Interview with Alison Littlewood
I first heard of Alison Littlewood back in 2012 when one of her Editors, Jo Fletcher, was proudly telling me that her debut novel – A Cold Season – had been selected for the Richard and Judy Bookclub (similar to Oprah’s Bookclub, for you readers from the US). Here in the UK that’s a really big deal and it exposed Alison to thousands upon thousands of readers – quickly resulting in her topping a number of high profile sales charts.
Fast forward three/four years and Alison is now a solid favourite amongst Horror readers and her novels have been consistently appearing on shortlists for awards such as the British Fantasy Awards and Shirley Jackson Awards. What Alison has become known for is her ability to create creepy, atmospheric and lyrical novels that are full of the kind of realism that leaves you feeling jumpy, long after you’ve put them down.
Her latest novel then, Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now, is something quite unlike her previous lengthy fiction. It’s a Zombie Apocalypse! novel, obviously, but it’s also completely different in terms of its style, pacing and atmosphere. So, because of the Zombies and the big change in genre (and, likely, audience too) I thought it would be fun to interview Alison about the writing process for this title… thankfully she agreed because we’ve got some great discussion. Check it out:
So, first thing is first, can you tell me a bit about what Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now is all about?
It’s essentially a zombie invasion tale, set in a Mexican holiday resort. There are tourists and VIP guests all chilling out by the pool when the zombies arrive and cause mayhem. It’s set in the Zombie Apocalypse! world created by Stephen Jones, and events take place at the outbreak of the Human Reanimation Virus, although it adds a twist of its own when Mayan mythology is brought into the equation. The hotel is structured like an ancient pyramid and is full of artefacts, which doesn’t bode well for the holiday-makers and staff . . .
I have to say that I was surprised when I saw your name popup in connection with the Zombie Apocalypse! series. I know Stephen Jones is a heck of an Editor and I’ve really enjoyed the short story collections and novels released so far, but I think it would be fair to say that this isn’t the kind of book that would appear on the Richard and Judy Book Club list (as your debut, A Cold Season did). What were your motivations for writing this novel?
Ha, no, it’s true! I did think it might raise a few eyebrows, but in the end I decided it would be a huge amount of fun, and that was the deciding factor. You only live once, after all! So I went for it, and I was really glad I did. I’d worked with Steve on a short story for Zombie Apocalypse! Endgame, so I’d already had a taster, but I actually ended up having even more fun with it than I’d expected. I usually hit a wall partway through writing a first draft, but not this time! It was just a riot. I still grin at the memory. And it was good actually to be reminded that writing really should be a playground, as Stephen King puts it. I find it all too easy to tie myself in knots over it, so this was a really invigorating project for me.
I really liked the idea of Zombies taking over a holiday resort. It felt quite a fresh location. Was there anything, specifically, that prompted you to choose this setting and what opportunities did it allow you to do that the more typical department store or deserted city environments wouldn’t have?
Well the location in Acapulco was a part of the brief, but it was also part of my motivation for writing the book. I loved the idea – I instantly had lots of ideas for scenes floating around my head, like zombies coming up from out of the sea, or what would happen to the kids’ club! I’d been thinking for a while that I’d like to try setting a whole novel overseas. I’d done it a lot in my short stories, but in my full length fiction I’d always stayed closer to home. I had visited Mexico though, and set a story there called The Eyes of Water, which Steve had picked up for The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, so I guess he knew the idea would appeal to me.
In addition to the location, a lot of the characters are quite different to the kind we see in other zombie novels and even zombie media. Who was your favourite to write about and who posed the most challenges?
I guess that’s true, and the range of characters did stretch me. It was great to have such different viewpoints going on though, particularly when they start seeing the same events through different eyes. There’s a member of staff of Mayan heritage who was one of my favourites, particularly because he’s often misunderstood and somewhat down-trodden until the invasion brings his character to the fore. One of the more challenging was Francisco, a member of a local drug cartel who gets caught up in it all, because he’s from such a morally bankrupt background and yet is forced to recover a more human side to himself. The spoiled gold-digger, Louisiana, was a lot of fun too, though she’s not someone I’d relate to in real life. Really though all the characters were enjoyable to work with because of the way the zombie apocalypse make them develop – it brings out the good side in some and the worst in others, but they’re all forced to change in some way.
Although none of the Zombie Apocalypse! novels are Shaun of the Dead, they don’t take themselves too seriously – see the excellent and amusing covers, or the over the top strap lines, “‘The Death’ takes a holiday…'” How do you go about managing the comedy and the horror? Were there any instances where you struggled with it?
