Thursday 17 September 2015

The Zombie with a Heart of Anti-Bacterial Soap – a Q&A with his creator, Jeff Norton

By Miriam Craig

After you’ve written the story of a boy who wakes up from his grave and finds that he’s a zombie, where do you take the story next? In Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie (Book 1), Adam Meltzer has already faced his new, patchy-skinned reality, and tracked down the shady culprits behind his own death. He's also made friends with two other outsiders – Corina, a cynical vampire, and Ernesto, a constantly-hungry chupacabra.*

In the second book in the series (Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie: Escape From Camp - which is out today), Jeff Norton takes a closer look at Corina’s vampire background, and sends all three friends on a summer camp adventure in the scariest of all scary places: Canada.

I very much enjoyed both books, especially the deepening friendship between Adam, Corina and Ernesto, and the death-defying (well, a zombie doesn’t have much to lose…) run-in with Niagara Falls.

I asked Jeff Norton a bit more about his writing and how the books came to be.

*A chupacabra is a were-lizard. Obviously.

What do you spend most of your working day doing?

I do the school run in the mornings, so I have to mentally switch from getting two little boys out of the house to writing prose. I’m most productive in the morning, so I reserve the first few hours for writing. I start at a café near my house and try to get down as many “words on paper” (Syd Field’s phrase) as I can that advances a manuscript forward. After about three hours, the manager of the café starts to give me the “you’re taking up a table” look and I go back to my home office.

There, I’ll switch onto something new, like drafting or dreaming up a new project. I enjoy creating something and then co-writing with another author, so I’ll spend a few hours working on a concept – outlining characters, stories, and world. Then, lunch. In the afternoon, I put on my TV hat and get into producing mode. It’s a different, but related muscle to writing, and is much more collaborative. I’ve just wrapped 80 episodes of pre-school animation called Trucktown ( based on the wonderful books by my friend Jon Scieszka, and I’m now in development on two more shows.

If I can motivate myself, I’ll then head out for a run on Hampstead Heath. After looking at a screen or paper all day, it’s nice to get some distance view.

What’s your writing process?

I like to know the ending before I begin. On this new Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie book, I changed the nuance of the ending, but had the general structure in place before I sat down to write. I take my motivation from Michael Arndt, who’s the screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, and he’s huge on endings. He believes, as I do, that a story is in service to its ending and you owe the audience/reader an (in his words) insanely great ending. 

Adam is VERY concerned with staying clean and hygienic, which is a constant source of humour in the books. How did you come to write him like that?

There’s a part of me that’s a bit OCD, and I took that notion to its extreme. I like to play with opposites in characters, so the idea of a zombie (who’s dealing with his flesh falling off) being obsessed with hygiene just felt like a character I couldn’t refuse to play with. 

Did you draw on your own experiences of summer camp?

I attended day camp one summer (we couldn't afford sleep-away camp) which featured one overnight stay. It was a total disaster! We slept under the stars during Burlington’s (in Ontario, Canada) storm of the century. We all took shelter in a church overnight and awoke to discover our belongings had washed downstream. I’ve always kept that memory and I really wanted to do a camp book because it gets the young protagonists out from under the parents (as opposed to killing them off, which is often the norm in kids books), so I channeled my one and only overnight camp experience and turned it into something far more frightening.

There’s a fun reveal in the book (that we won’t give away). Any tips for writers on how to create those ‘aha’ moments?

I call it the “rug pull,” that moment a writer turns the story in a totally different direction that you didn’t expect. Some readers love it, others hate it, but I have to tell you, it’s a lot of fun to write.
For me, the key to pulling it off is to set out subtle clues that seem obvious in retrospect, but not so obvious that the reader figures it all out too early. It’s an art and a science and I’m still playing with it as a technique and it takes patience. In MetaWars, the big rug pull happens in the fourth book, paying off incredibly subtle hints dropped into the first three books. It takes almost everyone by surprise. I love hearing from readers who say, “whoa, I didn’t see that coming!” I feel like I’ve surprised and delighted the reader.

You mention in your acknowledgements that this story probably breaks all the rules of children’s books. Which rules do you think it breaks?

I deal with some pretty big ideas and serious themes, but approach them from a position of comedy in order to lull the reader into a sense of safety in order that they process the themes on their own. Like science fiction, comedy is a great tool to deal with things that trouble us…and this book is filled with some gruesome stuff that’s reminiscent of humanity’s most horrific recent history. I can’t say too much more without causing spoilers, but my hope is that the book makes people think about the nature of complicity, separation, and racism.

What are you working on next?

I’m working on Adam Meltzer’s next adventure. It takes place just a few weeks later as Adam enters his final year of middle-school (8th grade) and wrestles with whether he should come out into the open about being unnatural. There’s a big rug pull moment, turning the tables on Adam and his friends, and it forces him to decide what kind of after-life he wants to have. Also, there are poo jokes.

I’m also writing a really exciting middle-grade science fiction adventure called Star Pressed. It’s a real love letter to sci-fi, and is about five teens and three adults who form a surrogate family aboard a decrepit space ship. Think, ‘Lost In Space’ meets ‘Party of Five.’

What inspires you?

I take inspiration from everywhere; there are so many amazing writers working today that it inspires me to up my game creatively, but I find motivation in the idea that my work can change someone’s life. All of my books are about being your best self. They may range from OCD zombies to tech thrillers to princess ponies (unexpected confession: I created and co-wrote, with Julie Sykes, the Princess Ponies series) but ultimately the stories are about characters figuring out who they really are.

Would you rather be a zombie, a chupacabra or a vampire?

Ooh, that’s a great question! I think it’d be hard to be a zombie, especially today in our era of The Walking Dead where the public has really been brainwashed to think of zombies as people-eating monsters. Corina has it tough as a vampire too, and I think I’d struggle with all of the expectations that vampires have for themselves. So, I think I’d go for chupacabra. It’s not an immortal monster, and with a good flossing regime, I feel certain I could remove any remnants of road kill from my teeth. Yeah, I’d go chup!

It looks like Jeff isn't too bad at flossing, so he'll probably be OK.

A very sensible and well-thought-out decision, Jeff. I wish I’d been as thorough before I put my name down to be turned into a sea-goat.

Thanks for letting us behind the scenes on your writing life. I look forward to finding out what twists and turns you’ve created for Adam in the next installment.

In the meantime, readers can find the beginning of Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie and Memoirs of A Neurotic Zombie: Escape From Camp up on Wattpad, here and here.

Miriam Craig is a children's writer and copywriter.

Twitter: @miriamhcraig

Instagram: @miriamhcraig

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