A lucid dream is a notable event. The dreamer watches him or herself dream; he or she may control the dream. Only one in nine women and men are lucid dreamers.
Lori Blaine, the hero of “Lucid,” by Jay Bonansinga (below), is a lucid dreamer. Her dream involvement scares her. The world she wakes up to grows direr each day, too; she’s concerned.
“Horror is my long-standing interest,” says Bonansinga. He’s also writes for “The Walking Dead” novels. The story of this high school misfit, Lori, from a single-parent home, he says, “is a quiet, creepy story, mostly surreal, as she tries to discover how her dreams fit her real-life.”
On Amazon, Linda Polacek writes that “Lucid” is a great, easy read. The imagination, of the writer, his attention to detail impresses S Stearn. Ari Quinn writes that when you think you have the crazy world of Lori figured out, the next page throws you for a loop.”
Jay Bonansinga is most widely known for his “Walking Dead” novels; “Lucid” is original material. Does he mind that his alliance with Robert Kirkman, on “Walking Dead,” brings him more attention than does his own work? “Nope,” says Bonansinga, as he asks for more caviar and champagne.
He’s elated to be the zombie writer. “Is there more lobster,” he asks. He’s written roughly half a million words on zombies, in the last few years. “Truth,” Bonansinga says, “is I never gave up developing my own material.”
Bonansinga is now on a three-year timeline for “Walking Dead.” Novels, comic books, television shows and video games are in progress. “I know more ways to blow pink goo out the back of a human head than did Sam Peckinpah. I must find more ways.”
Jay Bonansinga is a superb harmonica player. “Writing and the harmonica are similar. You try. You try. You try. One day you wake up, the story is in the forefront of your mind or you’re bending harmonica reeds to get the blues of ‘Little Walter,’” says Bonansinga.
The harmonica and writing are existential and experiential. Both begin with one woman or one man taking up the instrument or sitting in front of a keyboard. Then each tells his or her story through the harmonica or the keyboard.
The result is a unique telling of a story, usually a life story, in music or prose. The musician and the writer express themselves, as they wish. “If others enjoy what either expresses, that is, if an audience forms, great,” says Bonansinga, “but it’s not necessary.”
Bonansinga is a disciplined writer. Five days a week, he writes six pages. He wears a jacket and tie while he writes.
“The writing is always with you,” he says. At the dinner table, taking a walk, the writer thinks of what she or he is writing. “I understand the urge to nano-write,” says Bonansinga, “but I resist it or burn out.”
In this conversation, Jay Bonansinga talks of “The Walking Dead,” his original material, playing harmonic and writing.
Grub Street (GS) What do you believe is the main point of your new book, “Lucid”?
Jay Bonansinga (JB) “Lucid” deals with the power of the imagination. Over the years, many artists have influenced me. One major influence is Terry Gilliam.
GS He’s part of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
JB Yes, much of his work is about how, in the end, the imagination wins. Although his movies are often downbeat, in the end, something survives. In “Brazil,” a Gilliam film that takes place in grimy, dystopian world, the main character maybe catatonic, at the end, but not lost.
Although the happy conclusion is a delusion, the main character is humming a sweet little tune, as the movie ends. He has a huge smile on his face. At least in his imagination he has won.
GS I didn’t realise why I liked “Brazil,” but now I know. Imagination wins. I love that.
JB You can’t peel the imagination away from the character or any person. Literally, then, “Lucid” is the story of a talented lucid dreamer, which is the imagination on steroids.
GS That’s Lori Blaine, the protagonist.
JB Yes, as the story begins, Lori is unaware of her skill as a lucid dreamer. Lucid dreaming is rare. Only roughly eleven per cent of women and men on earth experience lucid dreams.
GS I didn’t know that.
JB Yes, it’s interesting. Dreams have always fascinated me. Today, lucid dreaming is an impetus for my story, “Lucid.”
GS What is a lucid dreamer?
JB A lucid dreamer is someone who can readily tell when they’re dreaming. She or he is aware when they reach the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) state, which is the deepest stage of sleep. REM is where dreams play out.
The recognition you’re dreaming can range from a faint inkling to vivid to full-blown participation in the dream. Lucid dreams usual appear in the middle of a normal dream, when the dreamer realises that he or she, in fact, is dreaming and not awake. Sometimes, lucid dreams give the dreamer some control or sense of control over the dream state.
Seemingly, lucid dreamers experience more bustle, than normal, in the parietal lobes. Our parietals control our senses. Such control means lucid dreaming is a conscious act.
This underscores the potential for dream control. In college, I tried to promote lucid dreaming, in myself. I ate anchovy pizzas at 3:00 am.
GS That’s a way to promote nightmares.
JB Yes, it didn’t work for me.
GS Tell me more about lucid dreams.
JB Usually, but not always, once a lucid dreamer falls into REM and begins to dream, she or he becomes aware of the dream state. From then on, the dreamer often controls the dream storyline. “Lucid” explores, in ways, dream control potential among lucid dreamers.
GS I’m a lucid dreamer.
JB Are you, honestly you know when you’re dreaming, while you’re dreaming?
GS Yes, most of the time, I am aware I am dreaming. I have false awakenings during dreams. Part of my dream story usually includes knowing I’m dreaming. It seems I’m awake, taking part of the dream or maybe standing off to the side, but I’m asleep.
JB A false awakening is another reality in your dream. You can wake up. You can dream. You have dreams within dreams.
GS That’s exactly what happens. One interesting part is I never go anywhere else. I’m always where I am. I remain, planted, in my bed or, at most, my bedroom.
JB Oh that’s interesting. Are your dreams colourful, black-and-white or grey tones?
GS I always dream in grey tones, my whole life; never colour.
JB That’s interesting.
GS That’s why I thought “Lucid” was such a great book.
GS Why do you think readers want to read about the adventures of a lucid dreamer?
JB You’re getting at the reason there aren’t many books telling fictional stories that weave in and out of dreams. I had an editor, once, Michaela Hamilton, whom I respect. She works at Kensington Publishing and is one of the finest editors I ever had.
Hamilton explained why dream sequences suck. “The dreamworld is mushy, she said, “and squishy.” Readers, writers, too, lose track of the storyline, in a dream, and its effects.
GS I often find dream sequences in movies exactly as Hamilton describes.
JB “Who is doing what,” says Hamilton. “Whose view is pushing the story along?” Keeping track becomes tedious and, mostly, removes the character or characters from the storyline.
GS Readers likely leave the book, too.
JB Maybe, but from the moment I heard opinions of dreams in fiction, I had to have a book successfully featuring dream sequences. She didn’t realise it, but she laid-down a gauntlet I was going to take up, come hell or high-water. I was going to create a tapestry of dreaming, in a book, and it would be successful.
I benefited from her questioning and her protocols. In “Lucid,” I tried to wrap an ever-tightening layer of suspense in the real world, the waking world, around the dreams Lori Blaire, hero of “Lucid,” was experiencing. Thus, when she awakens, matters have worsened in the real world.
Every time she wakes up from one of these mythical, epic dream journeys, the waking world has grown even direr. Lori starts to equate the two. She grasps how dreams and, for lack of a better word, reality, meld for her.
I wrote twenty-two books before “Lucid.” Only in “Lucid” did I feel I knew how to pull off a story of dreams. In my own hubris, arrogant, novelist head, I knew I could pull it off.
GS You did, well.
JB Thank you.
GS I didn’t think I was going to enjoy “Lucid,” but it turned into a page-turner.
