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November 14, 2011

Matt Mikalatos, author of IMAGINARY JESUS, has recently come out with a new novel called NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD CHRISTIAN. With similar themes of playful Christian satire combined with serious ideas about faith and Jesus, the book follows Luther, a werewolf whose inner beast has driven him dangerously close to disaster. He teams up with Matt to find someone who can help, and along the way, the duo encounters zombies, vampires, and many variations of Jesus. In this interview, conducted by’s Marcia Ford, Mikalatos describes the creative process behind his outrageously unique and provocative ideas. He also sheds light on the allegorical components of the book, discusses his biggest writing influences, and offers a glimpse into his latest project --- a chapter book for young readers. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD CHRISTIAN, the title of which must send shivers down the spines of some religious booksellers and readers, is ultimately a story of spiritual transformation, but one that is populated with werewolves, zombies and vampires. What gave you the idea that those elements would work together in a novel, and what did it take to convince your agent and publisher of that?

Matt Mikalatos: Monster fiction and the spiritual aspects of life are often linked in literature. DRACULA, for instance, is about a perversion of Christ's sacrifice. Instead of freely giving his blood so others can live forever, Dracula steals blood from many to provide an eternal half-life for himself. FRANKENSTEIN is about creation desiring to be equal with its creator. Vampires and werewolves are often struggling with their "dark urges" in fiction, so it seemed a pretty easy place to start in creating a metaphor for human beings desiring transformation...desiring to become human. Convincing my agent and publisher basically involved me writing about six chapters of the book and sending it to them. Ironically, most of those chapters were eventually thrown out, but the basic concept of a comedy theology novel about monsters seemed to be working and everyone was on board with it. I've found that my agent (Wes Yoder) and my publisher (Tyndale) have extended a lot of trust to me as an author. They're willing to let me try new things.

FR: In NIGHT, many of the monsters you portray are allegorical symbols of Christians in contemporary American culture. Readers who share your perspective and sense of humor likely have no problem with that, but what about others, especially booksellers? What kind of pushback, if any, have you received?

MM: The nice thing about satire is everyone always thinks you're talking about someone else. So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. And while some of us might be offended by recognizing ourselves in the monsters, hopefully most people will use that sort of insight to become better people --- which is, in many ways, the theme of the book!

FR: You also break up the often-comedic action with chapters called "Interludes," in which the werewolf Luther frequently expresses some strong anti-Christian sentiments. How have those sentiments been received by your readers? How did you come up with that type of literary device, and why did you choose to use it?

MM: In the book, I'm the narrator (in my first novel, IMAGINARY JESUS, I was the narrator and the main character). The more I wrote NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD CHRISTIAN, I saw that the emotional weight of the novel was shifting more and more toward Luther. In fact, I realized Luther was the main character after I'd already written about a third of the book. I debated starting over with him as narrator, but there was one problem: Luther was emotionally cold, was in the midst of dealing with a dissolving marriage that was his fault, had been abusive toward his wife and basically was an unpleasant person. I didn't think anyone would want to read a book he was narrating. I did think, though, that getting into his head would allow the reader to see his point of view and have compassion on him, and also to realize that in the midst of everything else, he was an intelligent person honestly seeking the truth. As for the anti-Christian sentiments, I've been getting a lot of positive feedback. Some of my non-Christian readers have appreciated that their viewpoint was accurately portrayed in a Christian book, and Christian readers have told me it made them realize that some non-Christians have a point of view and serious thoughts that need to be considered with respect, not just cast aside. Several readers have told me it's one of their favorite things about the book!

FR: One of the most intriguing characters in NIGHT is Lara, a vampire who seems to be a Christian. Please explain how the vampire metaphor serves to illustrate her brand of faith.

MM: The vampire is essentially a metaphor of selfishness, putting yourself and your needs above those around you. Lara, unfortunately, comes from a background where she has been badly hurt by other selfish people, and as a result of reflexive, self-defensive behavior, she has harmed others around her. When it comes to Christianity, she has started after Jesus and begun to find healing, but she hasn't been able to truly make it a 100% commitment. So although she says she has found new life, she's still wrestling with her undead nature. She's the sort of person who comes to church, is committed to being "human" but acts like a vampire when it's convenient. It's a common state for people in the church --- acting Christian or not depending on what is most advantageous in the current situation.

FR: While we're at it, you may want to explain the zombie and werewolf metaphors as well, for the benefit of those who haven't read the book.

MM: Zombies have the appearance of a resurrection life, but it's not a life anyone would actually want: shambling, moaning, unthinking brutes. I went with the traditional zombie motif, which comes from voodoo traditions. The zombies are lacking volition but are, instead, slavish followers to their master. I used this mostly as a metaphor for people who end up following another human being --- a pastor, theologian or philosopher --- rather than Christ himself. They have the appearance of life, but are actually dead.

Werewolves (like the main character) are people wrestling with their own less-than-holy urges. They don't want to do the wrong thing, but keep finding themselves, once again, doing the thing they hate. When they give in to the wolf, they let go of their own morality and do what they want (and don't want) to do. For the main werewolf in this story, he's wrestling with a destructive anger, and when he acts out on it, it's destroying his family and the relationships around him. But he just can't seem to get it under control....

FR: Please share with our readers the process behind the decision to title the book NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD CHRISTIAN, particularly the input you received from your potential audience.

