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The Fiction Issue 2008

Max Brooks

Anybody who cares about the state of the world and what happens to people when disease and wars happen should read World War Z by Max Brooks. It’s a fictional oral history of “the zombie war.”
2.12.08

Anybody who cares even an iota about the state of the world and what happens to people when disease and wars happen should read

World War Z

by Max Brooks. It’s a fictional oral history of “the zombie wars” and it ranks as one of my favorite books of the last ten years. And I know what you’re thinking: zombie wars—how corny.

Nevertheless,

World War Z

is the kind of book that has you constantly saying “This is amazing” out loud. Not only is it a work of horror fiction to rival the best, but it’s also a well-researched treatise (in disguise) on survival, human nature, and the tiny, teeny thread that separates civilized society from total fucking chaos.

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Max, the son of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, is a former

Saturday Night Live writer

. He also wrote

The Zombie Survival Guide

and has a graphic novel based on it coming out. Max is the latest addition to the zombie cognoscenti—a small group of glorious men like George Romero, Tom Savini, and Lucio Fulci—and we welcomed the chance to speak with him recently.

Vice: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, I’m a massive fan of your books.

Max Brooks:

Where are you calling from?

London. East London. I’m in fashionable Shoreditch. It’s very fashionable here.

Just trying to get a mental picture. I used to live in London.

What were you doing here?

I was working for the BBC on documentaries, a thing on great railway journeys in Africa. This was a long, long time ago.

How did you like London?

Oh, I’ve been to London many times my whole life. I’ve got to watch it change. It’s great—you guys are back now!

We’re back?

Yeah!

In what way?

As a bona fide nation-state world power! Now when you go to London everything’s shiny and new and clean and bright. You have Starbucks!

We have Starbucks everywhere.

Yeah, you need to get rid of those.

I just wanted to find out what the first fiction you read as a kid was.

Growing up, I was very, very dyslexic. Reading was really hard. It was torturous. I never read anything unless I absolutely had to, for school.

What did you have to read?

Oh, you know, they make you read the classics. But it was just murder, and it was only when I was about 15 or 16 that I sat down and read my first fiction book.

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Which was what?

The Hunt for Red October

. It was the first book I ever really wanted to read and from there I just went crazy to the point that, when I was in London, there was this fantasy and science-fiction bookshop on Holloway Road and I must have bought a hundred books from that shop.

What sort of science fiction did you like?

I’m a bit of a snob about science fiction. For me, it’s got to be real and it’s got to make sense. I enjoy science fiction because I enjoy playing with reality. Actually my favorite science-fiction miniseries was the 1970s’

The Day of the Triffids

.

The British one?

Oh yeah. I thought that was absolutely brilliant because it didn’t so much deal with the fantastic worlds of the Triffids as it did with what would happen if the world went blind—the social, the political, and the economic ramifications. And that’s what good science fiction has to be about, I think. It has to be about us.

I liked John Wyndham’s novel.

Oh yeah, the book was just excellent. It was really good sci-fi. Another one of my favorite science-fiction books is

On the Beach

by Nevil Shute. It was so dark and horrible and yet it made perfect sense. It’s about a nuclear war where the northern hemisphere is completely devastated. The survivors gather in little pockets in Australia. They know the radiation is coming. It’s not a question of if they’ll die, but when they’ll die. And what I loved about it was that it wasn’t fantastic. It wasn’t like

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Mad Max

.

So World War Z is being made into a movie.

Yeah, well, we’ll see what happens. You know, I’m not as involved in it as people might think. I’ll probably be the last to know. You’ll probably know before me. And that’s exactly the way I want it.

Why’s that?

When you’re a writer, and when you create a work like

World War Z

, your heart and your soul are in it. And then you turn it over to Hollywood and it becomes art by committee. And that’s fine, that’s how movies are made, and I know that. But I don’t want to be part of it. I’ve had my artistic moment. I don’t need to go any farther.

What if the movie is like really, really terrible?

Then it’s even better if I’m not involved, because I’ll have had nothing to do with it. I sold them the book, and that was it. But I am lucky in that they have a really dynamite screenwriter attached.

It’s the Babylon 5 guy, isn’t it? Michael Straczynski.

Yeah, and I’m a huge fan of his. So for me they’re already on the right track.

So you like Babylon 5?

Oh my God, I loved that show. I’m a history major. Even before I’m a science-fiction nerd, I’m a history nerd. And I loved the way they dealt with human history. Everything they did had a historical bent to it. And that’s what I mean about not being fantastic: the technology and the aliens, that was just window dressing. It was a very human story.

Have you seen any of the recent zombie films?

I loved

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28 Days Later

. To make good science fiction, to make good horror, I think you need people from outside the genre. I think what happens is that makers of horror movies, they get stuck within their world and their devices. So when it’s by Danny Boyle from

Trainspotting

? You’re not going to get better than that. And what he did was he brought real human horror into something as crazy as… well, they weren’t zombies, they were infected, but you get the idea. He made it believable because he had real human characters. So when I saw that I went, “You go, Danny Boyle!”

