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By Aaron L Brown

Walter Greatshell’s new book, Mad Skills, has been described as “a modern classic” and “top notch in every regard.”  It is the story of a teenage girl who awakens from a coma to find that her brain has been interfaced with an experimental supercomputer, making her the smartest person on Earth…and possibly the most dangerous.

Unconscious for fourteen months after a debilitating accident, Maddy Grant awakens at the Braintree Institute, where scientists have successfully implanted her with a radical technology designed to correct her brain injury. But Maddy is more than cured. Her intellect has been enhanced to process information faster than a computer-an ability that’s sending her emotions into overdrive.

To monitor her condition, the institute sends Maddy to the nearby village of Harmony, where she will be free to interact with the community. But Braintree’s scientists are not only monitoring her behavior, they’re modifying it, reprogramming her personality to become someone else…a killer.

Mad Skills deals with technology that we don¹t possess.  Does that mean that we can expect a futuristic world in the novel or just the not-too-distant future?

Mad Skills is set more or less in the present, although with the assumption that certain scientific breakthroughs have occurred that are being deliberately kept secret.

Is the technology used in the book based upon actual research being conducted today?

As farfetched as some of it seems, it is based on actual research, though I carry it to ridiculous extremes. For example, the evil computer in my book has a central processing unit that incorporates leech neurons. Absurd as that sounds, it is an actual experimental technology. It also

happens to sound a bit sinister, so I had a lot of fun expanding on the idea.  Likewise, the brain implant and prosthetic-limb stuff is based on real technology that is in fairly common use today.  I just took it to the next level.

Your other books have been classified as horror novels.  How would you describe Mad Skills?  Can we expect more horror or science fiction?

Mad Skills is more science fiction than horror, with a lot of action and a healthy dollop of political satire. All my books are essentially satirical, but in this one I really went all out, taking a very YA premise about a teenager being granted superpowers and combining it with elements of dark conspiracy thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate. What’s interesting to me is how the book has only grown more relevant since I wrote it. Publishing is a slow process; it takes years to get a book out, so you address current events at your peril. When Obama got elected, I thought it negated my theme somewhat, but the recent elections have only confirmed that my paranoid scenario is as apt as ever. The real joke, of course, is that brain implants aren’t even necessary to manipulate people; just tell them what they want to hear. Same thing happened with my Xombies books, which predicted the downfall of civilization at the hands of evil corporate kleptomaniacs. In 2004, that was a very unpopular opinion, but since then there has been a bit an adjustment… although the bad guys have already largely rebounded. Truth is always a hard sell; the big money is in scamming people.

Your previous novels have dealt with zombies, a niche that seems to be making a resurgence in print and film.  Do you have any thoughts on why zombies seem to be growing in popularity and what the future may bring for zombie fans?

I think many people feel that they are alone, surrounded by a vast sea of mindless zombies. And technology has only increased our isolation, despite all the “social networking” that is supposed to be happening. Because this empty facsimile of society is so unsatisfying, there is something appealing about tearing it down, returning to a more primal state where we don’t have to tolerate the zombies, but can simply shoot them in the head. Who wouldn’t rather loot a deserted shopping mall than have to worry about credit-card bills? There is a danger to this kind of fantasy, though, which is that some people really do begin to withdraw from the responsibilities of citizenship and hide in their little paranoid enclaves. Look at how the gold market is booming because powerful people are hoarding it. Some people want society to fail. But all you have to do is look at failed states around the world to know it’s not nearly as fun as a zombie movie.

You state on your website that the last “real” job you had was as graveyard-shift nuclear-submarine technician.  Can you tell us a bit about what that means and some of the experiences you had?

About ten years ago I was going through a personal crisis, because I felt I had failed in my dream of becoming a writer. I had been published as a freelance journalist, but I couldn’t seem to crack the fiction market. My wife still believed in me, but after years of rejections I had lost faith in myself. I decided it was time to buckle down and get a real job with a future. So I applied for a job at the local defense plant, a division of General Dynamics that specialized in nuclear submarines. After taking a few tests, I was hired as a “fabrication technician,” which meant I spent a lot of time wearing a respirator and working with hazardous materials. But I liked the job because I like technology; it was very interesting to me to have the run of a nuclear sub. And that was when the idea for Xombies hit me: What better way to escape a zombie plague than aboard a submarine? And no one had written a serious zombie novel in fifty years, not since I Am Legend. It was an untapped gold mine. But I was conflicted: There was no way I could write a novel in my spare time, since I had none; the job was too demanding. I worked all night, slept all day, and spent the rest of my time commuting. Yet how could I quit my new job for this pipe dream? My quandary was solved by a very unexpected event: the terrorist attack of 9/11. It sounds trite, but that horrible day caused me to rethink everything, and I realized that if I was to be true to myself I had to write this book. More importantly, my wife agreed. I wouldn’t have done it without her encouragement.

