An Interview With Author Daniel Kraus, The Man Handpicked By George Romero’s Widow To Finish His Magnum Opus

I have been waiting with baited breath to finally read the book The Living Dead, which was started by George A. Romero and finished by New York Times bestselling author Daniel Kraus. I knew that it had begun as a thought and a few pages by the late filmmaker in the last quarter of a century and was mentioned several times in interviews, but the final product was never finished.

After he passed away in 2017, his widow contacted Kraus, who was known for his collaborations with Guillermo del Toro, The Shape Of Water (2018) and Trollhunters (2015), the former of which was based on the same idea the two created for the eponymous Oscar-winning film while the latter was developed into an Emmy Award-winning Netflix series. He’s also earned himself Bram Stoker Award nominations for his books, Scowler (2012) and Rotters (2013). Now in 2020, he’s finally set his newest tale upon the earth, one that was started with great hope and finished with bloody gore.

I was thrilled with the chance to chat with the author about The Living Dead, as well as his previous books, his work with Guillermo del Toro and his strict writing process.

Read our review of The Living Dead right here!

PopHorror: When did you write your first story? What was it about?

Daniel Kraus: I don’t remember my first story. But I started writing stories in first or second grade. I had reams of them. I had a friend in the neighborhood, and we would draw monsters. We had a folder full of good guy monsters and bad guy monsters, and then we’d write stories to go with them. So we would create this catalog of monsters, and they were the reason we wrote the stories. I did that for my entire childhood. Slowly, I began to write longer material. By the time I was in middle school, I was writing novella-length stuff, and by high school, I was writing novel-length stuff.

PopHorror: So you’re saying that you created the first Marvel Monster universe?

Daniel Kraus: (laughs) I never thought of it like that. Maybe we were onto something back then. The university of Pittsburgh recently acquired all of my papers, and that included all of my old stuff. So I recently got the chance to go through some of those old stories. Although part of my original monsters stories were accidentally burned at my parents’ house (laughs). It’s not a complete collection.

PopHorror: I guess we will never know … So, when you get a new idea, how do you know it’s going to work? Do you write it out or think about it for a long time?

Daniel Kraus: Yeah, I usually mull it over, sometimes for decades. My book, Scowler, for example, was based on a dream I had in middle school. The Shape of Water just came from an idea I had as a kid. A lot of times, I’ll really sit on an idea for a long time. I’ve got notebooks full of ideas, but they’re usually missing components. I keep my ideas in a notebook. There’s some element that I just haven’t found yet. The good ones just never really leave my mind. I’ll transfer them from one notebook to the next. I’ve got other ideas that I’ve been hanging onto for 20 years. They’er still just missing something. Eventually, that thing shows up, and then, things happen pretty quickly. If it’s a research-heavy book—most of my books are—then I move into a research mode, which usually leads to a bunch of new ideas. I’m very organized in the sense that I usually extensively outline before I write. Generally, I will have a good 50 pages of just outline

PopHorror: So you get your teacup and wait for the handle? [TM Stephen King]

Daniel Kraus: Yeah! Yeah, in a way.

“I don’t give myself much slack. It’s not entirely a good thing, you know? I assume that I’m missing out on a lot of other life stuff. But, there’s really nothing else I’d rather do. I just love writing.” 

PopHorror: What was the most surprising thing you learned about when writing your stories? Whether through research or your own thought process.

Daniel Kraus: The Living Dead will be my tenth book. So, over time, you start to see certain things, certain repeated things pop up, whether or not you intended them. I’ve found myself writing a lot about fathers and sons, which is not something I really set out to do. I’ve also found that I like to write about … degrees of badness, for lack of a better phrase. I’m not so interested in good versus evil, but I am very interested in bad versus worse, to figure out how bad is too bad. What you’re willing to accept from a protagonist.

PopHorror: I see a lot of what you’re saying in Ry and his father, Marvin Burke, in Scowler. Ry wanted to save his sister, but he did it in such an evil way. Speaking of, would you say that the end of Scowler took place in Ry’s imagination or was it real?

Daniel Kraus: Well, it’s written to be interpretative. It could be either way. And that’s how I’m going to leave it (laughs).

PopHorror: (laughs) I was afraid you’d say that!

