Category: Behind the Writing

Answers to Questions Behind the Writing

IMG_4670Why did you decide to write about zombies? – Carol
Late one night as a child, the then Scifi network aired, George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in black and white. This movie would define a genre for me and to this day I think back to the amazing storyline and the complexity in which Romero weaved his conflict. In every story, there is a conflict the characters must overcome. In his movie, the zombies were a threat, but the conflict wasn’t with the undead, it was with the living’s primal urge to survive. The zombies weren’t the conflict, they were the catalyst. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire is the antagonist. For Romero, zombies are more of a backdrop and the insecurities, fears, and lack of trust in this band of survivors is the real conflict.

I was a monster fan, watching movies far beyond what a child can understand, but I was captivated. However, I always came back to this idea of the villain and their relationship with the protagonist. Dracula is in an intimate battle with Harker, threatening to steal his one true love. As Dracula is defeated Harker wins. There is no winner with zombies. A character is faced with an immediate threat, and while they may win, their victory is only a reminder that they will continue this fight until they die. The story remains, the character’s battle is with their reaction to a world they can not survive within. Because of that, I’ve been fascinated with the psyche of the characters that force me to ask, “If my life’s work was trying to survive, would I survive myself?”

On your new book, what has been the hardest aspect of writing a zombie novel? – Jason
I wish I could say it was finding interesting ways to kill zombies in a suburban mall, but I’ve thought about it so much, I’ve got a mental list. In Suburban Zombie High the most difficult challenge was taking a group of stereotypes; the cheerleader, the jock, the minority, the goth, the crazy, and having them grow while maintaining a connection to an archetype the reader easily identifies with.

In this novel, Cadence takes the helm for a good portion of the story. In the first book, we see her as a goth, angsty, borderline whiny artist. With the joke being played out, I had to develop her a bit further. In the SZH: The Reunion, she’s set aside her paintbrush, channeling her angst and the zombie apocalypse into becoming a zombie writing, best-selling author. Even Olivia, who we are introduced as a vicious, snarky, vapid cheerleader had to grow. Her refusal to grow beyond a cheerleader and join the New England Patriots cheerleader allowed her character to refute growing up.

Unfortunately, I feel if a zombie novel is about the zombie apocalypse, the book is going to be one of the dozen books I’ve already read. I emphasize it being about the character’s reaction to this backdrop. In SZH: The Reunion, we have new characters experiencing zombies for the first time, we have a group of students who have ‘been here and done that’ and then we have veterans who have done this so often they’ve become desensitized. The difficulty is trying to pull out those strands and weaving a story about characters that are relatable without retelling the same story.

How do you come up with your ideas? – Susan
I was discussing an idea that is percolating in my head for a short story, and this question came up. My initial response was, “They’re just there.” For some reason, it has never occurred to me other people may not have this detective agency in their head, on a quest to unravel new stories. There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t have at least a dozen moments of, “Oh, that could make an interesting story?”

I would say nearly all my stories come from my childhood fascinations. There was something about growing up an only child that really emphasized this idea of “playing pretend.” From having to explain how my Transformers were transported into a world with giant Turtles capable of Ninjitsu, to being certain if I worked hard enough, I could develop super powers. These stories were adaptations of things seen on television, novels or comic books. I’m certain the majority bordered on plagiarism, but story-telling had to start somewhere.

Later, I’m looking back at these stories and finding ways to pull out the unique strands into a larger story with an adult perspective. However, Suburban Zombie High is unique in the fact the story itself came to me in my adult life. I held a job requiring me to oversee extremely dysfunctional suburban teens and one day I had the thought, “If the zombie apocalypse happened, you’d all go down.” But I thought about it, I had a student in my class who I was convinced could survive, partially due to the sharp sting of her insults. The story emerged as I realized even in my imagination, the pain in the butt students would emerge victorious.


Suburban High School Character Inspirations – Nurse Harts

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High
Nurse Harts
She’d be described as compassionate, incompetent and busty. Nurse Harts is the school nurse and provider of Tylenol and cold compresses. Her lack of medical knowledge makes her barely qualified to apply band-aids to the students. However, underneath the bubbly personality and bodacious shirt splitting body, she has some semblance of common sense. She owns her sexuality and understands that she’s the hottest thing to walk the halls of Boxford High School.


