Editor’s note: The following is an interview with Max Brooks, a well-known author. His titles include The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z.
G.R.: The film adaptation of World War Z is just the beginning of a planned series, so what do you hope to see in the next installment?
M.B.: It’s a planned series? Wow, that’s cool. The truth is, I have no idea. I don’t know if it’s a planned series, I don’t know if they’re going to make a sequel, I hear rumors, but I’m the last guy to know, so if there is a hard green light for a sequel to World War Z, nobody has told me.
G.R.: Before the film, you had some television experience working as a writer on Saturday Night Live, which is quite the opposite from your current work. So my question is, which did you see yourself doing as a career growing up, comedy or survival-horror writing?
M.B.: Saturday Night Live was a very interesting character building detour from what I’ve been doing my whole life, which is writing. I’m a writer, and I’m a fiction writer, and I write about science fiction, and I write about horror, that’s the kind of stuff I do. I’m much more interested in sort of how the defense logistics agency works than doing a fart sketch for Tracy Morgan.
G.R.: Your original book World War Z was very interesting because it followed many characters rather than focusing on a single character and storyline. Has there ever been any thought on adapting those singular stories into a miniseries or television show?
M.B.: Possibly, but I think it would have to be up to Paramount. I think they would have to see the merit in that. But in all honesty, it’s a weird book. You know, there isn’t an alpha hero, there isn’t a villain, it’s a true oral history. And that’s not easily digestible to a lot of people.
G.R.: There are a multitude of people from different nations in World War Z and their stories about how they responded to the zombie attack, how did you research and write for these characters?
M.B.: I had to do just a freaking ton of research. My college professors would’ve been very proud of me that I finally did my homework. I think, other than actual reading, I mean, I read and read and read and read, I always said that if the FBI raided my office in New York it literally looked like an al-Qaida cell, because there was nothing in there but a bench, and a desk, and just bookshelves and maps, and books about weapons, and Jane’s Defense Weekly. I think for every fake interview I did I had to do a real interview with someone in that field. So between reading up and talking to people, the only time I could depend on the internet was when I was researching technology from the actual companies that designed them. Like the laser weaponry, I watched a demonstration video of that weapon, which convinced me it was impractical to use against zombies.
G.R.: Recently, you’ve taken to writing about another fictional human predator, the vampire, and how they would deal with a zombie outbreak in your short story and adapted comic series, “The Extinction Parade.” From this experience, can you give an estimate of how many zombies it would take to kill a vampire, assuming they would attack a vampire unlike in your story?
M.B.: Ah, which I don’t assume, because in my story the zombies ignore the vampires. You see, because the whole point of “The Extinction Parade” is that it’s a secondary threat not a primary threat, which makes it even easier for the vampires to ignore. The whole point of the story is that it’s a take on the aristocracy, it’s a take on privilege, it’s a take on what happens when you’ve been handed everything and you’ve never had to struggle. And initially, in the story, the vampires ignored the threat, Because it was not a direct threat to them, in fact, they love it, because they’ve been feeling more and more constricted by human civilization …
G.R.: And by the trade …
M.B.: Yeah, and by the rise of the middle class. I mean, the middle class, I have a whole issue devoted to that issue, number two, where the fact that common citizens can have worth, that you just can’t kill common citizens anymore, they have Social Security cards, and jobs… so when the zombies start to eat away those threads of civilization, it’s like mardi gras for them [the vampires]. It’s like the vampires say, “Aw, finally, yes, we can kill anyone we want, my God, it’s like the fall of Rome, this is amazing.” It’s only later that they start to realize, “Oh wait a minute, this is not just about the end of human civilization, this may be about the end of humanity.”
G.R.: Which is bad for them because they still need a food source.
M.B.: Exactly, so it really is an inconvenient truth in that way.
G.R.: You started writing about vampires after your appearance on Deadliest Warrior as an undead expert on the zombie versus vampire episode. So suffice to say, you know a good amount about zombies. What would your first action be if you heard about a zombie outbreak?
M.B.: Probably the same thing I would do in case of an earthquake. Now I have an earthquake plan; find your loved ones, get your kit, have a meeting place, find a safe place, I mean that’s pretty much what you’d do for an earthquake. And that’s exactly what I’d do for a zombie outbreak.
G.R.: So it’s a natural disaster?
M.B.: Yes, zombie plagues are a natural disaster, that’s a great way of saying it.
G.R.: What was the biggest influence on your decision to write zombie fiction?
