reading, in general). This tradition survives today in the conservative movement in Judaism and rabbinical scholarship (not to be confused with what “conservatism” means in America). This tradition celebrates the text without treating it as some type of novel or character profile, but as a treasure-house of cultural stories from the ancestors that need to be questioned and wrestled with — precisely because how we approach these stories has an impact on who we are and how we decide who we need to be.

A reader in this tradition is expected neither to accept tales of genocide in the Old Testament nor to reject them, because both are irrelevant to the goal of reading: which is to engage with one’s ancestors, what they felt and believed and hoped and feared, to wrestle with your dead for a while, learn from them, and talk with them, as part of a dialogue through which we create or attain wisdom for the present.

Our dead are different from us — even though they, like us, may have endured exile and privation and even though they, like us, may have experienced love and loss. By listening to our dead, we become better able to listen to the living — who are also different from us.

Relearning How to Read
Unfortunately, we’re taught to mine the Bible for information or models for behavior; it is treated as a static document, rather like instructions on how to assemble a bookcase. Maybe it is recognized to be more difficult to read and interpret than the typical bookcase assembly instructions, but in the end, we treat it as that kind of document — except that we are what is being assembled — and we either accept or reject the Bible depending on whether we like the shape we think these instructions will assemble us into.

In fact, we’re taught to read almost everything that way. Unless we have escaped this trap either by means of voracious reading on our part or some college instructor’s insistence, we tend to read even works of great literature in search of their “moral” or their one right, or best, interpretation. We go into stories looking for their end result, whether that end result is “True love conquers all” or “A good man is hard to find” or “Christ will save your soul.”

We aren’t taught that reading can be an act of wrestling.

If you look at a standard, American Christian study bible (let’s say the ESV Study Bible — beautiful translation, awful study aid), what you find is text at the top of the page, and annotations at the bottom of the page, in which one preacher or editor footnotes difficult passages and explains exactly what they mean.

I was shopping for a Bible once, in a religious bookstore, and the woman shopping next to me asked for my advice. “I want a study bible with clear notes,” she said, “so I’ll know what it means and I won’t have to think about it.”

We’re most often taught to read this way — as though every question in the book has an answer and only one answer and one of our fellow human beings will tell us exactly what that answer is. Infallibly.

Let’s compare this to a rabbinical study bible — the Etz Hayim, a Hebrew/English parallel text with annotations at the bottom. It is laid out just like a Christian study bible. But there’s a big difference. The annotations at the bottom might footnote a difficult passage and then run through five examples of how different people have read that passage in different centuries. Some of it is brilliant. Some of it is beautiful. Some of it is thought-provoking. It’s all meant to prompt you to wrestle with the text yourself, to ask smart questions and figure out what it means, not be told what it means.

That’s a beautiful, intelligent, exciting way to read.

How Do We Get There?
I think we start by making the stories real again. Whether we start (or end) as religious or atheist or agnostic readers, if we’re going to read at all, we need to encounter the stories — not as chapters in a novel, but as hundreds of stories that are all tackling related questions.

We need to read about Ruth in the fields gleaning scraps of food, as a single woman with a widowed and ailing mother-in-law, and we need to feel her fear and her desperate hope.

We need to read Jeremiah’s words as he howls in the street about the child sacrifices on the Hill of Tophet, and we need to feel his horror when he cries, “I see the blood of children on your skirts!”

And we need to watch Ezra banish the women and let ourselves feel very, very uncomfortable. Not just dismiss it or explain it away. Actually look at it, wrestle with it. And then ask ourselves some hard questions.

We need to read and feel — not just let these stories be some kind of commercial for a political program, nor source texts for a troubling religious dogma that some of us feel obligated to disinherit, nor even a religious instruction manual that is all about us. We need to go to these stories as we go to a date, a tense but hopeful encounter with people who are both like and unlike us, people who are other than us, and let ourselves be drawn into their lives for a while.

These stories have made me cry. And laugh. And shiver.

And they have challenged me to seek deeper relationships with my fellow human beings, with the dead who came before me, and with God. They have helped me work out my faith and my tradition with fear and trembling.

They have invited me to ask tough questions.

I think that’s partly what they’re for.

Stant Litore

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Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.

Book Cover - Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible by Stant Litore

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On Zombies, Pressed Ties, and Other Matters: An Interview

Editor Felicia Sullivan (who is known for specializing in editing works of indie zombie horror) asked me for an interview about writing and The Zombie Bible. I am not sure whether the results were humorous, profound, or some combination of the above, but it was a memorable interview, and I thought you might enjoy it:

1. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you just kind of fall into it?

Stant Litore. Always. Which means I did just kind of fall into it. I just fell into it when I was small and young and not nearly tall enough or strong enough to put on a suit and a tie and climb my way out of that deep pit of the Imagination and go find another, more respectable vocation. Something like law or accounting, something that would have led me to a lifetime of neatly pressed ties and abysmal misery. That didn’t happen. I didn’t make it out of the pit. So here I am. Writing. And answering interview questions. And then writing some more.

VenusflytrapPictured: The Venus fly-trap of the Imagination.

2. What’s your process? Do you have a set writing schedule, or do you wing it?

Stant Litore. I write nearly every day, and I aim for 1,000 words minimum. The when and the where is up for grabs, as long as it happens. I try to take a quick walk whenever I can, as that’s when the story actually gets created — the rush of ideas, scenes, moments of love and hope and morbid death. When I do sit down with pen and paper or with my laptop, I throw on headphones and listen to something moody and symphonic. And I write.