JB Oh, thank you.
GS What turns you on?
JB I love being outdoors at sunrise, in the mountains, smelling coffee, bacon and toast.
GS What do you think a reader will take away from “Lucid”?
JB My goal, for “Lucid,” would be for a reader to close the book feeling as though he or she shared a dream, intimately, with a community of readers and with me. Their connections and their dreaming life would come alive.
I have always been romantic about what I do. The world I obsess over features books and movies. Since I was a child, I revered books and movies.
I find books and movies sacred. From the moment I saw, “The Twilight Zone,” on television, from the moment I read Ray Bradbury, films and books became sacred ground for me. This was important. Fantasy, science fiction, horror, modern fantasy, gothic horror, it all sunk hooks into me.
I thought it impossible to explain how I felt to me or to others. I always felt that not only was it a sacred world, but it was the closest to shareable dreaming that we have. When I would see a film or read a book, which was a masterpiece in a field, I felt as if someone allowed me to share a dream, with him or her.
GS You want to take readers inside.
JB Yes, there’s something about being on a dark road late at night, with your father driving and you’re eleven years old. Everybody else in the car, your mom and your brothers are asleep. Suddenly, your dad tunes the radio to a different station.
He wants a station that’ll keep him awake. You’re in the back-seat. You hear a telltale effect opening a programmes; it’s a door creaking
GS Yes, the show is “Inner Sanctum.”
JB Right, the most psychedelic, surreal experience you’ll ever have is listening to vintage radio late at night; shows such as “Suspense.” You’re eleven years old. Your dad is driving a dark Interstate 80, going through Iowa. From the radio, you’re hearing an “Inner Sanctum” episode. It’s surreal because you’re manufacturing the whole radio show yourself, insider your mind, deep in your imagination.
GS Each listener experiences the story in a different way.
JG Yes, I wanted to excite the imagination of each reader, differently. That was another working protocol for “Lucid”; it was another remarkable experiment. I pushed my imagination and, ideally, that of the reader, to the limit.
GS What inspires you?
JB Reading great writers and great books, I can’t put up with bad writing.
GS Is Lori Blaine based on someone you know or knew?
JB Lori Blaine is an amalgam of every woman I admired as a young man. Often, my characters are an amalgam of men and women I know or I knew. Every woman I thought was a brilliant bad ass, innovative and fearless finds her way into my characters, male or female.
The same goes for Lilly Caul, a character, in the “Walking Dead” universe. I've taken her under my wing. I’ve become the steward of Lilly Caul in the “Walking Dead” universe.
Lilly, in “Walking Dead,” is mostly my wife, Jilly. Lilly and Jilly dress alike, both are bad asses, in their own way, both have similar tattoos and wear their hair the same way. My characters come from my life, from women and men that impress me, not only those that might appeal to certain readers. Lori Blaine benefits from Lilly Caul and my wife.
GS Writing is existential and experiential for you.
JB Yes, as much as I can, I base my characters in women and men I know.
GS Did any of these women, you knew in college, talk about dreaming?
JB Yes, they did.
GS Do your characters, in “Lucid,” include some of what these women said about dreaming.
JB Yes, I remember one woman from college. I wasn’t dating her. We were friends. She and I were slackers. Bohemian pals. We hung out.
One day, she showed me an article in “Omni Magazine,” a science monthly that shut down in 1998. I read the magazine, from cover to cover, as soon as it came out, every month. It was one of my favourite magazines.
GS “Penthouse” without the pictures.
JB Exactly, my woman friend, who, by the way, looked like Lori Blaine, in “Lucid,” showed me a sidebar article about a new tool. It was a dream machine, which was roughly the size of cell phone. There was information on how to place an order. The machine was $99.99, I think.
The dream machine connected to the tip of your finger. There was a small display. Before sleep, every night, the user was to think of what she or her wanted to dream.
Supposedly, the dream machine worked off galvanic skin response, as does a lie detector. It sensed when you fell into Rapid Eye Movement (REM) by taking your pulse. Before bed, the user wore it for ninety seconds and studied the display.
The display would blink, at a certain interval. A phrase would appear suggesting what the user would dream that night. The user would think about that dream topic, most.
The dream machine, hooked to your finger, sends an electronic pulse to your brain. Once you became used to using the machine, a sign would drop down in your dream. The sign resembled the dream machine display, but flashed, “This is a dream.”
I never bought a dream machine. It entered my imagination and stayed. I obsessed, for years, over the idea, though.
GS I had one of those machines.
JB You had one of those machines.
GS I did, I think I still have it, somewhere.
JB Oh my gawd. That is so cool; so wonderful.
GS It made me more aware of dreaming, for a time, mostly because I had to go through this little ritual before I used it. Then it stopped working, at least for me.
JB My business partner and I have a new company. We’re going to focus on creative development. We were thinking about releasing a lucid dream journal, which is a wonderful little piece of technology people enjoy. The dream journal is simply what you said of the dream machine, you’ve described it well.
GS Lucid dreamers don’t hold their dreams long after waking.
JB That could be true, but the lucid dream journal is a goading. It urges the user to pay more attention to his or her dreams and, perhaps, save dreams a bit more. I, we, think this leads to a fuller life and, maybe, remembering dreams more often, which we believe is good.
The true nature and use of dreams, of which we understand little, is an important target. Do animals dream? What do animals dreams?
What is the meaning of dreams for humans? What is the evolutionary purpose of dreams? These are important questions, with few answers, yet.
Science provides more information on dreams, all the time. The area is so huge, though, there’s a long way to go. Dreams are as much the last frontier as is space, say.
GS Or neuroscience.
JB Yes and I am all for the dream machine. If any tool helps understand dreams, I’m for it. I’m for any tool that makes us more aware of our dreams, too.
I remember what Harlan Jay Ellison, the number one US writer of speculative fiction, used to say, when he did conventions, interviews or speaking engagements, how people would ask where he got his ideas. He would say, “Oh, I have an idea service. It’s in Schenectady, New York. I subscribe. At the end of every week, I receive a little six-pack of ideas.”
GS I’m sure of it.
JB You know there were people who were like can I get that address.
GS I’m sure there were takers.
JB It’s interesting how people think ideas are easy to find.
GS It’s as a pet rock.
JB Yes, rub this rock for thirty seconds before you go to bed. Whatever the user thought, during those thirty seconds, would probably show up in her or his dream. I’ll include that in my goods catalogue.
GS A dream journal would likely help develop ideas, too.
JB Yes, I think it would.
GS What sound or noise do you love?
JB My wife, Jilly, laughing
GS Can we change the subject?
JB Of course, we can.
GS You’re an excellent writer as well as an excellent harmonica player, what’s the trick to playing harmonic as well as you do.
JB Well, there is a connection. Playing harmonica is similar to dreaming. Dreaming is intuitive and inchoate. It’s hard to buy a harmonic and say, “I’m going to play a harmonic, today,” as one might with a guitar, say.
GS There are books that teach a novice to play something, on the guitar, in an hour or less.
JB A week after I bought my first harmonica, I set up a lesson. By Wednesday, I’ll be able to play, I thought. “Hey, can I join the band?” It didn’t work that way.
GS The harmonic is an existential instrument.
JB Yes, it’s an odd instrument. It’s the most primitive instrument you can find next to a board, with a mallet. Yet, it’s intricate and complex.
The harmonica has only has a few reeds. Thus, even to play along, you must buy a harmonic, which is in an individual key; say F or C. Change keys and you must change harmonicas. This is because the instrument is rudimentary.
