The Big Idea: Mira Grant

Oh Noes! It’s the Zombie Apocalypse™! It’s the end of the world! Yes, yes, Mira Grant said, zombies, end of the world, blah blah blah. Been there. Done that. Got the bloody t-shirt. But what comes after the end of the world, when the world actually is still there? One answer: Feed, which takes a couple decades beyond the zombie apocalypse to a world which has, in its way, adjusted to the undead. And Grant (the pen name for current Campbell Award nominee Seanan McGuire) does a pretty good job with it, according to a starred review in Publishers Weekly: “Shunning misogynistic horror tropes in favor of genuine drama and pure creepiness, McGuire has crafted a masterpiece of suspense with engaging, appealing characters.” Well, then.

So how does it work? And how do you truly show a United States in which living and undead share the same country? Ms. Grant reveals all!

MIRA GRANT:

Feed is a book built around a single, simple idea that took two years to come together, largely because it was a lot more complicated than it looked. What if the zombie apocalypse happened…and we survived?

A little background:

I’m a horror movie fanatic. Some of my earliest memories involve watching The Blob and Alien in my family’s living room. Little Shop of Horrors was my favorite musical for years (and has only recently been displaced by Evil Dead: The Musical). So the rise of public awareness regarding the inevitable zombie apocalypse has been fabulous for me, especially since it means people don’t look at me as oddly when I start assessing the zombie-preparedness of their homes. But as time went on, I started getting really bothered by the fact that no one who wound up in a horror movie had ever seen a horror movie. Scream and sequels aside, you’d think that eventually people would learn not to date boys named Johnny, not to trust anyone with a machete, and to reliably shoot for the head. But they didn’t.

I began toying with the question of what would happen if the horror movie really happened. What if it happened in the real world, where everyone has had the opportunity to see a horror movie, or at least has a friend who’s seen a horror movie? What would happen if the zombies came? There were really only two scenarios. In one, all the horror movie knowledge in the world couldn’t save us…and in the other, we’d have to deal with something the movies never seemed to care about. We’d have to deal with after.

Because I could get to after, I had to put together a logical “before,” which meant having scientific, potentially survivable zombies. Luckily, I’m also a serious virology nut, and having me at the dinner table is frequently an exercise in “Hey, wanna know what I learned about MRSA today?” (Hint: The answer is “no,” especially if you’re eating.) Most viruses don’t want to wipe out their host species, since without a host, the virus has nowhere to go but extinction. Assuming we had viral zombies, it would actually be in the best interests of the virus that controlled them to find a balance, of sorts, between killing everyone and failing to spread itself in an efficient manner. I literally spent about two years playing with my zombie virus, looking for that perfect balance, and constructing the society that would naturally spring up around an ongoing threat of zombie infection. What would it do to funeral rites? To medical emergencies? In a world where everyone is just one bite away from becoming the enemy, how willing are people going to be to form lasting bonds with other people?

Once I had my virus hammered out (and survivable), it was time to figure out exactly how we were able to come through the apocalypse alive. I decided that at first, the mainstream media would probably laugh the risen dead off as some sort of stunt—a mass zombie walk gone a little overboard, maybe—and that at least in the early days of the Rising, the Internet would be the only and most reliable source of information. Bloggers and people on Twitter and message boards and a thousand chat rooms and Facebook updates would spread the news faster than any other network possibly could, and we’d wind up with a sort of grassroots resistance to the living dead. The movies would give us a starting point, and we’d be able to work things out from there.

I was in the process of writing Feed when Hurricane Katrina happened, and I saw the Internet react and come together just the way I had proposed we could, and would, given a big enough emergency. But that came later. First I had to get to the point of being able to start the book—I had a virus, I had a game plan for surviving the virus, and I had a culture that existed about twenty years after the Rising, focused heavily on Internet news and never going outside when you didn’t have to. What I didn’t have was a plot. I complained endlessly to my friends about the fact that my zombie world had no place to shamble. And then one night my friend Michael asked a simple question:

“Why don’t you do a Presidential campaign?”

