Thursday, October 17, 2013

An Afterword for ALL TOGETHER NOW: A ZOMBIE STORY Part Two: What's It All About?

WARNING: This Young ADULT novel is mean and nasty and intended for a mature audience. It is absolutely not appropriate for younger readers. It is a gruesome, repugnant tale sure to warp young minds. Seriously.

The following is a three-part Afterword for All Together Now: A Zombie Story (you could probably read the actual book in less time). I'm going to keep it mostly spoiler-free, but I am going to discuss writing, theme, and some of the choices I made. If you haven't read the book, this might be more interesting after you have. You can get the first 14 chapters free here.

Halfway through writing All Together Now: A Zombie Story, I realized the book was very much about my own fears (of course) and that was when I decided to publish it no matter what. Allow me to elaborate:

Something that's always struck me about zombies is that they are unique among the most famous monsters. If a vampire bites you, but doesn't kill you, you become a vampire. Oh no! You'll have to live forever with super powers and a sexy, enchanting charisma. Oh the humanity! If a werewolf bites you, you become a mostly unstoppable super-powered human able to hulk out. True, you may be sad and whiny afterward and walk away from the camera hitchhiking as sad music plays, but you'll mostly be okay.

If a zombie bites you, you lose yourself. There is nothing desirable about becoming a walking corpse, no longer in control of your own thoughts or actions because you're dead. When a zombie bites you, you become like every other zombie, indistinguishable from the horde. And more likely than not, you're pretty gross:

     "Mr. Goodwin?" I said. "Are you—"
     All right was how I meant to finish, but when I turned to face him, I saw he was the furthest from all right any of us will ever be.
     He was dead.
     Had to be.
     The bearded right side of his face was the same as ever, but the left half ended in ragged patches of skin and hair where the flesh from his cheek to his ear had been torn away along with a good chunk of forehead and scalp.
     There were spongy layers of skin covering his skull, but I could see parts of it as well as the bottom curve of his eyeball which must've rolled back in its socket. It was milky white from beginning to end.
     I swore and leapt to my feet.
     Mr. Goodwin's mouth opened and I could see what was left of his facial muscles working.

Identifying that a fear of zombies is in part a fear of conformity is hardly ground-breaking stuff. But I haven't seen it presented elsewhere in quite the same way I've done it. Some of you may remember me bugging Courtney Summers to write This Is Not A Test after I flipped for her incredible YA novel Cracked Up To Be. When I learned she loved zombies, I immediately saw the potential of a teenage zombie novel and she'd be the perfect YA writer to tackle it, not a middle grade ninja like me.

Thankfully, Courtney had her own unique take on zombies that's very different from and likely better than my own. Her book is mostly about people and their emotional landscapes, mine is mostly about zombies and their landscapes being strewn with blood and guts. But the idea of a teenage zombie novel haunted me until I had to write this book.

After all, who has more reason to fear conformity than a teenager? Adults have mostly made their peace with the compromise we all have to make. But toward the end of high school, many teens begin to realize that the years they've spent in the education system have socialized them. The purpose of school is to mold and build young minds, to transform unruly children to civilized adults capable of interacting in our society. To prepare them to get up for an 8-hour day and do what someone else tells them (in the words of Pink Floyd, "hey, teacher, leave them kids alone!").

To join a group is to conform. Being a part of society usually means food and security in exchange for behaving in certain ways, unless of course the townsfolk accuse you of being a witch, the Nazi party creates propaganda against you, or the wealthy decide to enslave or imprison you, etc.

Teenagers are invincible and never going to become their parents. But underneath their boasts is a fear resulting from the knowledge that the larger political body of adults surrounding them, like a horde of zombies, will eventually assimilate them. Conformity is as inevitable as adulthood.

Teens will have to work jobs, they will have to stand in line at the BMV, they will have to attend social functions, they will have to pay taxes, they will have to obey the law or face the consequences, some of them will go to war, and on, and on, and on. They will become something like their parents, and in America, where social mobility is at an all time low, they will probably work similar jobs and live in similar homes as their parents. They'll have children of their own and raise them to be the next generation of the same.

As much as I could without getting in the way of the story (I hope), I've tried to reinforce this theme throughout All Together Now: A Zombie Story. In my view, the teenage years involve being smart enough to realize one is being socialized, but usually not clever enough to stop the process (at least, I wasn't).  Not all high schools say the pledge of allegiance in the morning anymore, but you can bet the students in my book do:)

A theme inevitably emerges in a novel, whatever the author's intentions, and I believe it's best when done deliberately and as minimally as possible. You know you've gone too far if John Galt gives a 60-page speech (never pass up an opportunity to stick it to Ayn Rand). Too much of a good thing leads to preaching rather than storytelling, which is what the reader is paying you to do. So I tried to keep passages like this one to a minimum:

     When we reached the intersection of Kirkman Avenue and Harrington Street, I turned left, but not before I saw the courthouse. Its exterior was limestone and mostly still standing, though chunks of it had fallen to the lawn.
     But its inside was burned out, leaving a husk of what had been: a building that should be ashes but somehow still stood.

Ending a book with a metaphoric house collapsing is all good and well for Annie Prouxl, but I'm just not that deep or that precious. My protagonist has a clear cut goal: Ricky Genero has to get his zombie brother to Kirkman's soda plant where he's been told the CDC is developing a cure. Many of the events of the story are geared toward motivating Ricky to make something right in a world where so much has gone wrong until the reader (hopefully) believes Ricky will stop at nothing to find the cure for his little brother. As the population has become living dead, literally everyone is trying to kill Ricky and stop him from accomplishing his goal. Zombie stories write themselves:)

I'm not afraid to get my hands dirty. I know there's an anti-social streak in zombie readers (and writers) and part of the reason we love zombie stories is the inherent promise of grotesque violence. If a zombie story is to aspire to meaning and thematic concern, it first has to deliver on the promise of blunt entertainment. If the reader isn't emotionally invested in Ricky and his journey, they're never going to care enough to ponder what the story "means." So before I can concern myself with anything else, I have to fork over the goods and do my best to deliver on the promise of the premise:

     A dead girl lurched from the side of the bleachers, blocking our path to the exit. A flap of skin had been peeled back from above her right eye to the top of her skull. The flesh of her stomach and side from her armpit to her jeans had been ripped away. She moaned and reached for us.
     Ben gave her a wide berth, but he couldn't reach the exit door without touching her.
     The snarling behind us grew louder, closer.
     "Please move," I said.
     The girl cocked her head and stepped toward me, her lips drawing back to expose her teeth, and I knew she didn't understand. She was beyond understanding
     "Move," I said, flinching.
     I glanced back at the approaching corpses and did what I had to. I swung my bat into the girl's face as hard as I could.
     She fell over with a screeching thump on the glazed hardwood floor.
     "I'm sorry."
     The left side of her face was now mangled and bleeding where I'd struck her, but the girl started to stand again anyway.
     "I'm so sorry." My hands were trembling so badly it's a wonder I didn't drop my bat.

I've said my piece and probably too much, so that's where we'll leave it. Except, I can't write an afterword for this book and not address religion. Was there ever an instrument of propaganda and social conformity more powerful than the church? Religion is more dangerous than a loaded gun and more impacting than a nuclear blast.

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