By Nate Kenyon
I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Walter Greatshell to discuss his latest thriller, his writing process and more.
What is Xombies: Apocalypso about?
It’s the climactic book of my Xombies trilogy, after Xombies: Apocalypse Blues (originally released as Xombies) and Xombies: Apocalypticon. The first two books told the story of how human civilization was destroyed by a secret society of powerful tycoons—the Moguls. These men financed the invention of an artificial virus called Agent X, which was supposed to be their private Fountain of Youth, but instead it got loose and turned almost every woman on Earth into an unkillable blue killing machine—a Xombie. The women then spread the disease to the men they killed, and that would have been that, except for a teenage girl named Lulu Pangloss, who managed to escape the plague aboard a decommissioned nuclear submarine converted to a refugee ship. In the second book, Apocalypticon, there was a mutiny and the plague infected the sub, making all its passengers carriers of the disease.
So Xombies: Apocalypso is the final voyage of Lulu Pangloss and the undying crew of the USS No-Name as they search for life and love in post-apocalyptic America. I propose that if you can’t die or feel pain, life becomes like a cartoon, so this is a funnier, loonier story than the previous books.
What books, movies, etc. inspired you?
Well, I saw two movies in 1969 that left a big impression on me. One was the Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra, about a submarine mission to the Arctic. The other was Night of the Living Dead. I was eight years old at the time, so these things must have permeated my DNA—I never even realized the connection until after I wrote Xombies in 2001. The zombie/submarine thing was a good start, but this was the era of Tom Clancy tough guys, and I wanted to subvert the more macho genre conventions by having a flawed girl protagonist and a more absurd story, as in one of my favorite books, True Grit.
I’d been wanting to write something about zombies for years, and often killed time at my night job by sketching out story ideas. I just couldn’t come up with a fresh enough angle to justify writing a book. I didn’t want to simply ape George Romero—the specific concept of flesh-eating, rotting ghouls had already been perfectly realized by him. If my ambition was to write a real novel, not a cheap knockoff, I was going to have to invent my own zombies…and my own world to put them in. Around that time I got a job working in a submarine plant, and it suddenly hit me that a nuclear submarine would be the ideal means of escaping a zombie apocalypse. A year later I had a book, and it was published in 2004.
Why “Xombies”? Why “Apocalypso”?
The X in Xombies refers to the female X chromosome, which is why women catch the disease spontaneously, while men have to be infected by physical contact. Apocalypso has several meanings, referring to the goddess Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey; Jacques Cousteau’s research vessel Calypso and the John Denver song it inspired; and an old Judge Dredd storyline about a nuclear war, where doomed citizens start a dance craze called the Apocalypso—just before they’re blown to smithereens. It’s that kind of black comedy tone that I’ve tried to strike with this third book.
What’s your writing process?
I have trouble with insomnia, so I get up at about four or five a.m. every day and work for a couple of hours until my wife wakes up. We have breakfast, then she goes to work and I get back to my computer. I write on and off all day as the inspiration strikes. I find it’s hard to start writing, but once I’ve begun it’s hard to stop—I’ll write for six hours straight and it feels like an hour. Time only drags if I procrastinate. If I go for a long period without writing, it has a bad effect on me; I get very depressed.
What are your goals as a writer?
Just to be successful enough that I can keep doing it for the rest of my life. Someday I’d also like to incorporate my artwork into my writing—maybe do a graphic novel or a series of children’s books. Years ago I did an illustrated book of nursery rhymes about episodes from my childhood, but the publisher thought it was too disturbing. If anyone’s curious, I have some artwork posted on my website.
How did you get started?
I’ve written and drawn things all my life, but my first real validation was at 16, when I won a Halloween story contest sponsored by my local newspaper. The prize was fifty bucks, which was the most money I would make from any single piece of writing until I was forty. In the meantime I made 15 or 20 bucks a shot as a freelance arts critic. I got that gig by thinking I could write better reviews than the ones I read in the paper, so I submitted a few. A couple of weeks later, I was reading the weekend arts section and there was my first review! Before long the other critic quit and I took over. The pay was peanuts, but my wife and I got free tickets to every show in town, so it seemed a fair exchange. The problems started when I wrote some negative reviews of local theater productions—was I supposed to lie or what? If my wife hadn’t just then gotten a job teaching in Korea, I think we might have been run out of town on a rail.
Is the Xombies series finished now?
The ending of Apocalypso is hopeful but not final. This Xombies universe is still full of strange possibilities, and I have a very weird long-term outline that I might like to get back to one of these days…but for the moment I’m happy just working on a sequel to my novel Mad Skills.
What’s Mad Skills about?
Mad Skills is a psychological thriller about a typical teenage girl, Maddy Grant, whose brain is injured in a carnival accident, leaving her a near vegetable…until an experimental medical procedure not only restores her intelligence but increases it exponentially. At first this seems like a godsend, but Maddy soon realizes that there is a serious downside to being the smartest person in the room. Furthermore, she begins to suspect that her mind is being manipulated in frightening ways, making her a stranger to herself. Ultimately, her only hope is to use her “mad skills” to discover the truth–and fight back. It’s my homage to great paranoia thrillers like The Manchurian Candidate, The Parallax View, or The Stepford Wives.
Mad Skills was a departure from my Xombies stuff, so I was very relieved when Publishers Weekly called it “the literary equivalent of a syringe full of adrenaline.” And I just found out that it’s going to be published in German, so that will be a new experience, my first foreign edition. I hope this means there will be a demand for the sequel!
Walter Greatshell is the author of the XOMBIES trilogy of novels–XOMBIES: APOCALYPSE BLUES, XOMBIES: APOCALYPTICON, and XOMBIES: APOCALYPSO–as well as the psychothriller MAD SKILLS, all published by Berkley.