I love writing Nurse Harts. She has a mix of dripping sexuality that would rock the world of any teenage boy but she is completely unqualified for her job. She always makes me think she got slung into the position simply for the fact she would look amazing in a nurse’s outfit (even when it’s the tattered remains of the uniform.)

The origins of Nurse Harts is not derived from reality. Every school nurse that I have come across both as a student or as a professional has been more of the doting motherly type. I needed to find inspiration for a woman who could potentially be the cure for the zombie outbreak. Originally she would find the cure, but after watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I decided I needed a character who had sex appeal in this novel. With each character manifesting one particular personality trait, I decided to use Nurse Harts to manifest her sex.

Nurse Harts pulls her personality from a style of rag novels in which women were helpless except for the men that protected them. She is helpless other than her sex appeal, but unlike her origins, she has no problem weaponizing her sexuality. She has moments in which sees her own stereotype and runs counter to the expectation. She is the female counterpart to the Teacher but is fully aware that he has no redeemable qualities and uses him like a toy.

Upon the first beta reading of her character I made the simple assumption that everybody would know she was the hot nurse. I later discovered that the common experience was that all school nurses were undeniably “not hot.” This required some rewriting to produce the “sex kitten” appearance. It also made me ponder, how many more scratches, belly aches and migraines would teenage boys suffer? Knowing my friends they’d be willingly breaking bones on a daily basis.

The question about Nurse Harts is, will her air head ways be her pitfall or will she master her sexual prowess to emerge victorious during the zombie apocalypse.


Suburban High School Character Inspirations – Mrs. V

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High
Mrs. V
Mrs. V plays the part of the sarcastic, witty, wise sage. She is somewhat of a recluse and hides amongst the stacks of her library and seldom is seen throughout the rest of the school. She is the hybrid of traditional Dewey Decimal wielding and modern digital database searching prowess. Her appearance leads people to believe she is a warm and inviting individual but its the myriad of contradictions that surprise often surprise the students that makes her unique. This librarian’s checkered past is seen throughout the book from researching term papers to wielding pistols, she’s not a woman to be trifled with.


The character of Mrs. V is based on two primary sources, both of them librarians. My first job took place at a school where my classroom was adjacent to the library. When I would want to get away from work or spend my lunches writing, I would escape to the library. The woman who ran it ruled with a smile and an iron fist. She had an aura of silence that followed her through the library. Where she travelled, the students would quite down in record time. She is also the name of the character, lovingly named, Mrs. V.

Mrs. V. is an interesting woman who had a past filled with adventure that made me think that this woman was capable of anything. When I discovered I needed an adult protagonist, I came up with a theory that if a zombie apocalypse occurred, she would have a gun and days worth of ammo. She was a card carrying member of the NRA and it only made sense that she would save us all. I also have theories that she was a member of the circus, drove race cars and in a past life, led a revolution in a third world country. If I was to find her on Facebook and see her wielding a semi-automatic and raising a flag on demolished government leader’s doorstep, I would not be surprised. I would then quickly like that photo.

The second woman that Mrs. V. is based on is my mother. Perhaps the largest reason the librarian didn’t get eaten for plot convenience was the constant threats from my mother. Growing up, my mother was the woman who would constantly shove source material under my nose and tell me, “Make sure your bibliography is properly spaced.” She would also be seen in a blouse and what I think of as a hippy, flowing skirt. In my head Mrs. V. is always wearing one of those skirts. Her love of databases and ability to wield Google-Fu like a weapon is also a constant thing with my mother. She will double check your story to make sure it doesn’t show up on, and if it does, prepare to be scolded.

The best part of this story is that the character of Mrs. V was truly born when the two librarians met. My mother came to support the students at the school I was working at and the single person I felt she needed to meet was her librarian counterpart. They bonded and talked periodicals and library setups in such rapid manner that to this day I’m convinced that librarians learn a secret language that can only be deciphered by mastering the Dewey Decimal System. The moment they shook hands I realized that I had the perfect librarian. I put a gun in her hand and a database within easy reach and I knew I had a star character to fight off the zombie hordes.


