Archive for Better Off Undead

Climate Change Fiction: How I wrote a “cli-fi” book before I realized it was a thing

I recently came across a term for a literary subgenre that was new to me, cli-fi. As in “climate change fiction.”

This is an expansive category of fiction that includes climate change themes. Within that loose genre, the stories can be utopian or dystopian, literary or satire. It’s a wide open, burgeoning field.

Jules Verne is credited with writing the first books in this genre — long before the term “sci-fi” was coined — with the novel 1883 novel, Paris in the 20th Century, where he imagined Paris hit by a sudden drop in temperature that lasts a number of years. In 1964, JG Ballard wrote The Burning World, a novel predicated on a man-made climate disaster.

Neither of these men realized they were writing cli-fi. And neither did I when I wrote Better Off Undead. But now I understand how my book falls into that category.

I began Better Off Undead with a vision of a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian Lazares, the ultimate misfit. And that idea sat in a drawer for a few years — it seemed a little trendy, frankly — until in 2014 I went to the spectacular “People’s Climate March” in NYC, attended by more than 400,000 citizens of the globe.

 

I traveled down alone -- but not alone -- by bus. So this is me on that great day, seeking attention to a cause that matters. In many ways, this march affected and inspired the book I wrote.

I traveled down alone — but not alone — from Delmar, NY, by bus. So this photo is me, taken by a stranger on that great day, seeking attention for a cause that matters. In many ways, this experience affected and inspired the book I wrote.

People's Climate March, 092114Some of hundreds of thousands take part in the People's Climate March through Midtown, New Yorkscreenshot-2014-09-10-131902_550x322climate-march-9_3000019b10_medium140921_climate_change_rally_nyc_ice_cream_earth_msm_605_60520140921-dsc_0050imagesA protester carries a sign during the "People's Climate March" in the Manhattan borough of New Yorkslide_389314_4706504_freeslide_370038_4261286_free140921_pol_peoplesclimate_11-jpg-crop-original-originalimagemarch-for-climate-changeimrspeoples-march-newam-crew-537x366

Why was Adrian a zombie? I needed an answer for that. At that March, it all connected for me. The book would be set in the not-so-distant future. And suddenly, it was obvious: the world was out-of-whack, like Hitchcock’s “The Birds.” I was writing a world-gone-wrong story. Cli-fi, in other words.

In Better Off Undead, Adrian and his friends live in a future environment imperiled by climate change. Weird things are happening to their world, but in the story it’s mostly unremarked upon, the new normal.

Some examples:

  • Adrian’s father is a mercenary soldier working for Corporate, fighting in the “water wars” somewhere in Africa.
  • Dane warns Adrian not to run away to California because “it’s on fire.” Adrian replies, “Not all of it.”
  • References to “super storms” and “superflus” and dengue fever, melting ice caps and rising seas, killer wasps and strangled lakes.
  • A subplot about honeybees and colony collapse disorder, references to bats dying of white nose disease.
  • “EarthFirst gas masks” are advertised on television.
  • By the way, this is a COMEDY. Booklist gave it a starred review and described the book as “Hilarious!” Just so you don’t get the wrong idea!

Adrian reflects: “I was a reanimated corpse, alone in the world, but I also sensed that maybe I was part of something larger.

My mom!

In this context, the zombie concept began to make sense.

And on it goes. The world in Better Off Undead is immediately recognizable, but at the same time, slightly off. The problems of today persist: bees and bats dying off . . . the end of privacy . . . data-mining by faceless corporations . . . spy drones . . . evil billionaires . . . and hologram advertising beamed into the night sky.

And, yeah, one lone zombie — maybe more — wandering around, wondering what is to become of this planet.

Somehow it all ends with a note of hope.

Because we can’t give up on that.

BETTER OFF UNDEAD: Now in Paperback (Cheap)!

Oh, hey, I guess this is a thing now. The paperback edition of BETTER OFF UNDEAD, only $7.99 (cheap)!

Feiwel & Friends always does an excellent job with their paperback line, Square Fish, and I’m grateful to be so handsomely published.

“Hilarious!” — Booklist, starred review.

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message.” — School Library Journal.

WAIT, HOLD ON, DON’T GO!

Here’s an excerpt from pages 59-63, when Adrian and Zander encounter a dead bat . . .

Zander narrowed his eyes, stopped in front of a house, and pointed toward a bush. “Wow, check that out.”

We walked onto the lawn and stood near the base of an oak tree. It was a dead bat. Zander found a stick and gently poked it. He took a long look.

I said, “I’ve never seen a dead bat before.”

