Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?
“Who We Used to Be” looks at a zombie apocalypse from a different perspective. Instead of some poor soul becoming infected then passing the infection to a few more people, who then pass the infection on to even more panicking people and so on and so on, in this story EVERYONE is immediately infected. The entire population of the world dies suddenly and unexpectedly and then, equally suddenly and even more unexpectedly, they rise up again en masse. The story deals with a small family unit–mom, dad and their young son–as they try to come to terms with their sudden demise whilst keeping themselves separate and safe from the rest of the dead world falling apart outside their door. It’s a story about practicalities and priorities, about establishing what’s important and what’s not. It’s not a story about running for your life from flesh-eating ghouls.
What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?
I was prompted to write the story by thinking too hard and too long about what I’d do personally in the event of the dead rising and what would happen to my family. I think many people assume that if the unthinkable happened and they really did find themselves facing-off against the living dead, that they’d react like the people in the movies and books: they’d hunt out weapons and supplies, fight off wave after wave of the dead, and find shelter with other like-minded survivors. I think the reality would be very different. Sure, some people would fight to survive, but many others wouldn’t. Many people would just implode. Others would deny the impossible events unfolding around them and try to continue with their day-to-day as usual. “Who We Used to Be” questions the logic of trying to survive for as long as possible when all you’re doing is precious wasting time and effort prolonging the inevitable. It’s like keeping a dying patient alive by pumping them continually with drugs which make them feel worse… sometimes you just have to accept that letting go might just be the kindest and most sensible option. In my early drafts, the family in the house were survivors, not zombies. But that made the story too typical, and having everyone dead made it easier to focus on the family’s bizarre situation.
Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?
It was a challenge on several levels. Firstly, the pace was hard to get right as I had to coordinate the events of the story with the physical decay of the cast! Doesn’t sound too hard, but when rigor mortis strikes a few hours after death (and can last for anything up to 36 hours), things were made a little more difficult. That’s a lot of sitting around doing nothing, right at the beginning of the piece–not exactly conducive to keeping the reader’s attention! It was also difficult trying to stop myself getting carried away with this new dead world. Honestly, the possibilities are endless with this scenario–would people try to carry on with their usual routine? Would they try to reach friends and relatives? Would there be any respect for law and order if everyone, even the law-makers and those charged with upholding those laws, were undead too? Would people turn to religion or turn against it? Would people actually start being honest with one another? Finally, it was a challenge to try and keep the characters’ actions believable in their unbelievable situation. As I said earlier, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, I think a surprising number of people would try to maintain business-as-usual!
Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?
As I’ve already mentioned, I spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about what I’d do in the event of a zombie holocaust. I’ve read the books and joined the Facebook groups and had the discussions and I know exactly what I’ll do and where I’ll go when the dead begin to rise. Or do I? Probably not. In reality I’ll probably just barricade the door, try to keep the family safe and hope for the best. Thinking about my own family, how we’d survive and if we’d actually want to survive was the starting point for this story, and you can’t get more personal than that.
What kind of research did you have to do for the story?
My fiction almost exclusively focuses on ordinary people who do ordinary things until their worlds are turned upside-down by something extraordinary happening! I think it’s fascinating to consider what would happen to the man and woman in the street if they were to find themselves trapped in such bizarre circumstances, and a fortunate side-effect of writing this way is that I often don’t have to do huge amounts of research! As I’ve been writing about the living dead for a long time now, I have a fair idea of what happens to the human body after death. For this story it was a question of researching the most obvious physical changes that would take place in the relatively short timescale covered and working them into the piece.
What is the appeal of zombie fiction? Why do so many writers–or you yourself–write about it? Why do readers and film viewers love it so much?
I think there are many reasons why zombies continue to strike a chord with lovers of horror, but I think the main reason is the closeness of “us” to “them.” As Romero’s characters often point out in his movies, “they are us.” Unlike any other classic horror monster, when you’re up against zombies it only takes one slip and you’ll find yourself batting for the other side! Our planet’s getting pretty full-up with people right now, and in many places we’re crammed together uncomfortably tightly. There’s often no escaping other folks, and that makes the prospect of any communicable infection / situation breaking out all the more terrifying. To my mind, the fear of death (or, perhaps more accurately, the fear of losing life) is one of the factors which continues to generally keep society in check. Remove that fear and you’ve got a whole new situation to deal with. Zombie fiction allows us to imagine what would happen if the rules we follow suddenly no longer applied.
What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?
I’m a sucker for pretty much ANY zombie fiction, although I’m not a fan of voodoo and witchcraft –I’d rather my dead bodies were reanimated by something more tangible and believable like radiation from a satellite, a mutated virus etc.! I prefer stories which stay away from the cliches which many genre entries often steer themselves towards (for example, when a survivor gets bitten and hides their wound but you know they’re going to turn at the worst possible moment…). The book which has undoubtably had the biggest impact on my own zombie fiction is not even a zombie book! It’s The Day of the Triffids. Despite the fact that it’s more than fifty years old, for my money it’s still one of the best and most thought-provoking portrayals of the human race being decimated by a cataclysmic event and having to cope with the aftermath. Substitute the walking plants for the living dead and you’ve got a chilling story which still competes with the very best zombie tales!