Friday, August 29, 2008

Zombies, Braaaaiinnnnnnns, and Mixology: An Interview With Mark Henry

When I first heard about a zombie-laden urban fantasy, my first thought was, "Oooh! I have a zombie fanatic friend who'd love that!" Never having been a connoisseur of the zombie genre, I thought the idea was interesting and worth checking out...later.

I should have rushed the bookstore that day. It's not purely urban fantasy. More like UF meets snarky chic lit after a serious bender - and then satirized. When I finally picked up Happy Hour of the Damned, I couldn't put it down, and I didn't stop laughing. I took it in the shower, I got soup on it, and it even spent a couple spine-bending nights getting squashed when I rolled over on it in my sleep. It's been so long since I laughed out loud at a book that when I finished, I began my evil plan to interview the author.

I'm not sure if it's a testament to my diabolical nature or Mark Henry's masochism, but I didn't even have to ask. Shazam!

So strap on your Antonio Berardi crazy shoes, grab a mojito, and kick back with Mark Henry.

You have quite the talent for climbing inside a woman's mind, which I assume you managed with your psychotherapy-fu. What fu did you use to create such incredibly crass, flawed, shallow, self-absorbed characters that are so fun and - dare I say - sympathetic?

Easy. I just based them on my friends and me…and a whole lot of other people, obviously. The dialogue and particularly the foul language is definitely de rigeur in my social group and the internal stuff is totally a result of my psychotherapy background. I don't think I've met a person I considered free of flaws, so I certainly couldn't write one. All the characters in my worlds are damaged and neurotic and quirky. EVERYONE. Just like real life, except dead and stuff.

I've heard you're a pantser, but I'm curious about the use of footnotes (tres geek chic!) and the quoted fictional city guides at the start of each chapter. Were those part of your first draft, or did they come into play later? And after you've gone all Rowling on us with a TV series and release night parties, do you plan to write a collection of these guides a la Quidditch Through the Ages?

I'm totally a pantser, though I'm frequently seen wearing shorts so maybe I'm a shortser. I've had to get in the habit of outlining for my publisher, as of late, but that's really, reaaaaallly outside my comfort zone. Still, it does help to pull all the lose strings of my mind together more coherently and force me to think in a linear fashion. The footnotes and chapter lead-ins were definitely in the first draft, but kind of happened accidentally. I kept thinking of bits of snark and habits for Amanda (her lists, her social commentary). They seemed to not want to end up on the cutting room floor--so they didn't. I've tried to make them feel like she was talking directly to the reader. I hope I've succeeded in that. Some people don't like them. As for guidebooks, I'm putting together stuff like that for my website redesign so people will have to check that out.

You created a wild world of monsters and supernatural badasses in HHotD - zombies, werewolves, vampires, demons, crazed werebears, sirens, actors, and advertising executives. It sounds like you might have been inspired by some of the craptastic horror flicks of the 70s and 80s. What movies would you say have most influenced you creatively?

There's definitely homage to John Waters' filth classics Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos at work in Amanda's world (you can sometimes hear it in the dialogue--or I can, at least), and I'll agree I love me some shock and schlock. The first thing that came to mind horror-wise when I read the question was Prophecy with Talia Shire. For those that haven't seen it, Prophecy was one of those anti-toxic chemical dumping "Statement" movies like Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants where animals just got freaky big and piranhas grew wings and shit. In Prophecy, there's this bear that's kind of like a fish and just a real mash-up of everything that horror movies tried to capture in the 70s. That's kind of like Happy Hour of the Damned, it's just a big mash up of weird influences and loves. Zombies, of course, being my fave.

In the world you've created, there are two types of zombies - those who are made when they inhale the incredibly rare zombie breath (oh, the stank, how it must burn) and those who are bitten to become the classic walking dead (mistakes). And in this world a troupe of child-like beings cleans up the mistakes. These reapers are so creeptastic, I envisioned the Village of the Damned sprogs on kid-roids. How did you decide to use little girls for such a gruesome job?

There was no question when I wrote the book that the reapers had to be little girls, and more than that…cute little girls, almost doll-like. There's more thought in those characters than you'd imagine and it comes from working with children for so long in my previous incarnation as a therapist. I'm totally convinced that hypervigilant child protection is creating a generation that can't function appropriately in societal systems (employment, higher education, effective family). Without going on a diatribe here, the less children are held responsible for their own actions, the more difficulty they have adjusting to systems that require them to do just that. It's that blue ribbon for everyone mentality. It doesn't lend itself to learning about reality where second place is just first loser. Learn it, love it, live it--to swipe a line from Jawbreaker. The reapers are an anti-child protection statement (don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating we not protect our children here, just let them make some freakin' mistakes and understand that not everyone is going to think they're unique precious flowers). The reapers are children who need no protection. They are a symbol of responsibility. And yeah. They're scary, because so is the idea that child-rearing has taken a wrong turn.

