Interview: JR Angelella, author of Zombie!

I’m so thrilled to have author JR Angelella on the blog today! Ross is the author of the brand new Zombie, just out from Soho Press, and was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Please welcome him to the blog!

Photo by Kate Angelella

JR, you have a BA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing, have numerous short stories to your credit, and Zombie, your first novel, just came out! How did you celebrate when you found out Zombie would be published?
Surprisingly, I didn’t. I celebrated when I signed with my agent, but not when I sold the book. It was a very strange time in my life when I received word that Soho Press was buying my novel. I had a lot of heavy stuff going on, even just on the day that it actually sold, and you don’t ever fantasize about selling your book in the midst of family dying, loved ones losing their jobs, having to fire people from your day job, living above a psycho downstairs neighbor who constantly tries to get you to fight him, or suffering from an intense sleepwalking affliction where you wake up in Coney Island in the middle of the night, standing outside of the Cyclone, and not being able to remember how you got there. So when I got the call from my agent, I was just happy there was good news on the other end of the line because there had been bad news for so long. I was thrilled that ZOMBIE had found a good home and couldn’t wait to dive back in to a revision. I, sadly, think I do my best work when the world around me feels like it’s coming unhinged, so it was great timing in that sense.

Can you tell us a bit about Zombie and Jeremy Barker?
Zombie is just your average zombie, non-zombie, coming-of-age, horror, Catholic school, torture porn, family drama, love story narrative. That about sums it up, I think. It’s definitely about zombies, but also not really. Jeremy Barker is a 14 year old kid forced to grow up way too fast, but somehow also remains the world’s biggest spaz. He obsesses about his obsessions that include: women’s magazines, sex, zombie movies, sex, seeing his next door neighbor Tricia, zombie survival codes, where his father disappears to at night, sex, his philandering pill addicted mother and her lover Zeke, a girl named Aimee, sex, sex and sex. The book is really just about sex. And zombies. But not really.

It’s also about how people who wear plaid look like optical illusions. It’s my treatise on anti-plaidism. (My best friend, Chad, is a chronic offender of the plaid persuasion, so I feel validated in speaking out against it.)Oh, and there’s a healthy dose of horror at the end where all of these . . . well . . . I can’t tell you what happens at the end. Let’s just say that you might need a hand getting through it.

Why did you decide to write from a 14 year old point of view?
Originally, I had planned on writing this sprawling narrative from three points-of-view that spanned close to a decade and encapsulated an entire family’s slow disintegration into madness. The problem was that I had no idea how to write a novel at all. I had written a novel prior to beginning this project (which was an utter mess and can’t even really be considered a novel) so while I had the experience of writing a novel and had a few unpublished short stories under my belt; I had no real writing confidence. I had no publications, a God-awful collection of pages that I referred to as a novel, and then this epic story of depression and despair about the Barker family. My wife was beginning her journey as a writer as well and we would trade pages at the end of each night to read what the other had written. Her pages were gorgeous and damn near flawless every night, it was agrivating, while mine were a series of baggy and formless words that amounted to nothing. I was getting frustrated with the structure of the novel, as I couldn’t figure out how to arrange the scenes or set the pacing. My wife came to my rescue (the first of many times!) and asked me to print out everything I had written, which I did, and after she finished reading the first 50 pages or so she encouraged me to write the book from Jeremy’s perspective. She said that his voice was the most engaging and real and funny and aesthetically different than the other two. That was enough or me really. I trust her implicitly when it comes to feedback. And I’m glad I did.

Even though “zombies” are used more as a metaphor in Zombie, why do you think they’re are so popular lately?
There are a lot of theories and ideas about this, and certainly more fully-developed and focused than my own baggy-ideas, but I think that whenever we (either we as a country or individuals) suffer through a difficult time (be it war, economic hardships, divorce, depression, politic unrest) we turn toward varying modes of escapism. Zombies have this intrinsic quality where they represent a dead or dying self, something that reanimated and yet is void of mind and spirit—a demon version of ourselves. They are dead shells of us. I looked at all of the different ways in which zombies have been used in films, and even still in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic series that I am reading now. (It’s addictive!) Their popularity stems, I think, from being able to maintain the same level of horror and fear with the zombie familiarity that we love as a society to counterbalance our suffering, and yet still be able to project a real commentary into the narrative—be it representative of famine, war, disease, financial, consumerism, or ecological. Then again, I think it was George Romero who said—and I am paraphrasing here—sometimes a zombie is just a zombie.

What are some of your favorite zombie novels and/or movies?
I watched so many zombie movies before I began work on weaving in the zombie genetics. I was never a fan boy of the genre, but really became one through all of my research. There is no way I watched them all, but I saw a fair amount. My wife has been a good sport about it and even still will buy me zombie related items. (For Christmas she gave me a zombie ornament, and a few months ago she bought me a zombie cell phone case.) I really liked Dead Snow. It’s a total gore fest, but funny and bizarre as it has to do with zombie nazi’s attacking a group of medical students on holiday.