The music is the key. I trained myself for years, in a war against writer’s block. Now the moment the headphones go on, I am in fiction world. (Thank you, Pavlov.)

PavlovPictured: This is Pavlov.
This is not me.
I feel I should clarify that.

3. What is your favorite genre to read? To write?

Stant Litore. I will read anything that is a great story and that has something useful or beautiful or impressive to say. I read a lot of science fiction, fantasy, history, and science, and books about theology and what people think, why they think, and whether they think. I read a lot of books about love. And death. Definitely a lot of love and death.

holbein_danse_macabreGene Wolfe, my favorite novelist, noted that “literature” is often
assumed to be about love and death, while “mere popular fiction”
is alleged to be about sex and violence. He then takes that distinction apart:
“One reader’s sex, alas, is another’s love; and one’s violence, another’s death.”

I am writing horror right now, which really means that I am writing fantasies set in the distant past in which truly awful things happen and in which various people, some of them awful, and some of them very not-awful, try to survive that.

4. What was the first book you wrote, and how successful was it?

Stant Litore. That depends on whether you mean the first book I wrote or the first book I published. The first book I wrote was tremendously successful and well-reviewed by its single reader (me). And I still love it. It had castles in it. And battles. And a thrilling race to the death on horseback. And also a very large pumpkin pie, as I recall.

The first book I published was Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, in which an Old Testament prophet struggles to keep his wife, his city, and his faith safe against the overwhelming dead. This book sold 6,000 copies in December 2011, and I was (and am) quite proud of that. Readers either love it (enthusiastically) or loathe it (enthusiastically). It is that kind of book.

DHCWFirst novel. On the left, the cover of the 2011 edition.


5. How do you spend your time when you are not writing? Do you have any interesting hobbies?

Stant Litore. What is this “time” you speak of?

In all seriousness, most of my time that isn’t spent at work or writing is spent with my wife and two daughters, one of them disabled and requiring a lot of care. But also, they are all very bouncy and exciting people (including my wife, who will probably see this interview at some point and demand, “Bouncy???”), and I really enjoy spending time with them. Once my girls are in bed, I am probably writing. Or reading. Or taking a walk. Or maybe watching A Game of Thrones.

I did have hobbies at one time. I distinctly remember having hobbies. I now have children.

Toddler2Steampunk Toddler.

ChildrenAlso, there are now two. (Pictured: Inara and River.)

I like to play chess, or read up on my history, or teach a class at my local church. When the children are a little older, I look forward to traveling with them.

I am actually passionate about dead languages. So chances are, if I am indulging in free time, you will find me translating something with an almost-fever glow on my face. Because I love language. It is our oldest tool, and one that we improve upon and change very quickly, adapting it to different needs, and we don’t even know we’re doing it. It’s remarkable. I like to page through dictionaries of Greek or Hebrew or Latin with the same delighted awe with which a gardener traces his hand along the leaves of a fruitfully-growing, healthy plant. Language is beautiful.

ConjugationThinking…thinking…was that another ablative absolute?

6. Does your family support your writing dreams/career/goals?

Stant Litore. Enthusiastically, much to my surprise and delight. My wife has been incredibly supportive and is probably the #1 reason I have time and sanity to write. Also, there is so much of her in my novels. My children, too. My three-year-old likes to grab one of my novels off the shelf and page through it, intoning solemnly, “ZOM-bie book. ZOM-bie. ZOM-bie.”

No, I did not teach her that.

ToddlerMy daughter River. And zombies.

7. How many books have you written, and which one is your absolute favorite?

Stant Litore. The first three books in The Zombie Bible have been released, the fourth is with my editor, and a separate novella called The Dark Need will be coming out this September. There are also a lot of other unfinished manuscripts chained up and moaning like wakeful corpses in the basement, but we don’t talk about them.

I love (and have a healthy respect for) each of the novels I’ve written. I think my favorite is What Our Eyes Have Witnessed. A lot of what I personally believe or hope about our world is in that book, and there is a story of love and loss that moves my heart more than any other I’ve written. My favorite scene, however, is in Strangers in the Land, and it is the scene in which Devora chooses her husband.

My second favorite scene is also toward the end of that book, and is considerably bloodier.

8. Do you read reviews of your books? How do they affect you, whether positive or negative?

Stant Litore. I do. I do read every review. As a rule, I don’t respond, though I’ve seen some writers do that. I have two goals when I publish a book, and the first is to make readers cry. I mean that literally. I want to know that a story that really moved me or shocked me or overjoyed me or terrified me had that effect on others, too. I want to know that I got to share it — not the words on the page but that experience, the lives and the struggle and the courage and the love and the panache of those characters. I want to know that. So I read reviews, and am grateful to find that yes, people are moved. Or shocked. Or terrified, or grieving, or happy, whatever the story calls for. If you did not like the book and you write a review, I am not offended. I am not writing the books for everyone; only oxygen and water are equally of use and equally pleasing to all people. For everything else, there’s taste.

I did receive one review that did offend me. It has only happened once. The reader got most of the details of the plot incorrect, gave away a huge plot spoiler in the review (and I mean, a really huge spoiler), mistook my use of a Hebrew name as a “silly mispronouncement” of an English name, and you know, I think that is the only thing that has ever really offended me. I write about the horrors that come lurching out of our past. Not everyone in our past was born with names in good American English. Deal with it.

Other than that one time, I have really enjoyed reading reviews, even the “negative” ones. A review is an incredible gift. It’s a gift of a reader’s time and attention, in a world that is fast-paced, a world that limits your supply of time and attention. It is a blessing to receive that kind of gift from a stranger. Whether they liked the book or not, they read it, they spent time with my characters, they spent time with me, even if I didn’t know they were doing it until I read their review. There are no words for how cool that is.

