My recent interview with Anthony Wessel of Digital Book Today...
Our interview today is with Matt Darst author of Dead Things (4.2 stars, 58 reviews). Before we get to the interview a brief book description: Nearly two decades have passed since the fall of the United States and the rise of the church to fill the void. Science is heresy, and the dead must be decapitated to avoid an unholy resurrection. When a plane crash strands Ian Sumner and a band of survivors miles from the fortified walls of the church state, survival depends on secrets too dangerous to speak aloud.
Interview with Matt Darst
Q1. Briefly describe your book.
A1. Dead Things is a mash-up of horror and sci-fi, kind of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend meets H.G. Wells or Michael Crichton. It is not a “run and gun” story. It’s a zombie book that aims more at the characters than the monsters.
Q2. Zombies are extremely popular today. What sets Dead Things apart and makes it unique to the genre? How did you avoid writing something derivative?
A2. I admit that zombies have been “done to death.” My goal, though, was to introduce something fresh to the genre while staying true to George Romero’s original vision.
In truth, I forced myself to take a break from the genre for few years while writing Dead Things. I was worried about being derivative. I didn’t want something that I read or watched subconsciously creeping into my text.
Rather than write about the apocalypse as it happens, the novel takes place nearly twenty years later. Government has ceased to be and the church has filled the vacuum. In this new world the church-state has absolute power…and we all know the corruptive value of absolutes.
The setting—a land where science has been subverted to religion—not only provided a backdrop for my characters’ adventure, it propelled it. The reader shares the characters’ journey of discovery, learning contemporaneously about the biology, physics, and cause of zombies.
Q3. Was there a lot of research required in that regard?
A3. Yes, although I’m not sure I’d call it research as much as pleasure reading. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd that way. Science—including virology, ecology, and biology—is inspiring and thought-provoking. It makes you ask questions, like how would a zombie microbe elude our immune system and slip through the blood-brain barrier? What slows a zombie’s rate of decomposition? How do you reconcile the various methods of transmission? How can a zombie groan without working lungs? Dead Things allowed me to explore these ideas.
Q4. What other themes did you try to tackle in Dead Things?
A4. There were primarily three themes (“the 3 S’” as I’ve been calling them): science, sociology, and source. We discussed the first. “Sociology” as a theme, however, is a little bit more nuanced.
There’s a lot of emphasis placed on the competing notions of faith and science in America today. I’ve never really understood why these concepts are mutually exclusive, but debate has raged for centuries, the pendulum of popular opinion swinging back and forth. What would happen, however, if some freak event halted a pendulum swing at its peak? What if society never returned to equilibrium? What are the social ramifications of a theocracy?
The third theme is “source.” My dad introduced me to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead when I was a kid. It was very different from other monster fare (“creature features”). Unlike Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster, zombies were actually scary. I think that’s because zombies represent a fate worse than death: the perpetual loss of individuality. That’s a very persistent theme (think Fahrenheit 451, 1984, or The Stepford Wives) that continues to have significant relevance today (body scanners, enhanced pat downs, identity theft, etc.).
Q5. How did you go about developing your characters? How do they evolve throughout the story?
A5. There’s a bit of me in every character. Ian, Van, Kari, Burt, Jessica, Peter…they all echo parts of my personality. There are even hints of me in the unlikeable characters. Experienced writers will tell you that it’s critical to write what you know. So, although my characters may all seem very different, there are pieces of me—and my experiences—in each one.
Ian has what is probably the most noticeable character arc. He’s plagued by fear and doubt early but takes to action as the story progresses. Others, like Kari, Burt, Anne, and Peter evolve as well. These are normal people literally caught in life-or-death situations. Hopefully, readers will find themselves rooting for Ian and the others to succeed. Other characters, however, they might find themselves wishing would disappear.
Q6. Tell me a little about how you started writing and about your writing process.
A6. I was fortunate to grow up in a very creative environment. My mom and dad are both artists, and I had the benefit of their encouragement. I loved books and writing fiction as a kid. My dad would often let me collaborate on skits or plays he was working on. By twelve, I was begging my parents for a typewriter. I spent countless hours hammering out stories on that thing.
My career path and my love of writing probably seem a bit contradictory. It is hard to reconcile because, admittedly, law school and work delayed much artistic output for years. But being an attorney also informed my writing. Legal writing, at its core, is about conveying a clear and persuasive message. So, from that perspective, law really helped me hone my writing.
Still, writing a novel is different. Before putting pen to pad I read a lot about what it takes to write a book. It is, by all accounts, a frustratingly slow process: editing, rewrites, cover design, submissions… Knowing all of that in advance helped me stay the course.
I had a rough idea for Dead Things several years ago and mentioned it to my brother and sister at Christmas. The next Christmas came and went without anything but some research to show for it. Sometime during the next year (almost two years after I first mentioned the concept) I was blathering on about it again to my brother, and he stopped me. “When are you going to stop talking about it and start writing it?” he asked. That’s when I realized I needed to really commit myself to writing and carve out bits of “me time” to spend on the book.
Some advice to new authors from another new author: if you enjoy something, stick with it, no matter how long it may take. Find time to do it, and surround yourself with people who encourage you.
Q7. How do you get past writers block or distractions like the Internet?
A7. I think focus is a problem that plagues many creative types. Focusing your energy on an endeavor, especially in the Internet age, can be difficult. Everyone gets stuck occasionally. Eventually, though, the words come. Unfortunately, it might be in the shower, walking the dog, or during a dream. So I try to keep a notepad close.
As for distractions, they come in many forms, and, personally, the day-to-day aspects of life conspire to slow my writing more than the Web. It’s a conscious decision to find your space, and I just have to remind myself of that from time to time.
Q8. What was the toughest thing about writing a novel?
A8. This may sound cliché, but finding your “voice” can be difficult. This is especially true when you don’t write regularly. Writing in spurts sacrifices flow.
Q9. How will you define success with your first book?
A9. I write because I like to write. I like to problem solve. And there is no greater puzzle than a book waiting to be written. If I finish the puzzle, that’s a success.
Now I’m not going to lie and say that’s where it all ends. I definitely don’t begrudge people who can make a living doing what they love creatively. If I could only be so lucky! I want people to read my book. I want them to like it. I want them to tell others about it. But that’s gravy, if you will. I’ll continue to write regardless.