The Big Idea: Sophie Littlefield
It is a renaissance time for zombie-related literature, which has its good and bad points. The good points include the fact that it make it easier for an author to sell a book with zombies in it. The bad news is that it makes is harder to make your book featuring the shambling undead stand out among all the shuffling others. This was the challenge author Sophie Littlefield faced creating her novel Aftertime. How did she do? The starred review the book received in Publishers Weekly (“Littlefield turns what could be just another zombie apocalypse into a thoughtful and entertaining exploration of many themes, including genetic engineering, social collapse, and motherhood”) suggests she may have pulled it off. Here she is to explain how it all went down.
I wanted to write a zombie book. I’d been messing around with horror short stories, enough to develop an adequate sense of what a horror story arc should feel like, and I was ready to try something longer. I’m drawn to campy, rather than cerebral, devices—and what gets you to “eek” faster than, you know, flesh-eating?
But I’m not a zombie aficionado. And that worried me—I wasn’t sure I had anything unique to say. In the planning stages, I knew only that zombies would serve as a means to an end. Genre fiction is about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The story hook (be it zombies, werecreatures, a serial killer, a cure for cancer or a seduction) is merely the vehicle that brings you to a sufficiently interesting character juncture that you can squeeze a human drama out of it.
Still, a bland or been-there hook is no good. I figured I faced two challenges. First, make my zombies unique. We’ve already seen Austen-esque zombies, zombies who can have sex, talking zombies, Bill Murray making a cameo as a pretend zombie, even zombie strippers who attempt to kill one another by shooting Ping-Pong balls out of their privates. (That last was rather demoralizing, especially since I stumbled on that particular story line by finding my daughter and her high school friends watching Zombie Strippers on late-night TV.)
Second, I needed to create a compelling heroine. I wasn’t sure readers were ready for a dystopic heroine, but luckily, that’s not my job. Someone else would have to worry about wooing the readers from the urban fantasy, paranormal and sci-fi camps while I focused on making her good enough, complex enough, sympathetic enough to carry the series.
I thought the first problem would be harder. I was wrong.
From the moment I started imagining the progression of the disease that turns people into zombies in Aftertime, it practically wrote itself. It starts with fever and winds through sexual mania and dementia and trichotillomania before ending up, inevitably, in flesh-hunger, and I can imagine exactly what each stage looks and sounds and even smells like. I’ll leave it for someone else to speculate on why that might be, why I have an entire epidemiology for a fictional disease stored in the recesses of my mind.
But getting my heroine, Cass Dollar, right was a true challenge. How could I make her hard enough to survive, but also interesting enough that I could keep myself entertained?
Motivation is pretty important to me. Without it, writing is dull as dirt. If you can’t make yourself believe that that character would pick up the gun or seduce the priest or whatever, where are you going to get the juice to keep putting words down—much less expect a reader to buy in?
So when I was imagining a gone-to-hell world, I had to come up with a compelling reason for my heroine to care enough to keep going when indifference, despair, madness, suicide were all more likely responses.
I found the answer in an unexpected place, a conversation with a friend who, like me, writes noir short fiction. We were talking about an upcoming panel discussion titled “Can women write noir?” A couple of beers in, we concluded that male noir is where the heroine is so hot that even though the hero knows she’s going to screw him over in the end, he keeps digging himself in deeper because he can’t resist her…and female noir is when someone threatens your kid. Bam and done. Sure, this grossly oversimplifies a number of fine authors and fine stories, as well as selling out some of our sisters-in-the-craft who can write a mean sexual double cross, not to mention implying that motherhood is the only complex female motivation (trust me; it’s not), but isn’t there a thread—I mean, come on, give me that, just a thread—of truth in there?
You’ll do things for a child that you won’t do for anyone or anything else. (Here, at last, is my main qualification to write this book: I have two kids, and I’ve been at this for a while—eighteen years, in fact, which I like to think makes me something of an expert.)
In my book, Cass—the heroine—had already done the near impossible: she got sober. An addict has already experienced the end of the world—the loss of everything good, lovely, hopeful, redemptive. Most addicts fail. Sobriety is a miracle on par with surviving an apocalypse—so went my thinking—so what would happen to someone who had already faced the impossible, if they had to do it a second time? They’d need an incredibly compelling reason to keep going…so I gave Cass a daughter.
I’m not an addict, but there have definitely been times in my life where I felt like I’d failed at just about everything except for the two kids I brought into this world. I tried to use that energy, that frame of mind, every time I came to a plot juncture. What would Cass do, as things got worse and worse and worse? Well, she’d sabotage and even hurt herself, she’d hurt others, she’d rail and burn and cry, but she would keep going. In the face of hunger, confusion, fear, zombies, marauders and rapists…she would keep going—for her daughter, Ruthie.
That, finally, felt like strong enough motivation to me.
As I write the second and third books in the trilogy, it has been surprising and gratifying to discover that addiction has become entwined thematically. It serves as an allegory over and over again both in Cass’s internal life and in the larger society. But it has to be balanced by Ruthie—the embodiment of hope, of possibility—or it wouldn’t have worked. Just as all genre fiction shares a general arc—the ordinary people/extraordinary circumstances model I refer to above—much of it resolves in redemption. Aftertime is no exception.