Craig DiLouie, accomplished author of zombie novels Tooth and Nail, The Infection, and The Killing Floor, took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions about his writing process and his forthcoming novel Suffer the Children, which will see bookshelves and Kindle screens on March 25th, 2013.
Bryan Way: It’s hard for a lot of people to say where they first got hooked on comedy, drama, or sci-fi, but zombie fiction and films appear to form a unique sort of genre. What got you started on the undead?
Craig DiLouie: I grew up watching disaster movies in the 1970s and got hooked on these stories of people responding with cowardice or heroism to life-threatening crisis. Apocalyptic fiction is an extension of the basic disaster story, except the disaster is global. I have a loved one who came close to perishing in the North Tower at the World Trade Center on 9/11; for hours, I was convinced she was dead.
For various reasons it would probably take a psychiatrist to figure out in detail, this solidified my interest in apocalyptic fiction. Zombies became appealing because the typical post-apocalyptic story concerned people exploring the ruins of their lost world, which was interesting, but there was little conflict. Zombies introduce a constant threat, and the zombies themselves are people you once loved. It’s an awesome genre to read and write.
BW: When writing in this genre, do you find yourself influenced by anything that has nothing to do with zombies or other post-apocalyptic or speculative fiction?
CD: I do a ton of research to make my books feel as authentic as possible. Everything from military tactics and radio protocols to how refugee camps are run to psychological studies concerning how people respond to crisis.
BW: Without being specific, does anything about zombie fiction tend to bother you?
CD: I’ve read A LOT of zombie books. These are my pet peeves as a reader and things I try religiously to avoid as a writer: Zombies who come out of nowhere to deliver an infectious bite, survivors who trip and fall and drop their gun, survivors we’re supposed to like who are actually enjoying the apocalypse and shooting people in the head, people who lose their families and when they talk about what they miss the most about the old world, they talk about trivial things like texting and KFC, people who hide the fact they’re bitten and then turn into a zombie at an inopportune time, sadistic biker gangs and rogue soldiers who unnecessarily make things worse rather than better, human survivors killing each other instead of working together, contrived conflict with one side being all good and the other being all evil, survivors scoring perfect head shots with no firearms training, endless bullets, no real discomfort from the fact cities would become toxic sewers without electricity, water and sanitation, general head-slapping moments where bad things happen or people do dumb things to keep the story going, and stories about zombies with people instead of the other way around.
If the above shows up in a story, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad story. It’s just not a story for me, okay? My willing suspension of disbelief is full-on 100% commitment, but it’s fragile. The good thing is there are a lot of books out there, and there’s something for everybody.
#1: A group of survivors is taking their wounded friend to a hospital. At the hospital, they are captured by a group of men who worship the zombies and taken to an evil doctor who wants to infect them so they become intelligent zombies. They kill the doctor and a seemingly endless number of guards, and escape.
#2: A group of survivors is taking their wounded friend to a hospital. While approaching, they are fired at from a window. They fire back. Time is running out; they have to get in. They consider leaving their friend to die but decide against it. They plan an assault, during which another of them is hit and is stuck out in the open. Time to parley. It turns out the guy in the window is a doctor who has been protecting a ward of sick people during the outbreak.
If you like #2, then you’re like me as a reader. At the end of the scenario, the reader empathizes with both sides and there is genuine conflict. How can they trust each other? Can they work a deal in time to save the two wounded survivors? Will one or more of the survivors hate the doctor because he shot one of them? They could use a doctor in their group; will the doctor come with them? What about the sick people, who would consume resources and slow them down? What if the sick people were terminally ill and therefore became the ideal zombie killers, since they’re going to die anyway? These are great questions to explore, and none of the answers are easy and no choice is necessarily the right one. As a reader, I want to see real people making these tough choices in an impossible situation, which stimulates my intellect as well as my gut.
BW: Your prose is strongly realistic and has a decided edge with its portrayal of the military. What informs your interest in this style of writing?
CD: The more realistic the world in which you put your monsters, the more realistic and therefore scary the monsters will appear. The story will be authentic. This respects the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, which is the magic that makes reading such a joy.
BW: Do you find research more exhausting, or exhilarating?
CD: It can be distracting, as I do a lot of research on the fly while I’m writing, but it’s a fantastic source of ideas, and every scene comes across as something that would actually happen.
BW: In The Infection and The Killing Floor, you maintain zombie themes while deviating into a broader spectrum of creatures. Was this more of a discovery process with a new brand of antagonist, or had the possibilities of the undead been too explored? Without giving too much away, what kind of work goes into developing a new syntax for such creatures?
CD: It doesn’t matter if zombies are living or dead, fast or slow, insane or mindless, cannibalistic or biters, once the author establishes the rules for their zombies, they become predictable. That’s why authors typically try to inject some type of unpredictable element, and what’s more unpredictable than people? That’s why in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, the biker gang shows up near the end. That’s why in AMC’s The Walking Dead, the first season is about people against zombies, the second is about internal dissension in the group, and the third is about one survivor group against another.
For The Infection, I wanted the antagonist to stay focused on the creature element. Since my zombies would become predictable, I decided to make The Infection turn some people into monsters. This in turn spun a deeper lore for the story, which is Earth itself is infected with an organism that creates runaway life in endless competition. Now the zombie story becomes an ecological invasion story similar to The Mist. For me as the author, the main thing was the monsters are unpredictable and truly scary. I’ve gotten plenty of mail from readers saying the monsters gave them nightmares.
BW: Your next book, Suffer the Children, seems to subvert the horror cliché of using creepy kids for cheap shocks. Can you tell us about the ideas that set you on the path to this book?
CD: Suffer the Children was born from my worst fears as a father. What if something bad happened to my kids? How far would I go to protect them? It’s very disturbing when you realize you would kill for them. In Suffer the Children, the world’s children mysteriously die, then come back. They ask for blood. When they drink blood, they reanimate and become the children they once were. After a short time, however, they die again. And need more…
In the novel, the children are technically vampires, but they aren’t the monsters. The story is about the progression of loving parents into monsters as the blood supply slowly disappears and they realize if they kill a total stranger, they can keep their children alive a few more days. It’s the end of the world, one pint at a time, because of the most primal love in the world.
The novel asks the unsettling question: How far would you go for your child?
BW: When delving into such serious subject matter, do you find yourself crafting your material around several big scares or ‘set pieces’, or do you find that some of your best scenes are born organically in the writing process?
CD: When I start writing, I have an opening scene, climax and denouement; basically point A and B. So I know where I’m headed from the start, but the novel essentially ‘writes itself’, meaning, as you say, it is born organically while I’m actually writing. In my zombie stories, the climax tends to be long and extremely violent.
Thanks for the great interview questions, Bryan. On a final note, I just wanted to say the experience of writing these books and seeing them read and loved by so many people has been extremely humbling and gratifying. I’ll keep writing as long as they keep reading.
BW: Thank you, Craig. I appreciate your thoroughness both in your prose and in the answering of questions!