Daniel Kraus: It’s really up to the individual. Your point stands, though. Regardless of what it is, he does some questionable things. It’s portrayed particularly in my book that came out in February, Bent Heavens, which is stark example of a storyline where a protagonist—in the aid of something good—does some really horrible things. At which point, you have to decide, do you slowly get dragged down with him? Do you pick up on when they went too far, even before they did? There’s no real right answer. Those are the things I find myself really interested in … I guess. You know, it’s not something I planned. There’s also a similarity between The Shape of Water and Bent Heavens, focused around a monster that is being mistreated (laughs). But I didn’t see that until after they were both done. Two sides of the same coin, in a way. One is about romance and the other one is about …

PopHorror: Torture?

Daniel Kraus: (laughs) Yeah, I guess.

PopHorror: You’ve worked with Guillermo del Toro on several books, films and TV series like The Shape Of Water [read the PopHorror review here] and Trollhunters. How did you two meet?

Daniel Kraus: We were brought together through Trollhunters. Before it was a Netflix series, it was a novel. G [Guillermo del Toro] was looking for a co-writer for it. He had read my book, Rotters. So he reached out to me because of that.

PopHorror: That’s really cool! I can’t imagine what it was like to get a phone call from Guillermo del Toro.

Daniel Kraus: Yeah! I’m telling you, it’s been a wild ride!

PopHorror: I actually read Trollhunters back before the show. Then I watched the show, because of what it’s based on and the fact that Anton Yelchin was doing the voice of Jim. I actually had a hard time going back to it after that. But, from what I could tell, the story from the show was a bit different between the one told in the book. The biggest one is that there is no uncle character. Was that because the book was too dark for kids?

Daniel Kraus: Yeah, it’s very different. [The show] is for a much younger age range. So, when they scaled it down, they had to make a lot of changes. The book is significantly darker.

PopHorror: Definitely. I was a bit disappointed, but like you said, the show is for a much younger set.

Daniel Kraus: The book and the show are sort of Bizarro worlds of each other. They share a lot of things, but then, a lot of other things are really different.

PopHorror: Like The Shining, I guess.

Daniel Kraus: Yeah, yeah!

PopHorror: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

Daniel Kraus: [sighs] I feel like my writing life is really dull. I wouldn’t call that a quirk. I don’t think that anything I do is quirky. I treat my writing almost like a factory job (laughs). I’m really strict about working. I wake up early, sit down, and right away, I start writing. I do a full day, at least an eight hour day. For years and years, I wrote seven days a week. A couple years ago, I started taking off Sundays. I take it very, very seriously. I’m a very good boss to myself. I don’t let myself off (laughs). I don’t give myself much slack. It’s not entirely a good thing, you know? I assume that I’m missing out on a lot of other life stuff. But, there’s really nothing else I’d rather do. I just love writing. I love writing and other similar forms of art, because essentially, I like working by myself. My favorite place is right here at this desk.

Talking about those old stories; when I was a kid, after finishing the novel that I wrote, I never showed it anybody. It wasn’t because I was shy or embarrassed or anything, I just had no desire to. They were books that I wrote for me, for my own enjoyment. I think it set up a really good pattern for me. That’s why I do it. The release part of the book doesn’t matter to me as much as it does a lot of other people. I tend not to read reviews or anything like that. I’m really just about the work itself. If you really enjoy writing, and you really enjoy the book that you’ve written, I don’t see the point in getting too worried about the reception. If you’re happy with it, thinking about the good response or the bad response will just muddy up the waters, the pure emotion that you felt about it. I found it’s best for me to just stay in my little cave and write books and not really be aware about how they’ve been received.

PopHorror: So this quarantine is a piece of cake for you.

Daniel Kraus: It has not been bad. For me, the quarantine has been pretty productive. My daily life hasn’t changed at all. I’m doing the exact same routine that I was doing before. Obviously, there are things that concern me. I have things I feel anxious about as much as anyone. But I did have the benefit of not having to alter my routine.

PopHorror: I have a personal question for you. Well, it’s personal to me. I write as well, although I’ve only had a few things published besides the stuff I’ve done for PopHorror. I have this annoying thing happen when I sit down to write fiction. When I can’t write, I can think of a thousand things I could be writing about. But then when I finally sit down in front of my laptop, nothing comes. Any advice?

