Vegan Apocalypse: The Deep Ecological Fiction of David Agranoff
By Nicholas Pell
26 September 2011
David Agranoff headed up the radical environmentalist magazine Vanguard in the 1990s before finding his way to the stranger regions of speculative fiction. Despite moving his writing toward bizarro, horror, and science fiction, as seen in his last two latest novels Hunting the Moon Tribe (Little Otick Books) and The Vegan Revolution . . . With Zombies (Deadite), David has not left his ecological ideals in the dirt. His beliefs and values inform his writing without stepping on the story, giving a truly terrifying edge to tales informed by the environmental anxieties du jour. Nicholas Pell took some time to sit down with Agranoff to discuss his background, his upcoming work, and time spent as a political prisoner.
Nicholas Pell: How did you arrive at the idea of merging your writing with your politics and ethics?
David Agranoff: I never do it intentionally. Ever since I read Stephen King's Skeleton Crew and Clive Barker's Books of Blood in eighth grade I wanted to be a storyteller. My heroes growing up weren't rock stars and athletes; they were John Carpenter and Clive Barker. So at an early age I wanted to be an author, and dreamed of one day doing that. I love the powerful feeling a well-told story gives me, so I have always wanted to have that power. To tell a story that can shock, disturb, amuse, or move someone is the ultimate goal of my writing.
The most effective way to put forward a political message is through social or political activism. Still, my opinions and point of view come through in the stories. My short story collection is ecologically themed, but I never set out to write stories with a message. Each one developed organically from a story idea.
"Buffalo Trace" is based on an Indiana legend about old trails sitting where buffalos used to migrate. At first I just liked the image of the ghosts of buffalo running the trail. Then I thought about all the cell phone towers going up in that county. The story of buffalo ghosts knocking down cell towers was more about the story than a point of view.
David Morrell, the author of First Blood, said in The Succesful Novelist: Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing that horror authors have to identify their deepest, darkest fear and explore it. Read First Blood or The Brotherhood of the Rose. You'll see he is exploring father issues. My deepest fear is the future and a world that can't sustain our species. I have deep fears related to technology and the future. These anxieties come out in short stories like "Surrogate" or "Fifth Noble Truth."
NP: Do you ever find the message stepping on the story? What do you do when you find yourself doing that?
DA: The story and characters come first. I believe in finding the truth of the story first and foremost. It's happened a few times, but these stories never see the light of day. On a novel, I spend years thinking about it and the direction it is going before I write them, so that is not much of problem.
My ethics are vegan, straight edge, feminist, and lightly anarchist. Does it come through? Sure, but I can't make every character vegan, sober, or respect women, for example. The story is the boss. If my character is a drunk, meat-eating racist, then I have to follow the story there.
NP: Where do you get your information from? Not so much your story ideas, but the hard facts that back up what you write?
DA: My novel Hunting the Moon Tribe might seem like a simple dark fantasy, but I did tons of research. It tells the story of a teenager from California who gets drafted into a struggle with ancient Chinese vampires and an entire army of monsters. I had to research daily life in China, birth practices, Chinese mythology, martial arts, Chinese names, and a little bit of the language. I went to the library and made a binder of copied research materials and took notes from several books I read. I researched for several months before starting the book. I think reading and doing old school research is important. It puts you much deeper into the world than reading Wikipedia.
My cyberpunk end-of-the-world novel Last Warriors of the Earth also took a huge amount of research, whereas The Vegan Revolution . . . With Zombies didn't take any. I have been so deeply involved in vegan activism and that world that I really knew what I was doing.
NP: Book publishing is an act that is inherently destructive. From paper mills to chemical inks to bleaching. How do you reconcile this with your beliefs?
DA: First off is not to create vapid meaningless entertainment. First and foremost I want to tell a story and entertain. Entertainment is not meaningless. There is lot of value in the escape a story can provide. Books are a guilty pleasure for me. I love the feeling of a book in my hand and nothing makes my day like a good read.
That's what is nice about how most independent presses work today. Take Eraserhead, my press for one example. They do all their printing on demand. So instead of printing thousands of copies, half which end up discounted on the front racks of chains stores, almost all the books we sell are to people buying it and reading it.
The reality is today there is an alternative of sorts with Nook, Kindle, and so on. But they require ongoing energy to power. No matter what, the process of creating books is not even a drop in the bucket compared to the industries that turn animals into food or the industries that produce oil or weapons. I don't know how those people sleep at night, but I can sleep just fine entertaining or helping someone think deeper about things.
NP: Tell the readers a bit about your prison experience. How did your prison experience change you? How did it change the way that you related to your writing?
DA: I spent only 80 days in prison, but it seemed like a lot at the time. I was held because I refused to testify at a grand jury. I was subpoenaed because I organized and attended a lecture by radical environmentalist Rod Coronado. They were giving subpoenas to anyone who attended the lecture, which we saw as a gross violation of our First Amendment right to free association and belief. After 80 days I was released without testimony and it was a small victory.
