Interview: Author Joe Schreiber
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Zombies and Star Wars: Not a pairing people are quick to make, but Joe Schreiber has proven they can compliment each other quite well.
In 2009, Schreiber became a New York Times best-selling author with Death Troopers, a book about a plague that turns humans and aliens into rabid zombies. The concept seemed to fascinate the fandom. A video teaser contest was even held in anticipation for the book. Then on December 28, a prequel called Red Harvest was released. Harvest lets readers in on the origin story of the plague, and how it originated in a Sith temple thousands of years before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope. Like it’s predecessor, Red Harvest is a New York Times best-seller.
But Schreiber’s work isn’t exclusive to Star Wars. He’s published three original horror novels: Eat The Dark, Chasing the Dead and No Doors, No Windows. In spring 2010, his book Supernatural: The Unholy Cause was released, based on the popular CW show.
Schreiber is a man who knows his horror, and Primary Ignition recently corresponded with him via email to talk Star Wars, zombies, and just what scares HIM…
1. Your blog is called The Scary Parent. I have to ask…is that just a cool title, or a name affectionately given by the wife and kids?
The blog was started as a place to put the scary stories I told my kids, back in 2006…a long time ago. It just stuck. I don’t even tell scary stories to my kids anymore — they now prefer stories about 50s-era pop culture alternate history with aliens and government agencies, most of which I make up while driving them to music class or sleepovers. Sometimes I think about changing it, but then I realize how much lazier I’ve become since then and decided, I guess I can just stay scary.
2. Talk to me about your background a bit. When did you first discover you had a talent for writing, horror writing nonetheless?
I don’t know about discovering the talent. I basically discovered the desire to write stories a long time ago, and I found out how much gratification I got out of writing — I’d read echoes of it in essays by guys like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison, who talked about writing like some holy, all-consuming mission that they really didn’t have much choice about, and I identified with that. I didn’t really care who read my stories, or even how good they were at first…I just wanted to lose myself in something that I cared more intensely about than anything I’d ever discovered before or since. I was reading a ton of Stephen King around this time too and he also had a lot to say about the process of being a writer and what it meant to more or less discover this involuntary story-making machine in your head. It struck me then, as now, that it was a very romantic idea of giving yourself up to the creative process entirely. The whole horror thing, though, was more of an afterthought — I was writing crime stories, melodrama, short Super 8 movies (yes, I am that old), even poetry and plays. It was ultimately the horror that got published and then like that, I was a horror writer.
3. Thanks to Death Troopers and Red Harvest, you’re now a two-time New York Times best-selling author. Was that a goal you’d set for yourself as an author, or just one of those things that would happen be cool if you got it? What’s it like to carry that title?
It was really exciting because even before Death Troopers came out, there was a ton of buzz about the book. Somebody told me that Shelly Shapiro, my editor at Del Rey, and a kind of goddess figure in this whole universe, works from her home office up in Maine, and they said, “Well, when every single one of your writers is a New York Times best-seller, you can work wherever you want.” And I was like, gulp. Because you don’t want to be the one who breaks the streak, you know what I mean? I got back from the Death Troopers tour and got an email saying guess what, you’re on the list. I was out with my family for dinner and I just about started crying like a little girl, because that’s how I roll.
4. Your book jacket says you’ve got several original Star Wars action figures. What’s the crown jewel of your collection?
I’ve got a Chewie with the original blaster and everything. All my original collection is long gone, so these are ones that I bought back on eBay, and it’s pretty limited. I’ve got a Boba Fett I’m pretty fond of too. None of it holds a candle to the original 18” Kenner Alien doll with original packaging that my wife bought me a few years ago. If I’ve got a crown jewel, it’s that one — I’ve wanted it since I was 10.
5. In order to get into Red Harvest, we’ve got to talk about Death Troopers. Before that book was released, you’d already established yourself with books like Chasing the Dead and No Doors, No Windows. Was Death Troopers something you’d originally pitched or something you were approached about? In general, how did that project come about?
My agent called one day and asked if I’d be interested in doing a Star Wars zombie novel. It sounded too good to be true. It turned out that my editor at the time, a guy named Keith Clayton, at Del Rey, was involved with the Expanded Universe and he and some other guys had basically been bullshitting at the bar at some convention and they were like, how about a Star Wars horror novel? Why don’t we ask Joe what he can come up with. And I was like, whoa, baby.
I did one outline which nobody liked in particular — it relied way too much on too many established characters and action and not enough atmosphere and frisson — and then I did a rewrite, and eventually it was like, this is it. This is what we want. Because of the process of getting it vetted by Lucas and Del Rey and everybody else, by the time I got the okay, I was dying to jump in and get writing. I think you can feel that on the page, the sense of this guy who’s just champing at the bit to get into the story.
6. To say the least, Death Troopers and Red Harvest are two of a great many places zombies have been popping up lately. What do you think it is about zombies that has the public so enthralled with them lately?
I guess if I had to posit a theory, I would say that zombies feed into a lot of the dark fascinations of modern culture, ideas about contagion and overpopulation, and our susceptability to viral threats, and just the general finicky and untrustworthy nature of all the good, modern conveniences that we naturally feel entitled to, being good citizens of the 21st century. We’re fascinated by how quickly all of this could be stripped away and how utterly screwed we’d be when the corpses start knocking out the cable and the internet and find their way into our gated communities and homes.
