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Interview: Jay Bonasinga, Author of The Walking Dead Novel Series

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Jay Bonasinga is a Chicago-based novelist, and indie filmmaker. His novels have been translated into nine languages. His debut novel The Black Mariah was a Bram Stoker award finalist, and his short stories have appeared in such magazines as The Writer, Amazing Stories, and Outre.

His latest project is a series of novels based on the hit AMC series The Walking Dead. Written with The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, there are two novels, so far, including The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury  (2012) and The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor (2011). I recently caught up with Jay by phone to talk about zombies, The Walking Dead, writing in the horror genre, and other assorted oddities. 

So how did you get involved in writing The Walking Dead novels?
I’m a huge zombie fan. My agent and manager Andy Collin is in L.A. One of his best friends is David Albert who is an executive producer of The Walking Dead television series. Andy called me and said, “have you ever heard of this new TV show that’s in development. It’s coming out this fall. It’s called The Walking Dead. They’re looking for novelist.” I immediately thought novelization. They were going to possibly hire me to novelize a screenplay or a script for the pilot or something and it was just going to turn it into a novel.

Well, it was much more than that. The more I learned about it, the more I wanted it. What it’s become is this separate medium that is almost self-contained which is almost a epic saga that is going to span at least three books, hopefully more. It has its own cast of characters. Some of them overlap the comic, some of them overlap the TV show but they’re completely original. I was asked to take [Robert Kirkman’s] ten-page outline, which is pretty much the story arc information. It’s just been really the greatest writing experience of my career. I’ve done novelizations. I’ve done ghost writing. I’ve done novelizations of scripts, and this is nothing like it. This is 1,000 times more creative and intense.

The most recent Walking Dead novel has been very up there on theNew York Times’ bestseller list. Is that the first time you’ve been so high up on that particular list, or have you had other stuff up there?
No, that’s as high as I’ve been.

How does that feel?
It feels great. The air is beautiful up there at that height. I love the weather up there! The book Ride the Governor got up to something like 18, and I think that’s as high as it got on the list. But that was huge, I mean for me.

Sure.
I’ve been a mid-list author for many years. And then to get that email from the editor, from Thomas Gunn, “Congratulations!  From this point on you will be hereby be known as a New York Times’ best-selling authors.” Oh, my God, I’m framing that! That’s going on my refrigerator immediately.

It should!
Yeah, this one debuted at 11. I will admit that it’s because Robert Kirkman is the rock star. He’s the initial burst of sales and interest and stuff obviously. I have no illusions. That’s why he is in the 24.45 [type] and I’m in 12, which is great and fine. But, the second book getting up there immediately and having maybe 100 percent more pre-sales is really satisfying to me because the only way these books are going to have legs is if they’re well-written books, if they’re really decent books. I think we are seeing that. I think people do like these books and they like what’s between the covers as well. So they are not just collecting them. I think the books really exist on their own, in their own medium, in their own right. I’m really proud of that.

Is it really freeing as a writer to have someone else’s universe to play around in?
Yes, that’s well said. It is totally freeing. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, because you would think the ultimate art would be for a writer to be in his lonely writer’s garret being brilliant and coming up with his own stuff, or her own stuff, and writing it down and then having the world respond and send limousines to pick you up. But it is freeing to be asked to just come in and be the writer, be the novelist. Robert [Kirkman], over the course of two years and two books, has really come, I feel he’s come to trust me and it’s a great feeling. He’s an amazing mind. He has an amazing gigantic brain. And after I finish a 450-page manuscript I go back and I look at that original ten-page outline and it matches perfectly, almost mathematically. It’s almost eerie how perfect his original story arc is. We just really get along. I said to him one time, “God, you know what, I’ve heard all these stories about you being a perfectionist and exacting, and you’re just a pussy cat.”  And he goes, “Yeah, well. If you weren’t doing a good job I’d be the biggest son-of-a-bitch you’ve ever worked with.”

So his involvement in the books is he gives you an outline and he says just “go!” That’s not actually too unlike in a way, I suppose, than being a writer in episodic television where you’re working in a world already created.
You’re right. That’s very astute of you. I think that’s extremely correct and fascinating to me because it’s almost not only very analogous to a writer’s room and a TV series with Robert being sort of the head of the writer’s room, but the writers are really creating little works of art each week or for each episode. It’s also akin to a comic book. It’s the way Robert is used to working. He’s a comic book writer and comic book writers lay out these stories and these images but then artists will bring them to life. So he’s really comfortable with that. He said one time in an interview I remember, and he’s repeated it to me in private, he doesn’t know how to make TV shows per se. He wanted to hire the best people to make TV shows and he doesn’t know how to write novels per se. He wanted to hire a novelist. And he’s been very magnanimous about sharing the glory of this stuff, and I really appreciate that.

