Interview: May 2010
Charlie Higson --- best known for his Young James Bond books --- has launched a new series of horror novels for young adults beginning with THE ENEMY, which centers on a group of children spared from an epidemic that turns its victims into brainless, blood-thirsty creatures.
In this interview with Teenreads.com’s Sarah Wood, Higson discusses one of the book’s rather surprising influences and elaborates on its children-vs.-adults motif ---- a theme that can be traced all the way back to mythology and fairy tales. He also explains some of the minor differences between the US and UK editions of the novel, reflects on what he finds particularly captivating about zombies in pop culture, and hints at what readers can expect from the sequel, THE DEAD.
Teenreads.com: One of the things I really enjoyed about THE ENEMY is the range of conflicts it portrays. The children don’t just fight infected adults, they fight with each other. I think there are strong comparisons between this book and LORD OF THE FLIES. Can you tell us about your influences in writing this book?
Charlie Higson: Funnily enough, Lord of the Rings was as much of an influence on my book as LORD OF THE FLIES. I think on the whole, THE ENEMY is more optimistic about kids than Golding’s book (he hated children!). As they set off on their quest, I wanted my gang to be a mismatched group of friends who ultimately look after each other, despite their differences --- like The Fellowship of the Ring --- rather than a vicious squabbling rabble who fall apart and become savages like the ones in LORD OF THE FLIES. Yes, they come up against another “bad” kid with warped ambitions to rule London, and they are reluctantly forced to fight other kids, but in the end they stick together and deal with it. They are ultimately stronger than the other kids because of their unity and friendship. In any society there is good and bad, but at least my kids do try and create a society. I wanted to portray a positive image of kids, who are often given a bad press these days, and show how, left to themselves, they’re not as useless and anti-social as they’re sometimes painted. I think what Golding failed to acknowledge was that, yes, kids can be pretty awful, but adults can be far worse!
I also want the series to have an epic adventure quality to it, likeLord of the Rings, which starts small and domestic and keeps expanding and deepening until it’s about saving the world itself. I love that in a book --- the idea that you’re going on a journey, and when you get to the end and look back you can't quite believe the amount of ground you’ve covered. “How did I start there and end up here?”
I think my other influences are pretty obvious --- there are the zombie movies that I love, plus the original book of I AM LEGEND (written in the 1950s). Then there’s heroic adventure fiction like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and all the great myths and legends of the classical world that I grew up on.
TRC: The kids in THE ENEMY start out in a Waitrose supermarket and then gradually make their way through various parts of London, ending with Buckingham Palace. London is very present here. How did you choose the settings, and how might the book be different if it were set in another place?
CH: The story would work equally well in New York, Tokyo, Paris or Mumbai, it just happens that I live in London and love writing about the city (I wrote four London-based crime stories for adults in the early ’90s, and one of my Bond books --- DOUBLE OR DIE --- is very firmly set in London). I like to be completely realistic and specific when I write, and if possible, write about things and places I am familiar with. Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bondbooks, always said that if you can get the ordinary, everyday details right, the basic facts and figures, the cars and boats and planes, the food, the roads, the buildings, etc. you can get away with the more outrageous fantasy stuff. It’s the same with THE ENEMY --- it’s pretty high concept --- all the adults have turned into zombies! So if I can bed that fantasy in as real a word as possible, I think it makes it more believable and frightening. You can follow the actions of my characters as they fight their way around London step by step if you like. Who knows, maybe one day they'll do THE ENEMY walking tours.
TRC: There are several mysteries in THE ENEMY. One is what caused the illness. Another is if kids will become infected as they age. In the UK version of the book, the disease appears to infect kids older than 14. In the US version, the age appears to have been raised to 16. Why the difference? Are there any other changes between these editions?
CH: The book is told from the point of view of the kids --- we never know more than they do --- so until they find out what happened the reader won’t find out either. It gives scope for more revelations as the series progresses and means we are right there with the characters in the story struggling to cope.
Book 2 shows whether or not they get the disease when they get older (You’ll have to read it to find out, though). Some other questions get answered along the way as well.
As for the age difference --- I originally wanted the kids to be no older than 14/15, as I thought that 16/17 year-olds are almost adults, but the American publishers wanted to aim the books at an older teenage audience and thought my kids were a little too sophisticated for 14-year-olds (who knows, maybe Brit kids are!), so they asked me to change the ages. It’s not a problem, the story works just as well. They know the market better than me. Ironically, though, they also toned down some of the gore and violence. You yanks are such wimps! If any US readers want the full hardcore version, they should order the UK edition. On top of that, a few minor English terms were changed to make the story understandable for you Americans, but in the end, it’s very much the same book.
