Plot Outline:When news reports start appearing of a zombie outbreak in Ireland, B Smith's racist father thinks it's a joke-- but even if it isn't, he figures, it's ok to lose a few Irish. B doesn't fully buy into Dad's racism, but figures it's easier to go along with it than to risk the fights and abuse that will surely follow sticking up for Muslims, blacks, or immigrants. But when zombies attack B's school, B is forced on a mad dash through the serpentine corridors, making allegiances with anyone with enough guts to fight off their pursuers.
Author Notes:I started the first draft of Zom-B on the 7th of April 2008, and it was the most daunting task I've yet to face as a writer.
It was daunting for two reasons. One was the scale of the thing. I knew this was the first of what would be a multi-book series. I wasn't sure of the exact number, but I was guessing between 10 and 15 books. This was actually the first time that I had set out to tell a story across that sort of length. The Saga of Darren Shan and The Demonata both started with less grandiose ambitions. With The Saga, I thought I might write a handful of low-key books. Lord Loss meanwhile was intended as a one-off novel when I first wrote it. In both cases, the story led me further and further in, and I advanced without knowing what I was truly taking on. With Zom-B I knew from the start that I was locking myself into a hugely testing task, one that would take several years to complete. I like to compare it to climbing a mountain -- with The Saga and The Demonata I couldn't see the peak of either story's mountain -- I started up what I thought was a hill, then another apparent hilltop revealed itself, and so on. But with Zom-B I could see the top of the mountain from day one, and that was terrifying, since I knew the full exactitude of what I would have to climb.
But it was also daunting because I knew I would have to take on the mantle of a racist, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to make that work in a children's book. If I'd been writing for adults it would have been different -- I don't feel that adults can be influenced by a book in the same way that a child can, and I never worry about treading a moral high ground in my books for older readers -- I feel like I have more of a licence to take readers into uncomfortable areas, to explore the dark regions of the human experience without feeling the need to present any counter-arguments, figuring by the time you reach adulthood, you should have learned the difference between right and wrong, and if you haven't, then there's probably not a lot that a writer can do to reach you.
It's different when I'm writing for a younger audience. I never set out to preach to them, and I certainly take them into many troubling moral waters, but I do feel like I have to wear something akin to a teacher's hat. I think children and teenagers have lots of yet-to-be-directed potential, and it's important that writers bear that in mind. It doesn't mean that you have to fill your books with unbridled hope and optimism, as many YA writers believe, but I do think you have to be careful if leading your readers into the darkness. You don't need to hold their hands, but you should provide some sort of a guiding light.
How to do that when writing a book about a racist? How to structure the book in such a way that readers can sympathise with a character who in many ways is truly hateful? It wasn't easy, and for several drafts I failled. The early drafts of the book were much bleaker than the finished product, with more emphasis on B's racist traits, and less focus on how B ended up in that situation. Yes, it was implied that it was because of B's openly racist father, but I didn't come out and openly show that. Ultimately I found a way to make B more relatable for those of us who are not actively racist, without ever making B truly likeable. It was crucial that B not be a character we could love, at least not in the beginning, as I felt that wouldn't have been true to life, and I wanted this to be as realistic a novel as I could write, albeit one with the fantastical backdrop of a zombie invasion...
The zombies were actually secondary to the racist angle, when it came to putting the book together. As with The Thin Executioner, I wanted to write a book that dealt with the state of the world post-9/11. I didn't travel much throughout my teens and twenties (I had no money, and I wasn't brave enough to go backpacking), so I hadn't been exposed much of the world. I wasn't a political creature. But when my books started to do well, I got to travel all around the globe, and meet people from all sorts of different places. In my experience, people are pretty much the same wherever you go, basically decent, honest folk who care about family and friends, who welcome strangers, and who only want the good things from life. But certain sections of our society and media want us to believe differently. They try to paint certain groups as vicious threats, to tar all people of a certain race or religion with the same brush. Since the Taliban were Muslim, these people try to tell us that ALL Muslims are evil.
Of course that's nonsense, yet many people believe the lies, especially people who (like me when I was younger) don't travel much or get to mingle with people from other cultures. I felt I had to do what I could to get young readers questioning the ways of their elders, to decide for themselves what is right or wrong, to look for the truth behind the cloud of lies. The main message I wanted to impart was -- QUESTION EVERYTHING!
But I didn't want to write a dry, serious, message-laden book about racism. That's not my style. It needed to be an exciting, fast-paced, action-packed story. I think that's the best way to get people thinking, when they connect with a story and the message, whatever it might be, seeps through. So I thought about it a lot, and decided zombies were the way to go. I remembered how George A Romero had used zombies to hold a mirror up to society in his early films, and felt that I could do something similar with them, use them as a way to get us thinking about the REAL monsters in our midst. Drawing the two different styles of story together was by no means a straightforward or easy task, but I kept thinking and bouncing ideas around, and eventually I figured out a way that I could maybe do it. And so I took a deep breath and got stuck in!!!
***My notes for the origins of the series will continue in January, when I write about Zom-B Underground. There are certain twists in the first book that I don't want to spoil for those who have not read it yet, so I will address them next time round.
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UK Zom-B concept sketch
Zom-B first draft (USA)