A screenwriter and former US Army Ranger (!) Don seemed like an excellent person to chat to about this whole ker-razy zombie vs vampire thing we’ve got going on, and so I decide to email him a few questions about his new book and who would kick whose ass.
(In retrospect I really, really should have asked him about efficacy of various firearms in close combat with zombies and other undead, but maybe next time?)
What’s the premise of Zombies: A Record of the Year of Infection?
The book is based on a manuscript discovered in rural Canada, following the 2012 zombie invasion called the “Year of the Dead” that wiped out over sixty percent of the earth’s population. The manuscript, authored by a Seattle-based blood scientist, Dr. Robert Twombly, has been organized carefully to serve as a treatise, survival guide, and the single most comprehensive study of the zombie species ever published.
What was the inspiration for the book?
Believe it or not, Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet was the original inspiration. And you can still see some of that if you compare the covers. The idea, which was born from Becker & Mayer in Bellevue, Washington, was to lampoon the popular, ubiquitous Gnomes book with zombies. Before I was brought on, there had been some concept sketches done for the book proposal. My friend and collaborator, Ryan Hobson, who works at B&M as an illustrator told me that there was “a zombie book in the works.” Immediately, I started emailing contacts at B&M to find out who the editor was on the project. Unfortunately, they already had a best-selling zombie writer considered for the project. But the editor, Amy Wideman, asked me if I wanted to help “flesh out” the book outline and write some copy for the already drawn-up illustrations. Naturally, I was stoked. It was work that I would have happily done for free.
If you’ve ever read Gnomes (and if you haven’t you should, it’s a charming book), it is an illustrated observation in the life of the little woodland creatures. They build houses, protect the forest, get married, and all that. The problem with zombies is that they do none of that. They just shuffle around, kill, eat, repeat. That’s it. This was supposed to be a 144-page book. So there didn’t seem like a way to have somebody just observe “zombie behaviour” without it getting, well, a little dead. So I had to create an entire story of a survivor and why he was documenting this information as he also tried to stay alive.
Since the word count of the book was 15,000 words tops (that’s about the word count to a 105-page screenplay) and I have the most experience writing screenplays, I first wrote up a story “beat sheet” of the narrative and then added observations that could be gleaned by the protagonist, Dr. Twombly. I wrote up a 1,700-word outline in about a week and turned it in. B&M was really happy with the outline and the text that I wrote for the sample illustrations. And lucky for me, the other author dropped out of the project. So I was brought on to complete what I started.
Was it a lot of fun to write?
Absolutely. I didn’t have as much time to write and develop it as I wanted (who ever does) but I’m happy how it turned out. Ultimately, the story had to be character-driven since we were following Dr. Twombly around. I believe that the main appeal for zombies is the What-Would-I-Do-In-This-Situation fantasy. People want to be put to the test to see how they’d perform, and end-of-civilization scenarios seem to be the most seductive. So I wanted to make the character the antithesis of somebody who would do well, like say, John Rambo from the films. Dr. Robert Twombly works in a blood lab and for fun is a birdwatcher. He really has to learn to survive along the way and with help from people he meets. I also wanted to throw a bit of narrative irony in there. He’s a guy, a lab nerd, who’s really experiencing life in the great outdoors for the first time, amidst all of this death. There was irony with him being a birdwatcher, but never really noticing things before. He just lived in his little humdrum, routine existence like most of us do. I hope that is what will make Twombly more relatable to readers. He goes to an office everyday, does his job, but then one day, the world comes apart around him and it’s he who has to deal with it.
Who did all the gory illustrations?
The magnificent illustrations were done by Chris Lane. I haven’t met him, but we’ve spoke via phone an email. When I first learned who the illustrator was on the project, I immediately Googled him to do some research. When I found his website, I knew that he was the right artist for the job. His stuff is gory and macabre, but oddly beautiful at the same time. When I first saw his pictures with my words, I got a chill. It’s as exciting as making a film. Maybe even more. He pulled this dark world from the text, which was darkened than I could even imagine, but it works. There’s an in-your-face, unrelenting quality to his images that’s important for this genre.
You also have a book called Vampire Tales coming out this fall with Scholastic. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Love to. I’ve been writing books for Scholastic Book Clubs for about three years now. It first started with Scary Stories, then when that sold well, I was brought back to write Tales of Terror, Dragon Adventures, True Scary Stories, Creepy Stories, and now Vampire Tales. Obviously, there are kids reading them, which is great. I received my first fan letter from a eight-year-old reader and I about cried. I was so happy that my words moved someone enough to compel them to write a letter to me.
Like the other books, Vampire Tales contains five original short stories, these, as you may have figured out, revolved around vampires. Having a lifelong love of vampires (Dracula has been my hero since age 6) I had many stories to share on the subject. Of all the Scholastic books, this is probably my best. One, because I’m getting better at writing shorter fiction, and two, I was passionate about the subject. Vampire Tales and the rest, unfortunately, are only available through Scholastic Book Clubs. But I’ve seen some of the books turn up on Amazon used or people have even told me that they’ve picked up copies at yard sales, which, I guess, is cool.
Each vampire story ends on a cliffhanger which prompts the reader to be satisfied with the ending as is, add to it, or even write their own original story. Their ideas are protected by a vampire-claw lock and key. The books, in a way, are story journals. My name doesn’t appear on the covers of the books for that reason.
You’re a screenwriter as well as an author, so did you watch a lot of horror movies for ‘research’?
I didn’t do much research for the project. Mostly I read the Gnomes book, since it was the book we were supposed to be lampooning, for ideas, but there weren’t that many usable ones since gnomes and zombies are such different creatures. I have had a lifelong love with zombies and have seen nearly all the films, so I wanted to filter those memories through the book without any direct reference. Edgar Allan Poe and the US Army Ranger handbook were just as much help as any zombie film that I could recall. Chronicle Books was also great in that they let me move around the genre in anyway that I saw fit. I had tremendous creative leeway. I wanted to stay with some of the preconceived zombie “rules,” but wanted to experiment with a few new ones. I also think that any self-respecting zombie film, or horror film, or science fiction film or book, should be a reflection of the time that it was written in. Especially with more sophisticated audiences where straight horror just doesn’t do it anymore. I personally like a little thought behind the horror films that I love—Psycho, Dawn of the Dead (original), The Exorcist, Jaws, Night of the Living Dead, (original).
OK, so you’re something of an expert here. Who do you think wins in a fight, vampire or zombie?
My original answer, after considering the question for only a few minutes is that the fight would be a stalemate. Vampires move faster, and are stronger and swifter than zombies. But what zombies lack in strength and speed they make up in volume. There are just too many of them. Three vampires could probably rip the heads of an army of 100 zombies, but it wouldn’t matter. The zombies, like the inevitable Death itself, would keep marching on unhindered. Now, thinking about it, I would have to give the fight to the zombies. Here’s why—vampires are a predatory creature. They NEED to feed in order to survive, zombies do not. Vampires cannot feed on the dead. Without humans, vampires would have to resort to animals to survive. Vampires would eventually eat their way to extinction. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!