We talk exclusively to author Isaac Marion about Warm Bodies: the book, the movie, and the attraction of flesh eating zombies.
Warm Bodies is a film with a lot of buzz: a Sundance Award winning director in Jonathan Levine who last handled coming of age drama The Wackness, and previously tackled horror with All The Boys Love Mandy Lane; a rather dashing Nicholas Hoult signed on to play the slightly decomposing and verbally challenged lead; and Teresa Palmer currently in talks to star as the girl who steals his decaying heart.
Details about the script have been thin on the ground but the fun loving début author was happy to share what he knows when we chatted with him about how the tricky concepts of his book would translate to screen. “I’ve had an amazing amount of input so far.”
If you haven’t read Warm Bodies, there’s a bit of a misconception surrounding the plot of the movie, almost certainly due to the book not actually being published in the US until the 26th of April. Lucky UK readers have been able to get their teeth into it since last year, and perhaps the glowing recommendation on the front from Stephenie Meyer has added to the idea that this is some form of zombie rom-com, a second Shaun of the Dead, complete with glittering undead (zombie sex is far messier).
Set in a post-outbreak world, Warm Bodies is the story of a zombie named R. He’s a little more attractive than the other zombies, a little less putrefied perhaps, but what really sets R apart is his ability to dream. Told entirely from R’s perspective, most of the narrative is internal: zombies find it difficult to manage more than a few words, a grunt and a groan. As R reflects, not that much different from before.
For reasons beyond his comprehension, he decides to save a human girl during a feeding party. Partly because he’s just devoured the brain of her boyfriend and thus absorbed his memories, partly because he’s an oddity of a zombie who lives in an abandoned aeroplane. This is more than a quirky romance novel with added zombies however, it’s a story of what it is to be human amongst desolation. With added brain munching.
But enough recap from us! Let’s roll the interview.
You have a published short story online called I am a Zombie Filled with Love that was the seed of Warm Bodies and was a huge hit with your readers – was it this positive reaction that spurred you towards further developing the idea?
Entirely. When I wrote that story I saw it as whimsical little vignette that I figured most people would dismiss as an odd experiment. I was speechless when it became by far the most popular thing I’d ever written. A woman named Cori Stern found the story online and contacted me, and she is the one who suggested I expand on the idea. (And later put it into the hands of the people who eventually got it published.) I was skeptical at first, but once I started examining the premise, there ended up being a lot more juicy possibilities in there than I thought, and the larger story just exploded out of it.
Zombies are insanely popular, is that something you were aware of when you were working on Warm Bodies or was it a bit of a pain?
I was completely unaware of it when I wrote the short story. I knew that zombies were a well-established monster, along with vampires, werewolves, aliens, etc, but I had no idea there was a vast subculture ravenously devoted to them and to anything at all involving them. The unexpected popularity of the short story clued me into this, but I still didn’t realize how much of a trend zombie fiction was until I was deep into writing the book. At that point I started to get nervous. I didn’t intend to jump on a bandwagon; the bandwagon just kind of pulled up in front of me and forced me onto it. Every time I saw a new zombie movie or book announced, I would get more and more scared that Warm Bodies was going to either get buried in the avalanche or released after the inevitable backlash. And although you’d think being part of a trend would make things easier, it actually did the opposite. A lot of publishers were reluctant to look at the book because they already had umpteen “zombie books” on their rosters. I think I barely squeaked through the gates, mainly due to my agent being brilliant at explaining to people how different Warm Bodies is than what most people think of as zombie books.
You’ve written about zombies (albeit in a very unique way), a staple of the horror world; are horror and fantasy genres that appeal to you, both as a reader and as a writer?
I think my interest in horror as a genre begins and ends with Stephen King, who I grew up with (literarily, not literally) but then again, it’s a pretty loosely defined genre. I’ve heard books like House of Leaves called horror novels, also Chuck Palahniuk, etc, but I don’t really see any kinship between those and stuff like Dean Koontz. I grew up loving dragons and wizard type fantasy now days that kind of stuff is too fluffy for me. I guess I’d say I like the concept of horror and fantasy, and most of what I read and write has elements of both, but they have to be cut with a generous amount of realism to appeal to me. My favorite fiction takes place in a world that’s mostly the real world…but not quite.
Your publishing journey was pretty unique, self publishing Warm Bodies first – how did you end up with a publishing deal?
It was such a convoluted process, I always screw it up in live interviews, but maybe I can pull it off here with plenty of time to think. The sequence goes something like this: I posted the short story, “I Am a Zombie Filled With Love” on my website. Cori Stern found it, contacted me, suggested I expand it into a novel. I did so, and printed about 200 copies to sell on my website. While I was selling those, some people Cori introduced me to were passing the book around industry circles, and it eventually fell into the hands of Bruna Papandrea, a film producer, who then went on to secure a film deal with Summit AND get it into the hands of my current literary agent, who proceeded to sell it to Atria Books. So it was pretty backwards. The film deal was actually inked before we even had a publisher onboard. Very unusual.
You put a lot of your short stories online which other authors are often reluctant to do; you seem really receptive to comments and criticisms – is audience input important to you?