I also was a fan of Deadgirl, although I always give fair warning about this movie. I wanted to try and work it into the novel, but it never really felt organic. It’s a very interesting take on the whole high school, troubled teen, coming-of-age trope, but definitely handles some disturbing and dark behavior that isn’t for everyone. It was an unsettling film to muscle through, but absolutely made an impression and has stuck with me. I come across it sometimes on cable and can only watch a few minutes before changing the channel. Finally, I guess my favorite zombie, non-zombie movie of all time is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. I borrowed heavily from this film for my novel and if anyone is as big a movie nerd as me, they’ll be able to see the resemblance.

What are some of your biggest literary influences?
The writers I keep going back to are: Chuck Palahniuk, Will Christopher Baer, A. M. Homes, Bret Easton Ellis, Leonard Michaels, Lydia Davis, Tony Hoagland, Edgar Allen Poe, Cormac McCarthy, A. R. Ammons, and more recently John Waters, who people mistaken as solely a filmmaker when his journalism and non-fiction are equal parts hilarious and hideous—good stuff.

If you could read one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Oh, good question. Sorry, but I can’t pick just one. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, for sure. Then there’s Pete Dexter’s Paris Trout—such a good, goddamn book. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—which is only the second book to ever make me cry. This begs the question: well, Ross, what was the first book to make you cry? That would be A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. When I finished reading that book, I put it in the freezer for a week—I couldn’t take seeing it in the house, it hurt so bad in the best possible way.

What’s one of your favorite lines from a book?
“There is always something for which there is no accounting. Take, for example, the whole world.” – Leonard Michaels, “Of Mystery There Is No End”

What are you reading now?
Right now I am reading Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series and I’m on book 9, I think. It’s so addictive, I can’t put it down. I’m also reading L. J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries: The Awakening (book 1). I am also re-reading Matthew Zapruder’s poetry collection Come On All You Ghosts, that I read for the first time while writing Zombie and felt compelled to re-read now that the book is finished.

When you’re not teaching or writing, how do you like to spend your free time?
It doesn’t feel like I have any free time, really. When I’m not working my day job, or writing, or reading, or teaching, I am most certainly kicking it with my wife. I am a TV show junkie—good and bad; high-brow and low, I don’t discriminate. I am rooting for my Baltimore Orioles, who are killing it this year! (In Bawlmer, we say, “Dem O’s are back, hon!”) I am also pretty obsessive with music, so Spotify certainly helps feed that demon. If you ever see me, I will most certainly be wearing headphones, so if I don’t reciprocate a hello chances are I didn’t hear you, and more than that I had no idea you were even there.

Is there any advice you would give to struggling writers?
There was a struggling writer who contacted me via twitter a few weeks back who had growing frustration with his stories being roundly rejected. I sympathized with him. I have been there. I am still there in a lot of ways. So I told him what I tell my students in the first day of class: Fearlessness first, then patience. Be fearless with your content, with your routine, take risks in your work. Put another way, develop your literary swagger. Then send out your stories. Send them out in droves and sit back and wait—be patient.

Publishing is a slow process. If you have been fearless in your work, someone somewhere will see that and accept you for it, so patience is key. Once you have completed this cycle—whether your story was rejected or accepted—be aggressive about it and do it again. I told this struggling writer all of this, and a month later he hit me back with news that he had a story accepted. He thanked me, but I had to remind him that I had nothing to do with it. He was the one who did all of the heavy lifting, all I did was come in at the end and tell him to lift once I counted to three.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about upcoming projects or events (or anything at all!)?
As far as projects, my wife and I working on a supernatural, Southern Gothic YA series together that has been a lot of fun—both splashing around in the content as well as working with Kate, who thinks and writes and creates very differently than me, which is what makes our collaboration on this project so special and exciting.
Keep up with JR: Website | Twitter
Snag a copy of Zombie: Amazon | B&N

About Zombie:
Fourteen-year-old Jeremy Barker attends an all-boys Catholic high school where roving gangs of bullies make his days a living hell. His mother in an absentee pillhead, his older brother a self-diagnosed sex-addict, and his father disappears night after night withour explanation. jeremy navigates it all with a code cobbled together from the zombie movies he’s obsessed with: NIght of the Living Dead, 28 Days Later, Planet Terror, Zombieland, and Dawn of the Dead among others.

The code is put tp the test when he discovers in his father’s closet a bizarre homemade video of a man strapped to a bed, being prepped for some sort of surgical procedure. As Jeremy attempts to trace the origin of the video, this remarkable debut moves from its sharp, precocious beginnnings to a climax of almost unthinkable violence, testin hi, and the reader, to the core.


  1. Wow, what a great interview! Just shows that hard work and perseverance pay off.

  2. I totally loved Zombie, and really enjoy this interview. It’s always nice to find an author who is actually quite engaging in their blogger interviews, and willing to share about themselves, and not just pimp their books.

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