Q & A: David Moody
Posted by: David Pitt
David Moody, for those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, is the author of the Hater and Autumn series of post-apocalyptic novels. He’s also written a standalone novel, Trust, which features a group of aliens stranded on Earth. While very different in many ways, his books share a common theme: ordinary people tossed into extraordinary circumstances (and the ways in which these ordinary men and women deal, in their own ways, with some pretty intense challenges). Moody was born in Birmingham, England, in 1970. He gave up a career in banking to write, which I think anyone who’s read him will agree was an excellent decision.
Autumn, which was first published online in 2001, finally appeared between covers in 2010, with sequels Autumn: The City (2003) and Autumn: Purification (2004) making their first print appearances in 2011, along with Autumn: Disintegration, the first of the series not to debut online. The series finale, Autumn: Aftermath, appeared in 2012. The series chronicles the struggles of a group of disparate men and women to survive a plague-like event that’s wiped out 90% of humanity. But thousands of the dead, for some unknown reason, refused to stay dead, and are now preying on the living. There is also a sixth book, Autumn: The Human Condition, which was published in 2005 but is now out of print. It’s more like a collection of vignettes and short stories, snapshots of a zombie apocalypse, not strictly part of the series. You can find it online in a few places.
The closing chapters of Autumn: Aftermath offer readers an unexpected perspective on the dead – without blowing any surprises for readers who haven’t read the book yet, you turn creatures who have traditionally been monsters into objects of the characters’ (and our own) compassion. When you wrote Autumn, did you have this rather startling twist in mind, or did you discover it as you wrote the other books in the series?
That’s a really interesting question, thanks. I’ll be honest (and a little pretentious, unfortunately) and say that to a large extent I was discovering the dead along with the survivors in the books. From early on in the writing of the series I’d decided that the dead would have to progress. I’ve always found it frustrating that zombies never have any character development – the first creature you meet at the beginning of the book/film will inevitably be the same as the last one that’s hacked to pieces in the final scenes. With Autumn, I think it would have been hard to sustain such a long series if I’d had that lack of development throughout. I’d always had it in mind that there would be a slow emotional re-awakening of the dead, coupled with their expected physical deterioration, and it was the convergence of these two things which caused much of the conflict: basically, the dead are increasingly aware of what they are/were, and yet, at the same time, they’re increasingly unable to express themselves so resort to basic, guttural, violent behavior. It was only when I came to write Aftermath and look at the post-post-apocalypse, that I was able to sit down and really try to analyze the creatures’ motives for doing what they do. The twist you mention in your question felt like a logical progression rather than an attempt to be subvertive.
One of the key elements of the Autumn novels is the slow disintegration of the corpses: it seems inevitable that they’ll eventually no longer be a threat, but the trick is for the survivors to stay alive long enough to come out the other side of the nightmare. This is, to me, an intelligent but surprisingly overlooked approach to the subject (surprisingly, since once you think about it, it seems obvious: the bodies can’t stay animated forever). Was this planned from the outset?
Yes. As you say, it’s something which seems surprisingly overlooked. Unless the contagion/radiation/voodoo curse/whatever’s responsible for reanimating the dead has somehow also halted the decaying process, then it seems logical (as logical as anything involving walking corpses can be!), that after six months or so, they’ll have decayed to such a terrible extent that they’ll no longer be a physical threat. Should we ever find ourselves facing a real Z-poc (and who amongst us secretly doesn’t want that?!!), then I think I’d watch where all the other survivors were running to and let the zombies follow them. I’ll head in the opposite direction, spend six months in solitary confinement, then emerge from my shelter unscathed! Unfortunately, a book or film following six months of a survivor’s boring incarceration would not make particularly interesting viewing or reading, hence the way we always focus on the stories of those choosing to fight the zombie hordes!
You seem to have deliberately taken a sort of revisionist approach to the traditional living-dead theme, introducing variations that force us to look at familiar stories from a new angle. How have readers responded?
Mixed, I think would be the best way of putting it. The first Autumn novel in particular gets more than its fair share of bad reviews because people don’t get what I was trying to do. But that’s okay. I take that as a good sign, because I’d rather have a strongly negative reaction than no reaction at all. Lots of folks do seem pretty aggrieved when they sit down to read a so-called zombie novel and find it’s not filled with flesh eating and guns and wall-to-wall action. I wanted to write a plausible zombie series (if that’s possible), so the characters are just normal folks, struggling to deal with events unfolding around them in the same way we would. People assume they’d head straight to the mall, stock up on guns and food, and fight their way through the crisis. I maintain that they wouldn’t. Some would, sure, but there would be plenty more survivors who, on Z-day +1, would simply shut and bolt the door, hide under their bed, and quickly go to pieces.
[In 2009, a low-budget film adaptation of Autumn was released. Shot, apparently, using available light, in real locations (nothing appears to be a constructed set), it's directed by Steven Rumbelow, with a screenplay credited to Rumbelow and Moody. Like the novel, it's not so much about the gore as it is about the survivors trying to get a handle on what the heck is going on around them. You can watch the trailer here.]
