Pride & Prejudice & Prequels: Mash-Up Author Talks Austen & Zombies

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Welcome to ‘Zombie of the Week,’ folks, where each week we’ll present you with a different brain-eating member of the undead that has captured our fancy. There is no methodology to our Zombie Awesomeness meter, just our own piqued interests. Got a zombie we should see? Comment below. No zombie is too small, too short-lived, or too gross.

“For Jane: We kid because we love.”

Our curious fascination with the transformation of our beloved literary classics threaded with monster mayhem has bedazzled the publishing industry and spurred a litany of mashings from Tolstoy to Lincoln. (Your First Look: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Slayer) Even Hollywood is jumping on the bandwagon, signing the newbie genre’s top sellers to big budget movie deals. As far as a literary renaissance is concerned, publishers may have found their meal ticket. Lured by the promise of gore and ghouls, readers have revisited the classics in solid numbers.

(More on Techland: Natalie Portman to Star in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies Film)

But splattering blood on Jane Austen? It was a risk that paid off ten-fold for Quirk Books in 2009 with Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride & Prejudice & Zombies ($12.95, Amazon), the zombie-infused regency romance that went from spoofy spook to best seller, the point of origin for the great monster mashing trend. To continue the franchise, Quirk decided to revisit its Austen miscreation to tell the tale of how it all began. Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls ($12.95, Amazon) returns us to the beginning of the English countryside’s zombie woes and the evolution of the Bennett sisters from proper young ladies to slayers of the undead.

Because Austen provided no prequel of her own, author Steve Hockensmith (Holmes on the Range) took up the task of creating a zombie-centric plot required to measure up to standards of both Austen and horror fans – no easy task. Now a NYT Best Seller, the book seems to have struck a chord with both, and though Hockensmith says he’s still been hit with backlash from Austen purists, he’s just having a little fun. With zombies.

AT: So I was doing a bit of Googling and read that when you set out to write this book it was pitched as a sequel, not a prequel.

SH: Yes, correct. When I first started, it was definitely a sequel that they had on the table and the more we talked about it the more it swung around to being a prequel because of all of these fun, unanswered questions to play with – not all of which I answered purposely, but certainly we addressed some of them and the one that I found the most interesting was the transformation of Jane Austen’s beloved and demure Bennett sisters into fierce, zombie-beheading warriors. I thought, “Now, that would be a fun thing to watch happen, so let’s watch it happen.”

(More on Techland: Watch the Dawn of the Dreadfuls Book Trailer)

AT: I have to ask you about your Jane Austen-cred? Did you have a lot of experience with her work before writing this book?

SH: I had read her way back in college, and the thing that was funny was that at the time, I found her stuff very frustrating. And I found her frustrating for reasons that in hindsight, I completely understand and they were about me, not about Jane. I read P&P and Sense & Sensibility and I had the same reaction to both: I kind of wanted to grab everybody and shake them real hard and say, “Just talk to each other!”

There’s all this drama about misunderstandings and what so and so is really feeling. And as an 18 or 19-year-old American guy, I found that sort of infuriating. It just seemed so incredibly frustrating. There was just a big aspect of it that I was missing and I didn’t clue into it until I saw the P&P the miniseries many years later. It was a revelation: it’s funny.

AT: So how different (or similar) were you willing to make the writing styles of the two P&P&Z books?

SH: They’re very different by necessity, and I think people will realize that because if we don’t have P&P 2 to mash-up with wackiness, then we must create our own P&P 2 by writing in Jane Austen’s style and inserting our own wackiness, which would negate the same thing again and would have been horrible. I think to our credit that never really was on the table.

The idea was to take the ideas and the setting and the premise and tell another story and make that story as good as we could make it. We din’t have any conversations about “Jane-ing me up.” Certainly, I have different styles and many writers do. There are many different styles that you can write in and I wasn’t going to write this in a super modern mode with some sort of punchy thriller with five word sentences and a lot of BAM and POW and that kind of thing.

At the end of the day, it’s a book about zombies descending on an English village. It’s going to move differently than P&P&Z because it’s a regency comedy of manners.

AT: So where did your zombie lore come from?

SH: Zombies are a fairly new addition to the cannon of monsterdom. Really the modern zombie goes back just to the Night of the Living Dead. There’s a ton of material out there, but it seems like there’s not a lot of diversity out there. And horror fans might beat me up for that because I’m not a huge horror fan myself. I like what I consider the good stuff within the genre, but I don’t consume it in vast quantities. So what I did was just sort of reacquaint myself with the classics.  I went back and I watched Night of the Living Dead, the original. That’s the touchstone. That’s where you’ve got to start.
Then it was Dawn of the Dead the original, which for me, is a special zombie movie, which is probably my favorite of the classic Romero era because it’s able to be a good scary zombie movie, but it’s also an adventure movie and it also has such a great social satire aspect to it. It’s got some things to say. It’s the grand slam of classic era zombie movies.