What makes a harmonic wonderful is its primitive and basic nature. This allows it to give colour to music, which no other instrument can do as well. The harmonica is akin to ice-skating or riding a two-wheeler bicycle, once you catch on, you never forget.
GS Ah ha, catching on makes it existential.
JB I guess, but one day, you start to bend notes and play the blues. The harmonica is experiential. You fool around with it, for a while, and, suddenly, you’re playing with the “Stones.”
GS Is it one of those talents that needs a metaphorical ten thousand hours to become an overnight sensation?
JB Yes, well, maybe, suddenly one day you wake up and you start to play. Your mouth, tongue and lips form the right baffle to create that great mellow sound of “Little Walter” sound, bending of a note and such. It’s a wonderful, euphoric moment.
GS I defy you to take your index finger, place it sideways in front of your mouth and pretend it’s a harmonica. You’d be able to do the same.
JB Yes, I agree.
GS Thus, the harmonica came to life.
JB That’s what makes it so beautiful; it’s simple. The world is changing so fast, everything is digital, no longer analogue. Everything is happening at once. Our children grow up in this world and they are digital beings. Here’s a simple instrument, the harmonica, which can make people weep and, in some form, is thousands of years old.
Minds, today, are digital. Someone said ninety per cent of the data, in the world, came about in the last twenty-four months. With all this happening so fast, what I value the most is ancient and, maybe, slower moving. I go back to the Gutenberg Press, how it changed storytelling from word to paper, even though stories are on digital or virtual paper, now.
Storytelling is an ancient art form adapted, without losing effect. So, too, is the harmonica, breath blowing over reeds. It’s an ancient skill, which hasn’t lost its appeal or effect.
GS Those skills may be nearing extinction.
JB Yes, I agree. I’m film. I’m an analogue Luddite. I like film much more than pixels.
I like stories shot on film. I like photographs shot on film better than digital stills. Still, I recognise how wonderful digital film-making is and how the new technology creates gorgeous images and goes many places film can’t.
No matter, I’m a film buff. I romanticised film when I was younger. It was alchemy; it was a light shining through a transparent strip dipped in magical chemicals to make magnificent images and tell compelling stories.
GS What a wonderful image you paint.
JB Yes, wonderful on film, not made from ones and zeros.
GS That’s right, there seems more magic in analogue than in an image composed of zeros and one.
JB There’s no magic; it’s binary and crisp.
GS I’m wondering about the distinction you make between film and digital image. I find digital images too sharp, too crisp, to be real.
JB Yes, I agree.
GS Too good and it’s a cartoon, but not a cartoon. The viewer must use her or his imagination, with an old-style cartoon, filling in the mental blanks. Computer generated images (CGI) aren’t warm enough for me, either.
GS I feel the old camera and film method leaves something, much maybe, to the imagination, whereas digital leaves little, if anything, to the imagination.
JB That’s so true. I love the grainy part of film. In digital, there’s no grain. Shadows go as black as a Marian trench.
Nothing moves because there’s no grain. I believe digital is not as sexy as an image that has grain, as the grain in wood. There’s something about graininess. Watch the movie, “Barry Linden,” if you don’t believe me.
Watch “Barry Lyndon” on DVD, which gives the cleanest image of the analogue the movie as analogue. You can see the candlelit scenes, how different they look from something filmed digitally by candlelight, which you see many of nowadays. I agree with you.
GS I was thinking of “McCabe and Mrs Miller,” too.
JB Oh my, yes, it’s a beautiful film. What a beautiful looking film. The grain makes most shots a wonder.
GS Never do that with digital.
JB Vilmos Zsigmond was the cinematographer, on “McCabe.” Eastern Europeans are remarkable cinematographers, the Germans, too. These creatives remain “film-makers” and not merely camera operators or, even, only cinematographers: they are artists.
GS DVD versions of “McCabe” have no upgrading. I don’t think it’s doable in digital, today. Grainy film made the difference; gave it the texture needed to make characters come to life.
JB I’ll include that in my goods catalogue.
GS What is something you like to collect?
JB I collect vinyl records and first paragraphs of novels.
GS What attracts you to vinyl?
JB I have this discussion, with my friends that are romantics, as am I, all the time. We’re analogue people. We love vinyl, the sound of a tone arm on vinyl, having to flip the record when a side ends and everything.
I’m afraid that in twenty years, we won’t have vinyl records, we will not have books and we will not have theatres. It sounds terrible, and I’m not trying to be merely controversial.
Here’s why I believe that. I predict such a future because I’m a father. I have two teenage boys. Both are brilliant. Of course, everybody thinks their children are prodigies and brilliant.
Both my sons, Joey, 16, and Bill, 14, are hip people, cool people. They each have a turntable, still, they don’t have what those of our generation, the baby boomers, have or had. My sons don’t have the romanticism of the analogue world; vinyl or movies on film stock are not as sacred to them as for us.
I have discussions with my students, the twenty-somethings. I talk about it with teenagers, my kids and their friends. They’re respectful of vinyl and film stock, but they don’t care for it.
Analogue media are not part of their cosmology, as it is ours. They have 70-inch linear screens in their basements. They have surround-sound, with 1040 pixels a square inch image.
It’s better, in the basement, than we got in a movie theatre. They grew up in this world; it’s theirs. I hope I’m wrong, but that’s my doom scenario for artistic media.
GS Neilsen Music recently released its 2015 mid-year report. Music consumption was up, driven by streaming, of course. Vinyl was up 38% and now accounts for nine per cent of music consumption.
JB Maybe I’m wrong, I hope.
GS Creativity is never the norm. You’re not the norm because you’re such a creative fellow. You have to stand outside the box.
JB I agree.
GS So, twenty-five years from now, somebody, whoever is striving to be outside the box, may use a 1910 camera to take a portrait or some such.
JB It’ll be the coolest next big fad.
GS Yes, exactly what I mean.
JB I agree. Creativity is cyclic and everything. I think we may be parsing out the essence, the story, for a distraction, technology.
GS Good stories will always be most important. Stories date to the first campfire.
JB Exactly and storytelling has not changed, only adapted to the needs of technology, as we said earlier.
GS Hunters used to come back and tell about the one that got away and how big their spears were and whatnot.
GS Vinyl has not gone away, as the Neilsen Music report shows. Most new albums release in limited vinyl, at least.
JB That’s heartening, but it could be because the baby boomers are now retiring and they’re getting Father’s Day presents.
GS Now, that’s cynical, but could be true. I’m thinking of the baby boomers that threw out the vinyl and replaced it with DVDs; spent thousands of dollars on it converting the music to new technology and now want to return to vinyl.
JB I have a large vinyl collection. I agree. I’m proud to say the room I’m sitting in and talking to you is full of vinyl.
I have vinyl records lining the walls. Baby boomers are a transitional generation; we had vinyl, eight-tracks, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, digital cinema on tape. Now, some are returning to vinyl.
GS Do you think the vinyl listening experience is different from CDs, say?
JB Yes, vinyl sounds different. It does sound warmer to me. It sounds smoother when I listen to it on a disc on a vinyl you know.
GS I agree with you. Even touring changed from territories, owned by individuals, to national touring companies, such as AEG and LiveNation.
JB Right exactly. Yes.
GS Than the bureaucrats, the bean counters took over and they’re mostly destructive.
JB Yes, the bean counters are a destructive force.
GS What’s your favourite piece of clothing?
