Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Interview with Sean Munger.

Full Name:
Sean Munger.

Do you have a nickname or what do your friends call you?
Just Sean.

Southern California.

Current hometown:
Eugene, Oregon.

Favorite city and why?
Rome. It’s an absolutely magical place—a big bustling city filled with history, art, ancient buildings, great food, great wine, friendly people, music and just about everything else you’d ever want. London and New York have their charms, but Rome just can’t be beat. Rome is like a layer cake of time and history, everything from modern high-tech to stone tunnels carved under the city in antiquity. It’s all just awesome.

Birthday / Age:
I’m 42, my birthday is in October.

How would you describe yourself physically?
Fatter than I used to be, which is rather a new experience, since I spent almost all my youth being derided as “too skinny” and looking like a death camp survivor.

How would someone else describe you physically?
Most people looking at me think I’m younger than I am, which at this point in life is a great compliment. We’ll see how long that will last, though!
I get that a lot too.  When the topic of age comes up and I tell people that I’m looking down the barrel of forty, they usually say that I look like I’m in my mid-to-late twenties.  I’d chalk it up to flattery, but the people I speak about my age are rarely in a position where flattering me would get them anything.
Yes, you get to be a certain age and getting carded at a bar or liquor store is more of a compliment than an annoyance.  I am now that age.

The first thing people notice about you is…
Usually the hair.
What about your hair?
It’s long, though not as long as many of my friends’.  I’m actually not too upset about starting to find a few gray hairs.  When I do go completely gray I’ll look like the guy from Saxon!
I went on a huge NWOBHM kick last year and Saxon definitely made up a huge part of that.  Those guys are unstoppable!  What’s your favorite Saxon song?
I love “747 (Strangers in the Night).” But there are few Saxon songs that I don’t think are great.

Sexual orientation?

Religion, if any?
Jewish. I was a late bloomer, having been an atheist for most of my life up until the age of 36.
That’s odd.  Most of the time the move is from theism to atheism.  What inspired your interest in religion.
I came to realize that atheism was a belief system poorly equipped to explain the universe as it really is. The bag of tools atheists bring to the table—reason, rationality, empirical evidence, etc.—are vitally important to understanding the world, but they’re not the whole story.  Reason and empirical evidence can’t explain why a Turner or a Monet is beautiful, why Mozart symphonies sound perfect or why French fries taste good.  If reason can’t explain something small and simple like a Turner painting, how could you possibly expect it to explain something as vast, complicated and irrational as the nature of the universe and existence?  Once I realized this, most of the things I used to believe as an atheist seemed pretty shallow and one-sided.  I also came to realize that my view of what religion and God really were was equally shallow and distorted. Judaism works for me because it’s a faith that emphasizes questioning, debate and uncertainty, especially about the big questions of what the universe and God are all about.

Are you superstitious at all? Any phobias?
I wouldn’t say it’s a phobia, but for my entire life I’ve suffered from a recurring nightmare that I call my “Hitchcock dream,” where I’m accused of something I didn’t do and it’s impossible to prove my innocence. That’s the plot of about every third Hitchcock film.
I’m actually quite relieved by your answer.  I have a set of recurring dreams too.  Some of them are like a television series and the new one picks up where the last one left off.  Others are like I’m living a different life while I’m asleep.  My brain has created entire cities with recurring characters with individuated and unpredictable personalities for me to experience while I’m asleep.  Most nights I don’t remember my dreams, but sometimes I have precognitive dreams.  It’s never anything like lottery numbers though.  It’s just brief periods of extreme déjà vu when I know what’s going to happen or what someone is going to say as if I’m remembering it for about a minute.
In talking about “dream cities” you’ve described something that’s happened to me all my life.  I continually have dreams that take place at the same locations, imaginary, over and over again, and the locations actually change over the years.  For instance I’ve had many dreams that take place in a location that resembles the high school I went to, except with a lot of maze-like passages and other strange details, but about five years ago the school got “remodeled” and became a shopping mall and trade mart, though traces of the old location are still visible in many places.  There’s also a big labyrinth-like hotel I’ve dreamed about for many years, again with maze-like rooms.  I call this “The Beige Corridor” and the location actually made it into my book The Valley of Forever.

