ZombieMutts- When you interviewed George Romero and you mentioned that the word “zombie” carries a lot of baggage. Would you please explain what you mean by that?
Peter Clines – It was actually spun off from a comment Mark Protosevich had made in another interview about writing I Am Legend. He pointed out that when you say “vampire” there are certain paths and expectations that word automatically creates, and they’re not necessarily the ones you want. That’s why he went out of his way never to use that word anywhere in his screenplay. Likewise, when you say “zombie” there are certain ideas and images it automatically brings to mind. Most people reading this just pictured a guy with sunken eyes, gray skin, and a ragged suit coat. It’s unavoidable. When you’re working in film, there’s a lot of shorthand that gets used because there are very firm limits on how much time you’ve got to tell a story. So the moment you bring in the word “zombie” you’ve automatically nailed down a lot of things in a movie and how people are going to perceive it..
I’ve interviewed George twice now (he’s loads of fun) but one thing that’s come up when we’ve talked is that he’s kind of trapped doing zombies. And when you stick “zombies” and “Romero” together in a sentence it nails down even more things.
Regardless of budget there are a lot of terrible zombie movies out there; specifically terrible zombie comedies. I don’t have any issues with a zombie movie being funny because I love Shaun of the Dead, my issue is the vast amount of bad comedy zombie movies. So many of them get poor reception but the trend shows little sign of stopping. Why does this trend continue or perhaps do you enjoy them?
Okay, you’re asking two different questions here, and I’ll do my best to answer both…
As far as bad zom-coms go, based off my experience in the industry and writing about it… Horror movies are cheap. They’re one of the lowest-budget genres there is, and they give a phenomenal investment-to-return ratio. David Goyer made a movie a few years back called The Unborn. Everyone called it a horrible flop, but the truth is it made back three times its budget at the domestic box office. That’s not even counting overseas or DVD sales (which were pretty good, too). How is that not a success? Hollywood likes to point at the big tentpole films that break the hundred-million mark, but dollar for dollar it’s always the little genre films like horror and comedy that bring in the serious money. So making zom-coms makes sense from a business point of view.
Why are they bad? Well, you say “regardless of budget” but horror is kind of the ghetto of the film industry. These movies tend to be low-budget things, so they don’t often get an experienced writer, director, or producer (those folks all want to do the higher-budget stuff). Instead they get folks who think writing something scary is easy (those horror geeks will watch anything, right?) and who aren’t good at sensing how “jokes” will be received by an audience (I worked with a writer-director once who was convinced that a dog getting hanged on screen—choking and kicking its legs– would be hysterical). But, as has often been said, it’s not about if the movie’s good. It’s about if people paid to see it. That’s business, again. People keep watching the bad zom-coms, so they keep making money, so they keep getting made.
And, to answer part two, I do actually enjoy bad movies sometimes. My girlfriend just smiles and shakes her head at a lot of the crap Asylum movies in our Netflix instant queue. A lot of it’s just for the goofiness, but part of it’s also nice from a study-research point of view. Yeah, this story is bad but why is it bad? What specifically did they do wrong? What small or big changes could’ve been made to improve it? It’s a way to relax and keep the mind flexing at the same time.
You’ve been vocal about your view of what defines a zombie and that one aspect is it needing to be slow. If I am not mistaken your opinion is based on realism; but if realism is the issue why would a zombie who has just risen have the same bio-mechanics of something that has been around tripping over trashcans in a hallway for a long time? I agree a zombie should have sharply degrading abilities but I think a new zombie should have a little bit of intelligence and speed left.
Like you said, it’s an opinion based on realism. At the same time it’s about a reanimated corpse so there’s a lot of room for other opinions. I am in the slow zombie camp, but I’ve seen some “slow” stories that are just awful, and I’ve seen some “fast” stories that were done very well.
My personal reasoning goes like this—and I was thrilled when I read David Wellington’s Monster Island and saw he had the same thoughts. The limiting factor isn’t the body so much as the brain. It’s a very fragile piece of equipment and it starts falling apart very fast. In the real world, you hear about people who lose oxygen to the brain for eight or nine minutes in surgery and it turns them into a complete vegetable. They don’t even have the mental ability left to breathe or make their heart beat.
