THROUGH THE WRINGER: New York Times Bestselling Author of the WARM BODIES Series, Isaac Marion
Warm Bodies is the first novel in a moving four-book series surrounding a zombie with a big—albeit undead—heart, and the firecracker of a woman who saw something in him. It became a New York Times bestseller overnight, and eventual basis for a major motion picture. The unique story of love, symbolism and survival received critical acclaim from The Seattle Times and Wired Magazine, and has been translated into over twenty-five languages. The zombie novel that shook the world will personally forever be one of our most cherished reads, and it's been an honor to interview Mr. Isaac Marion this month.
R and Julie are two very different characters forced to navigate a war stricken, socially collapsed America. Now, we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic and uprising for justice. Are there any parallels you’ve noticed between R and Julie’s world, and ours today? Is any of this eerie or ironic to you?
Oh God yes. There were already a lot of weird parallels even before the pandemic. Years before there was a President Trump, I had this story where a crass, sociopathic businessman becomes the new head of America after the government collapses on itself, with scenes of border walls, children separated from families and put in cages, so many dark images that I considered dystopian fantasy until I saw them in the news. I actually had to put a note at the beginning of THE LIVING to make sure people understood I wrote it way before this stuff happened, because otherwise it felt kind of exploitative and "too soon."
And the parallels just kept coming when the pandemic hit. Sometimes it's just odd little details like characters commenting on how looters took all the toilet paper, but sometimes it's eerily specific, like descriptions of post-apocalyptic Seattle that almost perfectly match what's happening there now. I've been doing livestream readings on Patreon and I just did one last week where two Black kids take shelter in the abandoned police station in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, noting that it looks like it was vacated intentionally instead of destroyed like the others. Literally the next day, I found out this exact same station had been abandoned by the SPD as the area was occupied by racial justice protestors. Those kinds of coincidences are just eerie, but then there are the bigger, more meaningful connections, like the part where R says the apocalypse happened slowly and sneakily, one compromise at a time, "seemingly isolated incidents until the moment they all merged." That one has been haunting me lately Feels like we might be at that merging moment now.
How would R and Julie pass time while in COVID-19 quarantine?
Now that's a cruel thought! After all the hell they go through trying to cure the metaphysical plague and set the world on a better path, they get hit with a plain old biological virus? Well, compared to a zombie infestation, Covid is pretty mild stuff. And it's not too hard to social distance when there are only three million people left in the whole country. I imagine Julie would be out there masked up and organizing community relief efforts. And R would be quite happy to stay home and philosophize about it.
A zombie virus component doesn’t sound very far fetched right now. Would zombies make the world as it is better or worse? Why?
Well, the obvious answer is no, of course it wouldn't make things better. But the less obvious answer is...maybe, kind of, in some ways? I've always been interested in unexpected positives of the apocalyptic scenario. You can't really "root for" something that involves so much suffering and death, but if it ever did happen, it's intriguing to imagine what potentially good changes could rise from the ashes. I did a TEDx talk about this actually, kind of a thought experiment about how adopting an apocalyptic mindset could possibly allow us to think outside the status quo and be more open to radical changes. And that's basically what happens in my story. They use the apocalypse as an opportunity to start fresh with all the old systems cleared away, to build a new kind of culture. And this is sort of what happens on a personal level too, as R uses his "death" to confront the person he used to be and build a new identity.
R’s pretty likeable for the undead, and Julie is a burst of light that comes streaming into his grey world. How are R and Julie like you? How are they not?
I think R, Julie, and Perry all take turns running the show inside my head. I'm probably mostly a combination of R and Perry, this uneasy collaboration between naive sentimentality and bitter cynicism. But Julie is in there too, in my brighter moments, to give those two sad-sacks a kick in the ass. In the books it's kind of a bizarre love triangle between a very vivacious woman, a walking corpse, and the ghost of the guy he ate now living inside his head. I guess...that's me in a nutshell?
Were there any elements of your home life and upbringing in the PNW that you channeled while world/ character building?