I confess, I’m not a huge zombie fan. I have to tell you my limited zombie experience is Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland and 28 Weeks Later (and of course The Walking Dead)…
Those are really good post-modern, hip, darkly comic zombie movies. I love all those movies. That’s the thing about zombies is they’re forgiving to different approaches and different generations. Writers have done a lot with zombies, maybe even more than vampires. Vampires became kind of the Star Trek of horror. But zombies are really durable and forgiving—maybe because they don’t require personalities. They don’t require identities. They’re not delineated. They’re just part of the environment. You can go comic, and George Romero always had darkly comic undertones, obviously satirical undertones to his zombie masterpieces.

Does it all go back to George Romero, do you think?
I think Robert Kirkman would agree with me that it all comes from Romero. Before Romero, the zombie was like Val Lewton. It was like a Haitian voodoo kind of icon, but it was nothing the way it is today. Everybody’s spinning and giving versions of Romero, really. Even Robert Kirkman said that The Walking Dead came from his love of Romero movies, but his desire to have them just continue, like when the characters at the end of a Romero movie go off in a helicopter to a desert island and it fades to black, Robert’s like “Yeah, but now it’s really getting interesting. What are they going to do on that island?  How are they going to blah, blah, blah.”  And that was kind of the impetus behind The Walking Dead comic and that’s where it all began. And I really value, one of the greatest things that ever happened to me is working with Romero, getting to know him and working with him. He signed on to direct the adaptation of my first novel back in 1994. It was really interesting. I co-wrote the script with them. The book was never made into a movie. It’s one of Romero’s stalled projects to turn around for all these decades. It was really a cool experience. He was like a childhood hero and I think maybe that’s why I kind of jumped on The Walking Dead locomotive so happily and earnestly because I came from that background.

Can you elaborate?

I’ve use zombies in my work over the years now and again. On the page and in screenplays obviously, and I’ve always had like a really strong feeling about zombies, what they mean. I was born in 1959, so my first, most formative experience was horror or intense dark fantasy was Night of the Living Dead in 1968.

I was nine years old and they snuck me into the theater and I saw it in its first run. It was a sleazy, grindy, house theater in Peoria, Illinois. Boy that sounds really tawdry, really creepy. I remember there was one week where I saw that and the following week Blacula. Then I would go there and sneak in to see all the Pam Grier “Blacksploitation” movies like Foxy Brown. You can see why I’m so warped! That was my Huckleberry Finn. That’s the zombie that seeped into my subconscious—the Romero zombie where like at one point the sheriff in the original film Night of the Living Dead is burning them in mass, killing them, and piling them in piles and big careens, funeral fires burning all these dead bodies. He’s asked by the reporter “Can they think?”  I can’t remember exactly the question, but it was something like, “are they able to reason?” The sheriff goes “No. No, they’re dead. They’re all messed up.”  That probably my Rosetta Stone of what a zombie is. It’s dead. It just represents entropy and atrophy. It represents the end of our civilization. The zombie is sort of the end of the road.

That can be a powerful metaphor for society as well…
In one of the Romero movies one of the characters says, “When there’s no more room in hell the dead will walk years.”  Underneath, the sub-text of that to me has always been the zombie is the messed-up, dying culture. It’s the economy right now; it’s having your house under water. Because no matter how many times you shoot that monthly mortgage bill in the head, it keeps coming back the following month. You can’t kill it. It’s relentless. I think that resonates for people right now. And it did in 1968 because, as you know, 1968 was not a great time. There was a lot of upheaval. Kirkman jokes that zombies are really big right now because people like to tune in and see other people that have worse problems than they.

I think that goes for all of the fantasy genres. What else can explain the simultaneous interest in vampires, zombies and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.
That’s why horror goes in cycles; it kind of ebbs and flows. But it never goes away because horror and horror icons like you just mentioned will come back and provide catharsis for people. It’s odd that in the hardest times these horror cycles come back and they really resonate in ways you can’t even really figure out.

Like all the interest in magical worlds…
Even like Harry Potter. Right at this time as Western society was starting to stutter and sputter, Harry Potter really resonated. I remember when I read the first book I thought, sub-texturally this is genius. It’s about an orphan, and the is an abused child. He has no parents, and then he is whisked away and shown how special he is, and how powerful—the orphan’s revenge. It’s really powerful. In a weird way, zombies are sort of working on that level in our culture right now, I think.

