Wordstock Interview: Isaac Marion

Geek Culture

Isaac MarionIsaac Marion

Isaac Marion, author of Warm Bodies: you'll laugh, you'll cry. You'll never look at zombies the same way again. Photos: Jonathan Liu

Isaac Marion is the author of Warm Bodies, probably best described as a zombie romance novel, though that short phrase hardly does it justice. It’s a fascinating spin on the zombie mythology, but it’s not exactly a “young adult” novel despite what you might think from that premise. That kicked off my conversation with Marion at Wordstock, though we also delved into zombie physiology and the upcoming film version of the book.

GeekDad: When I read Warm Bodies, I wasn’t thinking of it as a young adult novel. It seems to be getting some of that marketing, but I really thought of it as a book for adults.

Isaac Marion: I’m glad. That never even crossed my mind, that somebody would categorize it that way. Even just for the fact alone that there’s tons of F-bombs in it and some gore and sex, no one’s gonna put this in the YA section. But it’s been a weird thing because bookstores and reviewers will just assume that. They see Stephenie Meyer’s quote on the front cover and they read a little bit about the premise and they go, oh, it’s gotta be in that category.

GD: It’s the genre and the age of the main characters.

IM: I’ve been trying to figure out the formula there, like how something gets defined as young adult. Like Super 8, for example: it’s got all young characters, they’re all kids, little kids, yet no one’s saying that’s a children’s movie. There are people getting heads ripped off, and … was it rated R? Anyway, it wasn’t for little kids.

GD: Well, movies have this rating system — which I have some problems with at times — but you’ve got a system that has a rubric, and they say, if it has these things in it, then it’s R, or PG-13, or whatever. You get an idea of the appropriate age range. With books, I don’t think that’s always done now.

IM: I don’t know what other use that is as a category for books, if it’s not to let people know what’s appropriate for my teenager to read. What other good is it? Otherwise it’s just straight-up saying you’re too dumb to read adult literature. Just read this simplified stuff. Which seems silly when you’re talking about this age range.

If you’re talking about young kids, sure, you’re not going to give them War and Peace or something, but so many YA books are supposed to be directed at 16- to 18-year-olds. Why do they need their own category? They could just read any books by then.

GD: For a while I worked at a public library and I was one of the people who had to catalog the books, give it a sticker and a call number. And I realized for a lot of them, when I asked how I should categorize a book, it’s guesswork. You open it up, you look at the size of the text, you look at the age of the main character, you flip through it a little. You see how other libraries have categorized it. That’s mostly it.

IM: So what if it was a book with slightly larger font with a sixteen-year-old character but the whole story was about rape and mutilation or something?

GD: Well, if you look at the plot summary and that’s what it’s about, then you give it a closer look, of course. But there were some where I realized later that a book was miscategorized.

IM: I’d think you’d get some angry parents sometimes, asking why is this book in this section? I thought it’d be fine for my kid, and they’re traumatized!

GD: That certainly is possible. This particular library didn’t have as many comic books and graphic novels. So all of the comics went into one section, categorized as young adult. There were comics meant for younger kids, who wouldn’t find them because they’re in the young adults section, but the teenagers wouldn’t be interested in reading them. And you get comics that were definitely for adults — but it had a “comics” sticker on it so it got shelved there too.

IM: Maybe it’d be useful to have a section specifically for graphic novels, but then divide it up within that section.

All of this wasn’t something I had really ever thought about until this book came out and I kept having all these different assumptions about it, and I started thinking about how absurd the whole age categorizing system is. I get some of the idea behind it but so much of it is so useless and kind of arbitrary, based on such meaningless things. Like the character’s age: that determines who’s gonna read the book? Catcher in the Rye, is that a kid’s book? It’s something so trivial like that. Oh, this book has pictures, so it must be in the young adult section, because nobody who’s older than a teenager would read that. It’s dumb.

GD: Of course, now that these categories exist, people start writing to fit into one category or other.

IM: That’s … even worse. That’s the ultimate extension of that whole error.

GD: Getting back to Warm Bodies, I read that you originally self-published it.

IM: Well, kind of. I’m not sure what I would call it, because when I hear “self-publishing” I think of people printing thousands of copies and going out, pushing them in libraries and stores and trying to make that their only goal. I printed out a couple hundred copies and I just sold them on my website.