Now, bipedal running is a very complex action. You need to be very aware of your immediate surroundings and be able to think ahead to where you’re going to be in three or four steps. You need to coordinate all four limbs. Your posture and balance both shift. It’s one of those things loaded with “transparent math” that drives engineers nuts. It’s hard to suspend disbelief for a mindless corpse staggering around, but without those higher functions, it’s really tough to rationalize someone running, jumping, climbing trees, and all that. And if I’m saying a zombie has those higher functions, then a lot more of the conscious brain’s functioning and it becomes tough rationalizing violence, murder, cannibalism, and so on.
Before you start a project you will chow down on some kid’s cereal to get back into a childhood mindset to open yourself up to creativity. This is interesting because as people grow up we tend to lose our creativity. Is it that creativity loses meaning, value, inspiration or do we perhaps become self-conscious worrying about perceived childish hobbies?
I think it’s a little from column A, a little from column B. Mostly A. Creativity just isn’t worth as much to an adult, especially these days. How many people have a job where they do the same thing every day, every week, every month? In your average nine-to-five job, creativity will drive you nuts more than anything. You’ll have all these ideas and never be able to do anything with them. It doesn’t help that schools have been cutting art and music for a decade now because they have to focus on meeting stupid “No Child Left Behind” guidelines. So we’re almost guaranteeing a less-creative generation or two.
Sorry. Minor soapbox.
So, yeah, I think people get a lot of pressure about growing up as quickly as possible. We all want to be mature and be treated like grown-ups, and it’s tough to balance that with liking cartoons or little toy soldiers. Or writing stories about astronauts fighting elder gods on the moon or superheroes fighting zombies after the apocalypse. Because that’s just all kid stuff.
I do think staying childish on some level is essential for fiction writers. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the people who write dry, stuffy “literature” tend to be dry, stuffy people. They’re not creative, they’re analytical. Analysis comes from the brain, but all the good stories that stick with you come from the gut. They get you in that same primal, breath-taking, bed-wettingly-scary way that kids experience things. You read interviews with Stephen King or Ray Bradbury or Jonathan Maberry or Neil Gaiman—there’s a lot of “kid” left in those people, and I think it’s the reason most of them are so prolific. And it’s why my desk is covered with Doctor Who figures, LEGO® people, Egyptian statues, Transformers, a few old Micronauts, and tons of superheroes—most notably about a dozen versions of Spider-Man.
Philosophy question …Considering free will, are zombies evil?
Good question. I think if you agree that a zombie is mindless—and can’t run!—then they don’t really have free will and you can’t really slap a good/evil label on them. A writer can try to use them as symbols or metaphors, but in and of themselves they’re no different than an insect swarm or a hurricane. They may be destructive and horrible, but I think the ideas of good and evil revolve around intent (deliberate, mistaken, or otherwise).
For what it’s worth, I also think that’s part of the terrifying nature of them. They’re just this unknowing, unreasoning thing. There is no chance they’ll change their mind or make a strategic withdrawal. They’ll just keep coming, even if it means their own self-destruction. I think it’s that mindless destruction that makes them creepy.
What is the biggest challenge about writing a zombie book?
It’s not the biggest, but one challenge is just the sheer volume of zombie material out there. There’s way too much for any one person to absorb (well, to absorb and have time to do anything else), but you need to have at least a bare awareness of it to make sure you’re not going down any really well-worn paths. I’ve got one idea that I started a while ago and wanted to finish after Ex-Communication, but it turns out Permuted Press just bought a book with a very, very similar idea. So I may need to set mine aside for a bit.
Past that. I don’t think a zombie book has any specific challenges that are different than any other novel. It’s about creating believable characters, giving them realistic dialogue, having an interesting story, coming up with a good hook, and that sort of thing. Once you’ve got all that, the rest of it will work by association.
Due to the sheer amount of time and odd hours it takes to write, how important is it to have friends and family be supportive of your career?
