The Latest Zombie Novel: "Kill Bill Meets Mad Max"

An Edgar Award-nominated mystery author has just sold her first zombie novel — and it's being published by Harlequin's speculative fiction imprint Luna. Could Sophie Crane's Aftertime be proof that genre-mashups are the new genres?

Sophie Littlefield, author of A Bad Day For Sorry, won the RT Award for Best First Mystery and was a finalist for an Edgar Award this year. She's also written a series of young-adult novels. And under the name Sophie Crane, she's just sold a new novel, Aftertime, to Harlequin/Luna, in a three-book deal.

And Publishers Marketplace describes it thusly:

Set in post-apocalyptic America, where a woman wakes up in a field missing her memories and badly scared, realizing that somehow she's just recovered from being a zombie and must find her 2-year-old daughter in a desolate land populated by small bands of humans who are no longer the top of the food chain.

Littlefield's agent, Barbara Poelle, describes Aftertime as "Kill Bill meets Mad Max," which is the kind of elevator pitch we can get behind. Asked how she was able to market a post-apocalyptic zombie novel as mainstream commercial fiction, Poelle replies:

I would, of course, be blind not to draw the conclusion that The Road - and other post apocalyptic and dystopian novels as of late - crashing through the barriers to allow science fiction thematics into mainline fiction reading has allowed the debut novel kids to bust on through right behind them. But I also think that fiction readers no matter the genre love a good "quest", and oftentimes, that is what the sci-fi genre brings to the table. So it is thrilling to see the envelope not only be pushed but brushed off of the table all together when the essence of sci-fi is explored in straight commercial fiction.

So what's the deal with Littlefield's zombie apocalypse, and how does her main character "recover" from being a zombie? Isn't the zombification meant to be a one-way process? We asked Littlefield, and she says:

Here's a little secret for you - the Beaters are actually my second set of zombies. My young adult series features more conventional zombies - you know, the lurching, rotting army of the undead sort. I think they work well in that series, as they are really subordinate to several other themes.

But when I started Aftertime I had in mind a different sort of creature. A Beater isn't really a zombie - in that it isn't undead, it hasn't died. Let me set up the apocalypse for you: bioterror attacks on crops and livestock have caused a world-wide famine as well as wars and rioting and looting. In the US government's final days, it seeds the nation with an engineered crop called "kaysev" which provides broad spectrum nutrition. But a rogue seed is accidentally spread, and a fraction of those who consume the second plant enter a sort of euphoria followed by - you guessed it - a craving for flesh. The disease is saliva-born and is not carried in the blood.

When I started thinking about the Beaters, I envisioned a parallel with the onset of dementia. I lost a loved one to dementia, and I was preoccupied with the idea of the soul's exit from the self. Perhaps it seems disrespectful to create a fictional character of unimaginable dread to represent such a personal loss, but the raw truth is that it was a good journey for me, a healing journey. Among the haunting memories of my experience with dementia patients is the way little glimmers of the self are evident from time to time, how moments of clarity interrupt the vacant hours. And I'll never forget seeing a dementia patient cuddle a stuffed animal or dance slowly in a room, long after spoken language is gone. My Beaters cling to each other in a - admittedly terrible - shadow of community, and they occasionally get distracted by the memory of small, everyday tasks. There is a scene where a Beater holds clothespins up to a clothesline, the memory of a long-ago chore just beyond its reach.

I added to that the old romantic notion of consumption. The early stage of the disease, as the victim is slowly losing command of language and being taken over by cravings, is marked by the ethereal beauty associated with a TB death. While I didn't fully describe this in the first book, the early stage features sexual voraciousness and is marked by a shrinking of the pupils that makes the eyes oddly beautiful. And I thought it was interesting that this other-worldly beauty would precede such a horrifying descent.