Then of course, there was the film that had the treatment that I’d like to capture with zombies, which was Shaun of the Dead. It’s scary and it’s funny and so often you can have one and not the other. It’s commenting on zombie movies, but it never crosses that line where the satire overwhelms the situation. It walks that tightrope perfectly of having its tongue in its cheek, but also having that feat that that cheek is about to be ripped off and eaten at any second.

(More on Techland: E-Readers Get First Chapters of Dawn of the Dreadfuls With Free Download)

AT: The descriptions were pretty awesome. I like the descriptions of the way the flesh was hanging off of the corpse. How did you visualize the appearance of the zombies?

SH: I did have to do a little bit of that, which is one of the not so fun parts of writing about zombies. I wanted to know what color do dead bodies really turn, and you’ve got Google and I’m looking at it with one eye and my head turned away because you don’t know what’s going to pop up.

I didn’t want to delve into that stuff too much, but I wanted the descriptions to have enough verisimilitude that you really buy that this is a dead body. Because you could be really generic about it: There was a zombie. And the zombie chased them. And they killed the zombies. It seemed to me that if you’re going to do zombies, you’ve got to give them personality, you’ve got to give them individuality or it’s just going to be this blur. I tried to think creatively with my zombies. There was one with no arms and legs that moved around like an inchworm, but very fast. Then there was the one in the lake who was tied to a rock.

There were a couple that I wanted to work in and I couldn’t. I wanted them to find a zombie who had hung himself and they find him swinging around by a rope trying to eat people so they use it like a piñata for target practice. I wasn’t able to work that in, but maybe in another book.

AT: I think my favorite moment of the book is when Jane kills a zombie in the bedroom with the battle-axe.

SH: Oh yes. You know I toyed around with having her be a complete bitch. You’d get to finally see inside her head and what you realize is that it’s all a front. It’s all a lie. The Jane you think you know is just a complete creation and underneath it all she’s just a nasty, vile, cynical bitch. And I just couldn’t do it.

It would have been heartbreaking because of course we all love Jane. It would have been funny, but it would have been funny at the expense of a lot of sentiment. That, and I would have brought upon the Jane-ites with their fiery torches.

(More on Techland: Dawn of the Dreadfuls’ Unmentionable Takes Battle-Axe to the Skull)

AT: What are you telling the Austen purists? There is some hate coming your way.

SH: It’s something that I understand. I grew up as a fan. I was a Star Trek fan. Years later when J.J. Abrams comes traipsing along and says that he’s going to re-imagine this thing that you loved from your youth, there’s going to be some trepidation. Are they going to be respectful, or are they just going to trash it? I totally get where they’re coming from.

On the other hand, I would say that certainly with the Quirk Books, I would hope that our affection for Jane Austen comes through. That’s why it was very important to me that the dedication of the book be: “For Jane: We kid because we love.” For me, that captures what I’m all about. I’m not doing this to flip Jane Austen the bird. I’m a guest in her home.

And as far as this genre of mash-ups is concerned, it’s nothing new. In the 60s there was a movie called, Robinson Crusoe On Mars. It’s been done before. It’s a way to have fun. It’s a way to play on the playground in the amusement park of literature. If we’re going to start walling off parts of the playground and say, you’re not allowed to go there, I just think that’s a loss to everybody.

AT: One of my biggest curiosities heading into the book was how you were going to introduce new characters and tie up their story lines before the events of P&P take place.

SH: Yes, that was one of the challenges because it is a prequel that takes you to a predetermined point and then it had to, to a point, have romantic elements to it. But if you know that Elizabeth and Jane end up with these characters that you don’t even meet until P&P or P&P&Z – which ever way you want to look at it, then you know that these romances have a conclusion.

What I tried to do is use the romances that are in the book to explain in someway, or cast some light upon, why Jane and Elizabeth would be drawn to the men they ultimately are. I especially think that this is the case for Elizabeth. She meets two guys in this book, both of whom have strong points in their favor, both of whom have elements of Darcy in them, and yet they’re not Darcy. One thing I think some people might have done, and I dug my heels in before I could even be pushed in this direction, I think some people might have done a story where we see Elizabeth’s first true love – whoever it was who came before Darcy. I was determined not to do that because for me Elizabeth has one true love, and that is Darcy. I was not going to mess with that. I wasn’t going to have the tragic pre-Darcy guy who is everything that Darcy is, but dies.

(More on Techland: The Zombie Combat Manual: How to Kick Some Undead Ass)

AT: So after all you’ve learned, if you encountered a zombie, what would you do?

SH: I would run shrieking in the other direction because I know all of those great skills that the Bennett acquire over the course of the book, I have none of them. It could be a zombie grandma with a walker – Oh, boy! See there’s a great idea. Has anybody done a zombie with a walker? See, I need to keep doing this stuff. So yeah, it could be a zombie grandma with a walker hobbling after me and I would still scream and run in the other direction. I’m a writer not a fighter. My self-defense skills were not improved by the writing of the book, but perhaps my awareness of my lack of self-defense skills was improved. At least I can say that.

AT: What’s next to for you? Any other mash ups in the works?

SH: We’re definitely kicking around ideas. Hopefully we can have something to trumpet to the world soon.

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