'World War Z' Author Max Brooks on Being a 'Zombie Guy'
Ever since the publication of his "Zombie Survival Guide" in 2003, author Max Brooks has used the specter of the walking dead to shine a piercing light on modern neuroses from Y2K and avian flu to global terrorism and Hurricane Katrina. His 2006 novel, "World War Z," imagined a zombie world war and reported it as though it had actually happened--in the process, Brooks managed to terrify readers half to death once again. Brad Pitt subsequently bought the rights and after delays and production woes, the movie finally hits screens in June.
To celebrate, we talked to Brooks about getting his start at "SNL," his famous parents (Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), what it's like to give up your book to Hollywood and about the new comic book series he's releasing.
One of your first gigs was writing for "Saturday Night Live" [2001-2003], for which you won an Emmy. Did you feel extra pressure to be super funny because of your dad and his illustrious comic career?
"SNL" seems many lifetimes ago. My first sketch was "Superman," and to this day, no one played a better Jor-El than Will Ferrell. As far as winning an Emmy, the truth is that the whole team won and I just happened to be on that team. Congratulating me for winning an Emmy would be like congratulating my father for winning World War II. As far as the pressure of having to live up to my dad's reputation, fortunately there was enough pressure built into that show that I didn't have to bring any with me.
Talking of parents, did your father ever tell you to avoid writing, or your mother to avoid acting? You do both, so . . .
My parents wanted me to follow my dreams, whatever they were, and to pursue them without fear or laziness. My world was littered with way too many legacy kids who were content to rot in the shadows of their parent's fortunes. As long as I got up every morning and struggled for something meaningful, my folks were happy.
Your first book was "The Zombie Survival Guide," and you've said that one of the inspirations for it was the Y2K scare. Can you describe the thought process that took you from a possible worldwide computer glitch to a guide to the walking dead?
It was the late 1990's, and Y2K anxiety was everywhere. All these survival guides were hitting the bookshelves and they were getting crazier and crazier. I'd been thinking about what I would do in a zombie outbreak for some time and I figured someone, somewhere, must have published a book on it. Strangely enough, no one had, so I thought I'd do it. Not to be published, of course--I mean, if there wasn't one already out there, it must have been because there was no market for it. So, I thought I'd write a zombie survival guide just for me, and leave it on the shelf where it belonged.
Were you surprised by the reaction to your first book? People took it very seriously--was there any part of you that thought, 'Hey, this is a satire--and a funny one--and y'all think it's real?' Did you intend it to be a slyer book than people realized?
Quite the opposite. My agent, my publisher and, initially, the press thought it was some kind of comic send-up--the witty spawn of Mel Brook's snarky brat. All the time I kept saying, "NO! This isn't satire! I'm really into this! I'm really just a zombie nerd!" It took a long time to prove myself to my real audience, to convince my fellow sci-fi/horror fans that I was one of them. That's why I went to Fangoria and begged them for an interview. That's why I started doing my zombie lectures. Eventually it all paid off. Most people know who I am and what I stand for. Maybe someday Random House will realize that too and get "The Zombie Survival Guide" out of the damn humor section and put it in sci-fi or self-help, where it belongs.
"World War Z" came out in 2006. New York City felt apocalyptic for a number of years after 9/11--how much of that fear of annihilation was part of your early thinking around the new book, or did you start conceiving "World War Z" prior to 9/11?
I think 9/11 was only the opening act of what has turned out to be a multi-decade time of terror. From 9/11 till the time "World War Z" came out, we had two wars, anthrax, SARS, and Hurricane Katrina. That last one, I think, was the most terrifying event of the times. 9/11 was over as quickly as it began and the immediate response-rescue efforts were magnificent. Katrina, on the other hand, shook us to our core. A whole city was dying, day by day, while our leaders fumbled and bumbled. And the enemy wasn't terrorism, it was just water!
"World War Z" is a novel--but there's so much research in it. I remember when you expounded to me at a lunch [full disclosure, interviewer served as Brooks' editor on "World War Z"] about the strategic importance of Yonkers, north of New York city, and how because it's on a hill it would be crucial to the future of the city. How do you research a novel about creatures that don't exist (they don't, right?)?
