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INTERVIEW: Peter Clines on Mixing Zombies and Superheroes

Peter Clines is the author of the genre-blending –14– and the Ex-Heroes series. He grew up in the Stephen King fallout zone of Maine and made his first writing sale at age seventeen to a local newspaper. His first screenplay got him an open door to pitch stories at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Voyager. He is the writer of countless film articles, several short stories, “The Junkie Quatrain”, the rarely-read “The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe”, and the poorly-named website Writer on Writing.

Kristin Centorcelli: Peter, will you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Peter Clines: Well, I grew up in New England. Mostly in Maine, in the shadow of that well-known horror writer from Maine. I spent my early years writing awful comic book scripts (I still have some of the very polite rejection letters Jim Shooter sent me from Marvel), and then I moved on to even worse “novels.” I moved to California on a whim after college (where I wrote ever-so-slightly better novels) and stumbled into the film industry, and that got me playing with screenplays (like half the people in Hollywood). After several years I ended up writing for a screenwriting magazine. That gave me the time to sell some stuff to niche markets. And eventually it hit the point that I was writing fiction full time, because by then I’d made pretty much every mistake you could and figured out how to stop making them. Well, most of them, anyway.

KC: What made you decide to mix zombies and superheroes in Ex-Heroes? Will you tell us a bit about the book and what inspired you to write it?

PC: It didn’t feel like a decision, more like a “how has no one done this yet” sort of thing. It’s such a great opportunity for action and heroism and honest drama. There’s been tons of small, one-on-one comics of superheroes fighting zombies. One of the Big Two comic publishers did a “superheroes as zombies” series that did well, but I thought it just missed the boat entirely (still did well for them, though).

So I started scribbling notes along the lines of “how I would’ve done it,” and shortly after that I came across some old sketchbooks with a ton of superheroes I’d made up as a kid. They were pretty standard hero archetypes, and I realized if I polished and updated them a bit they’d work really well in that story I wanted to tell. I started poking at it and writing out large sections and character studies, and at one point I realized I had something like 30,000 words worth of stuff. A few months after that I had Ex-Heroes.

KC: Why do you think zombies have become so popular in recent years?

PC: I think we all understand that it’s not the individual zombie that’s threatening but the fact that there’s an unstoppable wave of them. In a similar way, I think we went through a long stretch recently where most people had felt very helpless and very isolated. Zombies tapped into something many of us could relate to– that feeling of being alone and overwhelmed. Heck, a lot of folks can still relate to that. The sense that the whole world’s turned on us and there’s nothing we can do. So we also get a lot more honest satisfaction when we see somebody triumphing over those odds.

A few months back I was on the Academy of Zombie Survival podcast, and one of them, Rich, had a really clever observation I liked, too. Zombies are appealing because they’re the monsters we can beat. Vampires and werewolves are faster and stronger than us, and we need special weapons to kill them. Demons, aliens, robots—those are all out of our league. But we all understand that any blunt instrument can take out a zombie, and any halfway decent pair of shoes will keep us out of their hands. So they’re the monster we know we’ve got a real chance against.

KC: What’s one of your favorite superheroes?

PC: There’s a lot of heroes I like, but Spider-Man’s been my favorite for years. I’ve got a huge run of Amazing Spider-Man, well over three hundred issues. I think he’s the perfect mix of regular guy, noble hero, and believable abilities. I mean, in a world of thunder gods and gamma monsters, he’s a guy who can jump really high and lift a car with some effort. Alas, Spider-Man’s been screwed up a lot in recent years, what with Civil War and Brand New Day and now all this Doc Ock stuff. I was hurt too many times and I gave up. Now I’m just waiting for Robert Kirkman to write more Super Dinosaur.

KC: In your novel 14, you detoured into horror/mystery territory. What’s something that you find truly terrifying?

PC: Terrifying is tough. I think most adults don’t know terrifying until it’s happening to them. I think we know scary. Kids know real terror, because they don’t have the intellectual hardware we’ve all built up to help us rationalize stuff. When I was a kid I was terrified of everything. Everything. I got scared by television shows and comic books. I read one of Stephen King’s shorts, “The Boogeyman,” when I was eleven or twelve and it scarred me. To this day I can’t sleep if the closet door’s open. I know it’s stupid and silly, but I just can’t. The T-Rex in Jurassic Park terrified me because I used to have recurring nightmares about the dinosaur puppets from Land of the Lost.

That being said, I get scared a lot. It’s an empathy thing. People who don’t get scared at all, who can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes, they worry me.

KC: What are a few of your biggest favorite authors or novels? Is there anyone in particular who has influenced your writing more than the rest?

PC: This is one of those questions that could fill a couple of pages. I read voraciously as a kid, and I still go through at least a book or two a week in my spare time. There’s just so many. Alexander Key, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lloyd Alexander, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Lee Child, Dan Abnett… I could go on for as long as you let me. And I think they’re each an influence on one level or another. There’s always a little phrase, a line where you catch a neat trick, something that’s cleverly structured. It’s basic input and output. You take in a lot of good stuff—and even some bad stuff now and then for balance and perspective—and it’s all going to affect what comes out.

KC: What’s next for you?

PC: I’m finishing up the fourth Ex book, which I think is due out from Broadway Books sometime around Halloween. Then I’ve got a couple of different ideas I’m playing with. I think the most likely one is a potential new series, but I’m still sort of feeling out the idea so I don’t want to talk about it too much. There’s also a zombies on the moon thing that keeps getting put down and picked up and put back down, a dark sci-fi/ horror story called Mouth, and the bare-bones for a fifth Ex book. One way or another, I’m going to be busy for a while.

Stay tuned tomorrow for an excerpt from Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines!

About Kristin Centorcelli (842 Articles)
Kristin Centorcelli is the Associate Editor at SF Signal, proprietor of My Bookish Ways, a reviewer for Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, and has also written for Crime Fiction Lover, Criminal Element, and Mystery Scene Magazine. She has been reviewing books since late 2010, in an effort to get through a rather immense personal library, while also discussing it with whoever will willingly sit still (and some that won’t).
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