The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is known as a very serious writer, as his Hugo, Nebula and Prinz Award-winnning books will testify to. So what’s up with a goofy middle-grade book called Zombie Baseball Beatdown? As Paolo explains, sometimes when everyone else wants you to zig, you just have to zag — and in doing so, recenter yourself as a writer.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI:

Typically, I’m perceived as a serious writer, i.e. I write about serious things like climate change and GMOs, child soldiering and energy scarcity, and I write about those topics in serious ways. I’ve also gained a lot of success and recognition for doing this kind of writing, so it’s not a huge surprise that the response to my completely serious announcement that my new novel is called Zombie Baseball Beatdown is often:

“Seriously? WTF?”

Sometimes it’s an even stronger reaction: “Sellout” shows up quite a bit.

But my personal favorite response came when I announced Zombie Baseball Beatdown on Facebook, saying, “See? I can write an upbeat apocalypse!”

One commenter replied, “Please don’t.”

Ouch.

Of course, I’d been warned this would happen. When I told my agent this would be my next novel, she said, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “You know, Paolo, it’s generally considered to be a good career move to follow up a success with something that’s similar.”

So why would I want to confuse loyal readers by writing a kid’s book with a severed zombie head flying off the cover?

To be honest, I didn’t write Zombie Baseball Beatdown just for the giggle (though I fully admit, it was a giggle to write. Hell, I just like saying the title over and over again. It makes me laugh every time). I actually did it because it if I didn’t, I probably wasn’t going to write another one of my “serious” novels ever again.

People really do want you to give them something like what they loved before. Unfortunately, when you’re  new writer, you’re also expected to do that while everyone is watching.

When I started working on my follow-up to Ship Breaker—a novel called The Drowned Cities—I felt a lot of eyes on me. Editors, agents, fans, critics—they were all leaning over my shoulder as I typed. They’d mutter amongst themselves, nodding or shaking their heads, wincing at my character choices, taunting me for my prose clichés…. The resulting novel, written under the oversight of this imaginary committee, was terrible. I ended up throwing it all away and starting over.

And then I started over again. And again. And again.

While I was fighting my way through The Drowned Cities, my wife, who is a school teacher, was  engaged in an uphill battle of her own: trying to win over her most reluctant students to the idea that reading was actually cool.

One day, in a fit of frustration she asked one of them, “Well, what would you like to read about?”

“Zombies,” came the testy reply.

She described this encounter to me when she came home from work, and we laughed about it. But for some reason the plaintive desire expressed by that fifth-grade boy really struck me.

If my nine-year-old son is enamored with an iPod game like “Earn to Die” where players trick out bigger and bigger vehicles in order to drive over zombies and turn them into bloody road kill, books really do have to step up their game. It seems that we in the writing establishment are so busy making our “serious” literature serious, that we’re leaving our kids bored and restless. And as a result, we’re sending the message that video games are awesome, and books are boring crap.

Right then, I decided I wanted to write a zombie book.

Now, as much as I like promoting literacy, my sudden obsession with zombie-bashing wasn’t entirely altruistic. The thing that really appealed to me about writing a zombie book for kids was that it would give me a chance to work on a secret project.

For the last two years, I’d been miserable trying to write The Drowned Cities with that Greek chorus of critical voices in my head. I desperately wanted to play creatively in a space where I no longer had to worry about who liked what, or who approved of what, or whether anyone would want to buy what I wrote.

I just wanted to create, instead of spending all my time looking over my shoulder.

For me, Zombie Baseball Beatdown was a chance to play. By writing a story that no one wanted – not my editor, not my agent, not my readers, not my critics– I reclaimed creative space. Once again, it was just me. Just me, writing about three kids on a baseball team who defend their small town from the zombie apocalypse. And instead of having many different voices that I needed to satisfy, I only had one—that boy in my wife’s class who didn’t think reading was fun.

