The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Monday, August 02, 2010

An Interview with Alden Bell

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

If you've read my review of The Reapers are the Angels, you know that, not only do I think very highly of of the book, but I also think it's emotional, and beautifully written.

And while Reapers doesn't hit shelves until tomorrow(!), I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Alden Bell for The Daily Monocle. I hope you all enjoy the read.


How long have you been interested in zombies?

Ever since my father took me to see Dawn of the Dead when it came out. I was nine years old. You could call it bad parenting, but I like to think of it as brilliant foresight on my father’s part. On some level he knew I would grow up to write a zombie novel.

What inspired you to write The Reapers are the Angels?

It’s a combination of two literary dreams I’ve had for a long time: the first was to write a Southern Gothic novel in homage to William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and all the other great writers I grew up loving; the second was to write a zombie novel in homage to all the horror films I grew up loving. At some point it occurred to me that these two novels might actually be one. After all, it seems as though much of Southern literature is about the loss of a majestic past—which is the perfect setting for a novel about a once great but currently devastated world.

And about how long did it take you to write it?

This was a relatively quick novel to write. It took me seven or eight months. The revision process was not long either. Sometimes a story requires heavy labor to get it told; other times, as in this case, it just seems to pour out of you naturally.

Zombies are a hot subject right now. What do you think makes your book stand out from the masses the most?

A lot of the current zombie stories are ironic or humorous. The comic zombie seems to be the standard of the day. My zombies, on the other hand, hearken back to a more traditional mythology. There’s nothing funny about them at all. Also, I think Reapers is very much about the irrepressible beauty of the world—which is probably not so common among stories of the zombie apocalypse.

Your protagonist, Temple, is a 15 year old girl. Obviously, part of your reasoning behind her age was so that she would never know a time without the zombies. Were there any other reasons you chose to write such a young main character?

I like the idea of a character whose whole life has been one thing. Older characters tend to have more texture, more complexity, more experience behind them. But what’s unique about Temple is that there’s a purity of identity in her. She isn’t old enough to have lived multiple lives: everything she has done in her short life has been about survival and violence. I think that single-mindedness is what makes her tragic but also very strong.

Temple's weapon of choice is a gurkha knife, rather than a gun or a club. Why a gurkha knife?

Mostly because of the looks of the thing. That inward-curving blade always looked brutal and savage to me. It’s not built for stabbing but just for chopping, which evokes an entirely different, animalistic kind of violence. Also, from a purely practical perspective, Temple would always prefer a blade to a gun so that she wouldn’t have to rely on finding ammunition in the wasteland. She is nothing if not pragmatic.

Temple has a complicated view on good-vs.-evil. Is this something that the character just developed as the book progressed, or did you intend this quality from the beginning?

I knew from the beginning that I wanted her character to be in pursuit of redemption for some moral infraction she had committed—but it took me a while to figure out what infraction that was. Actually, now that you mention it, I guess I tend to see her view on good and evil as relatively simple. She’s not a complex moralist: she tries to do the right thing and tries to avoid the wrong thing. The only problem she has, sometimes, is telling which is which—and you can’t really blame her, growing up as she did in such a topsy-turvy world.

What was your favorite scene to write?

To be honest, my favorite scenes are the ones where not much is happening. About three quarters of the way through the book, Temple takes a train ride across the landscape—and the action drops away in favor of lingering descriptive passages. Those are my favorite. Even though Reapers has plenty of action in it, as a reader I tend to like books that are more slowly paced, books that take their time and force you to stop and think. I prefer books that you have to endure rather than books that rush you through at a breakneck speed to their conclusion.

And were there any scenes particularly difficult to put on paper?

I always found the character of James Grierson a little difficult to write. In my mind, he is a kind of Hamlet character: tragic prince, crippled by his own moroseness. But he’s also distant, which made it hard to get behind him. I was never quite sure what he would say in any given situation—and I’m still not.

I can only imagine the research you had to do in order to write this novel. How many macabre facts did you discover?

Actually, this is an almost researchless book (and so I’m sure there are numerous factual errors that people will point out). I had to do a little research on the guns used in the story—and some on the geography of the South so that Temple’s journey would make some sense. But other than that, I’m shooting from the hip. I’ve never been such a fan of realism or accuracy. It seems to me that artifice is the whole point of art—so I let my liar’s flag fly.

