October marked the release of Zombie, Illinois, the latest novel from local author Scott Kenemore and follow-up to 2011’s Zombie, Ohio. Set in the city during the first 24 hours of a zombie outbreak, Zombie, Illinois follows three Chicagoans grappling with both the undead and corrupt aldermen vying for the city’s top spot after Al Capone eats the mayor on live TV (yes, really). Just in time for Halloween, Chicago caught up with Kenemore for a quick chat about his book.
What attracts you to zombie literature or culture?
In general, out of the entire monster pantheon, I like zombies the most. They’re such a contradiction. Out of all the vampires, werewolves, whatever, zombies are the worst. They’re the most handicapped. They can’t read. They smell bad. They can’t cooperate. They have all these strikes against them, but they still always get their man, and it’s sort of inexcusable to get eaten by a zombie. You know, it comes in; it takes 15 minutes to walk across the football field. You can easily get away, and yet, in zombie literature and zombie films, the zombies always find a way because of our incompetence—and I’ve always liked that aspect of it.
How did you approach Zombie, Illinois differently than your previous novels?
Well, I’d never written about Illinois before, and I really wanted to. I’ve lived here about eight and a half years, and you know, it’s such a fascinating place. I wanted to unleash zombies, almost like a stress test. That’s another thing I think is interesting about zombies that makes them different from, say, vampires—it’s like a regional thing that’s happening everywhere. Dracula can invite you to his castle in Romania, you go off and an adventure happens, but when zombies break out, it happens everywhere. It’s more like a tidal wave or an earthquake. Zombie, Illinois is more of a natural disaster book than a book about monsters. But I worked in community development on the South Side for six years, with some of the most underinvested neighborhoods, and worked with aldermen, local pastors and community development people. And I was really interested in thinking about how would those neighborhoods do during some sort of disaster, and—as I think you can tell from the book—I think they would do better in some ways than the more affluent neighborhoods of Chicago.
Did you start writing the book with the intention of it being a commentary on Chicago politics?
Yeah, I did. You know, Chicago politics is fascinating for me, as an outsider. As someone who has lived in Indiana or Iowa or Ohio or all these other places, I think I come to it with sort of a fresh perspective. You know, it’s not this way everywhere, and it’s fascinating that it is this way here. Obviously there’s a vast smorgasbord of Illinois politicians you can write about in this. I covered sort of all the big ones I wanted to get to, but not all of them. Readers kept asking me, “Is the mayor Rahm?” No! John Kass can have Rahm. I don’t really have anything to say about Rahm Emanuel. But I’m really interested in people like Roland Burris, who are, like, obsessed with death and tombstones. People like Dorothy Tillman, upon whom the character of Alderman Marja Mogk is loosely based, who I think is just, like, kinda, sorta pure evil. So I was definitely interested in that aspect.
You started a Kickstarter project to fund the research for your novel, receiving about $300 more than your $900 goal. What exactly went into the research?
So I think I said it a little more eloquently in my Kickstarter pitch, but really, it was gas and hotel money for researching other parts of the state. I couldn’t have my characters travel everywhere in the state. This wasn’t going to be a road trip story. But I wanted to at least show fealty to other parts of the state that are interesting. Like the sequences where Ben is watching the news clips of outbreaks all around the state of Illinois, I wanted to describe places that people have suggested to me like Kankakee and Joliet and Zion, so essentially it was just travel money, but it was really enjoyable. I like Kickstarter, I’d never done it before, but it was fun to make my Kickstarter rewards. Something like, for a donation of $50, I’ll name a minor character after you. A lot of the names come from that. For $100, I’ll base a zombie on you. The zombies that I describe very particularly, like the one in the Slayer shirt with tattoos who fights with Maria, that’s like a real guy, who’s totally happy and excited to be a zombie in this book. So it was a good two-way street, and I got research money.
As far as the locations featured in Chicago, did you actually go everywhere? Like the abandoned coal tunnels under the city?
Um, I’ve been to almost—can I…I’m trying to take a step back. Can I be sketchy about where I’ve been because maybe I’ve been to places I shouldn’t have gone?
That’s totally up to you.
Let’s just say I’ve been to 99.9 percent of the places in the novel. Actually, the one place that I bullshitted that I haven’t been to is the Trump Tower. Never been to it; have no desire to go.
How did you come up with these three very different characters to follow? You’re involved with the band The Blissters, so I’m assuming that factored into including Maria [a drummer in an all-girl band].
Maria is basically me when I moved to Chicago and I was in a band in my 20s. I’m in my middle 30s now, but when you’re in your 20s, you have that “we’re gonna conquer the world” and “other bands are not as good as us” mentality. Maria has this thing about how she doesn’t like Wilco because they’re an institution in Chicago. And Pastor Mack is based on the pastors I dealt with on the South Shore when we partnered with faith-based institutions. We straight-up had a faith-based lending department. We used to do an event called Preachers’ Night Out which was sort of like community development awards where faith-based institutions could win grant money, but I think the pastor has such a unique role in underinvested neighborhoods on the South Side. I wanted to explore that, given that pastors would play a significant role in a zombie outbreak. And then Ben Bennington is just based on my dealings with media people. In my day job, I’ve always done media relations and PR, and reporters are my heroes because they have to deal with sifting through all the press releases of whomever I worked for. I really felt for newspaper reporters. I’ve always sort of liked them as the hero or the main guy, so I have the reporter for Crain’s or Brain’s and the Defender.
Have you started thinking about your next book at all?
I’m in the process of that now, trying to figure that out. I have lots of different ideas. I’m not totally sure yet. I can’t say for sure what it will be.
But it will have zombies?
There’s a 99 percent chance.
What would your plan be if there ever was a zombie outbreak in Chicago?
I’ve thought a lot about this. The most fun thing to do I think would be to go on top of my roof [in Logan Square] with a bunch of Molotov cocktails and just throw them down on the zombies, and that would create flaming zombies, and then they would run into other zombies and catch them on fire. It would be really, really fun.
Photograph: L.E. Salas