A few days ago I had the chance to interview Shawn Chesser, author of the highly successful militaristic undead series Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse. The series, which was started in 2011, is comprised of the novels Trudge, Soldier On, In Harm’s Way, A Pound of Flesh, and Allegiance, which was just released last month on paperback and Kindle
Bryan Way: Shawn, most fans of zombie and post-apocalyptic fiction have no problem nailing down the film or book that got them hooked. Can you recall the moment you knew you were locked in? If so, is there something about that moment that informs your writing process?
Shawn Chesser: I know precisely when and where I became a fan of zombies and the genre in general. On my twelfth birthday I was allowed to have a couple of buddies spend the night, and my mom allowed me to watch George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead which, coincidentally, was filmed the year I was born. Though it was in black and white, that film scared the piss out of me. I think I watched the initial zombies on the porch siege scene through my fingers. As far as post-apocalyptic fiction goes, a couple of books really started my imagination spinning.
The first was Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, a story about a comet strike on Earth and the bleak aftermath mankind struggles through. Stephen King’s The Stand is still an all-time favorite of mine. From the moment SPC. Charles Campion escaped the bio lab, brought the sickness with him, and shared it with humanity, I couldn’t put the book down. In a couple of instances, I have thrown nods to The Stand in my series. Sadly, I don’t get to read much of the new Z fiction while I’m writing the genre. Just a personal rule I follow.
Hopefully I’ll find the time to read some more of Mark Tufo’s Zombie Fallout and John O’Brien’s New World series later this summer. I’ve also had a few friends recommend D.J. Molles’ series, so it’s on my ‘to read’ list as well.
I guess you could say the experience affected my writing process big time. I’ve adopted the same type of creatures in my STZA (Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse) universe as you’d see in the early Romero films, and I try to portray as bleak a landscape for them to run amok and terrorize the living in as possible. I always remember to thank the readers who contact me for enjoying the ‘movie in my mind’, because that’s exactly the process I use when I’m writing. I essentially pour that movie out onto the page.
SC: This may sound like a diplomatic answer, but I would have to say no. I’m a fan of Romero’s creatures, so I like them slow and plodding. They have to overwhelm by surprise or numbers in my universe.
As far as fast or intelligent Zs, they scare the hell outta me too much to write about them. But all in all, I think the tent is big enough to house all of the different strains of PA and zombie fiction the reader demands. Baskin Robbins would suck if every flavor were the same!
BW: It would appear that each successive novel you produce grows in length. Do you feel you keep growing as a writer, or are you just finding more to say?
SC: I’d say yes to both questions. Writing has become easier for me, especially since I’ve been working with Monique Happy, my trusted editor. So I’d have to call that growth. In my last four novels I’ve let the story spool out kind of organically and end it when the feeling is right. I’ve also learned to tell a bigger chunk of the story more concisely through my character’s dialogue, as well as describing what they see and feel as opposed to telling the reader.
In Trudge, my first novel and the shortest at 60,000 words, I think I was focused on some kind of a made-up page count that I thought was the norm. I also believe that I relied on narration too much to tell the story. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m proud to have finished that first book. I wrote Trudge on my iPhone when my boy Cade was playing indoor soccer. I’d email to myself the chunk of story I had just written and then cut and paste that into a Word document. That was pretty much how my first stab at writing a novel came to fruition. I wrote it a couple of years after getting sober as a kind of challenge to myself. I wanted to finally complete something, and so far I’m happy with how my story has progressed since.
BW: Your novel series, Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, follows the adventures of ex-Delta Force soldier Cade Grayson. Most writers naturally imbue their protagonists with elements of their own personalities. In what ways is Cade similar to you, and in what ways does he differ?
SC: Quite a few of the characters in my series are modeled after real people, like good friends and some readers who I’ve gotten to know and grown to like over the last two or three years. I’m like my protagonist in certain respects. I’m a family man, married twenty years, who dotes on my two kids much like Cade dotes on Raven, his twelve-year-old daughter in the series. My son’s name is Cade and my daughter is Raven, so they’ve inspired me as well. Cade also tries to be the best husband he can be despite what life throws at him.
However, Cade and I have little in common. I’m not a thrill seeker. I’ve never jumped out of a perfectly good airplane, nor will I. I’m no mountain climber. I leave the standing on the precipice stuff to my wife. I do like shooting for pleasure, so I guess Cade and I have that in common, except the Zs I shoot are merely inked on a target, not hungering for my flesh.
Cade is a former Delta Force operator thrown back into the service of his country due to the outbreak of the Omega virus and the resulting zombie apocalypse. I’m vastly different from Cade in that regard. I haven’t served in our military but I do have the utmost respect for anyone who does. In fact, I have made quite a few friends who are serving overseas that help me on occasion with the military aspect of my story. Nothing sensitive though; as far as I know, the Ghost Hawk helicopters in my story do not exist.
BW: Have you considered writing in any other genre?
SC: I’d like to write some kind of military thriller à la Brad Thor or Vince Flynn, may he rest in peace.
SC: My only fear is that my kids might have to live in a vastly different, dog-eat-dog type of world. I’m not a prepper like Logan, one of my characters, but I can see the future becoming more difficult if a lot of things don’t change. I’ve touched on that a little in the books via a New World Order-type cabal who come to find that the living dead aren’t quite as malleable as the living once were.
BW: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse is now up to five books spanning two years; what is your attitude toward canonicity? Do you ever stop yourself from pursuing ideas that contradict the previous flow of events? Do you plan elements in advance to stop this from happening?
SC: In my first novel, Trudge: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, I decided not to mention the exact date when the dead came back to life and consequently the world fell to pieces. And in the successive books in my STZA series I’ve also refrained from nailing down a specific date. I think in every book I refer to the time the story is taking place as late summer.
As far as the weapons and vehicles the operators use in my books go I pretty much outfit them with whatever is available today. Because the Special Operations guys, as well as the military in general, are aware of, and get to ‘test drive’ all of the new weapons and gadgets prior to the public even knowing they exist, I’ve been able to justify using the technology that was not in the public realm when I wrote Trudge. For example, the SCAR rifle was just being put through its paces back then. Also, we had no idea, other than rumors, that the Night Stalkers were piloting a new generation of stealth helicopters. But after one went down during the Bin Laden raid on 4-1-2011 the cat was out of the bag.
The fictitious Ghost Hawks in my STZA series, which have been Cade and his Delta team’s primary mode of transportation since book three, In Harm’s Way, published in November 2011, were modeled after the Stealth Hawks used in that raid. As far as keeping facts straight from one book to the next, it takes a ton of work, but I’ve been fortunate enough not to have had to go back and rewrite parts of my series.
SC: As far as relying on a ton of planning, I know where I want the story to go eventually, but for now I try not to limit myself too much with absolutes. Between Trudge and Soldier On, I was pretty lucky as far as locations go and also how a couple of the storylines evolved. I’d say a fair amount of serendipity came into play for me.
Now, I fill a notebook before I jump in, but still I tend to deviate and go off flying by the seat of my pants. I’ll keep writing the STZA story as long as there is demand and then a while longer after so I can continue living vicariously through Cade and my other characters. Honestly, the feedback I get from readers is my main driving factor. Quite a few of them have just finished Allegiance and are asking for more.
I’ve got at least two more planned out. I’m writing book six, Mortal: Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse, as we speak. I’m shooting to get it to my wonderful editor Monique Happy at the end of October and aiming for a December release.
BW: Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you, and here’s to your continued success!
SC: Thanks for having me!