I marketed as much as I was able to; I made a trailer for it and tried to get people to buy it, but it was always with the assumption of trying to get it published on a larger scale later. I guess it’s a question of definition, what you consider “self-publishing,” but it did exist for some people before this one.

I’ve written other books in the past, and as soon as I finish writing it I go straight to the printer, because even if I had a publisher waiting for me right there I’d still want to do that. It just takes too long. I don’t have the patience to spend a year of my life writing a book and then be finished, and all I want to do is have people read it and I’m so excited about … and then I have to wait a year for them to do all this process and make the cover, which probably won’t even be a cover that I like … By the time it actually comes out I’m over it already. So I want to put it out now, so that at least my immediate friends and family can see it, and my inner circle that actually pays attention to my website, they can buy it.

GD: When you got this to Atria Books, did you have to do any reworking from the version you already printed?

IM: Well, I went through a few versions that I printed myself, but the latest one was still quite a bit further behind than even the one that was submitted to the publisher. Because I did a lot of editing with my agent, a lot more even than I did with my editor. I spent about six months with him working on it. So the most recent version that I printed myself is still quite a bit different from the one that actually came out from Atria.

It didn’t change a whole lot from the manuscript that was accepted to what was published, mostly some subtle polishing. But it did change a lot before that stage.

GD: So what you’re saying is that people should really get both, then, right?

IM: No, I try to hide the existence of those previous ones. I mean, the first one I did is dramatically different from what’s out now, and it’s like 80 pages shorter and has whole sections that aren’t there and some sections are way worse. The prose itself isn’t as refined. I still have boxes of those self-printed ones.

Sometimes I hear people say, “I read your book,” and I say, “Um, so, where’d you get it? Is it one that I printed out? Because in that case there’s not much to talk about.” The very last one I did is probably close enough that I’d feel that you’d read the book, it just wasn’t quite as perfected. The earliest version, well, I wouldn’t force somebody to re-read the book, but if they liked it enough I’d say they should re-read it now, because there’s quite a bit more in the final version.

GD: What inspired you to write this? Are you a big zombie fan, or was it something else that sparked the story?

IM: It definitely wasn’t that I just thought, Oh, I love zombies so much I want to write a whole novel about them. I was familiar with the whole pop-culture creature and mythology, but I wasn’t somebody who was following it religiously. It’s more of an idea that just sort of came to me and I thought that it would be an interesting way to do a story, with a lot of serious thoughts and ideas through this pulpy, low-brow lens.

It started out as just a very simple idea, which was just a tiny short story about five pages long. The first couple pages of Warm Bodies is basically that short story, where it’s just a zombie talking about his day. And then it expanded from that to a much more complicated thing.

It definitely wasn’t that I set out to write something like this; I kind of wrote it in spite of it being about zombies. Halfway through it, I thought, I’m actually writing a novel about zombies. I didn’t really think I’d be doing that. Because it’s not really the sort of thing I normally write. I have a few stories that are kind of creepy and supernatural, but I wouldn’t put anything that I write in the horror category. So it was kind of an odd place to find myself at the end of the day, when the book came out and I’m working in realms that I didn’t expect myself to be. I’m trying to appeal to very different audiences at the same time, which can be tricky.

GD: While reading it, I thought that even though it’s about zombies, it’s not really a horror book. It’s not a book that is scary, that makes you jump when something comes around the corner. It’s a very moving, emotional book.

IM: The gory moments usually have more of a sad mood to them, like when he’s actually describing something horrible happening it’s more like a self-loathing, sad moment than something shocking and visceral.

GD: It wasn’t what I was expecting to get from a book about zombies but I really enjoyed it. I think I also have this absorbed cultural knowledge of zombies, but I haven’t actually watched a lot of the classic zombie films.

IM: I’ve seen all of them now. I mean, I’d seen some of them when I first started writing this, but there were a few gaps. I wasn’t a huge devotee of that genre, I was just aware of it, but as I started writing this I sought out all of them. Well, I mean, now there’s way too many and you could never have seen it all but there are a few that rise out of the haze. Like there’s the George Romero ones and all the ones that everyone knows about, those are the ones that I sought out.

