When Mauro Saracino, from Dunwich Edizioni, asked me if I wanted to interview the authors of Pavlov's Dogs I was really excited. I only asked: really? Can I? Really?
That's why now I am very pleased to introduce D.L. Snell and Thom Brannan to our readers!
Welcome, David and Thom! My name is Lucia aka Silver.
1. I don't know if anyone translated my review of Pavlov's Dogs for you, but the first sentence I wrote was: “I hate zombies”. And I really do, or rather I find them disgusting. But I love werewolves, so I had to read your book. My question: which one do you personally prefer, zombies or werewolves? Or do you like both and this is the reason why you put them together in a book? Or is it a mere writing strategy: we take two very loved kinds of monster and put them in a book in order to create something new, something different from the usual?
DLS: We combined werewolves and zombies as a marketing strategy, but only in part. Our motivation is more complex. Thom and I love these old monsters, and we wanted to see them fight. We wanted to see humans caught in the middle of that. And to our readers: keep an eye on these writers and their publications!
Personally, I like werewolves more than zombies, simply because there’s more opportunity to make them complex characters.
TB: Yeah, stories with thinking zombies are few and far-between, and for good reason.
DLS: Stories are more interesting when you can sympathize with the monster, and I feel there’s a limited range of sympathy one can have for zombies.
TB: Even now, in the age of bigger/better/faster/more, the idea of cognitive zombies doesn't set well with the fan base. Kim Paffenroth has done well with it, as has Derek Goodman, but it takes a certain amount of storytelling skill and deftness not a lot of us are possessed of.
Snell already dipped his toes in the versus pool with his first book, and I thought this was a logical progression for him, and was glad to be a part of it. Mixing things is part of my reason to write, especially things which don't seem as if they belong together.
2. Let's speak about the title: Pavlov's Dogs. Classical conditioning and behaviour modification. This is the basis of the experiment on the Dogs, with the Pavlov's chips installed in their brains. Is it that simple to control a dog's and a human's instinct to the extent expressed in the book? Can we say that when the Pavlov's chips is activated, the Dogs become like a machine? Do you think such a chip could really exist?
DLS: There’s a deeper story behind the Dogs that Thom and I explore in the Dog Years prequels. The chip is only part of what shaped them into who they are. But the chip is definitely a big part of it. It’s implied in Pavlov’s Dogs that the doctor uses the chip to reinforce good behavior and punish bad behavior; for example, Kaiser feels a pain response when he does something undesirable. Unfortunately, this becomes negative reinforcement—Kaiser likes the pain!
For the other Dogs, though, and for people in general, we go to great lengths to avoid pain. In that regard, I think the idea of how the book’s brain-computer-interface conditions its host is realistic.
I also think how the chip controls a Dog’s body by stimulating the brain and nervous system is possible. We’ve known for a long time that stimulating parts of the brain can cause involuntary physical reactions, and we can see related technology emerging already: chips that help people hear and see; chips that can help paralyzed people move; scientists are even working on an interface that can project onto a monitor the things you see with your eyes. We aren’t that far away, really. Remove ethics and advance technology a few decades, and we’re there.
TB: Well, shit. I don't have a lot to add to that. As for the Dogs as machines, it's more like they're glitchy AI. You can tell them what to do, and reinforce it, but that doesn't mean you'll get what you want.
3. The Dogs. I loved McLoughlin, the Alpha. He is very human, but at times he can be a real wolf, too. The difference between him and Kaiser is here: McLoughlin tries to keep under control his wolf, showing his best human side; Kaiser uses his wolf as an excuse to show his darkest human side. And now let's add the fact that they live on an island where there is another hierarchy in comparison to the rest of the world. So finally the question: did you study these two characters with the intention of showing how human beings react when they have the chance to choose without the burden of human society?
DLS: As a post-apocalyptic novel, Pavlov’s Dogs definitely explores what humans will do without society.
TB: It's Lord of the Flies, but writ large.
DLS: It also explores the potential pitfalls of certain societal structures. It’s not the main focus of the book, but those themes are definitely present. Kaiser and Mac are the two sides of that coin.
TB: Hayte says it best to Kaiser, I think. "The procedure... it brought out the real you." Kaiser is the rule of the jungle personified. And Mac, he's just the best he can be.