The Autumn film sticks pretty closely to the plot of the novel (except for a character switch in the Philip Evans scene, it’s a fairly literal interpretation). You’re credited as co-author of the screenplay. How closely were you involved with the production of the film?
That character switch was borne through necessity, actually. Scheduling conflicts and an unexpected snow storm really put a spanner in the works! I think it actually worked well, and David Carradine stole the show with that cameo. It’s hard to believe that it’s five years since the movie was made. It’s interesting… I sold the film rights to both Hater and Autumn within a couple of weeks of each other – Autumn to a small, independent company, Hater to Mark Johnson and Guillermo del Toro. I was keen on both deals because it gave me a chance to experience two extremes of the film industry. The Hater movie, of course, hasn’t happened yet (though it came close to production, with J A Bayona signed up to direct from a script by Walking Dead showrunner Glen Mazzara). I don’t expect to get within a hundred miles of Hater if it ever does make it to screen, but with Autumn I was able to liaise with the filmmakers on a personal level prior to filming. I’ve always wanted to direct, so in a bit of spare time between novels, I wrote a spec script for Autumn. It was a far too wordy, far too slavishly accurate interpretation of the book, but it ended up being used as the basis of a full cast audio adaptation. When we agreed terms for the movie, Steven Rumbelow, the director, used my overlong script and the novel as the basis for his interpretation of the story. I visited the shoot out in Canada (a fanboy’s dream – playing a zombie in the middle of the night, fighting Dexter Fletcher!), but that was pretty much the extent of my involvement.
I’m pretty sure, in one scene in the movie, Carl said the Z-word, a word you work very hard not to use in the books. Did I hear that correctly? And, if so, would you prefer the word hadn’t been used?
I haven’t watched the film for a while (though I’m actually looking forward to sitting down and watching it again soon), but you’re right. He does say the Z-word. I’m okay with that, actually. You have to bear in mind that the book was first released back in 2001, when zombies weren’t the pop culture phenomenon they’ve since become. Back then, to have used the word ‘zombie’ seemed somewhat ridiculous, and I know I wasn’t alone in feeling that way (hence this priceless scene from Shaun of the Dead: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqNQbdD3kLw). Also, there was always an unwritten law that the characters in a zombie story always had to act like they’d never seen a zombie film or read a zombie book before! I used to do all I could to avoid the zombie tag, but I’m okay with it now. I think back then it carried with it an immediate assumption that the story you’re watching will be a clichéd, hackneyed gorefest. Fortunately, as I mentioned, people seem to have different expectations of the living dead now. They’ve developed a wholly unexpected mainstream credibility!
[In 2009's Hater and its two sequels Dog Blood and Them or Us, thousands of ordinary men and women turn into killers overnight, attacking strangers on the street, their loved ones, anyone they can get their hands on. Danny McCoyne, a normal guy with a normal family and a normal job, is desperate to protect his wife and children...until something happens to him, and he realizes he's the one who needs protecting.]
The Hater novels are written in the first person and the present tense. Was this done in order to give readers a more personal perspective (Danny can explain the way the Hate feels in a way no third-person narrator could), or did the POV come about because Danny, a family man and working stiff, was a sort of literary surrogate of his creator?
Both. I actually started off writing the book in third person, but it just didn’t work. And I knew there were pivotal scenes for Danny’s character which would only work if we were deep inside his head. I tried to make all three Hater books as immediate as possible – first person, present tense – so that we’re experiencing everything at the exact same time as Danny. There is a huge amount of me in Danny McCoyne. I took my cues from a particularly stressful time in my life (lots of kids, soul-destroying job, long hours, small house etc.), and the frustration was easy to recall. For the overall story to work it was crucial to anchor events in the most mundane normality I could come up with. There’s nothing special about Danny McCoyne – he an everyman. I couldn’t imagine telling the story through anyone else’s eyes.
The end of Them or Us, the third novel in the Hater series, leaves the door ever-so-slightly open for another book. But, given what’s happened with Danny over the course of the novel, another book would probably have to take the character in a new direction. Any plans for another?
Definitely no plans at the moment. I’m very much done with both Hater and Autumn for the time being. I guess I could go back to either universe again in the future, but it’d take a gem of an idea to fire my enthusiasm. I have so many other projects I want to develop first. Also, with Hater in particular, it was always Danny McCoyne’s story first and foremost, and I think the books start and finish with him. I can’t imagine writing another Hater novel without having him around.
Although the Autumn and Hater series share some thematic similarities – perhaps most important being the idea that someone who appears to be a traditional villain or monster could be deserving of our sympathy and compassion – they are quite different. The Hater novels are more brutal, bloodier than the Autumn novels (where the focus is on the survivors’ relationships with one another, and not on gore), and – to my mind – much bleaker. In the writing, did you alternate between books, writing a Hater and then an Autumn, or were you working on books in each series at the same time?
