“It’s Sense & Sensibility & Sleestacks Now” The Max Brooks Interview, Part Two

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AT: What’s next for you?

MB: Right now, it’s GI Joe. I’m writing a new GI Joe miniseries.

AT: Cool.

MB: Yeah, I’m really proud of that. People seem to like it, which I’m a little surprised about. I always have to do something different, which means people look at my work and say, “What the hell is this crap?”

AT: Are you done with zombies?

MB: You know, I don’t know. Zombies are so popular. It doesn’t mean that the stuff that’s coming out is bad, it mean just means you have to sift. There’s a lot of chaff out there. For every one person who is legitimately passionate about zombies, there are a hundred people who are thinking, “Hey, I can make a buck off of this.” The problem is that some of their stuff is so lame.

AT: Part of my job is to read a lot of this stuff. It’s so, so bad.

MB: Right. People still criticize SNL for taking the joke too far, for writing a 3-minute sketch for something that should be a 30 second joke, but they’ve got nothing on the zombie hacks. Zombie hacks will write a whole book on one joke.

They’re not into it. You could water board these people and they wouldn’t be able to tell you why they’re into this stuff. If you literally took some of these people and put them in a room in Gitmo said, “Tell me the difference between a zombie and ghoul.” They wouldn’t be able to do it. “I don’t know. I’m just doing Sesame Dead Street. Isn’t that funny? Zombie puppets.”

There was a commercial recently that showed a clip of a zombie fighting a shark and no body knew that it was from a Lucio Fulci movie. We’ve been watching that movie for years. (Editor’s note: The film is Zombi 2. It’s epic.)

AT: I thought the first Jane Austen mash-ups were great, but now other publishers have just taken the joke and violated it completely.

MB: You get a core group of people who are really into it and they can’t not do it and then it makes money and then people jump on and then before you know it you went from Run DMC to Marky Mark. And then people forget why things started.

AT: And then it’s so saturated that no one wants to look at the good stuff.

MB: In college, I knew someone who when Lou Reed’s Take A Walk On The Wild Side came on, he looks at me and says, “Who’s that person who ripped off Marky Mark?”

People say, “Okay, let’s just throw zombies in anything.” People ask me if I’m worried it’s going to dilute the culture, and yeah, it will, but it doesn’t affect me. I’ve had my moment in the sun. As a writer, I’m fine. I’ve written my zombie stuff, but as a reader? What if there’s some really awesome zombie novel that has yet to be written? What if  there’s some kid somewhere who is really passionate and just needs a few more years to get it out there? My fear is that he’s going to get it out there and publishers are going to be like, “Nah. We’re done. We’re doing Sense & Sensibility and Sleestacks now. We’re putting sleestacks in everything.”

AT: I hope things won’t be so unoriginal then.MB: I’ve seen so many of these books where you could literally just tear the cover off and carry it around and there it is. That’s the joke. And the funny thing is that that is what people thought The Zombie Survival Guide was when it first came out. They thought it was like one of those knock-offs. “Oh, I get it. A survival guide, but with zombies.”

I’ll never forget when it came out in galley copies, I gave it to one of my SNL writer friends and he chucked and started thumbing through it and said, “Wow. This is a real book.” And I’m like, “Yeah. This isn’t the Technical Manual to Gilligan’s Island Professor’s Inventions.” This is the real deal.

AT: Do you think the seriousness is imperative to make it work?

MB: Yeah, when you’re sitting in the dark writing this stuff, you’ve got to be really into it. You’ve got to be willing to look like a fool. Like I said, the joke of zombie survival guide is that the joke’s on me. The joke is that there was actually a guy out there who had nothing better to do with his life. You’ve got to be that person. You’ve got to look like a complete moron.

AT: Was it hard when you started to promote the book to get up and say, “Hey, I’m the guy who wrote that guide about zombies?”

MB: The first couple years were murder because I was literally making it my life’s mission to convince people that I wasn’t cool. When it first came out, the press tried to spin it, saying “Oh, Mel Brooks’ SNL Emmy-winning, social cool, witty son is giving the finger to the horror culture.” That was the attitude, but it was totally the reverse.

So, I went to Fangoria. I went to the Better Homes and Gardens of horror fans on my knees because I was getting a lot of bad reviews from horror fans who hadn’t read the book. Rue Morgue kicked my ass. I don’t even want to think about what they did to me because they thought I was pissing on them. So I went to Fangoria to be like, “Please give me just one interview to prove that I’m a real, genuine horror fan. That I’m not making fun of you guys. That I am one of you guys.” I think that’s what might have been what turned the corner.

AT: Genre nerds are really sensitive about their topics.

MB: Oh, I know. Before The Zombie Survival Guide came out, I used to have many conversations with friends about how to fight zombies and they would all laugh and I would take it and keep going. They’d say something like, “Well put on a suit of amour so you can taunt them.” And I’d freak out. “Do you know how much a suit of armor weighs? Do you know how much you’d dehydrate yourself? You’re going to lose your mobility, which is your one asset.” I was one of those guys. It was hard to constantly tell people “No, I’m into this stuff.”

AT: When you were writing the book, how did you make sure the survival techniques were legit if you took the zombies out?

MB: Take the zombies out, and I had to do real homework. There’s no substitute for real research. I had to find out how much water you needed to survive each day, right down to the comfortable shoes. Any survival guide will tell you, don’t buy a pair of combat boots before any disaster. They’ll tear your feet up. Or water. Don’t bring water with you because it’ll tire you out and you’ll lose too much fluid. Bring a water pump.

A lot of it was drawing on personal experience, like when I was with the BBC in Africa and being in the field and what we needed to survive. Or, the ROTC and what we had to learn. When I talk about the M16 jamming, or fire having no loyalty, that’s because it’s true.

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