March 7, 2011

Brain Picking: Interview with Craig DiLouie (author Tooth and Nail; The Infection)

Craig DiLouie hit the zombie fiction scene in 2010 with one of the best zombie novels I've ever read: Tooth and Nail (my review). Now he's returned to the zombie genre with a brand new horror tale from Permuted Press called The Infection. DiLouie stopped by The Zed Word: Zombie Blog to chat about his first zombie work and what he has in store next for zombie fans with The Infection.

ZED WORD: How did you get into writing zombie fiction?

CRAIG DILOUIE: I’ve always been a fan of stories about the end of the world. For me, zombies are simply my favorite brand of apocalypse. While zombies are horrifying creatures to imagine, I find the collapse of the society more easy to connect with and therefore scary in my gut as well as my head. Take ordinary people and place them in this extraordinary situation, and then let the reader experience the terror of it through terrible things happening to them: The result ideally is a story that is believable, in which you can easily imagine yourself, and that scares and excites you. Lately I’ve been exploring familiar zombie plague tropes combined with the idea of a competing ecology being thrust upon the earth, one in which humans are at the bottom, not the top, of the food chain.

For years, stories like this were few and far between in bookstores where apocalyptic fiction was usually sprinkled throughout the science fiction section, and the horror section, if it existed at all, was dominated by Stephen King and sexy vampires. Over time, however, the digital revolution broke the stifling lock that the risk-averse large publishers and bookstores had on publishing. I became exposed to fantastic writers and publishers such as David Moody, Joe McKinney and Permuted Press, and the genre opened up to me both as a reader and a writer.

During this time, I was reading a historical novel about the last Roman legion fighting to the end trying to hold the Rhine River against the German hordes. The idea of a military unit struggling against the odds to save a dying nation is stirring to the spirit as well as the intellect because there is a sense of higher purpose (and stakes) than simply survival for a few. So the idea of TOOTH AND NAIL was born.

ZW: TOOTH AND NAIL features a virus that turns people into violent 'Mad Dogs.' Why choose to make the infected the threat of your novel instead of the living dead?

CD: In TOOTH AND NAIL and my more recent novel, THE INFECTION, the zombies are what you might call “viral zombies”—that is, they are infected by a rabies-like virus that compels them to mindlessly spread the virus through violence and biting. In TOOTH AND NAIL, the soldiers call them Mad Dogs because they snarl and drool. Films such as 28 DAYS LATER had paved the way for this type of zombie as a legitimate part of zombie lore, which is evolving whether some like it or not. As a reader, I love all types of zombies, living or undead, running or shambling, as long as it’s a good story involving believable characters. As a writer, however, the idea of a rabies-like virus is simply more realistic and therefore frightening to me than shambling undead, so I went into that relatively unexplored territory. In THE INFECTION, some of the infected continue to mutate, becoming horrific monsters and adding an entirely new element to the story—kind of like crossing 28 DAYS LATER with THE MIST.

ZW: Does THE INFECTION continue the story of TOOTH AND NAIL? If not, do you have plans to return to the apocalypse you created in TOOTH AND NAIL?

CD: THE INFECTION is the beginning of a new fictional universe.

TOOTH AND NAIL, described as BLACKHAWK DOWN meets 28 DAYS LATER, tells the story of a company of U.S. infantry trying to survive in New York City during the zombie apocalypse. It has the kind of scope and feel you might find in a war novel, with many characters, less back story and tons of combat scenes. In this novel, the apocalypse is a war zone—Custer’s last stand with zombies. It is currently a standalone novel without plans for a sequel, although one never says never.

THE INFECTION . . . tells the story of five ordinary people who must pay the cost of survival at the end of the world. While TOOTH AND NAIL is more cinematic, THE INFECTION has similar high-octane action but is overall even darker, focusing on how a small group of people survive and ultimately cope with their world collapsing around them (and monsters!). In this Permuted Press novel, the apocalypse is a wasteland both real and psychological. Its sequel, THE KILLING FLOOR, will be published by Permuted in early 2012.

ZW: In TOOTH AND NAIL, the military lingo and technical details feel very authentic. Do you have any military experience?

CD: My goal was to make the reader feel like they are “embedded” with a military unit during the zombie apocalypse. The idea is to make the story realistic enough that the reader’s suspension of disbelief becomes so easy that they find themselves quickly drawn into a gripping and memorable reading experience. In the real world, rifles jam, gun smoke stinks and obscures visibility, soldiers communicate by radio, they follow rules of engagement, military operations are planned, and human beings puke at the sight of extreme gore and are haunted by killing other human beings. I wanted all of these details to be authentic. Because I have never served, I had to research everything—military organization, formations, movement, small unit tactics, weaponry, radio protocols, and so on. Every single thing in the book has been researched, and the final result vetted with a veteran of the 101 Airborne Division.

ZW: Where did you do your research?

CD: Most of my research is conducted online. I found a treasure of military manuals that were extremely helpful, covering everything from radio protocols to bayonet fighting. For my new novel, THE INFECTION, I had to learn how to drive and operate the weapons systems of a Bradley fighting vehicle, clear a jam in an M4 rifle, blow a six-lane bridge, survive in a refugee camp, and more. I drove from Pittsburgh to eastern Ohio and back in the virtual world of Google maps, studied how emergency generators work, and watched YouTube videos showing what it is like to sit inside a Bradley, what its cannon sounds like, and so on.

ZW: Have you had any feedback from readers who are also soldiers or in the military?

CD: The response by readers in the military has been fantastic. I have been told by servicemen that that the novel is basically accurate and some of them thought I was former military myself, which was the most satisfying feedback I’ve received on the novel.

ZW: As authentic as the technical details feel, the emotional weight of your characters feels even more authentic. Do you get very invested in your characters while writing? Is it emotionally hard or taxing to write apocalyptic stories that are full of bleak themes in which your characters meet such violent fates?

CD: I try to avoid making any of my characters “the hero,” even though they may act heroically, to present them as ordinary people forced to fight and make tough, ethically challenging decisions to survive. This also tells the reader that all of them are fair game to the whims of fate. Now that we’ve established that my characters are expendable (because aren’t we all), it is hard to spend so many hours with a group of people and not get attached to them, even if they are constructs of your imagination. But again, I try not to get invested. If I do that, then I will inject myself into the story instead of letting the characters be themselves and behave organically.

As a result, I don’t base characters on people I know, and while I borrow from my own observations about life and experiences and so on, there is never a character in my stories that is “me.” That being said, I do empathize with them, and it can be hard to put them through the ringer—even harder to kill them. I believe it’s more important to be a good listener for your story; if the story says a given character must die or be hurt in some way, then should listen because your story is usually right.