To be honest humour wasn’t really a prerequisite, but I think I’d have found the book impossible to write without having a bit of a giggle with it here and there. The very fact that there is such a huge body of work about zombies just demanded a nod and a wink! The holiday theme sometimes lent itself to a touch of the absurd, and there are a few cheeky references to movies in there too. So no, it wasn’t really a struggle. From the outset I just thought of the zombies in this environment as having the potential for scares but also for laughs, and indeed for some heart-felt moments – after all, zombies aren’t just monsters – they can be our sisters or brothers or mothers or fathers, just with no feelings left for us and only an insatiable hunger in its place. And so when I started to piece the characters’ stories together and to write, all of those things seemed to come together naturally.
Focusing on the horror aspects, there is some pretty gross stuff in Acapulcalypse Now (that’s a complement in this context!) – when it comes to writing description of say a face being torn off or bitten into or a zombie brutally decapitated – how does the thought process go? Have you had to see a psychologist since handing in the manuscript? 🙂
Oh, ha ha! Erm, no. Perhaps I should! I don’t do gore all that often, but I remember Steve saying to me, ‘this isn’t the time to hold back,’ and I agreed totally. It was just really a case of taking the time to try and visualise things well, and then to simply describe what was happening in my head. Erm, that probably doesn’t help, does it!
When you think of a zombie, what things do you feel they ‘have’ to have and which things do you think they could probably do without?
Well it’s probably a surprisingly difficult question, because they are essentially reanimated people. So the potential for different situations and characteristics is pretty much as wide as it is for human characters. The mythology in my version brings a new range of possibilities too. The Zombie Apocalypse! world also has the usual kind of shambling hordes, but there is a more intelligent, more highly functioning type of zombie which can impose organisation on the chaos. So it was more a case of possibilities than rules, depending on the situation anyway, which was really exciting for me as a writer. (Erm, they all smell though. And they’re not very attractive. That pretty much covers it, really!).
Do you have a particular zombie film/novel/game that you are most fond of and what about it do you most appreciate?
You’ve mentioned one already – I love Shaun of the Dead. I suppose my approach was laced with wry humour, so I appreciate a more comedic approach when it comes to film. And Zombieland was terrific. I love the way they deliberately play with the zombie trope, and the way they use the ‘rules’ is brilliant.
You recently wrote an excellent article on Zombies and why they will never die for SFX Magazine. You spoke about how we as humans fear zombies because they are a very human monster. Something you explore in the novel that I feel works well in Zombie media is that conflict between the person you love being alive and dead at once and how they can be standing there and yet not have any kind of compassion. How was it writing such scenes?
I absolutely loved it! In the past I’ve often started writing a short story with little more in mind for the outcome than a sense of the emotion I want to create in the reader. And I’ve always loved a book that can make me cry! So I started this book with some landmark scenes in my mind, and some of them were comic or big plot-drivers or scares, but I knew the emotional ones were coming too. They become kind of an engine for the thing, driving decisions about the way characters are built and develop and what choices they make, so when those things culminate – ah, I know I keep saying it, but it really was damn good fun. 🙂
In terms of the likely-hood of a Zombie Outbreak… did you do much research into its plausibility for this novel? In a world with nuclear weapons, daily medicinal advances and even cloning it certainly doesn’t seem impossible some accident could cause a kind of Zombie-like outbreak… Do you think that they are, in fact, also quite a plausible monster and this adds to the interest in them?
Not as such, although I think it was in the back of my mind that these days, with Alzheimer’s, the concept of people losing their memories or sense of who they are, or the relationship they have to their loved ones, is all too possible. I think that sense of relevance to current concerns has definitely contributed to the continued interest in zombies throughout the years. In the eighties it was more driven by ideas of rampant consumerism – shoppers traipsing through malls like zombies themselves. Now, often, they can be expressive of a quieter but more terrifying spectre.
Continuing on from this then, if the Zombie Apocalypse happened tomorrow, how do you think the world would react, really?
With terror and panic, but also with a lot more disbelief. Also, there would probably be a lot more people burying their head in the sand – staying indoors and pretending it’s not happening would probably account for a lot of it, though that wouldn’t make for a very good book!
And what would be your plan for survival?
I’m afraid I haven’t got beyond ‘run away screaming’. And god, the survivors would have it rough, wouldn’t they?! I’d probably prefer to be a zombie, actually. Not really bothered about keeping up appearances or the fact that there’s nothing good on telly any more, and plenty of good grub to be had, if you can only catch it . . . Yup, it’s the zombie life for me!
A mysterious multi-millionaire invites a collection of rich and powerful men and women from around the world to his exclusive hotel on the cost of Acapulco. As they leave Heathrow airport, the events at All Hallows Church, which sparked the zombie plague, break out. Now the guests must battle each other, the resentful locals, the impending horde of undead, and the land itself. A spin-off novel of the bestselling Zombie Apocalypse! series.
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