7. I remember there was a lot of anticipation for Death Troopers. I assume that’s because it was so different. That cover (by Indika Studios and David Stevenson) said it all. We were going someplace we’d never gone before. There was even a fan-made video teaser contest. Once the hype started to build, did you feel the pressure of living up to it?
Keith told me one piece of advice — stay off the boards. Don’t even read what they’re saying out there. It was great advice, and I tried to follow it. I still read the reviews when they came in, but I tried not to worry about it. That kind of pressure doesn’t bother me, actually. The pressure that gets to me is the pressure that I feel at the very beginning, when the page is blank and it’s just you and the screen down in the basement at 9 a.m. and you’re trying to find your way into the story, working on nothing but black coffee and blind faith. Now that’s scary.
8. One of the things that surprised me about Death Troopers was that about a hundred pages in, Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up. Were they always part of the story, or were they added later on?
Han and Chewie were actually a much bigger part of the original outline, and it was pointed out to me that the more I relied on established characters, the less the reader was going to worry about really bad things happening to them. Of course, this is absolutely right, and I went back and winnowed them down to where they are now — supporting characters, which is the way it should be.
9. Being a Star Wars fan yourself, was it at all nerve-wracking to work in a universe that so many people around the world love so much, writing characters like Han and Chewie? Or did part of you simply revert back to being that kid playing with his action figures?
Again, not that nerve-wracking at all. If you grow up with the movies, then you hear Harrison Ford’s voice in your head. You hear the droids. You hear the music, and you see the cold steel corridors and weird octagonal airlocks. It’s all there. So once I got the access codes right, it was basically playtime.
10. In Death Troopers, you introduced a zombifying sickness that grips an entire Star Destroyer. In Red Harvest, we learn where that sickness originated. When you wrote Death Troopers, did you already know where the sickness came from, when it was created, etc?
Not a clue. When I started writing Death Troopers, I didn’t know how that book was going to end. For me, a lot of the time, the outline is the thing I write to show people that I think I know what I’m doing — which is actually very rarely the case.
11. Red Harvest takes place in the “Sith Era,” a thousand years before Luke Skywalker or Han Solo are around. Characters like Darth Scabrous and Hestizo Trace are all new. Were you nervous about writing all new characters in a time period not quite as many fans are accustomed to reading about?
No, not really. My feeling is, if I can create a sympathetic and familiar group of characters, relationships that resonate with the reader on a comfortable and recognizable level, then it doesn’t really matter what era we’re dealing with. You can pick the most familiar era in pop culture history but if your people stumble around like bad claymation, doing and saying the things that the writer demands that they do and say, the result is going to suck regardless.
12. Is there a Star Wars character you’d love to write, but haven’t gotten the chance to yet?
Vader. Back when we didn’t know what era it was going to be set in, Red Harvest was being referred to as 28 DAYS VADER. (Then it became The Exorsith).
13. Judging from your Star Wars books, as well as Eat The Dark, you seem to really like trapping your characters in places they can’t escape from, with things that are out to get them. I would imagine that’s a scenario that puts a good amount of fear into you, as well. What does scare “The Scary Parent?”
Losing sight of my kids in a public place. Back in November we took a family trip to Europe and there were a few moments — just a few, thank God — where I suddenly realized I didn’t know one or the other had taken off to. Besides that, just the usual stuff, I guess…chemical weapons, politicians, angry teens with weapons fetishes, the odd noises that wake you up in the middle of the night wondering if it was just the house settling on its foundation.
14. You’ve got a young adult book coming out this fall, Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick. Can you tell us a bit about that?
It’s about a kid who discovers that the female foreign exchange student living in his house is actually an assassin with five targets to hit in New York City before she flies home. It’s the the John Hughes movie that Luc Besson never directed.
15. It seems like more and more “adult” authors, like James Patterson and Carl Hiaasen are dabbling in the world of YA books. Why do you think that is?
The market is — or used to be — wide open. It’s getting a bit crowded now. But there are still readers out there, and I think “adult” writers have started getting hip to the potential new audience, to varying success. I never thought of Au Revoir as a YA novel until my agent started shopping to YA imprints, and then it was like, I guess this is what I did. That’s how you find out what kind of writer you really are, it turns out…from the people who market you.
16. Planning to come back to the Star Wars universe again, soon? It’s hard to argue with two best-sellers.
That’s up to greater minds than mine at Lucasfilm and Del Rey. Both SW novels were written by invitation, and if they want another one, then I’ll be happy to oblige. So far, nothing’s been said.
17. Anything else you’d like to add? Anything else coming up that we can look forward to?
I’m writing the sequel to Au Revoir now, due out sometime in 2012. I’m also doing the screenplay adaptation of Ryan Brown’s high school zombie football movie Play Dead, which is supposed to start shooting sometime late this year, if I can get the thing done. We’ll see.
Click here to visit Joe Schreiber’s Amazon.com page.
Front page image from giantkillersquid.com.