Daniel Kraus: Yeah, that’s a tough one. For years, I had a full-time job. How I worked it was I knew in my head that I was going to write all weekend. So, I would just be thinking about it all week … always thinking about the next scene. Then come Friday night or Saturday morning, I would have it all in my head. I knew exactly what I was getting into. For me, it has always helped to write out an extensive outline. I do a lot of the heavy lifting for the plot, so it’s already there. I’ve had outlines that were 100 pages or more. I’ve already done all of the hard work of what I want to happen in every scene. Of course, that might change when I go to write it. But this way, I can really just concentrate on the writing. I don’t really have to worry about what’s going to happen on the next page.

PopHorror: Have you ever changed you mind, or gotten into the middle of something and you realize you want it to go in an entirely different direction?

Daniel Kraus: Oh, yeah! But the older I’ve gotten, the better I am at getting it all settled in the outline. I take fewer wrong turns. And, the ending is always malleable. Things can happen when you’re writing that will send things off in a different direction, and then I’ll have to rewrite, say, the second half of an outline. But at least, by that point, I have half of the book written.

PopHorror: But then you might have to go back and rewrite what you’ve written to match up with your new ending.

Daniel Kraus: (laughs) Yeah, that happens a lot. I’m finishing a book now where I had a lot of that, where I changed my mind about various things partway through. Immediately when I was finished, I had to go back and do a heavy revision. The second half no longer agreed with the first half. Sometimes, you don’t want to mess up your rhythm. You don’t want to go back and change things immediately.

PopHorror: I work in a library, so I’m able to get my hands on all of your books, plus Rotters and Scowler on audiobook, which I love. Kirby Heyborne is a fantastic voice actor, by the way.

Daniel Kraus: Oh, I totally agree! We have a couple more things coming up that we’re doing, too.

PopHorror: Joey Crouch [character from Rotters] is one of my favorite book characters ever. Where did he come from?

Daniel Kraus: He’s probably as close to me as any of my characters have ever been. It was only my second book, so it plumbs a lot from my actual life. The high school he goes to is very much like mine, the town he lives in is like the one I grew up in. He stands alone in all of my characters as being relatively easy to plug in to. So, I guess that’s the answer. He’s sort of me, in a way.

PopHorror: So you don’t want to announce that you’re [completely insane] just like Scowler’s Marvin Burke?

Daniel Kraus: (laughs) Ah, no! But there are little bits of me spread around. I think [Joey] is the only character that I felt was as close to who I was.

“How could I even dream such a thing? Why would I ever think that I was going to get the opportunity to co-write a novel with my hero, George Romero? It was an impossible thought. It felt like … like my life had paid off, in a way …. I will never be able to thank Suzanne Romero enough for trusting me with it.” 

PopHorror: Why grave robbing?

Daniel Kraus: Grave robbing is one of those details in horror movies that always fascinated me. SO many horror movies, from the old Universal films to more recent ones like Drag Me To Hell (2009). They have these great grave robbing scenes. But they’re always on the periphery. It’s such a horrific act, and is one that seems like it would be extremely difficult and logistically complicated to pull off. You always just have these shots where suddenly, they’re at the bottom of a hole.

PopHorror: [laughs] They always start off with just that one shovelful, and in the next scene, they’re done and there’s this nice space around the coffin to get at it.

Daniel Kraus: Exactly! For some reason, these little scenes started to stick in my mind. There’s a great movie out there—I don’t know if you’ve seen it—called Mister Sardonicus [1961] that has some grave robbing that’s really tremendous. Seeing people get embalmed is another practice you don’t see much of. Mortuary practices are always behind the curtain. Grave robbing always felt to me, even in horror movies, as a little taboo. Horror movies themselves are supposed to be taboo, but grave robbing is taboo inside of taboo. There are few things in the world that are seen as more despicable as digging up dead bodies.

My tendency is to want to humanize that. I want to take the worst thing possible, and see if I can get people to feel sympathy for the people who are going it. That’s what I tried to do. I thought, “Can I make people feel for grave robbers? Why would they be doing it? Why would we care? How could we see them as people who should just go to jail?” It was a big challenge for me. I love that I could write a not only deep character book, but also have these Gothic images that I love so much in movies.

