Interview: Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes

This past June I got the pleasant experience to meet and work with one of my favorite authors – Tananarive Due. Later that same week I got double the experience when she invited her husband, Steven Barnes, to talk with us about sexuality, race, slavery in a seminar. Both are authors I greatly admire and respect, so to be able to review their latest novel and then chat with them about it was a highlight in my burgeoning career.

Both Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes are celebrated authors in the own right having published over 30 books between the two of them.  Due, an American Book Award and NAACP Image Award winner, is also currently the Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. Barnes, in addition to writing novels, has worked in television and film, writing for such shows as “Stargate SG-1.” Both are African-American pioneers in the speculative fiction genre with successful novels, as well as encouraging the work of aspiring writers.

The married couple have collaborated together before with their Tennyson Hardwick novels, a crime series about a sexy reluctant hero. Their latest collaboration, Devil’s Wake, their first Young Adult novel, tells the story of a zombie apocalypse, that is both a horror story and yet, a story about human nature’s ability to band together and overcome obstacles.

American culture is currently having a love affair with zombies, with such television shows such as “The Walking Dead” and numerous movies. Devil’s Wake adds to the litany of zombie material and I wondered what Dues and Barnes’ thoughts were to the zombie’s popularity.

DUE: Zombies have always been popular, but I do think the popularity has peaked in the aftermath of 9/11 because we became a nation during wartime for the first time—with images of people screaming and fleeing in an urban setting.  I think that also sensitized us to images of wartime from other regions of the world.  Uncertain economic times probably also play a factor.  I also believe that we live with the knowledge that life is finite, so in a real sense we are all the walking dead—and that scares us deeply.

BARNES: The zombie is our first “new” monster in a century.  Vampires and werewolves are as old as humanity, but the specific image George Romero created is a contribution of the cinema, and nothing else.   Horror always speaks to our secret fears, and the fear of becoming inhuman, sub-human, deteriorating, maps over with fears of aging, being mindless consumers, of immigration, of racial demographic shifts, and other very current concerns.

Due and Barnes both stated that they were inspired to write the novel based on their love of the zombie movies of old, specifically George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” (which this writer might add was the only zombie movie I saw and scared me to death!) They initially created a short story set in the world of Devil’s Wake and made many attempts to sell the first version of the novel. They realized they had a YA novel on their hands being that their protagonists were young. Choosing to write Devil’s Wake as a YA novel broadened their audience and has allowed them to create, as Due states “our version of a tribute to the zombie movies we have loved.”

The one unique aspect of Devil’s Wake is that the authors do not use the word “zombie” in the novel for the infected, instead call them “freaks.” Though their novel falls into the zombie genre, both wanted to break away from the traditional zombie, while still playing true to the genre. Due and Barnes’ zombies are not the traditional “raised from the dead” kind, but are infected humans. “It’s an outbreak that causes bizarre behavior and killing, creating infected who behave the way zombies do in movies – but we thought they would be called something else in real life, “ Due states.

Both Due and Barnes are no novices to the horror genre, but writing YA horror is different from adult horror.  I wondered if there is a difference in their approach to writing in the different category. Barnes stated that it wasn’t a matter of “we can’t write this,” but “more like, ‘how do we present this?’ Horror isn’t what’s shown. It is fear of what you MIGHT see. So you have to convince the reader that you are ‘serious’ – that from time to time you’re going to hit them with something terrible.”

Due says that they “wrote the story the way we wanted to write it, and then later we went back and pruned out a few words or phrases, sometimes after debate.  Neither of us has ever written books with much gore, so that wasn’t difficult at all.”

Writing the story you want is considered the first rule of writing, but creating the story you want is different when one writes with a partner. Obviously Due and Barnes have written together before and each say that collaboration is a careful dance among two people.  Barnes states, “Working with Tananarive is a balancing act, trying to find a way to let each of our special skills find room for expression without tromping on our separate voices.  Generally we plot together, then one of us writes the first draft (Tananarive with Tennyson Hardwick, me with Devil’s Wake) and then re-write together.” Due reinforces her husband’s assertion by saying, “collaborating is definitely a skill—I like to say it’s twice the work and half the influence—but it can also enrich projects so much by bringing in twice the storytelling power.”

I definitely agree with her that two voices can bring twice the storytelling power. By having two masters in the speculative fiction genre constructing it’s dramatic story, Devil’s Wake is an intriguing thriller and a wonderful addition to the zombie canon.

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