TRC: THE ENEMY has many compelling characters: Small Sam, who finds that size does not determine one’s level of bravery; Maxie, who discovers she doesn’t have to use brutality to be a wartime leader; and Achilleus, who realizes he prefers the bonds of loyalty to those of sheer force. As readers learn bits about people’s lives before the disease, it becomes apparent that these conflicts have brought out not just the worst in people, but also the best in them. How did you develop your characters? Were there any surprises among them as you were writing the book?
CH: I started writing the book with a large group of characters, not sure which ones would be most useful to me, which ones would come alive, which ones I would have to kill off. I wanted girls and boys, older and younger, fighters and non-fighters, as wide a range as possible. Because there’s a lot of them, I also tried to define each one by what they did so that they were easier to remember. Achilleus = best fighter. Arran = leader. Callum = lookout, and so on. As the writing progressed, the characters let me know how useful they were, whether they should live or die or even be written out of the book altogether. Some characters were lost, some were amalgamated, and others pushed their way to the front. When I’d finished, I read it to my kids and we discussed whether I’d got it right; unfortunately, these discussions led to another couple of characters biting the dust! It was quite tough killing characters I loved. It’s hard work creating believable, walking, talking, breathing characters who come alive on the page. When you kill them, all that hard work is gone. I also like it that at the beginning of THE ENEMY you don’t know who are the important characters and who will make it to the end alive --- it creates tension, and I like it when a minor character moves into the spotlight as others unexpectedly die. But I was left at the end of the book with what I hope is an interesting bunch of girls and boys that the reader cares about and wants to follow on future adventures.
They’re not all saints, though, and they have some complexities, just like real people. What I love about Achilleus, for instance, is that although he is in many ways the most heroic character in the book, he’s also a pain in the butt.
TRC: One thing that has always struck me about the zombie phenomena is the commentary that often accompanies them. THE ENEMY shares elements with 28 Days Later…, the film about a viral infection that turns people into zombies. There is also George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, which is often cited for its portrayals of zombies as mindless consumers. What is it about zombies that capture the popular imagination? What about zombies interests you?
CH: I just find them very, very scary. It’s the fact that they’re mindless and unstoppable. You can't reason with them and slowly, slowly they will wear you down and eat you. The fact that they were once human, they were once your brother or your sister, your mother, your girlfriend… That’s nasty, when someone you love changes and tries to kill you, and once you’re dead, or even while you’re still alive, they will eat you. They are perfect villains for an action book because you can do what you like to them. They are no longer human. By the way, the “monsters” in 28 Days Later… and in Romero’s films are never referred to as zombies.
TRC: One of the things I really enjoyed about THE ENEMY was the variety of survival techniques demonstrated by the various characters. It isn’t just the strong who survive, but the clever, the fast, the small, the good at hiding, etc. I thought this was an excellent technique to engage readers with their own strategies for survival. What would your strategy for survival be if you were attacked by zombies?
CH: I was trying to make the point that you need more than just mindless violence to get by in this mean old world. My own strategy for survival would be to run and just keep on running. I’m a useless fighter.
TRC: I was struck immediately by the use of “mothers” and “fathers” as generic terms to describe the zombie-like infected adults. There is something horrific about a term for familial relationships turning into a term for monsters. Literature for young people is often cited as having absent or antagonistic adult characters, but THE ENEMY takes the relationship to a whole new level with parents who actually devour their children in their diseased state. What are your thoughts about this issue in children’s literature generally, or in your book particularly?
CH: Yeah, it’s kids vs. adults. But this is nothing new. It goes right back to Greek mythology and fairy tales, the Bible, even. It’s part of the human experience. It’s about growing up. There are many myths and folk tales that start with a king or similar being warned that a child has been born who will one day rise up and overthrow him. It’s the set-up of Clash of the Titans. It’s the massacre of the innocents (good title for one of my books) in the Bible, and it’s the same theme as a wicked stepmother trying to kill a girl who she fears will be more beautiful than her. Usually the children somehow get away and the prophecy comes true. It all stems from the fact of life that for the young to take their place in the world they have to get rid of the old, and for the old to hang on to their place they have to kill the young. Cronos, the king of the titans, first killed his own father, Uranus, and was then warned that his own children would rise up and replace him on Mount Olympus, so he set about eating them --- but Zeus’s mother tricked Cronos into eating a stone instead of the baby, who later on came back and poisoned him. It was the only way that Zeus could end up as king of the Gods. So there are many, many old stories about adults eating children. Think of Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk (fee fi of fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman, be he alive or be he dead I’ll grind his bones to make my bread…) The giants, the ogres, the witches, the grown-ups, they all want to eat the children. In the end though, the kids always win.
