The Dead We Know by T. J. Danko is a zombie novel that follows in the tradition of The Walking Dead.
T. J. Danko’s novel The Dead We Know has been called “a smart twist on the usual zombie lore” and “gripping, tense, creepy, edge of your seat.” The Kindle-published e-book follows a pair of oil-field workers and two teenage girlfriends who set out in an apocalyptic zombie world where they must work together to survive.
In this interview, Danko discusses the tricks of genre fiction: dialogue, the rules of survival in a zombie world, and the reason why zombie stories always begin with the main character waking from a coma. A writing exercise inspired by the opening of the novel—especially how key information is parceled out through dialogue—can be found here.
I love the dialogue that opens the novel. The banter between Nick and Eduardo is short and snappy and really establishes the dynamics of their friendship. A lot of writers would struggle with this opening scene. They know that something big must happen–a zombie encounter–and that they must somehow set the stage for the encounter. As a result, a lot rides on everything that comes prior to that encounter. How did you approach this scene?
T J Danko
Thanks! There were a few things I wanted to work out in the opening scene, but you’re right, it was a balance between providing what was necessary to establish character and set up the plot without telling too much. The priority of the release of information had to be in the scene itself, knowing there was plenty of time to tell how the epidemic began. Partly it’s a little easier on a zombie book because there’s a familiarity to the scenario.
But the opening scene was also a way to try new things by writing an unfamiliar type of story. In many ways, my zombie book was a reaction to my own dissatisfaction with pieces I’d been working on. When I read stories that could be classified as genre, whether it’s Gone Girl or the Stieg Larsson books, I often found myself compulsively flipping through the pages, eager to get to the next part. When I looked at my own stories, I worried that people wouldn’t read it with the same excitement. There sometimes was a static quality, a lack of forward propulsion, which bothered me. I wanted to study how those writers did it and try it out for myself.
The dialogue was not only to establish character and hopefully be funny, it was a way to put off the zombies, to try to heighten the expectation of their introduction. My thoughts tied into Alfred Hitchcock’s famous idea of suspense versus surprise. He says that the difference can be illustrated by a story. You have two people at a table, talking. A little while passes, we listen in. And suddenly, a bomb goes off under the table. Surprise. Now
Click to watch video of Alfred Hitchcock discussing bombs and tension in an AFI Master Seminar.
if we take the same scene, a couple having a conversation, but this time the camera pans down to show the bomb, or we heard earlier about someone plotting to blow up the coffee shop and how the bomb will go off at 1 PM and we see it’s 12:45, and we show the couple talking about trivial matters, the audience will be watching tensely, waiting for the bomb to explode, wanting to warn them. That’s suspense.
In a similar fashion, I approached the initial dialogue as a way to stretch out the moment before the zombies appear. They’re going to make an appearance; we know that. But if we can extend the scene for as long as possible, there’s hopefully a chance to increase the sense of dread. And also, I thought there might be a chance that the tension would make the dialogue a little funnier by contrast.
The opening scene also hews pretty closely to horror-story convention: two characters on the road, late at night, and a chance encounter that goes horribly wrong. If this scene was being discussed in workshop, people might advise you to find a less cliche way of entering the novel. But it seems to me that in a work of genre, cliche is important. First, as the writer, you know where to start the story, rather than needing to create a beginning out of the limitless possibilities. Second, the cliche/convention exists in the first place not only because it’s a convenient way to begin the story but also because it rings true to us. Driving at night in the middle of nowhere is a little scary, even under the best circumstances. Walking alone through the woods is scary. As a result, it seems to me that you must begin the novel this way. But, of course, you need to make the convention seem fresh, which you do. How did you choose this opening scenario?
T J Danko
It is a pretty standard scene in a horror movie. I wish I could say that it was some clever idea about fairy tales and how walking in the woods is a subtle message that we’re moving out of our world into something supernatural, or that I was deliberately tweaking the genre. But it was mostly because I had an image of a family of zombies illuminated by headlights on the side of the road, and I wanted it in the opening chapter.
Could I bring up another thought? The fact that Nick and Eduardo were ignorant of the sickness and were driving into a world where the zombie apocalypse was already going full-swing was due to a reluctance to begin with the first diagnoses of the first zombie. The spread of zombie-ism is like an epidemic: a slow rise before it reaches the tipping point and spreads rapidly. If you start at the first incident of the disease, it would take too long for the story to ramp up. I think that’s the reason why The Walking Dead and 28 Days Later begin with their main characters in comas, waking up to a world already overrun with the infected.
How important is a coma to The Walking Dead? Check out this official plot summary from the show’s website.