It was simple; it was elegant; it was perfect. By taking the political angle, I could really dissect this society and the way the coming of the dead had changed it. A Presidential campaign, by its very nature, will span the United States, and that’s what I wanted. I wanted to show how the world would change in the aftermath…and how we might be forced to adapt, but we wouldn’t just lay down and die. Little things, like the fact that George Romero is considered a global hero, resulting in “George” and “Georgia” being two of the most common names given to children. Big things, like the closure of the national parks and the abandonment of Alaska to the dead.

Everything.

By the end of that night, I had the full story unfolding in my head, complete with the narrators who would make it come to life. I think I wrote a hundred pages the first week, barely noticing when things like “bedtime” and “dinnertime” passed me by. I was twenty years away; I was twenty years past the end of the world.

That first big idea really was a lot bigger than I thought, because it literally required me to rebuild America, as well as put together a viable mechanism for raising the dead (it also cures cancer and the common cold). I loved every minute, and I still do. I also sleep with a machete under my bed. You know.

Just in case.

—-

Feed: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Follow Mira Grant on Twitter. Also follow her alter ego, Seanan McGuire. Read McGuire on LiveJournal.

35 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Mira Grant

  1. Cool premise, I’d quibble with one thing.

    “the mainstream media would probably laugh the risen dead off as some sort of stunt”

    The mainstream media are extremely credulous. They regularly interview “psychics” and “ghost hunters” and such. We could probably get a flash-mob with makeup and convince CNN that there “might” be a zombie-apocalypse going on.

    For the purposes of a novel, however, I am willing to entertain the concept of a skeptical News Media :)

  2. Just added Mira Grant, Feed to the “books to look for at bookstore/library” file that syncs to phone.

    Well, actually, I first added Mira Grant, Zombie Apocalypse, because somehow I failed to focus on the actual title. So, a comment for a Scalzi, and I know this is terribly lazy, but a little Author/Title at the bottom of each Big Idea piece, that I could just copy and paste as I think “hey, I’d like to read that”, would come in handy.

    Seanan McGuire has been on my list since I read Rosemary and Rue last Christmas, which required snagging it from my sister, who wanted to re-read it.

  3. My favorite zombie story is Max Brooks’ World War Z because it deals with “after” in such a way that it feels real. I am teaching a horror-themed special topics literature course (probably) in the spring semester of 2011, and WWZ is on my syllabus, as is Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead.

    Who knows, I may have to displace one of my film weeks to get my students to read this one and compare “aftermath” notes.

    You just sold yourself at least one copy of this book, I think. And on Kindle, no less.

    Thanks for the heads-up!

  4. I don’t think I’ve been this excited by the premise of a novel in years. This’ll definitely be my next book purchase.

    I’m also glad to know I’m not the only one who reflexively assesses buildings for zombie-preparedness.

  5. I love the idea of this, but was distracted by the MRSA comment. It’s a bacterial infection, not a viral one. I presume she meant that she is a microbiology nut. That covers all.

  6. There were really only two scenarios. In one, all the horror movie knowledge in the world couldn’t save us…and in the other, we’d have to deal with something the movies never seemed to care about. We’d have to deal with after.

    Well, no, there’s the third option… we kill them all. As usual, XKCD is relevant here: http://xkcd.com/734/

    I’m mildly interested to see the worldbuilding but for two things… 1) I can’t see believable humans living with zombies around presuming they’re real zombies (undead, flesheating, etc) and 2) zombies have jumped so far over the shark Evel Knievel would be in awe.

  7. Hi, Tina (#6) —

    Sorry about the misspeak! I love bacteria and viruses equally, even if I refuse to give Bubonic Plague the credit for the Black Death. MRSA is just one of my current best dinner table topics.

  8. Not just likes microbiology as a hobby but writes really catchy tunes about viral hemorrhagic fevers.

    I just finished reading Rosemary and Rue, and rather enjoyed it, dispite it being really, really, not a genre I normally read. The first thing you notice is that Seanan’s voice realy comes through:

    “Pandora was an Idiot.” Yes, yes she was.

    Feed sounds like something to put in the to-be-aquired pile. Probably just grab a copy at WesterCon/ConChord.