Jesus! I didn't mean for that to get heavy, but I guess it did.

Which brings us back to the zombies, I'm thinking that in one of the books, there'll be four different kinds of zombies (Haitian voodoo, Romero-ish, fast ones and then my Breathers). The Haitian ones don't show up until book 4. I'm still working on that, I've got to figure out the symbolic nature of each first. You got your commercialism, your overpopulation…ugh, I'm braindead.

Since Amanda now knows she's not quite as prone to long-term disfigurement as she once thought, is she going to be just a wee bit more proactive (well, as much as she can be without looking like she cares)?

She is definitely more proactive in Road Trip of the Living Dead, but as time goes by and with inflation, let's just say the reapers don't do anything for free.

It's a living dead smackdown! Who wins, and will there be cocktails after?

  1. Amanda vs a zombie from Stephen King's Cell
    I haven't read Cell, I'm ashamed. I imagine Amanda's smarter, though, and if they are typical zombies, they probably wouldn't have any intention of trying to eat another dead thing. So…advantage Amanda
  2. Amanda vs a zombie from 28 Days Later
    Amanda's a goner. Those freaks are just plain crazy and seriously it's hard to run in stilettos.
  3. Amanda vs Michael Kors
    This is a conundrum. Amanda loves fashion but she also loves her food. She might sidestep Kors and say auf wedersen to Klum.
  4. Michael Kors vs Cristobal Balenciaga
    Balenciaga hands down. Since his death in '72, Chris, as Amanda calls him, has been chewing through up-and-comers in the fashion industry like pac-man. All in a slim-fitting three piece suit. Tres chic for an elderly zombie.
  5. Santino vs Christian Siriano
    Wow. That's a tough one. They're both fierce, but Santino has the walk. Yeah. As much as I like Siriano, I'm going to go with the balding provacateur, he's definitely not adverse to fighting dirty.
  6. Gil vs Tim Gunn
    See. Now this just wouldn't happen. Gil would probably turn Tim. No probablies about it. He'd vamp Tim Gunn quicker than you can say "make it work."

In addition to your MA in Psychology, do you also boast a certificate in mixology? What would the recipe for a sweetmeat-tini look like?

Dear sweet Kerri-Leigh, you're just being silly with that question. The sweetmeat is just for garnish on a top shelf vodkatini with a mist of vermouth. In fact, that recipe just might make it into Battle of the Network Zombies (the tentative title of book 3). I don't have a certificate but I certainly am no stranger to a cocktail shaker.

Amanda's all about fashion, reality TV, and marketing. Did you set out to continue the time-honored tradition of using zombies to highlight consumerism, or was this an accidental act of genius on your part? How do the secondary characters (non-zombie) play into this?

Oh no. No accident as evidenced by my over-thinking of question #4. I loved Dawn of the Dead (original and remake); so when I set out to write a chick lit parody (already rife with shoe and fashion references), zombies were a natural accompaniment. I did add the element of shame as a theme, which threw a wrench into things, I think. Vampires, likewise, take on an emotional sponge quality, much like they do amongst the people we know (I'm not talking about anyone specifically, of course…ahem).

There's been an uprising of zombie mistakes, and they're busy munching their way across the world. You're stuck in an old bomb shelter in the basement, and you only had room for five books on your bookshelf. If you had to choose one literary, one urban fantasy, one horror, one romance, and one anthology, what would they be?

Literary: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marissa Pessl. While its framework is a mystery, there are enough literary references in this book to choke a zombie. Plus, Pessl's simile use is off the chain! I also LOVED Lost and Found by Carolyn Parkhurst and The Keep by Jenifer Egan.

Urban Fantasy: Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore. Coyote and Minty Fresh are two of my favorite characters ever. A close runner up would have been Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Unholy Ghosts (forthcoming) from Stacia Kane just about killed me. So jealous.

Horror: Gotta go with King again. The Stand (extended version). Apocalyptic horror with supernatural elements? Hells yeah!