9. You know the next question always is: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Stant Litore. Your novel needs to tell the truth and take no prisoners. You’ll hear all the other advice from other writers, agents, and editors. Advice about discipline and perseverance. Advice about plotting and pacing and character. So I won’t repeat it here. What I will say is find out who your characters really are, let them show you, and find the truth your novel has to tell. Nothing matters more than that. Do not compromise or take shortcuts. Do not chicken out under pressure and write the easier path for your story. If that means you find out two thirds the way through that a near-complete rewrite would give you a story nine times as powerful, you do it. If you won’t have the courage to let your story dig deep into the heart, you’re wasting your time.

10. Tell us your plan for riding out the zombie apocalypse.

I am still forming my plan for the zombie apocalypse; surviving such a thing is unlikely. But I am definitely sharpening my hand-and-a-half bastard sword and eyeing canned goods. I think I will take my battered old pocket Bible and a yellow-paged old Herodotus, knowing that I won’t be able to carry much so I had better go with books that have been with me a long time and have a lot of stories in them. Besides fighting off my suddenly homicidal and reeking neighbors, my greatest worry will be medicine for my daughter. I suppose that in the event of a zombie apocalypse I will need to begin raiding pharmacies; I and half of the rest of the population. Still, I would not like to be the person who gets between me and my daughter’s medicine.

I’m not an optimist (nor a pessimist — I just set the goal and I get it done). I don’t think “the war will be over by Christmas.” People who believe that get eaten. I keep my eye on the prize and I don’t give up. And that is probably the only thing I will have going for me, if the dead do rise and begin dining on entrails. Wish me luck.

Click here to check out Stant Litore’s The Zombie Bible.

Learn more about Felicia Sullivan, the interviewer, here.

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Warriors of Water and Soil

Here’s to our firefighters.

Once a year, my homeland starts burning. And the warriors of water and soil stand against it.

ColoradoFire2013
This year.

WaldoCanyonFire2012
Last year.

We’re seeing thousands of homes evacuated and are hoping for the best. This is the start of another dry summer in Colorado, and I expect we will see more and worse fires later.

Please keep our firefighters in your prayers, thoughts, and hearts. Our teachers create the future and our soldiers stand on the walls to protect it, but our firefighters place their wit, their strength, and their very bodies between us and a threat that will probably always be fiercer and more implacable than any of our disgruntled neighbors, a roaring beast that would indifferently devour lives, crops, and houses of learning: and that beast is wildfire.

If you’re the praying type, pray that our firefighters over the coming hours and days will have the resources they need, where they need, when they need them.

Stant Litore

Update: Well, damn. The sky just filled up with smoke and now there’s ash falling. An hour away, thousands of homes are being evacuated. Here comes the darkness and flame.

Our firefighters are in for a long night.

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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How Kindle and the KDP Helped Save My Little Girl

(This post is dated June 22, 2012, and is from my old blog. I repost it here because it is an important part of the ongoing story of the making of The Zombie Bible.)

In fall 2011, a whole lot happened in my life and the lives of my family, and it happened very fast. In November, my wife and I had our second daughter arrive, beautiful as a spring morning. She gave us a little bit of a scare at birth, but then she was fine and gazing up at her mother with those deep hematite eyes of hers. Then, right after Thanksgiving, she began having seizures. At first they were intermittent and quick; by the winter, they were regular and severe. They began as partial complex seizures – one half of her body jerking and her breath getting shallow enough to scare her father – but one seizure would trigger another and that would trigger yet another, until she was having generalized seizures, loss of control of every muscle in her small body – even down to her eyebrows and her tongue. One time her skin color turned as gray as ash.

It was scary for a while. Real scary. Her mother had epilepsy as a child (a mild form) so she liked to let on that she knew what to expect and wasn’t frightened, but I could see it in her face. My wife was worried sick, and she still hasn’t entirely recovered from that.

Neither have I.

Image
Nothing gets Inara down for long.

It took a couple of months for the doctors to find the right cocktail of medicines to give our little Inara Cahira a stable babyhood. I suspect the trouble was partly that every week or so she added a good ten percent to her body weight, wreaking havoc with her dosages. There were a few evenings when she would have ten or even fifteen seizures. I will never forget the nights I spent sitting by her at the hospital, watching her fitful sleep. I probably prayed more in those weeks than I have at any other time in my life, and slept less. I think Inara’s older sister thought the hospital was where the new baby lives.

She’s well now, for the time being. After a grand total of six ambulances and five hospitalizations (the longest lasting nearly a week), she has been two months without a neurological seizure. Her last EEG came back normal; for the moment, this is under control. She is an astonishingly cheerful baby; she giggles at everything. She even giggled at her doctors and nurses—once they got the IV in, at least. She isn’t the kind of girl that lets anything get her down, and her mother and I are fiercely proud of her.

The other half of this story is one of gratitude. Bad things and good things come at the same time, and they walk hand in hand. In December, at the same time that I was getting increasingly worried about my little girl, my first book, a horror novella that I had self-published through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing), got picked up by Kindle Singles – which is a very exclusive and eclectic Amazon storefront specializing in shorter work. Between December 12 and Christmas, the book sold about 6,000 copies and reaped a windstorm harvest of acclaim and positive reviews. Shortly before Santa arrived on our rooftop, Alex Carr over at Amazon Publishing called me up and offered to acquire my series. Now Amazon’s 47North is coming out with new editions of the first two books in August 2012 and with my third novel in October 2012. Their people have treated me well, and I’m excited to work with them.

