INTERVIEW: Matt London, author of “Mouja”

Tell us a bit about your story. What’s it about?

Mouja” is the story of a zombie outbreak in feudal Japan. It follows Takashi, the leader of a small group of masterless samurai, or ronin, who have banded together to protect a farming village from the zombie horde. A samurai’s loyalty has always struck me as almost zombie-like in its blindness to external conditions. These are guys who frequently sacrificed themselves on behalf to their masters, either by rushing into a battle they knew they could not win or by committing ritualistic suicide in order to help their masters save face. The lore about this fascinating culture would have us believe the samurai were almost superhuman in their devotion, but of course, people are people. I wanted to create a character who is a slave to what he is, much as the zombies are slaves to what they are. Samurai have elevated their body movements to an economic art from. They are perfect, and yet they are brought down by lumbering, mindless cannibals. I could draw these comparisons all day. Samurai and zombies are like peanut butter and chocolate. I’m surprised the market isn’t inundated with this type of mash-up.

What was the genesis of the story–what was the inspiration for it, or what prompted you to write it?

Mouja”’s concept was something I had been thinking about for a long time. If any readers have ever seen the film Seven Samurai or one of its many imitations, similarities with “Mouja” will immediately become clear. I studied film at New York University, where I had a passionate interest in the films of Kurosawa and horror cinema. I’m not sure when I was first introduced to Kurosawa. In a way I have always been aware of him, the same way people always know what chicken tastes like. During the years I was in college (2003-2007) there was a surprising increase in the number of zombie films released—28 Days Later was the first one of that era that really resonated with me. Those years also saw an increase in Japanese horror films like The Ring and The Grudge that were either released in the US outright or remade by American companies. I felt tapped into these trends. Japanese horror films tend to be slow-burn ghost stories, like the films (based on books) mentioned above. Samurai films, on the other hand, are action-packed splatterfests as much as any American horror film.

Seven Samurai, perhaps the best and certainly the most popular film in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, essentially has the same plot as most zombie movies: protagonists improve the defenses of some location (shopping mall, British pub, whatever), deal with political or social problems within the group of survivors, and then fight off the horde (usually without much success). So a lot of the heavy lifting was already done for me. Substitute zombies for the anonymous bandits of the original film and we’re off to the races. At the same time, there were aspects of samurai psychology that had puzzled and fascinated me for a long time, particularly the samurai’s relationship with death. It seems to me that such a so-it-goes attitude would benefit those trying to survive a zombie uprising, but at the same time, I am skeptical that samurai were ever totally devoid of emotion.

Was this story a particularly challenging one to write? If so, how?

Quite the contrary. The story stewed for a long time, and then shot out like a rocket.

Most authors say all their stories are personal.  If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?

One time I was visiting my uncle’s farm and he asked me to clean his barn so I went in there with a rake and a mop and inside was a corpse just laying there in one of the water troughs. The corpse stood up and lunged at me. Fortunately I had that rake, so I jabbed the corpse in the eye and saved myself. I suppose “Mouja” was my way of working out what happened to me.

Okay, not really. My educational and professional background is in film. As a kid, it was movies and books, books and movies all the time. I can’t divorce one from the other. As a result, I consider myself to have a fairly cinematic writing style, and I tend to write cinematic stories. Purists may lash out at me for that, but in the 21st century, you can’t ignore such a huge part of our culture. “Mouja” is dark and bloody, but it was written with a lot of love.

What kind of research did you have to do for the story?

In addition to Kurosawa’s samurai films (mainly Seven Samurai, Hidden Fortress, and Yojimbo), my main resource was the Hagakure by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, which was a samurai how-to pamphlet written in the Eighteenth century. It is reminiscent of Sun-tzu’s The Art of War, and sums up a lot of what I’ve been rambling about above in its opening line: “I have found the essence of Bushido: to die! In other words, when you have a choice between life and death, then always choose death.” Also, I happen to have the privilege of working with the best editor in the business, John Joseph Adams, who put me in touch with several Japanese scholars who combed the manuscript for anachronisms.

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?

This is usually the part of the questionnaire where writers promise they won’t talk about how zombies represent consumerism and how human nature makes us insatiable, or how zombies represent the fragility of society, and then the writers go about explaining how zombies represent just that. Of course zombies represent those things, but what makes the living dead such an attractive trope is the universality of the metaphor. Zombies are like vampires and white whales. They can represent just about anything. For me, zombies are resonating at this moment in time because of where we are culturally. Sometimes I turn on the news and see these protests where everyone is suffering from the same delusions and I feel like the zombie hordes are already here. The United States is a deeply polarized nation, and whoever your drummer is, you can’t help but look at the other side and see them as zombies, mindless enemies bent on destroying your way of life. I can’t help but sit on the subway and look around at all the people and think Man, look at these sad robots trudging through their pathetic, lifeless existences. But the thing is, we’ve all thought that at some point on the subway. Zombie fiction addresses the “us versus the world” phenomenon we all feel at times. It’s no coincidence that the increased cultural polarization we have witnessed since 2002 mirrors the increase in zombie fiction and films.

What are some of your favorite examples of zombie fiction, and what makes them your favorites?

I’m a fan of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, about her trips to Haiti. She interviews the family members of real zombies, helpless people who were poisoned by psychotropic drugs. For me, reality is much scarier than fiction.

As for movies, I’m a fan of the original Night of the Living Dead more than any of its sequels or remakes. You’ve got nearly ten uninterrupted minutes of Duane Jones barricading the house and listening to the radio. No on-screen dialogue. It’s a massive info dump, and yet it’s gripping. That’s just brilliant filmmaking. Also, I loved Slither because it combined a lot of zombie tropes with grotesque body horror, another subgenre that fascinates me and features heavily in my writing.