Review: Plague Town by Dana Fredsti
and
Mini-Interview by Prof. Jenn

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I had the great pleasure of conducting a Mini-Interview with author (and stage combatant) Dana Fredsti, whose first zombie novel came out yesterday, April 3rd. Below please enjoy said interview, as well as my review of Plague Town.
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Interview: Dana Fredsti
by Jenn Zuko Boughn

1) Your bio mentions you are addicted to bad zombie movies of all kinds. When you began working on Plague Town, were you going for bad/pulp, good, or so-bad-it’s-good? How did the book change as you wrote it, and as you revised?

First of all, thanks so much for having me as your guest here! I love meeting other people who practice theatrical combat!

Second, I have to add that while I am addicted to bad movies, zombie and otherwise, I do watch good movies too, especially the really good zombie movies out there.  I just tend to rhapsodize about the bad ones because they bring me such joy…   At any rate, when I started Plague Town, I wanted it to be good.  I wanted it to be funny, scary, and the sort of thing that both fans of urban fantasy and zombie literature (no, I will never get tired of saying “zombie literature”) would enjoy. I don’t think, btw, it’s possible to set out to write something that’s so bad it’s good and actually achieve the goal because most things that fall into that category are made/written with a very sincere intent to make a good movie or write a good book.  If you try and do that from the get-go, I think you end up with a self-conscious piece of crap that’s cringe-worthy.

I don’t outline (at least I didn’t until my editor started making me outline *grumble*) more than a very basic “this is my main character, these are a few of the other characters, it needs to end on this note” page of notes, so while I did know where I wanted Ashley to end up, I wasn’t entirely sure how she’d get there.  Her narrative voice is consistent throughout, but other characters developed as I wrote, as did a lot of the plot twists. A few of the major twists were planned from the beginning, but I wasn’t sure when/where/how they’d manifest in the storyline until I actually reached a point where it served the plot to put them in.  The revisions, on the other hand, were different in that I had Steve Saffel (my wonderful Titan editor and He Who Makes Me Outline) had some very clear ideas of what was needed to improve the original book and worked very closely with me to make sure we were on the same page.  Ashley aged by ten years to take a step away from having Plague Town be identified as Y; more gore was allowed (the original book was geared more towards paranormal romance readers and the publisher didn’t think they’d like some of my gorier ideas); the relationship between Ashley and Gabriel (her instructor) is still there, but toned down a bit to make it fit a little more believably into a crisis situation; and the pace has been picked up quite a bit. If you hear the sound of a whip being cracked, that would be Steve telling me to pick up the pace. J

2) Ashley is touted as being “Buffy but with zombies.” What else inspired you to begin this project? Was the story always planned as a trilogy, or did that develop as Plague Town did?

The concept for the book was originally pitched to me by Lori Perkins of Ravenous Romance.  Her pitch was essentially “How would you like to write something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer? …Except with zombies. But different.”  My answer was, of course, an immediate “yes” because I love me my zombies and Buffy is one of my favorite shows of all time.  Lori also pitched it as a trilogy when she started shopping it around to other publishers. I had to actually write a short synopsis of each novel for her to show how I saw the story arc developing with subsequent book.  Which isn’t quite the same thing as an outline, but close enough that it had me hyperventilating.

3) What can we look forward to in the sequels?

Well, definitely more zombies. The titles (Plague Town, Plague Nation, and Plague World) more or less give away the fact I plan on spreading the infection with each book.   I use what I call “interludes” to do this, which are a lot of fun because they give me a chance to show the readers what’s happening without being locked into Ashley’s point of view and geographical location.  I love writing first person narrative, but it can be limiting.  Aside from more carnivorous corpses, we’ll find out more about the background of other characters introduced in the first book, as well as the shadowy paramilitary organization that recruited the wild cards to help fight the zombie outbreak. I plan on killing off characters too. If it’s one thing Joss Whedon has taught me, it’s don’t let your audience/readers get too complacent about the safety of main characters. Which is difficult for me because I truly hate killing off characters I like (it’s why my first book was a murder mystery – I wrote it to enact literary vengeance on a couple of people in real life who I could not stand), and I get pissed off at authors who do so.  That being said, it makes for better drama and sometimes you need to sacrifice someone to give another character the chance to grow. Or, in Willow’s case after Tara dies, to have your hair go from red to brunette and try to destroy the world.

4) We have theatrical swordplay in common, so I have to ask: what was it like working on Army of Darkness? Did that flick have anything to do with your continuation of zombie love into this book? Any crazy anecdotes from being a choreographer and Deadite?

Working on Army of Darkness was a great experience, not only because it was just a lot of fun (if a lot of work, long hours, cold nights and hot days), but people just get such a kick out of finding out I worked on it. My then boyfriend, who was the onset armourer on the film, had many drinks bought for him when he was working on a film in Norway, just because his fellow crewmembers found out he worked on AoD.  It’s fun to be part of a cult film, even though none of us knew it would be so popular when we were filming it.  I got to choreograph my own fights and got paid to perform them.

I don’t really think of AoD as a zombie film, so no, it didn’t really have anything to do with my continuing passion for all things undead and flesh-eating, but the place it’s earned in pop-culture definitely influenced me a bit. As in, you might recognize a couple of references to it in Plague Town. J  No spoilers, though!