Image
Pictured here: Covers for the self-published (2011) and 47North (2012) editions.

You’ve probably heard from a lot of indie writers about the freedom that self-publishing in general or KDP in particular has afforded them. That’s all true for me, too. But what I will always remember most about my publishing experience in the winter of 2011-2012 was the surreal experience of receiving—on the same day—a packet of medical bills that scared me half to death and a royalty check that erased them.

Since then, I’ve used the money I’ve made as a writer through KDP to fund ongoing treatment and testing for little Inara, as well as treatment for my wife’s chronic pain syndrome. Without the doors that KDP opened for me, I don’t know how I would have afforded any of it, or how I would have taken care of my little girl and kept food on the table, too. I thank God for it and I celebrate the technology and the people who have made this possible. Many emerging writers (whether traditionally or independently published) release their work and see it vanish for a while into an empty chasm. I got to see the return on my investment in a tangible, immediate, and deeply personal way.

This letter is meant as a thank you. With Inara doing better and the days getting warmer and longer, this is the first time I’ve felt relaxed enough to start thanking people. Not that Amazon’s team are the only ones to thank; my boss, my friends, and my church community each stepped in to help in very welcome and unexpected ways, and we couldn’t have made it through the winter without them. But the success of my books through KDP and Kindle Singles was perhaps the most unexpected of the blessings we received.To my church community: your meals, prayers, support, and babysitting for our toddler helped more than I can possibly say. To my boss: thank you for the beautiful health insurance package, your visits and words of strength and support, and for not even blinking when I needed to spend long hours at the hospital. To my friends: thank you for your worry, your hope, your companionship, and for all the soda pop with real sugar.

To my wife: thank you for being you, and for loving our girl so fiercely.

To the team at Amazon and KDP: your independent publishing platform was there for me and my family in a dark hour of our lives and it opened up future opportunities for me that I could hardly have dreamed of. And most of all, your platform helped me get my daughter the medical care she needed—and still needs—without my family going hungry. I am fiercely proud of my books that paid for that and I am fiercely thankful for having had the opportunity through KDP and Kindle Singles to get them out there.

Yours in truth and fiction,

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Why The Zombie Bible?

I was recently invited to give a brief talk and a reading from The Zombie Bible at the Real Myth and Mithril symposium, organized by the Colorado nonprofit Grey Havens Group and hosted by the remarkable independent bookstore Barbed Wire Books in Longmont, Colorado. It was an exuberant event, and I want to share some photos, as well as a quick-quick version of what I had to say about The Zombie Bible.

RMM1
(Stant Litore reads from What Our Eyes Have Witnessed.)

I feel that I learned something from every talk at the event, and that is really rare. Kelly Cowling’s talk about J.R.R. Tolkien’s idea of “recovery” and the way we use art was worth the trip, all by itself. It also provided the perfect segue to what I hoped to say about The Zombie Bible.

The quick summary: Tolkien’s idea of art was that it provides opportunity for a “recovery” of the freshness of experience. In reading a story about dragons or magical trees or zombies, we are reawakened to wonder, so that we can experience what’s around us freshly, as though for the first time. G. K. Chesterton said something similar in Orthodoxy:

“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”

I have always found that to be a profound description of what wonder stories — or horror stories, for that matter — might achieve. As a storyteller, I live for that “one wild moment.”

RMM2
(Kelly Cowling, founder of the Grey Havens Group, sharing deep thoughts. Behind her is a painting by artist Dan Hollingshead. His work is truly breathtaking. Photos do not do it justice. I count myself blessed to have seen his paintings face-to-face.)

This idea of “recovery” rang in my mind. When the time came to talk about The Zombie Bible, I spoke about the writing of it as an act of recovery. This is what I had to say:

The Zombie Bible 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 they 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.

RMM3
(Reading aloud to others–not just my own writing, any novel that I enjoy–is an activity I find deeply rewarding. I love dramatic reading; one of my most cherished memories of teaching involved taking a group of college freshmen over to a seniors’ home to give a dramatic reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The level of connection that day between the very young and the very old was beautiful to witness and be a part of. There were points at which both the seniors and the students were moved to tears. While I rarely teach now, a tradition in my home is that each night — or close to each night — I read my wife to sleep. We read The Lord of the Rings in this way, and are currently working our way through The Dresden Files.)

I wanted to “recover” for my readers the experience of encountering these gripping stories for the first time, and encountering them as stories — minus commentary or sermon or political baggage. Of course, you can’t just prune away all of that when you meet the stories now, but you can get close by telling a story so dramatic and shocking and heartfelt that people get lost in it again — even as our ancestors once did. My first real encounter with the stories of the Old Testament occurred when I was a second-grader. Someone at school gave me a Bible and I took it home and (because I was an insanely fast reader) I plowed through Genesis before going to sleep that night. Those stories were compelling; they had me riveted. And they had me asking all kinds of questions. I wanted my readers to have that experience.

RMM4
(One of the highlights of the event for me — and something I am still trying to process — was finding The Zombie Bible on a shelf of “featured books” alongside the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and C.S. Lewis. Seriously, how cool is that?)

I think one thing that surprised me at the event was how many people expected The Zombie Bible to be a humorous project, akin to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Don’t get me wrong; I think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is absolutely brilliant, and it certainly caters to my love of ninjas, zombies, and mashups. But The Zombie Bible is another animal entirely. It’s a dark and serious work that is about wrestling with history and with our dead. It’s about asking again and again whether hope and love might be stronger than our hunger, and if so, what we are going to do about the hungers our world faces.

