Max Brooks

Max Brooks

Photo courtesy of Crown Publishing Group

Music Credit: “Desolation” composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.


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"The Zombie War came unthinkably  close to eradicating humanity. Driven by the need to preserve the first-hand experiences from those apocalyptic years while they still exist in living memory; Max Brooks traveled across the planet to find and record the testimony of men, women and sometimes children who came face to face with the living, or at least the undead. Hell of that terrible time. World War Z is the result. Some of these voices were chosen for the uniqueness of the perspectives and information they provide, others are included because they speak for hundreds of millions who were forever silenced. Never before have we had access to a recording that powerfully conveys the fear and horror and also the brave spirit of resistance that gripped human society through the plague years."

Jo Reed: That's opening of the audio book version of World War Z : An Oral History of the Zombie War. It was  written by my guest Max Brooks and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Each Halloween, it gets easier and easier to highlight good books dealing with spooks, zombies or vampires. You'd have to be dead or living under a rock not realize the cultural zeitgeist around the undead.  Well, writer Max Brooks is not a late arrival to this particular party.  He's been writing about Zombies for over a decade. The son of comedian and filmmaker Mel Brooks and actress Anne Bancroft, Max has written The Zombie Survival Guide, the hugely successful World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, a graphic novel based on the survival guide, called The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks and a comic book series about Vampires and Zombies called Extinction Parade. While Max Brooks is a genuine zombiephile, his writing does cast a wider, more diverse net: for example: he was a writer for Saturday Night Live for two years and he recently published a graphic novel called The Harlem Hellfighters about the World War 1  African American  Infantry Regiment. But wherever Max Brooks' writing may wander, he always circles back to  Zombies . I spoke with him recently and began with the obvious questions: why write about zombies?

Max Brooks:  I will begin with an obvious answer:  Fear.

Jo Reed:  Okay, and I'm glad you answered that way because I hate being scared and yours is the first zombie book I've ever read so that was a very interesting experience, but why choose to confront your fear that way?

Max Brooks:  Well I didn't choose to confront my fear. The fear was already there, sitting in the room. I am extremely OCD and when I'm obsessed with something it's just there so literally at some point I had to set my fear down and be like "Look. I can't get you to move out so we're going to have to establish some ground rules" and that was Zombie Survival Guide.

Jo Reed:  And it was always zombies.

Max Brooks:  There were many, many fears but zombies to me were particularly unique in that you didn't have to go find them in that every other sort of monster movie begins with a group of young, good-looking Caucasian Americans making a bad choice and looking for trouble whereas most zombie stories you can be minding your own business and it surges up around you and destroys the world. And I think for me that's also what makes zombies unique is that in a zombie plague you're just as likely to die from dehydration, starvation, infection, accidents as you are from ever confronting a zombie.

Jo Reed: Obviously, society has kind of followed you down the rabbit hole of zombie-ism. Why do you think we really have become so intrigued with the notion of these undead who eat us?

Max Brooks:  Without sounding I think too narcissistic I think in large respect the public at large their level of anxiety has caught up to where I always have lived. I think we're living in very uncertain times. I think there is a high level of uncertainty and anxiety among the general populace and we haven't seen that since the 1970s when there really was a feeling, subconscious and conscious, that the system was breaking down. And I think that's how people feel now and I think people need a place to explore those anxieties in what I consider a safe way because if you face the breakdown of society and it's too real then instinctively you want to turn away. And I think when you see a zombie story you're seeing the exact same thing you would see in a genuine outbreak or a Hurricane Katrina but because the catalyst of that is fictional you're able to examine it.

Jo Reed:  And process it and discuss it.

Max Brooks:  Exactly. If you go into a cocktail party and you say, "Hey, how would you guys all prepare for a zombie outbreak?" you could have a very lively, spirited, intelligent conversation about things like bottled water, first aid, having a radio, getting to know your neighbors and it would all be fun and easy but at the same time it would be real. Try that if you go to a cocktail party and say, "Hey, how are we all going to survive the next pandemic?" You're going to clear the room.

