Max Brooks: In-Depth Interview

Last week, Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, gave a lecture about zombie preparedness to students on campus. I got the chance to talk to Brooks about zombies, and I wrote two stories about it for the DI. However, we talked for a really long time, and I still have 1,000 good words that deserve to see printship! So, here’s some extended conversation with Brooks about writing, zombie origins and resurgence, and how tween girls are the driving force of the free market.

I know you’re a big Studs Turkel fan since World War Z is inspired by Turkel’s oral history of WWII. I also love Turkel, however, my favorite book is Working. With that book in mind: “What do you call your job, what do you do all day, and how do you feel about it?”

“I’m a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was 12; I’ll be a writer until I die. And that’s it. That’s all it is. There’s nothing cool or exciting or pretentious about it. I’m just a guy who writes down what he thinks about. I don’t feel one way or another about it. It’s not a choice, it’s what I am. I didn’t have a momment where I was like, ‘I’m gonna be a writer'” I didn’t choose writing; writing chose me: this is what I am. Since I sat down and wrote my first short story, the world stopped. I literally looked up, and it was three days later, and I had a three page short story. I remember thinking, ‘I think this is what I’m supposed to be.’

Do you remember that first three page story?

Yeah, I still have it. It was about me and my friends in Europe, in the 80s (obviously, because it was written in the eighties), getting in an A-Team-esque kind of battle with Neo-Nazis in the catacombs outside Rome.

What role would writing and texts play in the apocalypse?

I think they’d be hugely important. It’s an art form that doesn’t require batteries. When the power goes out, you’re going to need people scratching on tablets to keep words alive. I always think it’s funny to see how many people have downloaded the Zombie Survival Guide as an e-book. At least the paperback version doesn’t break.

How old are zombies? They date back to African myths correct?

Well, I always say zombies are the new jazz. Jazz is the only unique American music–all the other music we have is basterdized in Europe. The same thing is true of monsters as well, they came from somewhere else, mainly Europe. Vampires, werewolves, mummies (well, that’s Egyptian, via Europe). But then George Romero created the uniquely American monster phenomina. So it came from Africa, but in a very different art form–like jazz. Jazz started as African music and rythyms, then morphed through the American south into what we call jazz. Same thing with zombies. Zombies used to be African voodoo, witchdoctor raises someone from the dead as a slave zombie. The original zombies weren’t flesh eating hordes, they were somebody hit with zombie powder, then they died, then you dug them up and made them do chores. George Romero turned it into an apocalyptic thread, a fresh eating threat, a viral threat, an uncontrolable thread. George Romero rewrote the book just like the jazz greats did with American music.

Why do you think zombie narratives resurged so strongly in the last decade?

I think Zombie 2.0 started because people were like, “Wow, the fucking system is breaking down.” That’s what I was trying to do with World War Z. People had disaster on the brain because we kept getting hammered, one after another. People are really using zombies in interesting ways to examine societal collapse.

Now, I think we’re in Zombie 2.5. Zombie 2.0 came about in 2002-3: 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, the remake of Dawn of the Dead, The Walking Dead comic, and The Zombie Survival Guide started a zombie Renaissance that started to snowball. Zombie 2.5 are the people picking up on Zombie 2.0–the people picking up on that…The first wave was the sixties and seventies. Romero, and the Italians and some Japanese guys–stuff like that. In 2.5, people are taking the genre even farther and doing even cooler things with it. Daniel Dresner (ed. note: U. of Chicago Political Science prof.) wrote a book called Theories of International Politics and Zombies examining foreign relations through zombie crisis…Dr. Steve Schlozman is a neurologist at Harvard trying to go really deep into the science of zombies with The Zombie Autopsies.

I think Shaun of the Dead is one of the best zombie movies ever made…and it’s a lot deeper than it seems. it’s funny, but the dude shoots his own mother–that’s intense. It’s about British society, their version of the slacker generation: people doing something with their lives. The British version of doing something with your life is a lot different than the American version–we say doing something is making a lot of money. The British think you need to go out and live your life, and do whatever you want to do. Whether that’s find the girl you love, quit the job you hate, whatever. You’re going to be dead soon.

What was your first contact with zombies?

I’m 12 or 13 and my parents went out to dinner. I snuck into their room to try out HBO and look for tits…you never knew when there’d be a sudden flash of breast, so I would stay up all night waiting for it. Suddenly there’s a naked woman, and I’m thinking glory hallejulah! But turns out, it’s a zombie canabal movie.Very gory, very explicit. When you’re 13, that will mess you up.

It’s weird that your first zombie experience was also a sexual one.

Well, that was the goal, but let’s say, things deflated very quickly.

The vampire boom that seems to be happening in tandem to the zombie boom is a lot more explicitly sexual. Can you add eroticism to zombies?