What kind of research did you do for your new book?

As I said, I’m interested in technology, but since Mad Skills was intended to be more fun than plausible, I focused on fantasy more than fact. That said, I did do a lot of research into neuroscience, explosives, and electronic sabotage. In the course of the story, the main character, Maddy Grant, causes a lot of trouble with her McGyver-like talents, and I didn’t really want to give potential computer-hackers or bomb-makers any useful tips, so I deliberately left out certain details.

Was there anything particularly interesting that you learned through your research that didn’t make it into the book or something from the book that you’d like to highlight?

Aside from that leech neuron computer, I was very intrigued by some of the work being done to turn animals into remote-controlled zombies. Rats are being wired up as living ROVs that can be commanded to do specific tasks. The possibilities are truly mind-boggling…and pretty scary. Imagine a totalitarian state where you can be spied on by cockroaches. It may not be far off.

What are you reading now?  What are some of your favorite books/authors and who has had the greatest influence upon your own work?

Well, one of my favorite books is True Grit, by Charles Portis, and I’m very eager to see the upcoming film version by the Coen brothers, who are two of my favorite filmmakers. There’s an earlier movie version with John Wayne, which was good, but I’m betting on the Coens to really nail that Portis tone. Other authors that spring to mind are Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn), Robert Graves (I, Claudius), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Kurt Vonnegut (Jailbird), Mario Vargas Llosa (The War of the End of the World), Patrick McGinley (The Myth of the Ga Bolga), Cormac McCarthy (The Crossing), and Thomas Berger (Little Big Man). Of course there are many, many others worth mentioning, but we’d be here all night. All my favorite writers are similar in that they share a darkly funny, absurdist sensibility. I also read a lot of nonfiction, and just finished a biography of William Golding, which made me go out and buy his sea trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth. But my favorite biography is Dino, by Nick Tosches, which reads like a good novel. It’s a brilliant and poetic study of Dean Martin’s lifelong death obsession, and his hilariously grim fate of being paired with Jerry Lewis. I also love The Collected Letters of Jack Kerouac, edited by Ann Charters, which makes me feel much better about my life by comparison. Oh, and another book I’ve really enjoyed recently is The Making of Star Wars, by J.W. Rinzler. An amazing, in-depth account of the heroic effort that went into the original film. George Lucas is often derided as a bloated hack these days, but he was the best kind of artist back then, literally betting everything on his personal vision.

What’s something that you’ve learned about the publishing business that you weren’t expecting?  Do you have any advice for aspiring (or struggling) writers out there?

Well, the first thing you need is a completed, grammatically correct manuscript, or preferably several. Did people like your stories in school? Did teachers praise your work? Have you been regularly published in any objective forum (meaning not your blog or the family newsletter)? Do you like working very hard, all alone, for very little money? Then you may well be a writer. Now you need an agent. For many years I submitted my work directly to publishers, thinking I had no need of an agent. Cut out the middleman, I thought! Well, to any aspiring writers out there, let me tell you that I was dead wrong. Unless you want to waste years of your life, as I did, you need an agent. Unless you are already famous, or intend to self-publish (which is not so unheard-of these days), you need an agent. I would suggest getting a copy of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers and Agents and studying it closely. Also the Writer’s Market.

Are you currently working on a new book? Can we get a sneak peek?

I am working on a new novel, a very unusual adventure story which I think is going to be a huge hit, a publishing phenomenon that will take the world by storm. Like all my books. But it’s so early in the process that if I give anything away I’m afraid some speedier writer will beat me to the punch. My book will come out a year after Hollywood has already adapted my idea into a big-budget movie directed by Steven Spielberg. Then I will die of whiskey and despair in a cheap hotel room in Mexico City. But in the meantime, Mad Skills is coming out Dec. 28, and the third book of my Xombies series, Xombies: Apocalypso, is due this Feb. 22.

Walter Greatshell is the author of Xombies: Apocalypse Blues, and Xombies: Apocalypticon, both published by Ace/Penguin. The third book in the saga, Xombies: Apocalypso, is due to be released March, 2011. Walter’s short story, The Mexican Bus, is featured in the anthology The Living Dead 2, published by Night Shade Books.

Aaron Brown
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