Jo Reed:  When did you begin writing the Zombie Survival Guide?

Max Brooks:  In the '90s.

Jo Reed:  In the '90s, and what was going on in the broader scheme of things that inspired that book particularly?

Max Brooks:  Y2K. I think that there was a growing anxiety that the good times inevitably had to come to a crashing halt and I think Y2K was where everybody put those fears and there was a lot of survivalist prepper mentality starting to bubble, and I always read that stuff anyway growing up in southern California and I was looking for a book, oh, how would I survive a zombie plague, and there was not one so I thought well, I'll just write it for me. I really never thought it was going to be published.

Jo Reed:  You kept on going and suddenly it was published and you were not so happy; the publisher put it under the heading of humor.

Max Brooks:  Yeah. That was a marketing decision which had nothing to do with me. I think that they didn't know what to make of this book. I think they thought well, clearly Brooks is not that much of a loser and a nerd and a weirdo that he's really thought about this. Clearly, he's doing it to make fun of those people and oh, by the way, he's Mel Brooks' son and he's just coming off a stint on SNL for which his team won the Emmy so clearly this is a work of witty satire to which I said to them, "No. I'm really that nerdy and uncool."

Jo Reed:  Yeah. There is no question that Zombie Survival Guide is a survival guide. It is very well researched and very well documented, which was one of the most surprising things for me as a reader. That was not what I expected.

Jo Reed:  No. It's funny. When the galley copies came out I was still on Saturday Night Live and a few of my friends there were flipping through it and one of the writers were saying, "Oh, I wanted to write a tech manual for Gilligan's Island, all the professor's inventions, ah ha ha ha," and another writer was flipping through it and his smile died and he looked at me and said, "This is a real book." And I said, "Yeah. This isn't a joke book."

Jo Reed:  Now you mentioned writing for Saturday Night Live. How did that happen? How did you end up there?

Max Brooks:  It really was a major detour. I was struggling, trying to make a living as a writer, and I ended up meeting with a family friend, George Shapiro, and all I wanted from that meeting was just some advice about what I was doing wrong. I think that's the question that every ingénue has to ask themselves is "I don't know what I don't know. Tell me where my mistakes are." Over the course of the conversation, he found out I wasn't taking money from my parents, I was trying to support myself, and I think I went up a notch in his mind and he said to me, "Do you write comedy?" And I said, "Well, I don't know. My agent made me write a sketch packet for Martin Short's pilot" and he said, "You know what? Give me that sketch packet. I'll give it to Loren Michaels" and I thought yeah, you do that, and then I got a call from Loren Michaels saying, "I want you to come to New York and meet with me." And I met with him and before I knew it I had the job.

Jo Reed:  And you were there for two years.

Max Brooks:  I was there for two seasons, yes.

Jo Reed:  What did you learn from that experience?

Max Brooks:  Oh, God. It was an incredible experience. I mean it was soul crushing and anxiety making and-- but that old expression "Adversity introduces us to ourselves"-- I got a crash course in me and sort of what I was good at, what I needed to work on, where my talents lie and really where my passions lie, and I really came out of that experience with a much better understanding of who I was than going in.

Jo Reed:  Was writing something you always wanted to do? Is that what you wanted to do when you were a kid?

Max Brooks:  Yes. Yeah. When I was 12 years old I was on vacation with my parents in Europe and in our little beach cabana I think in-- on the Adriatic I snuck into the back and I started writing a short story and I didn't come out for three days and I just never stopped writing. Every day since I've been writing.

Jo Reed:  What books were around your house? What books were read to you when you were a kid?