Aside from a cross-country road trip, most of the story centers around the PNW, and I think that landscape seeps into everything. There's something very primeval about the Northwest, with these giant mountain ranges that repel civilization, and ancient forests that are largely unexplored. That feeling of vastness and mystery definitely influenced the more mystical elements of the story, the omniscient voices of the Library and the thinning of reality in the empty places. And my own upbringing played a huge part in forming R's history. We both grew up immersed in a brand of rural Christian fanaticism that the FBI might define as an apocalyptic cult. R has a painful journey from rejecting the passive nihilism of the fundamentalist worldview to accepting the challenge of hope for a future we build ourselves. Writing his journey helped me get through my own.
How did publishing your first book change your writing process to what it is today?
I wrote WARM BODIES in little stolen moments while working full time at an emotionally exhausting job in the foster care system. I think that limited my ambition somewhat. Being able to write full time gave me the time and mental space to develop those ideas further and really dig into the bigger themes instead of just stumbling from scene to scene during lunch breaks or late at night. I'm very wary of falling into the trap of "the comfortable artist" though. I think there is something about the struggle that gives the work edge and vitality, and I never want to lose that. Maybe that's why I killed my budding career with a bunch of terrible publishing decisions! To make sure I always have to struggle?
How old were you when you realized that language wielded power? What did that moment look like?
There were two different realizations that happened many years apart. I think I first "became a writer" when I was 14. I had been "writing" my whole life, but it was always for some functional purpose other than storytelling. I would make up backstories for imaginary video games, or for tabletop roleplaying games for my friends to play. My first novel started as one of those games, and then one day--after my family moved far away from my gaming buddies--I realized that the story didn't need to be "for" anything, it could just be a story. I could pull people into the world in my head without any need for dice or statistics, using only the power of the words. That was the big epiphany that kicked off my serious writing efforts.
But for a long time, I didn't think much about the language itself. It was just the tool I used to tell the story and make people see what I wanted them to see. I resisted the idea behind poetry, that the sound of the words could be as important as their meaning. But even while resisting, I found myself gravitating toward increasingly poetic fiction. Becoming a songwriter forced me to pay more attention to the rhythm and texture of words, and I started to apply those same musical standards to my prose. It wasn't until around the time I started Warm Bodies--I was 26--that I really understood how much the sound of the language interacts with and amplifies the meaning. And it wasn't until...maybe last year that I fully embraced poetry as a reader and a writer and allowed my mind to open up to that level of abstraction. I'm still a story guy, I'm still most moved by meaning, but I've discovered how much pleasure there can be in the music of words as well, and how powerful it is when you have both.
Having a book adapted into a film is something most authors dream about. How did you feel when you received the news? What was the process like?
The news came absolutely out of nowhere and really knocked me over. I had just barely finished the book. The freelance editor I hired to give me feedback had sent it around to some of her old industry contacts, but I wasn't putting much stock in that. I was busy designing a cover and looking for a print shop for my 100-copy "self publishing" release. I was actually sleeping when I got the call from that editor. I grabbed my phone and answered it in bed, barely awake, which really added to the surreality of it, and she told me this producer loved the book and was flying to Seattle that same day to talk with me about it. I was a broke 26-year-old kid who grew up in rural poverty and had never known a successful person in my whole life. All my friends worked dead end jobs like me. I had no connections. I'd been trying since I was 14 and had never gotten anything but rejection for anything I'd ever written. And suddenly I was having dinner with this Hollywood producer who had just finished movies with Sean Penn, Kirsten Dunst, Ryan Gosling, and she's casually name dropping all these A list actors and directors and...I kind of just went into a dissociative state. It was so far removed from my life experience at the time, I just couldn't accept that I wasn't dreaming. I walked out of that dinner and just wandered around downtown Seattle for hours, feeling physically dizzy and gripped by the terror that there would be some glitch in reality that would suddenly erase this and reset everything back to normal. It took a long time, probably weeks, for me to absorb that it was all real.
Some writers have a “cast” in their head while fleshing out novels. It can help to have a visual sense of characters; who was your dream cast, if any? Was it surreal witnessing Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer bringing R and Julie to life?