The similarities between the two series were quite unintentional. I actually wrote the first Hater book after I thought I’d finished the Autumn series, back in 2006. Things changed when del Toro became involved and the books were picked up by Thomas Dunne Books of New York. Hater was only ever intended to be two books, but my editor wanted to extend it to a trilogy. And by then I’d decided to write more Autumn, so it just happened that I alternated between the two for a while. There was never any real plan to do so.
It must have been a bit dark, writing the books for years at a time. What did you do to keep yourself from plunging into the bleakness you were creating on the page? Did you have a process you’d follow to pull yourself back into the real world after a writing session?
I actually find writing books like this to be quite cathartic. That might sound odd, but it’s true. I find the real world to be an increasingly dark and frightening place, and I don’t think it takes such a great stretch of the imagination to picture events similar to those I write about actually coming to pass. Last summer, for example, when the UK experienced a week of inner-city riots up and down the country, I was bombarded with emails, tweets and Facebook messages asking if what people were seeing on the TV news was the beginning of Hater! In many ways I use my writing as a form of personal therapy, and I expect many other writers are the same. Thinking back to when I used to work for a bank, for example, if a member of staff or a customer particularly annoyed me, I’d write them into whichever novel I was working on at the time, and give them a particularly gruesome demise (changing names and details to protect the innocent, of course!).
Because there are so many similarities between the two series, did you ever run into a situation where you were writing something and you thought: hey, didn’t I already do something like this in another book? Was there a conscious effort to keep each series fresh, not to borrow from yourself?
Again, strange as it might seem looking back now, I didn’t immediately recognize the similarities between the two series. The characters couldn’t have been more different, though, and I’ve always found that the people often drive the story more than the situations they find themselves in. That said, I do recall that when I was wrapping up both series (with Them or Us and Autumn: Aftermath), I was very aware of the possibility of repeating myself as both novels are, to an extent, concerned with the very end of the human race.
Trust, which you’ve recently republished, is something that appears quite different from the Hater or Autumn novels (it begins with a group of extraterrestrial scientists being stranded on Earth), but, like your more well-known series, it’s ultimately the story of a group of ordinary men and women thrust without warning into an extraordinary – and potentially deadly — situation. Is there something about this theme that attracts you?
Absolutely. There are a couple of aspects of these scenarios which fascinate me. First, I love to tell stories from the point of view of ordinary people. I think that serves a couple of purposes: it enables the reader to identify with the people they’re following and buy in to their stories, and it also allows me to talk about huge, catastrophic events without needing to go into the whys and wherefores. If you’re describing the Apocalypse from the point of view of Mr Joe Ordinary, they’re probably not going to have access to any information about what’s happening to the rest of the world. More to the point, they won’t care! The focus of the story becomes how we deal with the situation we find ourselves facing, not finding out what caused it. The second benefit of writing about these apocalyptic events is that at the end of the world, when everything’s on the line, I think people will act more honestly, and by that I mean the layers of bullshit we surround ourselves with in society will drop away. Decisions will be more black and white and every choice made by every character has potentially vast implications. As a ‘people-watcher’, that’s incredibly interesting. One last thing I’d like to say here, is that I’m fascinated and frustrated by the way we saunter through our lives assuming that just because everything was okay yesterday, it’ll be okay today and tomorrow too. Anything could happen at any moment to completely turn our world upside down. Last weekend I ran a half marathon – something I do pretty regularly (I love distance running – I get a lot of work done when I’m out pounding the streets. It’s the only time I don’t get interrupted!). As I finished, I noticed a guy had collapsed just on the finish line. Tragically, he died. He was about five years younger than me, from the same area and, by all accounts, had done enough training and ran regularly. And I still can’t help thinking, that could have been me… but I can’t stop running. We’re constantly on a knife edge, and I don’t think it does us any harm to occasionally peer over the abyss and imagine what might be waiting there for us. If nothing else, it helps us to appreciate what we have when we return to reality.
Trust ends on a pretty depressing note, but are there plans for more books set during the same events, perhaps told from other characters’ points of view?
You see, I’d have to disagree with that. I don’t think the ending’s particularly depressing. Downbeat, yes, but not depressing. Sometimes we have to accept the inevitable, no matter how grotesque a position it might leave us in. I think it’s how we deal with it that matters. Forgive me for talking in clichés here, by the way – I’m trying to avoid spoilers! Though the ending is terrifying in many respects, the main character feels vindicated and that, in his situation, is a positive outcome! Another early novel of mine (which I’m hoping to return to shortly for a reissue next year) has an astonishingly bleak ending, and yet, bizarrely, I think it’s a positive conclusion too. Back to your question… I don’t think I’ll ever return to the world of Trust, for several reasons. The most important of which is that I think I’d find it impossible to write another story following the same events (albeit from a different perspective) and maintain any degree of suspense and unease. It’d be like the Star Wars prequels… George Lucas was always onto a loser with those, because we already knew how the story would turn out for Anakin/Vader. I accept that the character’s individual journeys are important, but with a story like Trust I think any retelling would just become a rehash of the first book.
What are you working on now?