The Big Idea: Lia Habel
Sparkly Zombies: A good idea? It’s a question one might ask of Lia Habel, whose novel Dearly, Departed features both romance and the dead. But as Habel explains in this Big Idea, there’s a fine line between creating the dead that can love and might feel love, and just making them hunkly, glittery dream fodder that are only cosmetically dead, so to speak.
I never dreamed that I’d be a published author. I never dreamed that I’d have the opportunity to present a Big Idea. So I’m really despising Past Me right now, because there are just too many damn ideas in my book to choose from. I wrote Dearly, Departed to amuse myself, and consequently threw in everything I love without a shred of remorse or a moment’s hesitation. The book is like my own personal toy box – guns, pretty dresses, kick-ass girls, retrofuturistic machines. The works.
The premise of the book is thus a little tricky, but ultimately entertaining. Hundreds of years in the future, humanity is divided into new tribes. One of these tribes ends up modeling itself on the Victorian era, but through the use of advanced technology – “gilding” their buildings with elaborate holographic façades, disguising their cell phones as miniature sculptures, designing their fanciful gowns and dapper suits with specialized computer programs, etc. In time a new aristocracy is born, to which a growing splinter group, the Punks, reacts quite negatively. Neo-Luddites who despise digital technology and the idea of aristocratic supremacy to the point of engaging in terrorism, the Punks are eventually driven southward to eke out their own civilization.
And into all of this we toss some zombies – a small percentage of which manage to retain their “humanity” for a period after death. Sound good yet?
Long after the mass exile of the Punks my heroine, Nora Dearly, and my hero, Bram Griswold, are born – in different tribes, at different ends of the known world. They never should have met, but death manages to bring them together. As in, Bram dies. And picks himself up again. And that’s when the fun really begins.
When I first started writing D,D I had one goal in mind – and that was simply to create a busy, sprawling young adult novel that starred an obviously undead hero. My premise took care of the first bit, and all of it came to me in a rush over a few brief days. Now I can look back at the activities I was in engaged in at the time (steampunk chats, etc.) and see clearly from whence the ideas hailed, but back then they seemed to be coming furiously, quickly. I’m still untangling them all.
The second bit came from me – from deep down in my own creepy little soul. I grew up loving monsters, despising handsome princes, and championing the ugly and different. I’m still not sure how I ever developed this tendency. My mother raised me on horror movies, but she, being normal, was actually scared by them, whereas her weirdo daughter was simply enchanted, so I’m sure I didn’t get it from her. Nevertheless, the idea that a creature from beyond the grave might be every bit as “normal” as anyone alive, might want the same things, has always seemed quite reasonable to me. In deciding to use zombies as good guys I knew that I was going to have to sell them to both anti-zombie naysayers and those who prefer their favorite monsters to remain “uncorrupted,” though, and therein lay the challenge.
Thus Bram Griswold, two years dead and still going strong, stands on the shoulders of the horror giants that populated my imagination in childhood. Bram was my most important consideration as I began work on the Dearly universe, because I knew that I had to create a male zombie lead that could function as a serious protagonist, as a serious object of romantic interest, and still retain some inhuman qualities. I never write without my tongue firmly lodged in my cheek, but I instinctively knew that the book would triumph or fail based on Bram, and that he had to be handled carefully. Other zombie characters could be ridiculous, outrageous, vile, even comedic – but at the end of the day, Bram had to have soul. And he had to look dead, act dead – be dead. He couldn’t be a hot boy in monster makeup.
I stress over and over again that the book isn’t just a romance, but if I’m honest I have to admit that the heteromortal relationship in the book was the very first thing I thought of, the concept around which the rest of the story was built. I think that’s quite logical, looking back – if you’re trying to sell a cannibalistic dead body as a hero, better show him in the best possible light. Like, say, through the eyes of a girl who comes to love him. Ultimately, though, his viability as a romantic hero comes not from the romantic part of his personality, but from the heroic. I’m personally tired of angsty male leads, especially in young adult fiction, and so I did my best to write Bram counter to this trend. He knows what he is, accepts it, and is ready to move on. He is intelligent, fair, just, and gentle. He has a sense of humor. He’s dead, he’s rotting, and he freaking smiles all the time. He will go to his grave whistling. And all of these qualities shine brighter for the fact that they’re contained in this odd vessel.
I’m so grateful that I’ve been allowed to explore this vision, to take the idea this far. And the fact that Bram is bringing some readers over to Team Zombie for the first time is totally overwhelming. I only hope that I can do the idea justice. (So can I get maybe five more books, Great Publishing Deal Gods? Thanks.)