“If the literary crowd is keeping itself from the
pleasures of zombie fiction, then it’s doing itself a disservice.”
– Alden Bell, author of The Reapers are the Angels.
I love the internet, I really do. The other day I bought a book called The Reapers are the Angels. It is good and was nominated for some impressive awards, one of which it won:
ALA Alex Award Winner
Nominated for the 2010 Philip K. Dick Award
Nominated for the 2010 Shirley Jackson Award
So, I started reading the book and found a couple of warts in it, which I turned into a blog post. Well, the blogpost somehow popped up on the author’s radar and he commented, very much to my surprise (and slight embarrassment). He seemed like a really nice guy, answering a random book blogger with style and grace, much more so than I showed in the post. So I sent him an email and asked him if he would mind answering a few questions, and he replied saying he didn’t mind at all. I asked him about books, writing, zombie fiction and more.
My interview with Alden Bell, author of The Reapers are the Angels.
1. I was initially drawn to The Reapers are the Angels because I had seen it described as “a zombie novel for the literary crowd”, similar to the way Justin Cronin’s The Passage was marketed (well, that and both the books’ beautiful covers). Was this something you consciously aimed at?
I like to leave the marketing up to the publishers, who know the game.
When I write, I just write the books that I would like to read. I’m
glad it’s referred to as a “zombie novel for the literary crowd,” but
I also believe that ALL zombie novels can be zombie novels for the
literary crowd. If the literary crowd is keeping itself from the
pleasures of zombie fiction, then it’s doing itself a disservice. In
any case, how my book is labeled after it’s sold is something I have
very little control over. Other people have asked me whether I meant
it to be a Young Adult book or an Adult book. That’s something that I
have no sense of either.
2. I recently claimed that one of the things writers can do to increase the quality of their writing is to increase the quality of their reading, i.e. by reading only the very best literature has to offer. This goes against what Stephen King and others recommend, which is pretty much to read everything. What is your take on this?
I actually agree with you. What makes a good writer is being a good
reader. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and at a certain point
in my education I had to decide whether I would go the creative
writing route or the literature degree route. I chose the literature
degree route, and I believe I made the right decision. Creative
writing classes are great for giving beginning writers deadlines and
opportunities to showcase their work. But if you really want to learn
how to write, you should be spending your time reading Shakespeare and
Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner and James Joyce and Virginia
Woolf–rather than spending your time reading other 20-somethings who
are learning how to write. I learned more about writing from reading
ULYSSES than I ever learned in creative writing classes. So, yes,
reading quality literature is key. On the other hand, you do have the
problem of who gets to decide what is “quality” and what isn’t. But
that’s a problem for a different forum.
3. Who are your favorite authors and which ones have influenced you the most. What book/books do you think deserve more attention?
William Faulkner informs just about everything I do. I admire
intensely his willingness to go big with his narrative voice–to
embrace the epic. So much contemporary fiction seems to be wrapped up
in a cloying modesty that it’s a relief when someone like Faulkner
declares himself with unabashed grandeur. REAPERS was influenced a
great deal by Faulkner, but also by a number of other contemporary
Southern Gothic writers who are underappreciated: Cormac McCarthy
(well, he’s not underappreciated), Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, Tom
Franklin. Tom Franklin’s book SMONK is where my own character Temple
was born. Everybody should read SMONK. Treat yourself!
4. You have a doctoral degree in English with a focus on 20th century literature. Does this make you think that reading/writing “genre” is a guilty pleasure? What are your thoughts on the separation?
That’s another distinction (like the ones above) that I don’t take too
seriously. Genre is a distinction of subject matter–and what makes
books great or not great isn’t the subject matter but how beautifully
the writer delivers that subject matter. So, other than
superficially, I’ve never categorized my writing as genre or
non-genre. If a book seems to call for zombies, I’ll put zombies in
it. If it calls for advertising executives having witty conversations
with their illicit lovers, I’ll put those in. If it calls for a happy
dandelion, I’ll put that in. Though, to be honest, I hope I never
write anything that calls for a happy dandelion.
5. You’ve said that zombie movies, especially Dawn of The Dead, got you turned on to about the zombie, and I take it that it was an influence on the book. Is there a movie version of Reapers in the works? Are you a fan of the Walking Dead?
Okay, I’m sure I’m going to make some enemies here, but I have to say
that I’m not a fan of The Walking Dead–neither the graphic novel nor
the show. It’s possible that I’m a zombie snob, but The Walking Dead
just feels to me like Zombies for Dummies. In the show especially, I
keep waiting for that fresh perspective on the zombie apocalypse, but
what I keep getting is recycled George Romero (who is so great he
doesn’t require recycling). And is there a movie version of REAPERS
in the works? I believe there is. Last I heard, it was going to be
directed by Chris Milk (www.chrismilk.com), who is a brilliant visual
artist. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that everything stays on track
in the notoriously shaky world of Hollywood; I’d love to see it on the
6. How long did it take you to find an agent/publisher. Were you tempted to self-publish at any point?
It took me years to find an agent. I actually have eight or ten books
I shopped around before I wrote one that appealed to an agent.
Writing certainly isn’t the kind of career you undertake hoping to
raise a family on the proceeds. I never thought about
self-publishing–but I think it’s a great way to get your stuff out
7. What is your writing process like? What is the single most useful writing advice you have gotten?
I construct for myself a very rigorous writing schedule. I write in
two-page increments, and I don’t allow myself to get up from my desk
unless I’ve written two pages at a sitting. I think the best writers
are those who don’t wait on inspiration. Writing is just like any
other job. Sometimes (even usually), it’s unpleasant, but you just
have to do it anyway. To be honest, I’m never in the mood to write.
I’d much rather watch TV. But I force myself to do it, because I know
that even if I don’t enjoy the process, I will enjoy, afterward, the
pages I’ve produced.
8. And finally, shameless plug time: What are you currently working on?
Actually, the sequel/prequel of REAPERS comes out in September in the
UK. I’ve just finished the revisions on that. If you’re looking for
more Temple, I’m sorry to tell you she’s not in it. But it’ll have
plenty of zombies, and plenty of sententious prose, and plenty of
philosophical speculation on the nature of the universe–and plenty of
Now, buy the book or I’ll send the undead ’round your house: