gave us a glimpse into the oft-overlooked internal life of the zombie, a creature heretofore dismissed as a shuffling meat-suit of hunger, a destructive nightmarish metaphor for disconnection and loss of individuality. But with R, Isaac Marion’s undead protagonist, we learned just how misunderstood our rotting brethren could be.
Marion’s clever and surprisingly affecting 2011 debut, made into a teenage rom-com two years later (changing the tone, but keeping much of the plot), told the story of zombie who wanted to regain his humanity. But defeating the skeletal demons and overthrowing the fascist leaders of of humanity’s last stand was just step one. In The Burning World, the sequel released this week, R and his heroic girlfriend Julia find themselves still under attack in a much bigger world than we saw in book one. We chatted with Marion about the sequel, the Warm Bodies film adaptation and the next installment in his zombie series.
Paste: Warm Bodies has this great elevator pitch, the zombie story from the perspective of the zombie. You continue that story in this new book. Can you tell me about coming up with where you took the story. Did you have in mind this bigger dystopian universe when you were writing Warm Bodies?
Isaac Marion: Yeah, I had it in mind. The premise was that they don’t really know what’s going on in the world, because nobody can really get outside their immediate area. It’s a dangerous world, so the people aren’t communicating cross-county as much. It’s more centered around one small city area.
There was a hint here and there of wider stuff going on. So I definitely had the broad strokes of what the rest of the world would be like, or at least the rest of the country, which is as far as they can even consider going at this point. So a lot of the details in the sequels are expand out from there quite a bit.
But I had an idea of what forces were at play, as far as in the actual metaphysical stuff and also the societal sort of things would be out there. So they’re going to be dealing with bigger issues and their own private dramas, because there are militia groups and there are all kinds of conflict in the world beyond even just zombies.
Paste: One of my favorite things in Warm Bodies was the way that you used music and paintings to counter the death and depression—really both R’s world and Julia’s in different ways. The Burning World seems to use books in a similar fashion—consuming culture and consuming art that you can only dream of as a zombie. Can you talk about the use of art as something that was maybe not allowed or maybe not something that could be accessed?
Marion: It’s not so much that it’s not allowed, it’s just that in the context of this world, it’s completely de-prioritized. It’s considered an extreme extravagance for anyone to be thinking about art while the world is falling and they’re struggling to survive, so that’s definitely one of the running themes throughout all the books—countering that idea that what matters most is just getting by day-to-day and then if you do well at that, maybe actually enjoy your life. I feel like they have to go hand-in-hand to some extent or else its… “Why bother?”
It was more focused in music in Warm Bodies, because it was an easily accessible thing that R, as an illiterate zombie, could look back on as a remnant of a culture that did value art before where it got squeaked out of everything by the necessity of trying to survive. So, that’s trying to find a way to incorporate a richer experience of life even while things are bad—it certainly is a big concern of mine. It’s certainly very of-the-moment now, encountering that question everyday while I’m trying to promote art that I’m making in the midst of a national/global crisis and trying to ask myself, “Does this matter?” And, “Where is the balance of how much to be on the ground, grinding away verses the iron pursuits of the mind?” I think they’re both important, but I think there’s a tendency to prioritize one or the other.
So in The Burning World, it’s a bit more about books, party because R is learning to read. It was a thing that was never attainable to him before, and then there’s also this metaphorical, metaphysical stand-in for higher consciousness that’s represented by books or by a library as an archive of experiences. So there are a lot of references to books and to that as a concept of contributing your experiences to the universe in some way that enhances the sum total of human experience.
Paste: I completely missed that there was a prequel (The New Hunger) that came out between Warm Bodies and The Burning World. Are there any film plans in the works for either the prequel or The Burning World?
Marion: The prequel, The New Hunger, is just a novella, so it definitely wouldn’t be its own film… As far as the sequel, it’s the big unknown. They’ve been juggling it back and forth for a couple years now, and it’s gotten very far along at some points—negotiations happening and on the edge of a contract—and then it stalls, something goes wrong and they go back to the drawing board.
It’s been this very anxiety-inducing rollercoaster for me, because every few months I get a report that, “Oh, we’re reopening the case, it’s moving forward,” and then it stalls again. So I’m like, “Okay, I’m gonna stop thinking about it until they give me something concrete.” So it continues to be a project, but I don’t really know what goes on in the back room. It’s all Hollywood meetings and stuff that’s beyond me.
