Think fighting zombie hordes through an apocalyptic hellscape is tough? Try writing a book. No doubt, capturing the zombie spirit on paper is no small task, and in this day and age it takes creativity and an unflinching pen to breathe life into the genre.
Thankfully, there are more than a few authors who are up to the task. In this second edition of ZRS Author Roundtable, we sat down (virtually) with four of them to talk about their craft, their stories, and what it takes to write about the dead for a living. Meet Bobby Adair (BA), D.S. Campbell (DC), John L. Davis IV (JD), and Mark Tufo (MT)…
What is your novel about, and what does it bring to the zombie genre?
BA: Crass humor and a different goal.
I imagine lots of books in the genre have some humor sprinkled throughout. I’ve heard rumors of such, and read one or two. I even dabble a bit with some darkly comedic moments in the Slow Burn series. With Dusty’s Diary, I think I wasn’t so much looking to write a zombie book that was funny, but a funny book that happened to have some zombies in it.
The main character, Dusty, is coarse, opinionated, and driven toward an uncommon goal. Again, I think most of the genre (I do it too in my other series) tends to lean toward a story arc that leads the characters to sanctuary or safety, however that’s defined. That goal is never mentioned in Dusty’s Diary; Dusty’s problems are more mundane. He’s a guy who built his doomsday bunker under the assumption that he’d have female company. Unfortunately, he doesn’t. He’s alone, with no wife, no girlfriend, and no pornographic media to while away his solitary hours. So, when Dusty emerges from his bunker several years into the zombie apocalypse, he’s not chasing a lofty goal; he’s just a regular guy with regular post-apocalyptic problems.
DC: Zombie Manifesto is about the human quest for immortality. In a way, it’s a 21st-century update on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, since both novels are tales of the best-laid plans of mad scientists going terribly wrong. In my story, the “monster” is a run-away artificial virus created by researchers experimenting on human neurological tissue. And those billions of tiny little monsters end up creating millions of zombies.
JD: The American Revenant series is about a group of people that are working together to survive a cataclysmic sickness, an EMP attack, and the resurrection of the dead. This group of people would be considered “preppers’ by today’s standards. They have the mindset of survival, although zombies were the last thing they expected.
I like to think that my books bring something refreshing – and maybe a little classic – to a saturated market (then again, I’ve been told that I shouldn’t think; it gets me into trouble). So many people are writing zombie fiction these days and trying new things, which is wonderful, but I wanted to read a story that leaned toward the older idea of zombies — that shambling horde – so that’s what I’ve tried to create.
MT: My novel is about zombies. I like to be brief and to the point! Okay, that’s a lie. If you know me at all, you realize I’m fairly long winded, and the supposed “one-and-done” Zombie Fallout book is now an eight and a half book series with the ninth projected to come out this fall.
This series follows Michael Talbot, a “loyal to a fault” everyman who desperately tries to keep safe those who mean the most to him when all around is falling to sh*t. I guess the subtle difference here is that this is almost more of a series about the human relationships as opposed to just the zombies’ wave of destruction.
Why zombies? What inspires you to write about the living dead?
BA: I think it stems from frustration with society in general along with a desire to fantasize about an exciting life where all the choices are simple and all the villains (stand-ins for real world problems) are easy to shoot.
In one way or another, most of us grew up watching movies where the bad guys were always bad and clearly identifiable, whether they were cowboys with black hats, chrome-covered Cylons (depending on your version), or wore white Imperial stormtrooper suits. The worlds in our fiction were easy to understand; problems were easy to solve. You just shoot the person in the bad guy costume.
In every zombie story, the world gets distilled from a jumble of complexity (e.g., a world that usually resembles the frustration world we all currently live in) down to simplicities. The bad guys moan and shuffle (unless you like fast zombies), and the good guys shoot ‘em dead and solve their problems.
DC: First of all, zombie horror is fun. There’s a kind of guilt-free violence in killing zombie hordes. They’ve somehow lost their humanity and they want to eat “us”, so we can just mow them down with impunity.
There’s more than that, though. People debate the zombie metaphor. For me, they can be seen as the symbol of the potential loss of our humanity in the face of ever-expanding, ever more invasive technology. Are we becoming more free, or more mindless? Ask a zombie.
JD: I love zombies, and their unnatural state. These rotting, walking corpses have a certain appeal to me beyond just being a horror trope. There is a certain thrill in writing these creatures that were once us; they went to work, had families, pined over lost loves, went to movies, and did all the things we do every day. Then, they are suddenly ravenous shambling (or running) beasts whose only desire is to devour. It is this that leaves the story open to a reflective examination of society and the human condition, or a story can be written, read, and enjoyed thoroughly without an underpinning of commentary; just a straight up “Oh crap, that thing wants to eat my face!” kind of tale.
MT: I’ve been fascinated by zombies and the zombie genre for many a moon now and I’ve always loved to write, so it seemed like a perfect combination. Perhaps if my cousin had opted to watch a mummy movie back when I was seven, things would have turned out differently. As it is, Night of the Living Dead blew me away back then, and I was terrified and thrilled to be that way. Even now, all these years later, I can sometimes tap into the feelings of that scared little boy as I watch a new movie or television episode, and certainly when I read and write. The indelible mark has been made!
What were the biggest challenges when writing your novel?
BA: Dusty’s Diary was way too easy to write; I literally wrote it in a week. I’d just come off of writing a bunch of pretty emotionally difficult scenes to wrap up the previous novel and I was worn out. I needed something fun and unpretentious. Dusty’s Diary is exactly that: fun and unpretentious. I guess my only difficulty was choosing whether to publish it. I was afraid it might chase off some current and potential readers.
DC: The writing was almost always a blast, and it was lots of fun to lose myself in the world I created. But the editing? As a zombie would say, “Graaaghh!” Because I published Zombie Manifesto as a serial novel, the editing went on day in and day out for months. But there was an upside to the relentless daily editing: I learned a lot about creating exciting cliffhangers and moving the story along at a good clip.
JD: The biggest challenge for me was writing a large cast of characters my first time out of the gate. Every one of them is an integral part of the group, but giving each the development they needed without bogging down the story with description after description is the thing which was most problematic to me. I like to think I succeeded in developing strong characters – especially in the second book – but that, of course, is up to the reader.
MT: When I wrote the first book I was laid off, so I had all sorts of time. The difficult part was amassing the jumble of thoughts into a coherent story. Then when I wrote the second and third, time became my biggest constraint. I was working full-time and the kids were younger, so I really only wrote on Fridays and Saturdays when my brain wasn’t too cooked or I wasn’t too tired. Now I find that the biggest challenge is going through my editor’s red marks, which due to the sheer volume of them makes for a small mountain of work.
Read Part 2 of Revenge of the Zombie Authors Roundtable where we talk inspirations, writing tips, and favorite zombies. Also make sure to read our first in the ZRS authors interview series.