RMM5
(My good friend, Pawnee citizen and scholar Roger Echo-Hawk, tells his audience about a rare printing of Pawnee folklore that was on the stacks at Oxford during the years Tolkien was writing the first versions of his Elvish mythology. Echo-Hawk makes a case that Tolkien — given his enthusiasm for what he knew as “primitive” mythologies — may well have read this cycle of Pawnee myths and folk tales, and that they may have influenced passages such as the resurrection of Gandalf, the Elven creation myth, and the nightly bear dance of Beorn.)

One of the most meaningful (to me) reviews I ever received for What Our Eyes Have Witnessed — a review by book blogger Jennifer Bielman — concluded with:

“I still can’t get over the beautiful horror of Litore’s writing. Looking past the zombies, you will find that Litore writes about the very core of human error and it has both humbled me and made me appreciative of the life I live. Highly recommended.”

That’s “recovery.” That’s water into wine and golden apples. That’s what matters to me as a writer, far more than sales or royalties (though I would have to say that those matter, too) — knowing that the stories I’ve told have moved a reader’s heart, allowed them to recover a freshness of experience that will affect their lives outside the covers of the book. I’m going to strive for that in each novel I write. Thank you to the Grey Havens Group and to Barbed Wire Books for a wonderful time, one of the most memorable events I’ve taken part in. Those of you reading this, I hope you will check out The Zombie Bible. Each novel retells a biblical or ecclesiastical story as an episode in humanity’s long struggle with hunger and with the hungry dead. Go take a look!

Stant Litore

Photo credit: Real Myth and Mithril symposium, Sunday, May 19, 2013, Barbed Wire Books, Longmont, Colorado. Photographers Roger and Linda Echo-Hawk.

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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Warning for Writers: Beware Tony Giangregorio and Open Casket Press

I want to pass on a warning to young writers in the horror genre (and perhaps to readers, too). There is an editor and owner of several small presses — Tony Giangregorio — who has a long-standing reputation in the industry for not just editing but rewriting his authors’ fiction and then refusing to return or sell back the rights. He received a lot of bad press in May 2012 when he published an anthology having completely rewritten several stories submitted to it (one of them by noted horror writer Jonathan Maberry), but he is now back, publishing some mangled fiction under his Open Casket Press.

In the most recent offense, novelist Paul Johnson is currently distancing himself from a book published in his name by Open Casket Press, Survival Horror: A Zombie Story — because not only is the book poorly edited, but Giangregorio changed the location of the story and added scenes of his own, completely changing the intent of the story. (In fact, while pressing for the return of his rights, Johnson is requesting one-star Amazon reviews for the book published in his name in a bid to prevent Giangregorio from making money on this unauthorized rewrite of Johnson’s story.)

Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a series of such cases.

Here is a copy of a post on my old blog from May 2012, which assembled a lot of the evidence against Giangregorio in one place:

Beware UnDead Press and editor Anthony Giangregorio. This press — one of Tony G’s many presses (to my knowledge, he also owns Living Dead Press and Open Casket Press) — is a scam. Author Mandy DeGeit has blogged about what happened to her, and no less a personage than Neil Gaiman himself has been tweeting the news.

Here’s the short version:

  • Tony G recently released an anthology that included Mandy’s fiction. The story featured disastrous spelling and punctuation errors not present in the original manuscript, Tony changed the gender of a main character, added in flashback scenes, and added a suggestion of rape to the end of Mandy’s story.
  • When confronted politely but firmly, Tony G. unleashed a torrent of abuse via email (you can read all the transcripts at Mandy’s blog).

(Update 5/16/12: Mandy DeGeit’s story is not an isolated case. Other writers whose stories have been mangled recently by Tony G. include Jonathan Maberry, Alyn Day, and Rocky Alexander.)

More info:

Tony is actually infamous in the industry for disreputable behavior, alleged shadiness around copyright, and ill-treatment of authors. (And by shadiness around copyright, I don’t just mean rewriting stories that have been submitted to him; Tony also reportedly self-published one or more novels set in the world of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead — with the same characters! — without permission from George Romero, and then proceeded to collect royalties on Romero’s intellectual property.) You can learn more here. And here is a list of other writers who have reported bad practices by this individual.

For more of Tony G’s past history, check out novelist Rhiannon Frater’s post on the subject and also this running blog documenting the misdeeds of Tony G and his presses.

His most recent — and creepy — shenanigan: apparently threatening to make a house call on another writer (of the opposite sex) who has also requested that her (also drastically rewritten) story be pulled from his anthology. Maybe it’s a joke. A very, very creepy joke.

Young writers out there, please be careful. When approached by — or approaching — any publisher, vet them thoroughly. Granted, there aren’t many scam artists like Tony out there in the industry, but please be careful. That said, I don’t want to give an impression that Mandy DeGeit is in any way responsible for what happened to her story. When Tony slashed, burned, rewrote, and changed the entire narrative, that was a crime against her intellectual property. That’s like being authorized by you to show the house you lovingly designed to other people to celebrate it, and then demolishing half the house and remodeling it in a shoddy manner completely out of step with your original design. Without telling you I’m doing so. (Note that Mandy was never sent proofs, even though she was in touch with Tony by email regularly.) And then when you point out that I’ve severely damaged your house, I send you abusive emails telling you that second-rate designers like yourself should be grateful for my help.

This makes me furious.

(Update 5/16/12: Writer Beware has posted, in response to this incident, a detailed column on what to look for in editing clauses in a publishing contract. I highly recommend reading it.)

