Your upcoming book The Killing Floor is the follow up of The Infection and I have been lucky enough to read a preview of it; it looks like it will be focused on a mutation of the virus. Could you tell us a little more about it?
In The Infection, the organism that infected 20% of the world’s population and is rapidly infecting the rest through bites is also turning some people into hideous monsters. I’ve always found that once you figure out the rules of the given universe in a zombie book, the story becomes somewhat predictable. As a result, some authors bring other survivors into the story as villains to lend much needed unpredictability. I wanted to go the other way, bringing monsters into the story to add an even deeper layer of horror while making the story much more unpredictable. In The Killing Floor, we see some of these monsters return, while others make an appearance. What is especially different is that the reader is given deeper insight into the Infection. Basically, the planet is infected, and a new ecology is rapidly evolving that competes with our own, and we humans are now at the bottom of the food chain, not the top. If you enjoyed this aspect of The Infection, you will love The Killing Floor, which goes even deeper.
Now even though this is a sequel it looks like you have written this to be a standalone not requiring someone to have read book one, correct?
The story picks up where The Infection left off, at the bridge where the survivors participated in a demolition to prevent the Infected migrating west from the burning ruins of Pittsburgh from crossing the Ohio River and crashing into the refugee camps beyond like a wave. At the same time, there are new characters providing a look at what’s happening in America from other points of view. One new character is a political science adviser witnessing the evacuation of the White House and life as a mole underground at the FEMA center at Mount Weather. Another is a sergeant in the armored cavalry, part of a massive operation consolidating American military forces overseas into an invasion to retake Washington, DC from Infection. These separate stories converge around the importance of Ray Young, who awakes to find he’s not only survived the battle of the bridge, but also infection. He’s not immune, however; he has been turned into a biological superweapon that could end the world, or save it. Basically, if you liked The Infection, you should love The Killing Floor.
Have you ever had anyone approach you about movie rights to any of your books? Would you demand control as a term to sign them away for a book?
My first novel, Paranoia, is a psychological thriller about a man exposed to conspiracy theories and is given irrefutable proof that one is true; once he believes one, he finds himself steadily believing all of them until he feels compelled to kill for his belief. Several years ago, Hadley Films optioned it and started development, but the project was put on hold, which sadly happens often with this type of thing.
Just recently, however, I was very fortunate to enter conversations with a production company for an adaptation of my zombie novel Tooth and Nail, which is about a military unit deployed in New York City during the zombie apocalypse. If the option moves forward, we would begin scripting early next year, and I will be heavily involved in the scripting. Seeing my work turned into a movie is obviously incredibly exciting for me, although it’s still very early, so I’m trying not to get too excited. I am hoping for some incredible action that will make the epic struggle of Lieutenant Bowman and the boys of Charlie Company come to life.
(Small Spoiler) In Tooth & Nail after a strenuous military battle with the undead you had a soldier commit suicide which in context I thought was an act of bravery. What was your intent with that scene that scene and what has the reaction been?
In that particular scene, a squad of soldiers is clearing a school, which had been the headquarters unit for their platoon’s company, and had been overrun. They find a massive mob of Infected packed into a corridor, deploy and begin to slaughter them with automatic weapons. At the end, the soldiers, who had been itching for payback, look on the smoking, bloody ruins of hundreds of people sprawling on the floor, many of them still alive and squirming, and feel incredible despair. They realize at this moment that they are fighting a total war against the people they were sworn to protect, not for land or resources, not for religion or power, but for pure survival. They are literally fighting a war against a virus that uses unarmed civilians as weapons. One of the soldiers looks at the dozens of unseeing eyes and unfeeling hands and the shock compels him to shoot himself to escape the horror. I included this event to reveal the depths of despair the squad was brought to by its actions, which, while necessary, were horrifying. I wanted to show that people react in many different ways to horror–some freeze, some act, some laugh, some cry, and some, like this soldier, opt out. The human element is always front and center in my books, as human responses to horror fascinate me.
For anyone that follows your blog and Facebook it’s easy to see you’re deeply plugged into the culture. Where do you see this genre peaking?
I do not see it peaking ever. Zombies have always been popular, particularly in stories about the apocalypse, but the establishment–and by that I mean the book publishing industry–didn’t pay attention to it, and didn’t want to take a risk on it. Small specialty publishers like Permuted Press ate their lunch, and now, with the popularity of these books, many movies and the popularity of The Walking Dead, they are starting to produce good material. These books will continue to come out as long as people keep buying them, which I see no reason to stop. Look at vampires. For many years, the horror section of bookstores was dominated by a choice of sexy or funny vampires, or Stephen King. Zombies are simply claiming their rightful place in the genre, and now people have a choice they should always have had.
What do you think about the quality of Zombie Films?
I think every director should be forced to watch The Walking Dead to learn about how to make a zombie movie. People want stories about people with zombies, not the other way around. Give us good stories that make us care, instead of the usual band of self-defeating idiots trapped in a mall/house/whatever. This is why some of the best zombie movies have been comedies–I actually cared about the characters in Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, whereas I didn’t care at all, for example, if any of the characters in the Dawn of the Dead remake survived.
What do you think of the apocalypse fan base? Generally what type of person gravitates to this genre?