Max Brooks:  Well, it's funny. I think there's a lot of false assumptions about my family, particularly my mother. My mother was a closet scientist so she used to read to me a lot of science books and her favorite book was the Microbe Hunters about Leeuwenhoek and how he discovered the microscope, and my father 'cause he was in World War II I grew up on a lot of war stories. And my mother was a survivalist -- maybe the Depression, I don't know, maybe her own feelings of anxiety, but we always talked about our earthquake plans, our earthquake kits. So there was a very private life that I don't think the world wanted to see but that was my world with my parents.

Jo Reed:  And it was a world that had books in if not the center of it within a very close arm's reach?

Max Brooks:  Well you know what's funny is I'm very, very dyslexic and reading for me was always very difficult and I would not have gotten through high school had my mother not taken my school reading list every year to the Institute for the Blind and had them put on audio book so I listened to my reading list so yes, there were tons and tons of books around me but they were all audio books.

Jo Reed:  I love audio books and World War Z has a tremendous audio book.

Max Brooks:  And that's why, because when it came time for me to do an audio book of World War Z I said, "Listen, this lends itself to a book of interviews so let's get the best talent we can and really make this a classic 1930s radio production."

Jo Reed: And it succeeded; it really is brilliant.

Max Brooks:  Thank you.

Jo Reed:  You're welcome, and let's talk about World War Z. After Saturday Night Live did you immediately return to working on the zombies?

Max Brooks:  Yeah. Immediately after I was fired from SNL, Zombie Survival Guide came out and so that was my job for a little while was promoting this book and also trying to get it in the hands of the right people. Putting it in the comedy section really hamstrung it for a while because my people, my tribe, sci fi nerds, horror nerds, we're a very insecure lot and I knew that since they didn't know me they had the assumption that Mel Brooks' brat was making fun of them, and so I went to magazines like Fangoria and did zombie lectures where I tried to prove my worth and say, "No, no, no, I'm one of you."

Jo Reed:  You had to get up your sci fi creds.

Max Brooks:  Yeah, I literally had to get my street cred. It was like running for office. I had to say, "No, no, this is-- I am not making fun of the zombie genre. I am truly one of you" so that was a job for a little while, and then when it came time to write another zombie book that's where World War Z came from.

Jo Reed:  And from the beginning, it's told as an oral history, it has footnotes throughout it, and it's told from multiple points of view without one main narrator. Tell me why you used this model.

Max Brooks:  Well there was a holy trinity of wise men who inspired me to write this book a certain way. I mean I was into zombies so the first guy was George Romero. He inspired me to be afraid of zombies—

Jo Reed:  And George Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, which is probably the only horror movie I've ever seen in my life and probably explains why I will not see another.

Max Brooks:  Oh, it ain't got nothin' on his next movie, Dawn of the Dead. So Romero started it for me and it was because of Romero that I didn't want to write just a simple zombie adventure story 'cause in my mind Romero had already done it and had done a better job than I ever could have done. I wanted to tell a bigger story, a global story, and I thought how am I going to do that. And Studs Terkel was the second man in the trinity. His book, The Good War, was the template for World War Z and you-- and it was an oral history and you mentioned footnotes. That attention to detail came from a book-- it's little known now, it's called The Third World War by General Sir John Hackett, retired British general who in the '70s wrote a very dry strategic analysis of World War Three as if it had happened.

Jo Reed:  Well, you take us around the globe exploring how different cultures and governments dealt with or contributed to the zombie crisis.

Max Brooks:  Yes.That was very important to me because unlike most other monsters zombies are truly a global crisis and so whenever I would see a zombie story that had tactical-- a small group of people trying to survive I always had bigger questions, "What's the government doing? What are other governments doing?", and I just set out to answer these questions.

Jo Reed:  And again it becomes a meta-story for how governments and different societies respond to major crises.

Max Brooks:  Exactly. I truly believe in the times we're living in that there are no more local problems. I really do believe that what affects one part of the planet is going to eventually ripple through the rest of it and I think it's very important for greater cooperation and understanding on a global basis. I based the transference of the zombie virus on SARS; I thought that was a perfect template where you had a repressive government that censored the press and wouldn't even admit there was a problem until that problem showed up in Toronto.