The zombies may be fake, but I wanted everything else in "World War Z" to be real. Just like with "The Zombie Survival Guide," I wanted the story to be rooted in hard facts. That's why I researched the real geopolitics of the world in the early 21st century, the military science, the macroeconomics and the cultural quirks of each country I was writing about. As creative as I think I am, I also know that I can't invent anything as interesting (or scary) as the real planet we live on. As a history nerd, I also wanted to ground the book in our species' life story. Nothing in "World War Z" was made up, it all really happened: Yonkers was Isandlwana; the Chinese cover-up was SARS. There's nothing zombies can do to us that we haven't already done to each other.
You also told me you wanted to be the Studs Terkel of the "Zombie wars," especially with regards his brilliance with oral histories (don't you need a nickname like Studs, too?). Which other writers do you turn to most regularly for inspiration? Are there writers who your readers might be surprised to hear you love?
Tom Clancy was my early hero, especially when it came to reality and research. Until "Red October," all spy novels were James Bond wannabes, crammed with omnipotent alpha males, vivacious vixens and spectacular but impossible technology. Clancy threw all that in the trash and created a real hero: Jack Ryan. Here was a married analyst, afraid to fly, who moved through the actual world we lived in. I can still remember reading "Red Storm Rising" for the first time, thinking "this could really happen!" Even though zombies are obviously less believable than Ivan invading West Germany, that feeling of "this could really happen" is still what drives me.
If I have the chronology right, you were finishing "World War Z" around the time that you had your first child and lost your mom. Did those twin experiences of intense joy and ultimate sorrow affect the emotional timbre of the book?
I'm sure it did in some way. Writing "World War Z" was the only thing I could depend on. I'm sure it runs much deeper than that, but I honestly wasn't conscious of the effect it was having on me at the time. Back then, it was one foot in front of the other.
How important is that title, "World War Z"? We went back and forth on a bunch of others--"Z World War," "The Z Wars," if I remember, were at least two we liked for a while (or at least, I did).
It all started with a conversation I had with my editor (his name escapes me at the moment) who explained that the higher-ups at Random House didn't want to use my title "Zombie War." "They think the word 'zombie' is too narrow, that it'll only appeal to 17-year old boys living in their mother's basement." I can't tell you how angry that made me (especially because I still have the heart and soul of a 17-year old boy living in my mother's basement). In the end, the powers that be decided to go with a title my agent had proposed. And so it became "World War Z."
The book was a huge hit--but did you worry that you were now going to be 'the Zombie Guy' for the rest of your life?
God, I hope so. Too often creative types get permanently cast in roles they never wanted. Too often the work they did for money or on a lark hit so big that they’ll never be able to crawl out from under it. Too often their passion piece, the work they truly wanted to define them, gets shoved aside and barely remembered. I always thought my zombie books would be in that category: out of print works I'd dig out and brush the dust off of when my day job of writing crap for money became too unbearable. I feel very lucky and fortunate that, at least for now, my passion is my job.
Brad Pitt bought the movie rights to "World War Z"--did you ever consider writing the screenplay? Were you worried that you'd lose all control over your work? Did part of you ever think it was un-filmable (I sure thought so, gotta be honest--the sheer scale of the attacks would be un-filmable, surely)?
Of course I considered writing the screenplay, but back then I had no power, no real resume to leverage in my favor. I knew the risks of handing over my baby to Hollywood. It's the same risk a lot of authors take. As far as being un-filmable, we'll just have to see what, if anything, remains of my book in their movie.
How much involvement in the movie have you had? Do you show up on set and everyone starts to behave?
None. I haven't read the finished script. I haven’t seen anything more than the trailer. I went to the set for a couple of days, but all I got to see was this titanic scene of fleeing extras. It could have been called "There’s a Sale at Best Buy."
Can you give us a sneak peek into what you're writing these days?
My next project is called "The Extinction Parade." It's a limited comic book series (12 issues) based on a short story I wrote a few years ago. It's about a zombie plague seen through the eyes of vampires. It's the story of a supposed super race who, for all of their existence, have rested comfortably on the top of the food chain. Suddenly, they're confronted with an existential threat, a sub-race of ghouls that pose no direct threat (they don't even notice vampires) but bring potential extinction by devouring their only food source. It's the story about the danger of privilege, about how supposed strengths can be fatal weaknesses. It comes out in June in comic stores around the country, and this time--for better or worse--I got to keep my title.
You're a New Yorker--what the heck are you doing on the west coast? What do we have to do to get you back here?
Once my little boy goes away to school, there's a big chance I'll come back to New York. My wife loves the city; her heart belongs to the East coast. I prefer the west, the wide-open spaces. But my wife compromised by moving to L.A., so I'm sure some day I'll have to return the favor.