I actually didn't have that at all. My images for the characters mostly came from people I knew in real life, because most of them were heavily based on my friends, my crushes, or myself. Of course after the movie happened, it was hard not to overwrite my original images with the handsome mugs of the actors. Nicholas Hoult in particular embodied the character so completely, his face was imprinted in my mind when I was writing the sequels, but I had to keep reminding myself not to get sucked into the movie's universe, where R wears a hoodie instead of a mysterious corporate uniform, where Julie has long luscious hair and perfect skin instead of a greasy pixie cut and battle scars, and Nora is...well, white. I loved the movie, but it was a different take on the story. It took me a few chapters into the sequel to shake off the movie version and get back to the world I created.
Warm Bodies is the first in a four book series spanning the unlikely couple’s cross-country fight for freedom, justice, and humanity. For those who haven’t read it, can you tell us briefly about where book two, The New Hunger, leads us?
So, this series is kind of messy... The New Hunger is actually a prequel, an earlier moment in the character's lives and laying some important groundwork for where they're heading, but I stubbornly insist that it's "book 2" because it relies on Warm Bodies for its emotional context, and because it sets up what happens in The Burning World, the true sequel. (Yes, it was probably a bad move to follow up my hit debut with a prequel novella interlude, but...it felt right!)
The Burning World kicks off what I consider the real story, which is not so much the cute romance between a zombie and a human but their struggles to figure out who they really are--quite literally, in R's case--and how they fit into their grim world. They're on the run from an undead remnant of the old world's power structure, searching for a way to stop it from reclaiming the world it destroyed. But at the same time, they have a lot of their own ghosts to deal with. And behind all that, there are these mysterious metaphysical forces fighting over the future of human consciousness. It goes pretty far beyond "zombie romance"!
Do you read your own book reviews? How do you deal with the “bad” ones, if any?
I only go out of my way to read "big" reviews. If a major publication reviews me, I kind of need to know what they said. But I don't browse random reviews on Amazon, just looking for punishment. I can handle a bad one if it's fair and reasonable and I can tell they actually paid attention. Sometimes I even agree with them--I have plenty of criticisms for my own work, believe me. The ones that get under my skin are the unfair or bad faith criticisms where it feels like they viewed it through a lot of preconceptions or just weren't paying attention. Those ones bug me even when it's not my work, and you tend to see more of those in the amateur realm where there's no editing or accountability. But one silver lining of getting so little publicity for the final book was that I didn't have to endure any reviews. Shrug!
Several years following your debut, Warm Bodies is still finding its way into the hands of new readers. What important themes or messages have you wished readers to take away from R and Julie’s story?
There are a lot of different themes circling in those four books, from cosmic to societal to personal, but I think what it comes down to in the end is the relentless tenacity of hope. That irrational, almost insane insistence that you should keep living and keep pushing because there might be some light ahead. No matter how dark your life has been or how worthless you feel, there's still some fundamental spark of beauty in the act of being alive. You can pull yourself out of your grave and try again.
Warm Bodies is filled to the brim with sharp prose, symbolism, and witty insight; we're eager to hear what you have in store next! What have you been up to?
After spending ten years fighting epic battles in an apocalyptic wasteland, I needed a big change of scenery. I'm halfway through a new book that's much more intimate and grounded, set in Seattle maybe a few years from now. It's about a musician couple and their bandmates trying to adapt to a changing society after a new technology floods the planet with noise that drowns out all other sounds. Despite the high concept it's a more laid back story than Warm Bodies, with less high stakes action, more relatable emotion and character richness. I've been really enjoying just sitting back and watching these people argue and joke with each other, while this ominous sonic presence slowly rises in the background. This one will be hard to box up in a genre, which makes me happy. Looking ahead at my next couple novel ideas, I think they're all going to be very different in style and content, which is bad business as an author, but bad business seems to be what makes me happy, so...shrug!
Thank you so much for your time, Isaac! Where can new readers and fans find you?
My website ISAACMARION.COM is my main hub and it's the ONLY place you can get a physical copy of the Warm Bodies series conclusion, THE LIVING.
Instagram (@isaacmarion) is also important to me as it's where I post my poems, music, and visual art. I'm also on Twitter (@isaacinspace) and Facebook, and I have a very active Patreon (patreon.com/isaacmarion) where I share behind the scenes Warm Bodies content, livestream readings, and daily videos about my descent into madness in an isolated forest cabin.
Binge the series today!