April 2, 2015

The Twenty-Year Death: an interview with David Wellington, author of "Positive"

David Wellington was born in Pittsburgh, PA, where George Romero shot his classic zombie films. The acclaimed author is most famous for his online serialized zombie novels, the “Monster Island” trilogy, then published by Three Rivers. In 2006 he began serializing 13 Bullets. He lives in New York City.

I had the chance to ask David a few questions in the run up to the release of his new novel, Positive, which you can find on Amazon.com. Enjoy!

Gef: What was the inspiration behind Positive?

David: I was reading about prion diseases—the pathogen behind Mad Cow, and also the human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—and I saw that the incubation period could run into decades. That chilled me to the core. You could have a disease, one with no cure, one that would destroy your mind, and you wouldn’t know it was there for twenty years. It would be inside you the whole time, turning your brain into Swiss cheese, and you just wouldn’t know. It was so terrifying I decided on the spot I needed to write a book about it.

Gef: What was it about writing this book, if anything, that you approached differently from the previous titles?

David: Well, I knew it had to be huge. It was going to cover a huge amount of ground both geographically and in the life of Finn, the main character—I wanted to show how he went from just being a survivor to being somebody who could rebuild a ruined world. So there needed to be a ton of world-building before I could even begin. Which meant I needed to do a lot of research.

Gef: How intensive does the research process for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

David: The biggest trick when doing research is learning what not to use. If you’re anything like me, learning new things is fun. I learned so much about prions and emergency management and all kinds of things when writing the book. Maybe one per cent of all my research actually shows up in the book. It’s way, way too easy to start researching a subject and then to forget you need to make a compelling story out of that information. It would be simpler, probably, to just write non-fiction about everything you’ve learned. But this was going to be a story about a human being, about how he would overcome the horrors of his world. So sometimes the research had to stay in the background.

Gef: When it comes to writing zombies, do you find there is any pushback from readers concerning expectations on how a story in that genre should play out, or have readers been generally open to the new vantage points from which you've approached it?

David: I’ve seen that in other genres, especially science fiction and, oddly enough, fantasy. People like to argue about magic systems for some reason. Monster stories are different, though. Monsters are supposed to be weird. They exist in this sort of twilight realm where things shouldn’t be exactly what they appear to be. So when you change the rules, pull the rug out from under your readers’ expectations, that’s part of the fun. Sure, there are people who like to argue about whether zombies should be fast or slow. If they refuse to read a book because it has the “wrong” kind of zombies in it, they’re just cheating themselves. The only real rule about monsters is that they should never be boring.

Gef: What do you consider to be the strength or saving grace of the horror genre?

David: The power of horror, the use of it, is in the fact that it’s fictional. We’re beset at all times in life by fear, endless, banal fear that we can never quite master or get away from. A good horror story lets you conquer that. No matter how terrified you might be on page one, you know that it will end. You know that—even if the characters don’t make it out alive, say—you will prevail over this fear. It’s an incredible catharsis.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

David: Not so much writing advice, but there’s a constant current of discouragement when you do this, and you need to swim against it. My generation—Generation X, if you like, the slackers—get very defensive when you talk about books. They don’t have time to read, they’ll say. Or they’ll tell you nobody reads books anymore. The millennial generation has proved that’s not true. You need to keep reminding yourself that when someone claims they don’t like books, they’re saying something about themselves, not about writing. It’s an uphill battle, though.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

David: I refuse to ever feel guilty about reading a book. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read some utter trash. Some truly salacious stuff. Even the bad books help me become a better writer in the end, though, if only by showing me what not to do. So reading is always valuable. Movies and TV are another matter, because I’m not a screenwriter. I have an unabashed love for terrible movies, but I can feel my brain cells dying when I watch a B horror movie about a monster that’s clearly a stuntman in a rubber suit. It’s like eating potato chips. You get nothing out of it. But man, sometimes potato chips are delicious.

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans? And where and when can folks pick up a copy of Positive?

David: I’ve actually got something really fun going on right now. I’m running a writing contest at davidwellingtonsfearproject.com but unlike traditional competitions this one’s done in reality show style. I’ve got thirteen writers together and every week I give them a writing challenge—say, create a new kind of werewolf in 250 words. Once a week, one writer gets eliminated. The ultimate winner gets a secret prize, as well as a nice chunk of cash. It’s incredibly fun and harrowing at the same time. I had no idea how hard it was going to be to eliminate somebody. The competitors have been incredibly gracious about it.

In other news, after Positive comes out on April 21, my next book will be my third thriller novel, The Cyclops Initiative. For more information, I can be followed on Twitter at @LastTrilobite, or at my website, davidwellington.net.

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