Do you think Reapers has a lot of crossover potential with the YA market?

I don’t read many YA books, but I would think that Reapers could be of interest to that market. After all, it is a kind of coming-of-age novel. If I had a daughter, I certainly wouldn’t mind her reading the book. Temple is a good role model: tough, adaptable, independent, ferociously true to her own code. I think young girls could do much worse than following Temple’s lead.

Can you sum up your book in three words or less?

To blatantly rip off Faulkner from The Sound and the Fury: They endured.

If you were living the post-zombie apocalypse world, which of your characters you pick as your travelling companion, and why?

Temple, definitely. She knows how to dispatch a zombie, she knows how to travel a landscape of death and destruction, and when she sings she has the voice of a songbird—or at least that’s what she claims.

How long have you been writing?

I’ve been writing all my life that I can remember. I started with stories when I was in grade school, and I was pretentious enough to write my first (terrible, truly awful) novel when I was in high school. I can’t say I enjoy writing, because I’m never actually eager to sit down and do it. But I guess it’s like yoga for some people or psychotherapy for others: they may not look forward to it, but they know they’ll feel better once they’ve done it.

What author (or authors) has influenced your writing the most? How so?

I don’t do any writing at all that isn’t in some way an echo of William Faulkner. No one tells a story quite like him. In fact, I think very few writers are as interested in the processes of storytelling as he is. Beyond Faulkner, there’s also James Joyce—who shows you how limitless writing can be, how full of possibility and promise. You read Joyce, and you feel like you can do anything in your writing. More recently, I’ve been deeply influenced by contemporary authors like Tom Drury, Tom Franklin, Daniel Woodrell, Cormac McCarthy, William Gay. All of them have a deep, abiding passion for gorgeously wrought language.

Writers tend to be separated into two distinct groups: those who outline and control the story, and those who give control to their characters and 'watch' the story develop. Which side are you on?

I tend to be on the more controlling side, consistent with my somewhat compulsive personality. I like knowing in advance how long a book is going to be, what the major story arc is, what major events are going to occur. I do allow myself a little leeway if things begin to evolve naturally—but I don’t have that kind of faith in my characters that I know some writers do: I don’t allow them to “go where they want to go.”

I know this is probably a difficult question to answer, but could you give me your top three (or five) favorite books?

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!
James Joyce, Ulysses
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
William Gibson, Neuromancer
Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

How would you feel about Reapers being made into a movie? And who would you want to play the lead character?

There are a number of great actresses out there who could bring Temple to life. I’ve thought about this a lot, actually, and I could picture Jennifer Lawrence in the role or Mia Wasikowska or Ellen Muth. Or, when she gets a bit older, that little girl from the movie Kick-Ass. The ratio of her age to the violence she perpetrated was perfect.

Are you working on any other books, and do you care to share any details?

I’m currently working on a book that will be published under my own name, Joshua Gaylord. It’s called Frontierland, and it takes place in Orange County, California, in 1975. It’s all about the frontier of suburbia and the human desire to, alternately, escape to it and escape from it.

And finally, because I just have to ask: how long do you think you could survive in the event of a zombie apocalypse? (Thanks to a *super-accurate* Facebook quiz, I know would survive about five months)

Good question. I’ll have to check out that quiz. But knowing what I know of myself—particularly my desire to want to get along with everybody, zombies included—I would be one of the first to be eaten.


A big thank you to Alden Bell for agreeing to interview for The Daily Monocle!

And don't forget to check out The Reapers are the Angels at your local bookstores when it hits shelves tomorrow. You can check out Reapers on Amazon, and Alden Bell's website.


Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Great interview, gang! I've posted about this at Win a Book, JP. Thanks for the link!

Kaya said...

I've actually never heard of this book until I few days ago. From this interview though, I do think it should have appeal to Young Adults as Temple is fifteen.

Also, I like how the story's summed up.

They endured.

I haven't actually read any zombie books but I know it's a big thing now. Maybe one day.

Great interview, it was very detailed.

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