Short intro: Richard Kadrey is one of my favorite contemporary dark fantasy authors. Dead Set, his newest book, is excellent. It’s also a little bit different than some of his other work, for a couple of reasons. Those reasons? Kadrey explains below.
Dead Set is a new kind of book for me. I’ve never written a young adult novel before and before a friend pointed me to authors like Holly Black, my memory of what passed for young adult when I was a kid was something kind of soft and not very sophisticated. Then I read some of the good modern stuff—like Black’s Tithe and some of Neil Gaiman’s work–and it was a reading kick to the head. As I waded into the dark magic, tough situations, and screwed up families I thought that I could have a good time exploring this new territory, so I took the plunge.
There’s another reason I wanted to try Dead Set, too. I write a lot about guys. Guys with power and attitude. My Sandman Slim series is about a magician with vast physical and magical power: James Stark has escaped Hell, come back from the dead (more than once), kicks angels’ asses, and pals around with God and Lucifer. Basically, he’s a guy with a lot going for him. A young adult book seemed like that perfect place to look at a character with little to no power. Up popped Zoe, a sixteen-year-old girl with a recently dead father, little money, and a mother who, like Zoe, is finding her way back from tragedy. Sixteen seemed like the perfect age for my protagonist. A fascinating, frustrating time where you have so many adult responsibilities, but so little adult power.
Dead Set was also a place to explore new mythologies. Over six books, Sandman Slim has developed enough backstory and mythological complexities that I had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of who I’d killed and who was merely maimed. I needed breakdowns of the magical beings in James Stark’s world. Who his friends and enemies are. Where has he been and what did he find there? Keeping these things straight is sometimes fun, but Sandman Slim’s world, however complicated, is just one world. I wanted to write about other places. Writing Zoe’s story let me do that.
Zoe’s story starts simply. In the year since her father’s death, her life has fallen apart. The insurance money didn’t come through, so she and her mother lost their nice home in the suburbs and had to move into a crappy apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. Zoe has left all her friends behind and has to attend a new school where she doesn’t know anyone and doesn’t fit in. Worst of all, her dreams have become haunted.
Before the move, Zoe’s dreams were the one place she felt happy and safe, playing like kids behind her family’s old house with Valentine, her “dream brother.” There, she could forget about her screwed up life for a while. Lately though, the black dogs have appeared, following her through empty streets of her dreams.
While cutting school one day, Zoe wanders into a used record store. Music and old punk bands had always been a big part of her family’s life and when she sees the shop, she can’t help but go in. Inside, she discovers a secret room in the back, one most people can’t find. There, the records are unlabeled and when Zoe holds one up to the light it seems to have a beating heart in the center, with veins and arteries branching away. Emmett, the store owner, explains to her that these records don’t hold music, but human souls—her father’s soul among them. Zoe can have the record and take her father home, if she’ll pay the price. Ultimately, the price forces her to visit a dark city where the dead are trapped forever, unable to go forward or back. She wants to save her father, but quickly realizes she also has to save herself. My editor and I have described the book as a punk Wizard of Oz with dead people instead of munchkins.
As some of you might have guessed, I’m not young and I’m not a woman, so… how did I write the book from a young woman’s point of view? I started my writing career as a journalist, which means I know how to research. I approached writing Zoe the way I would any subject I wanted to know more about: I read up on the subject and most importantly, I went to the experts. Women. I’m lucky that I’m surrounded by smart women. My wife is my first reader. My editor, agent, and publicist are all women. I went to friend’s daughters and to young women I’d gone to for book advice while writing Sandman Slim (I don’t keep up with anime the way I used to. It’s nice to know people who do!).
That’s the basic story behind Dead Set. I wanted to try something different and I wanted to get my work in front of new eyes. I wanted to explore new worlds and I wanted to write something that both young adult and older readers could enjoy. And I wanted to find out if Zoe took the shadow man’s offer and what she did with it.
Everyone is sixteen once, both strong and weak, adult and child, focused and confused. I remember all those things. Some parts of Zoe weren’t hard to write at all. The lost family that’s trying to find its way back to shore. The scars that everyone gets in life: the ones you get from exploring the edges of what you know, plus the deeper ones you pick up in the places you know you shouldn’t go but can’t resist. I wanted to look at all those things again and I wanted to do it with someone as smart and resourceful as Zoe.
The land of the dead is a hard place to get to and even harder to come back from. Zoe is frequently in over her head, but we’re all over our heads more times than we’d like to admit. It’s what you do there and how you fight your way back that defines you as a person. And ultimately, that’s Zoe’s story.