Posted on August 18, 2008 by Flames
Novelist Z. A. Recht, the author of Morningstar Strain: Plague of the Dead and Morningstar Strain: Thunder and Ashes, likes playing god in a world of shamblers (slow moving zombies), sprinters (fast-moving ones), and rotting, stinking corpses (unmoving).
“No, really,” said Recht of playing god. “If the Morningstar Strain universe actually existed, I would be the Great Spirit of it, and that’s the beauty of writing. It allows you to create and destroy entire worlds on a whim.”
“This is not just idle banter, either,” he added. “I actually mean create and destroy whole worlds.”
It doesn’t take much to get hooked by one of Recht’s novels, just a few short paragraphs or pages. His zombies, the viral by-product of the dread Morningstar Strain, are hungry for flesh and his humans are survivors with enough character and enough ammunition to live another day. Except, of course, when they get killed, eaten, or infected.
Recht and I spoke in mid-July, while he was hard at work on Survivor, his third Morningstar Strain novel due out from Permuted Press sometime in 2009.
Jones: Why zombies? What is it that makes you want to write about them?
Recht: Of all the creatures that never existed, zombies seem, to me, to be the most tangible and, well, “realistic,” for lack of a better word. The other creatures that often pop up alongside zombies in human mythology–your werewolves and vampires and evil witches–all seem too incredible to be true. Zombies, on the other hand, aren’t magical or immortal. They don’t have special powers. They’re just hunks of rotting meat that have a taste for living flesh.
Still–despite this–they manage to rank among the most terrifying creatures our collective imagination has yet to come up with. It must be the missing limbs or rip-sprung autopsy victims. Yes, that must be it–their revolting appearance.
Or maybe it’s more primal than that. Maybe, deep down, we all still retain the mortal fear of being eaten as prey that our ancestors once felt on a daily basis.
On top of all that, zombies give humans a fighting chance. It takes either a lucky shot or incredible martial prowess to face down a werewolf or a vampire and win; with zombies, it takes smarts and discipline.
It makes for a more compelling story when the protagonists aren’t super-human monster hunters. They’re just regular people who manage to stay alive when others don’t. It’s easier to identify with them, to see yourself in the same situation. It’s what drew me into “Dawn of the Dead” when I first saw it at a very young age. My brain started playing the question of “What would YOU do if this happened?” over and over again, and that was all she wrote. It was a little like love.
Once you go down that train of thought, things are never quite the same. You size up what stores have stocked and either mark the place down as a good foraging spot after the zombies rise or discount it as useless, rather than just buying what you need and leaving. You note the location of distribution centers, car lots, and you pay attention to road repairs or closed routes of escape. You look at houses and measure them up by how well they’d resist several dozen zombies trying to get inside, rather than by good looks or square feet. And most importantly, you start to look at everyone around you as a potential zombie. You don’t really get that too often with other mythological creatures. We enjoy them, but we don’t identify with them all that often. Zombies are us. They just happen to be dead.
Jones: What are some of the dos and don’t of writing zombies? Is there a Z. A. Recht theory of zombie creation?
Recht: I’m a big proponent of making the origins of zombies semi-credible. Of course, at some point you’ll have to make the leap of faith that requires suspension of disbelief. It is, after all, physiologically impossible for a dead body to move around. Still, if a person is reading a zombie book, it’s pretty clear they’re ready to make that leap. That just leaves making the origins semi-credible. This can be anything–from a Venus probe with a strange radiation signature, a la “Night of the Living Dead,” to Trioxin from “Return”, to the Morningstar Strain.
I don’t mind it when people don’t delve into the origins of zombies at all, but it irks me when the zombies rise because of some mystical, magical event or powerful, immortal demonic being.
Oh, and the other big rule for me is to make the zombies act like zombies. If they’re dead, they’ve lost their humanity. The soul (or perhaps “consciousness” would be a more accurate word) is gone. It shatters the 4th Wall for me when zombies start talking or planting booby traps. It’s fine to have them act on instinct and to make that instinct appear intelligent just to throw off your characters’ expectations, but to have one pop up and say, “By Jove, I am so dreadfully hungry that I’m going to take a bite out of your schnozz!” destroys the whole image of the walking corpse for me. At that point they cease to be zombies and become some other paranormal cousin to zombies.
Usually when a writer has talking zombies there’s a paranormal explanation behind them, which is, as the above paragraph beat to death, something I’m not a big fan of. Leave the paranormal to ghost stories. These are zombie stories. The next best thing a zombie fanatic likes to talk about besides the zombies themselves are firearms, and we’ll get down into the nitty-gritty about those, too. Maximum effective ranges, overall accuracy, weight, ammunition supply, and so on…we’re down-to-earth people.
Zombie fans do not want, but require, that the zombies and the setting be at least mostly, if not entirely, realistic.
Jones: Can you tell me a little about how you built the Morningstar Strain “universe”?