Ultimately, it turns out that whether I’m writing novels for adults or for middle school zombie enthusiasts, my themes and agendas still sneak into my stories. It was probably inevitable that my zombie apocalypse would come oozing out of the local meatpacking plant, with its overuse of antibiotics and strange feed supplements and questionable government oversight. And of course, once you’re writing about industrial meat, you can’t help but write about the workers who are often exploited by the meatpacking industry. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, a story about bashing zombies with baseball bats becomes a story about food safety and corporate greed, immigration policy and race in America.

Apparently even if I sneak off to write about crazed zombie cows, my stories still end up smeared with all the fingerprints of my “serious” writing. Wherever you go, there you are, as they say.

I loved writing this book, and I hope kids will love reading it, too. But more than that, I love what writing this book did for me, creatively. Writing Zombie Baseball Beatdown loosened all my writing knots, and silenced all the critics in my head.

Right after I finished the first draft of Zombie Baseball Beatdown, I returned to The Drowned Cities and finished writing that as well. And from there, I went on to write my next novel for adults, The Water Knife.

I know this book will feel like a hopeless detour to some people, and I totally get that. I too, have preferences about which stories I wish a certain author would write.

But sometimes, the thing that looks like a writer driving into a creative ditch isn’t a ditch at all; it’s actually a short cut—the most direct route to all the other stories that an author is going to write. So if my characters Rabi and Miguel and Joe happen to steal a 4×4 pickup and drive it straight into a zombie horde, well then, you should know that it was also me, driving over a few obstacles of my own.

I hope your kids enjoy the ride.

—-

Zombie Baseball Beatdown: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s site, which includes an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

45 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

  1. The first two comments on the thread were off topic, so I’ve snipped them out and reset the thread.

    Folks, it’s not hard to stay on topic in a Big Idea thread: The topic is the book being discussed in the actual article.

    Work with me here, please.

  2. It seems that we in the writing establishment are so busy making our “serious” literature serious, that we’re leaving our kids bored and restless. And as a result, we’re sending the message that video games are awesome, and books are boring crap.

    YES! This! When I was a student teacher, I got the “bad” readers…and got permission to use comic books to encourage one of them to read (as long as they were third-grade appropriate). And I got that kid up to grade level by the end of the year!

    I just reserved this book at the local library — even if I buy it later, by taking it out and bumping up it’s circulation numbers, it makes it more likely that people will find it….

  3. Interesting Post. I see no problem with writing several genre and age groups. Whether it is published or not the author is correct, sometimes walking away, picking up another project allows the fresh perspective to return with renewed enthusiasm to the work.
    And making yourself laugh and others laugh is a blessing.
    I am writing romance parodies. Not because I am making fun of the genre – I love romance. But it makes me laugh and hopefully others are amused. On my personal website are two examples of my parodies. andreageist.com I’d like to know what your readers think about your post and variety in writing. Do we have to use a Pseudonym if our work is outside the box?

  4. This made me think of another Serious Author who wrote a fantastic baseball-themed YA novel. Personally, I liked that one better than the one for which he won the Pulitzer. I suspect I’ll have a similar experience with this one, and I look forward to it.

  5. I didn’t realize he was a national book award finalist. That got my attention. I don’t think its all that often that Sci-Fi/Fantasy authors get mainstream recognition.

    Not sure if Ill read this book, since I prefer more serious book, but I will definitely check out his other work.

  6. So, after many full-course dinners, Baciagalupi has just served up a great bowl of ice cream. I love his “grownup” books, but will look forward to sharing this with younger readers. After I hog it myself, of course.

  7. “writing a story that no one wanted” – but you did. Good for you.

    It makes me want to go sit with a group of third graders and ask them what they want to read about – and then give it to them.

  8. Excellent! I’ve become the “book recommendation lady” for my co-workers’ children, and I look forward to adding this to old aggie’s book list. And copies are already available at our local libraries – sweet!

  9. After reading this post, then reading the Excerpt, I’m absolutely IN. This book has everything my younger self (and current self) would like in a book.

    The best part is I can share this with my 2nd grade daughter and she’ll dig it too. She reads well above her grade level and I’m always looking for books to capture her attention.

    This is another book I wish I’d written.

