Max Brooks interview: You put your (big) foot in, your (big) foot out…

Books, Interviews

Max Brooks has a plan. For pretty much everything. The author of Harlem Hellfighters, The Zombie Survival Guide, Extinction Event, World War Z (he also wrote the screenplay for the movie) and now his new novel, Devolution, knows a lot about how the world might end and has some pretty good ideas about what to do when it does.

Devolution follows the residents of a secure, ecologically-sound town on the slopes of Mount Ranier. When a massive, long dormant volcano erupts near Seattle (resulting in the town being both cut off and largely forgotten as the massive relief effort focuses elsewhere) they have to learn how to survive and to prepare for the coming winter… The volcano has also driven a pack of very large, very hungry, Sasquatch creatures away from their natural hunting ground and when they suddenly find the town of Greenloop, to them it is just a pen of sheep…

The book sprints along, balancing tragedy with jet black humour and brutal pragmatism. Pragmatism, it turns out, Brooks knows firsthand: “I always say for every hour that I spend writing, I spent between ten and a hundred hours researching. And that research [is] why it takes me so long to get books out. That’s why I don’t have a book every year, because I have to spend years going into it. And with something like Devolution, some of the research comes from reading. Some of it comes from interviewing actual experts, but also some of it comes from physically doing it,” he explains. “I made those weapons [from the novel] from scratch to see if they could be made. Using nothing but the tools they would have had. I grew the crops [they grow in the novel] using the exact seeds they would have had and I kept a very careful diary of how long does it take for these seeds to grow under these conditions. I went to the area where I would have set Greenloop to see if my characters could indeed just walk out of there. And I can tell you with all certainty, they could not.”

Max Brooks spent hours researching before he completed his latest novel, Devolution

While the premise of an entire town being forgotten seems unlikely, Brooks is quick to give some powerful examples of it: “This happens all the time. I mean, in the United States of America, the richest, most powerful country, during Hurricane Katrina, people were just left. They were left on their roofs or they were left at the Superdome. They were just abandoned. And this was ground zero. This was where the resources were supposed to go. But you hear these stories all the time of people who were forgotten or overdue.

“The USS Indianapolis, the US heavy cruiser sank by a Japanese submarine in the closing days of World War II, never sent a distress signal. Nobody even knew they were lost. And this is the US navy. This is not a civilian town. You would think that the navy would be in constant contact with its ships and know when one of them goes down. But the idea that what should have been a very easy rescue, because not a lot of guys were killed in the torpedoing, they were all killed by the sharks. The idea that these men could just be left day after day after day and just preyed upon. I think it’s terrifying.”

Speaking of terrifying, the inspiration for this book stems from Brooks’ own youth: “I got into zombies sort of at the dawn of my adolescence, but Sasquatch goes deep into my early childhood when I was just a little kid sitting on the carpet playing with my GI Joes while suddenly a Sasquatch faux documentary would come on and scare the hell out me… the first house that I sort of came of age in, from, I don’t know, four to 12 years old was this Fifties/Sixties ranch style house in California where they had just invented the plate glass windows. I grew up in a glass house surrounded by trees that would sway in the wind as literally on TV there’s a picture of the Sasquatch’s fist smashing through a window trying to get somebody.”

With plenty of research having already been completed, and a lot of inspiration stemming from his past, is there a chance of a sequel to Devolution on the horizon? “The truth is with me with sequels, and this is probably why I’m not as successful as I should be or could be… I’ve never thought in terms of the market. Some writers are so good at that and I’m so jealous. They’re able to sit down and think, what do my readers want and how do I fill that need. And unfortunately I have absolutely no idea. I can only write with my passion.

“[With World War Z] I wrote a bunch of extra stories, but when you put them all together, some of them just didn’t fit and they got in the way of the story. So I chopped them… But that was not what I thought that the readers wanted. When I read it, I thought, you know what, I’m lingering a little too long. I gotta just get to this.”

Brooks also talked about Harlem Hellfighters, his historical graphic novel: “So, I write World War Z… and the iron wasn’t any hotter, so what do I do? I do a historical graphic novel about World War I, starring black people. But it was an idea that I had been passionate about since I was 11 years old and Levar Burton said ‘don’t give up’ and I didn’t give up and I had to tell this story. And there are so many, I will say I don’t want to spoil anything, but there are so many other untold moments from history that need to be told… And hopefully I will stay alive long enough to write them all down.”

The Harlem Hellfighters is a historical graphic novel about World War I starring black people.

Brooks’ love for his work and the sheer joy he gets from writing and reading clearly shines through, not just when you talk to him but also when you read his books. He guards that joy carefully too: “I won’t spoil it, but there is something I am actively working on and I don’t, I won’t say it just because I am so superstitious and I don’t like to tempt fate.”

We don’t know what the next book is about, but we do know one thing for certain: Max Brooks has a plan for it and based on his existing body of work, that plan is going to be well worth waiting for. Watch this space.

World War Z, The Zombie Survival Guide and Harlem Hellfighters are out now. Devolution is released on 16 June from Century & Arrow, Cornerstone and Penguin Random House.

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