Suburban Zombie High Character Inspirations – Olivia

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High

Olivia is the head of the cheerocracy and she rules without question. The only thing more annoying than her beauty is her obsession with telling people how beautiful she is. She currently is the cheerleader of one of the worst football teams in the state. She believes that she singlehandedly rules the school based on the assumption that all cheerleaders are born leaders. She lacks all book smarts and believes that her looks will land her a rich sugar daddy. What she lacks in book smarts she makes up for in scathing remarks, witty remarks, and condescension. One time, she made her Italian teacher cry by giving the stout woman such a tongue lashing about her wearing a brown belt with black shoes. The teacher relocated to another school. The only thing Olivia loves more than herself is her punching bags Min & Cadence.


Olivia is based on several cheerleaders from my high school. The cheerleaders on our “A” team were all the pretty blond girls, but despite the misleading stereotype, they were class leaders, exceptional academics and benevolent to a fault. They didn’t wear their uniforms around school like a pervert’s fantasy nor did they ever practice beyond the confines of their after school practice schedules. They may have been ditzy, but it was a fun loving trait.

Now, onto some of the “B” team. Some of these girls held the bitterness of being second string a bit too close to their hearts. They were were like vipers, venomous and always ready to pounce. They believed they were the best thing to walk the halls of my school, and I never fully understood why. I applauded their confidence, but they looked down to the rest of the unworthy population like they were better than their junior varsity status. Now, I can’t deny their talent, they were good at what they did. But during their games, which were largely unattended, their cheers were so poorly written that I couldn’t help but laugh as they attempted to boost morale.

Overall, these B string cheerleaders became the inspiration for Olivia. Not in their current incarnation, but I had to ponder, what would happen if they were the best the school had to offer. My favorite scene in the entire book takes place at a football game in which cheerleaders are grinding and gyrating against one another. I always thought that this is what it would take to give them the attention they thought they deserved. This oddly erotic, ridiculous idea of a cheerleader is what eventually gave birth to our favorite-to-hate cheerleader, Olivia.


Zombie High Character Inspirations – Cadence Winters

Artwork by Cordelia JonesSuburban Zombie High
Cadence Winters
Cadence is the brooding art student. Her focus in life is on getting into a prestigious unnamed art school. Her goth appearance makes her a bit of an outsider and an advocate for the disenfranchised. She obsesses about her portfolio and the missing piece that will help elevate her from mere-art-student to goddess of the art world. She is the only person who has heard of zombies prior to the apocalypse.


Cadence draws her origins from more real-life people than any other character I’ve written. Her name, Cadence, is based on a girl I knew in college who would explain, “My parents were hippies, they named me Cadence because I changed the rhythm of their lives.” She was a hippy herself, but I always thought it’d be amusing if, despite her hippy upbringing she turned out to be hardcore goth.

Her obsession with art is partially self-inspired. However, this is where I decided to draw upon my students who are desperately seeking acceptance of art colleges. At some point, academics fade away and they become zombies themselves, producing uncanny amounts of work. They always seem to strive telling their inner struggle, which is pretty much identical for all seventeen-year-olds. They never seem to notice the irony that in their quest to be unique they fall into the traps of predictability. If you want to see art students explode, tell them there is a shortage of Cadmium Red acrylic paint. It’s not pretty.

In the first book, her passion is for her art. Later, she becomes a writer. This mirrors my own personal journey, wanting to be a writer, then an artist and a writer again. Unlike myself, she becomes an expert and has no problem throwing down the gauntlet, flaunting her expertise like no other. I have a tendency of putting my .02 out into the aether then seeing the baffled looks on people’s faces. Cadence takes my love of shock to a new level.

While I wish I could take 100% of the credit as the artist that inspire Cadence, I can not. If I am her father, then her mother was a peer from my high school. She was a modest artist who enjoyed her victories far more quietly. It wasn’t her defining characteristic, but it was one of the many things that made her an art superstar. She was the sensible one of my friends. As I would tell wild and outlandish stories, she would roll her eyes at the fibbing. While the rest of us might devise a horribly complicated method of building a bridge over a small brook, she would be the one to suggest just stepping over it. I have often wondered why she didn’t throw her hands in the arm and exclaim, “I’m surrounded by idiots.” This question gave birth to Cadence as we know her.