Do you smoke/drink? If so, what? Any bad habits?
I love wine. Red wine is perhaps the most awesome invention of human civilization. I enjoy many kinds of wine, but my favorites are zinfandel and pinot noir. It’s definitely not a bad habit!
I agree, although I’m a bit more partial to merlots and cabernet sauvignons.
I love cabernets, though merlots have a sort of sharp taste that disagrees with me.

Current occupation / Dream job:
Current occupation: graduate student, teacher and writer.
Dream job: history professor and writer. I’ll be that in a few years with a bit of luck. This is my second career—I used to be a lawyer, and practiced real estate law for more than a decade. My worst day as a historian is better than my best day as a lawyer, so I definitely think I’m moving up in life.

What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
Be with my husband, write, watch great movies, cook, eat, drink wine.

What is your zombie outbreak survival plan?
Humans are expendable. Great books and wines are not. Build a bunker to protect them and let the humans sort themselves out.

Weapon of choice:
You mean in a zombie outbreak? Greek Fire. I wrote about that in my book Zombies of Byzantium.

Do you have any special skills?
Writing. You’d be surprised how difficult even good historians find writing, so being able to do it well definitely qualifies as a special skill.
I actually wouldn’t be surprised.  I’ve done enough ghost-writing to know that being able to transpose thoughts into words is a valuable and marketable skill.  What surprised me was how what I find easy others find difficult.  I thought everyone knew how to read and write well.  

Did you go to college and, if so, what for?
You could say that, yes! I got my undergraduate degree (B.A.) in history, then a law degree (J.D.), which led to an interesting and well-paying career that succeeded in telling me that I was happier doing history. So now I’m almost finished, God willing, with my Ph.D. in American history.

If you went to college, did you manage to pay off your student loans?
No, but all my loans are nearly 20 years old—I haven’t had to borrow anything to do my most recent round of schooling, which is definitely a plus.

Any pets?   If so, what are they and what are their names?
Not yet, though my husband and I both want a dog. So far the frontrunner for its name is Basil Ulysses Rose.
That’s a mouthful to call when you want your dog to come.  What would you shorten it to?
Probably “Rosie,” if that wouldn’t harm his sensitive doggie masculinity.

What is your favorite animal?
The pug which most likely has not been born yet, but will be known as Basil Ulysses Rose.

Speaking of pets, any pet peeves?
I’m annoyed when people put their Myers-Briggs initials in their Twitter profiles. I really don’t care whether you’re an “INFP” or whatever the hell those things are supposed to mean. I think Myers-Briggs is generally a bunch of rubbish.
I didn’t realize that people did that.  Thankfully so.  I’m not really a big fan of anyone that puts their qualities in with their given name in their social media.  I am of the opinion that the quality of a person’s work should speak for itself.  It takes more time and effort to establish oneself that way, but I respect that a lot more than someone tagging “- Writer” or “- Artist” after their name.  I write and I make art, but I’m an individual first and foremost and would rather be known for who I am and the quality of my work.  I’d rather be given a title than claim it.  As for personality tests, there’s a little bit of science behind them, but it’s quite difficult to use the information in everyday life.  It’s not as wrong-headed as astrologically derived personality predictors, but it’s just about as useful for predicting behavior.
Honestly I think the Myers-Briggs initials stuff is sort of a geeky dating thing.  People who believe in the test evidently think they’re only compatible with others who have certain initials, so it’s very similar to “swingers” back in the ‘70s who thought astrological signs were a key part of romantic compatibility.  I would imagine some social historian has done some kind of study on this to explain why this sort of thing persists.

Favorite / Least favorite Food:
There are too many great things to eat on this planet to settle on just one favorite, but I do love an Indian dish called vindaloo, which is incredibly spicy and also wonderfully flavorful. In restaurants you usually see it made with chicken, but it’s much better with lamb or pork (I’ve even made it with venison). I also love Kung Pao Chicken, but it’s much better homemade, and once you cook it at home with proper ingredients you’ll never want to order it out at a Chinese restaurant again.
Least favorite, I’m really not fond of spaghetti squash.