(Update 5/17/12: The anthology Cavalcade of Terror,in which Tony G. brutalized the fiction of writers Mandy DeGeit, Alyn Day, and Rocky Alexander, has been yanked from distribution and will no longer be sold.)

Please spread the word and help other writers beware.

Stant Litore

I am reposting this information with the update not in an attempt to tar-and-feather this man, but as a warning. If you are a young writer or even an established writer looking to publish a short story on the side, please be cautious in dealing with this publisher. Please do your research thoroughly when vetting potential publishers. Please go over contracts with care — though I know what a rush it can be to be offered publication after a long search for it, it’s still vitally important to treat a publishing contract as the high-stakes business decision it is. And please share the word with other writers you know.

Update 5/26/13: You can read one blogger’s review of Open Casket Press’s publishing contract, clause by clause, here. If you are a new writer seeking publication, this is worth a read for examples of absurdly exploitative clauses that a scam publisher may write into a contract. The broader takeaway, of course, is that it’s a really good idea to review your contract with a legal expert prior to signing.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

– Rob Kroese, author of Mercury Falls

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Love in the Time of Zombies

Book Cover: Death Has Come Up Into Our Windows

Besides a philosophical zombie thriller, Death Has Come Up into Our Windows is a love story, a married man’s hymn to marriage:

As dawn slipped into his house with the sound of voices in the street on that last day, Yirmiyahu had lain beside his wife in their bed. The navi had watched her sleeping, her soft body, her graceful eyelids, the delicate curve of her jaw. He thought how beautifully she was made, how God, who had birthed her into the world, must have meant for the whole world to look like that, like her. At peace, glowing with beauty. Yirmiyahu smelled her hair and caressed the long strands of it.

The first time he’d seen her, she was dancing in the barley during the Feast of Tents, with all about her the pavilions and booths of the People, and above her a night filled with stars. He had danced with her, and asked her name and her mother’s, and she had laughed when he told her he was a levite by birth, like her, for she did not believe him. After they danced they had kissed, and the touch of her lips on his left him dizzy, and when he stumbled back to his father’s tent he’d realized how sharp, how bright in color were the tents and the people and the wild thyme growing by the path.

The wedding bowl had cracked beneath their feet. He remembered how she had hummed as she moved about their first home in Anathoth, and the way she cried softly a few months later as she packed his levite’s robes and her green linen gown—a gift of her mother’s—for the long walk into the hills to Yerusalem. The words they’d spoken together when he came into the room to hold her. The soft warmth of her beside him as they finished the packing together.

They had gone in the summer, and on the first night of their journey, as they laid out their bedding beneath a stand of terebinths, the cicadas in the branches made a roar with their wings, a droning that drowned out all the world’s other sounds, wrapping husband and wife in a hum of privacy, the two of them alone together in the summer night. He remembered the gentleness of her kisses on his throat, the soft noises they had made together, the way she lay in his arms afterward and dreamed with him of children.

But Death Has Come Up into Our Windows is also the tale of a city devoured by the ravenous dead, a city in which the living and the dead hunger and love can scarcely survive:

A few unclean dead, or many (their number grew so fast), were hunting in the alleys. He thought of the shambling corpses, their hands scratching at doors, pulling at the fragile wood. A few months ago, he had seen two—one had been a priest, a priest, one of his own caste, still clad in the simple white robes of the levites who kept the Temple—he’d seen those two tear down a door and drag a woman out into the street. He had run at them, crushed one’s head with a shovel he’d taken from a worker at the wall. But the other—the priest—had sunk its teeth deep into the woman’s shoulder. He remembered her cry of pain, the wildness of her eyes, her terror. He remembered the way the walking corpse that fed on her looked up at him when he came at it, its eyes with nothing in them but hunger and animal hostility. He remembered its wavering moan.

“People do not feel safe in their own city. Miriam, my Miriam, there are children starving, alone. Easy prey for the dead. And there are more dead in the city than we think.”

In December 2011, Death Has Come Up into Our Windows spent 3 weeks in the top 7 bestselling horror novels in Amazon’s Kindle Store. Today, you can read this story of love and loss and zombies on your kindle, or in paperback … or listen to the audiobook. I hope you will find the read both surprising and moving.

Stant Litore

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No Lasting Burial

Cover: No Lasting Burial

A first-century Israeli village lies ruined after zombies devour most of the coastal community. In their grief, the villagers threw the dead into the Sea of Galilee, not suspecting that this act would poison the fish and starve the few survivors on land.

Yeshua hears their hunger. He hears the moans of the living and the dead, like screaming in his ears. Desperate to respond, he calls up the fish.

Just one thing:

The dead are called up, too.

No Lasting Burial ushers readers into a vivid and visceral re-interpretation of the Gospel of Luke and the legend of the Harrowing of Hell. The hungry dead will rise and walk, and readers may never look at these stories the same way again.

Buy your copy here.

Here’s a taste of No Lasting Burial:

Some days, out on the sea, they would haul up one of their too-empty nets and feel some weight in it, and looking down they would see rising out of the deep, one of the dead tangled in the net, its face lifted toward them, eyes pale and white like those of a dead fish. Already reaching a hand toward the surface, its jaw opening.

And when that happens…

Shimon took up an oar and leapt on the gunwale and spun the wooden blade in his hands to give it momentum and force. Slammed the blunt wood into one of the pale faces. The corpse lost its hold on the net and was hurled aside into the waves, where it sank as swiftly from sight as a dream upon waking. Then, roaring as though furious at the dead and at the sea and the sky and Mighty God himself, Shimon spun the oar, slamming it into one face after another, dislodging the dead, in one case crushing the corpse’s skull so that its body went limp as he sent it back to the sea.