He was the first guy to bring zombies who can run into the mix.

Certainly in modern times, yes. Because they weren’t dead, they were human beings who were infected. That’s the beauty of Danny Boyle. And I thought

Trainspotting

was one of the best horror movies ever made.

Did you see the Dawn of the Dead remake?

Yeah, I thought that it was fine, but it can’t compare to the original.

There’s a theory that the new zombies that run are the studios pandering to the supposedly shortened attention spans of the audience.

I think that’s exactly right. I’m not as frightened of the fast zombies. Fast zombies and slow zombies illustrate to me the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is when a threat is right in your face. Anxiety is worrying about a threat that might be in your face someday. The slow zombies are much scarier to me. It’s the difference between skydiving and scuba diving. For example, I went skydiving once…

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How was that?

It was an adrenaline rush and it was terrifying but it was so fast and furious and quick that I didn’t realize it until it was over. Whereas with scuba diving, there’s plenty of time to think about all the ways you can die. And that’s the thing with the slow zombies. Like with the original

Dawn of the Dead

, there’s plenty of time to think about all the amazing ways you can die. If you’re fighting fast zombies, you’re fighting for your life and the adrenaline’s pumping and there’s no time to think. But with slow zombies, you have months to imagine your death.

So I guess filmmakers who used slow zombies credited their audience with a bit more intelligence.

Well, you know, it also wasn’t as commercial. I’m not sure how it is in Britain, but in America in the 80s what you saw was big studios being bought by bigger corporations. So suddenly you have filmmakers having to answer to these executives who’ve never made a movie in their lives. It’s like when I wrote for

Saturday Night Live

. I literally worked for General Electric. So my boss was technically not Lorne Michaels, but some guy who makes cars and nuclear weapons.

A sneak peak from Max Brooks’s forthcoming graphic novel, The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, out in spring 2009.

How was that?

Well, I got hired right after 9/11 happened. I knew George Shapiro, Jerry Seinfeld’s manager. He saw my work and he said, “You have what it takes. I’m going to pass this along to Lorne Michaels.” And I said, “That’s great, you do that.” Then I got a call from someone who said, “We looked at your stuff and Mr. Michaels would like to work with you.” And I said, “Who is this, really?” But I got on a plane, I met Lorne, and he said he thought I had something to give to the show. So I was lucky enough to work there for two seasons.

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What was the show like when you were on it?

Well, when 9/11 happened it was a historical time to be on the show. Because let’s face it, the Clinton era was the

Seinfeld

era, where really nothing happened. Everything was nice and boring and funny. And then suddenly the question was: What is funny? And who are we making fun of? And why? We literally had anthrax in our building—some nut literally sent anthrax powder into our building. He was trying to kill, I believe, Tom Brokaw.

Right.

It’s all the same building, so we got locked down. Homeland Security came, and the president of NBC had to come speak to us personally and say, “You’re not going to die, don’t worry.”

What book are you reading at the moment?

Officially I am reading

Walden

by Henry David Thoreau. But when I’m done I’m sure I’ll get back to something like alternate histories. That’s probably one of my favorite fiction genres.

Such as?

Well, the works of Harry Turtledove. As a history major, one of the first things you learn is that history isn’t inevitable. Britain didn’t have to beat the Spanish Armada, they could have very well lost. And Czechoslovakia could have stood up against Hitler. They chose not to. So that is very fascinating to me.

Do you think you’re going to write another zombie thing?

Well, right now I’m working on a graphic novel. It’s called

The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks

. I’m writing the script and I have an artist who is illustrating it.

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What’s his name?

His name is Ibraim Roberson. He lives in Brazil. I’ve never met him. And he’s absolutely fucking brilliant, and I can brag about it because it’s not me.

You’ve never met him? How does that relationship work?

I write the script. I email it both to Middle America, a place called Champaign-Urbana in Illinois, and to New York City, where my editors look at it. Then they email it to Brazil, where Ibraim is—I don’t even know where in Brazil he is! He could be in São Paulo, he could be in the jungle. We had to pay for him to have internet access. So he draws a story, then he emails it back to me in California. We have this triangular trade that spans thousands and thousands of miles. None of us have ever all been in the same room.

How about giving us a sneak preview of the graphic novel?

In the back of my first book,

Zombie Survival Guide

, you see all these historical attacks. They’re little snippets, maybe a page. What I wanted to do was flesh them out into much longer stories. And that’s what they are. You’ll see it in much greater detail.

Is it in black-and-white or in color?

It’s in black-and-white.

How long is it?

It’s a beast. I believe it’s going to be over 200 pages.

Awesome.

And that’s why it’s taking so long. But God bless my publisher. We’re behind schedule because my artist is really taking time to make it so good. What’s great is that they’ve said, “We don’t care when we get it done as long as it’s at your level of quality.”

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What’s this I hear about you touring the book?

