Conversations with the Vegas Valley Book Festival’s two keynote authors, Max Brooks and Jane Smiley
Max Brooks: Don of the dead
If it seems you can’t swing an (un)dead cat without hitting a zombie novel, zombie TV series, zombie movie, zombie comic book or zombie videogame, well, it’s because you can’t. But the writer most responsible for the current trend of apocalyptic horror doesn’t deal in straightforward B-movie clichés. Instead, his acclaimed, best-selling novel, “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War,” takes the living dead idea into a super-realistic, ultra-historical direction.
“World War Z’s” nameless interviewer, a member of the United Nations Postwar Commission, documents stories of Zombie War survivors. They’ve endured everything—seeing friends being devoured in the shallow waters of an Indian shipyard to experiencing a gut-wrenching moment when their Air Force transport plane crashes into a Louisiana swamp infested with flesh-eating monsters. Pick up the book, and you’ll turn sweaty pages as if caught in a fever dream.
Deemed the Studs Terkel of zombie journalism, Brooks wasn’t initially considered a horrorist. His 2003 debut, an imaginative how-to tome called “The Zombie Survival Guide,” was filed under “humor” in bookstores.
“The marketing department at Three Rivers Press just didn’t know what to make of it,” says Brooks during a recent phone interview. “They figured since I was Mel Brooks’ son, which automatically means I’m just like him, and since I’d just done two seasons writing for Saturday Night Live, where I got fired, then naturally this weird book must’ve been intended as a joke.”
Brooks dug himself out from under that proverbial rock by doing everything possible to tell his side of the story. He claimed a spot among the horror elite with his follow-up, 2006’s “World War Z.” Rather than dispense a plot-by-numbers, the book immerses the reader in a world where zombies are serious, their existence documented in an oral-history format.
“Everyone else was doing formula,” says Brooks, when asked why he didn’t deploy a simple third-person narrative. “Why go through the trouble of writing something I could just read? The whole point of ‘WWZ’ was to answer questions I had when reading or watching traditional, small-group, first-person, zombie stories.”
“WWZ” involved tons of research—tech manuals, newspaper articles, stacks of books. Still, half his research came from interviews with friends possessing fascinating jobs and “actual usable skills.”
“I asked them big questions,” says Brooks. “Like: ‘What kind of heart condition would allow me to frame a story that requires a special organ transplant?’ Some questions were small but important details like: ‘Does a C130 have a bathroom?’ Turns out some do, some don’t.”
Brooks insists there’s nothing zombies can do to us that we haven’t already done to each other. Before he was a sci-fi/horror nerd, he was a history geek. He has always been fascinated with what he calls “a life story of the human race.”
“When WWZ was in its final draft, I asked Random House to hire a fact-checker because I didn’t trust my research,” he confesses. “I nailed the really hard stuff — place names in India, Chinese slang words for peasants, technical aspects of the International Space Station. But I totally failed on some of the easy stuff, like putting the address of a sporting goods store in my very neighborhood on the wrong street.”
Brooks has also been labeled patriotic. In “WWZ,” Americans come out looking slightly better than the rest of the world.
“I’m an optimist,” says Brooks. “I have to be. Real life is pretty damn dark. I’ve lived and worked and traveled in countries where most people think life is crap and anyone who thinks otherwise is a child who needs to grow up. No thanks. I’ll take ‘Yes, we can’ any day.”
How does Brooks imagine Vegas might fare in a “real-life” zombie attack?
“Depends on your city’s history. Have you ever suffered a catastrophe? If so, how did your city weather it? I’ve divided most of my life between New York and L.A. I was in New York for 9/11 and the blackout of ’03, and I can tell you the Big Apple’s ready for anything. I’ve also been in L.A. during floods, fires, earthquakes and the Rodney King riots, and I can tell you that the City of Angels is toast. Examine Vegas’ history and decide for yourself.” — Jarret Keene
[HEAR MORE: Max Brooks discusses zombies, the film business and more on "KNPR's State of Nevada."]
Jane Smiley: The realist, the reader
When novelist Jane Smiley was researching her biography of Charles Dickens she found that the great writer fancied himself something of a thespian, too.
“He transformed his readings into melodramatic one-act plays. People would scream and faint while he was reading, and his blood pressure would shoot into the stratosphere. It was quite dangerous for him to read certain scenes.”
Smiley may not hit Dickensian histrionics, but she will aim to entertain when she reads to close out the BMI/Vegas Valley Book Festival. “I like a reading to be a little bit like a production,” she says. “The pleasure is in gathering together in the good-humored energy that can come into a room if a reader is up there actually performing.”
Smiley knows the value of a good reading. After growing up in St. Louis and doing a turn at Vassar College in the tumult of the late-1960s, she decamped for Iowa City to study Old Norse and attend the Writers’ Workshop. Her most important literary influence there may have been a reading by E.L. Doctorow.
“He used an accessible, realistic (narrative) voice to tell amazing stories,” she says of the sections he read from “Ragtime” — Houdini dangling beneath a plane; Freud and Jung in the Coney Island Tunnel of Love. “It was amazing to me that someone could make stuff up like that and have it be so delightful. That reading was a revelation to me.”
Those characteristics — gripping stories wrought in down-to-earth prose, with historical and allusive elements turned loose in realist fiction — have become hallmarks of Smiley’s work. Through stories, essays, nonfiction books, and 13 novels — including “A Thousand Acres,” the transplant of King Lear to an Iowa farm that captured the Pulitzer in 1992 — Jane Smiley has carved an enviable plot in the landscape of contemporary American letters.
Her latest, “Private Life,” (lauded by The Washington Post as a “quantum leap” for an already virtuosic writer) takes us from Missouri in the aftermath of the Civil War to San Francisco during the descent into World War II. The cast features a cosmologist with a paranoid vendetta against Einstein, a trailblazing female journalist who pals around with the likes of Ezra Pound, and a name-and-accent-shifting schemer with a murky role in the Russian Revolution.
The central character, however, is paralyzed by the expectations placed on a turn-of-the-century Midwestern housewife and by the domineering personalities around her. Margaret Mayfield is so closed off from even her own inner life that Smiley was forced to re-write the novel from first- to third-person “in order to get more access to what’s going on in her than she would actually have.”
Smiley does not consider her main character passive, though. She’s just normal. Margaret doesn’t drive the plot, she copes with it, and that, Smiley says, “is a more normal way for a person in our world to be: not to seize the day, but to have to deal with it every day.” — Joseph Langdon
Max Brooks delivers the Vegas Valley Book Festival opening keynote address 7 p.m. Nov. 3 at the Clark County Library Main Theater.
Jane Smiley delivers the closing keynote address 3:30 p.m. Nov. 5 at the Historic Fifth Street School, followed by a conversation with Carol Harter.
The Vegas Valley Book Festival is Nov. 3-6 at the Historic Fifth Street School and other venues. Info: vegasvalleybookfestival.org.