Before Warm Bodies was published, I had no writing career to speak of, I was just working a depressing day job and writing furiously trying to get something to take off, so I wasn’t too worried about “giving it away for free”. I was too impatient to keep my stories under wraps until the eventual, improbable day some obscure literary journal decided to publish them, so I always posted them on my blog the minute I finished writing them. If I didn’t have that instant gratification to look forward to, it would have been much harder to find the motivation to write regularly. Posting them online gave me the opportunity to get reactions from readers, not so much peer criticism about the writing itself–it’s hard to take prose critiques seriously when they come from anonymous commenters who may or may not be 12 years old–but just a general measure of enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm that tells me what works for an audience and what doesn’t. I’m going to self publish a book of short stories soon, and any time I wasn’t sure if I should include a story or not, I’d go to the comments on my blog to see how much it excited people.
All that being said, now that I have the ear of publishers and a potential venue for my stories, I’ll unfortunately have to start being a little more guarded with them if I want them to ever get published legitimately. Posting everything for a free online is a GREAT way to get started when you’re nobody and have nothing going for you, but not so good for building a career once things get moving.
What is your input on the film if any? Have you seen the screenplay?
I’ve had an amazing amount of input so far. I had lunch with the director to discuss the project in general, and a few phone meetings since then about script revisions, visualization ideas, etc. I read an early draft of the script and gave extensive notes on it, which were received very well and apparently applied to future drafts. I’m certainly nervous–it’s a weird story that requires a very delicate balancing act to not end up being just plain silly–but I think it’s in good hands and I have high hopes that it’ll be a good movie.
How do you think the film will work around most of the narrative occurring inside R’s (rather mushed up) head?
The early draft I read employed a voiceover narration in the beginning to bring us up to speed on who R is and how his world works, then the VO gradually faded away as the film progressed, portraying R’s thoughts more through his body language and limited speech. I think narrations can be obnoxious if used clumsily or unnecessarily, but this one seems well integrated, and adds a sense of mood and style that I actually missed in the second half. Last I heard, the director agreed and was planning to work more of that into the second half to prevent it from doing that thing that so many Hollywood movies do, starting out full of wit and charm and gradually collapsing into action and spectacle in the third act.
Nicholas Hoult is a popular (and handsome!) guy; is he the sort of actor you imagined for R?
I’ve only seen him in A Single Man, which he was good enough in, despite having a minor role. I think he definitely looks the part as I imagined it in my head, or close enough, and I hear he came up with a great delivery style for the halting, clumsy zombie dialogue, which was one of my biggest worries, so I’m pleased. He’s a bit younger than I thought they’d go for, but I guess R is described as anywhere between 19 and 30 in the book, so it works, and his baby face will probably let his sex appeal withstand zombification better than an older actor.
Warm Bodies really appeals to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a typical zombie book; it has its gory moments but overall it’s an uplifting, hopeful tale – was that a conscious change of tone from the original short story or did it evolve that way?
The original short story was definitely different from most zombie fiction, it had a kind of whimsical sweetness to it, but its theme was pretty much the opposite of what Warm Bodies turned into. It sort of portrays apathy and total resignation as a valid way to live, while the novel is the complete opposite message. I think that 180 is mainly due to some personal realizations and epiphanies I had while I was writing the book. My own outlook on life changed radically during that year, going from the “the world is going to hell and Jesus is coming back tomorrow so screw it, nothing we do here matters” mentality drilled into me in my Christian youth to a more conscious, hopeful perspective on the world, and it came out in the story.
Did you put a lot of your own experience into Warm Bodies? Obviously you’re not a zombie (…right?!) but do you draw inspiration from the people around you?
Oddly enough, despite the post-apocalpytic fantasy setting, Warm Bodies is one of the most autobiographical things I’ve written. My personal transformation that I explained above kind of mirrors what happens to R, who let’s face it, is a character very much based on myself, especially when combined with Perry as his super-ego. And Julie is drawn pretty heavily from a girl I’ve known for many years who at the time I was writing Warm Bodies was just a long running friend crush, but is now my girlfriend of 6 months. A lot of Julie and R’s relationship is based on the slow and awkward way things developed between me and my girlfriend. In my writing in general, I draw a lot from my archives of real people and real experiences, but Warm Bodies surprised me with how personal it became.
In the UK edition of Warm Bodies there are some neat anatomical drawings at the beginning of the chapters – did writing the book involve a lot of research on biology, technology etc.?
I adapted those drawings from Gray’s Anatomy, and they’re in all the editions, as far as I know. I did a fair amount of research on human anatomy, since R is regularly exploring it with his teeth and describing it in fetishistic detail. I also whenever possible tried to find illustrations that were relevant to the chapter’s contents. For instance, the digestive tract launches a chapter about R and Julie having lunch, an eye and tear ducts launches one about R’s inability to cry, etc. It’s a very intimate, physical book, and the human body plays a big role in R’s psyche.
Commonly, authors don’t get much input into their covers – was that the case for you? The art on the UK edition is stunning.