Paste: I’m always fascinated by that relationship between authors and the folks making the movie. When you were getting Warm Bodies published, was that sort of wrapped up in the film version to begin with? What was that whole process like of seeing these words you wrote take life on the screen?
Marion: It sort of happened simultaneously. This freelance editor that I hired to give me feedback kind of took it as their personal pet project after we were done editing it. She used to work in the entertainment industry in general, so she passed it around through her circle of contacts. It basically fell into the hands of a producer and a literary agent more or less around the same time, so it was wrapped up in that.
The movie didn’t come out for a couple years after that, but it was written with very rapid turn-around, as far as these things go. Once it was in progress, it was definitely one of the highlights of my life, particularly being on the set and watching it happen. I mean, it was really exciting when it actually came out. Going from totally unknown, unpublished author to doing a press junket for a movie was a pretty disorienting leap.
Watching it be created was pretty incredible, because I was out on set and just lurking in the background watching the actors saying, in some cases, lines that I had actually written and in settings that, for the most part, looked very similar to how I imagined them. So it was an experience that I can’t really think of anything similar to that, any parallel to that, where you imagine something and then somebody creates it in real life, spending millions of dollars to do so, and just seeing all of the professional artists walking around and the staff and the crew talking about characters by name, saying, “We need Julia over in the trailer at two o’lock.” And I was like, “Wait, there’s no Julia. That’s somebody I made up.” So it was incredibly surreal and incredibly gratifying. Even though the movie is different—it certainly takes liberties and it isn’t exactly what I envisioned as far as the way the story would be told—but just the fact that someone was doing it at all, and that they even attempted to capture what I was going for, was just incredible.
Paste: To me, it’s interesting how writing is such a solitary thing, and then when a book is turned into a movie, there are a million moving pieces and so many people involved. I can imagine that would be a little surreal.
Marion: Yeah. I’ve dabbled a little bit in screenwriting, but it’s such a different situation when you are writing for hundreds of other people to deliver what you wrote, instead of just writing. Part of the reason that I’m so drawn to writing prose, as opposed to any other form that I dabble in, is because it is so solitary and it’s so pure. Like whatever I write, that’s what people see. There’s no translation to different mediums and different people’s interpretations, which is very much not the case with movies. Even for the person who wrote the movie, it usually ends up becoming something totally different. So as exciting as it is to see that happen, I don’t know if I want to be doing it myself.
Paste: It’s a different experience than you’ll get when people go into a bookstore and purchase copies of The Burning World. I know that you’re a musician as well, and you mentioned on your blog about writing the soundtrack to The Burning World. Is that for a potential movie or just a soundtrack to go along with reading?
Marion: I did actually do a playlist a long time ago that was music that I was listing to while writing it, and I’m currently working on another playlist for music as a sort of pseudo soundtrack to an imaginary movie or just something that could go along in your head when you think about certain scenes. But what you’re probably referring to is that I’m making a book trailer and the music for it also. So I’ve been recording that and basically scoring a two-minute film.
Paste: Well that’s very cool.
Marion: Yeah it’s a last-minute project that turned out much better than I was expecting, because I got some legitimate filmmakers on board. They turned it into something that was far beyond what I was expecting, so now I have to actually do it justice.
Even though it’s a trailer, it’s almost more like a music video or a short film than what you think of as a book trailer, which are usually just sort of like PowerPoint presentations. It’s very cinematic; we have actors and [cinematographers], and its pretty rich.
Paste: Now it looks like there’s one more chapter to the story remaining: The Living. Have you already started writing, and do you know where that story is going?
Marion: Yeah its actually written already. I kind of wrote [The Burning World and The Living] semi-simultaneously, because originally I was planning it to be one book. And then, as it fleshed out further, I realized there was way too much to say in a single book. So I cut it in half at a point where I felt like it needed to end, and then I focused on the first half. But the second half is written to the end. I’m still editing it but, it’s going to be hopefully a fairly quick turn-around. It won’t be many years later, because I’m not starting from scratch. So that’s not exactly a cliffhanger ending, but it’s definitely a point in the middle where I was like, “This really feels like a moment, a pause.” That’s where this one ends and the next one will pick up right where it left off.