Jo Reed:  Well, you take us around the globe exploring how different cultures and governments dealt with or contributed to the zombie crisis.

Max Brooks:  Yes.That was very important to me because unlike most other monsters zombies are truly a global crisis and so whenever I would see a zombie story that had tactical-- a small group of people trying to survive I always had bigger questions, "What's the government doing? What are other governments doing?", and I just set out to answer these questions.

Jo Reed:  And again it becomes a meta-story for how governments and different societies respond to major crises.

Max Brooks:  Exactly. I truly believe in the times we're living in that there are no more local problems. I really do believe that what affects one part of the planet is going to eventually ripple through the rest of it and I think it's very important for greater cooperation and understanding on a global basis. I based the transference of the zombie virus on SARS; I thought that was a perfect template where you had a repressive government that censored the press and wouldn't even admit there was a problem until that problem showed up in Toronto.

Jo Reed:  Fascinating. You sold your book to Brad Pitt and Plan B but they used the title but clearly there are two major, major differences, one, Brad Pitt and a very central character, and the second is those are zombies that move at the speed of light whereas you have very slow zombies.

Max Brooks: Yeah. Let's talk about both of these.

Jo Reed:  Yes, please.

Max Brooks: I'm glad you brought up this Brad Pitt-shaped elephant in the room. The movie has nothing in common with the book, I would say 99 percent of it. It has the title and then it has one character, the Israeli counter-Intel expert who made it in, and nothing else. So moving on, yes, one of the key differences is that it has Brad Pitt, which is incidentally why Brad Pitt was never on the cover of the movie Tie-In Edition. That is where I really slammed down my fist with Random House and I said, "You're not putting him on there." I have nothing against Brad Pitt as a human being, in fact I love his work, but his character, Gerry Lane, is not in my book and I'm not going to false advertise; I don't care how many books you think you're going to sell. And I said to them, "Look. I have said to Paramount that I would never boycott the movie but I am just crazy enough to boycott my own book" so that's why he's not in there because it goes against also the whole spirit of my book, which is there are no heroes, it's all of us being heroic, because I truly do believe that is how we solve big problems. We don't solve major problems with heroes; we solve them with all of us just being a little bit heroic.

Jo Reed:  And that goes right back to Studs Terkel and The Good War.

Max Brooks:  Exactly. He didn't interview Audie Murphy. He interviewed just the grunt on the ground, the person working in the factory, the POW, the civilian mother cowering under her table as the Luftwaffer (sic) bombed London, and I think that that is really how big problems get solved is all of us getting out of our comfort zone and just doing our job. And as far as the running zombies, that's very important to me because I specifically want my zombies slow and dumb and easily defeatable because therefore if they are not defeated it's because we do something wrong. I based that on growing up during the AIDS epidemic. It's a very hard virus to get. It's not airborne, it's not waterborne, it's not foodborne so how the hell did it spread the way it did? Well, it spread because we screwed up as individuals, as a society, as a government, as a planet, we let the genie out of the bottle and we're reaping the whirlwind, and that's why I wanted my zombies slow because it was-- let's face it. If zombies are super fast and super strong, well, then it's too easy; then you can make the right decisions and still be doomed. People ask me would I write a new Zombie Survival Guide for the zombies in Brad Pitt's movie and I said, "Yeah, it'd be a pamphlet and it would be called Make Friends with Brad Pitt or Else You're Dead."

Jo Reed:  <laughs> Or Abandon Hope, the end.

Max Brooks:  Or Abandon Hope, Kiss Your You Know What Good-bye. That literally would be my guide because for me it needs to be about making the right choices and doing what has to be done and it's just too easy to have these super zombies because then nothing can be done.

Jo Reed: Let's talk about some of your more recent projects. How about the comic book series called The Extinction Parade, which is based on a short story that you wrote a number of years ago. I'm just going to let you set up the background for The Extinction Parade.