PopHorror: I love how you got so indepth with it, explaining how they had to roll up the grass like a carpet and dig the dirt out in certain layers. You don’t think about that stuff. You also incorporated grave robbing history and the people who are drawn to it.

Daniel Kraus: It was such a fascinating underworld to create. In a way, it’s like The Godfather [1972] or something. There’s this whole society that has its own rules and family structure. It was fun to work in that field. Yeah, I miss Rotters a little bit. It was a lot of fun to do.

PopHorror: It was also very fun to read. If you could pick anyone in the world to make Rotters into a film, who would it be and why?

Daniel Kraus: Well, I can’t answer that (laughs). How do I say this … there is something that is sort of going on with that. I can’t opine. “Oh, I wouldn’t have chosen those people, I would have chose those people.” I am very happy with the people who have taken this project on. So, I have to pass on that one (laughs).

PopHorror: (laughs) Okay! But I am very excited now.

Daniel Kraus: Don’t get too excited. Things are talked about but don’t happen every time. But, there’s always a chance.

PopHorror: Now let’s talk about Scowler. Marvin Burke reminds me of Max Cady from Cape Fear, relentlessly pursuing the family like a bulldozer until he gets what he wants. Was he inspired by anyone?

Daniel Kraus: Oh, you’re right! I never thought about him like that. That’s a great comparison that I never thought of before. Was he inspired by anyone? I don’t think he was. I know some people say the cover looks like something from Breaking Bad, but when I wrote Scowler, I had never seen that show. I had no idea that I was describing someone who was physically like [Walter White]. No, he’s an amalgam of a type of person that I knew when I grew up in small town Iowa. All of the worst parts. But, he felt very familiar to me. But he wasn’t inspired by any existing character or person.

PopHorror: The chase scene at the beginning of the book between Ry and his father, Marvin, is terrifying. I always thought it would be a perfect as a graphic novel. When Ry drops the toys, and Marvin comes around the corner, they’re pointing in the direction that he went. Any thoughts on having the story illustrated?

Daniel Kraus: No, I haven’t, actually. Every once in awhile, that idea comes up for one of my books, of making it into a graphic novel. I’m actually writing a graphic novel right now, but it’s an original one, but one based on something I already wrote. I’ve never actually had a book adapted into a graphic novel. The one I hear mostly, in regards to that, is Rotters. I haven’t really had anyone suggest Scowler, but I think it could be really cool. I love the idea of those fantastical characters existing in the real world. It’s a cool idea. I’m going to keep that in mind.

PopHorror: I’m sure you’ve been asked this before. But why on earth did you pick those particular toys—a teddy bear, a Jesus Christ Stretch Armstrong and a handmade folk toy—to be Ry’s imaginary friends? Did you have certain attributes that you wanted to use so you built them around those toys?

Daniel Kraus: You’re kind of right. I wanted them to represent facets of Ry’s personality. I wanted one to be very caring, and one to be very wise, and one to be wrathful. The characters grew organically from that. You think of what would be caring to a child, what would be comfortable, and you think of a teddy bear. And then you think of what a small child would imagine as a wise advisor—especially if he’s a rural kid and he’s taken to church every Sunday—he might think of Jesus. Scowler’s the wild card, an unknowable beast. I wanted something that was unclassifiable.

Daniel Kraus, George Romero
Daniel Kraus and George Romero (2006)

PopHorror: I read the Author’s Note at the end of The Living Dead where you talked about meeting your inspiration, George Romero, back in 2006. What was it like, getting the news that you were handpicked by his widow to finish his magnum opus?

Daniel Kraus: I remember it so vividly, the phone call. It’s one of those things that it wasn’t even a dream come true because it was beyond any dreams that I had ever had. How could I even dream such a thing? Why would I ever think that I was going to get the opportunity to co-write a novel with my hero, George Romero? It was an impossible thought. It felt like … like my life had paid off, in a way. I grew up with his movies, and his work was so, so important to me. Everything else I was working on just took a back seat. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and I’m going to put everything I have into this. It’s like finishing a circle that started when I was 5- or 6-years-old. I don’t think it’s very often that you get to do such a thing in life. It’s a way to say, “Thank you,” to the person who molded you as an artist and also as a person. To almost take the baton from that person and be a part of the story. It meant and it means a lot to me. I will never be able to thank Suzanne Romero enough for trusting me with it. It really didn’t go away. I was on that high for a couple years as I worked on the book. Every time I sat down to work on it, it was always a joy. It was like getting to work with George, in a sense, in that sandbox.