What is your favorite quotation / motto / saying?
“Why can’t we let the universe have a few rough edges?” A famous rabbi said this; I wrote down who it was but can’t recall his name off the top of my head.

What is the best thing that ever happened to you?
Meeting the man who would eventually become my husband.

What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?
The Great Recession wasn’t much fun, to be honest.

Ever had your heart broken? Is there a story worth telling behind your answer?
Yes.  There’s a story of course, but whether I feel like telling it is another matter. All I’ll say about it is that it happened many years ago, in Boston in the month of January. Deep winter heartbreaks are the hardest to recover from because the cold makes hearts very brittle.

Ever broken someone’s heart? Is there a story worth telling behind your answer?
I believe I have, though it wasn’t intentional. And it wasn’t in the winter, thankfully.

What is the best thing you’ve ever done?
I got married on a beach in Oregon.

What is the worst thing you’ve ever done?
I can’t tell you that, as we all have our secrets. I try to live with as few regrets as possible, though, because regret makes life unlivable. That’s not to say there are things I’m not proud of. 

If you could kill one person, consequence free, who would it be and why?
I wouldn’t kill anyone, especially if it was consequence free. If the death of a person would never change anything, then the act of killing them would be meaningless.

What do you do?
I teach, I write books and I do historical research. 

How did you get started doing what you do?
Well, the writing is something I’ve done since very early childhood. It just seemed natural to think up stories and try to tell them. It never occurred to me that it was any kind of special skill; I thought everyone did it. As for teaching and researching history, I’ve always been fascinated by history and what happened in the past. Storytelling is an integral part of history so they go together. When I was practicing law I got started teaching some classes on a volunteer basis—for instance, I taught an informal course at an adult Sunday school, and later did a series of lectures at a retirement community. I found I loved teaching history so much that I decided that should be my career. On my first day of school as a graduate student they (the history department) thrust a syllabus into my hand, told me to go to a classroom and teach early American history. One of the most terrifying moments of my life was sitting in that classroom watching the students walk in right before class on the first day. I was like, “What the hell am I doing here?” But it was also a wonderful day too, because it was when I really started doing what I love as part of a career.

What is your advice to other people that want to get started doing what you do?
As with anything, make sure it’s what you really want to do, and then persevere until you do it. Whether it’s writing and trying to get published, or trying to get a degree or go into a particular career, do what you have to do and keep trying. Ninety percent of anything is perseverance. Most people give up before they succeed. If you hang in there long enough people will usually give you a shot at what you want, if for no other reason because they’re amazed that you’re still trying. 

What are some of the projects you’ve worked on/finished in the past? Give us a little history if you will.
In the recent past I’ve finished two books that have come out, or soon will be coming out, from Samhain Horror. My novel Doppelgänger, a ghost story with a twist that’s set in Gilded Age New York, came out this month (February 2015). The book I most recently completed is called The Rats of Midnight and will be out from Samhain in December 2015. It takes place in Portland, Oregon in 1999 and was inspired by some of my experiences living there and practicing law during the dot-com boom and bust. It’s sort of like Wolf of Wall Street meets the Temple of Doom, if that makes any sense. It should be a really fun book. I’ve also recently finished a speculative fiction novel called The Valley of Forever which I’ve been working on for over five years; I don’t have a publisher for it yet but I’ll be beginning the search pretty soon.
In 2014 my second zombie novel, Zombie Rebellion, came out, preceded in 2013 by my first book for Samhain, Zombies of Byzantium. Before I hooked up with Samhain I wrote a trilogy of science fiction novels, starting with Life Without Giamotti, which has something of a cult following. It’s been read at both poles of the Earth—I got an email from someone at a scientific research station in Greenland who was reading it, and a friend of mine who worked in Antarctica took a copy down there as well. I understand that a copy of the second book in the series, All Giamotti’s Children, is (or was at one time) in the library at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. 

