This Author Doesn’t Bite: An Interview with Novelist Rhiannon Frater

I ran across the As The World Dies trilogy, consisting of The First Days, Fighting to Survive, and Siege at the library, all snuggled together on the shelf, ostensibly innocent and unobtrusive.  The covers revealed allusions to women and zombies; little did I know that less than two weeks later, my life would be absolutely consumed and a month later, still reeling over the saga.

Written by author Rhiannon Frater, a Texas based author and zombie-survival aficionado, the trilogy outlines the lives of two women, Jenni and Katie, whose laundry list of to-dos in this new world infested with zombies includes surviving, love, wrestling with past and current demons, and an attempt to seek a glimmer of normalcy amidst it all.

Rhiannon was kind enough to take some time out of her busy day of creating kick-ass female protagonists and creative and gruesome ways to kill zombies to answer a few questions about the trilogy.

JM: Your characters often refer to George A. Romero’s zombie movies (director of Dawn of the Dead, Survival of the Dead, et al), as a guide on how zombies could act and events may unfold.  Have any other art forms or works inspired you during the writing of this trilogy?

RF: George A. Romero’s original zombie trilogy is a huge influence, of course.  I think any writer in the zombie genre would admit to being a fan of his works.  I wasn’t really influenced by any art forms or other works beyond Romero’s zombie movies. The people I met while traveling for my former job and the Texas landscape more heavily inspired me.  I love Texas and Texans as a whole.  I also did a lot of research about how people respond to natural disasters to ascertain how people would respond in a zombocalypse.

JM: Considering Romero’s films or any other inspiration, do you have an opinion on how women are typically portrayed, and how, if at all, did that influence the development of the female characters in the trilogy?

RF: Though I love Night of the Living Dead and regard it as my favorite zombie film, Barbara was a huge disappointment.  She spends most of her time on screen cowering.  When she finally starts to help defend the farmhouse, the dead pull her away.  That being said, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead gave us a fantastic female character in Fran.  Gaylen Ross did such a great job portraying her.  I was asked one time during an interview on a podcast who was the stronger female: Anna from the remake of the movie, or Fran from the original.  I had to say Fran.  It was the Seventies and she stands up for herself in a dynamic way.  She refuses to be a cowering female and joins the men in clearing the mall and defending it.  She also insists on learning to fly the helicopter.  I had the great pleasure of meeting Gaylen Ross this year and we spoke a lot about her portrayal as Fran.  She told me that she insisted on her character being strong.  I appreciate that tremendously.

But for a long time women in horror movies in general were just in the films to look pretty, flash their breasts, and die.  In zombie books, they had the same fate.  Women were also portrayed pretty negatively and were often just cannon fodder.

When I started writing the short story that birthed the As The World Dies trilogy, I never really consciously thought about the fact I was creating two female protagonists.  It was just a naturally occurring event in the framework of the story.  It wasn’t until later that I came to realize what a huge deal it actually was in the genre.

Now, happily, there are a lot more women in the genre and there are a lot of strong female characters filling the pages of zombie books.

JM: Creating strong female characters in all horror genres is important, and is slowly but surely becoming more apparent in our cultural consciousness, as evidenced by Selene in Underworld film series, and Alice in Resident Evil.  Regarding print media, literature specifically, I think that the idea that a woman can save the day is still carving out its place, and your trilogy is definitely helping to pave the way.

One aspect of the three books that struck me right away was how physically affectionate the characters are towards one another.  I think it’s safe to say that there is a high amount of cheek action, namely kissing and caressing, between characters of both the same and opposite sex.  What was your reasoning for including these interactions throughout the series?

RF: I guess because Texans are friendly?

We greet each other with hugs.  We wish each other goodbye with hugs and kisses on the cheek.  We’re a friendly lot.  Also, Jenni and Katie become sisters, best friends, and each other’s comfort. They treat each other like sisters.

Additionally, my research into how people respond to disasters revealed that people do cling to each other, even physically, for reassurance in difficult times. Just look at photos after a disaster. People literally hold onto each other.

JM: Given the amount of high tension that we absorb from the books, it definitely works by giving not only the characters, but the reader an extra layer of security and comfort as well.  The affection that they express is palpable by extension to the audience.