PopHorror: I saw you did a lot of research to get the book’s canon right. Was it fun to find those hidden gems and learn more about George, almost like a treasure hunt.

Daniel Kraus: Oh, it was a thrill! In a way, I was writing a book and also finding pieces of his biography that had fallen by the wayside. His complete archives will be open at some point at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s all there, it’s just still being cataloged and put online. I’ve actually seen them. I’ve gone through them.

Eventually, people will be able to see the other things he worked on that never got made. It’s really going to broaden the appreciation for what kind of artist he was. He had to make zombie movies. He was grateful for them and he enjoyed doing them, but he did so many other things that the Hollywood system wouldn’t really allow him to make. But he certainly wrote them, and they’re going to be fascinating to see.

PopHorror: So, you’re saying that this stuff will be available to the public once it gets uploaded?

Daniel Kraus: Yeah. The rights were acquired by the University of Pittsburgh. Once they’re all cataloged—which is a long process that could take a year or two—eventually, there will be an interface on their website where you’ll be able to see all of the contents of the archive. You won’t be able to read everything. They’re like other archives, where they’ll be available in a scholarly pursuit. Some things, you may be able to get some sort of online version of, but generally, it will require an in-person visit to the archive. But on the interface, you’ll be able to see all of those things listed, everything that was in all of those boxes.

PopHorror: And your stuff is there, too, right?

Daniel Kraus: Yes, my stuff is there, too. It’s not cataloged, either. Obviously, it’s more a rolling collection. Right now, they have material from my first four or five books, and I’ll be sending more over time.

PopHorror: How much of the story was written when you got it? Did you get pages or chapters?

Daniel Kraus: The material from George came in three ways. Initially, there was a chunk of the book. It’s hard to say how many pages because he wrote in this really weird format. I don’t know what he was typing on. The typeface was strangely large (laughs). So I don’t know what it would come to in something like Microsoft Word pages. There were quite a few pages. I would say that there was a third of the book in those pages.

But then later, after I had begun hard work on the book, we found another hundred pages. It was another attempt he had made earlier of the same type of book. And then, a month after that, his manager found a really important … I believe it was a nine page letter that he had written, and that was also hugely helpful. Generally, my estimate is that he wrote a third of the book, but also included a lot of notes. With everything said and done, I do believe that he was responsible for about half of it.

PopHorror: Were the characters all his?

Daniel Kraus: Well, not all of them. Some of them are his. And the stuff that he wrote isn’t necessarily the first third of the book. It’s spread throughout the book.

PopHorror: So, you knew where you were going, and how the story was supposed to end up. And that was certainly a George Romero ending.

Daniel Kraus: I did know something about the ending, but there were other things I didn’t know. Once we found his notes, that made some things clearer. In some circumstances, his notes made things even less clear (laughs). It was certainly a weird kind of puzzle that I was working on. Then I’d suddenly get some new stuff, and I just had to deal with it. Sometimes it would be a huge pain in the ass because I would have already written four hundred pages, and now I’d realize that he had planned to do something else with that. It was a unique challenge. But it was always fascinating. I was always happy to do the work, no matter hoe difficult or strange a puzzle that it was.

PopHorror: I love the character of Etta Hoffman.

Daniel Kraus: She’s my favorite, too.

PopHorror: Would you say that she has something like Asperger’s?

Daniel Kraus: I would say that she’s somewhere on the spectrum.

PopHorror: Was it hard to write an idiosyncratic character like that?

Daniel Kraus: No, it wasn’t. I don’t know why. Writing in her voice came very natural to me. It wasn’t difficult at all.

PopHorror: And then there’s her last name, Hoffman.

Daniel Kraus: For people who are really into The Tales of Hoffman [1951] who also read this book, which will be about two people (laughs), there’s all sorts of little nods to The Tales of Hoffman. There are some very, very deep Easter eggs in there.