  9. [Z]ombies have jumped so far over the shark Evel Knievel would be in awe.

    Yeah, they’ve really exhausted the tropes here. Just like Romeo & Juliet killed love stories, The Count of Monte Cristo killed revenge stories, and the Iliad killed war stories.

    There are ALWAYS new ways to tell old stories, and this one sounds like a winner.

  10. With respect to the author, I think holding up as examples classics that have stood for centuries might be a bit much of a burden to place on any book.

    And my point isn’t that good zombie stories can’t be told, but rather that so many zombie stories have been done in such a short time over the last few years that most of them are derivative bandwagon jumping. There IS such a thing as overexposure…

    This particular novel takes an interesting tack, but, FOR ME, zombies are way overexposed and I reflexively roll my eyes at any new novel that features them – not because the novel might not be good, but because it does feel like the work is cashing in on a trend. I’ve got nothing agaisnt cash, mind you, it’s just a reaction. That and, again for me, I’m not sure I see uninfected people not hunting down zombies and killing them all or vice versa… that is, I’m not sure how the situation does stabilize. It’s an interesting premise though and if people start chiming in that it’s done believably and well who knows I might even read the book. :)

  11. @#11: I’ve known Seanan for over a decade. Her devotion precedes the fad and will maintain the love after it fades in the face of whatever will take over from it (I’m taking bets on werewolves, as they’re overdue). This is one of those books she was born to write, frankly. Seeing her book as “cashing in” is definitely an allergic reaction to the trope.

  12. @Rickwhoisnothatrick Thanks for that link to xkcd as I hadn’t seen that one. I pretty much agree with all your comments. I can imagine a sorta realistic zombie producing virus (but they can’t be completely stoopid) that gives a continuous supply of zombies (maybe, smallpox after all has been eliminated except in a few labs). What’s hard to imagine is a thriving population of zombies as they’d be eliminated just about as soon as they were created. Seems as though you’d need a pool for the virus that did not involve the “living dead”….

  13. When living through the tail end of your sixth decade you know you will never be able to read all the cool novels you want to read. So you become selective. I have been selecting against any novel with zombies for years and years. Undead carnivoirs. Not really interested.

    But the premise of this novel could make it worth a read. But first, please explain to me what sort of consciousness a zombie possesses? Are zombies even sentient? Remember, I have not read even one zombie short story or novel. Ever. So explain zombie to me, guys. What makes them tick? How can one be both alive and dead at the same time? Why should I care about reading a novel that features “zombies”? By the way I have seen bits and pieces of Romero’s movie, but it never held my attention for more than five minutes so I channel surf away.

  14. Seems as though you’d need a pool for the virus that did not involve the “living dead”….

    Skimming Seanan’s Twitter indicates that the virus infects anything mammalian*. Meaning that you can use the standard pets, livestock and pests as a viral pool. Build in latency, giving the virus time to spread before everyone else flees, and you’re golden.

    * Not sure about this, but I guess rabies is another virus that affects most mammals.

  15. I am so glad to see the zombie apocalypse approached from an epidemiological standpoint. It’s always seemed to me to be the major failing of many zombie plots— too many authors have an infection rate that is wrong for the story. (Pride & Prejudice & Zombies has that feel to me— either the infection rate is wrong, everyone would have been converted, or it would have burned out by the time of the novel.)

  16. The zombies are already here! What SciFi story? They reside in Washingtom DC and Sacramento!

  17. Lucius Shepard’s “Green Eyes” had a nice angle on the bacterial non-magical zombie.

    I am happily reading Tim Waggoner’s pulpish zombie detective stories (Nekropolis, Dead Streets) at the moment. I would never touch Twilight with a bargepole so having a romantic lead being a zombie seems right to me.

  18. @lysana – In case i wasn’t clear, I wasn’t saying *this* book was cashing it… it’s just a reaction I have in general. Zombie stories have been around forever but the last several years it seems EVERYONE’s doing it, hence overexposed. Combine that with the fact that, for me, zombies have always been a one-note monster (they swarm wherever you are and try to eat your brains and some idiot always opens the door :) ) and my reaction is ‘meh’.