JB Tailored vests, with my bowler-hats second, are my favourite items of clothing.
GS Back to writing, you authored a series, “Ulysses Grove.” What’s your take, as the author, on Ulysses Grove?
JB Those books were a series of paranormal FBI procedural stories, where the main character was a remarkable fellow. He had a shadowy connection to the ancient world. The reader doesn’t learn, until the last book, in the quartet, what the true connection is, but, throughout, the reader knows he has a connection.
The first book in the Ulysses Grove series is “Frozen.” The main character is a Black FBI profiler. I took a que from a fellow that worked at Quantico, the US Marine Base, for the character.
Ulysses Grove dresses faultlessly. He wears only high-end suits. These suits are his armour.
GS There’s nothing like a sharp-dressed man, according to ZZ Top.
JB Right, I sold the rights, for Ulysses Grove, to Dennis Haysbert. He’s a great fellow, one of my favourite character actors. Haysbert is most recognisable as the voice, the deep baritone voice, of State Farm Insurance. He portrayed the US president on “24.”
Haysbert fell in love with Ulysses Grove, in the first book, “Frozen.” The book stems from its title and a story from an honest-to-goodness find of mummified remains. It’s the oldest mummy ever found, intact, in history.
The body was from the Bronze Age. That’s roughly 3300 bce to 1300 bce. Found in the Alps, “Otzi, the Iceman” is his name.
It’s a great story. The National Geographic Society (NGS) did a major television special on Otzi. NGS have a photograph of Otzi, exactly as discovered, in the ice, by a couple of hikers.
Otzi lies in a strange position. He’s intact; you can see almost the expression on his face. We’re talking about a five-thousand-year-old mummy, mummified in this deep capsule of ice in the Alps.
The hero, at the beginning of “Frozen,” is tracking a serial killer that has committed a string of motiveless murders. The serial killer poses victims in this strange Otzi pose. Eventually, Grant realises it’s the same pose as the Iceman. Thus, begins an epic story across four novels.
GS The Grant series is a great idea.
JB I’m proud of those books. What was Otzi doing at such a high altitude, in the Alps? There’s evidence of tracking, hunting and killing, as one would hunt an animal. Why track Otzi?
The story evolves out of these mysteries. I came up with all the answers, fictionally, of course, for the Grove series. Hopefully, it will make it to the screen.
GS That is creative.
JB Those books are still available for Kindle and other e-readers.
GS I think I’m going to read those, shortly.
JB I’m proud of those books.
GS What’s your role with “Walking Dead””
JB In a practical way, I’m the house novelist. Robert Kirkman, the creator, writes the comics. When he wanted to expand the product to novels and games, he went looking for the best.
For games, Kirkman selected Telltale Games as the developer. For the novels, he selected me from a rich pool of available writers. I also develop the Lilly Caul character for the comics and games; I’m her overseer, in a way.
GS What was the deal with Kirkman and “Walking Dead”?
JB My first contract was for three books, but turned into four. The books base in the comics, me turning the comics into prose. I worked only on novels, not in television or the games, much.
I received an outline for “Rise of the Governor,” from Kirkman, and began writing. He was overseeing me every fifty pages. A time passed, the overseeing lessened.
My second contract calls for four more novels. As well, I am charged with coming up with stories and writing stories. Developing characters was also part of my job.
I gave the character of Lilly a surname Caul. Originally, she had no surname, in the comics and games. As she was to rise in prominence, in the “Walking Dead,” I felt she needed development, starting with a surname.
Novels, more than comic books or films, need last names for characters. This helps readers keep track of who is who. Thus, I spend much time on character names.
Literally, caul is Latin for helmet head. Caul is a rare part of the membrane that can cover the head of a newborn. It happens only once in eighty-thousand births.
From this starting point, I developed the Lilly Caul character. I provided depth and detail, enough granularities not to bore readers. Lilly Caul began as ostensibly helpless and fragile, but ended as leader of a huge community of survivor settlements, south of Atlanta.
These days, if Kirkman too busy to attend game meetings, I represent him.
GS What is the theme of the “Walking Dead”?
JB It’s about survival, life-and-death and family. What would you do to keep your spouse and children safe? How far would you go to save your family?
The “Walking Dead” is also about human behaviour and extremism. I could go on for hours literally, without mentioning the word zombie. I think zombies form the appeal of the comics, novels, the games and the television show, but are only part of the story.
At conventions, women and men, parents and grandparents, come to the table, where I’m signing books. They tell me, “Man, I told my kids ‘I am not interested in seeing a gory zombie feast on television. I don’t do zombies.’ My children got me to watch ‘Walking Dead,’ from the beginning. The show hooked me.”
Man, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that story. I believe the “Walking Dead” hooks everybody because it’s a story of human emotion and behaviour. The “Walking Dead” demands the viewer take a position.
Which way would you go? Would you become a hero? Would you become evil? Would you become a fascist? Would you become a group leader? Would you become a follower? Would you become a loner? Would you live? Would you die?
These answers are enthralling. The show presents answers and implications in remarkably different ways. I think that’s explains the success of “Walking Dead.”
GS What’s your favourite phrase or word?
JB “I’m no expert, but…” and eldritch, an old word that means sinister, weird or scary, not the band.
GS What is your least favourite word?
JB Okay, as when I ask someone how she or he liked the newest “Walking Dead” comic and the answer is, “It was okay.” Ugh!
GS How does a zombie come to be?
JB I think about this question a great deal; probably more than most people. Zombies come to exist in many ways. The main strain of modern zombie story comes from one source, George Romero.
GS Are you suggesting “Night of the Living Dead.”
JB Yes, George Romero, a talented fellow, worked in advertising, in Pittsburg. He made television commercials for an agency. Romero was a primal film-maker, self-educated and brilliant, a stoner, too.
The middle and late 1960s was a time of antiwar demonstrations, civil rights rioting in major US cities and general turmoil. Romero was a fan of EC Comics, a company specialising in horror and crime fiction. He had all the ingredients, real and imagined, to create “Night of the Living Dead.”
The movie is a milestone. Many reviewers and theatregoers thought “Night of the Living Dead” was pornographic, mostly because it’s black-and-white and went Hitchcock one better. Children kill parents and zombies eat the main character alive; no one expected the grimness of “Night of the Living Dead.”
“Night of the Living Dead” resonated, widely, in 1968. Maybe it was the war. Maybe it was Nixon. Maybe it was the rioting.
GS Maybe it was all this and more.
JB For whatever reason, the movie resonated, literally and figuratively. The movie, as a zombie, would not die. It’s still with us.
GS Even, today, when it shows on television, the audience is huge.
JB “Night of the Living Dead” spawned two sequels, “Dawn of the Dead” and “Day of the Dead.” The three movies, the zombie trilogy, inspired Robert Kirkman. He created the “Walking Dead” comic book in 2003.
Robert Kirkman is a young kid from Kentucky. He was a huge fan of George Romero. His idea for “Walking Dead” became a sensation, in a few years.
After only five years, “Walking Dead” won the Eisner Award for best comic book of the year. It took only ten years for the “Walking Dead” to become legendary. Today, it’s a cultural blockbuster.
I was busy writing novels, suspense, horror and science fiction, cutting my teeth, learning the craft. In 1994, I worked with George Romero. My involvement with “Walking Dead” arose from working with Romero.
Romero enthrals Kirkman. When “Walking Dead” was adding a writer, four heavyweights were in the que for the job. I kept calling my agent, David Albert, urging him to tell Kirkman I had Romero on speed dial and such.
