Monday, March 21, 2011
Sean Schubert has just published the first of a planned three-novel series about a horrific disaster in the Anchorage area. Infection details the surprise discovery of a zombie trapped in glacial ice, the horror inflicted on the Anchorage population, and the desperate survival efforts of a group of men, women and children. A graduate of Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, Schubert lives in Anchorage with his wife and two children. Our thanks to 49 Writers volunteer Mariah Oxford for the interview.
Infection is a fast-moving novel about a horrific disaster, namely zombies taking over Anchorage. How did the concept come to you?
A few years ago, I read an article in a history magazine about a WWII era fighter-bomber that was lost over the Rockies circa 1945. Several years (decades) later, a group of hikers was traversing a section of the Rockies and came upon what appeared to be fuselage of a plane protruding from receding snow and ice. It was the lost aircraft with its crew still buckled into their seats and largely preserved. That became the genesis for part of the story, but the other big piece came after I started to think about how Anchorage residents would fare if the city were to experience a massive natural disaster. There are only two ways, by road, out of Anchorage. If those two routes are pinched, Anchorage doesn't offer many alternatives other than air or boat, which would leave many residents without a lot of hope.
I know there are several books out there in the zombie genre. In Infection there is some question about what attracts the zombies and how to defeat them. Is there a uniqueness to your story that will surprise avid readers of this genre?
There are two major departures from the typical "Romero" zombie theme. First, in the Romero movies, anyone who died, whether infected or not, would reanimate into a walking corpse. That isn't how I've crafted my story. For me, the undead are coming back due to a change, albeit somewhat supernatural, to their physiology. The infection is just a long dormant bug that has been tragically reintroduced into an unfortunately unprepared population.
The other difference is that my zombies go through the same decaying process as a normal corpse – you know, one that isn't still walking around. So, when the undead body first reanimates, the body's capabilities are far more normal, perhaps even better than normal. The creatures can run and jump and act like any other animalistic predator from the wild. They, however, do not get fatigued or feel any pain, so your average human trying to put some distance between himself and his pursuer is really challenged. As the days pass though, the zombie starts to slow down as its muscles and tissue become desiccated and less functional. They start to actually resemble walking corpses rather than the ravenous and seemingly unstoppable predators they are when first reanimated.
For me, the zombies are very similar to the shark from Jaws. Richard Dreyfuss, playing Hooper, says that the shark is "a perfect machine that only eats and makes little sharks" or something to that effect. That pretty much sums up zombies too. What is more terrifying than the prospect of being eaten alive, bit by bit, especially by someone that you might know?
The other thing about Infection that is somewhat unique is the setting for the novel. The story is a travelogue of sorts of Anchorage. I don't think the Anchorage Convention and Visitor Bureau would be too terribly pleased with what I've done with our fair city, but I had fun nonetheless. Readers have expressed to me that recognizing landmarks and knowing where the action is taking place was very attractive to them.
While zombies probably aren't a realistic disaster for Alaska, there are other scenarios that could cause effects similar to those depicted in your book. As you were writing, did you come to some conclusions about how Anchorage residents could best prepare for an emergency of this magnitude?
That's a great question. George Romero once compared his zombie apocalypse stories with those of any natural disaster. Instead of a giant wave, or a volcano, or a meteor, he dealt in zombies. I think that best sums up my position on the genre. I've always been attracted to those scenarios and those kinds of movies – The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Day After Tomorrow (not necessarily the greatest movie but I liked the story). The reason why I like them so much, just like war movies, is that the story provides a backdrop in which people show their true colors and everything that is good and/or bad in them. Look at the mayhem on the Gulf Coast during the aftermath of the hurricanes recently.
I think it's really a matter of preparation and a willingness to be adaptable. With Costco and Sam's trips, most households are pretty well stocked in the event of most situations. I remember the days of blizzards in the Midwest and my mom and dad contemplating an excursion out to the store for milk. I don't think things are like that anymore for most. The other thing that I think is important is knowing the people around you. It's amazing how many people have never introduced themselves to their next door neighbors. In the time of crisis, cooperating numbers might make all the difference...erecting the barrier to hold the flood at bay, sharing food during a prolonged disconnect, and the notion of safety in numbers.
Certain characters (in fact, lots of people!) die in the story. How did you decide which ones? Did you plot it all out from the beginning, or were there surprises along the way?