MM: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD CHRISTIANS (plural) was the original title that I used when pitching the book to Tyndale. It's a nod, of course, to the classic zombie movie Night of the Living Dead, and I thought it was a great, funny way to explain what the book is about: the search for spiritual transformation in the Christian life. But there was some concern from various people whose opinion I trust at Tyndale that the title was potentially offensive (or, for those who don't watch zombie movies, it might be a little obscure). We brainstormed a lot of different names, and at some point someone suggested that we throw it out to people on the Internet and let them choose their favorite. We must have had 50 names, but we narrowed it down to four: (1) NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD CHRISTIAN, (2) JESUS, THE WEREWOLF AND ME (3) THE CHRISTIAN WEREWOLF and (4) WOLF. Then we did a giant survey which, if you're interested, you can see here. Obviously, the current name won, but we made the name "Christian" (singular) because it was felt that focusing the title on one individual would make it clear that the book is not making fun of Christianity as a whole. Then, my editors and I chose some of our favorite rejected titles and put them in an appendix for the book. It was a lot of fun!

FR: You've proven with both of your novels that you're not afraid to take risks with your writing, in terms of content as well as format (especially in that you are a character in both books). Where does that literary fearlessness come from, and what did it take to get your first novel, IMAGINARY JESUS, published?

MM: I was actually playing it pretty safe when I first pitched IMAGINARY JESUS. I was planning to do a series of funny autobiographical essays, but along the road, one of my potential agents (and indeed, my current agent!) Wes Yoder said, "I can tell you're a deeply weird person but I don't see it in your books." He encouraged me to write something I would like to read, and to make the narrative stronger. We talked for a long while about DANTE’S INFERNO, which is a work we both admire. In fact, if you look at IMAGINARY JESUS, you'll see a lot of structural similarities to the Inferno: the author is both narrator and main character, it's strongly episodic and a little surreal, and it's a satire. When I showed the first few chapters of the new, improved IMAGINARY JESUS, Wes started calling and emailing me saying not to talk to anyone else because he was going to be my agent, and then we got multiple offers on the book once it was finished! So, after years of very little happening with my writing, I suddenly had a book contract! It was very exciting.

As for literary fearlessness (which is very kind, thank you), I would just say that I get easily bored and I like to challenge myself, which is part of the reason my second book has so many differences from IMAGINARY JESUS: a stronger, more plot-driven narrative, almost no autobiographical moments, and the addition of the aforementioned interludes. And, of course, the monsters!

FR: In both novels, the humorous sections feel as if you've written them with complete abandon. And then you switch that off and seamlessly begin writing compelling dramatic scenes, such as your --- Matt's --- encounter with the "real" Jesus in IMAGINARY JESUS, a powerful scene that could easily bring a reader to tears. What was your writing experience before these two novels were published, and who were the authors who had the greatest influence on your writing style?

MM: I've spent a lot of years writing reams of (un-publishable) material, including a vampire screenplay and an epic fantasy novel.  I was a writing major in college, where I studied under Susan Straight and Percival Everett, both of whom are amazing writers. Percival in particular has an amazing ability to talk about the most serious things in life in a subversive, hilarious way. My first professionally published works were in The Wittenburg Door, a Christian satire magazine, and then I had a couple of articles in Discipleship Journal. G.K. Chesterton has had a big impact on my writing, his fiction particularly. THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL was the first book where I consciously realized that a book could be both deadly serious and a comedy, and also deal with theology, so he gets a lot of credit (or blame?). Steinbeck is my favorite author, and I re-read EAST OF EDEN every year. Any time I'm feeling full of myself as an author, I read a little Steinbeck and am reminded how much I need to learn about writing. I love Kurt Vonnegut, of course, and the craziness of his books made me feel like there was a lot of freedom to what I wanted to do in mine. Also, a book called THE PLATO PAPERS by Peter Ackroyd is one I read multiple times in the last few years. Oh, and I loved CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL by Glen David Gold. Of course, there are a lot of other authors I adore: Gene Wolfe, Michael Connelly, Flannery O'Connor, Shusaku Endo, C.S. Lewis (I have to say that, right?) and Frederick Buechner.

FR: In IMAGINARY JESUS, your lead character, named Matt Mikalatos, of course, comes face-to-face with his misguided picture of who Jesus is and starts on a wild romp through time and geography only to be confronted with other misguided pictures of Jesus, such as Perpetually Angry Jesus and Testosterone Jesus. How would you describe the primary image of Jesus that you have carried through most of your life?

MM: Probably Mr. Nice Guy Jesus, who is just like me only a bit nicer, and he never messes up. He's sort of the kindhearted older brother who you love but also makes you feel bad for not being good enough. It's tempting for a lot of us to create the kind and loving Jesus, and that's definitely the way I went, ignoring the obvious stories in scripture where Jesus spoke harshly to people, kicked people out of the temple and (eventually) returns as a warrior king to destroy all who oppose him. At the end of one of Flannery O'Connor's short stories, there is a character who realizes with an unpleasant jolt that the man on the white horse with the sword coming out of his mouth is actually Jesus. I guess that was my experience, too --- realizing that he wasn't just a mild-mannered gentleman who mildly disapproved of me all the time. He's more frightening and more loving than that.

FR: What is the status of THE SWORD OF SIX WORLDS, the chapter book you've written for young readers (or, more accurately, for your own children)? Will that be published, and if so, when?

MM: Ah, my daughters ask me this about once a week. SWORD is a lot of fun, and the first in a series of books about a couple of kids who discover they're meant to save not just the world, but the worlds, plural, from a creeping darkness called the Blight. My kids love this book, and I do, too. I think, in time, we'll find a home for it. The problem right now is that it's more of an ABA book, and we've shopped it around to a few of the CBA publishers (at least one publisher told us that was the issue...the spiritual aspects of the book aren't overt enough for CBA kids books). I've been debating selling it myself as an eBook in the short term, because a lot of people are asking to read it. So, if any publishers are out there and would like to take a look, drop me a line!