As for the return from zombiehood: I can't give away how it happens, but I was taken with the idea of Cass's revulsion when she discovers what she has been - and that she can't remember what she has done while she was a Beater. I had already stripped Cass of so much - not just her daughter, but her confidence, her pride, her sense of herself, her beauty, her softness, her ability to love, her parents, her potential - but I knew that she had steel at the core. She gets up and keeps trying because of her daughter, but also because of who she is. Her return from the disease is a parallel to her own strength, so that later, when she faces unimaginable odds over and over, the reader can believe that she will prevail....

The Latest Zombie Novel: "Kill Bill Meets Mad Max"

As for how Littlefield/Crane was able to cross over from being a mystery author to being a speculative fiction author — and getting her speculative fiction published as a romance novel with literary aspirations — she says:

I... am a longtime reader of horror and, in particular, fond of zombies. I took swipes at my brother's sci-fi library when we were growing up in the 70s/80s, too. My early adult years were spent pretty firmly entrenched in literary fiction, but I've also read a lot of romance, women's fiction, and mystery/crime.

I've always found it perplexing that people read in a single genre. I'm becoming a broken record on this subject, but there's far more that unites genre fiction than separates it. I'll admit that I'm drawn to highly emotional, character driven novels of any stripe, and crime and horror are natural ways to get there because you get the kick-start of the inciting incident.

I tend to play the what-if game early in the first draft. This is just a variation of the crime writer's staple, where you shoot someone whenever the story lags. At every turning point, I ask myself how I can make the situation worse for my characters. You can do this in any genre, of course... in romance, you just keep escalating the internal and external conflicts keeping a couple apart....but it was really fun to do it in a post-apocalyptic setting where i could do virtually anything I wanted to my characters because I was unfettered by the constraints of, well, reality.

I think it's interesting how Barbara suggests it might be easier to blend genres as a debut. And I'd go a step further and say that people who've been building their careers over the last five years or so have more freedom to do so. I definitely see other writers doing this - Charlie Huston's an easy example. I don't think there's this prevailing notion that people should stick to one thing anymore, and readers seem to be open to following their favorite authors into new territory. Romance readers follow authors into romantic suspense, young adult readers pick up titles by established adult authors, and savvy male thriller writers court female readers with more relationship-driven stories.

I love the "what else can we throw in there" vibe when I talk writing with other relatively new authors. I was talking to a bunch of urban fantasy authors recently about how exhilarating it is that readers seem to welcome stretching the boundaries, how they crave innovative world-building. I'm especially excited that my series is being published by Luna, because I think the Luna readership is very open to and thirsty for stories that go places they haven't seen yet.

I did have a moment during the first draft when I wondered if I'd taken the language too literary, if I'd let voice take over the story. At that point I made a decision to stop reading in the genre until I finished writing, to accept the risk inherent in doing something new and push it to the limit. To paraphrase something Barbara told me in in a different context, it's a lot easier to tone down than it is to add it in, and that's become my guiding principle.

Regarding the "quest": I'm a mom of teenagers, and I carry a mother's preoccupations and anxieties with me everywhere I go. The child-in-danger plot works for a reason - it immediately sends the stakes unimaginably high because a mother values her children above everything else including her own life. This allows a character to take risks she wouldn't otherwise take, to be almost superhuman in her determination - it's like a motivation freebie, and it injects a story with high tension from the outset.

Finally, we asked Littlefield what she feels mystery novels and post-apocalyptic stories of survival and redemption have in common — is there a similar search for truth involved? And she responds:

In both post-apocalyptic and crime/mystery fiction, you can go very far indeed in exploring the limits of human emotion. There are two questions, really different sides of the same coin, which can be asked a thousand different ways when your toolbox includes crime, violence, and/or paranormal elements: "What can a person endure?" and "How does transcendence change a person?" If you consider your favorite examples of mystery, crime, horror, etc. I think you'll find that these questions are explored and answered over and over again.

Zombie art by Julie Coulter on Flickr.