Eventually, I got the job with “Walking Dead.”
GS Where do zombies come from besides the imagination of George Romero?
JB Well, I mean zombies come from the modern world and the modern life that we live. Zombies come from the stubborn problems people have, which are distant, stupid and lame. Say, bills paid off at the end of one month keep coming back at the end of the next month; mortgages go under water and so forth.
GS They’re micro payments, financial zombies.
JB Yes, micro payments. Terrorism, of a sort, in a war fought in a far-flung land and broadcast on 24-hour news creates zombies, in the minds of viewers. The war appears unreal. It’s another reality show.
The zombie is the archetype that resonates with such fantasies. Bloodshed that is factual, such as a war, with killings and maimings, fought in far-off countries, but presented as a cartoon. I believe that’s true.
I believe zombies must be slow-moving and stupid. Anyone can outrun can outrun a zombie, if she or he has decent cardio.
GS Those that compete and win; they can run away from those that don’t. Zombies are a metaphor for life among capitalists. Zombies, of any form, constantly eat away at humanity.
JB Yes, in a way, but a zombie differs from a vampire; they can’t mesmerise you or drink your blood, all they can do is swarm and devour slow-moving victims.
GS Some people can survive the zombies, just as some women and men, the one per cent, if you like, can survive competition.
GS What do they do when they eat you; don’t zombies need food.
JB No, zombies don’t need food. They’re more like robotic puppets. They roam the earth, in the time following a plague; for some writers, they come from outer space.
In a practical sense, zombies are McGuffins, a trigger for a plotline. The cause for zombism is all McGuffin. When a writer needs a reason for fear or mass killings, she or he may call on zombies.
There’s an episode, of “Walking Dead,” the gold standard of zombie shows, which tries to explain zombies. Based on information from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the episode explains how the “zombie disease” enters the body and destroys the central nervous system, which kills the human.
The disease leaves a small spark in the brain steam that kindles the dead back to life. Allegedly, there’s a lingering spark in the Cerebellum and Medulla Oblongata areas, the hindmost part of the human brain, which drives zombies. The zombie exists because its lizard brain area survives, for some unknown reason, and all they do is consume.
GS How do zombies digest and void?
JB I get that question at Walker and Stalker Conventions, all the time. Children want to know how zombies poop. I say zombies don’t poop because they can’t digest, but they do leave deposits, here and there.
GS That’s interesting.
JB Yes, this topic fascinates me, now. This territory’s in the forefront of my imagination. I’m writing novels and working on projects, such as video games featuring the “Walking Dead,” that won’t hit the market for at least three years; that’s the timeline of my preoccupation with zombies.
Much of my research involves talking with pathologists. I need to know what happens to a body, in three years, if there’s no blood circulation; no pulse, no cartilage and everything is decaying. Yet, the body continues to move, driven by a small spark and a strange need to feed on living humans.
What happens to the body? What happens to the land after there’s no society, no media, no petrol. What happens when there’s not much of anything left.
I’m in my third year with “Walking Dead.” I need to research zombies more, much more. I need to know what the area around Atlanta, where the “Walking Dead” takes place, would be like three years after the total breakdown of civilisation.
GS What would a zombie be like, three years after contracting the virus?
JB My theory is zombies are decaying and will turn to dust. They’re weathered. It’s the fresher ones, the people that have turned more recently, that are the dangerous ones.
GS Is it only the virus that turns them.
JB I might be edging toward my nondisclosure agreement by answering some of these questions. I can say that in the “Walking Dead” universe and this doesn’t apply to some of the other films that are in this cycle or the related area, there is a virus. It takes roots in every living being.
No one is immune from the virus, which leaves a small spark in the hind part of the brain. Everyone that dies becomes a zombie. Only destruction of his or her brain ends the threat.
GS Blow their heads off.
JB Yes, it’s more of an apocalyptic, end-of-days story, where everyone has the disease, but there might be an antidote, a cure, for those yet to turn. Anything is possible. Right now, however, everyone has the disease, the plague.
GS Who finds and applies the cure and how.
JB The answer to that question takes me too deeply into my nondisclosure agreement, I think.
GS The way you talk of zombies, leads me to think zombies are a way of resolving the fear of death: zombies are dead but not dead, alive but not alive.
JB In 1980, Vivian Kubrick, the daughter of Stanley Kubrick, filmed a documentary on making the “The Shining.” In the documentary, Jack Nicholson said Stanley Kubrick believed any supernatural, fantasy or science fiction piece that postulated there was something after death.
It didn’t matter if it were ghosts, werewolves or zombies. Kubrick believed there was something after death. It was his optimistic view of the cosmos.
The zombie archetype is the grimmest form, sub-textually, of something after death. I’m not even talking on the surface, but beneath the surface. It’s you die and it gets worse, which is hardly optimistic.
GS I wonder if the zombie is a metaphor or an analogy for the Roman Catholic notion of Purgatory.
JB That’s true, I think. In fact, I probably am going to steal that.
GS Go ahead, you have my permission, if the metaphor works for you.
JB Yes, it does if you watch “Dawn of the Dead,” the sequel to “Night of the Living Dead,” Romero started playing with the archetype, what it means, for fun. Although he told me he was unaware of playing with the archetype, I think he did it intentionally.
The standard zombie is similar to the drones of modern society. Anyone could use them anywhere. Zombies are good at performing evil acts.
GS Leading zombies reminds me of Aldous Huxley. A sped up society, going so fast, no ordinary person can catch his or her breath. Then distracting drones as humans, endlessly amused to distraction. I guess we can throw in the Marxist notion of “phantasies,” too, and “Soylent Green,” by Harry Harrison.
JB Yes, the idea of the human species consuming itself, with no nutritional nourishment, at all, is scary. Everyone is eating and eating, without digesting. The species is doing it to itself.
GS Are there ancient ideas of zombies, as with some other versions of the undead.
JB Vampire novels date to Bram Stoker. Mary Shelley wrote “Frankenstein” two hundred years ago. Zombies only date to Romero and Max Brooks, I think.
Although new, zombies are a robust archetype. Max Brooks, son of Anne Bancroft and Mel Brooks, wrote the most durable book about zombies, “World War Z: an oral history of the zombie war.” It’s the only true literary masterpiece in the zombie literature, the zombie type.
Brooks used the slow-moving Romero zombie as the father, the McGuffin of the book. The movie adaptation of the book turns the zombies into monsters, which I think is a mistake. Still, the movie is entertaining and scary.
I asked Robert Kirkman, creator of the “Walking Dead” series about “World War Z.” He said, “I don’t know [if the zombies] should be slow-moving. If they’re fast-moving and entertaining that’s all I ask. [Fast-moving is] entertaining.”
I’m more of a purest about what the zombie archetype means. I don’t think it works when there are these meth-head, lazy, rage monsters that can dive through your windshield. That’s not entertaining.
GS A zombie is a multimetaphor, useful in many ways.
JB True, its multifaceted nature may be why there was no honest literary masterpiece until Brooks, a few years ago. There’s a paltry body of literature about zombies, unlike the other archetypes, such as vampires or monsters made from spare parts.
The zombie works best, maybe, with visual media. The zombie, we know today, is a creation of film. I think that might be why it’s not a literary tool.
GS Carl Sagan said what scares us matches our technology, UFOs for a fast-advancing age of technology.
JB Yes, zombies don’t work well on the page, not as well as on film or video. There’s a larger problem, with zombies. That’s sameness.