4. The humans. I won't speak about Donovan nor Crispin (I hated the first one, I said somewhere that if I were one of the dogs I would have already bitten him!). I'd like to talk about Ken and Jorge. This couple is the best! They are like brothers, sometimes even more than this, they need to know where the other one is, they need to know that the other one is still alive. And they have two totally different characters. Did you create these two together? Is there in one or in both of them something of your own personality?
DLS: Oh, man, we love these guys too. I came up with the basic sketch for Ken and Jorge, and for their relationship, but Thom, I think, made those sketches get up, put on a blue Chambray work shirt, and curse in Spanish.
TB: D.L. really kind of let me run wild with the characters and who they are, how they respond to things.
DLS: To that extent, Ken and Jorge take after both of us. Both Thom and I are smartasses, so Jorge definitely inherited that. I also had started drinking around the time we began writing, so Jorge, of course, had to be an alcoholic who didn’t take his problem seriously.
Ken... he thinks a bit too much and dwells on negative things a bit too much, which is kind of what I do. But Ken also is a take-action workman, which I think he gets from Thom.
TB: I'm sure, from time to time, D.L. would read the most recent chapter I'd sent, shake his head and take another drink of whatever was in his glass.
DLS: I’m doing that right now.
TB: But in the spirit of collaboration, he let it go to see where we'd end up. And it wasn't just these two.
Ken and Jorge are the breakout duo, to be sure...
DLS: Oh, for sure. The two amigos. Er... the one amigo and his white ward.
TB: ...but we tried to make everybody memorable for their time on the page; everybody matters, and they're all the stars of their own stories, but this book is the story of Mac and Kaiser and Ken and Jorge. Given unlimited time (and funds) we could expand this story out to Dark Tower-like proportions, stringing together something of significance for everybody who crosses these pages.
Julius is a fun guy to tinker with. I think he'd have a fun story to tell. Also Jaden, the island security supervisor.
5. The zombies. I said in my review that most of the time zombies gurgle, moan, sway, are slow and hungry and stand up again and again. But I also said that it's not always like this in your book. I'm trying not to reveal a lot in this interview, but there were scenes where you really made me anxious (I just say “bus”!). Do you think that zombies, like werewolves and vampires, needed to be reinvented?
DLS: Reinventing can definitely be a good thing. In fact, our current incarnation of zombies comes from George Romero’s innovation in Night of the Living Dead. Before Romero, we really didn’t see zombies as a horde and possible apocalypse trigger. They were primarily voodoo slaves.
TB: Zombies are such a young monster, and I think they fit their niche nicely. They're never the story; the people around when they happen are the story, or else there's no story. And I didn't want to retell Dawn of the Dead again. That's why we jump ahead, right? That story is told.
DLS: For Pavlov’s Dogs, I obviously can’t say too much about how we’ve changed the zombie. But I can say that we looked at the typical stakes and suspense mechanisms of zombie fiction, and we ramped those up in interesting ways (“bus”). One of my favorite examples comes in Chapter 0, when Marie and Paulo realize their method of killing themselves might take too long—the zombies might infect them anyway. That, to me, is a horrible situation, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to write it.
TB: As for reinvention, I don't know. I know innovations in horror technology tend to polarize the fans. The runners in DotD'04 made the Internet explode. Purists are very protective of their monsters. So, knowing that, we totally destroy the idea in the next book, The Omega Dog. Hah!
6. Again the werewolves and their hierarchy. McLoughlin is the Alpha, Samson was the Beta, then we have the Theta, the Sigma and the Omega. Not to forget the Epsilon. From the context, even someone who isn't accustomed to these words can understand something about the hierarchy of the Dogs. But could you please explain it for our readers?
DLS: In nature, dog packs have a certain hierarchy. The dominant dog, the Alpha, leads the pack. This dog eats first, things like that. When you have a dog as a pet, you want to establish yourself as the Alpha. You’re in command. Your dog should be more of a Beta, which is like a second in command. Then you have the Omega dog--the underdog, the weakest member of the pack. Kaiser doesn’t see himself as the weakest, though. He has a different meaning when he dubs himself the Omega Dog. Basically he’s putting himself up there with God: the Alpha, the Omega, the beginning and the end.
TB: Well said. Since this was a paramilitary group, we needed some sort of rank hierarchy, but didn't want to ape regular rank names, keeping the Alpha idea instead. Everything else stemmed from that.
