Elizabeth Bennet fights zombies. President Abraham Lincoln hunts vampires. And the “three wise men” of the Bible moonlight as murderous thieves.
Welcome to the mind of New York Times bestselling novelist Seth Grahame-Smith.
Celebrated as the author who reinvents traditional tales, Grahame-Smith catalyzed the classic literature/monster mash-up trend in 2009 with his debut novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The book takes Jane Austen’s original novel and expands upon the story, adding a zombie plague throughout Regency England. Austen heroine Elizabeth Bennet fights the undead—in a corset, no less—and still finds time for verbal sparring with the iconic Mr. Darcy.
Before the success of PPZ, however, Grahame-Smith was living in L.A. and trying to make it as a screenwriter. He wrote as a freelancer for Quirk Books to pay the bills, penning manuscripts with topics ranging from “the pornography industry to sleight of hand to presidential politics.” But Grahame-Smith was itching to break into fiction, despite the fact that the independent publishing house specialized in nonfiction at the time.
After turning down Grahame-Smith’s pitches for novels, his editor at Quirk, Jason Rekulak, suggested a genre-bending idea.
“One day, I’ll never forget it,” Grahame-Smith says in a phone interview with Paste, “[Jason] called me. He had had this epiphany where he thought, ‘What about adding zombies to Jane Austen?’”
“The first thing that popped into my mind was this image of Lizzie Bennet, in a corset and restrictive clothing, doing kung fu.”
Grahame-Smith dwelled on that image as he reread Pride and Prejudice for the first time since high school. He made notes in the margins, looking for opportunities to “graft” zombies onto the “skin of the novel.”
“The more I read the original book, the more I realized it was almost as if the book was written for this kind of treatment,” Grahame-Smith says. “The more I thought about contrasting the repressive and restrictive nature of the Regency Era aristocracy with the zombie apocalypse, the funnier it was.”
After placing the entire original text in a Word document, Grahame-Smith spent six weeks writing new passages and altering the story. His goal for the new material? Sincerity.
“If I made one good decision in approaching the book, it’s that I had an instinct that the way to do it was as sincerely as humanly possible—to never acknowledge that this was a joke,” he says.
This is evident from the first page of PPZ. Take a look at the original opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Compare that to the first sentence in PPZ:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”
Grahame-Smith’s desire to approximate the language of Jane Austen as closely as possible paid off. Whether Lady Catherine is bemoaning the fact that Elizabeth grew up without any ninjas (“Five daughters brought up at home without any ninjas! I never heard of such a thing.”) or the Bennet sisters are taking “a silent inventory of the countless ways they could kill” their repugnant cousin, Jane Austen’s humor is magnified by Grahame-Smith’s additions.
Grahame-Smith believed that the book was funny, but he had no expectations that it would be a hit. “The way it worked back then at Quirk was that you printed maybe 5,000 copies of a book and hoped you’d sell them over the course of a year,” he says. “That was basically what I was expecting for this.”
But as release day neared, word spread across the Internet about a crazy new book with Jane Austen and zombies. Quirk increased the number of copies in the first printing, but even that didn’t meet the demand. PPZ debuted near the top of the New York Time bestseller list and went on to sell over two million copies to date. It spawned an entire mash-up genre, with titles like Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Android Karenina following in its wake. A film adaptation of the novel hits the silver screen in February of 2016, starring Lily James (Downton Abbey, Cinderella) as Elizabeth Bennet and Sam Riley (Maleficent) as Mr. Darcy.
“It was life-changing,” Grahame-Smith says.
Within weeks of PPZ’s release, Grahame-Smith learned that MTV planned to pick up a TV series he’d created with David Katzenberg titled The Hard Times of RJ Berger. “After years of flying under the radar and writing anonymously, I had a bestselling book and a TV show that I’d created on the air,” he says.
As if producing the show and writing a handful of episodes wasn’t enough to keep him busy, Grahame-Smith began writing a second novel, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, between takes of the show.
His numerous bookstore appearances to promote PPZ sparked his imagination to write about the president’s secret life as a vampire hunter. “I kept noticing that, in every bookstore I would walk into, there were inevitably two big tables in front of the store,” Grahame-Smith explains. “On one side was a table of Twilight books. On the other side were biographies of Abraham Lincoln, because 2009 was the bicentennial of his birth. It was funny to me that there was such a weird dichotomy of the things that were popular in literature at that moment.”
Grand Central Press bought the book based on an outline Grahame-Smith wrote, and he began crafting the “biography” following Lincoln from childhood to his assassination, highlighting the lesser-known details of his vampire hunting exploits.
“My approach to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was not to corrupt the character or the ideals of the man and his life, but to find a way to make the themes and the beauty of his life story relevant to something ridiculous.”
Grahame-Smith took a “scholarly” approach to the novel, ensuring the text would be as historically accurate as possible. He cites bestselling history and biography writers David McCullough (1776, The Wright Brothers) and Walter Isaacson (Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life) as inspirations. “Obviously, I didn’t have 10 years to spend writing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” he says, “but in my own small way, I really tried to do my due diligence and become as much of a quasi expert as I could in the period and those characters.”
The novel proved to be another bestseller after it’s release in 2010. Grand Central quickly sold the film rights, and Grahame-Smith wrote the script for the film, which was released in 2012 and produced by Tim Burton.
Grahame-Smith completed his hat trick in 2012 with Unholy Night, a retelling of the three wise men’s story from the Bible. In scripture, the men are said to have visited a young Jesus and his parents, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But Grahame-Smith imagines they were actually on the run after escaping from King Herod’s prison, positing that their meeting with Jesus was purely coincidental.
“I was driving around L.A.,” he says, “and this thought popped into my head: ‘What were the three wise men really doing there that night? Wouldn’t it be funny if this was just a misunderstanding, and they had actually stolen the loot and were looking for a place to hide?’”
After latching onto the idea of the wise men as “scoundrels,” Grahame-Smith poured over the Bible and the Apocryphal texts, diving into theories on who the wise men were.
“I started to become steeped in the source material,” he says, “but I didn’t have as much material to work from. With Abraham Lincoln, every day of his life is pretty much chronicled. With this, I had a lot of leeway to invent whole passages.”
The result paints the men as reluctant antiheroes who help Mary, Joseph and Jesus escape Israel as King Herod orders the murder of firstborn children in Judea. While Unholy Night offers a darker tale than his previous two books, it still maintains the sincerity and humor Grahame-Smith is famous for writing.
“It matters how seriously you take the absurd,” he says, “and I take the absurd very seriously.”
So what comes next for this groundbreaking author? If his most recent book, a sequel to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is any indication, Grahame-Smith will continue to reinvent history.