Throughout the three books, all natures of relationships are represented: bisexual, heterosexual, lesbian, mixed race, and varying ages.  To pinpoint the former three, many times they discuss stereotypes cast upon them from our homogenous society at large: bisexuality being questioned by both hetero and homosexual groups, an over sexualized view of lesbian relationships for the pleasure of heterosexual men, and my favorite, a man being a lesbian woman’s “beard”.   Given this, these discussions between characters never felt forced; they were always discussed very matter-of-fact or through humor, and the conversations always felt very fluid.  My question is: how do you tackle sensitive issues that could have been easily communicated in a ham-fisted manner with such finesse and ease?

RF: All those conversations happened pretty organically in the storyline.  I wasn’t trying to deliver a “message.”  I was just trying to portray the truth of those particular characters and their lives.  Society is in flux right now and a lot of people are discussing topics that were once taboo.  Sexuality is one of those aspects of the human condition that we struggle to understand in people who may not be like us.

Texans do tend to not care what their neighbor is up to as long as it doesn’t infringe on their personal space.  Because the survivors are living in such a small space, I think it’s natural that they would end up talking about subjects they might have not broached before.

JM: One of the aspects of this trilogy that impressed me was how real your characters were, ranging from spiteful to calculating, good-natured to grief-stricken, pragmatic to tenacious.  Your descriptions of their personalities often spread out throughout many chapters, as opposed to a one-paragraph summary.  This kept the characters fresh and ever-evolving and made it really difficult to not feel a kinship towards many of them; so much so that I was rooting so much for certain characters as if they were a close friend of my own.  As the book ended, I found myself grieving for the lost and when I turned the last page of the last book, I felt myself grieving then as I did throughout the next few weeks.  How do you create characters that are so life-like and complex?

RF: I don’t feel I create characters.  I feel I discover them as I write.  I see my stories as movies on the screen in my mind.  I try to translate to words the images I see on that screen.  The characters just kind of appear.  I have to sit back and ask, “Who are you?”  Sometimes characters end up challenging me in unexpected ways. I had to educate myself on bisexuality when Katie revealed her sexuality.  For Jenni I had to do research on her psychological issues.  Sometimes characters just pop up fully formed and ready to go.  Other times, I have to slowly unravel them.  It’s always a challenge.  They surprise me, too!  A well-developed character tends to do that a lot.

For example: Jenni’s impulse control issues really created some harrowing scenes in the trilogy.  I wasn’t always sure what the outcome would be!  But she’d go off and do something whacked on the screen in my head and I’d just mutter to myself and hope she’d come out of it somehow.

JM: In the final thoughts of your last book, you touch on how you believe in the good in people during times of crisis.  Throughout much anxiety and hardship, it was a comfort for me as a reader that no matter how much tension there was, I always knew that it would be okay because as a whole, the characters would always be there for each other.  Can you touch on this a little more for those who haven’t yet read the books or your final thoughts?

RF: I think the media has a huge impact on how people regard humanity.  There is a lot of evil in this world, but there is also a lot of good. Every day we live our lives by agreed upon rules that allow most of us to have rather good lives.  The hardships we experience as a modern society are nothing compared to our past.  The news shoves at us the worst of the worst, so we tend to be pretty gloomy about the future.

Yet, we survive in community.  We always have.  Great cities are born out a couple of hovels grouped together.  Nations rise because of people working together.  We advance ourselves because we work together as a community.

During disasters, we survive in groups.  For some reason it became the trope in the zombie genre to have humanity killing each other and being more monstrous than the zombies.  Yet, this wouldn’t be the reality.  Survivors would group together to survive.  They would fight to retain a semblance of society.  It’s our natural inclination. It’s who we are as a species.

Therefore, it seemed only natural that the people in Ashley Oaks would work together to survive and build a new community in a dead world.  That this shocks people is rather sad because it is the actual natural instinct of humanity.

Besides, Texans love the story of the Alamo.  They’d love the idea of making a new stand, but hopefully winning this time around.

JM: Well if there ever is a zombie-apocalypse, you’ll be one of the first people that I invite into my fort.

You can visit Rhiannon Frater’s website at: www.rhiannonfrater.com for tour dates, books, and even obtain a signed bookplate.

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