    I’m intrigued by ‘what happens after’ stories, especially if they are original and non-obvious* so I might check this out when it hits paperback.

    *in this case that would have to mean we avoid the ‘isolated communities surrounded by occasional packs of ravening zombies’ trope for me.

  19. I want to know why it’s $10 and half an inch taller than every other novel I own. I picked it up the other day before I saw this piece, and put it back down because I’m anal enough to be annoyed by the format.

    That’s not going to be the new thing, is it? I like my paperback novels to be the right size.

  20. Cover art question: The RSS feed icon on the cover, is it just a gag or do RSS feeds – or blogging, twittering or some other part of online life – come up as a part of the plot?

  21. awesome idea–bad title choice, since M.T. Anderson’s “Feed” is pretty much a new classic (at least in YA land…).

  22. Michael_gr @ #23: Actually all sorts of social media come up in the plot. The protagonists are a group of bloggers following a Presidential campaign, blogging and Internet journalism having basically displaced the current media models. The Internet is a large portion of why the world lived when the dead rose.

    MBL @ #22: It’s called “premium paperback,” and it’s increasingly common as a format. It makes the books easier to hit people with…

  23. @Michael_gr

    Oh you’ll get plenty of Internet stuff. I’m halfway through the book and I’d call it a blogging book, not a zombie book. I’m really not enjoying it.

  24. Just finishing this book up now.

    The book has a similar feel in some ways to ‘World War Z': comparisons are hard not to draw, especially after about 200 pages or so. ‘Feed’ reeds similar to a novel-length interview from ‘World War Z’. There are breaks in the story for background on the world, but these tend to be organically placed.

    My main problem with the novel is that you have to have a firm grasp not only of blogging culture, but at least a passing knowledge of the history and evolution of the medium of online journalism. This effectively ‘locks’ the book to a fairly narrow audience, one that embraces new media while rejecting and/or trivializing ‘twitter’ style unsourced micro-media. I can’t tell if its daring to predict the future, or just author bias.

    Another point to remember is that the first-person journalist perspective means you get an angle that isn’t strictly that of a layperson. This isn’t a story about action heroes: this is a story about young journalists in a dangerous world. The perspective means you’ll get details like why people obsess over blood tests and how personal wireless technology will revolutionize field journalism, but you have to think on your feet or you won’t enjoy the story.

    But I would still call it an excellent science-fiction novel, without reservation. The vision of the world is somewhat patchwork, but its consistent and extremely believable.

  25. Just finished the novel this weekend. I’d call it a political thriller first, a Preston-esque Hot Zone narrative second, and a zombie novel third, because there are zombies in it.

    Also, it made me cry. Didn’t see that coming.

    In short, it was completely unlike any other book I’ve ever read.

    F*cking awesome. Awesome.

  26. I’m about a quarter of the way through this book and it’s great. I did come here to say that it gave me a nightmare, though. Not the zombie kind – with the shambling and the brains and what not – but that I’d had to decontaminate and my hair got bleached. Apparently, I’m more afraid of being blonde than of being consumed by the living dead. Who knew?

  27. Been a while since a book made me cry, and a zombie novel no less. I wanted to flay the author alive for the book’s finale, but I am also listing the sequal on my top 10 most awaited books, so she must have done something right.

    Bravo Ms. Grant.

  28. The book made me stay up all night and read it.

    Thank you for including this on the Big Idea list, Mr. Scalzi. I’m starting to rely on you for good suggestions of what to get next.

    Also … augh, emotional trauma.

  29. Did. Not. See. That. Coming.

    Damn, but this was an excellent book. I checked it out from the library, but now I must own it! (and like Raynre in #32, I’m going to be eagerly awaiting Books II and III)

    Thanks to Mira for writing such a great story, and extra thanks to John- i would have passed this book by without The Big Idea.

  30. This is the first book I’ve read since I was young that made me cry. Every time! (I’ve read it three times already) It is the first book ever, that I finished reading and turned it over and started it again.Can not wait for the next one. Oh yea, I don’t like horror movies and rarely read it either.

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