In 26 AD, the whole world has become sharp and brittle with the memory of violence. You just met Shimon, the fisherman out on the waves. This is Kana, the zealot:

Memories crowded upon him–that day of ambush on the high Adummim last summer; the sweat and heat of his long night’s battle at the synagogue door fifteen years ago; the scream of Ahava, his beloved, dying as the teeth of the dead tore at her; his encounter with a dead child in the alleys of Yerushalayim, its empty eyes and wild hiss, a tattered doll still clutched in its hand. Kana shoved the memories away, hard; he had no time for them. Every bone, every beat of his heart, every breath had to be focused on this moment, on the slide and shriek of his Roman knife, on the lurching, groping movements of the enemy he faced. On killing.

And this is Yeshua, the stranger who comes to their town:

“My mother . . . she told me once that our father did not promise a life without pain,” Yeshua murmured, closing the woman’s eye. His words were slow and spoken with terrible clarity. “Not without pain. Only that he would weep with us. Only that his heart would break. Only that he would take each moment of suffering, each death, each, and hold it in his hands, and . . .and bring from it something, something even more beautiful than what was lost. A forest of cedar grows from a field of ash, and each seed, every seed must fall to the earth, fall and crack open and die before it can become a barley plant.” He touched the woman’s hair, stroked it a moment. His gaze never left her face.

And there is a love story, love in the midst of great pain, between young Koach and Tamar:

Then she did something he did not expect. She let the blanket slip from her shoulders, let it settle to her feet, gently as feathers. For a moment, she held her arms across her breasts, then let them fall to her sides and she lifted her chin though her face burned. She let him see her, all of her, her beauty and her bruises. This gift of herself. Her father might strip her or beat her, but he could not take this from her: her right to open her heart and her body to one whose heart called to hers. Koach held his breath. All his life, he would remember this moment. His first sight of her. The memory would be holy to him. As though her rooftop were the place where God touched the world and created beauty.

Buy No Lasting Burial today. Seriously. Do it. You’ve never read a novel quite like this one. Go read it, and I will see you in the Galilee.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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A Response to “Zombie Jesus”

Easter season on the Internet brings a flood of “zombie Jesus” memes. As a novelist who writes about zombies and the Bible, I’ll offer a response.

To me as a zombie fan, the beauty of the old story — whether you approach it as an atheist, a religious man, or an agnostic — is that it IS a story about resurrection and feeding. The story casts Jesus as the potent opposite of a zombie (and thus zombies as the opposite of him). One rises from the dead and feeds you — with his own body and blood. The other rises from the dead and you feed it … with your body. One feeds you; the other feeds on you. Jesus isn’t a zombie story; Jesus is a story in which all the rest of us are zombies: all of us feeding on, consuming, and devouring each other.

Zombies frighten us and fascinate us because they are the ultimate extreme of what we already are or what we fight not to be: those who consume and devour.

In What Our Eyes Have Witnessed, Polycarp describes the hunger that turns us all into zombies, the hunger that does not let us rest content even after death:

“All our lives, we feed on what leaves us hungry, drink from what leaves us thirsting. Because we are always left hungry and always thirsty, we begin to think that those visible objects of our hunger are what we need most. A loaf of bread, a pouch of coins, the respect of others, success, a woman’s body, or a man’s. Or even a person or a thing from times past, something lost and remembered that we crave. But it is not so. These are not what we need most. Our hunger thieves us from our true selves. Like a violent fever, the hunger eats away mind and spirit. In the end, everything that we truly are is gone. Only the hunger remains. Even other men and women are no longer anything but food to us, meat for our desires and obsessions. Then we are lost.”

In another place, he says:

“We can feed on each other, or we can feed and sustain each other.”

That’s the essential and defining choice of how we live our lives (no matter what religion we call our own, if any), and it’s the beauty of the Christ story: the story asks us who we feed on and who we feed.

Writing zombies into the story allows us to throw these questions into sharp relief. That’s part of what I do.

The old Jesus zombie jokes don’t offend me, but they show that someone doesn’t really understand either the Jesus story they’re parodying or the zombie story itself. The point of the zombie story isn’t something rising from the dead. The point of the zombie story is being eaten. It’s a hunger so great that even death can not end it, and how easily we can become mindless, hungering eaters of others. That’s perhaps the most terrifying thing in the world.

If the Christ story is worth telling, it’s because it’s a story that hopes (and insists) that love is stronger than hunger.

I hope that is true — that hunger is not the defining fact of our existence, and that “people devour people” isn’t the defining fact of our future (even if it might be a defining fact of our history and our past). I hope that a descent into all-devouring, decaying-even-as-we-walk zombieism is not our fate (as exciting as that may be to watch on TV). I hope it passionately enough to write about it.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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The Art of The Zombie Bible

I wanted to give you a close-up look at some of the stunning art that has gone into the covers of The Zombie Bible.

This painting by Scott Barrie depicts a zombie against the fiery backdrop of the burning of Walls in Strangers in the Land.

Stant Litore's The Zombie Bible

It is a truly desperate moment in the series:

Then the men were lighting the house to the left, and Devora could hear the moans of the dead within. The dry cedar cracked and sang its fierce death song as the fire spread faster than tears or prayer. The roof of the first house cracked open with a clap of thunder, then crumpled inward, and the moans within fell silent, buried beneath the broken timbers that crushed them down and covered them like a cairn of wood and charcoal rather than stone.

