Hope, Change & Zombies

On the road with author Isaac Marion, the man who gave the walking dead free will.

People are obsessed with zombies, but people don’t care about zombies.

They’re not supposed to. Zombies wander aimlessly, hungry for human flesh. And brains—willing to do anything to get them. The zombie feels nothing and fears nothing. It’s not only not human, it’s inhuman—a thing so antithetical to our being that it cannot receive empathy.

That’s what Hollywood has taught us anyway.

* * * 

In 1968, director George A. Romero introduced the modern zombie in Night of the Living Dead. The film captured the imagination of a nation in the grips of massive social change, cowering in the shadow of the bomb. Sequels and spin-offs followed and the zombie flick became a film convention with a devout cult audience. Then, after a brief hiatus in the ’90s, zombies returned with a vengeance for the anxiety-laden 21st century. Mainstream movies like 28 Days Later and Zombieland filled film-studio  spin on post-apocalyptic survival. Last year The Walking Dead, a sort of soap opera with lots of massive head trauma, became one of the most popular television shows in the country. The zombie, a stand-in for our greatest fears, has made the jump from fringe to mainstream and shows no sign of slowing.

All of these stories stick to the same basic plot: Zombies swarm, survivors fight for their lives. When a man kills a zombie, he feels no remorse. Those who hesitate, or who might empathize with the ghouls, are portrayed as naïve at best, sinister at worst. They are definitely weak and almost always doomed.

Isaac Marion is one of those weaklings. And right now the 30-year-old author is in the driver’s seat, guiding a big blue 1977 GMC Birchaven RV nicknamed Baleen from Seattle, where he lives, through the flatlands of Eastern Washington. Marion’s destination is Missoula, Mont., where he’ll stop briefly before heading south to points unknown. There’s nothing waiting for him in Missoula. It’s just a place to go while he imagines the world through a zombie’s eyes.

Marion’s first novel, Warm Bodies, was published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster in 2010. It has since been translated into dozens of languages and has found a devoted following among the living, despite the fact that it’s told from the perspective of a very dead zombie. Next month an adaptation of the book will be released as a feature film, directed by Jonathan Levine, who was most recently attached to 50/50, a critically acclaimed, unorthodox comedy about a young cancer patient. Readers have embraced Warm Bodies, posting fan art online and sending Marion myriad questions about the future of the story’s heroes. Late last year, Marion gave them what they wanted, if somewhat begrudgingly.

“There’s something uncool about writing sequels,” he wrote in an October blog post. “None of the writers whose careers I hope to emulate have done it—in serious literary circles, it just isn’t done. The thing is, I am writing a sequel.”

Marion has the general idea for part two. As with all of his stories, he’s prewritten most of it in his head. He knows what happens to survivors of the story’s first volume—he just doesn’t know how it happens.

“I usually figure that part out by some form of solitude,” he says as the fields of Eastern Washington skitter by, his lanky frame curled into the bucket seat of the RV. “Running and driving are perfect because there are no distractions, but there’s enough stimulation. I watch the scenery go by, and that keeps my left brain occupied, and then I kind of space out and daydream.”

* * * 

Marion hadn’t planned on making monsters for a living. Back in 2006, he was a young artist living in Mount Vernon, Wash., with no particular direction, conducting a number of artistic experiments. He played Theremin in a rock ’n’ roll band. He painted canvases with silhouetted figures falling through a monotone world. And he wrote stories. Marion enjoyed writing creative short fiction, especially point-of-view exercises. He wrote a story from the point of view of a cat. He wrote about the life of a stoplight. And then, on a whim, he wrote a story from the point of view of a zombie.

“I am a zombie,” he wrote, “and it’s not so bad. I’m learning to live with it. I’m sorry I can’t properly introduce myself, but I don’t have a name anymore. Hardly any of us do. We forget them, like anniversaries and PIN numbers.”

Marion posted the story, titled “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love,” on his website and didn’t think much of it. It was simply another entry in a very thick portfolio he’d been working on for a dozen years. He jokes that his career as a writer has gone in reverse: He started by writing a 1,100-page epic—at age 14.

That story began as a homespun role-playing game Marion invented for a group of friends during his early teens. It eventually became two volumes: The Birth of Light and The Birth of Dark. The books told the tale of a reluctant hero who battles through a series of fantastical challenges. There was no deep meaning to the plot, Marion says, but the story helped him make sense of his family’s Christian faith. His father was a pastor, as was his brother-in-law, and it was important to Marion that he also believe. But the scripture his family followed didn’t make sense to him. So Marion invented his own and then wove it into fantasy.

“I created this fictional religion that was loosely based on Christianity, but resolved all of the logical conflicts that I found in Christianity,” Marion says. “I created a new theology that I could accept rationally.”

At 17 Marion moved out of his parents’ house in Arlington and lived on his own in Mount Vernon. He chose to forego a college education and began writing his next novel instead. For four years he worked on The Inside, a story about a young man living in Mount Vernon who shuns his waking life for a better one found in his dreams. The book was a leap forward from The Birth of Light, but it was still a mess.

