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Max Brooks, son of director Mel Brooks and actor Anne Bancroft, followed his parents’ path into show business with minor acting roles and a two-year stint as a staff writer on Saturday Night Live before he published his first book, 2003’s The Zombie Survival Guide. Formatted as a how-to guide for living through a plague of the undead, it went on to sell a million copies. He followed it up with World War Z, a well-received novel depicting an epic global war against zombies told from multiple perspectives, and presented as an oral history. A movie version is in the works. Meanwhile, Brooks has moved on to comics, with The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks, a visceral adaptation of some of the material in his debut, and now a series of engaging studies of G.I. Joe characters titled Hearts And Minds. He recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the unexpected success of his work, the timely qualities of World War Z, and how zombie burnout may strangle the next great zombie masterpiece.
The A.V. Club: You’ve sold a million copies of a how-to guide for a nonexistent situation. That’s a pretty unique accomplishment.
Max Brooks: And no one is more surprised than me. If you ever find the warehouse that has the million copes my father bought, let me know. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s really unusual, especially since I never thought it would even be published.
AVC: It was marketed in a strange way, too: It’s usually sold as a humor book, but the subject is presented with total seriousness. It’s almost more absurd than funny.
MB: I think if there’s a joke, the joke is on me. The joke is that I actually wrote it, that some doofus said “I’m gonna sit down and write a real book on how to fight something that isn’t real.” I never intended it to be funny. I wrote it because I’ve always been into zombies, and I thought, “Well, if they really did exist, here’s how you would fight them.” It’s that simple.
AVC: That’s why it’s so odd that it was marketed as humor: it’s so straight-faced.
MB: I think “absurd” is a really good way to put it. In a way, my whole career is absurd, because that’s the kind of stuff I do. I’m not very good at gauging what other people would like, and when I try, I usually fall on my face. So I usually stick to the stuff I’m into, and hope I’m not the only one who’s into it. I wrote [The Zombie Survival Guide] in ’98, ’99, and then I stuck it in a drawer for years. I thought it was a nice exercise, but come on, no one’s going to be into that. So when Ed Victor, my book agent, said, “I can get this published,” I was like, “Uh, yeah, you do that.” And when it came out, and they told me “Yeah, we’re printing 17,000 copies,” I thought “Oh, shit. Now I actually have to go out and try to sell these things.” But eventually I thought, “Wow, how cool is this? I actually get to see my little passion project in print! I can go and see it in bookstores for a few months. And then I can go get a real job.” I never, ever expected this.
AVC: How do you research a book like that? Was it all culled from watching zombie movies? Did you talk to real experts?
MB: I can tell you honestly, nothing was pulled out of my ass. It’s all—this is why I say if there’s a joke, it’s on me—I wrote an actual disaster preparedness book. I did real research. Reams of research, stacks of books—some of it was taken from my own personal experience. I can tell you for a fact that dehydration is more serious than any external threat. I remember when I was on a field-training exercise for ROTC in ’91 how the biggest guy in our unit got floored, taken out by dehydration. That’s the kind of lesson you don’t forget. I can tell you from personal experience of training on the M-16—bad gun. It jams. It was probably invented by Ho Chi Minh. I think that’s why it’s been so successful; if you take the zombies out, it still works. The zombies are the only things in there that are supernatural. There’s no lightsabers, there’s no force fields; it’s literally just “What can you do with the tools at your disposal?”
AVC: If there ever really is a zombie apocalypse, you’ll get all kinds of credit.
MB: Oh yeah. I keep having this fantasy of the government showing up at my door saying “You knew! Come with us.”
AVC: Did you plan on writing World War Z as a sort of pseudo-sequel?
MB: No, I had no idea. What happened was, I wrote The Zombie Survival Guide in ’99, it came out in ’03, and I was thinking about what kind of book to write next. I had a few false starts, and then I thought, “What do I want to read?” That’s sort of my best guide. And I realized that all the zombie books that were starting to come out, and all the zombie movies I had seen, they were all about one story. They were all about one group, or one guy, in one area. And I’ve always thought big-picture. I’m one of those guys who won’t let you enjoy a movie, because I have to just pick it apart. So I thought, “Well, what about the rest of the world? What about Russia, China, Africa? And forget about soldiers— how would refugees deal? How would you organize the economy? How would you feed people?” I really wanted to tell the story of the planet, and the template was The Good War by Studs Terkel.
AVC: That sort of pseudo-documentary, oral-history approach is very different from most genre fiction. Was that hard to pull off?
MB: That was easy for me. The hard part was the research. The irony was that for a book of fake interviews, I had to do just as many real interviews with real people who do those real jobs to get at it. It was almost more a work of journalism than of fiction.
AVC: How’s the movie coming along? There was a big bidding war when the book came out in 2006, but we haven’t heard much about it lately.
MB: It’s never stalled. It’s just in development. Which is maddening, because development takes forever. They’ve always been full steam ahead on it; I think the problem is that if they’re going to make it, it’s going to have to be a really big movie, and I think that has made them very conscious of trying to get it right. They got a writer who did a kick-ass job. They brought in another writer who I hear is doing another kick-ass job. They brought in [director] Marc Forster, thank God. I was terrified they’d bring in some guy who had done some MTV videos, and they thought would be perfect for it. But the fact that they brought in Forster (Monster’s Ball, Quantum Of Solace) I thought was amazing—we had lunch and talked about it, and he gets it. He gets what I was trying to do with the book.
AVC: Do you have any day-to-day involvement with the production?
MB: Nope. You know more about it than I do.
AVC: Was it hard to let go of it when you sold the rights, and leave it to hope that the studio would do right by the book?
