By Gary Kriss
Hey—come here for a minute. This is gonna be a little personal, but don’t be embarrassed: we’ve all been there. You’re sitting next to a stranger and desperately searching for a smidgen of small talk, a few right words to break the ice. Well search no more, Pilgrim—the cavalry has arrived! The next time you find yourself in this awkward situation, lean over slightly, establish eye contact, smile and—man, is this great!—casually say, “do you know it takes the same amount of force to rip off a human ear as it does to tear through 12 sheets of regular bond paper?”
Is the ice broken? Hell, it’s shattered! Obliterated! And you’ve got author William Todd Rose to thank for being generous enough to share this insight about what he’s learned from writing. Oh, he’s learned a couple of other things as well, including that there’s an enthusiastic readership for his distinctive—all right, offbeat—approach to thrillers. That group, which includes devotees of Zombie Lit who claim Rose as one of their own, will undoubtedly grow with this month’s release of THE SEVEN HABITS OF HIGHLY INFECTIVE PEOPLE (Permuted Press).
“I really think THE SEVEN HABITS will appeal to a wide variety of readers if they give it a chance,” Rose says from his home in West Virginia. “Yes, there are zombies but there’s also good, old fashioned storytelling there as well. If, however, I based my response purely on demographics, I’ve received the strongest reactions to the book from women. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but it’s true.”
Part of Rose’s knowledge of how the book might be received comes from having self-published an earlier edition in 2010. The newly released work is an enlarged second edition. “Permuted Press asked to see the manuscript,” Rose said. “They really liked the book and its concept, however it was quite a bit shorter than their minimum word count so I was asked if I could expand the plot. At first, this was really daunting for me. Most of my chapters pick up exactly where the last one left off and the story line, I thought, was pretty tight. So I sat down and reread the first edition, looking for places where I could add content that would still advance the story and not just be filler for the sake of filler.”
Now the book, which one admirer described as, “The Dude (from The Big Lebowski) telling a drugged out version of H.G. Wells’ THE TIME MACHINE,” is 30,000 words longer and contains scenes that flesh out what Rose calls “a novel about contagion, drugs, time travel, and the living dead.”
Extending Rose’s self-termed “ridiculously simplified synopsis,” SEVEN HABITS focuses on Bosley Coughlin, whom Rose describes as “kind of an alternate reality version of who I was in my early twenties.” Thanks to extensive experimentation with the occult and all matter of mind altering substances, Bosley has become dimensionally unstable, capable of spontaneously traveling through time and, upon “landing” sharing the consciousness and sensory perceptions of a human host. One of these hosts is Ocean, a 14 year-old girl who lives in a food-scarce post-apocalyptic future where the dead hunt the living.
Bosley bonds emotionally with Ocean, and when he returns to his own time he become obsessed with altering history and saving her from the horrors of her nightmarish reality. Bosley’s possible opportunity comes when he encounters Clarice Hudson, a sleep-around shop girl, who begins showing the seven sequential symptoms of the infection that will eventually spread and give rise to the future dystopia. However, should Bosley seize this opportunity, Rose says it would mean he has to “push aside every belief he’s ever had about right and wrong and trudge through gray areas of moral ambiguity.”
The author of several novels and novellas, including DEAD AND DYING and SEX IN THE TIME OF ZOMBIES and numerous anthologized short stories, Rose confesses that SEVEN HABITS is his favorite, noting that, “I connected with my characters in a way that surprised me.”
“I care about Bosley and Ocean as if they were real people,” he continues. “There’s just something about these characters that grabs me and won’t let go. I’ve shed tears for them because it really pains me to have bad things happen to them. Besides this scarily strong emotional attachment, I also infused the book with fictionalized versions of my life experiences more than I ever had before.”
Rose also wanted readers to share his strong feelings for Bosley and Ocean, which is why he adopted alternating viewpoints for the book. “By using separate POVs for Bosley and Ocean I’m essentially allowing the reader inside them,” Rose explains. “They’re privy to all the secret thoughts, fears, and insecurities which might not be apparent otherwise. I’ve used the technique before, but I think it was particularly well suited for THE SEVEN HABITS.”
Rose also considers SEVEN HABITS the best introduction to his work and “the most accessible of all my books.”
“Though it features a world overrun by the living dead, it’s not really your typical survival-horror situation where characters fight off wave after wave of undead aggressors,” he says. “It contains a lot of the earmarks I’m beginning to see as part of my style. There’s some slightly surreal scenes, there’s a blend of science and mysticism, which are elements that often make an appearance in my work, and the characters are flawed, damaged people.”
Rose notes the book demands “you push aside preconceived notions about the living dead in fiction, no matter which side of the fence you’re on.” Which means, he says, “fans of the zombie genre have to be willing to accept that the undead don’t necessarily need to have the spotlight on them for a story to work; those who’ve never read zombie literature have to be willing to take a chance and realize that not everything out there is the literary equivalent of a B film.”
Despite his dislike of “putting myself into too small of a box,” if pushed Rose will sometimes own up to being a “dark speculative fiction” writer.
