And now for something a bit different. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of zombies. So, I was intrigued when I started seeing press for Warm Bodies, a book by Isaac Marion about a zombie who is, well, not your typical zombie. Recently released as a feature film, I read the book a few weeks ago, and last weekend took my 13-year-old daughter to see the movie. I enjoyed both (as did my daughter), and asked Isaac if he’d be willing to answer a few questions for the blog. His interview is below (a few spoilers, take note):
Tara: Your take on zombies is a bit different than most stories. Obviously there’s the central idea that they can be “cured”–and they also talk and have friends. I saw in a previous interview that you said you’d kind of “stumbled” into the zombie genre and were not always a zombie geek. Can you describe your experience emerging as a bona fide zombie author, and what has the reaction to the book/movie been from the hard-core zombie community?
Isaac: The reaction has been pretty much split between two camps. Camp 1 is people who understand that a zombie is a fictional creature that has been portrayed differently, with different origins and different behavior, in pretty much every iteration and remains open to interpretation depending on the goals of the story in which it appears. That camp thinks its a great new idea and welcomes the unexpected shift in perspective that explores a lot of the unaddressed questions in zombie lore, while using the mythology to explore other, more human themes. Camp 2 is people who I don’t understand at all, who seem to think that zombies are real creatures that have been studied and defined by science, and that there are immutable “rules” to how they should function in fiction. These people tend to ignore the fact that every major work in the canon of zombie mythology has redefined what zombies are. First, they were regular people brainwashed by Haitian voodoo powder. (White Zombie.) Then they were corpses reanimated by mysterious cosmic radiation. (Night of the Living Dead.) Then they were regular people driven insane by a virus. (28 Days Later and onward.) In the midst of all this, we saw zombies with lingering consciousness who responded to music and speech (“Bub” in Day of the Dead) self-aware zombies capable of independent thought and even leadership (Land of the Dead) and yes, zombies who fall in love. (Fido.) I don’t really know what it means to be part of a “zombie community” but I’m certainly well familiar with the “genre” if all stories about a certain creature can be lumped into one genre. (Why is “Dragon” not a genre? Why is there no “Robot genre”? I don’t even think “Vampire” is considered its own genre.) My roots run pretty deep into geekdom, so it’s not like I just decided “I think I’ll write a zombie novel” and then had to research what the fuss was all about.
Tara: Each zombie story also seems to come up with their own terminology for zombies: “walkers,” “skels,” “Z’s,” “stragglers,” “biters,” etc. Yours are “corpses”, “the Dead,” and “Boneys,” though you do occasionally break the unwritten rule and refer to them as zombies. Was it important to you to try to differentiate your Dead from those that had come before in other movies/books?
Isaac: I think Warm Bodies is kind of a mashup of all the zombie fiction that came before it. I wasn’t trying to create a new “version” of zombies to add to the canon, I was trying to use all the tropes of that canon for satirical and metaphorical purposes. So I just combined everything–R doesn’t know where zombies came from, but he references every well known origin story in his musings. One of the unusual things about Warm Bodies’ universe is that it’s actually our universe. These people knew about zombies in fiction before they became reality. They’ve seen the George Romero films. So when zombies first started to appear, it wasn’t just “Oh my God there are corpses coming to life!” it was, “Oh my God, our collective cultural nightmares are becoming reality!” This is only briefly referenced in the movie (Julie holds up a copy of the 1979 film “Zombie” next to R’s face at one point) but it’s a little more explicit in the book and will be explored further in the sequel.
Tara: Zombie stories run the spectrum from trying to create very scientifically legitimate zombies (“Neuropathology of Zombies,” “The Zombie Autopsies”–even “Zombieland” suggested the outbreak had resulted from a mutated “mad cow” infection) to not even trying to justify them scientifically. In the book, R can’t remember anything about how the world ended or the zombie plague may have begun, while Julie muses that it started when humans “buried themselves under greed and hate” until they hit the bottom of the universe, and then kept on digging–an idea more along the lines of a curse rather than an infection. And of course, The Dead eat the brains of the living and by doing so, gain their memories–so yours swings pretty far to the “not even trying” end of the spectrum. Were you worried about how that would be received when so many recent zombie stories have tried to be a bit more rooted in reality?