During my time inside I met Hell's Angels, Mexican Southsiders, Crips, and Bloods. I hung out with cocaine and human traffickers and had a cellmate who couldn't stop talking about his time in Vietnam. I did a lot of writing. Several of these short stories are in my collection Screams from a Dying World. I started a novel about the Vietnam War I'll write after a few more years of research.
If you live too sheltered of a life, it's hard to write about the dangerous parts of the world. I was having a discussion about horror with a fellow writer, Cody Goodfellow. He was complaining about how sheltered this one writer was and how it made their fiction unbelievable. I asked Cody if he thought I had that problem. He said, "Uh, David, you did five days in solitary confinement." We both laughed. It seems strange to say, but I value the experience every time I sit down to write.
NP: How did you arrive at the idea of a book combining zombies and veganism?
DA: The honest answer is I didn't. I am not a huge zombie fan. I like the old school Romero and the Italian classics like Fulci, D'amato, and stuff like Burial Ground but the trendiness of zombies since Shaun of the Dead has kinda driven me nuts. I even told a friend once: "If I ever write a zombie novel, punch me." But bizarro author Carlton Mellick contacted me and said, "There needs to be a vegan zombie novel, and you are the guy to write it." I love a challenge, and at first I had no idea how you would write a vegan-themed zombie novel. I chased another plot for about two weeks before I thought of the one that I ended up writing. As soon as I had the plot I couldn't wait to start writing.
NP: What zombie works were particularly influential in crafting your book? What non-zombie works? Presumably you did some research or read something non-fiction that inspired this a bit. What was it?
DA: I was looking in the horror section at Powells. I can spend a good two hours browsing that aisle. In that time I heard four groups of people walk into the aisle and say the exact same thing: "Have you heard of 'Pride and Prejudice with Zombies'?" That wasn't even the correct title but they all said it. I thought the only way I could write this novel is if I could make fun of classic novels with a zombie-added mash-up trend.
I have years of watching zombie movies under my belt, so I had no problems using conventions of the genre. For one example, every zombie movie has the person who tries to hide the zombie bite. In this book that person is the Freegan, who is in the vegan mini-mall but has been eating dumpstered cold cuts.
The concept of how the zombies happen doesn't have any rational scientific basis. I wanted to make a statement about the so-called "humane meat" movement. I thought: "What if they designed a drug that was supposed to keep animals from experiencing pain?" I thought about how PETA and HSUS have given fucking awards to people for designing better slaughterhouses and I thought they would probably enforce the shit. Basically the idea is that the stress-free chemical gets passed on in the meat, dairy, and eggs so the only people who don't become zombies are the vegans.
I did do a little research into how the pain centers in mammal brains work, but basically it's a satire so I didn't do a ton of research.
NP: What does this book attempt to communicate at its most basic level about humanity and where you see it going in the future?
DA: Mostly it's a funny book. I think there is subtext there for the vegans who will understand some of what the main characters are going through. Once the zombies happen I poke a lot of fun at the animal rights movement. Some of that is insider stuff that may go over the head of the casual reader.
This book has nothing to say about the future of humanity as we know it, because it's about a future where all the meat-eaters turn into zombies. It has a lot of things to say and ideas about a future where a small minority of humans survive and try to make a better world.
NP: Tell me how you got hooked up with your publisher. How did you become a "bizarro" author? What made you go in that direction? Do you see any connection between the form of the genre and the function of your books?
DA: I have hung out with Rose and the whole Eraserhead crew at horror and bizarro conventions over the years. They knew who I was and what I was about. I started with Afterbirth, a Seattle based Bizarro publisher first. Bizarro is often referred as the literary equivalent of the cult section at the video store. There is always crossover with horror, science fiction, and bizarro. However, I think it's likely that most of my books will be released through Deadite Press, which is the horror imprint of Eraserhead. There is some talk of starting a science fiction imprint—we'll see.
I write horror mostly, but I write science fiction, and then sometimes totally weird stuff that is a little harder to put a label on. The one thing they all have in common is bizarre-ness, other worldliness.
My connection to Bizarro is much like Fugazi's connection to punk. More out of a DIY ethic than strictly how my art is defined. I love the DIY ethic that the bizarros have maintained. I feel more at home in that world. Horror is pretty DIY too.
NP: What are your plans for the future?
DA: I have a few more books to do with Eraserhead, and we are trying to figure which ones and in what order. The Vegan Revolution . . . With Zombies was the fifth novel I've written. I really hope my cyberpunk novel is next up. It's a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk dystopia eco-horror anarchist novel called The Last Warriors of the Earth. At the same time I have a straight gothic horror novel I'm going to try with a few literary publishers, more to just to see if I can crack that market. I am super happy with Eraserhead.
I would also love to write a few media tie-ins novels, like Star Trek, Aliens or some other established property. It is one of my geek dreams to write a novel about Obi-wan Kenobi. I'll keep it real in Portland doing my activism, keeping up with my blog where I do book reviews and horror commentary.