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Kung Fu Antipopes & Vatican Vampire Hunters
An interview with author Paul Leone about Faith and "weird fiction"
As a lifelong fan of speculative fiction (a term broadly covering the genres of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror) I’m always on the lookout for fresh new voices with exciting new stories to tell. I’m especially keen to shine a spotlight on Catholic authors who bring their faith to bear on the weird and wonderful world of “spec-fic.” My friend Paul Leone is a self-published spec-fic writer whose tastes runs the gamut from urban fantasy to alternate history, and more! His bold, Catholic spin on the kinds of stories you’d find on The Twilight Zone or The X-Files captured my attention and convinced me that he is a rising talent to watch. Paul’s latest book, Kung Fu Antipopes and Other Strange Stories, is a delightfully eclectic collection of tales that confront the uncanny and supernatural from the streets of Manhattan to the depths of outer space! I recently had the chance to chat with Paul about his literary influences, his current projects, and the future potential of Christian speculative fiction.
Thomas Salerno: Tell us a little bit about your writer’s journey. What first drew you into the realm of fantastic fiction?
Paul Leone: I’ve been a fantasy and sci-fi fan for as long as I can remember (going all the way back to the Rankin-Bass adaptations of Tolkien’s work), and I got into horror during high school. I think the freedom these genres offer is a big part of the appeal for me. You can explore heavier metaphorical concepts more easily, in my opinion. Conventional fiction (outside of the occasional relatively grounded action or police procedural — SEAL Team and The Rookie as recent examples) just doesn’t hold much interest for me.
Salerno: Are there any authors in particular (fantasy/sci-fi or otherwise) whose work inspires you or influences your own writing?
Leone: The obvious ones are Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, of course! But I’m also a huge fan of John Steakley, who sadly only wrote two books (and one incredibly obscure movie that never got distribution and probably doesn’t exist in any form anymore) — Steakley’s Vampire$ is one of my favorite books and is the inspiration for a lot of my urban fantasy novels and stories.
Salerno: Tell us about your latest book, Kung Fu Antipopes. What was the genesis of this anthology?
Leone: It’s the second half of what was originally going to be a single very large collection of short stories that I’ve written over the last ten years or so. My beta readers suggested I split the collection into two books instead, and I realized this was for the best. The first collection, The Hungry Dead of Yü-ching, focuses on the Immortal Champions, mankind’s protectors against supernatural evils, while Kung Fu Antipopes is less focused and has stories from various different realities, some of which are tied together and others completely distinct.
Salerno: Of the tales you’ve published so far (either in short story or novel form) do you have a favorite?
Leone: It’s hard to pick, although I’d have to vote for “Night Mare in Coal Country” (Kung Fu Antipopes) on the basis of the protagonist, and “Sigríð Sigdansdohtor and the Wolf of the Lobbeweald” (The Hungry Dead of Yü-ching) for letting me try out a different style of prose than usual.
Salerno: Do you find it challenging to weave Catholic themes and imagery into your fiction while still telling an entertaining story? Or does this synthesis come naturally?
Leone: It’s fairly natural, not least because my stories, for the most part, take place in explicitly Catholic settings, so the faith is there from the ground up, much like in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In terms of my vampire stories — holy warriors punching demonically possessed corpses is the kind of thing you almost have to go out of your way not to make entertaining.
Salerno: Fantasy, sci-fi, and horror have historically been looked down on as “lesser” literature. But as “nerd/geek” culture becomes mainstream, do you think there are more opportunities for Catholic writers (and Christian writers in general) to embrace the world of “weird” fiction?
Leone: Absolutely! There are some subgenres that resist Catholicism by their nature (Lovecraftian horror comes to mind) but those are exceptions. I’d encourage more Christians to try their hand at sci-fi, horror and fantasy. With the explosion of superhero movies over the last twenty years, I think comic books are a medium that could especially benefit from Christian authors.
Salerno: It seems in recent years that sci-fi and fantasy have become dominated by high-profile authors pushing an overtly anti-religious ideology. How important is it for Christian writers to witness to the truth in our increasingly secular culture?
Leone: Extremely so! I’m definitely not the first to say it, but Christianity is the counter-culture in a lot of respects now, and we should all do our best to present it to as wide an audience as we can in our works. (While also doing our best to make sure the art is quality, too, something I think is a big problem with a lot of religious-centered fiction, music, and media.)
Salerno: Do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to share?
Leone: I’m working on two things at the moment — a much-needed revised edition of my second novel, Vatican Vampire Hunters: The Book of Thoth, which I hope to have out soon, and an alternate history novella called Murder in Hitlerstadt about a German homicide detective in a world where the Nazis defeated Britain, conquered the USSR, and remain in a Cold War with the rest of the world into the twenty-first century.
Salerno: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Leone: Keep reading and keep writing. Absorb as much as you can from writers you like. I’m always reading at least two books at the same time, and the variety of authors I’ve read over the years has been a huge help in shaping my own style. And writing is like any other skill — the more you do it, the better you’ll get and the easier it will be. I think National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a great tool for aspiring writers, but even if you can only write a couple short stories instead of a 50,000+ word novel, that’s still a good result.