“If you look up speculative fiction as a genre, it’s a rather broad umbrella,” he says. “Sci-fi, horror, dystopian, apocalyptic, supernatural, and superhero fiction: all of these fall under the speculative fiction banner. Dark is basically the atmosphere of the speculative fiction I write. I do realize that my body of work has very dark undertones and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. It’s simply the way my imagination is wired.”
Rose also insists that he isn’t really bothered by often being characterized as a writer of zombie books. “There’s a lot of interesting work being done in that particular sub-genre by a lot of talented authors,” he notes. “But, at the same time, if people think of me as a zombie author, they’ll probably be disappointed with some of my future projects. I’ll admit I have a macabre fascination with shambling corpses and zombies will always have a special place in my heart. But there’s a lot of different stories I want to tell and a lot of characters I want to explore, the vast majority of which do not feature reanimates in any way, shape, or form.”
A good many of those stories will feature Bosley and Ocean, since SEVEN HABITS is the first book in Rose’s planned Tides of Time series, which will span Ocean’s development from a teenager to a woman in her eighties. At this point he’s completed half of the second book, tentatively titled THE DEAD TRAP, which he anticipates will appear next year provided he doesn’t succumb to procrastination, which he lists as his “worst trait.”
“When I wrote the first edition of THE SEVEN HABITS, I thought it was going to be a one shot tale,” Rose recalls. “I thought I’d reach the end and then move on to different characters. By the time I got to that point, however, I realized there was still so much more ground to explore.”
This resulted in “many late night talks” with Farrell, the high school sweetheart who became his wife and mother of Devin, his 21 year-old son and whom he lovingly refers to as “the other half of my soul.” As a result of those discussions, Rose says he began to understand where Bosley and Ocean were heading.
“There’s a story arc there that will take Ocean’s entire life to tell and Bosley will definitely be along for the ride,” Rose states. “In a lot of ways, I’m thankful for the limited readership the original edition had. There’re only 25 copies in existence, so the second edition really allowed me to tailor bits and pieces of the book to the continuing story.” Besides being able to watch his characters “evolve and grow,” Rose says the best thing about writing a series is “the chance to really get at the heart of what motivates the people who inhabit this world I’ve created.”
To accomplish this, Rose will sit down at the desk in the living room of his apartment, move aside some of the many coffee cups—if he were a drink, Rose says he’d be coffee because there’s so much of it in his bloodstream—the books and perhaps the plush Darth Vader with Easter bunny ears on his headpiece and fire up Word 95 (“I know it’s nearly 15 years old, which makes it a dinosaur in software terms,” he says, “but it does everything I need it to so I’ve never really seen the need to upgrade)
Then he’ll turn on some music. “When I sit down to do some serious writing, I almost always have music going at the same time, but the musical genres, styles, and artists can vary from work to work,” Rose explains. “What I look for are songs which embody the general atmosphere I’m trying to capture. While writing THE SEVEN HABITS my playlist featured songs that were dark and moody, ones which felt foreboding and sometimes desolate. There was very little optimism in the music I selected since it was meant to be a reflection of my characters’ inner turmoil and general outlook. As such, the soundtrack to this book featured a lot of Goth and Darkwave bands and I personally feel it suits the worlds Bosley and Ocean live in very well.” Rose even includes a song list at the conclusion of the book so readers can make their own correlations.
They can also see the book as a musical work. “I tried to end each chapter with a mini-cliffhanger that would leave the reader needing to know what happens next,” Rose said, comparing this to “a musical movement, building up to that requires variations in tempo.”
“When things are moving at a slower pace, I use try to use longer words, sentences, descriptions, and paragraphs that have a flowing rhythm to them,” he continues. “As the tension builds, everything gradually becomes shorter and more staccato. Some paragraphs might consist of a single sentence. Sentences can become fragments. Words, more terse. The theory is that this causes the reader to read faster which, in turn, can psychological trick the mind into a scaled down version of the fight or flight reflex. If successful, then you’ve basically pulled the reader into that scene since their physical reactions are synched with the action.”
Music on, Rose is ready to take to typing. Oops. Not quite yet. Almost forgot the cigarettes. “I tend to chain smoke when I write,” Rose says, before backtracking. “I tend to light a lot of cigarettes when I write and they usually end up turning into a column of ash as sit forgotten in the ashtray.” Either way he states that smoking is a habit he’ll soon be breaking.
Well, maybe, but not necessarily forever. Ask this master of the macabre—who, if truth be told, would forgo a lifetime morgue viewing pass for a day of hiking or a night with his telescopes gazing at the heavens, about what he’d want on his tombstone, smoking again emerges. “If I had a tombstone,” Rose says “it would read, ‘What the hell?? I wanted to be cremated!!’”
Named by The Google+ Insider’s Guide as one of their top 32 authors to follow, William Todd Rose writes speculative fiction that lends itself to the dark, and often surreal, realm of the macabre. With short stories appearing in numerous anthologies and magazines, his longer works include Shadow of the Woodpile, Sex in the Time of Zombies, Shut the Fuck Up and Die!, Apocalyptic Organ Grinder, The Dead & Dying, Cry Havoc, and The Seven Habits of Highly Infective People.
To learn more about William Todd Rose, please visit his website.