I do a zombie self-defense lecture. It started out of desperation when my book first came out. I thought, “This is crazy and stupid and nobody’s into this except for me, so what if I just go around and actually try to teach people how to fight zombies?” And I had no idea it would actually take off. I thought I’d do maybe one or two, and maybe a dozen people would show up. The first one I did, 200 people showed up. It’s about a half hour, 45 minutes, of straight lecture.

From the book?

From the book. And you know, I don’t make a joke out of it. It’s very serious. If you didn’t know zombies were fake and you walked into it you’d think, “Oh, OK, now I know what to do!” But more important than my lecture are the questions. The first time I did it, I thought, OK, the questions are going to be about

Saturday Night Live

or whatever. But literally all the questions were zombie-related. It was like, “If I get bitten on the arm should I cut it off?” “What kind of sword should I get?”—things like that. So it almost became improvisational theater in that I had to give them a real answer! I couldn’t just give them a joke.

You’re the main zombie guy now.

Right! I had to really answer them very realistically. If someone said, “I am bitten on the arm. How long do I have before I become a zombie?” then I have to answer them scientifically. I have to say, “Well, if you were bitten on a vein it will take the infection right to the heart and you won’t have much time at all, but if you were bitten on an artery then you may have just a couple seconds to chop your arm off.” Someone asked me about putting up razor wire so that if a zombie came at them it would cut its own head off. And I said, “That’s a great idea, but how tall would it be?” And they’re like, “Yeah, yeah…” So it has to be ironclad logic. And because of that, the bookings just don’t stop. One time I had almost a thousand people there.

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Do you have a merch stand? Do you sell t-shirts?

Yeah, but more important is that people come up to me with so many books to sign. At one of my last lectures I signed books for two hours. These people really like to think about it. A friend of mine in publishing told me when it first comes out, the lifespan of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt. It’ll be out for six months and then it will be forgotten. I was told that to be a successful fiction author you have to sell between 5,000 and 40,000. I thought, “40,000? That’s impossible!” You go to a baseball game and there are 40,000 people there, you know? But to date we have sold 600,000

Zombie Survival Guides

.

Wow.

And it’s not letting up—we sell more every year.

What about World War Z?

We have sold around 200,000 copies of

World War Z.

And it’s only been out for a couple years. It just keeps going. We get these foreign book deals. It keeps getting translated into different languages, which is great.

You’ve got to come over to the UK soon!

Oh yeah, I think I will when the graphic novel comes out. I owe Duckworth, my publisher, a debt because no one else would publish

The Zombie Survival Guide

. No one understood why you’d write a “real” book on something that isn’t real. But I’d say there’s no point in writing a novelty book. As a kid I was scared of zombies, and I wanted to know how to fight them. My motives for writing it were probably the purest they will ever be to write a book. I literally wanted to write it for me. If it had been published already I would have bought it. It wasn’t because I wanted to make money. I didn’t even think it was going to get published.

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What was the process of writing the Survival Guide like?

I did a lot of research. When I sat down to write it I thought, OK, what if there really were zombies? How would I fight them? People always assume I watched a lot of zombie movies and I always say, no, I researched a lot of survivalism, nutrition, medicine, firearms, combat—the real things you would need. And I did two years of research for

World War Z

because I really wanted to figure out, if there was a zombie outbreak, how it would really happen. You know, forget what you see in the movies. What if there was a real zombie outbreak? That was my premise.

Do you think if there is ever a zombie outbreak that Obama will be able to handle it?

I think Obama could handle anything. Except Kryptonite. And that’s why Joe Biden’s there. Obama is the first president in my lifetime who I’m actually excited about. All the other presidents so far in my lifetime have been complete assheads. I used to hear baby boomers talk about JFK or Roosevelt. You know, my father once saw Roosevelt. He was a tiny little boy on his mother’s shoulders and he actually waved at him. And my mother met Winston Churchill. She played his mother in the movie

Young Winston

. She told us this story about when Winston came on the set. He was showing everyone pictures, and he brought out pictures of his dad and pictures of his friends. And then he took out a picture of his mother and he actually started crying.

Wow.

I hear these stories about these great men and I think, All the leaders in my lifetime have been complete douchebags. So finally here comes a man whose books I’ve read and I’ve heard him speak, and I think, Thank God there’s a president in my lifetime who I can actually get excited about.

It’s been a cynical time. People think it’s about getting through the day and there’s no happy ending. And I think, No, you can’t be like that. And finally here comes a man who wants America to be a land of dreams and freedom. We have to get our idealism back. Because if we don’t we’ll become a nation of cynical whiners who believe life is crap and there’s no happy ending. And there’s already a nation like that. It’s called France!

Ha ha. And there’s a happy ending in World War Z.

Yeah, and people get mad at me for that, and I say, “Yeah, but there has to be!” You know, in real life happy endings don’t just happen, and that’s life. In life the baby zebra gets eaten by the lion and that’s the end of it. But I used to argue constantly with my British roommates when I lived in London. As I would tell them, life doesn’t have to be one long Morrissey song.