I’m greatful this hasn’t happened yet, but I bet someone will. With the vampires, and Twilight, that’s just the nature of the beast. The beast not being horror, but capitalism. Anytime there’s a hint of money, somebody gets the idea to market it to tween girls. Tween girls are the engine of the global economic system. If you can market something to little girls who spend their parents money, get obcessed, and buy anything related to the product, that’s where the money is.

Do you have any ideas for teen supernatural romance?

I got nothing. So I’m screwed.

What do you think the difference is in how Americans treat zombies compared to the rest of the world?

Americans usually have a happier ending. Italians get pretty hardcore. The Italians use zombies for exploitative blood and guts. The Japanese sort of the same thing, but

I haven’t seen your live readings, but I read you call them “self-defense lectures,” Can you tell my readers more about the performance and why they should go see it?

It’s a self-defense lecture based on the zombie survival guide. If you don’t know how to survive a zombie attack, chances are you will when I get done talking. And of course, answering questions.

Thought provoking?

Everybody has a theory to bounce off me, settle an argument with a friend. One guy had the idea of putting up razor wire, so when zombies come at him (because zombies wouldn’t notice the wire) they would cut their heads off. I said, ‘That’s a great idea, but what height would it be? Zombies don’t have a unified height.” So, then he went back to the drawing board, and I bet whatever plan B he’s thought of now is foolproof.

Do you prepare for zombie attacks? Do you have anxiety about the apocalypse?

I do. I have a zombie proof kit, which is also called my earthquake proof kit. The thing about surviving a zombie apocalypse is that it’s no different from surviving any other natural disaster. You need basic survival gear: a way to purify water, a medical kit, emergency rations, a hand crank radio, and a weapon for self-defense. Essentially though, zombies, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods: it’s all the same stuff. There’s nothing zombie specific in a zombie survival kit.

Lots of earthquakes?

All my life growing up, we trained. We had earthquake drills all the time. Every house I knew had earthquake kits that had to be updated every year. We all had an earthquake plan, like where do you go, who do you meet with, where’s a safe place. Now that I have a family of my own, we do the same thing.

Any really bad earthquakes?

College story. Not interesting enough.

The Center of Disease Control has a Zombie Preparedness website Michael told me. Did you have any role in it? What do you think?

They know exactly what I’ve been talking about for years. If you’re ready for a zombie disaster, you’re ready for a natural disaster. What’s great about what the CDC is doing is they’re getting kids to start thinking about disaster preparedness in a fun way. They’re almost tricking them to be ready for any type of crisis.

Since they’ve put this out, the CDC and I are trying to corporate to work together. They have a zombie preparedness graphic novel and I can help promote that. If I can get a CDC rep to come to my lectures. If you have a kid who reads my book, or the CDC’s pamphlet/graphic novel, and goes home and tells his mom they need a zombie survival kit, they’re essentially building a tornado preparedness kit–they just don’t know it. There’s nothing zombie specific, there’s no silver bullet, no cloves of garlic, nothing in the kit would be useless in a real disaster.

Something that’s always stuck with me was needing a crowbar for the disaster.

I do! That came from my earthquake preparedness kit. In an earthquake, houses can shift on their foundations, and doors can jam in the frame. I know a lot of people who have crowbars to pry stuff open.

You can also slam it through the skull of a zombie to crush it’s brain.

Exactly, and it doesn’t need reloading.

I know you’re not that involved, but what should I print about the movie? Do you keep up with the news? The internet seems generally “piss-off” whenever any new information is released regardless of the information. Does entertainment news transform people into masses of mindless monsters?

From what I’ve heard, is that they’ve wrapped shooting, but I could be wrong because I’m just an observer (and not even a close observer). I’m not a writer, producer, consultant–I don’t even have a cameo. Mark Forester said it best in an interview with MTV, ‘We’re making our own movie; we’re telling our own story.”

I grew up around movie sets and I know enough to know that it’s a work in progress. I’m not going to pass any judgement or even bother to keep up until I see the finished product–because that’s what it’s all about. Movies go through so many changes from start to finish, that’s why I haven’t even read the script. What I would have read in the script wouldn’t have even been what ends up on the screen. They didn’t even want me involved, which is fine because I’m also a zombie fan. I’d like to go see a cool zombie movie.

It seems like the internet gets really mad when any information is released. Is that flattering in a way, like as a respect for your work?

It’s definitely flattering. But if I could talk to the people who get angry whenever they hear internet rumors, let’s just wait until we watch the movie and see what they do. That’s my attitude: I’m not going to get upset until I actually see the movie. What if it’s cool? Then I would have gotten upset for nothing and have egg on my face.

Does Entertainment news have the power to turn people into mindless monsters?

Not as much as Fox news. Zombies are a good metaphor for a great many things. Mindlessness always terrifies me. People who act without thinking–especially people who commit violent acts without thinking–are pretty terrifying. I lost six million of my relatives because of that mindlessness. It’s pretty close to the heart there.

Distinction between Romero’s zombies.