What projects are you working on now?
I’m working on my dissertation, which is titled Ten Years of Winter and deals with environmental history of the early 19th century. There was an intense period of temporary worldwide climate change between 1810 and 1820 caused primarily by a series of volcanic eruptions, and I’m researching how people reacted to these events and tried to explain them. Hopefully this will be a book someday.
I’m also working on another horror novel, this one involving wine, which takes place in Romania. The working title is The Impaler’s Reserve.

What are you watching?
Lots of movies. My husband and I have recently been reorganizing our DVD collection and archiving our movies into digital files. In the process we’ve been discovering our inner film geeks. We’ve been re-watching great old films we’ve seen before, but seeing them with new eyes—Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, Girard’s The Red Violin, the original 1972 Tarkovsky version of Solaris, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, even bizarre guilty pleasures like Boorman’s Zardoz or Chris Smith’s documentary American Movie—we’ve really been enjoying sort of a rediscovery of great movies. I’m waiting for the final half-season of Mad Men and the new (third) season of House of Cards. Recently we watched Amazon’s show TransParent, which is nothing short of amazing, the kind of storytelling and pushing-the-envelope shows that you can only do now in a post-network, post-cable era of television.
I wanted to make the transition to digital media when I realized it was a possibility around 2005, and I tried to turn the trick when I moved out to Long Island, New York in 2008.  I bought a 1T external drive, but trying to buy a converter to get the USB output to plug into my S-Video/RCA TV was prohibitive, so I gave up on the dream.  Four years later I finally got a lightweight flatscreen with a USB input and I haven’t looked back.  Now I have more movies than I have ever owned before in a box the size of a boxed set of DVDs.  I think that as more people realize the impending obsolescence of physical media and make the transition to consuming digital media, there’s going to be a cultural change that is going to have a beneficial impact on the environment.  Just think of all the cassette tapes and VHS tapes and CD crystal cases that are taking up space in landfills!  Even as I type this, I’m re-watching Breaking Bad for the fifth time in the background at a friend’s house through his Roku box.  Once the world finally universally adopts solar power so that we have unlimited, affordable, clean energy and the access to media and information is free that it will have a generally positive effect on the intellectual evolution of out species.
The only problem, now that I have 6,000 movies in high-quality digital format on a 3T external drive, is figuring out what to watch!  I binge-watched the first two seasons of House Of Cards and it was a great experience.  I’m looking forward to getting into Season Three of House Of Cards after I finish off re-watching the fifth season of Breaking Bad for the fifth time.  I started it, now I have to finish it.
Who do you like for film directors other than Tarkovsky and Lee?

Oh, many!  Kubrick of course, but I’m one of those contrarians who dislikes the really popular Kubrick films (A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket) while thinking that the ones everybody hates, Barry Lyndon and Eyes Wide Shut, are his best work.  That’s sort of the same with Scorsese—his best film is Gangs of New York, but I’m not that partial to Taxi Driver.  I love just about everything by Wes Anderson.  I’m also fascinated by “workhorse” directors, people who aren’t often thought of as auteurs like Kubrick, but who have made some really amazing films—Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Deathtrap, Murder on the Orient Express), Joseph Sargent (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three).  These directors made so many movies in their careers that they invariably wind up making terrible moves too.  Lumet made The Wiz and Sargent directed Jaws: The Revenge.  How does this happen?  The “distance” between a good movie and a bad movie is extremely short in most cases.  Thus bad movies also interest me.  How can Heaven’s Gate, a dreadful film made by a gifted director (Michael Cimino), be a million times “worse” than something like Robot Monster, made by a talentless hack?  I enjoy hashing over these questions.  You got me off on a tangent!
Sometimes it’s about the journey more than the destination.
Agreed! Especially with movies, where you have your whole lifetime to figure them out.