I freaking love the fans. The fans of this genre were incredibly warm and receptive to my work, so much so that I feel like I found a home of sorts in the genre. I had a great time meeting many fans at zomBcon recently–particularly some of the members of the Moody’s Survivors group on Facebook, and they’re great people. As for what kind of people go for zombies, it’s definitely a geek thing, but it’s going mainstream. First, almost everybody is fascinated to some extent about the end of the world. Second, as film, TV and books deliver good stories and drama, many other people will get pulled in. For example, my lovely wife, who hates zombies and thinks I’m a little crazy, started watching the first season of The Walking Dead, and she’s hooked. Not for the gore, but the stories of people fighting not only to survive, but to do the right thing in survival mode, and thereby retain their humanity. That’s what I mean when I say people want stories about people with zombies, not the other way around.
Philosophical question. Are zombies evil?
If I were living during a zombie apocalypse, I would see them that way. After all, they are trying to hurt me in some way, and they destroyed everything I loved. However, friends and family who become infected are still our friends and family, aren’t they? Even if they are just meat puppets whose strings are being pulled by a malevolent virus, they still wear the faces of the people we love, and that does not lend itself to thinking of them as evil. Think about losing the people you love most. Would you be able to “put them down”? I’m not sure I could. That’s the human element that fascinates me and informs my work. (Here’s a blog post I wrote about this topic that may offer more insight). For me, the apocalypse is not about wish fulfillment–being tested, running around shooting guns, never paying bills again–it’s about the horror of losing the people I love most. The opportunities for storytelling are endless.
Your zombies tend to be the “fast 28 Days Later” type which some of the more stubborn fans refuse to accept as a true zombie. Personally I think most don’t care as long as it’s a good story, do you ever have some fans confront you about that topic? How do you respond?
I personally think there are some fun debates to have about whether zombies can run, etc., but I’m always surprised when somebody takes them seriously. Can zombies run? The purists say no, because of rigor mortis. Think about how absurd that sounds. They’re dead! They can’t move at all!
I define zombie as a person turned into a mindless automaton, usually violent. As a reader, I enjoy reading about any type of zombies, as long as it’s a good story with people I care about reacting realistically to what is happening to them in a realistic world. As a writer, I prefer fast, living, infected zombies for two reasons. First, they’re scarier than shamblers. Second, they are more realistic. If somebody doesn’t like that, they don’t have to read my work, and I won’t be offended. The great thing about the genre is that there are many voices, choices, stories, and people can usually find what they want in one of its many great authors. Overall, however, I feel it’s important for any genre to innovate, and then let the market decide what is acceptable and what isn’t through book sales.
That being said, my use of living, running zombies never really got me into trouble, Evan. Where I got into trouble was in the use of monsters. For some, it made the story terrifying. For others, they hated the mix. Again: To each his own!
You’re a self-employed writer who has chosen sci-fi/horror and lighting as a career which requires a lot of detailed and focused work. How do you manage to stay focused working at home?
When I was younger, I only wrote when the monkey was on my back, and I felt compelled to do it to satisfy some notion of the Muse. As a result, my work was very uneven. Then I got a job in advertising and was writing every day. The discipline of this got me focused about my fiction writing. As I got older, I became even more dispassionate about it, loving it in general but not falling in love with anything in particular. In my books, I never fall in love with any of my characters, or scenes, anything. It’s incredibly liberating as an author, because you have total freedom to let the story follow its own natural path to completion. If a character should die, he dies. If the story takes a different direction than I originally planned, it does. And so on.
In 2001, I was living in New York City and working as a publisher of a group of trade magazines in the construction field. Our company was acquired and I was let go. I started my own freelance writing and marketing consulting gig, specializing in the architectural lighting field, and prospered. As I was working at home, part of this was to stay disciplined. It is amazing how much discipline you can discover, though, when you get paid; when you freelance, you only get paid if you work. It’s funny, but I think one of the reasons I worked so hard was an innate laziness. I wanted to get all my projects done so I could take some time and do nothing, or write my fiction. Strangely, that never worked out, as projects keep coming in all the time.
That discipline, in turn, is equally applied to my fiction writing. I see the novel published, and in my hand. I see the story arc and know how it ends. I want to read it. So I sit down and write it, one scene at a time. And again, now that I have achieved some success, that’s an incredible incentive to keep writing–I know that people are going to read it, which is exciting, humbling and motivating. (It’s not about the money; there is very little money in publishing.) The hard part is getting started. Once I’m into the book, I get totally absorbed. By the way, for me, writing is not necessarily typing. Even when I’m not typing, I’m thinking about the book, what happens next, and I’m constantly filling notebooks.
What type of books do you read for your personal escapism?
I am constantly reading apocalyptic horror, zombie horror and survival horror. I have always enjoyed these books (as long as they’re good), but now that I’m an established author, I continuously read the genre to see what other authors are doing and “stay in character,” so to speak, which aids my writing. I also do a lot of reading to provide reviews and promotional blurbs for other authors.
If you could go back 10 years and give yourself one piece of advice about writing, what would it be?
I would have avoided sci fi and started writing about zombies a long time ago! But I have no regrets. For me, the success of my zombie fiction is incredibly exciting and humbling. I’ll keep writing as long as people keep reading.
Thanks, Evan! I was glad to talk to you and your readers about my work today.
*Thank you Chip Fehd for the photo!