Max Brooks:  Well, on the surface The Extinction Parade is about a zombie outbreak told through the eyes of vampires, very simple, vampires versus zombies instead of humans versus zombies. The vampires suddenly have to confront the fact that their one food source, the humans, are being eaten out from under them so what do they do, but that's not really what it's about. What it's about is the price you pay for privilege is when you are handed everything you are robbed of the survival mechanism. I truly do believe that for most of us and also as a species our greatest strengths come from compensating for our greatest weaknesses, but what if you had a species that was given everything. I like to say the vampires had bad parents, they had Father Time and Mother Nature, and these parents spoiled them and gave them all these amazing gifts, speed, strength, agility, the ability to heal rapidly, immortality. So they never had to work, they never had to struggle, they never had to strive, they never felt fear and loss and helplessness, and they were always at the top, and then suddenly comes this existential crisis, the zombie horde that is eating away their food source, can they adapt when they have no history of adapting, can they organize, prioritize when they have no history of doing any of that. And for me that's a deeply personal message because I grew up in an environment where children were very spoiled financially and now as a parent I find there's a whole new generation of young people that are being spoiled emotionally.

Jo Reed:  Can you say more about that?

Max Brooks:  Well, when I was growing up, we were the generation whose parents made it big financially and so they wanted us to have what they didn't have, but that robbed a lot of us of the life skills, the survival skills, the coping mechanisms of dealing with adversity because what I realized later in life obviously is adversity's going to come knocking; it doesn't matter how rich you are, how insulated you are, bad stuff is going to happen and if you don't deal with it and learn how to deal with adversity when you're younger you're going to be in no shape to deal with it when you're older. And now I've seen that sort of core group that I grew up with transfer into the general public where instead of money it's emotions. We now have the phrase "teacups," a generation of Millennials who are so fragile they've never been allowed to fail, they've never been forced to struggle, two kids' soccer teams play, they both get trophies, and we are raising a generation that is completely foreign to the notion of adversity and what's going to happen when adversity inevitably does come; how are these people going to cope.

Jo Reed: I think that's well observed. I also think I would add to that this sense that life somehow is fair and that's a hard lesson, but it's one that you need to get under your belt and the younger you do I think the better off you will be as you move forward through life.

Max Brooks:  Oh, God, yeah. Extinction Parade in part came from all my zombie lectures. I did all these lectures on college campuses and I met these kids and most importantly I met their advisers, and the stories I hear about parents calling professors and saying, "My kid deserves a better grade" or "You hurt my kid's feelings." My friends who are now in their forties, in the working world cannot hire twenty-somethings because these twenty-somethings literally can't take criticism. It's really affected me in that I say, "My God. Not only how are these people going to survive daily life but God forbid but what if their country needs them someday? What if the United States is faced with a great challenge and needs to ask of its citizens 'What's going to happen?'"

Jo Reed:  And do you have an answer? The Extinction Parade--

Max Brooks:  I don't know.

Max Brooks:  The-- that's-- my answer is The Extinction Parade, is I want to tell a story of what happens when a group which has always believed itself to be invincible is suddenly confronted with crisis because my vampires are arrogant and they are entitled and they are completely coddled and as apex predators at the top of the food chain they've never known fear and that's very important. I was speaking at Pitzer College where I graduated from and I said to these kids, "You have this expression 'epic fail.' What you don't know or what most of you might not know is that failing epically is a really good thing because if you don't fail epically you'll never learn from your mistakes and you'll never grow and you'll never know what needs to be worked on, and clearly my vampires have never had that until the zombie plague, and is it too late? I don't know. We'll see in the later issues.

Jo Reed: You grew up in a home with privilege. Your parents were both quite famous, renowned and I'm assuming quite well-to-do. How were you able to avoid that sense of entitlement?