For this reason, I tried to side-step this beginning of the epidemic by isolating Nick and Eduardo, having them hear the rumors but not believing them; I could save the spread of the sickness in a later scene through a short flashback. But how to isolate them? I had a news story I’d been holding onto for a long time. Have you ever found research just because it’s interesting and you thought you might be able to use it someday? I have a list of those. A year or so ago, I heard about temporary communities set up in North Dakota for oil drilling. They’re called “Man Camps,” where the workers are paid very well but stay in these sprawling camps, next to the oil fields, populated almost exclusively by men. I’d been holding onto this place, waiting patiently for a story to fit it in. Even though it only appears at the beginning of the book and I’m not sure it’s the most elegant solution in isolating the characters, I was happy to finally find a place for it.
While the cliché of the opening scene wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, I did want to start in a familiar setting as a jumping off point to the rest of the book. In my mind, my real main character is the teenager Carly, who is introduced in the next chapter. This novel is her story: she’s the protagonist and the one who changes the most, moving from insecurity to the reluctant leader of the group. She turns from someone who is traumatized to a more action-orientated character. But the opening to her story wasn’t going to have the same immediacy or potential cinematic quality as Nick and Eduardo, alone in the woods being attacked by a family of zombies. Also, clichés are often clichés for a reason. They play to our fears, perhaps connect to something familiar that just feels right. My hope is that the opening is specific and individual enough to break out of the cliché.
I once heard someone claim that horror stories tell us something about the national mood, our insecurities and fears. So, Godzilla came out of our fear of nuclear energy and the classic zombie films were born out of the Cold War. Also, in those early zombie movies, the zombies were always attacking teenagers parked on the edge of town, making out. In a way, the zombies were enforcing our threatened moral code. I often think about this claim whenever some natural disaster arrives, and someone like Jerry Falwell blames the death and destruction on homosexuals. Perhaps it’s in our genetic makeup to view disaster as God’s wrath and punishment. Have you ever thought about horror stories this way? Why did you choose zombie and not vampires, werewolves, witches, or mummies or any of the other standard monsters?
T J Danko
Those are good questions. When I started writing, I was thinking this exact thing, about how many monsters seem to be directly connected to cultural concerns. Zombies seem to have a strange place within the realms of monster stories. Vampires in the Western culture circle around transgression and sexual repression – Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Twilight series, as far as I’ve heard – and werewolves are about our nature and our own animalism. The George Romero zombies are often used as a metaphor for larger societal issues, where the films tackled themes like racism or consumerism. But somewhere these concerns seemed to change, and now the underlying sub-text behind zombies is the apocalypse and survival. It seems to be a concern for everyone, no matter where you stand in the political spectrum. The world’s warming up. Meteors are crashing into Earth. Survivalists are building bunkers and hoarding supplies. Zombies represent the breakdown of order, the worry about how we would survive when social structures collapse. I don’t think it’s an accident that many modern zombie stories explore the idea that other survivors end up being more dangerous than the zombies.
I did start writing with a sense of dread for the future. But there was another idea for the book. I thought about the rules of survival in the movie Zombieland, not to mention the CDC of all places. I thought this was a clever way of pushing the zombie genre further, but part of me also thought how these lists wouldn’t help you survive, not really, and would probably kill you. You think you know what a disaster will look like, but it will never be exactly as you expect. In other words, when the zombies do come for us (and they will!), the tactics will probably be useless, simply because zombies will not behave like the zombies in movies or TV shows. That was one of the central notions I had when I started the story.
You’ve written literary short stories and now a genre novel. Were the experiences completely different, or have you found one feeding or influencing the other?
T J Danko
While really great writers have dabbled in genre work, I sensed they were often winking at the audience. I didn’t want to do that. There’s a real power to genre that shouldn’t be discounted. There were some good lessons that I learned by expanding the scope of my writing.
Still, writing genre is different from literary fiction, especially if you add the self-publishing, e-book aspect into the equation. A literary novel can generally take three years or so, often much longer. The e-book market thrives on quantity. From what I’ve learned, you’re probably not going to sell much or be as able to market yourself if you only have one e-book. In genre, on the Kindle, it’s not atypical to publish two or three books a year, sometimes more. The speed in writing has to mean less time spent agonizing over sentences or worrying over plot and characters. Since I’m neurotic, I found writing in a genre liberating, concerning myself mostly with establishing forward momentum and creating set pieces. That said, it was impossible to let go of the tendency to want to write the best sentence possible, and I really hope my sentences are well-crafted.
In the end, I do think writing both genre and literary stories has enriched my work. I talked about how The Dead We Know gave me a place to explore tension. It also made me think about pacing and my relationship with audience. Readers of the horror genre want to be scared; they want to be entertained. While there is a tendency in a literary book to turn the camera inwards, to search for truths and expand the mysteries, it’s also useful to think about how you can play with the audience, how they can be shocked or surprised, how they can be kept in suspense. And maybe it’s helped me a little in finding new ways to make them turn that page.
Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.