I wanted to create this amalgamation of all the different versions of zombies, and combine them all. Because in this world nobody knows what caused it, there’s no defined version. R [the main character] says, “I don’t know if it’s from radiation, or disease, or a curse. It’s just: here I am, I’m a zombie.” So I wanted to know all the cliches of the genre so I could poke fun at them and use them in other ways.

GD: What else has influenced your work? What other authors or books have you really love?

IM: I always have a hard time picking those things, because I tend to not really go very far with any one author. It’s rare that I read more than two or three books by any one author, usually only one. There’s just this constantly growing list of people I’m supposed to read, and even if I really like a book, I oftentimes just move on to the next author. So I can’t really pick a favorite author.

The kind of stuff I usually read is a bit more on the literary side, like books that I think are influential in the sense that they’re doing pulpy subject matter in a refined way. Like The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I loved that book. I read that midway through writing my book. I read a lot of Stephen King as a kid and in my teens, but I’ve moved a little bit left of that since then, sort of the McSweeney’s type of crowd. I like some Dave Eggers books, read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut when I was younger. I’m kind of all over the place, so it’s hard to pin it down.

GD: Zombies, or other monsters in horror literature, are often used as some sort of metaphor. They represent the fears, the boogeyman of the time period in which the story is written. Do you feel like your zombies represent anything?

IM: Yeah. In this case it’s not so much that the zombie himself is the boogeyman, but there’s a parallel between the zombies and the humans. They both have the same boogeyman from a different perspective, which is that they have lost the ability to live, to understand what being human is all about. The zombies are literally dead, and whoever they may have been before, they’re just these husks of people now. The humans have also ended up in the same position by shaving off every extraneous element of life in order to just survive. They’ve ended up in the same meaningless, repetitive existence by ignoring all the kinds of things that make life worth living in favor of trying to just get food and not die.

So, the theme there with the zombies is that they’re trying to force their way out of that, learn how to live — literally and metaphorically — and it causes this physical or metaphysical transformation. But it begins as this act of choice, of elevating their existence.

GD: Have you had any criticism of your use of zombies, like from zombie purists?

IM: I have had some. I remember one, somebody gave me this explanation about how since a zombie has no pulse and its heart isn’t beating, that means there’s no blood flow, which means that the brain isn’t getting any oxygen. Therefore, the brain isn’t functioning so it’s impossible for the zombies to have conscious thoughts. I’m thinking, it’s a dead body that moves and eats brains. That’s all impossible. Who’s to tell me what a zombie can and can’t do?

But I did watch a lot of these classic zombie movies and I think, from the human’s perspective, my zombies don’t do anything that hasn’t been done already. As far as the humans can tell, seeing them from the outside, they act like usual zombies, at least at first. And even the thinking zombie is something that was in one of the George Romero movies — there’s a scene where they’re taking apart zombies, trying to figure out what causes them, and there’s this one that responds to military commands. And they figure out that it was a military guy before it became a zombie, and that its mind still responds to these things that were there before.

GD: Where do you go from here? You said you like to get it done, move on to the next thing. Are you already onto the next thing?

IM: Once I was done editing Warm Bodies, I had a bunch of short stories that were lying around before this. I realized that I had about enough to make a book of them, so I started writing some more. One of them is almost a novella, it’s pretty long, and you could call it a sort of prequel to Warm Bodies. It takes place nine years before, with some of the characters in their early lives, but it’s also a stand-alone story as well.

So I’ve been trying to put together this short story collection which I’m done with now, I’m just waiting for the go-ahead from my agent. I’m not sure what the next thing is going to be yet. I’ve got a script that I’ve written, a book that I wrote before Warm Bodies that I wrote when I was much younger and I’m going to see if I can salvage that, and a long list of other book ideas that I want to tackle.

GD: Is writing your full-time job, or do you also have a day job?

IM: Well, I quit my day job the moment I could afford it. My previous job was supervising visits between foster kids and their biological parents, so it was really interesting but also very sad and depressing. So as hard as it was to tell the kids I was leaving, I had to do it as soon as I could. Once I got the first portion of money from the movie deal, about two years ago, I’ve been living off that and the book advances. I’ve got a lot of things in the works so I’m hoping to avoid going back to a day job ever again, unless I really screw something up.