Since you do theatrical combat, you’ll appreciate this anecdote! We were paired up with different partners for the various scenes and one of my partners (let’s just call him “Tank”) was just not that good at following choreography, although he thought he was. Big guy, lots of strength, no concept how to pull blows and make things look real without battering the crap out of his partner.  And I’m not exactly a frail flower of a woman either.  At any rate, we were doing a sword/shield fight and he was supposed to push me away with the flat of his shield, but every damn time we ran the fight he used the bottom V-shaped edge instead.  This pointy piece of wood rammed into my stomach (thankfully somewhat protected by the layer of latex from my Deadite costume) repeatedly over the course of a couple of hours.  It hurt like hell (imagine someone punching you on a bruise a few dozen times) and I let him know what was happening, but Tank knew better ‘cause he was a guy and I was just a girl, doncha know. I ended up with a nasty-ass bruise and a bad case of homicidal rage.

I also ended up in the emergency room one night. This time I was working with another partner, someone who was a little more reliable, but we ended up getting our wires crossed at one point so he cut at the same time I did (one of was supposed to parry) and I ended up taking a whack with the edge of the sword across my forearm.  Everything went numb and I dropped my sword.  We were using aluminum blades, but they had a fairly thick edge and this was not a gentle cut. I was told under no uncertain terms I would be going to the emergency room by the onset medic (who thought the arm was broken) for insurance reasons. If I hadn’t had that latex layer, I would have had a broken arm.  As it was, I was out of action for a day or two.  I was so not happy… The worst of it, though, was the guy I was working with (who I did not blame for the incident) was overheard talking about what a big baby I was for going to the emergency room and how I should have just toughed it out.  Guess we’ll just chalk up that bit of assholery to a big old case of projected guilt.  It still pisses me off to think about it, though.

See, you’re getting all my “war stories.”

5) How does your theatre work inform your writing work, and vice-versa?

I would say that doing theater and film gives me a good sense of realistic dialogue and also a decent sense of dramatic pacing when I’m writing. I hate clunky dialogue (and sometimes wonder if some writers have ever tried reading their books out loud to hear how the dialogue sounds), although I admit that watching bad actors utter already stiff and unrealistic dialogue brings me much joy.  Does this make me a bad person?  Or a good person who appreciates bad movies?  ANYway, as far as vice-versa, I’ve written a few screenplays and have heard my dialogue spoken aloud and acted in a couple projects I either wrote or co-wrote, so I’ve had direct experience with the fact that what I think looks great when it’s written down doesn’t always translate into believable dialogue. Seriously, it’s one thing when another actor tells you your dialogue doesn’t work for them.  You can always dismiss it as being their ineptitude or lack of talent. “My dialogue?  Genius!  I’m sure Shakespeare ran into this attitude too.”
But when you are trying to do a scene that you’ve written and it clunks, it’s hard to be an egotistical prima donna unless you’re schizophrenic. It’s a great reality check.

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Book review: Plague Town
by Jenn Zuko Boughn

Plague Town is a novel about our hero Ashley, who discovers, when a zombie epidemic hits her college town, she’s what they call a “wild card,” or someone who’s immune to the zombie virus. Because of this, she falls in with a super-secret covert-ops group that has been dedicated to eradicating zombies for quite some time. She gets trained in zombie killing as basically becomes a bad-ass katana-wielding walking dead chopper. It’s a fun ride, and delightfully gruesome. I notice the sequels will be Plague Nation and Plague World so (as Ms. Fredsti states in the above interview), we’re only going to have more zombie-slaughtering goodness as the sequels come out.

Here’s my take on Plague Town, in list form. Because lists are fun.

What I liked:
1) We’re really invested in the danger the main “wild card” characters are in. They’re not just super-powered invincibles, there is actually quite a bit of tension and danger for them, even though they are technically immune. The huge fight scene with the zombie barricade towards the end of the book is nail-biting.

2) The “interludes” Ms. Fredsti refers to in the above interview are a fantastic idea. I mean,  come on: Zombie POV? We actually get to be inside the heads of the walking dead? That’s even creepier than just being a zombie hunter.

3) It’s charming and fitting that the setting is a college town–we get free use of laboratories, smart people in charge, and a great “front” for the zombie-killing organization. It’s also adorable that our hero is taking a class about plagues and epidemics at the beginning of the story. Great baldly obvious foreshadowing, and very funny.

4) Fredsti has a fresh take on our favorite zombie tropes, as well as includes classic tropes we want. For example, the zombies shamble and moan. The characters are all contemporary, so they have quite a few delightful meta discussions about zombie pop culture even as they prepare to fight them off in their reality. One of the characters quotes movies when he’s nervous. It’s fun that the story comments on itself in that way–a very postmodern approach. We even have your classic badass, ex-military survivalist character as well, who is exactly what we expect, in a good way.

5) Saving the cats. Tugged at  the heartstrings. That is all.

What I didn’t like:
1) Ashley’s inner monologue. I get that she’s written to be a sassy, sarcastic badass, but. Her inner (and sometimes outer) snarky commentary on everything gets a bit old. There are a couple places where it doesn’t really fit that she’d have a sarcastic thing to say–she wouldn’t be in that sort of emotional state. Not every single moment. It makes her a bit more abrasive than snarkily funny, and since it’s in first-person POV, it gets wearing. Also, sometimes her “witty” commentary isn’t witty, it’s borderline to full-on cliche.

2) I didn’t get much depth from Gabriel or from Professor Fraser, and their changes as we get to know them better aren’t fleshed out enough. I have a feeling we’ll get to know them better in the sequels, but it was hard to find any sort of sympathy for them, as they were pretty wooden, and then unconvincing, whereas smaller pivotal characters (e.g. Mack, Lily, and Nathan) were well-rounded.

3) Maybe this is just me, but I thought that having Ashley wield a katana was just a little…I dunno. Cheesy. This could totally just be me. Go read the book and come back here and tell me if you agree.
Bottom Line: Plague Town is a fresh and fun addition to the reams of zombie pop culture out there these days. It’s nice to have a female central character, and a balance of romance and badassery.

Plague Town can be found wherever books are sold April 3rd.