That’s what I used to think as well, but it turns out that common practice is for authors to have full veto power and extensive input as to what goes on the cover, so next time someone tries to get you to read a book with a horribly tasteless cover, don’t let them tell you it’s not the author’s fault and doesn’t indicate the author has bad taste, because it quite likely is and does. (unless it’s a foreign edition, which we have much less control over, if any.) I’ve mainly only battled over the US and UK covers, but both were long struggles. The UK publisher went through something like 5 different cover concepts before we landed on this one, which I agree is stunning. The US went through even more failed attempts, but I’m really happy with their result as well, even though it’s a little more of an aesthetic compromise for me than the UK was. Which may indicate I have more artistic sense than business sense, because the UK edition hasn’t been selling as well as hoped, and some people are blaming the less-than-commercial cover, which kept it out of supermarkets. Sigh.
We heard on the grapevine you have two more novels planned – any hints as to what we can expect? Are there some seeds of a plot within your online short stories?
The one I’m probably going to write next will be a big departure from Warm Bodies. It’s about a guy who gets on a freighter ship to Antarctica in an attempt to escape his growing domesticity, and his girlfriend who is left behind to figure out the dark roots of his inner torment. It involves psychic dream conferencing, nautical adventure, and supernatural beings and/or hallucinations.
After that comes one about a strained relationship between two post office workers, one a friendly, upbeat young woman from a utopian South Pacific island, the other an introverted, misanthropic crank who would like to see most of humanity wiped out. Their lives are interrupted when an apparently omnipotent customer takes the post office hostage and begins making socially unacceptable demands while slowly reducing the population of the Earth.
You’re working on a collection of short stories called Flashlights in the Basement – are the publishers knocking on your door? We hear one of the stories is set in R’s world…
Yeah, the last story in the book is a 100 page novella called “Three Kids, Living” that takes place 9 years before the events of Warm Bodies. It’s about Julie and Nora at ages 12 and 16, respectively, how Julie’s family got to City Stadium, and what happened to Nora in the years after she was abandoned by her parents, wandering alone in the ruins with her little brother, trying to avoid a certain bald, overweight zombie that will be familiar to people who’ve read Warm Bodies.
I’ve been dropping hints about FLASHLIGHTS in as many interviews as I can, but no one’s started knocking yet. My agent insists that it’s extremely hard to sell a book of short stories, which I don’t disbelieve, but come on, people still do it, don’t they? I’m hoping when Warm Bodies starts to take off, I’ll start smelling a little tastier to publishers and they’ll want to snap this book up, because I think it contains most of the best writing I’ve ever done and I’d love to get it out there.
Warm Bodies is a nicely contained book with a great open ending – are you tempted to return to R’s world for another full novel? With different characters even?
Tempted, yes, but I’m not going to do it for two reasons. First, I think most of the story that world has to offer has been told in Warm Bodies, and to get a whole new novel out of it, I’d have to dig deep and really stretch things out. The themes and ideas I wanted to explore through the zombie concept all get their full due in Warm Bodies, so I’d have to either come up with brand new ones for the sequel, or keep hammering the same ones for another 300 pages, which would be obnoxious. Secondly, I’m just done writing about zombies. I never set out to be a “zombie novelist”, it just sort of happened, but if I wrote a sequel, I’d be branded that way forever. I’m ready to move on.
Will your other finished novel The Inside be published? We’ve read some tantalising reviews from when it was self-published.
That one is a big question mark. A lot of people love that book, but when I read it all I hear is my 21-year-old self being melodramatic and spouting half-formed ideas. Granted, some of that is just because I did write it when I was 21, and it’s always a little embarrassing to revisit your youth and all the simplicity and pretentiousness that goes with it. It definitely needs a lot of revision and refinement before I’d ever let it see print, but I think it’s a good story at its core, so I plan to go back to it eventually and see what’s salvageable. It might be that it just needs a few tweaks here and there to make everything snap together.
The short film “Room Enough” which is based on your short story “That’s Not Me” is débuting at a film festival soon; you’re pretty happy for people to take inspiration from your work? Are you quite relaxed about the adaptation of Warm Bodies?
I don’t worry too much about what happens to my short stories. They’re obscure enough, no one is going to judge me as a writer based on what a student filmmaker does with one of them. That may change in the future but for now, I’m enjoying being “open source” with my writing and seeing what people make out of it. Like I said above, I’m nervous about the Warm Bodies movie because it’s such a tricky balancing act–I had a hard enough time myself making it work for the book, so whether or not the filmmakers can pull it off well enough not to globally ruin the book’s reputation is a concern, but I do feel like the people involved really “get it”, and have as good a chance of making it work as anyone. So much more than being nervous, I’m just excited to see what happens.
Do you really live in an RV?!
I live in a beautiful blue 1977 GMC Birchaven. Lately I’ve been sleeping at my girlfriend’s house a lot and using her shower (I do help out with utilities!) but all my stuff is in the RV and I pull up anchor and switch cities fairly often. I doubt it will be my long term living plan (there are definitely drawbacks, like having a shower I can’t stand upright in) but for now it’s fun. I’m excited to take the RV on some book tours and see some sights this summer.
Thank you! That was a really fun interview, you ask great questions.