PopHorror: If you hadn’t been contacted by Romero’s estate to finish The Living Dead, do you think you would have written a zombie story on your own?

Daniel Kraus: No. My interest in George Romero was never in zombies, per se, which is one of the reasons why I was selected to finish the book. My interest was always George Romero. That included zombie movies but wasn’t limited to them. I was much more of a student of his entire body of work than I was a zombie fanatic. So, I had never really had any plans to do it. Obviously, I totally adore the six zombie movies that George made. I never felt like I had too much more to add to what the master had done. Had this opportunity not come, I don’t think I ever would have written a zombie story.

PopHorror: With the way the zombie craze has faded in the past few years, I wonder if a zombie book would even be successful.

Daniel Kraus: I think you could have success in it in one of two ways. You could come up with some blazingly original angle. Originality could still win the day. Or, you could do something like this. Write a book with the guy who started it all (laughs). They’re just classic Romero zombies, but they go really deep and really far. Try to be the bookend of his career.

PopHorror: I love that you can hear the zombie’s thoughts, what they were thinking.

Daniel Kraus: That was a George thing. It wasn’t presented exactly like that in his version, but he did want to show things from the zombie’s perspective, which fits. He was always more sympathetic to zombies than he was to people, so it would make sense that we would see things, eventually, from their perspective.

PopHorror: You get to find out why they’re doing what they do. They’re not just mindless eating machines. Part of them is an instinct to make more of themselves.

Daniel Kraus: Yeah, they have a higher purpose.

PopHorror: When you’re not writing—which is obviously not very often—what do you do?

Daniel Kraus: You’re correct in that. I’m usually writing. I am the worst person to answer this question (laughs). I’m usually writing or thinking about writing or reading something that’s research for writing. I’m very single-minded. I do like board games. I’ve done a little bit of that over Zoom or Google Hangouts during the pandemic. I think my brain likes to stay really full, so a good, complicated board game is one of the few things that can really distract me.

I don’t watch a lot of TV shows, which also has to do with work. I always felt like TV shows were too long with no set ending coming. And they took too much time away from my writing. So, I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I do watch a lot of movies. I love movies.

PopHorror: What games do you like to play?

Daniel Kraus: What have I played recently … not too long ago, I played Blue Haven, which is a big, giant game that takes months to play. It’s one of those things that you set up, and then you’re stuck with it for a few months. Before the pandemic, I played a game called Scythe, which, of course, is quite large and was on the table for months.

It’s like how I tend to write novels instead of short stories. My board games are the same way. I want something that’s going to involve me for a long period of time.

PopHorror: What would you say is your favorite horror book? And you can’t say you’re own.

Daniel Kraus: (laughs) No worries about that. Can I give you two? First, there’s the answer I always give, which is The Cipher by Kathy Koja. Then there’s a book that’s not out yet. It comes out this fall. It’s called The Seventh Mansion by a woman named Maryse Meijer, and that book just blew me away. It’s one of those handful of books that I find maybe every few years that just made me want to try harder. They sort of slap me in the face, and remind me of what the genre is capable of. I love reading something that seems unreachable. I feel like I could never write that good, but I’m inherently so competitive, so I’m going to try.

PopHorror: What are your favorite horror movies? And you’re not allowed to pick anything by George Romero.

Daniel Kraus: I’m trying to figure out which one to mention. There are so many great ones. There’s this fantastic German film called Angst from 1983 that is just amazing. It’s basically a serial killer movie, but it also takes that psycho angle where you find yourself actually worried about the serial killer. It’s an incredible movie with some camerawork that I have no idea how they did. There’s also this really disturbing French film from 2002 called In My Skin by a woman named Marina de Van. It’s one of the few movies that I found myself turning away from, not just because of the gore. It is gross, but it’s also a great movie. The less said about it, the better.

Find out what we thought of The Living Dead right here! And keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming review of Kraus’s juvenile graphic novel, They Threw Us Away.

About Tracy Allen

As the co-owner and Editor-in-Chief of PopHorror.com, Tracy has learned a lot about independent horror films and the people who love them. Now an approved critic for Rotten Tomatoes, she hopes the masses will follow her reviews back to PopHorror and learn more about the creativity and uniqueness of indie horror movies.

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