I’m tempted to say there’s nothing more important. If you’ve seriously decided to do this full time—heck, even just part time—you’ve committed to giving up a lot. And there’s a lot of stress in that decision. You really start to learn who your friends are when you’re antisocial three weekends out of the month and on the fourth you don’t have money to go out anywhere. There were about two years that I just couldn’t afford to go out, period. I had one friend disown me because she kept trying to get me to go back to film jobs and I told her to stop. So she just stopped talking to me altogether.
On the plus side, though, I’ve got a couple friends who completely understood why I was doing this, stuck by me, and helped me not feel like the broke, pathetic guy. Most of my family got it, too, although there was some worry I’d drive myself to bankruptcy before my writing took off. I’ve been very, very fortunate that my lovely lady understands, too. She’s also a writer, and she’d been doing the bare bones living thing long before I was. So it was wonderful to always have someone there when I was having panic attacks and doubting myself—but also who’d still be brutally honest with me about things.
Have you given much thought to how many books you’ll end up writing in the EX series? Considering you haven’t over defined anything in the EX world, the story is wide open. As a fan I would love to see an extended series.
It’s tough to say. Ex-Heroeswas written as a stand-alone book, and it’s done well enough that I could write Ex-Patriots with the assurance that there would be a third book, Ex-Communication, so I got to weave some threads back and forth between them. At the moment, that’s as far as it goes in my head.
Now, there is a sliver of a set-up in Ex-Patriots for another story, and I also came up with a neat idea while chatting with Seanan McGuire (a.k.a. Mira Grant) down at the San Diego Comic-Con. But these are both really thin, barely-developed things, and the second one’s a very different kind of story. At the moment, both of them are like saying “Let’s do an Indy movie where he goes after the Holy Grail—and he brings his dad along.” It’s a cool idea, but it needs a lot more work before it’s anywhere near ready to share with anyone. So those two will probably happen someday, but they still need fleshing out before any serious work begins on them. I don’t want this to be a series where I’m just grinding out a new book every year just to keep it going, y’know? That’s part of the reason I try to write something different and unconnected between each book.
You’re a huge fan of comic books and found a unique way to weave comic book type characters into your series; what do you think comic books can do/say that other mediums cannot?
Comics and graphic novels actually have one huge advantage. This may sound kind of silly, but you’ve got static images. If I’m writing a book and I want to show a book of matches, the only way to do it is to write out “There’s a book of matches on the table.” If I do something with film, the image is only there for a few instants, even if I do an insert shot of the table. The audience glances away, sneezes, whatever–they’ve missed it and there’s no going back (unless you’re watching a DVD or DVR and you break the flow of the story by rewinding), so that point is lost. Comics can do both. They can give you something visually so it’s not blatantly pointed out, and they can leave it there on the page for you to pass over or study at your leisure.
I remember Alan Moore pointing out in an interview that comics are perfect for mysteries and other story elements that use a lot of visual subtext. Look at Watchmen and from the very beginning there are dozens of clues peppered through it in the images. The same with Fables by Bill Willingham. We see the crime scene in the beginning and we see all the same clues Bigby does that eventually help him solve the crime.
It’s kind of sad because I see a lot of comic creators lately who tell stories that are so wordy they might as well be novels, or so action-dependent they drag because they’re just static images. Lots of folks likes to talk about how great the medium is, but they don’t seem as eager to actually embrace it.
If you could pick one scene from Ex-Heroes or Ex-Patriots to have someone build from LEGO® as fan art, what scene would it be?
Hah. That’s a really tough call. I saw one a while back, but there’s a couple scenes in both books that would be cool to see. It’d be neat to see any of the characters rendered in plastic, but I think I’d love something with a LEGO®-scale Cerberus suit if somebody could figure out how to build one. I have seen some very clever micro-scale mechs. Her flashback in Ex-Heroes with the Marines and all the zombies would be cool. Or the early bit with her and a lot of the other characters riding around in the truck, Big Red. Honestly, I’m just still amazed when I see anyone want to spend extra time with these characters beyond the books.
Thank you for your time Peter!