What are you listening to?
Metal—but a lot of other stuff too. I’ve been a metalhead for 32 years, and I always love the old classics from the ‘80s and ‘90s, Iron Maiden, Blind Guardian, Judas Priest, Morbid Angel, etc. Those are always in my rotation, but I always mix it up with some other stuff. Not long ago I found a Frank Sinatra live album I really like, Live at the Sands, recorded in 1966, which is wonderful. I also never get tired of opera, my favorite one being Wagner’s Parsifal, which is absolutely heavy metal. I also listen to a lot of surf rock from the 1950s and 1960s—another kind of music very close in tone and spirit to metal, stuff like Dick Dale, Link Wray (who was playing metal in 1958, eight years before Black Sabbath), the Surfaris, the Ventures, etc.
Oh, man, you’re into the good surf rock.  The bands you listed could easily be my top five surf rock bands.  If you haven’t heard of The Mermen, you should check them out.  They have, like, ten CDs of music and as far as I know it’s all good.  One of my favorite surf rock bands is The Fresh-O-Matics.  I think they only ever put out one seven-inch record, but someone was cool enough to upload it to YouTube as a video.
I don’t know the Fresh-O-Matics, but the Mermen are awesome.  Surf is such a great genre, and one often overlooked by classic rock fans.

What are you reading?
A lot of stuff! Recently I’ve really gotten into an author named Edward Rowe Snow, who wrote a bunch of popular history books, many with a nautical flavor, from the 1930s to the 1960s. “Spooky Tales of the New England Coast” and things of this nature—shipwrecks, pirate treasures, Victorian-era murders, Indian burial grounds, etc. This kind of thing was a popular genre in the middle of the 20th century, and the history isn’t sterling but it’s very enjoyable, kind of pulp history.  I’ve also been reading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which is every bit as wonderful as it’s cracked up to be. Also some theological stuff, about Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism. Recently I finished Robert Dallek’s biography of John F. Kennedy (one of my personal heroes) which was wonderful.
I love stuff like the way you described the Edward Rowe Snow stuff!  I was asked to write a regional paranormal book by a publisher, and when I was writing it, I was willing to sacrifice solid research for a good story.  My goal was to end up with something like the Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark books by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.

Favorite author / book?
This one is so hard to answer. I’d say probably my favorite author is Jorge Luis Borges, whose short stories have been the bedrock of my inspiration for writing ever since I encountered them in high school, in of all things my Spanish class. (I don’t speak Spanish!) My favorite novel, however, would have to be The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, which sort of makes sense—Eco was a huge fan of Borges and his fiction contains constant homages to Borges, for example the labyrinthian library in the monastery in Name of the Rose, which is modeled after Borges’s story “The Library of Babel.” Borges’s thing was exploring the limits of human imagination, infinity, the eternal, and the power of thought and consciousness. Eco does this too but he’s more rooted in knowledge, especially Classical and medieval thought. Both are wonderful. I also love Herman Wouk, whose novel The Winds of War I re-read just about every year. And ever since I’ve been a kid I’ve loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which I read and re-read over and over again. In 2013 I had the great honor to interview Edward Packard, the co-founder of the Choose Your Own Adventure concept and author of some of the best books. That interview appears on my blog. As it turns out Packard himself is a big fan of Borges, and what I perceived to be certain “Borgesian” concepts in a few of his books were not merely my imagination. That was really cool to discover. I’d say my favorite book by Edward Packard is The Third Planet From Altair, which I first read when I was 8, and which I still love even though I’m in my 40s.
Those Choose Your Own Adventure books were amazing.  Just think of the implications of a generation raised on those books.  In my opinion it laid the foundation for being able to experience books and literature as a malleable medium, and the target market was young readers during their most impressionable years.  I think that reading most of the books in that series as a child definitely prepared me for discovering William S. Burroughs and Paul Auster in college.
I couldn’t agree with you more here.  So much of the Choose Your Own Adventure style has crept into my own writing.  The Valley of Forever, for instance, has seven mutually-exclusive endings.  It’s not an interactive story, but it has multiple endings and plays with different points of view and the splintering of plotlines in much the same way those books did.