Isaac: The stories that root it in reality do so because they aren’t really about the zombies themselves, they aren’t using zombies for any thematic purpose beyond maybe some light social commentary, they’re mostly just props to menace the characters and create action. Obviously, with a zombie narrator, Warm Bodies is much more about the Dead themselves, and what it means to be in that state vs. fully alive. I didn’t use any science because this is a metaphorical story. In the sequel I’m writing now, it will go deeper into the actual metaphysical causes of the plague and the way human consciousness influences reality, but it definitely won’t reveal some random virus to explain everything. Most zombie stories use something like that because it’s quick and easily understood and clears the field for all the action and visceral thrills. That’s not really what these books are about.
Tara: When I first read the description of “Warm Bodies,” I admittedly cringed a bit. Like many others, I was a bit apprehensive that it was going to be a “Twilight” for zombies. Thankfully, R wasn’t sparkly like Edward and Julie wasn’t a pathetic wimp like Bella, and I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked the book and the movie. Like much great zombie fiction, your book is entertaining but also has a bigger message about the state of society–very Romero-esque, even if your zombies are much different than his. How did the novel evolve from your initial short story, just musing about what a zombie might think about, to the richer allegory of the finished product?
Isaac: It had a lot to do with the state of my own life at the time I was inventing this story. I had moved from my small hometown to Seattle a couple years before and had left behind my conservative religious upbringing in the process. It was a weird moment in life, where I was trying to understand who I was and what my purpose was outside of this very small-minded, limiting, ultimately pessimistic worldview that I had grown up with. And beyond that, I was getting older, feeling the loss of energy and passion that comes with age and experience and trying to find a way to fight it off. So I started to notice a lot of parallels between my life and this unhappy corpse living in the wreckage of civilization, and my transformation started to connect with his. The story kind of just exploded out of me in a short period. I think it was a therapeutic experience for me as a person. Writing it helped me figure out some of my own struggles.
Tara: Still, it is a romance, complete with “R and Julie” and even a balcony scene. Like the play, R and Julie brought about change and a healing in their respective populations, even if that was not their intent. Why did you decide to incorporate that story and those references into your novel?
Isaac: It kind of just happened by accident, actually. I was fairly deep into plotting it when I noticed the ways my story had assembled itself around that classical arc, and I decided to run with it. To me, the Shakespeare allusions are just another layer, not really the central theme of the story, although people are quick to call it “Romeo and Juliet with Zombies.”
Tara: There seems to be a rash of first-person zombie stories lately–Hugh Howey’s “I, Zombie”, “Brains” by Robin Becker, or “Zombie, Ohio” by Scott Kenemore, in addition to “Warm Bodies.” Do you see this as a new trend–a humanization of the zombie?
Isaac: I’m not familiar with any of those. I would imagine people probably have similar thoughts to the one that first inspired my short story: “Why hasn’t this been done yet?” Villains are almost always more interesting than heroes. It’s always fascinating to get inside the mind of the bad guy and try to understand them. For thousands of years we’ve been watching the pure white knight slay the monster, and it’s getting old. People are starting to understand that morality and motives are complex and we want to know more about what goes on in the darker half that’s been hidden away from us for most of the history of fiction. I think as society becomes more and more comfortable with moral ambiguity, these kinds of perspective swaps will become more and more common.
Tara: Can you tell readers a bit about “The New Hunger” and your anticipated sequel to “Warm Bodies”? Any other writing projects you’re kicking around?
Isaac: “The New Hunger” is a novella that takes place seven years before Warm Bodies, involving a formative early encounter between Julie, Nora, and a newly undead R. It illuminates their histories and expands the scope of the world a bit, while foreshadowing a lot of what’s going to happen in the sequel. The sequel is going to be a lot bigger and more complex than Warm Bodies, less about zombies than death itself and the forces, human and inhuman, that make our world a dark place when it doesn’t have to be. It will explore some more metaphysical, even cosmic themes, and veer more toward modern fantasy than zombie horror. I’m pretty excited about it.