Being Undead with Linda Watanabe McFerrin

The Oakland author's new novel is a Japanese zombie tale.

Linda Watanabe McFerrin thinks she was a zombie for a while. “It was during a really dark time in my life, when I was dealing with the death of a loved one,” she said. In traditional West African and Caribbean lore, zombies are dead — or seemingly dead — people who wander the Earth like drones, characterized by an utter lack of will. They’re a far cry from proactive bloodsucking vampires and ethereal corpse-eating ghouls. All three forms of the undead appear in McFerrin’s novel Dead Love, new from Berkeley’s Stone Bridge Press.

In its first scene, a part-Japanese hottie arrives at Tokyo’s Narita Airport. As Erin emerges from the plane “in my short, jade-green sheath and six-inch stiletto heels … my purplish-brown hair up in a French twist,” everyone stares in awe, including the yakuza flunkies who have been sent to meet her. Little does she realize that she’ll soon be very nearly made into a zombie and will be pursued across several continents by a lovelorn shape-shifting ghoul, that “darkest and dankest of the beings,” a corpse-eating “supernatural low-life.”

This genre-bending literary supernatural thriller, which the Katharine Anne Porter Prize-winning Oakland author will discuss at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, September 13, pulses with the lush imagery that makes McFerrin one of the Bay Area’s most popular writing teachers: One character slits another’s throat “with the grace of a cellist.” Bruises are “large mandalas progressing from pale rose to purple.”

Also a travel writer, McFerrin drew upon memories of Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Amsterdam, and other exotic settings when writing Dead Love, whose characters are in constant motion around the globe.

“I think that’s the way we live today, whether that movement is in a real or a virtual way. We are not anchored to a specific geographical area,” she said. “I wanted to create the surreal sense of a rapidly shifting landscape where nothing is finally grounded” — and where the borders between “natural” and “supernatural” are blurred.

“The supernatural characters in Dead Love are as real as anything can possibly be in the amorphous, constantly manipulated construction we call reality,” McFerrin continued. “The things we think of as unreal are actually out there making a case for themselves in the everyday world. Fact is unquestionably stranger than fiction. … The deeper you dig, the more obvious this becomes.”

Living in Japan for several years early in life, McFerrin “grew up amid so many spooky stories. The Japanese, with their ancient Shinto belief system, which includes the spirits of nature and ancestors, believe powerfully in the supernatural world. …

“I used to be crazy about vampires, but my focus has definitely shifted much more toward zombies — I guess because zombies seem less egotistical, more part of the collective,” McFerrin said. “I’ve discovered that I am not alone. There are massive zombie walks all over the world from Moscow to Melbourne.”

Did she model her heroine on herself?

“Well, Erin and I both make a mean brainloaf.” 7 p.m., free.


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