Like many of the Featured Authors on this blog, I met Mark Zirbel at BizarroCon, introduced to me by Charles Muir. At the time, Mark gave me a small chapbook containing his story “Notes on the Propagation of Angels,” a series of vignettes beautifully strung together and set in a fascinating dystopian future. When I learned this story was part of a broader interconnected collection, I jumped at the idea to review it and interview the man behind it.
Here’s our interview. Enjoy!
ZÉ BURNS: When did you start writing?
MARK ZIRBEL: I got serious about my writing, in terms of really trying to improve and get published, in 1999. I joined a local writers workshop in Milwaukee that year. The group met once a week, and I brought new material to almost every session. I was writing a ton back then – mostly short stories – and getting lots of constructive and valuable feedback. In 2001, I was published for the first time with a story in Suspects Thoughts, a webzine billed as “A Journal of Subversive Writing.” The issue that I was featured in included a story by John Shirley – a literary hero of mine. Not a bad start, I guess!
ZB: Who are your influences?
MZ: I’ve described Cyberpunk Zombie Jihad as a combination of cyberpunk, bizarro, horror, crime noir, and transgressive fiction, so I’ll give a few of my top influences in each of those genres. Cyberpunk: William Gibson, John Shirley, Jonathan Lethem. Bizarro: Carlton Mellick III, Jeremy Robert Johnson, Hertzan Chimera. Horror: Kathe Koja, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Tom Piccirilli. Crime noir: Jim Thompson, Andrew Vachss, W.L. Heath. Transgressive: William S. Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Bret Easton Ellis.
ZB: What are you reading now?
MZ: I’ve been reading a lot of books from my publisher, NihilismRevised. S.C. Burke puts out such amazing stuff, and it’s interesting to see what my fellow NR’ers are working on. Most recently I read To Wallow in Ash and Other Sorrows by Sam Richard. It’s a gut-punch of a book about loss and grief. It’s beautifully written and ultimately, I think, a story of love, as it takes profound love to cause such immense sorrow. I’m really looking forward to Sam’s next book, Sabbath of the Fox-Devils. As for NR titles, I think I’m going to read either Piecemeal by N. Casio Poe or My Birth and Other Regrets by Ben Fitts next. They both look great – maybe I’ll flip a coin.
ZB: Your collection Cyberpunk Zombie Jihad is set in a richly designed dystopian future. How did this world come together?
MZ: In 2012, after having more than 20 stories published over the years, I took a hiatus from writing. It was a very busy time for me – I got married; my wife and I bought a house (a first for both of us); my new job was taking up more and more of my time. When I’d sit down to write in the evening, it felt like a chore. I just wasn’t feeling very creative. I decided not to push it. I knew the spark would come back at some point. And it did, in 2016, largely in response to the U.S. Presidential race. I said, Okay America – you want to get ugly? Let’s get ugly! I wrote “Slice-and-Grab,” a story set in a not-too-distant future of corporate organ harvesters, teenage Nazi cannibals, and post-nuclear mutants. Far-fetched? Maybe, maybe not. It’s dangerous to assume that a Trump Presidency is as bad as things can get. I wrote another story set in that same world, trying to push things ever further. Both stories were published by Weirdpunk Books, which made me feel like I was onto something. So I kept writing and interweaving the stories, until the end result was Cyberpunk Zombie Jihad.
ZB: You list a number of bands at the beginning of Cyberpunk Zombie Jihad as inspiration. How did their music bring this collection into being?
Several of the stories in Cyberpunk Zombie Jihad revolve around an industrial band called crashdump. Because of this, I was listening to a lot of industrial music for inspiration. The bands that I list are the ones that ended up having a direct impact on shaping the book. In some cases, it was a particular album that inspired me. Or a song. In one instance, it was just a single lyric. The band Wire Spine has a song where they sing about someone lying on the ground, listening to “the sound of boots crushing the soul of suburban reality.” That line filled my head with scenes of chaos and violence that became the story “Anarcho-Erotic,” which I consider to be the centerpiece of Cyberpunk Zombie Jihad.
ZB: What can we expect to see from you in the future?
MZ: I always keep my eyes open for interesting-sounding anthologies where I can submit short stories, so we’ll see if anything develops there. Also, a number of years ago, I self-published a chapbook called Double Maim Event: Two Tales of Mat-Slamming Horror. It’s two very dark and violent crime noir stories set in the world of underground wrestling. For the longest time, I’ve been meaning to make that available for the Kindle – along with a bonus story or two. I’m hoping to finally do that this year. And lastly, I’ve been working on a longer piece – I’m not sure yet if it’ll end up being a novel or a novella. It’s a cyberpunk/bizarro satire in which everything that stinks in corporate America is propagated by the residents of an excrement-worshipping retirement community. Stay tuned!
Thank you Mark Zirbel for his time!
Stay safe in this challenging time. If you find yourself bored in quarantine, there are 64 other posts on this blog. That’s over 32,000 words for your reading pleasure.