Zombie-purists are asked to reserve judgement, Tom Leveen swears he has a method to the madness of giving life to the undead in Sick.
Zola: In Sick a virus spreads and turns almost everyone into zombies except for main character Brian and a handful of his classmates. Have you always wanted to write about zombies or did it come out of the latest wave of zombie fever?
Tom Leveen: Ah, thank you so much for asking this so I can set the record straight. I’ve been writing about zombies, monsters, and general spookiness since about sixth grade (which we’ll just say was in the 1980s and leave it at that). I raised myself on Stephen King’s short stories, such as the anthologies Skeleton Crew and Night Shift. Back in 1992, I co-hosted a weekly public access TV show—basically the YouTube of its day—and for one episode, I wrote and we filmed a short post-apocalyptic movie called Endgame. The first draft called for zombies; the production team (my friends) voted them out of the script, much to my chagrin. So I feel comfortable saying I never intended to ride any kind of zombie wave.
Having said that, I also think the current interest in the undead is only proof that it’s gone mainstream. There has been a base of zombie fans for decades; it just wasn’t quite as public as it is now with shows like Walking Dead. But zombie fans have always been around, and fiction for them has had a loyal following for quite some time.
Also I’d add that I’ve never met an author (myself included) who set out to capitalize on a trend. I suppose such authors are out there (I’ve heard rumors), but it’s rare. We all write the things we want to write. Writing to a trend is never a good idea, whether you’re already published or still aspiring.
Zola: Unlike most zombies, the zombies in Sick are not undead. They remain alive but are deformed with crystalline skin and hunched backs. Why did you decide to recreate the zombie?
TL: The novel shows the characters having exactly this discussion: Are they undead? Are they zombies? Strictly speaking, no; they have respiration, for instance, so they’re not clinically un-dead. So while the plot is as simple as “zombie apocalypse,” I am hopeful readers will take away more than that by the time the novel winds up – thematic ideas on what makes us human rather than monsters.
So in terms of choosing to “recreate” the zombie, one of the things I wanted to talk about within the story was how violence affects all of us, and particularly younger people. That would have been a moot point against an already dead adversary. I needed my bad guys alive, and I needed there to be hope for them. It’s kind of one long values clarification exercise. All horror—well, most horror—is really about something else at its core. I hope in Sick readers will find that while the monsters aren’t undead . . . well, there’s that word “monster” again. What are they? Who is “the other”? These are questions not easily asked of hopeless creatures like the actual undead.
Zola: Are you worried that the zombie aficionados will not accept your creatures as zombies?
TL: Yes. I’m aware of the zombie-purist position, and I understand it. Of course, everyone’s entitled to their opinion of any given piece of work. I do hope, though, that the human story is what readers will then talk about afterward.
I think at this point, the terms “zombie novel” or “zombie apocalypse” have taken on meanings of their own that don’t require the strict definitions required by old-school fans. But for the purists, I do apologize, and ask them to reserve judgment until they’ve read the characters’ discussion of exactly this topic!
Zola: As you have described it, Sick is The Breakfast Club meets Night of the Living Dead. Was it difficult to find the balance between the zombie action and the human relationship aspect of the novel?
TL: Yes. The first drafts were much longer, and the action took place over a longer period of time. As each draft got worked, I ended up condensing a lot of the human interpersonal conflict to keep the action moving. Whether I struck that balance or not I’ll leave to the reader; I’m a fully vested John Hughes fan (to the point of embarrassing stories if you ask certain friends from high school how I dressed and behaved). So I understand this is sacred ground. It is for me, too.
Zola: You have always been very involved in theatre, be it directing or acting. What drew you to the stage?
TL: I started putting on what most parents would call “little shows” when I was very young. I had a lot of energy and I had a lot of stories to tell. I performed for the first time in front of a full audience while in eighth grade, and began actor training that same year for the first time. In high school, it was a natural step to join the drama department. After that . . . the sense of place and belonging was palpable. It’s what got me through school, gave me the friends I have today, and ultimately I’d say the career, too. I would not be here today, answering these questions, without my theatre teachers and friends.
The main thing that attracted me to theatre was the storytelling. That’s just something I was doing anyway. Theatre sort of codified it. The thing about theatre is you can see the conclusion. You start rehearsals, and in six to eight weeks, you’re going live in front of an audience. A book takes a year to two years before an audience sees it. I enjoyed the immediate payoff of theatre for a long time. It’s a quick fix, and that’s probably the part I miss most at present.
Zola: Have you ever thought about writing for theatre?
TL: I’ve done it a few times over the years, but it is a much different skill than narrative fiction. While I feel that dialogue in my fiction is probably my strongest ability—because of theatre, in fact—it’s not the same as writing a script.
But I do keep all of the stage rights to my books, just in case.
Zola: You have written a wide range of Young Adult books from contemporary to Science Fiction. What should your readers expect from you next?
TL: Next up is a contemporary YA called Random. It’s loosely based on a true story in which several students were charged with the suicide death of a classmate. The novel follows a student similarly charged on the night before her plea, when a stranger calls and says he is going to kill himself unless she can give him a reason not to. The question is, is the caller everything he purports to be or not?
After that, I’m hoping to get some middle grade adventures out on the shelves, and I’m currently working on new contemporary and supernatural works, too. What readers will actually see next (after Random), they’ll know as soon as I do!
Zola: Would you consider exploring the aftermath of Sick?
TL: Yes. I have some notes scribbled down, and I had some other story ideas from a long time ago that I thought might dovetail nicely with where the world ends up at the end of Sick. Whether that will ever come to fruition, I don’t know. I tend to think that if there were a companion or sequel, it would not necessarily involve the same characters. I’d like to see what happened in other parts of the nation (or world), find out just how far this infection went and what the consequences were for all of us.
Zola: How would you survive a zombie apocalypse?
TL: I would stick close to my zombie-apocalypse-believing friends. One of the things that got Sick started at all was a discussion about who among us would live or die back in high school. It was the disbelievers who got eaten first!
But otherwise, I really think the wilderness is our safe zone. Fewer people means fewer zombies. Arizona is perfect, because winter is so totally mild compared to other parts of the country, and while summers are hot, we still have lots of elevation that actually stays pretty nice in the summer. Other than a self-contained island, I think the wilds of Arizona are a good place to wait out the apocalypse.
If we can get there….!
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.