It was entirely brown, except for the area around its nose, which was white. The body looked like a mouse’s, but with the head of tiny pig. Its ears were comically large, I guess for the radar thingy that helps bats fly at night. Echolocation, that the word. Up close, its glossy wings looked like thin plastic, stretched from forelimbs to hind legs. All in all, an exotic creature that was perfectly adapted to a strange life.

Zander looked up at me, blinking. “This is so sad.”

“It’s a dead bat,” I said. “What’s sad about it?”

“It’s like the honeybees,” Zander said. “Remember Ms. Fjord talking about bats?”

I told Zander that perhaps I might not have been paying any attention whatsoever on the day of the bat story. Ms. Fjord, after all, told a lot of stories — it was hard to keep track. “Is this on the test?” we’d ask. And if it wasn’t, we’d tune her out.

She didn’t seem to care about tests as much as other teachers did, which many of her students found confusing. Tests were how we were measured, after all. As one kid asked, “If there’s no test, what’s the point?”

Zander was kneeling beside the dead bat. “This isn’t just about one dead bat, Adrian. There’s a plague all across the eastern states,” my friends, the walking, talking, weird-fact encyclopedia, told me. “More than seven million dead bats in the last five years.”

“Okay, that’s pretty bad.”

“It’s way worse than pretty bad,” Zander countered. He reached into his back pocket and ripped off another Twizzler. He offered me one. Since there was something fundamentally gross about staring at a bat while chewing on a Twizzler, I declined. Zander explained, “Bats eat insects. And insects spread disease . . . to people. Bats in New York and some other states have been almost completely wiped out by white-nose syndrome.”

He pointed with the stick at the bat’s nose. It was strangely white.

“How do you know this stuff?” I asked. “What do you do all day?”

“You know I don’t care about sports,” Zander said. “That frees up a lot of time for reading.”

“Yeah, but –“

“Think about all the basketball statistics you know,” Zander challenged me. “All that useless information cluttering your brain.”

“So instead of knowing that Kobe Bryant won five championship rings . . .”

Zander nodded. “I know that brown bats are headed for the endangered list.”

“Do you think any of this stuff . . . explains me?”

Zander laughed. “Adrian, nothing explains you! All I know is nature is off balance. Climate change. Polar bears losing their habitat, dying out. Honeybees and bats disappearing. Zombies appearing.”

I wondered, once again, if maybe I wasn’t alone. “Do you think there’s more than just me?”

Zander stood, puffing from the effort. “What? You figure you’re the only one?”

I waved away a fly, shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know. But wouldn’t we have heard if there were more?”

Zander sucked thoughtfully on his lower lip. “If I was a zombie? I’d keep it under my hat, you know. Who needs the abuse?”

Maybe he was onto something. Were other zombies out there? Not just one or two, but lots of us? Kids in other towns, closeted away out of sight? Zombies in basements, playing video games, afraid to come out? We’d hear about it, right? I wondered how many people knew about me. Not just rumors and gossip, but really knew the truth. If people heard the story that some random kid had turned into a zombie, would anyone even believe it?

Doubtful.

Maybe that’s why Dr. Halpert worked so hard to keep things quiet. He said I’d been through enough, that I didn’t need the distraction. No television interviews, no reporters. Which was find with me because: Obviously!

Zander interrupted my reverie. “Come on, let’s go get a slice. I’m getting one of those giant-size sodas — and I’m not sharing, so deal with it.”

 

 

David Bowie died when I was writing this book . . . so I had to get him in there somehow

For some reason, the mansion’s sound system

began blasting David Bowie

— “Ch-ch-changes” — at earsplitting volume.

Until that moment, I hadn’t realized

that Talal Mirwani was a Bowie fan.

But then again, isn’t everybody?

— BETTER OFF UNDEAD.

 

Music is important to many artists and writers. Talk to us and we’ll discuss what we were listening to during different projects, either for inspiration or, you know, because it happened to be the summer when that particular album dropped. It was in the air we breathed.

We hear the sounds — they jangle through our synapses — and leak into our work. Often we can look back on that artwork and see traces of those tunes in the words and images we used.

David Bowie died on January 10, 2016. It was a death that got a huge response on public media, bigger, perhaps, than many of us might have imagined. It hit us hard. The Thin White Duke, gone. It was difficult to wrap our minds around it. We realized the extent to which he was a part of our lives. Always there. Now gone.

At that time I was finishing up my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead. Listening to Bowie during those weeks after his death — so many of us went through it all again, the blessed discography: “Aladdin Sane,” “Diamond Dogs,” “Low,” and on and on and on — conjuring memories, visions of our youth, past friendships, the whole shebang — one phrase caught my ear: 

Turn and face the strange.”