I’ve written more than half a million words of zombie literature, over the last five years. My one challenge is dealing with the redundancy of the zombie archetype. I always feel as if, “Here comes another one. Shoot it in the head. Splatter the wall with pink goo.”
The pink mist flies out the back of the scull slithering down the wall. There’s another one, pink mist and it drops. I’ve come up with more ways of describing fluids escaping from skulls than did Sam Peckinpah.
GS What occupation, other than author, would you like to try?
JB I’d like to be a supercool blues harmonica sideman performing with all the great blues musicians, as they pass through Chicago, where I live. I’d like to play harmonica all-night, in a smoking club, such as the “Checker Board.”
GS What occupation would you not like to try?
JB I wouldn’t want to work anywhere I must wear a nametag, suit or uniform. Yet, as did Alfred Hitchcock, I wear a suit and tie when I write, when I play harmonica in Chicago area clubs. The suit and tie is part of the work discipline I impose on myself. I would not want to work as a motivational speaker, either.
GS Can we talk about writing a bit. How do you write, besides well?
JB Thank you. I love that question. I try to pass on some of this information to students, whenever I’m lucky enough to teach. I’m an adjunct professor at DePaul University and Northwestern University in the Chicago area.
GS Good schools, both.
JB I’m lucky enough to teach in the graduate English Department, at both schools. Graduate students engage, with the material, other students and me. They’re serious, they want to write or teach writing for a living.
It’s hard to teach creativity. It’s like trying to teach jazz. Both forms of creativity are experiential.
Writing is an intimate, experiential act. You need to write for you, not for the audience. That’s how I write, for me and if others enjoy the ride, all the better.
GS How much do you trim your writing?
JB I’m not of the Hemingway school of writing, where less is better. I’m of the more is better school. I’m of the Faulkner school of writing.
I like to have people taste what I write. I want readers to know the characters are eating blueberry pancakes, with maple syrup and hot butter. I pride myself in, what David Murrell calls “triangulating the senses.”
I want the reader to enter a room, with the main character. I want the reader to smell the room, hear the sounds, see other people and the paintings on the wall, as do the story characters. I think this approach is immediate and more intimate.
GS Stimulate the parietal lobes.
JB Yes, the challenge, in “Lucid,” was to moderate that goal. I had to calibrate it so I wasn’t overdoing how I engaged the imagination of the reader, in the dreamworld. Readers would start to taste the dreamworld and see the strange texture of the light in a dream.
GS You’re reminding me of the book “Flatland,” by Edwin Abbott.
JB Yes, that might be an analogy. As a dream is subjective, it’s part of what makes the dreamer. It’s all context, all the meaning, all the power comes from within the dreamer. If you could somehow film the dream someone was having, it would look flat, tedious and boring because it lacks context.
A life lived brings you to the dream. Whatever the dream means, the Jungian or Freudian interpretations, the life of the dreamer provides the context. The dream is a story of that context.
That was my challenge writing “Lucid” as a straightforward novel, not overdoing the description. I was getting more into radio drama, such as “Inner Sanctum,” in some of the dreamworlds. In “Lucid,” I urge readers to engage their imaginations.
GS That’s the key isn’t it, imagination.
JB Yes, that’s it exactly; fire up the imagination.
GS What is your favourite indulgence?
JB My favourite indulgence is Oysters Rockefeller, at Antoine’s restaurant, in New Orleans. Antoine Alciatore opened the restaurant in 1840; it’s the oldest same family run restaurant in America. Oysters Rockefeller originated at Antoine’s; each order has a number, you know how many people ate the dish, in that restaurant, before you did.
GS What city could you get lost in for hours to explore?
JB New Orleans is my favourite city to get lost or not.
GS I read or heard you’re hooked on first paragraphs of books.
JB Yes, for sure, the other Sunday afternoon, my wife Jilly and I went to a Barnes and Noble, where I spent an hour reading first paragraphs in fiction books. This is what turns me on.
I’m fifty-six years old. I’ve been writing, as my day job, almost thirty years. I still get a charge out of opening a book and reading, even a classic.
GS I often wondered why someone that read a great deal did not publish a book of first paragraphs.
JB Books of “memorable” quotations sometimes include first paragraphs.
GS What’s your favourite book?
JB “To Kill a Mockingbird” is my favourite book of all-time. There’s a table at Barnes & Noble where you can open “To Kill a Mockingbird” and read the first paragraph. I reminded myself, on that Sunday afternoon, at the book table, how “Mockingbird” is why I write.
GS Thanks, Nelle.
JB Yes, that’s true. Another of my favourite authors is Frederick Forsyth. He writes sprawling espionage thrillers. He isn’t in the canon of English literature or even a John le Carré, but I think he’s a great writer.
I probably learned more from the opening sentence of one of his books, “The Fist of God,” than from anywhere else. The novel sets in the first Gulf War. I remember, vividly, opening that book and reading that first sentence for the first time.
Immediately, I bought the book and ran home to read it. The story is of the “supergun” invented by Canadian Gerald Bull. Saddam Hussein wants to buy it.
GS What are you reading right now?
JB “Blood Meridian” is inspiring me, right now.
GS Why do you write?
JB I write because of the opening paragraph of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I write because reading is what I love to do most. I write for me, what I enjoy reading. I write what I haven’t found on the shelf.
This may sound flip or vague. Writing is a technical part of me. Writers write for themselves. If not, they may find the task too tedious or not satisfying.
Steven King calls it falling through the whole in the page. As a writer, I stay inside the story. If I don’t remain within the story, I won’t know what I want to write; I’m lost.
Writing is personal. What he or she writes is always in the forefront of his or her mind. Did I make a mistake? What can I add? How can I make it better?
GS Although you make it a nine-to-five job, it isn’t.
JB True, mistakes, perhaps made, consume my mind, most of the time. I can tell during dinner. I’m thinking about it the next morning, when I awaken. Often, I don’t remember where I made that mistake, so I reread what I wrote.
Mark Twain said a writer should finish a writing session by leaving a cliffhanger for the next day. A zombie is ready to sink its teeth into the hero’s ankle. A car seems ready to run off the road, at high-speed.
Twain was right. I can pick the story right up. All the little tricks seem trivial, but add up, in the end. These tricks keep the writer engaged, as she or he tells a story, silently, to him or herself. That’s how I write.
GS Jay in Wonderland, I would say.
GS I like the passion.
JB I’m going to have that tattooed.
GS Yes, you can do that, “The passion.”
JB If there’s no passion in writing there’s no writing. I can sense it from the first paragraph. If find no passion, in the first sentence or graph, I replace the book on the shelf.
GS You mentioned you do not write every day.
JB I write five days a week. I think it’s important I take the weekend off, as best I can. I need time away from writing to refresh my perspective.
I wanted to write, for a living, since I was ten years old. I saw Rod Serling on television, hosting the “Twilight Zone.” He was so intellectual, there on my fourteen-inch black-and-white television set. He always wore a black suit, black tie, white shirt and smoked a cigarette, as he introduced each episode, of the show.
Serling became my hero, doubly so, when I discovered he wrote most of the finer episodes of “Twilight Zone,” such as “Escape Clause.” I thought I’d get an agent, easily, and spend my life writing television shows, films, books and so forth. Not so easy, once I began.
Author Michael Chabon calls what I developed, after seeing Serling, the midnight obsession. I knew I had to write, it was a passion; still, writing scared me. I decided, there and then, I would write as if it were a job to reduce my fearfulness.
