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!
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.
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.