Infection evolved very organically. I found myself mapping certain scenes before I would get there and then suddenly the story never led to that moment. Then I had a couple of scenes and nowhere to put them. I often knew that someone was going to meet his or her fate, but wasn't certain who that someone was. When the last character to die in the book did, her death caught me off guard. I hadn't seen that one coming, but as the story unfolded in my head and my fingers struggled to keep up, it just kind of happened. In writing Containment (book 2), you would have thought that I had learned my lesson, but apparently not. I had a definite plan for the path that my characters were to head and then, once again, it didn't work out. In this instance, I worked it out in dialogue between my characters while I made my decision. And, of course, my survivors chose to go a different direction than my first thoughts about the story. It was a challenge, but, in the end, it just made sense.
How do you balance work, activities, life as a dad, and being a writer? What is your writing process?
Balance? What balance? I beg, borrow, and steal time whenever and wherever I can. Kids' soccer practice, short creative breaks at work, rising early mornings on the weekend (unless of course there's a good English Premier Game on Fox Soccer), and the occasional late Friday night. I'm finding myself most fresh and creative in the morning but I'll take what I can get. I just love writing. I always have. As for my process...I tend to write most things out by hand with ink and paper first. At that point, I'm usually just laying out the story. It's more than just an outline, but when I transcribe what I've written onto the computer the finished product is typically very different that what I've originally written. This process can take longer, as you have to account for an extra step, but I also use this step as a first edit.
Tell us about the joint publishing process. How did you find a publisher? Was it straightforward? Challenging? Surprising?
I contacted several literary agencies with no success. "Not taking on new clients." "Not interested in the genre." "No unsolicited manuscripts." A friend I have, who has also written a couple of books but hasn't had any success in publication, mentioned something about joint publishing and a company called Strategic Book Group. I shot them an email and took steps from there. The basic process is not that different from self-publication, but Strategic and its subsidiary, Eloquent, have helped with some initial steps, such as the ISBN, copyrighting, and then some national marketing.
I didn't have to contact or entice Amazon.com. The book just showed up there one day. Eloquent has helped to forge a relationship with Todd Communications, which I hope will help to expand the book's exposure. I don't think I would have been as successful without Eloquent to help with that. So far, I have no complaints. I did, however, read some online complaints about Strategic and several other similar publishing outfits, so I've been somewhat cautious. But, as I said, I've got no complaints. It's been an exciting and, so far, painless experience. Hopefully it's not like the guy who jumped out of the building and onlookers kept hearing him say as he fell, "So far, so good." Regardless, so far, so good.
In talking with you about Containment, you referenced your characters as "my people." Could you talk about the relationship of author to characters, and your personal feelings about some of your characters?
There are some that I love and some that I hate. There are a couple or more that I feel like I've kind of ignored, and then they're suddenly dead. I actually felt guilty about that in one scene in Containment. She was just gone and I got to thinking that she had been an awfully quiet character. I went back and reread some earlier scenes with her to see about perhaps augmenting them or adding her to other scenes, but I chose not to do that. Whether I felt guilty or not, that was just how it was with her.
Maybe that's how it is in real life. Blake Edwards died not too long ago and I sat there reading the CNN post about it lamenting his loss. At the same time though, in the back of my head, I thought that I hadn't watched any of his movies for quite some time and hadn't had even a passing thought about him. And then he was gone. (Of course, that night we watched Revenge of the Pink Panther in his honor.)
Writing this kind of book, or series of books, is a challenge because people are going to die. It's just the nature of things in survival horror. Not everyone is going to make it and that's a fact. The ending of the second book was very emotional for me because a **spoiler alert** major character is infected. And again, it just kind of happened. I wrote the ending and then went back in to change some things but I couldn't change what happened because I think it would have been like trying to change the past. I just had to say good-bye and move on, much like "my people" were forced to do.
Where can we find Infection, and when can we expect the next title in the series?
Infection is available online at Amazon.com and Barnes andnoble.com. In town, it can be found at Bosco's in the Dimond Center and on Spenard, the UAA Bookstore, and at several of the Once in a Blue Moose giftshop/bookstores. It is available in both paperback and Kindle/ePublication varieties.
Containment is done and is being edited at present. With any luck, it will be available late spring/early summer. I've just started writing the third and potentially last book in the series, Mitigation.