The inhumanity makes zombies scary. George (Romero, but I can call him George because I’ve met him a few times) is a master story teller; a lot of his movies are to make the zombies more human than the humans. I remember when Day of the Dead came out and those two dilweeds Siskel and Ebert were talking about it. One of them said…I think it’s a better…when I go to sleep at night, it’s the static, inhuman, walking ebolia kind of zombie that keeps me awake.

Everybody has their own zombies that they like. For example, I’m a slow zombie fan, but I’m clearly in the minority and I know that now. Most people just like faster zombies–fine, good for them. But that doesn’t do it for me. It’s the difference between fear and aniexty. With fast zombies, you don’t have time to think, you don’t even have time to be afraid. It’s just adderaline pumping, kill or die. But when it’s a horde of slow zombies that will reach you in a few minutes, or a few hours, or even a few days–that’s a lot of time to think about how you’re going to go. That’s anxiety. That’s something even scarier. It’s the difference between getting shot and getting cancer.

There’s a chance no one may ever get to see the movie since they may be busy dying in a fiery apocalypse sonic flare. What would you say if that happened? Would you be relieved, disappointed, or dead?

My reaction would be, “Thank God they paid me in advance.” That’s another reason I’m holding off judgement. I suppose this is the first time I said this in any interview: I don’t have any financial stake in this movie doing well. I don’t get a piece of it. If this thing turns out to be a megablockbuster, I won’t see a dime. So if I see the movie and I go out and say to a microphone in my face, ‘Hey, that’s a really good movie!’

“The only reason I would say it’s a good movie is if I really like it. From a marketing standpoint, the book sales of a novel adaptation peak before the movie comes out…people buy the book before the movie comes out, not after.”

The Walking Dead, Marvel Zombies, your comic, and a proliferation of indies show that zombies are do well as sequential picture narratives. Why do you think that is? Is it just people love zombies, or is there something about the medium that allows writers to tell zombie stories from a new angle?

There were certain stories in the back of zombie survival guide that I wanted to see. I think they would have been good visually, and I didn’t want to wait for some movie to come out eventually. There was no movie deal on the horrizon, and there still isn’t. Paramount has optioned the rights for Zombie Survival Guide, but who knows if they actually want to adapt it, or if they did it because they didn’t want someone else to get it. I thought comics would be a great way to see it.

Since it was a visual medium, I knew that the artist would be the rock star of the project, so I didn’t even worry about people liking my stuff. And the truth is, X is the rockstar of the project; yeah, I wrote directions on what he should draw, but I can’t draw. If anything in there is cool, it’s cool because he drew it.

Did you pick him for a specific reason?

I picked him because I wanted it to be the most realistic artwork I could find. I didn’t want it to be stylized because I felt the historical settings needed to have information conveyed that couldn’t be done with stylized art…How many people really know what the French foreign legion look like in North Africa? Or an 18thc. Caribean slave plantation?

“Before I’m anything I’m a history nerd. I’ve always loved history, it’s always been my passion. It’s the only thing that saved my education because I was so passionate about it.”

How did you write zombie stories for non-American settings?

Lots of homework. lots of book learning. lots of reading. not just dry factual texts, but also books by authors from the countries in question…Plus interviews for people from other countries. I have a friend who works for Uncle Sam–I can’t say what he does, but he goes to China a lot. He was insturmental in Chinese slang, and little things about Chinese culture–the names of their cellphones, the types of cars they drive. The things that make it human, real…For every fake interview I did, I did a real interview.

What role would writing and text play in the apocalypse?

I think they’d be hugely important. It’s an art form that doesn’t require batteries. When the power goes out, you’re going to need people scratching on tablets to keep words alive. I always think it’s funny to see how many people have downloaded the Zombie Survival Guide as an e-book. At least the paperback version doesn’t break.

Do you read ebooks?

I don’t. I like having my books in my hands, and I like when it’s done up here on my shelf. I don’t like having it in the either.

Zombie stuff: What childhood contact did you have with zombies, or even horror in general? Do you remember any early childhood fears or anxieties? What was your first zombie in counter?

Do you have any theories why zombies have been so popular in the last ten years? I have one, inspired by WWZ: zombies are a useful metaphor for dissecting public crisis and government response. I think the scary thing about WWZ isn’t the undead, but the fact that no matter what the crisis–zombie, hurricane, or terrorism–the govt. will do a bad job handling it.

You wrote for SNL during what many (ok, me and my friends in particular) consider Saturday Night Live’s last golden age: Tina Fey, Amy Poler, Tracy Morgan, Will Ferrel (stop me if I’m wrong). Was that your first comedy writing job? As a big SNL nerd, I have to ask, what sketches did you champion or come up with. Do any stick with you? Will you share a story? Do you think the show could exist without Lorne?

You were also there during 9/11 right? Were there conversations about how to handle it? Do you wish you handled it differently at all?

Let’s take a zombie break before we REALLY get into it because I have a few questions about your other entertainment endeavors. How did you get involved in voice acting?h

I ask, because my research led me to The Watch List. Cool movie. What was the impetus in making that?

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