Max Brooks:  I think the dyslexia probably was the best thing that ever happened to me because it showed me that all the money in the world is not going to help me pass my classes. There were my parents, hugely successful icons. I was never hungry; I was never cold; I never had to get a job; I never had to do anything. Everything was just right there in front of me yet when the chips were down I had to study with a tutor several hours a night to come in and hopefully scrape by with a C- while the kids around me who barely studied would come in and breeze by with a B+. And that had a profound effect on me and it taught me to be comfortable with working hard so now as an adult if I'm confronted with a situation where I have to work extremely hard I already have experience in that field.

Jo Reed:  Well let's get back to The Extinction Parade. It's a series of 12 comics?

Max Brooks:  It's 12 and maybe 13. I just heard from my editor that one issue is so long we may have to chop it in half. But yes. It's a limited issue. It's not going to be open-ended. I know exactly how this thing ends. I've outlined every single script. We know where this is going.

Jo Reed:  Does it carry forth from the short story that you wrote?

Max Brooks:  Yeah. It goes a lot deeper into the psychology of the vampire because it's a journey of self-discovery. Every time these vampires come up against a new challenge they realize something about themselves, they realize a new flaw that they didn't even know they had.

Jo Reed:  And you also came out with a graphic novel about the Harlem Hellfighters.

Max Brooks:  Yes, that's a 15-year endeavor for me.

Jo Reed:  Tell us about that because the Harlem Hellfighters were a real black regiment that fought in World War I and you are giving us a fictionalized account of them.

Max Brooks:  Yes, and if you want to talk more about overcoming adversity nobody has more experience than the Harlem Hellfighters. When I say "fictional" what I mean is it's certain characters I made up mixed with certain characters who are real and everything they go through either really happened or is based on something that really happened. I really tried to stay as close to the truth as possible while at the same time making it interesting especially for young readers but yes, it's a story that's meant a lot to me that there was a unit of American soldiers that I think was purposefully set up to fail by their own government and the fact that they ended up fighting with the French army instead of the Americans because the American army wouldn't let them in combat. To then fight with the French army and come home as one of the most decorated units in the whole U.S. army is a phenomenal achievement. There have been stories before about black servicemen in combat, but this unit, black or white, has an unbelievable combat record. The first American to win the French Croix de Guerre, black or white, was one of them. They were in combat longer than any other American unit, black or white. They were the first to reach the Rhine River, black or white. At one point during the Kaiser's last attempt to take Paris in their sector there was nothing between the German army and Paris but these guys and they stopped the Germans dead cold so, race aside, their combat record is unbelievable. And I thought I want to tell this story and I wrote it as a movie script in the '90s and guess what. Hollywood didn't want to do it; they had done Glory; they had made their black film-- their black soldier film. And I got into comic books and I said, "You know what? This is a great way to tell the story, make it visual, and I don't have to go through Hollywood."

Jo Reed:  And it also really opens the door for younger people to be able to learn about this at an early age.

Max Brooks:  Yeah, and I think that's really important for young people because there are plenty of history books about the Harlem Hellfighters now but I think for young people comics are a great way of educating. I can tell you as a kid one of the first books I ever read was a sailor story by Sam Glanzman about being on a destroyer in World War II. Comics educated me, Art Spiegelman educated me about the Holocaust with Maus, so I think it's a wonderful teaching tool and I think it's grossly underappreciated at this point.

Jo Reed:  Max Brooks, honestly I am not a convert to zombie movies or zombie novels but I have become converted to your work and I look forward to the next one; I truly do.

Max Brooks:  Thank you very much.

Jo Reed: I appreciate your approach because it's not the cheap thrill; it's the meta-story.

Max Brooks:  Thank you. You try. You do the best you can and you hope people pick up on it. That's all you can hope for. Thank you.

Music Up

Jo Reed:  That was Max Brooks. We were talking about Zombies and survival. Most particularly his book World War Z.  Max Brooks' most recent non-zombie publication is the graphic novel, The Harlem Hellfighters. You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Max Brooks, author of World War Z, really isn’t kidding when it comes to zombies.