M.B.: Tom Clancy. Because Tom Clancy took what was a very fanciful and very over the top genre, which was the spy genre, and it was all Ian Fleming, it was all James Bond, it was all sort of crazy alpha male versus evil bad guys with incredible technology and super hot babes and apparently no venereal diseases.
G.R.: So making the genre real, with real consequences for doing something reckless.
M.B.: Exactly, Clancy rooted it in reality. Ian Fleming was a man of the cocktail party; Tom Clancy is a man of the library. So he did his homework and he realized if there was a real spy here’s how he would really operate. I mean, you look at Jack Ryan, he’s married, he’s got a kid, he’s afraid to fly, he’s a shmuck, like most of us. The technology is all real, there’s nothing fanciful, there’s no laser watches, it’s all how would a real Russian sub work, so I thought, I want to tackle everything the same way Clancy tackles geopolitics.
G.R.: You’ve been credited by many as the reason zombies have risen in popular culture, how do you feel about this?
M.B.: That’s not up to me to decide, the truth is, there is no objective way that I can know the impact I’ve had. I can tell you that I’m proud of the books I’ve written, and I’m proud of Extinction Parade, I’m proud of where it’s going, but that’s where I have to be focused, on the work itself, and let the world judge me.
G.R.: How do you continue to create zombie based works that are still relevant and original in such a currently oversaturated market?
M.B.: I have no idea, I have no idea how to be relevant and original, I just know how to be me. I really don’t, all I know is what speaks to me, and all I try to do is answer questions that I’m not finding answered out in the world. Even now with Extinction Parade, I want to tell a story about a species that is at the top of the food chain, and what are the pitfalls of being at the top of the food chain. Because I firmly believe that in life, our greatest strengths come from compensating for our greatest weaknesses. Humans, we’re the dominant species on the planet, because we are in the middle of the food chain, and in order to not get eaten by saber tooth cats, we adapted and we grew.
G.R.: We’re the best more out of ingenuity than due to anything else.
M.B.: We had to be. If we had claws or fangs or if we were strong or fast or agile maybe we wouldn’t have done that, maybe we’d still be in the jungle, just at the top of the food chain. And so that’s where I wanted to explore vampires, and with zombies I just had a ton of questions about how a zombie plague would really go down that you just don’t see in the media because it’s just not very sexy or entertaining.
G.R.: I would be remiss as a student at an engineering school to not ask about the Lobotomizer (A shovel-double bladed battle axe hybrid), how did you imagine this item?
M.B.: This is the part I don’t understand, I get asked about the Lobotomizer all the time, and everyone tries to design these crazy intricate quasi-medieval weapons. We’re just talking about basically an entrenching tool. If you look at a World War I entrenching tool, especially the German ones, which had a flat edge, it was perfect for decapitation. And I thought if you could sort of upgrade it and strengthen it, then you’ve got your Lobotomizer.
G.R.: Zombie fandom is infectious here at RPI, we recently had a zombie themed event last week (ZCAV After Dark), as well, we have a large Humans vs. Zombies club that uses the whole campus as a war zone. So, how prepared are we for a zombie apocalypse; how would we fare if they came here?
M.B.: I think that’s a really good question, I certainly think there would be no shortage of great thinkers and great planners. I don’t know about now, up until now nerds would have a better chance of survival because nerds already know that the world is a hostile place. When you grow up and you’ve been bullied by guys and rejected by girls, you already know how develop a survival mechanism, you’re already aware of the hostility, but now I think it’s chic to be geek, I mean now I’ll go to Comic Con and nerds have girlfriends, and hot ones. So I’m worried that nerds are losing their survival mechanism, I’m worried that nerds are almost starting to have a jock mentality, which is like, “Dude, I can take on anything.” And I think that’s very dangerous.
This past Thursday, Max Brooks, famed author of World War Z and The Zombie Survival Guide returned to RPI for the third time for the Rensselaer Union’s Speakers Forum. He is the only person to speak at RPI more than once, having given speeches in 2003 and 2008. His speech was an over-arching explanation of why his novels are in the humor section, starting with his first experience with zombies, how one should truly prepare for a disaster, and ending with a very succinct statement, that zombie films allow people to digest the truth of a possible disaster scenario without it being “too real” and truly threatening to our way of life. While this may sound all serious, Brooks twisted in much humor, from giving “the talk” to a nine year old in the audience, to mocking many of the silly horror clichés in recent zombie movies, such as Chernobyl Diaries and a certain film with a name very similar to one of his books. After making his points, he fielded questions from the audience with answers that had the same mix of serious and hilarious the he employed in his speech. If you happened to miss his speech, don’t worry; I’m sure he’ll come for a fourth time in the near future.