Mainak Dhar, master zombie creator, in conversation on matters zombie with Neel Debdutt Paul, editor of Tinkle Digest and zombie aficionado, for the Duckbill Blog.
NDP: What drew you to zombies?
MD: I have always enjoyed post apocalyptic fiction, because it really forces us to confront what things would be like if all the usual rules and norms that make for ‘civilized’ society disappear. I’ve been a keen student of history and if there’s anything history teaches us it is that our civilized veneer is at best a thin layer, which often enough is peeled back to reveal the savagery and cruelty we’re capable of. For a writer, that makes for rich territory, to showcase both the cruelty we’re capable of, and yet paint a picture of how even in such desperate conditions, we can discover hope. Zombies for me were a way of bringing that message to life, and as you will see in both Zombiestan and Alice in Deadland (my next zombie novel to hit Indian stores over the next six months), I try and treat zombies a bit differently than just mindless brain eating monsters–but almost a metaphor for the evil we ourselves are capable of unleashing, and in both cases, created by us as a direct outcome of our hate for fellow men.
NDP: So these ‘Biters’, they are different from the zombies we know, aren’t they? They certainly aren’t slow-moving Romero zombies. They aren’t particularly fast-moving zombies either, *SPOILER ALERT* at least to begin with. They are rather original. Why did you feel the need to do this – just originality, or do you feel the need to redefine the concepts for an audience new to the genre?
MD: I love playing around with conventions and as I wrote my first zombie novel, I wanted to do something more than just default to the shambling, shuffling undead who can be put down with a bullet to the head. I believe that the best horror is one that builds off people’s real fears. Today, the fear of terrorism with it’s unyielding, fanatic hatred is something that perhaps plays on most people’s minds. I started creating my Biters with that very real terror in mind.
NDP: You play with zombie sentience and emotion with terrifying consequences. I must admit, the idea of a gun-toting zombie is scary beyond belief. Was it fun to play around with the baggage that the zombie movies and comics bring with them?
MD: It was huge fun. I like writing in a visual way ie. Imagining scenes playing out in front of me. So for me writing a book is a double whammy- the satisfaction of writing a story and also, in a way, seeing it’s movie version play out in front of me.
NDP: I’ve always wanted to ask horror writers this – are your characters inspired by people you know? The idea of putting your friends and family in fictional and terrifying settings must be inviting.
MD: Every writer builds off people they know to some extent, and I’m no exception. There’s no character in Zombiestan who is a strict `copy and paste’ of someone I know, but I did `borrow’ several characteristics. Mayukh shares his name and impulsive nature with my older brother, Abhi is modeled loosely on my four year old son, down to mannerisms and love for Lightning McQueen.
NDP: Hina and Abhi are particularly interesting characters in a zombie apocalypse setting. A 60-something professor and part-time romance novelist and a five-year-old aren’t characters you immediately think of when you think zombie story. Tell us more.
MD: I like creating and reading about unlikely heroes. I personally am not a fan of stories where the hero is all knowing and all powerful. Of all the lead characters in Zombiestan, only one (David, the Navy SEAL) can be considered a `traditional’ hero. Looked at more philosophically, if you look at Zombiestan as a metaphor for the battle against fanaticism and hatred we wage in our real world, that battle will not be won by soldiers alone. It will be won by common people- professors, novelists, students- people like us, coming together to struggle against blind hatred.
NDP: Like all great horror/zombie works, your novel is not just a zombie novel, is it? It is a war story, a romance novel, a coming-of-age novel, an international espionage novel and a mystery novel all masquerading behind yellow, boil-covered, decaying skin, right?
MD: Once you peel the yellow, decayed skin (as disgusting as that sounds), I do hope readers discover some of the deeper meaning and layers I’ve tried to infuse into Zombiestan. I chose my protagonists deliberately–Christians, Hindus, Muslims, old, young, American, Indian, from very different backgrounds to show that when faced with blind and fanatical hatred, good people need to band together, irrespective of religion, nationality and background to protect what is still pure (as symbolized by Abhi). At a time when idiots are making hate-filled videos and other idiots are butchering people to protest it, it may be a lesson we all need to relearn.
NDP: With Samit Basu’s Unholi, Jugal Mody’s Toke, the rumours of Bollywood zombies and now Zombiestan, what do you make of the zombie scene in India?
MD: It is nascent, but I believe there is huge potential for it. I have a couple of other zombie-themed novels that are in the pipeline and should be released over the next 6-9 months through the fine folks at Duckbill. So I certainly hope to do my share in bringing the undead to life in India. If you think about it, India offers a lot of rich territory to play with in the genre versus the US, where most such stories are based. Private gun ownership is low to the point of being zero (so you won’t have a lot of instant Rambos like in Zombieland), the disparity in education and awareness is much more (would illiterate villagers think of zombies as rakshasas?), the role religion plays in people’s lives is different (something I’ve tried to explore in Zombiestan with a corrupt godman capitalizing on people’s fears) and the population density is much higher (imagine a zombie outbreak in the urban sprawl and slums of Indian cities). Lots of possibilities to play with, and I hope other authors jump in. More the merrier.
NDP: Zombieland and Walking Dead comparisons will be inevitable. What other zombie works influenced you while writing this?
MD: To be honest, I was influenced more by post apocalyptic novels (a genre I love) I grew up reading like Swan Song, The Stand, Lucifer’s Hammer than zombie novels. I love the idea of an unlikely band of heroes embarking on a quest in a world gone wrong, and these were the classics that fed my young mind which perhaps I tapped into as I wrote this novel.
NDP: Geeky question. Rate –
a) Zombieland vs. Shaun of the Dead
MD: Tough one. Zombieland for the relentless pursuit of Twinkies and Shaun of the Dead for the utter coolness of being too hung over to know that a zombie apocalypse has occurred.
b) Night of the Living Dead vs. 28 Days Later
MD: 28 Days Later. The whole concept of waking up after a coma in a post zombie world is cool.
Watch out for Zombiestan, releasing in October 2012.