Recht: I started with that basic mantra I repeated over and over in an earlier question –“Make the origins semi-credible. Make the origins semi-credible. Make the…” — and worked from there. Hence, the virus was the first thing I fleshed out. It follows all the rules of actual viruses, and even has a few drawbacks (it’s not airborne, for example, and dies relatively quickly when out of the body). Spraying infected blood with Lysol will kill the virus. It’s not supernatural in any way–rather, perfectly natural, which I hope adds to their menace.
The virus itself is based on two real sicknesses: Ebola and Rabies. Every bit of the virus’s effect on humans before they turn feral is, symptom for symptom, Ebola. (The incubation period, the headache, the nausea, the fever, the vomiting, the red eyes, all are indicative of Ebola.)
Once the fever causes them to snap, they’re like a rabies victim on meth. There’s not merely a chance that they’ll attack you. They will attack you.
And though I’ve never come across a chance to really explore it, they obey the virus to the extent that they will avoid killing a potential host if possible. After all, the zombies in the Morningstar Strain are really just the last stages of the disease, the virus’s final hope of spreading to a new victim. The virus would prefer, if it truly had a preference, to be reproducing in a living host rather than a walking corpse.
Once I had my virus and all of its specifics, the rest was rather a cop-out. I just started with a pre-built Earth set in 2006 and tossed in a pinch of Morningstar over the Congo River basin, then sat back and watched the results. (I also poured vinegar into Mount St. Helens but it didn’t explode again, which was a minor disappointment until I remembered that I had forgotten the baking soda. I’ll get it to work next time.)
Look, I enjoy playing god.
Think about Middle Earth. Really. Think about it for 30 seconds, hard, and then resume reading. I’ll wait. There. You see? You just called up a plethora of memories and situations and settings, didn’t you? How could you do these things if Middle Earth doesn’t exist somewhere, or never existed? You couldn’t. (Ian McKellen’s answer is that Middle Earth has “always existed somewhere in our hearts.”)
So J.R.R Tolkein isn’t just an author. He’s the creator of a world with its own unique history and culture. He is a kind of God. Certainly not on the same stature that we consider our Gods to be, but a different kind of God. It’s like that whole macro/micro scale thing wherein our universe might just be an atom in an infinitely larger universe, and that one might be an atom in an even larger one, and so on.
Jones: Do you use an outline or just let fly?
Recht: Little from column A, little from column B. I make general outlines. For example, I might jot myself a note that says, “So-and-so should die in this chapter,” but I won’t outline anything more than that. The circumstances and even the setting might be complete surprise to me when I get to it, but that poor character will, in the end, die.
I’m working on Survivors right now and my outline, which is around three sentences per chapter, only gives me the barest facts. All of the specifics are a mystery to me. That adds to the fun of this job. While I’m writing it, I’m also the first person alive who gets to read it.
Jones: Is there any similarity between writing fiction and playing, say, a mmorpg?
Recht: There are a couple similarities. MMORPG’s are good for practice, if you don’t mind geeking out and actually roleplaying while in-game. They help you polish your typing skills and hone your sense of storylines. They also improve your memory, as you might have a dozen such storylines in progress at any given time and you must remember the details of all of them in order to be a useful contributor.
Jones: What lessons did you learn about writing between Plague and Thunder and Ashes?
Recht: Learn? A couple of things, sure. I really learned not to leave things up to people’s imaginations. Suez was a scene of contention in Plague. Half the readers loved the Battle of Suez. The other half hated it with a passion. The big reason (besides a typo that got turned into a chapter-wide mess), you ask?
No carpet bombing.
Apparently it wasn’t very realistic that the soldiers lost the battle. To me this came as a shock–it didn’t strike me as being at all unrealistic when I kept the planes out of it. Use any reason you like to justify it–maybe the higher-ups thought the Canal would be enough of a deterrent and never dispatched any. Or maybe bombing missions were too high-profile and they didn’t want American or British Air Force/Naval planes on some civilian’s videocamera bombing thousands of what appear to be unarmed civilians. The problem was the part where I let them “use any reason they wanted.” Some of them couldn’t find a reason that fit for them. I do much less of that now.
If I were to re-write Plague, I would probably, in a fit of childishness, add one single line to the Suez battle scene wherein a radio operator reports that all planes everywhere have flat landing gear. How’s THAT for an explanation as to why there was no carpet bombing? Hey, it works, doesn’t it? And it’s perfectly explicable: the gremlins did it.
I also learned that having a wide cast of characters means that you’ll occasionally and accidentally cross one over with another. This is just plain old human error on my part. Then again, I feel I’m in good company, as most known authors have done things like this. It’s all part of the experience.
Writers – more so than in any other creative endeavor — have complete control in creating detailed worlds out of nothing more than the swirling mists of their own imaginations. Let there be light.
Interview by Jeremy Jones
Visit www.themorningstarsaga.com for more information on Z. A. Recht’s novels and other creative projects.