It struck me: That would be a cool title for a book. I scribbled out a large, dramatic type treatment. I even thought it would have been a cool title for the very book I was writing. But by that time, I had an approved title and maybe I was just being sentimental. It felt too late to change it now. Too many hurdles and hassles. Yet I wanted to get Bowie into the book somehow.

To set the scene, it’s at the climax when Adrian Lazerus confronts the evil-billionaire Bork brothers (loosely modeled after the Koch brothers) and learns their dark secret. A lot happens in that scene. A drone drifts outside the window . . . sparks start and the sprinkler system gets set off . . . alarms blare . . . a dramatic fight between Gia and a massive bodyguard . . . pure chaos. And, admittedly, a little over the top. Hopefully entertaining.

From pages 258-259:

Halpert called out instructions to the bodyguard over the deafening blare of alarm bells. “Carry them through the tunnels to the heliport. Move quickly! I’ll initiate the self-destruct sequence from the communication center.”

The sprinklers slowed to a steady drip. Zander rose groggily from the wet floor. I could see that his nose was broken. Bright red blood puddled at his feet, turning pink on the floor as it mixed with the water. “Let’s go,” I yelled, yanking him by the arm. I lifted up Dane to my face and kissed him. Gia advanced to the lead, and the four of us swept out of the room. 

For some reason, the mansion’s sound system began blasting David Bowie — “Ch-ch-changes” — at earsplitting volume. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that Talal Mirwani was a Bowie fan. But then again, isn’t everybody?

Turn and face the strange!”

“What happened back there?” Zander yelled as we splashed and slipped down the hallway. 

“It was Talal!” I yelled over the noise. 

And so it goes, on to the book’s big finish. 

I’m glad I squeezed Bowie in there. 

It’s the little things that make writers happy. And, of course, praise and royalty checks.

On a similar theme, I once started a Jigsaw Jones book: 

“I woke up. I got out of bed. I dragged a comb across my head.”

Nobody ever said a word to me about that, either.

Climate Change, Alfred Hitchcock, and BETTER OFF UNDEAD

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock's "The Birds."

A freaky, zombie-esque storyboard from Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

 

The springboard concept for my novel, Better Off Undead, was that Adrian Lazerus would become a zombie who, post-accident, returns transformed to middle school. The ultimate misfit, outsider. And as far as the rest of the world knew, the only zombie on the planet. (If you want more zombies, you’re going to have to demand a sequel.)

Yes, the zombie, that’s a preposterous idea. And, I thought, an interesting metaphor. So I went with it. Along the way, I asked myself why Adrian had reanimated. What was going on? Looking around, I realized this was a “world gone wrong” story.

An inspiration for this notion surely came from Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “The Birds,” which is a classic “world gone wrong” story. I think in retrospect I’ve long been impressed by the film’s central idea. When the natural world goes out of whack, everything goes off-balance. The center cannot hold. That poem by Yeats, another inspiration.

birds-film-poster

It did not require a great imaginative leap. Look around: the world is going wrong in many ways. Climate change is a leading cause of much of it. Droughts and wildfires, extreme weather, superflus, Zika viruses, melting ice caps, and on and on. So I ended up taking a lot of different elements that are in the news today, blowing them up a little bit, and employing those issues as context for Adrian’s story, which is set in the not-so-distant future. Adrian himself is a result of a world gone wrong, but he’s also existing within it. Like the rest of us.

Here’s an excerpt of a recent article by Lauren Weber in The Huffington Post, titled “Mosquito- and Tick-Borne Diseases Have Tripled, But the CDC Won’t Say It’s Climate Change“:

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The number of Americans who have gotten sick from mosquito, tick and flea bites more than tripled between 2004 to 2016, according to new figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study also said that local and state public health departments are unequipped to properly combat the surge of disease from insects.

Since 2004, nine new diseases have been introduced in the United States, including the chikungunya and Zika viruses. Diseases already endemic to the country, such as Lyme disease, shot up, contributing to these high case counts. Experts warn Lyme disease diagnosis numbers can be up to 10 times higher than currently reported.

“The numbers are really staggering,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute. “The increase that we’re seeing over a very short time period is unprecedented.”