“Every new epiphany I had as a teenager I would put in there,” Marion says. “So it was constantly expanding and changing. I kept restarting it and rethinking it. It took me a while to figure out how to make a story interesting without adding a monster or having spells whenever it gets dull.”

It was after finishing his third book at 22 that Marion started focusing on his short stories. Then something unexpected happened. A talent scout named Cori Stern came across Marion’s website, read his work and wanted to help him find a larger audience. Marion sent her The Inside, but Stern had no luck selling it. She’d read his short story “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love” and suggested Marion turn it into a novel.

Marion accepted the challenge, but it wasn’t easy. “I Am a Zombie” was a clever exercise that ends with the hero accepting his fate to wander the Earth without purpose, without recourse. It was a fine arc for a brief piece of existentialist literature, but when he set out to turn it into a novel, Marion knew his zombie needed to do something in order to support 300 pages of attention. He knew his zombie needed to change.

He was beginning to realize that he needed to change as well. Marion owed a portion of the pessimism in “I Am a Zombie” to a Christian worldview that was focused on the End Times.

“As a kid and as a teenager I was really depressed by that,” Marion says. “I remember wondering why we were just sitting in a ditch, waiting for this to happen. There is no point in caring.”

Around that time, while writing Warm Bodies, Marion began to shed the last vestiges of his former belief. As he did, his zombie story grew from one of accepted despair to one of exceptional hope. By the beginning of 2009, he had finished the story.

Stern immediately found a buyer for the manuscript. But it wasn’t a publisher, which would come later. Instead, a movie producer, Bruna Papandrea, was the first to bite, optioning Warm Bodies for future production and quickly shopping it to Summit Entertainment. Last month, a trailer for Warm Bodies screened nationwide before the final installment of the teen vampire series Twilight, also a Summit Entertainment production.

In that trailer, Marion’s zombie narrator R, played by a young handsome actor in grayface, falls in love with his next meal, a shotgun-wielding girl named Julie. As Julie empties her weapon of its final shell, R stops his slaughter. The opening strums of “With a Girl Like You” by the Troggs begin. The zombie’s heart—a presumably dead and useless organ—beats one solitary thump.

This plot twist doesn’t sit well with self-appointed zombie purists who view Marion’s zombie-human love affair as blasphemy. Their anger is focused on the story’s turning point: Faced with feelings of love, R chooses to suppress his appetite for human flesh. He expresses that most unzombie of things, free will.

“How could you?” one concerned fan wrote to Marion. “You RUINED zombies. I just wanted to say I hate you and I can probably say everyone hates you.”

“Dafuq?” wrote another. “Pretty sure zombies were never meant to become teen sex symbols.”

And another: “Go burn in a pit of fire. You ruined zombies.”

Marion is sanguine about this response. He even shares some of these criticisms at public readings. He’s responded to the backlash by defending his decision to insert a higher hope into a modern mythology that rarely rises above mere survival.

“On the surface, my zombies are traditional zombies,” Marion says, his placid visage cracking to reveal a hint of frustration. “They behave exactly like the George Romero zombies: They appear to be mindless, they eat people, they do all the cliché zombie stuff. The only difference is that you usually don’t see it from the zombie’s perspective. For all you know, the zombies you see in those movies are just as eloquent and self-aware as R. But you never find out because they never reach the point where they can choose to be more than that.”

* * *  

Look over there,” Marion says, pointing to a burst of sunlight breaking onto a valley in Western Montana. “There is some majesty.”

Marion’s mind is always running, scouring the landscape for absurdities in need of commentary, curiosities in need of elocution, assumptions in need of debunking. Warm Bodies conveys Marion’s eye for detail and sharp wit, but on our drive he’s not particularly funny. His comments and questions are matter of fact. His mind is hunting for something. As we scoot past the town of Haugan, he looks at a cluster of small houses surrounded by wilderness. “What’s it like to be an 18-year-old kid in one of these tiny towns?” he says. “I would think you would want to break out so badly.”

Marion’s ability to empathize with teenagers is perhaps the greatest key to his success. His legion of fans is largely school-aged. Parents and English teachers have written to thank him for giving their children a book they love. The thing is, Marion didn’t intend for kids to read his book.

Marion views Warm Bodies as a mature work of fiction. That’s how it’s labeled by his publisher. Yet much of the literary world has designated the work as Young Adult fiction, pointing to the mix of monsters and romance, as well as a laudatory cover blurb from Twilight author Stephanie Meyer. Many have placed Warm Bodies in the same YA arena as mega-hit literary series like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Twilight. The association will likely make Marion wildly successful. But it also makes him uncomfortable.

“It’s a frustrating thing to me because no one seems to know what the label means,” he says. “It attracts some people and it alienates some people.”

Marion has stumbled into the red-hot center of pop culture, but he knows that what he does with the attention is his choice to make.

“This sequel is going to be not necessarily more literary, but more complex, less easily digestible,” he says as he grips the steering wheel, staring at the road ahead. “I hope people are willing to embrace the idea of a really silly premise and a tongue-in-cheek idea, executed in a very serious way. For the next two or three years, this is all I’ll be known for. And I’m gonna continue to defensively explain to people that it is a zombie novel, but it’s not what you think.”


Photo by Dylan Priest.