I thought, “I’m going to work five days a week. I’ll put in the time. That’s how I’ll work” and that’s how I worked.
GS Wearing a suit and tie, as you write.
JB Writing the “Walking Dead” helped, with my writing discipline. I have a minimum page count. I must write at least six pages a day, Monday through Friday. That’s at least thirty pages a week.
Working this way, I write decent prose. I reread the day’s writing at night. The next morning I proofread what I wrote yesterday before I start writing.
After a thirty-page week, I need to get away from the story and writing. I need to let my battery recharge, let my well refill because writing is strenuous.
Writing is a fast-dance, for me. How I write is Zen-like. I’m writing and watching myself, from a short distance, writing.
GS As a false awakening a dreamer might have during a lucid dream.
JB Yes, I’m watching, trying to tell myself the story. I’ll go off on some tangent. I’ll say, maybe aloud, “Boring.”
“No, no, no, no,” says the watcher. I say, “Who gives a poop. I’m going to stop.” The watcher is readings as I write and says, “No, keep going,” and I do.
In four months of writing, reading, rewriting and so forth, I have a one-hundred thousand-word novel ready for the editor.
GS What time do you try to start writing each day?
JB I start as early as possible. I get up early. I take my kids to school for 7:30 am. When I return home, I start to write.
I thought I was Humphrey Bogart. I needed to write at night, with a cigarette, it had to be a Viceroy, hanging from my lip, and a glass of single malt scotch. That’s how writers should write, I thought.
Then I became a real writer. I discovered it’s a job. It’s a craft, which deserves a serious approach and much attention.
Writing is much different for me, now, than when I was in college. Now, I know a writer must write when she or he is most alert and awake as well as decaffeinated, which is shortly after awakening. That’s what works for me, today.
GS What time do you usually finish writing for the day?
JB I finish around one or two in the afternoon.
GS You do much in those few hours.
JB Obsessive compulsive disorder runs in my family. I think it’s helped me. I think it helps me to finish what I start.
GS Do you ever nano write, write until you’re exhausted.
JB No, I can’t do that, not any more. I know some writers can, but there’s no right or wrong way to do anything in the arts. Women and men in the arts figured that out by now; an artist dances to her or his own tune and beat.
I can’t nano write because, for me, it is a marathon race, a sprint. If I sprint, I must slow down, eventually. I prefer to follow my routine, pace myself and keep in mind the tortoise won the race.
Writing is a sensual, almost a sexual act, for me. There’s no need to rush, if I keep moving forward. Also, nano writing involves much energy, it is more physical work than care to do or can keep up for long.
GS What’s your favourite ice cream?
JB My grandmother’s home made peach ice cream, which I have not had since she passed away.
GS Do you block out your stories before you begin to write.
JB I like to know or have a good idea how a story will end before I start to write it. If I rush, nano-write, say, I might lose track of the end-of-story goal. Many writers don’t approach a novel with much of an idea of how it will end, they only write, but I can’t work that way.
Many writers begin with an image, say, a person in the desert, with a flower up his bum. “That’s the story I’m going to follow,” they say. “I’m going to hear the voice of the characters in my head.”
GS That’s Raymond Chandler.
JB I love Raymond Chandler.
GS It’s a single malt scotch in the middle of the night, never knowing where to end.
GS Eliot Pattison, author of the Inspector Shan series, says that for most writers, a book finishes when the publisher pushes the deadline, not when the story ends, naturally.
JB I know exactly what he’s talking of. I look at it in similar way, but see it was a challenge of the occupation. A chef likes to cook a magnificent meal, taking his or her time, maybe a week, not a day or an hour. Finally, she or he decides to serve the meal.
Ideally, the meal serves at just the right temperate and time, that is, when the diners are hungry. It’s a balance. The chef can only let a sauce marinate so long, a few hours when a few days might be ideal
It’s much the same with a novel. I had to turn in the latest “Walking Dead” book, “Invasion,” on a Friday. I turned it in on the Thursday before. I had a week for reading, for proofreading and polishing; that was about right.
After I finish a novel and read the entire novel from beginning-to-end. I need to step back from it. The time varies, maybe a day or two or a week or two; maybe I ignore the book for a week then read it through in one sitting.
Mostly, I do this beginning-to-end read through in one or two days. If the novel is one hundred thousand words, I may need the second day. No matter, I do this read through without interruption and without stopping, if I can.
GS Swallowing the full manuscript, in one read gulp, helps a great deal.
JB It’s almost as a symphony. I need to listen to the whole symphony, the beginning, middle and end of the symphony, to get a sense of how parts fit the whole.
There are three movements, three acts, as Aristotle wrote, in a long form story. That is how we live, as a child, an adult and an elderly person. The “Poetics” remains a useful guide for story building more than two thousand years after Aristotle wrote it.
GS Three acts as fact and metaphor.
JB Yes, that’s how storytelling works, best.
GS What item must you have with you always?
JB I must always have my little Hemingway notebook, with a rubber band around it. I used one, as a child and it became a talisman. I must have one with me, used or not.
GS Is grammatically correct necessary for a novel.
JB Oh no, a novel is a piece of the heart of the author and a work of art. Grammar is akin to telling a young child never to use the colour blue in his or her pictures. I think grammar is superfluous, sometimes.
I pay attention to grammar, but it’s only because I consider myself a craft-person rather than only an artist. My areas of writing are crafty. A great thriller is the act of a magician.
There are certain ways to perform a trick; that’s the craft. Sometimes grammar is akin to saying a magician can’t use mirrors. Writers I consider artists, such as McCormack McCarthy or Michael Chabon, are not always grammatically correct.
GS Steven King talks about writing one word at a time, which is likely a metaphor. Bruce Holbert writes one sentence at a time.
JB I approach it the opposite way. This goes back to my paternal grandmother introducing me to the writing of Thomas Wolf. That put the zap on my twelve-year-old head.
When I read “You Can’t Go Home Again,” the style jumped out at me. Wolf wrote musically. That changed my idea of what was good writing and what was not.
Later, I discovered writers, such as Thomas Harris. He writes gritty, raw horrific procedurals, such as “Red Dragon.” I heard echoes of Thomas Wolf in Thomas Harris; both write musically, if to different beats.
Harris, Stephen Hunter and Peter Sprawl as well as Stephen King, Clyde Barker and Harlan Ellison influenced my writing. Ray Bradbury had a huge influence on me. When I was young, I carried around his “Artists for Rockets,” the mass market golden paperback, in my back pocket, for years; it wore a shape in my jeans.
When I told his editor this story, he asked me to write a story for a tribute to Bradbury. I understand Bradbury liked my story. He read all the stories in this tribute book called, “Shadow Show.”
There are some great names in that tribute book. I felt honoured to be in the same breath as Neil Gammon and Margaret Atwood. It was remarkable.
When I started writing, “Playboy” was the best paying fiction market; “Penthouse” may have been a distant second. This was especially true for the short story writer. I started out in the eighties writing short stories and sending them off through snail mail to magazines.
I sent short stories, articles, essays and so forth to any publication that might use my work. There was no Internet, at the time. It was all send it out with a stamped, self-addressed envelope, cover letter inside and so forth.
GS SASE is a self-addressed, stamped envelope, to make it easy to send you a rejection letter.
JB SASE was it. Nobody does that any more. Still, that’s how many of us started.
