The Big Idea: Diana Rowland
What if everything you knew about zombies was… well, if not exactly wrong, at least somewhat up to negotiation? Author Diana Rowland asked herself this question while thinking about the subject of her latest book, My Life as a White Trash Zombie, and by using her BRAAAAINS (yes, yes, I know, I’m sorry I just did that too), gave on an established set of zombie tropes some new life. What did she do? It’s time to find out.
Fun fact of the day: In an average, run-of-the-mill autopsy, the internal organs—including the brain—are removed from the body for closer examination by the pathologist. However, when said autopsy is complete, the organs aren’t put back into the body, but are instead placed in a container or plastic bag and are sent to the funeral home along with the body.
I know this because I used to work in a morgue, and part of my job was to do the actual brain removal. (I’ll refrain from going into detail as to the actual procedures out of respect for any of John’s readers who might not have as high a tolerance for ick and gore as I do.)
The first time I put a brain into the plastic bag, I—being the nerd that I am—joked that it was a waste of a good brain, and that any self-respecting zombie would be more than happy to feast upon such. It says a great deal about the people with whom I worked that they found this funny instead of horrifying.
The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of a zombie who worked in a morgue for easy access to brains. However, at that time I was shopping my novel, Mark of the Demon, to agents, and wasn’t in a position to dive into another project. Therefore I simply made a few notes, and set the idea aside. My demon book sold not too long thereafter, and thus I figured it might be a few years before I could think more about zombie morgue-workers. Unfortunately, the publishing world had different ideas, and shortly after Mark of the Demon hit the shelves I found out that a reorganization within the company meant that I—along with many other authors—were not going to be offered contracts for more books, for reasons that had little to do with our sales numbers.
Suddenly I had motive, means, and opportunity to see if this zombie story had any life in it. At least, if I wanted my writing career to have any life. (Yes, I’m doing a metaphor thingy.)
Obviously, it was a story that needed to be told from the zombie’s point of view, which also meant that I had to jigger with the “purist” concept of zombieism—the one that defined a zombie as being a mindless, ravenous creature. However, after a good deal of research, I discovered that, for all intents and purposes, there was no such thing as an original zombie story. Every author or filmmaker who’s ever put zombies into their stories has made up their own rules, which meant I could do the same. And, I did. I decided that my zombies have to eat brains in order to stay “whole.” Without them they rot, turn mindless, and get very, very hungry.
Now I needed my character. I didn’t want this to be a depressing story about someone whose life was ruined by becoming a zombie. Instead, I decided that this needed to be the best thing that could have ever happened to my character. She needed to be a loser, without prospects, with nowhere to go. She had to be someone who couldn’t hold a job, who suddenly had to hold a job, i.e. working in the morgue so that she could get the brains she needed.
And thus my main character was born—a high school dropout with a pill and alcohol problem, a felony conviction, a loser boyfriend, an alcoholic dad, and a bad attitude.
Since I also used to be a cop I’m big into mysteries, so I wrapped her story around a search for a serial killer—one who took the heads of his victims. Oh, and I also wanted it to be funny. Easy, right? It helped that a former coworker of mine at the coroner’s office used to tell all sorts of outrageous stories about her white trash dad and her redneck family. “I’m going to write a book about you someday, Angel!” I used to say…
Going back to the death of my writing career (yes, I’m being all metaphory again!): My wonderful agent was doing his very best to find another publisher to take on my Demon Summoner series. However, since I knew the chances of that happening were quite slim, I went ahead and wrote up three chapters and a synopsis of My Life as a White Trash Zombie, and sent it to my agent, who in turn sent it to Betsy Wollheim at DAW. Less than a week later I received word that she wanted to buy three White Trash Zombie books. Oh, and she also wanted to pick up my other series, and offered to buy three of those books as well.
And now I shall beat you to death with the metaphor: Getting dropped by my first publisher was the best thing that could have happened to me. Like a zombie on brains, my career has new life. And a new series!