Devora spun in a slow circle, taking in the gray, filthy ash drifting down from the blazing rooftops, dark against the firelit air. Some of it fell on her arm and burned her, and she cried out, not knowing whether the ash had come from a burning bed or from one of the bodies of the People. She gazed in horror at the sky, dark with smoke.

Strangers in the Land

This depiction of Father Polycarp’s gaze in What Our Eyes Have Witnessed is the remarkable work of UK photographer Danielle Tunstall, featuring the model Martyn Dalzell. It appeared as the front cover of the 2011 Dante’s Heart edition of the novel, and appears as a frontispiece in the 2012 47North edition.

Her eyes opened to him, and he gazed inside the rooms of her heart. He saw rooms that were locked and chained; he could almost hear the screams behind those shut doors. He saw other rooms that were vast and wide as oceans; in one, her love and faith in him, a faith so profound and unshakable that it shook him to see it.

What Our Eyes Have Witnessed

And here is Scott Barrie’s cover for the novella Death Has Come Up into Our Windows, the opening salvo in the series:

At the well’s bottom, Yirmiyahu lay without waking, his body wracked with cold and dryness. In the city above, the walking corpses fed and felt no remorse for the cries or the panic of the living. This was a night of the dead, in a city of the dead. He knew it, he knew it. Surely God had left the city, fled the People who’d forsaken her, left them to lie in their darkness, lost and faithless. Surely everything above him was dead. In this well, in this clammy dark, he couldn’t know if there were any breathing people yet above him. If he were to cry out now, would the guards hear—and ignore—him, or would only the dead hear the cries of God’s navi? He couldn’t know.

Death Has Come Up into Our Windows

Litore_NLB_smallAnd, most recently, here is Jeroen ten Berge’s evocative cover for No Lasting Burial, the novel that brings The Zombie Bible to the New Testament!

“And some days, out on the sea, they would haul up one of their too-empty nets and feel some weight in it, and looking down they would see rising out of the deep one of the dead tangled in the net, its face lifted toward them, eyes pale and white like those of a dead fish. Already reaching a hand toward the surface, its jaw opening.”

No Lasting Burial

Scott Barrie, Danielle Tunstall, and Jeroen ten Berge — three remarkable cover artists. Also contributing their creativity to this ongoing series: the 47North design team, consisting, I assume, of veteran mapmakers who help me map and remap well-known biblical lands as sites of zombie apocalypse.

For example, here is the map for No Lasting Burial:

Litore_NLB_map

And one of the maps for Strangers in the Land:

Map1

And here is a close-up of a detail from the map of the siege of Refuge, also in Strangers in the Land:

TZB_Sitl_Map3

My work has been blessed by some truly amazing artists and designers! If you are new to The Zombie Bible, I hope you will check out the series here.

Stant Litore

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Newness of Life

In honor of Easter and newness of life … wow.

The pervasive rhythm of our lives is that of resurrection and rebirth: all around us, each day, we encounter things being born, things being made new. Even though some days, some years, we see only the deaths. Here is a truly breathtaking moment.

I think what struck me about this image of the tadpoles is: all of these young, new living beings rushing together, as one, toward something sunlit and beautiful, though they scarcely know what it might be; they still live in the murk of the water, but they can sense the nearness of the sun and the possibility of another, different life to be lived.

Happy Easter, dear readers. Thank you for being with me on this journey that is The Zombie Bible.

Here’s to another year of faith, hope, and stories that move the heart.

Stant Litore

(Photograph: Tadpoles swimming through a forest of lily stalks. Photo: Eiko Jones. Available as a full-size wallpaper download from the National Geographic.)

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Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!

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What it Meant to Read a Book in the Year 748 AD; What it Means Now

A little perspective.

In the year 748 AD, if you wanted to read a book, an honest-to-God book, with words in it and maybe a story … you had to be one of the fifty literate people within 500 miles. Then you had to trade something or sell something to get the book (which probably took some illiterate monks up to 2 years to copy for you). A sizable tract of land might do, or a prized war-horse, or possibly your second daughter. Then you would have: a book. One book.

It is the year 2013 AD. You have Wikipedia. You have Google. You have streaming TV and movies with low-cost memberships. If you’re into ebooks, you can buy a kindle for $79, spend an hour loading it up with 100 free classics of great literature, and you have your own library, a little larger than a wallet. If you’re not into ebooks, you can probably get a good story to read for a few dollars at your local used bookstore. Or, for free, you can visit the public library and be surrounded by more books than the total number of people that your ancestors in 748 AD saw in their entire lives.

That ought to be awe-inspiring.

Really step back and consider that for a moment.

You can afford … unlimited stories. Even if you’re broke and can’t afford FOOD, you can afford unlimited stories. You are the only generation in human history that can make such a boast.

Take a moment and think about just how incomparably wealthy and lucky and blessed that makes you.

Your ancestor of 748 AD might have been willing to sell one of his family into slavery in order to purchase the smallest literary crumb from your table.

You ought to be awed.

No matter what tragedies are besieging your life, whether financial, medical, or other … this is something to be awed about. This is something worth sitting back for a moment and thinking, “Wow.”

I am thankful to be alive and literate in such a time. We have a lot to deal with in this century, and it’s damned scary. But this…our free or low-cost access to unlimited stories…this is our biggest Wow.

Stant Litore

Stant Litore is a novelist. He writes about gladiators on tyrannosaurback, Old Testament prophets battling the hungry dead, geneticists growing biological starships, time-traveling hijabi bisexual defenders of humanity from the future. Explore his fiction here. And here is one of his toolkits for writers, and here’s another book where he nerds out about ancient languages and biblical (mis)translation. Enjoy!