MB: No. My attitude was, I wrote the best zombie book I could write. Now it’s up to them to make the best zombie movie they can make. As far as sticking close to my book, I don’t think that’s so important. It’s more important to me that they just make a good zombie movie. I would only be nervous if somehow they had the right to rewrite my book. I mean, my book is done. People can see what I can do. And that’s fine with me. I’ve had my artistic moment. Now it’s up to them.
AVC: It’s a very cinematically written book for something that’s framed as a sort of documentary. Did having a director for a father have any influence on you when you started writing fiction?
MB: Well, I don’t have a director for a father. I have a writer/comedian for a father, who happens to direct his own movies. There are people who are directors—that’s what they do, that’s where they live, and they think visually every day of their lives. That’s not who my dad is. He only directed his movies to protect them from other directors. He’s turned down really big directing jobs. He turned down The Beatles. They wanted him to direct Help!, and he said, “Nope. I don’t direct other people’s stuff.” My dad was instrumental only in being true to your work. That’s where he made a big difference. He’s always been very big on that. He told me, “The important thing is to be true to yourself, because if you don’t like it and they don’t like it, then you’ve failed. But if you like it, then at least you did the best you could.” That’s sort of been my touchstone. I have to like what I’m doing first.
AVC: A lot of World War Z’s expressly political and socioeconomic material should be dated by now, but it doesn’t really seem that way. The themes of incompetence in high places and lack of preparedness never get old.
MB: Yeah, definitely. And, you know, just to show you what a frickin’ weirdo I am—I don’t mind it being dated. I don’t mind my work being a record of the time it was written in. When Dawn Of The Dead came out—it’s a wonderful document of the death of the Baby Boomers. I always thought it should be marketed alongside Easy Rider: the Baby Boomers, the beginning and end.
AVC: It has a real Carter-era malaise to it, aside from all its other qualities.
MB: Yeah! I think you’re exactly right, and I like that stuff. I wouldn’t mind if, 20 years from now, somebody picked up World War Z and said “Here’s a book that somebody wrote during the Bush era, and you can see it reflected in his work.” When I read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, I think it’s a wonderful record of the Reagan era. I think it’s amazing. This is the time I lived in.
AVC: You’ve moved into comics yourself now, not only with Recorded Attacks, but now with your G.I. Joe series. How did that come about?
MB: It’s something I always wanted to do. I went to a bunch of comic-book companies and nobody would touch it, nobody wanted anything to do with it, until finally someone came to me and said, “Hey, do you want to do a zombie comic book?” That was a huge education for me. I probably worked harder on that than anything I’d ever done. You really have to change your way of thinking, and what’s amazing is how much work you do that the reader will never see. You have to do pages of description for just one panel of artwork. So it’s a lot of drudgery in the shadows, but it didn’t bother me, because I think the artist, Ibraim Roberson, is just stunning. He made my subsequent comics work a lot easier.
AVC: What made you take the approach you did to your G.I. Joe comics?
MB: I think G.I. Joe is a perfect example of how I’m the world’s worst businessman. If I were smart, I’d be writing World War Z Part 12, but I have to go where the muse leads, and I’ve always been a huge G.I. Joe fan. I always wanted to know more about these characters, these little plastic figures I played with as a kid. As I got older, I wanted to give them the adult issues that the rest of us have to deal with. I initially gave a writing sample to IDW, and they liked it so much that they gave me the miniseries, and it’s not traditional. I’m stunned that as many people like it as they do. It’s not traditional narrative—it’s just these little character studies, going deeper and giving biographical information or day-in-the-life stories about them. I wish I had the kind of brain that could tell traditional action stories, but I don’t. This is the kind of thing I want to know about the G.I. Joe characters.
AVC: Well, since you brought it up, what about a World War Z sequel? Are we ever going to see one?
MB: Maybe! It’ll happen when I think of it. The thing I don’t wanna do is World War Z, Part 2: The Search For More Money. If I do another World War Z book, it’s got to be because I have to get the story out of my head. I wrote The Zombie Survival Guide because I wanted to read it, and nobody else was writing it. All I’ve been doing with everything I’ve written is answering questions that I had.
AVC: Between the time The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z came out and today, there’s been a huge deluge of zombie-related books, comics, movies, videogames, etc. How do you feel about that? Has it affected you either as a creator or as a consumer of zombie fiction?
MB: You know, that’s a really good question. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a lot of good-quality stuff coming out right now. There might be, no question, but I think for every one really genuine zombie story coming out, there’s a tsunami of hackwork by people who were never into zombies, aren’t interested in them, never cared about them, but they smell money and they’re just trying to cash in. It doesn’t affect me. My books are selling as well as they’ve ever sold; it can only help me. But it does really bother me as a consumer.
A few years ago, a decade ago, if you were looking for a zombie book or a zombie movie, there were so few out there that you knew that if you found one, somebody really, really wanted to make it. There was just a ton of passion behind every zombie project coming out. And I think it’s been so diluted by this point that quality is hard to find; there are so many cash-in products out there that, as a reader, how do you know what’s good? You can’t read them all. But what’s more upsetting to me is the possibility of burnout. And again, this doesn’t affect me as a writer. I’ve sold more books than I ever deserve to sell. But as a reader, I think there’s somebody out there who’s thinking up the next great zombie story. There’s somebody right now writing something that will just blow World War Z out of the water, something so passionate and so perfect and so right. And what worries me is that by the time they finish it, the country will have moved on, publishers will have moved on, and they’ll be told, “We’re done with zombies. We’ve been done with zombies for a while now.” I worry that this glut will crush the next great zombie masterpiece that someone like me would love to read.