I could site dozens of articles that served as seeds for the ideas, {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400sometimes presented off-handedly, matter-of-factly, in the book. Adrian’s father, for example, is away in Africa working for Corporate, a for-hire soldier fighting in the “Water Wars.” Just read about water security issues if you think that’s far-fetched. Or consider white nose syndrome and the importance of bats. In the novel, Zander and Adrian come across a dead bat while on their way to the local pizza joint. Zander has a keen interest in nature — bees and beekeeping play a pivotal role in this book — so they pause and take note of it. Look at this. A dead bat. White nose syndrome. And they move on.

Here’s an excerpt from a February article in The New Yorker by J.R. Sullivan, “A Fatal Disease Is Ravaging America’s Bats, and Scientists are Struggling to Stop It“:

As of September, 2017, the disease had spread to thirty-one states, some of which have suffered ninety-per-cent declines in their bat populations; the crisis, which began in New York, now extends as far west as Washington. “I think most states would say it’s not a matter of if white nose is going to show up but when,” Kelly Poole, the endangered-species coördinator for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, told me. The disease disrupts the bats’ hibernation, causing them to wake up in winter, exert energy looking for food, and, in time, starve. It is almost always fatal, leaving caves full of bones in its wake. Scientists have yet to find a cure or treatment. “I get a sense that we may actually be witnessing the extinction of a couple of species, at least regionally,” Gumbert said. “We may not lose a species completely, but it wouldn’t surprise me if we did.”

Sullivan-A-Fatal-Disease-Ravaging-Americas-Bats

In a state such as Iowa, where the economy is based largely on agriculture, white nose is particularly worrisome. According to a study published in 2011 in the journal Science, bats consume enough insects to save U.S. farmers an estimated $22.9 billion a year in pest control and crop damage, a conclusion echoed by a follow-up study in 2015. The findings suggest that a nationwide decline in bats could result in higher food prices, owing to an uptick in pesticide use and a reduction in crop yields. “That cost gets passed down to the consumer, and you start seeing it at the grocery stores,” Piper Roby, Copperhead’s research director, told me. She also noted that increased pesticide use means more harmful chemicals in the ecosystem. “It’s just this cascade effect if you remove a top-down predator, and you start to see the effects of it years later,” she said.

In one key scene, a queen bee speaks an important line. (Yes, it surprised me, too; my first talking bee!) She delivers only three words to Gia: “It all connects.”

And she’s absolutely right, especially when it comes to climate change.

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FAN MAIL WEDNESDAY #272: Meet Isaiah

postalletter-150x150

 

I recently spent a week in Hudson, Ohio. I don’t like to brag, but there it is — what a great community, and so many good places to eat. One night I did a signing at a bookstore, The Learned Owl, right there on North Main Street. That’s when I first met Isaiah, a boy who seemed particularly excited to meet a “real, live” author.

Two days later I spoke at Isaiah’s school. When my presentation was over, the students heading out, Isaiah came up and handed me this letter. I don’t think I can adequately describe the look in his eyes, other than to say he seemed to think he was in the presence of someone special. Or maybe that’s transference, because that’s exactly how I felt about him. 

I hope you can read Isaiah’s faint writing, because it’s an especially kind letter, and because he thanks me for being amazing. Hey, it’s about time somebody noticed!

 

Scan 4

I replied . . .

Dear Isaiah,

First of all, did you see how I spelled your name? Not bad, right?

I remember when you came into the store to have your book signed. We talked for a while. Then I distinctly remember seeing you again, two or three days later, after I spoke at your school.

You had written a letter and you delivered it personally. Although we didn’t get a photograph –- I kind of wish we did that –- I can easily recall your face.

Thank you so much for that letter. I’m grateful you took the time to say those very kind words. You know, Isaiah, it’s not about me, James Preller. What I am most happy about is that you feel inspired to read, excited about books, any books, and that hopefully you’ll continue down that (amazing) road for the rest of your life. Who knows, maybe soon you’ll be writing your stories –- the ones only you can tell –- about your family, your experiences, your thoughts and feelings.

Thanks for being so nice to me. An author is lucky to meet a reader like you.

Keep reading, keep being . . . Isaiah!

Yes, your new friend,

James Preller

NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTO: I sent my reply to Isaiah to his (wonderful) librarian, since I didn't have another way of reaching him. I didn't expect to see his reaction documented -- I never see that moment -- and it's awfully nice to see his happy grin. He's holding an old NY Mets baseball card, since I often include them in my responses. It's just a thing I do.

NOTE ABOUT THIS PHOTO: I sent my reply to Isaiah’s (terrific) librarian, since I didn’t have another way of reaching him. I didn’t expect to see his reaction documented — I never see that moment — and it’s awfully nice to see his happy grin. He’s holding an old NY Mets baseball card, since I often include one in my responses. It’s just a thing I do. Propaganda!