  10. “It seems that we in the writing establishment are so busy making our “serious” literature serious, that we’re leaving our kids bored and restless. And as a result, we’re sending the message that video games are awesome, and books are boring crap.”

    I would argue that the pervasiveness of standardized testing in schools does this more than contemporary authors themselves. If you’re taught at a young age that Important People write books loaded with obscure Meaning that can only deciphered by choosing the best of four multiple choice options, why *would* you like reading?

    If we want to have today’s kids become readers we need to meet them halfway. Just at Paolo says here, his intentionally goofy zombie book deals with some serious real world topics. What a wonderful thing, to teach young readers that books offer layer upon layer of possible interpretations.

    Now you just need the comic book and videogame version and you’re golden, Paolo.

  11. In the words of Neil Gaiman, with reference to George R.R. Martin, and I totally paraphrase here, “The Writer is not your bitch.”

    Writers, I assume, get into writing because of a burning need to share stories (my boyfriend is a screenplay writer, so I’m extrapolating from watching him work), so they’re the ones in general who decide what stories they want to share, and how they want to tell those stories.

    Readers do indeed like reading things that are akin to other things they have enjoyed in the past. But that doesn’t mean they have the right to insist that favourite authors only ever write a specific kind of novel. And wouldn’t the world be a sadder place if they could?

    So, kudos to you, Paolo, for going where the stories told you to go! I’ve been meaning to pick up The Windup Girl for a while now, and will now add Zombie Baseball Beatdown to the list too, as I do love zombie stories and YA, as well as other forms of writing.

  12. My personal motto is that one’s approach to writing should be serious, but the subject matter doesn’t have to be*. If you want to write about zombies or elves or the chupacabra apocalypse**, work your butt off to write the most well-crafted book you possibly can about zombies/elves/the chupacabra apocalypse. I’m writing what I consider a literary novel with fantastical themes, and even that has gotten me some flack with big serious literary types. Screw it, I say. Write what you love.

    *”Serious” subject matter in the sense of “Big Serious Literary Novel,” that is. No judgment.
    **Yes, Chupacabra Apocalypse will totally be my band name.

  13. I only finished The Windup Girl a couple of weeks ago, so when I saw this my reaction wasn’t far off ‘Seriously, WTF?’. I said aloud: ‘Haha, no way!’ – not because I was upset or disappointed, but because It was delightfully unexpected. Good on you Paolo, I say.

    Curious as to how other people were taking it, I checked out the reaction on Goodreads and almost immediately was confronted with someone accusing P.B. of ‘chasing YA dollar’ because he wrote something that they didn’t want to read.

    I really don’t understand people sometimes. It seems some folk just aren’t happy unless everyone is doing everything exactly what they want them to, the way they want them. Otherwise they’re doing it wrong; they’re immoral; they’re stupid; they’re throwing it all away.

    Ugh.

    I feel as if a really famous Neil Gaiman quote is relevant here.

  14. Thank you Thank you Thank you for this book. I am the designated book pusher in my neighborhood and I have been looking for a middle school appropriate zombie book. No, really, I have been. There doesn’t seem to be a middle between the adult super violent and sexy books and the Goosebump level of kiddie horror. For the kids in the middle, the Hunger Games readers with somewhat protective parents, this has been a desert of books. I have been the evil mom who let her kid read World War Z but not see the movie. I bought the Zombie Survival Guide only to see it go unread. Zombies are huge in video games, even Minecraft has Zombie worlds. Half of the boys I know will be zombies for Halloween. My local park center even had a zombie themed family event. I am going to go and buy this book right now.

    P.S. Always follow your joy, it makes the hard work possible :)

  15. This made me laugh out loud. I have an 11-year old son and the last book he read was Warriors (the one about cats), he LOVES MineCraft and its hard to get him to do anything else but homework and that game. I’ll try yours and see if it works. Congrats to you for going against the grain!