Romance: This is tricky. What I consider romance and the definition of romance with happily ever afters are two very different things. I'm going to go with Lisey's Story by Stephen King, which is just this brilliant glimpse of the interior of a marriage after the death of the husband. The language is so foreign and exclusive to the couple, the reader nearly feels intrusive. It's lovely. But because it's King, it satisfies on a horrific level, as well. I did just read Countdown by Michelle Maddox, which was a romantic thriller and really fun.

Anthology: Anthologies aren't really my thing. I find myself buying them for a specific story. I did enjoy Book of the Dead in the 80s but it's out of print. It contained this awesome sentient zombie story based on the Bret Easton Ellis novel called Less than Zombie. Brilliant. He really nailed Ellis' voice.

What is your writing kryptonite?

Outlines. I can write half a book in the time it takes me to write a few pages of outline. I don't think in short snippets. Humor doesn't come that way either.

Are you worried about getting sued by Starbucks, or are you expecting a royalty check from them?

I did. I worried that they had pictures of me up next to the cash registers like a bad check, but I guess I just lucked out. After all, it's not like Starbucks was the brains behind the operation, you know?

So, when Amanda eats her victims and leaves no trace, what happens to the clothes? Does she ever end up fishing a rogue scrap of underthings from her mouth?

Sure. And the other stuff just passes through, though not as violently as if it were food. I just leave that out because there's enough defecation in the books already.

When I heard that the next book is called Road Trip of the Living Dead, I wondered - is it cheating if it's your zombie? Where is Amanda headed, and do they have Starbucks there?

Only if you lure it with meat powder, then it's cheating. And seriously, a place where there is no Starbucks? That's just crazy talk. Kerri-Leigh you need to take your medication.

Thank you, Mark, for awesome answers and for not threatening to eat my brains.

You can visit Mark at his main site or at his awesomely fun group blog. His current work of genius is available now. In Mark's own words (since he's so darn good with them):

Join me for Happy Hour of the Damned, a zomedy with cocktails and eyeliner; it's on sale now wherever pretty people buy books. Road Trip of the Living Dead is coming soon from Kensington Books.


Donnell said...

OK. it's like you guys speak another language but this book sounds like a all-purpose, rolled up in one, something for every UF reader :) I think you've invented a new term for in the mist novella writng ... panters... shortsters. Great interview Mark and KL. I've never read a zombie book in my life, but this interview makes me want to remedy that problem. I have to see how you climb into a woman's mind. Also, I'm curious with your background, who beside Stephen King were the major influences in your writing? Thanks again for being here. I learn a lot from KL!

December/Stacia said...

Mark, will you stop coyping me? First I get interviewed here, now you do.

I'm going to take out a restraining order, seriously.

Mark said...

Hey Donnell - I like to think that Happy Hour has something to offend everyone in its sticky little pages. Lord knows I tried. That said, you might be surprised to know I was heavily influenced by cozy mysteries like Lilian Jackson Braun's Cat Who books and Alexander McCall Smith's #1 Ladies Detective Agency (but only by authors with three names, two is so pedestrian).

Stace - You just keep threatening. Such a flirt.

Marni said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marni said...

Another fantabulous interview, KL! Looking forward to learning all about your next victim. :)

Mark, Happy Hour has officially taken cutsies in my burgeoning literary queue. Anyone that writes zombies and considers Lisey's Story a romance is downright crush-worthy. Garf ngarrrg!

Nikki said...

If I laugh half as hard reading the book as I did for the interview, I might hurt something! Great interview and I'm picking up that book! Thanks.

KL Grady said...

Marni and Nikki - I promise you'll enjoy the read. Thanks for stopping by!

Ann said...

What a great interview KL!

I'm hooked. I'll be picking up the book. :)

Candy said...

KL ~ Great interview--funny, witty and insightful. Love UF, so I will check this book out. Thanks for the head's up. I might not have picked it up on my own since I've never read "zombie" and never thought I'd like it. But I used to think the same thing about vampires and werewolves. Yeah, little did I know. All it takes is one good book--and one good author--and I'll buy it hook line and sinker. Thanks again for your recommendation!


Dr. M said...

U totally rock as an interviewer, KL! I'm probably not gonna read zombie books (eating people? Taking out bits of clothing stuck in the teeth??) but it was interesting to hear Mark's view on kids nowadays since I agree with him. And that he was actually influenced by mystery. How cool is that?

KL Grady said...

Hey, Doc! Thanks for stopping by. :) No, I didn't think Mr. Henry would be your fare. LOL