GD: They’re shooting the Warm Bodies movie now. Have you been out to see that?

IM: Yeah, I just came here directly from the shooting in Montreal. I spent three days there.

GD: Did you write the script yourself, or did they have somebody else write it?

IM: The director [Jonathan Levine] wrote it. I’ve not been directly involved as far as collaborating on it, but I’ve been consulted a lot, a lot more than what’s normal, from what I’m told. When they first hired the director he had lunch with me and just chatted about his ideas and vision for the whole thing, and he’s been interacting with me as he wrote the script. He’d call me up and ask me questions: what’s this part about, or how do you see this and that.

I read some draft of the script — I’m not sure how far along it was — and then I got to give notes on that, and later read another draft and gave some notes. It seems like they’re really respectful of my opinion and they seem to really care what I think, which is cool. Very unusual, from what I’m told. Even major best-selling authors who have all the clout in the world, sometimes they just tell them: “Get lost, we don’t care what you think. Just let us make this movie.” Everyone I’ve told about this who knows how that works has been amazed, that they actually have involved me.

GD: Maybe it also has to do with this particular director, too, Jonathan Levine, and how he chooses to work.

IM: Right, I’m sure if it was a real big-shot then maybe they wouldn’t be as open to it. Everyone involved is on this buzzing, up-and-coming level of actors, except for John Malkovich, of course. The director, all the actors, are at this about-to-break-out level and they have a bunch of projects that are big deals but haven’t come out yet. By the time Warm Bodies comes out, they’ll be much more high-profile. So I guess I came into it at just the right time, where they’re not too big where they don’t care what I say, but they’re still going to be relevant.

I didn’t know what to expect when I visited the set. This was my first time to any sort of set. I didn’t know if would be like Adaptation, with the writer lurking behind a fence, and them yelling: “Get out of the shot!” But I walked in, the set was there, and they were right in the middle of some really intense, pivotal scene. Bruna [Papandrea], the producer, who I’ve known for a while just came out and started introducing me to everyone. We had dinner afterwards and I got to hang out with the cast. It was really casual and everyone was really nice.

I saw two scenes being filmed, and I got to see the dailies from a lot of stuff they’d shot before, and it was really cool. I was nervous about a lot of things. Getting to see those scenes they shot and seeing how they got to do various things, like how the guy playing R delivers the lines. That was one of my biggest concerns, like how that was going to work. It’s so hard not to be silly-sounding when you’re talking and wheezing between every syllable, but it’s really good, and it looks amazing. All the actors seem perfect for their parts, so I’m pretty excited about it.

GD: With a book like this where so much of it is internal, R’s internal thoughts, because he’s much more eloquent in his head than what he’s able to express out loud, do you feel that will carry over into the movie?

IM: I think it does. I mean, I’ve read the script and I’m not supposed to talk about specific techniques that they use, but I’ll say that they use a variety of techniques to get that across. Some of them are more direct and obvious than others, and some are more implied. Having read the script and having seen some of the more one-on-one, personal, intimate scenes on the dailies, they get a lot across very subtly. The way that he’s playing R is extremely expressive. He doesn’t say hardly anything, but he has a lot of body language and this awkward, twitchy style that communicates his thoughts. It’s not going to be as verbose as a narrator in a book, but it does come across on some level.

GD: Does he express a lot with his shrugs? I mean, that’s really important, right?

IM: Yeah. I only saw some clips from mainly one scene, a conversation between him and Julie, and they referenced the shrugging thing, like in the book where she’s tired of him shrugging all the time. So I didn’t see what came before, but I’m assuming he does.

There’s a lot of stuff that has to change in an adaptation. Everyone knows that even with a short book, even with a fairly linear, straightforward story line, there’s still so many little threads and sub-explanations of things that you can’t even cover. There’s a lot of compression, and combining events into one event, that has to happen. But a lot of the movie is pretty faithful to the book, especially the first half is like it’s coming right out of my brain. So I’m really excited to see that.

GD: Very cool. I’m looking forward to it!

For more about Isaac Marion and Warm Bodies, visit his website www.IsaacMarion.com.

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