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

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Author Max Brooks recently sold his one millionth copy of The Zombie Survival Guide ($10, Amazon). Since the book’s release in 2003, Brooks has risen to become an authority of zombie horror, and we got to sit down with last month for a marathon geek fest. Read on for the second installment of our chat featuring Brooks’ thoughts on his second book, novel World War Z being optioned as a film, being Mel Brooks’ kid and why Jane Austen should just be left alone.

(Read Part One: “I’m Just A Zombie Nerd” The Max Brooks Interview, Part One)

Allie Townsend: Your second book, World War Z is being prepped for a film. That’s got to feel good.

Max Brooks: Yeah, we’ll see what happens with that. They’ve got a writer, Matt Carnahan. I can’t imagine the amount of pressure he must be under right now. He’s working on his new draft right now. It’s almost done, but the movie is still the development process. We’re waiting to see. It’s got to be approved by Plan B. It’s got to be approved by Paramount.

AT: Would you want to take an active role in the planning?

MB: No, I think I’m staying as far away as I can. I’m just the guy that wrote the book. It’s time to move on. The only strike against it is that it’s a big movie.

AT: Yeah, it’s going to be really tough to do it really well.

MB: You can’t do it cheap. It’s an epic zombie book. Therefore if you have to do an epic zombie movie, well that kind of money scares executives.

AT: Well it’s certainly not the type of zombie movie they’re used to. Just the landscape of the book is so huge.

MB: And that’s why I wrote the book. I wanted to see the rest of the world. I didn’t want to do just a small story because everybody’s doing that. I wanted to see big. I’m always sowing the seeds of my own destruction like that. I’m the world’s worst businessman.

AT: I’m always curious to see what dreams are like for horror writers. I’d go to sleep terrified.

MB: Oh yeah, but since I’ve had a kid the dreams are infinitely scarier. The dreams are, “We have to talk to you about your son. Could you please come to the principal’s office?” Things like that. It would be infinitely scarier for him to come back when he’s 22 saying, “I want to find myself for a few years. Can I have $12,000 to go to Nepaul?” That’s scarier. I’d rather him deal with zombies.

AT: I was reading Justin Cronin’s new book, The Passage (vampire apocalypse!) and I was so wired with Armageddon, I couldn’t sleep.

MB: Oh yeah. I haven’t read it yet, but I liked it the first time when it was I Am Legend.

AT: Or The Stand?

MB: Or The Stand.

AT: But this one focuses on a kid, instead of a grown man.

MB: That’s funny because Romero has said he got the idea for Night Of The Living Dead from I Am Legend when he saw Last Man On Earth, the Vincent Price version.

AT: What other works have really inspired you?

MB: Everything comes from something. If there weren’t a Studs Terkel and The Good War, there wouldn’t be a World War Z. That inspired me to write World War Z much more than any zombie fiction – an oral history of World War ll. It was a book I read when I was a teenager and it never left me. I always thought, “Man, I want to write a book like that.” For me, a lot of inspiration comes from real life as opposed to other people’s fiction.

I wrote The Zombie Survival Guide as a real guidebook. Take out the zombies and it’s How To Survive A Disaster. The inspiration for The Zombie Survival Guide was growing up in Southern California in the 80s with threats of earthquake and nuclear war. Then in the 90s, we had riots, we had fires, we had floods. In LA we’re always living on the edge of disaster and the government never seems to show up.

A lot of The Zombie Survival Guide is just fact. I have a lot of fans who go crazy with the gun stuff, and they ask why I don’t like the M16, I tell them truthfully. ROTC. I trained on it. It’s a POS. I’ve had that weapon jam on me enough to know that I want something else.

AT: As Mel Brooks’ son, did any of your dad’s work get you interested in horror?

MB: No. If anything, it was a detriment when The Zombie Survival Guide came out. People didn’t know what to make of it so they would say, “Well, he’s Mel Brooks’ son. Mel is funny. And, he wrote for SNL. That show’s funny. He’s being funny.” Plus, SNL had just won an Emmy. So add in “Emmy-winning writer.” I can take about as much credit for winning that Emmy as my father can for winning World War ll. We were both on the winning teams when it happened, but that’s about as far as it goes.

AT: It’s still a great accomplishment, but it’s almost got to be separate.

MB: Exactly. Yes, he is my dad. Yes, I wrote on SNL. But no, I did not mean to be funny. I did not sit in a room in a room for a year, typing away, thinking, “Wow, this is funny!” I thought, “Okay, what if they come up the stairs? What if I run out of bullets? What about water? What about food?” That’s how it worked.

AT: My hope is that in 200 years, someone finds a copy of this book and just shockingly wonders what the hell happened.

MB: That’s the goal. The goal was literally, that if you didn’t know zombies were fake and you picked up this book and read it you would say, “Oh, now I’m ready.” I do the same thing in my self-defense lectures, play it straight. I walk in and go, “This is what I do.”

AT: While writing a column, I once had someone tell me that zombie lore was offensive to traditional Haitian culture. Have you encountered anything like that?

MB: Well my zombies, the Romero zombies, are technically not zombies. Technically, they’re ghouls. “Zombie” means something completely different. A zombie means someone who has been zombified, and those zombies are totally harmless. They’ll mow your lawn. If you go the spiritual route, they have been literally raised from the dead to serve you. If you go back to the old movies, White Zombie and I Walk With A Zombie, they’re not flesh eaters, they work on a sugar cane plantation. They’re cheap labor. They just happen to be dead so you don’t have to pay medical.

And if you notice, in Night Of The Living Dead they never say zombie. They didn’t say zombie until Dawn of the Dead, once. Just once.

AT: They didn’t really say “zombie” until the early 80s, right?

MB: Right, until Day Of The Dead came out. Then, Return Of The Living Dead came out and almost killed the genre. It killed it for about 20 years. It did for zombies what the 60s Batman series did for The Dark Knight. It drove it so far into campville, that it was a long time digging out of that hole.

AT: I haven’t seen Survival Of The Dead yet. Have you?

MB: Oh yeah. He’s still got it. It’s still got the social commentary. If you watch a Romero zombie movie, your instinct should be: “What’s wrong with you assholes? Get your shit together.”

AT: I thought the island was a really interesting locale.

MB: Yeah, you’re on an island. There should be no problems. Except, there are problems. And that’s what Romero always does. These people have it within their means to survive, but because they’re weak and human, they screw it all up.

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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