TRC: Along with being a ripping action novel, THE ENEMY has lots of intertextual elements. There are references to other classic youth novels, including THE HOBBIT, PETER PAN, ALICE IN WONDERLAND, and fairy tales like Jack the Giantkiller. There are also lots of cultural references to current video games and television shows, making the book feel both timeless and very immediate. Why did you decide to include these elements, and how do you think your books will age?
CH: We are immersed in popular culture like never before, it’s all around us and there’s no escaping it. I hate books that are vague about this kind of thing, or misinformed about video games or movies. Some writers try not to be too specific about cultural objects in the hope that their books won’t date, but they date anyway. Books age quickly unless they’re fantasy books set in a mythical made-up world, which is why fantasy stories published years ago are still so popular. So if you’re going to date anyway, why not be precise with your cultural references? I hate it when characters in a book do something like “go and see the latest George Clooney movie”. Nobody in life does that --- it’s too vague; they’ll go and see a specific film, like Up in the Air.
I know my books will age. The slang will all soon be out of date. I guess I’ll just have to say the series is based in an alterative reality when a great disaster happened in, say, 2010. Either that or I’ll update it all in 10 years’ time!
In the end I just thought I’d try to make it relevant to readers today and not worry too much about the readers of tomorrow. When he wrote A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, Anthony Burgess wanted to create a story about teenagers that would be relevant to any generation in any time, so he made up his own teenage slang, but the result is that somehow the book is completely stuck in the 1960s, even more so than if he’d used slang from the time. He managed to make his book more ’60s than the actual ’60s!
TRC: Your website and most of the marketing materials for THE ENEMY include the warning, “Contains strong language and scenes of violence.” Did you have any concerns about appropriateness of the level of gore or violence while writing this book?
CH: If it was down to my kids, there’d be loads more gore and violence! They’re typical boys. They love all that stuff. Splatter, blood, death, sick, gross… I was the same when I was their age, and I'm a very mild-mannered non-violent person. In the end the setup of THE ENEMY is fantasy --- we’re not going to be overrun with “zombies” and have to fight off marauding mothers and fathers, so there’s a certain license to go over the top. There is a strong morality in my stories too, a sense of right and wrong, and they very clearly show that violence is wrong and destructive and that death is an awful thing. In the end, though, I’m competing for a reader’s attention with Hollywood action movies and video games like Left 4 Dead. I want to give the kids who read my books the same kind of intensity. THE ENEMY is also not really any more violent than the original Greek myths that I loved to read when I was a kid.
TRC: You are also known for writing the Young James Bondseries. What originally drew you to write books for young people?
CH: I was offered the James Bond gig out of the blue, and, being a huge Bond fan, plus having three boys of my own, it was a dream job. To write something my kids might like and also be part of the world of Bond --- I couldn’t say no. I had no idea if kids would like my books but thought it was worth a go. Thank God the books have been popular because I’ve found I really love writing for this age group. It’s very rewarding, and you can have a lot of fun. I’ve done thrillers for kids, so now I'm doing horror for kids.
TRC: I read somewhere that you did your thesis on the films of David Cronenberg. You are clearly a fan of horror. Do you have a favorite zombie or horror movie?
CH: Favorite zombie movies --- Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead. I also love Shivers and Videodrome(Cronenberg), monster movies like The Thing and Alien, plus classics like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre… but the scariest of them all, and my absolute favorite, is Don’t Look Now --- a stunning film.
TRC: THE ENEMY ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. Will there be a sequel, and what can we expect from it? Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
CH: I’m afraid the reader will be left dangling off that cliff a little while longer. The sequel, THE DEAD, will be out in the UK in September, but it follows a different group of kids trying to survive in London after the disaster. As it develops, we see how their story starts to intertwine with the story of the kids from THE ENEMY. I think readers will find it quite unexpected but also a blast. More zombies! More blood! More flesh-eating!