One of things that really interests me is how writers, especially genre writers, create their unique worlds. Writing, to me, at least always seems a bit like alchemy, placing character and plot and a fantastical universe all together, and see what cooks up. It’s sort of boil, bubble and brew. How do you set about to create your own unique fictional worlds?
You are just very succinctly almost answered the question. It is a recipe. It’s chemical. You can over-specify the world in genre and then it doesn’t work. It could be argued, I probably, this will be considered sacrilegious but go ahead and print it, I don’t care. It could be argued that Tolkien over-specified his world in Lord of the Rings [partially] because he was a linguist. He was so fascinated by languages and it was almost just like an excuse to create a world, a whole new world out of whole cloth that had this new language. That’s what really turned him on. And you can sense it’s woven through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in his master works almost to a fault. It’s so dense, which brings me to how I do it, not that I’m putting myself in a superior position, over Tolkien.

In the year 2012 there are different standards now for creating fantasy worlds. I think that your alchemy metaphor is exactly right and it’s so apt. Because in The Walking Dead for instance, there is this alternate universe but it’s set in the real world, it’s set in the here and now with all the trappings and iconography of our real world, our actual world—with this one chemical component, which is the plague—the infection. The infection has a set of rules; it has a set of symptoms. It has a pathology.

It’s as if Robert said, “Okay, we’re just going to tell these tales of survival and they’re going to be gripping and very emotional and moving and disturbing and realistic, and you’re going to ask yourself, what would I do?  Would I go the way of Rick Grimes [of The Walking Dead] and become a hero?  Would I be a leader? Would I be a sheik?”  I often think I’d be dead in like a week. I don’t think be like Rick Grimes [if I were in that world]. I would like to think I would.

In The Walking Dead there is that one chemical component—the fictitious plague, this fictitious pathogen, which basically turns a newly deceased human into a flesh-eating zombie monster. It has a set of very rigid symptoms and symptomology and pathology that Kirkman is very clear on. Once you have that little, sort of dollop of volatile chemical dropped into the society that’s based on the here and now, then you don’t overdo the specification and your description. You show instead of tell. You have the people running from the monsters and trying to figure it out as we would. You have the CDC trying to get to the bottom of it, as they would. But there are not enough answers, so its mysterious in the early acts of the saga. So you’re careful not to overdo the explanations and the exposition. You try to stay in the here and now and just basically ask yourselves “What would I do if I saw that thing shambling down the street toward me?  Where would I find a gun?  Would I know how to shoot it?”  Then when I start asking myself in a quiet moment maybe tomorrow when I’m hiding in a shed “How did this happen?”  Then we might get some answers. And that’s how you create a world. Really—even if you’re working on an extremely hard science fiction world or far-flung fantasy world, a world on another planet. Even then, you show instead of tell. You don’t over-specify. You follow the hero’s journey, the arc of the character.

And that’s really what’s compelling. That’s what makes for compelling genre fiction: you create this world and maybe it’s as simple as, thinking back to my chemical metaphor, placing a drop of silver nitrate into solution and watching it spread out through solution precipitating certain things, but also sending concentric rings around the solution in different directions. How does that one little drop of silver nitrate affect everything else? The Butterfly Effect, right? Chaos theory.
That’s right. That’s totally correct.

And then you layer onto that a Campbellian journey of your hero and there you have it.
Yeah. That’s exactly right. That’s the thing about narratives. It is a treatise on a new world, it is a poem about this alternate world. But none of that is in the text. The text is a story, an adventure or a character drama. The story is the textual narrative really has nothing to do with that world. The textual narrative has to be identifiable to a reader. We have to empathize and we have to really identify and extrapolate things that are in our own world. I think, oddly counter-intuitively, that’s how new and fascinating worlds are created very subtly.

It is counter-intuitive and runs counter to a lot of what you read, what writing students often read about creating worlds. It’s really much more organic than that.
I read best sellers or that huge name-brand authors where you’re reading them and you, it is so transparent, it is so obvious that the author is proud of the research they’ve done. There’s this great Japanese film director, I think his name is [Nagisa] Oshima, and he builds entire sets, meticulous villages and streets and merchants and homes and stuff. Builds them from the ground up working streets and homes when he’s doing a film and 75 percent of it is never shown. He’ll only film like one little corner of the village, and the village goes on and it’s never shown. That’s sort of a metaphor for world creation should be. You should do all this research and really beat yourself in the world you’re creating. But then forget it. Leave it in your notes.

It’s there, informing the writing, but much more subtle in the reading…
That will imbue the story with an alternate world that you’ll be focusing on that. It’s a key arc of the character moving through that world. And they will react subtly, differently because you’ll know that world like the back of your hand but you won’t show it all. It almost reminds me of some of the Impressionist artists. They created canvases in very dark colors—a forest, mountains. Very dark. Then there would be one little dollop of orange. For the sun over in the corner and it changed everything. It changed the hue of every color. Just that one little dot—to the human eye, it changed the whole complexion of the painting.

The Walking Dead will return from its winter hiatus February 10. 

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.