Thirty years ago, a writer got enough rejection letters to wallpaper his or her writing garret. One day, I got a rejection letter, with a meagre handwritten note at the bottom. It read, “Like your writing. Keep sending.” That was my first milestone as a writer, my first inkling of approval.
I still have that note. It was something I needed. I needed a stranger to approve. I needed someone with a practical understanding of writing to tell me what I was doing was worthwhile.
Keeping trying I did and eventually published in that magazine as well as many others. I build a reputation, a portfolio, of magazine articles. Only after that did I publish my first novel.
GS What’s your favourite curse word?
JB Cocksucker, a word widely used in Chicago.
GS Elmo Leonard hated adverbs.
JB I never met an adverb I didn’t like. I got a bad review years ago. The reviewer, I don’t know if he quoted Truman Capote, but he used Capote’s words to describe my book. He wrote that, “What I did was not writing, it was typing.”
GS That’s what Capote wrote in response to “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac.
JB I consider myself in good company.
GS Yes, that’s good company.
JB I’m going to contradict myself, now. I said, earlier, a writer should always know the ending before she or he begins writing. In reality, in writing, there’s no fixed rule. There’s no, “A writer should never do this or a writer should always do that.” There are no rules.
GS The only fixed rule of writing is there are no rules.
JB Yes, it’s a little bit like saying you can’t say don’t use Cumin in your cooking. Cumin is a shitty spice. I can’t say that because some diners like its taste. An adverb that takes a verb as an adjective takes noun, what’s the problem. An adverb is a spice, if used correctly, it reads well.
Often, I change a grammatically correct phrase, clause or sentence to one that is not. That’s not only in dialogue, either, although dialogue is a part of the novel where line editors tread lightly; my gawd, McCormack McCarthy doesn’t even use punctuation, unless he must.
For your dialogue to sing off the page, the less punctuation the better, that’s my advice. People don’t use obvious punctuation when they speak. I’m not using many commas right now, for example. I’m rambling.
GS We use punctuation when we speak, but it’s pausing, dropping the chin, flicking the eyes and so forth.
JB True, but gestural punctuation does not transfer to prose, well.
GS Publishers save on printing costs by dropping as much punctuation as possible.
JB That’s true, too. I heard punctuation reveals the likely age of the writer. More punctuation or two spaces after a period suggests the writer is older.
GS Punctuation provides emphasis.
JB Yes, I constantly have line editors, those that literally go through a book, line-by-line, replace words, especially in dialogue. The “Walking Dead” stories take place in the southern US, the Atlanta area, as I said. The dialogue must reflect the idiom of the speakers, which often needs punctuation.
Idiomatic writing also leaves out many words. The reader doesn’t notice the missing words. She or he expects this of the idiom for “Walking Dead.”
GS I think readers gloss dialogue.
JB Yes, I agree.
GS They gloss attribution, if the writer fashions the story and dialogue well.
GS My sense is readers get the idiom and the attribution much more fully and much faster than some editors believe.
JB Right, I think that’s something else I learned, over the years. I don’t need to credit every line uttered, by a character, as it comes out. As with limiting adverbs, it’s best to limit attributions, such as “He said” or “She said.”
The fewer adverbs and attributions, I guess, the better. There’s no rule, but that’s my approach. The dialogue reads smoother and better, too, if you omit as many attributions, as possible.
I know writers that are geniuses with attributions. For these authors, the prose and dialogue are charming and colourful. They always find the right combination of words, such as “John boomed” or “Sally persisted.” In context, these are ideal attributions.
GS I think Elmore Leonard would ask, “How does John boom?”
GS How does a writer transfer the meaning of grinningly, for example?
JB It’s the old joke among writers, “Fuck you, John said angrily.” I tell my students to understand this is complex. Sometimes you need to say, “‘Fuck you,’ John joked.” In everyday life, when we say, “Fuck you,” our inflection reveals our intent.
GS It’s the most useful word in the English language.
JB No doubt, but “I love you,” to someone you care for needs no adverb.
GS What is something about you that would surprise readers?
JB I have a pathological fear of boring readers. This came from my mom. She was always on. I learned storytelling from her. She and I share a pleasure outlook; we take pleasure in pleasing others. Such as I have an audience, I want readers to lose themselves in my writing, to take pleasure in my writing.
GS Is there a mistake you made, when you began authoring, which you now regret.
JB David Lynch said, “You need to be true to your school.” Follow your gut, he meant. My regret is watering down my work to satisfy publishing. Every editor reports to someone that reports to someone and so forth. When I began publishing, I was too quick to bend, this way and that, as the hierarchy wanted.
Jay Bonansinga is intelligent and intellectual. He knows how to make the most of his imagination and writing skills, as evinced by his canon of twenty-five books. He thinks a great deal of writing, a great deal of what he writes; with ease, he reflects on and discusses, fearlessly, his writing and its effects, as evinced in the conversation here reported.
Bonansinga has the curiosity and wonder of a child. Nothing is unworthy of exploration. The new and novel are the source of his passion.
Bonansinga claims a need to please others. His mother, a great storyteller, passed him the need; his grandmother encouraged it by introducing him to the writing of Thomas Wolfe. He has not wasted these gifts, only built on each one.
As did writers that influenced him, such as Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury, Bonansinga writes to express what he believes needs expressing. If an audience forms, well, that’s all the better. Audience or not, he writes.
Discipline is a key to great writing. The image of someone writing through the night, cigarette dangling from his lower lip as he pounds the keys, melodically, a bottle of cheap booze, half-empty and without cap, beside him, is falsely romantic, mostly fictional. Writing is hard work, demanding much discipline.
Bonansinga is a disciplined writer. Weekdays, he dons suit and tie before entering his writing garret, where he works until two pm. Weekends he takes off.
The image is of a clock-watching bureaucrat. The ritual discipline minimizes distractions, making his writing possible. The chin puff below his bottom lip gives Bonansinga away.
He’s a gifted blues harmonica player. Bonansinga finds a parallel between the harmonica and writing. Persevere and one day you’re bending notes or writing a sentence that makes the reader stop and say, ‘Wow’”
A zombie is a trope, a McGuffin, a writing tool to explain human awareness in the physical world. The word, zombie, was an adjective for the generation lost in the aftermath of the First World War. “The Zombie King” introduced zombies to US readers in 1929.
George Romero created the modern zombie, in the 1968 movie, “Night of the Living Dead.” Bonansinga worked with Romero, in 1994. He understands the modern zombie, well.
The slow-moving, stiffed-legged modern zombie is in opposition to the hyper-fast moving, competitive modern world. Successfully competitive humans, the one per centers, can outrun zombies. Thus, zombies feed mostly on the lower and working classes, the less successfully competitive.
As written by Bonansinga, zombies live in a liminal zone. Not dead, but not alive, zombies assuage fears of death as a finality. Not in heaven, nor in hell, zombies are in a Purgatory where we may go to pay for our sins.
A zombie is a multifaceted trope. Bonansinga exploits this trope better than do most writers. His is an unusual situs; his urge to write came from the opening paragraph of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is as faraway from zombies or Lori Blaine, hero of “Lucid,” as possible.
* First paragraph from "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee, published by HarperPerennail Modern Classics.
** First paragraph from "Fist of God," by Frederick Forsyth, published by Amazon Kindle.
Megan Geuss (2015), “Vinyl Records ... Up 38%,” on Arstechnica.com for 2 July.
Click here to buy books by Jay Bonansinga
Click here for a list of all Grub Street Interviews
Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
Click above to tell a friend about this article.