Favorite band / song?
Another question that’s super hard to answer. Iron Maiden would have to come pretty close. With them it doesn’t get much better than “Aces High” or “Fear of the Dark.” But narrowing it down to just one band or one song is difficult and arbitrary. 

Least favorite band / song?
Back in the day there was a band called Creed that I especially disliked. I speak of them in the past tense because if they are still around I don’t want to know about it. Fortunately I rarely have to listen to music I don’t like. I haven’t listened to the radio in 15 years. 

If you could do anything other than what you do now, what would you do?
I would live in Rome with my husband, in a little apartment near the Vatican Wall, and write books.

Who would you want to meet that you haven’t met? You get three choices:
Alive. Dead. Fictional.
Alive—Mikhail Gorbachev. He’s a figure of world-historical status that the world has largely forgotten, which is a terrible shame.
Dead—Thomas Jefferson. But only if I could drink wine with him, specifically wine from his cellar.
Fictional—Pug Henry from The Winds of War. Having read the book dozens of times, I’m still not entirely sure what makes him tick and it’d be interesting to find out.

What’s the best and worst job you’ve ever had?
The best job I’ve ever had is the one I have now, which is teaching history to college undergraduates. I’m underpaid, unappreciated and in fact egregiously abused—we recently had to go on strike to get basic benefits—but I still love it.
Worst job? That’s hard to answer. I vacuumed carpets at a department store at 4:00 in the morning for a summer, but that was actually kind of cool. I have a vague memory of having practiced law some years ago but that’s awfully hazy. Basically I don’t think much about past jobs.

Are there any questions that I didn’t ask that you wished I had asked that you would like to answer now?
Nothing I can think of. 

Anyone you recommend I interview that you can put me in touch with?
Stephen Graham Jones, fellow horror author; he just had a short story collection nominated for a Stoker award. He’s on Twitter. Interesting guy.
I don’t Twitter, but if you know him and are willing to subject him to the interview process, point him in my direction and we’ll see where it goes.
I’ll see what I can do!  Thanks for the interview opportunity.

Thanks for letting me subject you to being interviewed!

Pitch parade:
Give me all of your links for things you want to promote.   All of them.
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sean-Munger/267079030087379
Twitter: http://twitter.com/Sean_Munger
Website/Blog: http://www.seanmunger.com
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/Sean-Munger/e/B00J7EFWK8/

About the Interviewee:
Sean Munger is an author, historian and teacher. A former attorney, he is now researching environmental history of the United States in the Early Republic period. His new book Doppelgänger was released by Samhain Horror on February 3, 2015. He has previously written two previous books for Samhain, Zombies of Byzantium (2013) and Zombie Rebellion (2014). He is also the author of Life Without Giamotti (2006) and its two follow-ups, All Giamotti’s Children and Giamotti in Winter; the medieval comedy Beowulf is Boring, and Romantic, Memoirs of a Great Liner. Sean’s website at www.seanmunger.com specializes in history, heavy metal, wine and books. He also loves to connect with fans on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Sean_Munger.

About the Interviewer:
Scott Lefebvre can write about whatever you want him to write about.
Mostly because when he was grounded for his outlandish behavior as a hyperactive school child, the only place he was allowed to go was the public library.
His literary tastes were forged by the works of Helen Hoke, Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft.
He is the author of Spooky Creepy Long Island, and Condemned; and a contributing author to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Anthology of the Living Dead, Fracas: A Collection of Short Friction, The Call of Lovecraft, and Cashiers du Cinemart.
His reviews have been published by a variety of in print and online media including Scars Magazine, Icons of Fright, Fatally Yours and Screams of Terror, and he has appeared in Fangoria, Rue Morgue and HorrorHound Magazine.
Check out his publishing imprint Burnt Offerings Books here:
Check out his electronic music here: soundcloud.com/master_control
And here: master-control.bandcamp.com
Check out his Etsy here: www.etsy.com/shop/ScottLefebvreArt
Stalk his Facebook at: www.facebook.com/TheLefebvre
E-mail him at: Scott_Lefebvre@hotmail.com