An Interview with Ben Tripp, Author of the Zombie Thriller, RISE AGAIN: BELOW ZERO
Ben Tripp is the author of Rise Again and Rise Again: Below Zero, a two-part apocalyptic zombie saga for Gallery. The sequel comes out on December 17, 2013.
He has an upcoming trilogy of rollicking young adult novels in the historical fantasy genre for Tor, the first of which is The Accidental Highwayman. In addition, Gallery has secured rights to his first foray into the vampire genre, The Fifth House of the Heart.
Tripp is an artist, writer, and designer who has worked with major entertainment companies and motion picture studios for more than two decades. He was for many years one of the world’s leading conceptualists of public experiences, with a global portfolio of projects ranging from urban masterplanning to theme parks. Now he writes novels full-time.
He lives with his wife (Academy Award-winning writer/ producer Corinne Marrinan) in Los Angeles.
Tim Ward: RISE AGAIN: BELOW ZERO is a highly anticipated sequel to RISE AGAIN. For those who haven’t read RISE AGAIN, please share the enthusiasm you had for that story and its characters and how you sought to have it make its mark on the zombie genre.
Ben Tripp: My original aim was to write something that a non-genre novelist might come up with, concentrating on characters and emotions more than blood and guts. Highbrow zombie stuff. But it didn’t start as a book.
I’ve loved zombie movies ever since Night of the Living Dead scared me nearly undead a long while back. So I wrote a series concept and pilot script for Rise Again as a TV show. But the executives who read it told me zombies just didn’t belong on television. Always trust the judgment of a TV executive, that’s my motto.
So I wrote the novel — and it turned out the manuscript was better than the screenplay.
TW: You have a full-time career outside of writing fiction. Would you write full-time if that was an option? How does writing fit into your non-work time and how do you balance priorities with patience in a field where being a writer is more than a full-time workload?
BT: That’s an excellent question. I’m now writing novels full-time, thank Bog and all his Feathery Minions! But that’s a recent development, and it may not be permanent. The arts are tough that way.
But to the point: Not having the time to do the work might be the biggest frustration for aspiring novelists. It takes a slippery kind of discipline to set aside the concerns of the rest of your life for a few hours a day and focus entirely on the writing.
It helps if you don’t sleep much. I used to write from late evening to early morning, pass out for a few hours, then start up again before dawn and keep going until the world was awake. Probably shaved ten years off my life doing that… Actually I still do that, although I don’t have to. It’s a habit, that’s all. And the habit of writing is key to the whole endeavor.
I’d say the critical thing is to treat writing as sacred. Writers do it faithfully, no matter how difficult it is. There’s never time, there’s never peace and quiet. Do it anyway.
TW: Do your day job skills find a way into making your fiction unique?
BT: What we do and what we experience is ultimately what we write. It’s heavily disguised, but it’s there. For example, experiential designers (who come up with theme parks and so forth) are trained to observe their own reactions to place and time, to note impartially what they see, hear, smell, and feel, and to look at how people interact with each other and their environment.
I did that for a quarter of a century. So when I write, I’m using those same tools, recreating something that I see in my head in such a way that others can share the same experience. That doesn’t make my fiction unique, necessarily, but as far as I know I’m the only theme park designer who writes horror novels.
TW: What difficulties do you see in zombie book sequels? Are there any you’ve read that were done well, and what made them successful? Do you read other zombie books to see what is being done or do you read outside this genre?
BT: All sequels are tough, because you give the first book everything you’ve got. Which means you need to get some more. Luckily zombies are evergreen, so to speak. There’s so much possibility in the genre that hasn’t been explored.
That said, I’m surprisingly poorly read in the genre. When I started work on Rise Again, there weren’t many professionally written zombie novels. Now there are quite a few. While writing both of my books I avoided them, because I didn’t want to be influenced — or discouraged — by what was already out there.
The rules are pretty narrow for your traditional cannibal zombie story, and if you read a lot of them, you’ll find yourself censoring your own ideas. “I can’t write this, they did it in The Walking Dead Volume 35, Issue 19.”
It’s better not to worry about what else is out there much. It’s not worth the anxiety. As with any artistic endeavor, you just have to create the hell out of it and hope for the best.
TW: In a market even more full of zombies since you published RISE AGAIN, how did you seek to make your story stand out as uniquely scary and exciting?
BT: There were two things that really excited me about Below Zero, and they’re both spoilers so I won’t say what they are. But the whole damn book I was writing my way toward those things. And both of them first came to me as sweat-drenched nightmares. If other folks read this thing and have the same nightmares, my work here is done.
TW: What was it like to use the zombie’s hunger for blood as a possible metaphor for addiction?
BT: I was struggling to figure out how to convey what the all-consuming hunger for human flesh must be like for a zombie. It just wasn’t coming to life on the page.
Then a friend of mine, who has been in and out of recovery for amphetamine addiction, relapsed hard. It was incredibly difficult for him to overcome. I felt so helpless, seeing him go through it — addiction is a force that makes matchsticks out of willpower.
Out of that experience came the answer to my story dilemma: a zombie has no will, no willpower. Only hunger. That hunger is the most powerful addiction imaginable. We humans are devourers by nature. At the top of the food chain, the only thing that devours us is our own hunger.
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