7. Once again the werewolves. In Pavlov's Dogs you speak about “Dogs”, but you still describe them as wolves. Is it because of the Pavlov's chip (and therefore because of the classical conditioning demonstrated by Ivan Pavlov) that you called them “Dogs” or did you want to draw a line between the usual werewolves and yours?
DLS: They say all the hundreds of dog breeds out there--all the different sizes, colors, hair types, and personalities--all descend from a common ancestor. Humans, of course, are primarily responsible for all the varieties we see today, because we’ve bred them. An unnatural selection.
DLS: Our Pavlov’s Dogs are kind of like this: the werewolf is their common ancestor, but Crispin has shaped them, bred them, into what he needs for his team.
TB: Mac is the Golden Retriever, loyal and upright. Kaiser is a fighting breed, bred for blood and happy to roll around in it. The blood, the fight is the reward.
DLS: The Dog Years prequels explore the genetics and eugenics of it a little bit. In the end, Crispin has created a werewolf that is more like a domesticated dog: it has the potential to be a bit more human than a wolf might. Of course, as we know from attack dogs and fighting dogs, “nurture” has a lot to do with how dogs might turn out—more human, or more wolf-like?
8. The island. I quote from Wikipedia: “Classical conditioning (also Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) is a process of behavior modification in which an innate response to a potent biological stimulus becomes expressed in response to a previously neutral stimulus [...]”.
Are the entire island and its own inhabitants also an experiment of classical conditioning in a certain way?
DLS: A major reason Crispin isolated his experiments on an island is so he could shape and control the Dogs’ view of social structure and their role in it. To that end, the island is more a symbol of social control.
TB: Also, you know, it's probably the best setting for survival during a zombie apocalypse. I'm not as deep as D.L. is; he probably thought all about the ramifications of control and environmental impact of a closed society.
DLS: I didn’t.
TB: I just thought it was better, because zombies can't freaking swim.
9. A couple of questions about you as writers. Is it hard to write a book together with someone else? How did you divided the tasks? Who did what?
DLS: Making this book with Thom was pretty easy. We both have a strong team spirit, I think, and are generally flexible, laid-back guys.
TB: This wasn't my first large-scale collaboration, so I already had the attitude required for this kind of teamwork.
DLS: That was a big part of it. Our methodology helped, too.
Basically, I outlined everything chapter by chapter and ran that outline by Thom for his input. Then Thom developed the rough drafts of the chapters. Next, I did a pass over those drafts, adding, subtracting, editing, revising. We’d do this, passing a single chapter back and forth multiple times, until we felt we had it right. This helped create a streamlined style and voice that might not have been possible if we had written separate chapters.
TB: Hah, we had, at one point, both participated in a round-robin storytelling thing on the old Permuted Press forums. I really liked that, and thought one day we'd have to write something together. And here it is! And there's more, some time. Sooner or later.
10. What would you suggest to someone who wants to become a writer?
DLS: Work through the failures.
TB: Lower your expectations.
DLS: Write even when you don’t feel like it.
TB: Your muse will break your heart, and so will the reading public. But if you love it, do it. That's all you can do. You write something and maybe it'll hit, maybe it won't, but one hundred percent of the things you don't write will miss.
DLS: So that YA glampire book series I keep meaning to write...?
11. What can we expect to read from you in the next future (in Italian and in English)?
DLS: Dunwich has licensed the rest of the Pavlov’s Dogs series: one more novel and the three prequel novellas, Dog Years. Thom and I also have nascent plans for a third and probably final novel to end the series.
TB: I have a series of Urban Fantasy novels brewing, as well as a Lovecraftian novel. Or series of novellas, I haven't decided yet.
DLS: Other than that, I’ve been working on supernatural thrillers under a pseudonym, David Jacob Knight. The newest book, The Phone Company, explores what happens when we’re given technology that can do anything we want.
TB: And, you know, Snell and I are always sending ideas for what we might do with this Dogs universe back and forth. Sooner or later, our schedules will match up again (or we'll make them match up) and a new hybrid terror will stalk the Earth.
Thank you very much for this interview!
DTLBS: You’re welcome. Thank you! These are some of the best, unique questions we’ve been asked in a while. It's so gratifying to come across a reader who really gets us and what we attempted with this book.
And to our readers: keep an eye on these writers and their publications!