  16. This is by far my favorite “Big Idea” so far! I’m a fan of Mr. Bacigalupi’s work and it’s great to great to see he can have fun with writing

  17. My thirteen-year-old is going to end up with this book and read it, and then she’s going to find my copy of “The Windup Girl…” and I’ll get to laugh at her going “Seriously? WTF?”

    Good clean fun.

  18. First, Paolo, you have a fantastic last name. Bacigalupi. I love it. I know, it comes with the family, but still awesome name.

    Second, love that you’re doing this. Just go for it. If it matters this much to you and liberates you and your craft, go for it. Think of Iain Banks, man. He wrote ‘serious’ fiction and then he wrote the most awesome science fiction too. So, you’re in good company.

  19. By what standard are you a “new writer”? Dude, you’ve been around for years! The first thing of yours I read was “The People of Sand and Slag” in F&SF. I was profoundly disturbed by that story; I read it, like, five times. So yeah, go ahead and be silly — I’ll bet you’re good at that, too.

  20. Sounds like something that my boy will love and my wife will hate. (Just the other day, she was expressing exasperation at the new flash game he was playing where the goal is to create a global zombie infection.)

  21. Earn to Die? I… well, I guess tastes differ, especially between the age of 9 and 34, but I still think there are better zombie games, and better driving games. There might even be a better zombie driving game.

  22. Let’s see: my 9 year old (a) loves baseball (b) loves Zombies and (c) claims to hate reading. I think he’s struggling a tad on the reading — although were working on it — but if I can’t get him to read a book on Zombies and Baseball, we’ll certainly have isolated the problem to reading.

  23. Doesn’t sound like my cuppa, but thank you for sharing your thoughts on writing this and other works. Writers are driven, but they can’t -be- driven.

  24. Ok, I know what my 9-year-old Minecraft-loving nephew is getting for Solstice this year. He’ll love the zombies, his mom will love the underlying messages – it’s a win/win. Bonus points that my idiot ex-brother-in-law will hate it for all those same reasons; I’ll just have to tell Sis to have the kid keep the book at her house.

    Thank you, Mr. Scalzi, for passing this one along – and thank you, Mr. Bacigalupi, for listening to your inner zombie-loving muse and letting this story see the light of day!

  25. Great pitch, Paolo. All too often I think readers forget, and I’m guilty of this myself, that writers (and all artists, really) are locked into expectations and are (willing?) slaves to them. Just churning out replications of that first “hit.” I love that you are seriously making a pitch here to make books cool for a new generation of readers. People can call you a sellout all they want, but at least you’re writing a book for kids, about things that kids like, with a drive to get kids reading. Maybe some kids will pick it up, and, after reading it, pick up…I don”t know…another book?

    A sellout’s book would be called Plants Vs. Zombies: Baseball Beatdown, or something like that. That would have been easy money. Following up some super serious post-apocalyptic novels with something like this? Seems more like the harder path.

    I dig your politics, man. You’re what all meaningful writers should be, someone who keeps one foot in a fantasy world and one foot in the modern world, giving us great entertainment while calling us to focus on the things that we should really be thinking about more. I like that I still don’t know jack shit about what Zombie Baseball Beatdown is about, but I’m inclined to find out more!

  26. There is no zombie cow level!
    I’ve loved Wind-Up Girl and the two teen novels. Totally had the WTF moment when I got my hands on the ARC of Zombie Baseball Beatdown. First I was sad that it wasn’t a new teen dystopia, but I really appreciate the fact he is expressing his take on current issues to a new audience. How is diversifying selling out? He is just reaching a new audience.

    One thing that blew my mind was the references to Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. I try to be liberal and hands-off about what my 11 yr old reads. I had never considered the adventures of Spider Jeruselum as appropriate for a middle schooler. Still pretty awesome, though.

  27. Bread and Jam for Francis AND Riddley Walker

    The Far Pavilions AND The Ordinary Princess

    From Russia With Love AND Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

    A Child’s Garden of Verse AND Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

    The Last Unicorn AND I See By My Outfit

    For that matter, Much Ado About Nothing AND Hamlet.

    Or, as a certain well known Grand Master put it, “Specialization is for insects.”

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