Archive for Better Off Undead

Hey, Amazon: How’d You Know?!

Amazon found something they thought I might like, presumably because I wrote it. Hey, Amazon, don’t you know anything about writers? It doesn’t work that way! (Actually, I bought a dozen copies; you know, to pump up the numbers. Not really.)

 

After writing this book, which is set in the not-so-distant future, I realized that it fit into an interesting subgenre, CLI-FI, or climate change fiction. Adrian Lazarus is a high-functioning, 7th grade zombie in a world gone wrong. I got a lot of help with the bees from my friend, science teacher Jennifer Ford,  who I (sort of, very loosely) made a character in the book: Ms. Fjord.

“Preller takes the physical and emotional awkwardness of middle school to grisly levels . . . [and] thoughtfully chronicles the anxieties of middle school, using a blend of comedy and horror, to send a message of empowerment and acceptance.” — Publishers Weekly.
“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc.” — Booklist, Starred Review

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.” — School Library Journal.

Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers.Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

 

 

GUILTY AS CHARGED: “The Wizard of Oz” named most influential movie of all time

According to the researchers at the University of Turin in Italy, The Wizard of Oz has been named the most influential movie of all time. This was determined by the amount of references made to it in other movies (47,000 were reportedly taken into account in the study).

Rounding out the Top Ten were:

1. The Wizard of Oz

2. Star Wars

3. Psycho

4. King Kong

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey

6. Metropolis

7. Citizen Kane

8. The Birth of a Nation

9. Frankenstein

10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 

One thing that happens to a writer after a lifetime of words have been spilled — in my case, I published my first book in 1986 at age 25 — you begin to see patterns in the work. Sometimes it’s a worrying thing, falling back on familiar phrases or images, a troubling sense that you might be repeating yourself. That’s a sign of a lazy mind, returning to the old bag of tricks, and I try to be vigilant against it. And yet at the same time it makes perfect sense. If a writer is drawn to water images, for example, and spent a lifetime moved by water, heart filled with water, it only makes sense that watery imagery would leak into the writing.

I can see that with references in my books to The Wizard of Oz, which I’m sure I’ve done multiple times. Most recently, in Better Off Undead, I borrowed the basic plot structure from the film and loosely applied it to my story: the assembled characters going to meet the Wizard.

Here’s a page from The Fall, a book that’s based on a boy’s journal entries. This page contains the entire chapter:

I’m sure I’ve casually sprinkled references to the iconic movie in other books — did I ever use it in Jigsaw Jones? I can’t remember — though none spring immediately to mind. Oh, wait, there’s a brief reference in The Courage Test, page 169: “She leans into the camera. Her face looms larger, Oz-like.”

So many huge, iconic moments in that film. Think of the yellow brick road. The wicked witch. Dorothy’s quest to return home. Clicking her heels together three times. Flying monkeys and fierce, apple-tossing trees. A tin man absent a heart. The quest, the mission, the dark passage. What a story!

And my favorite: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” That line kills me every time. Maybe I’ve said it a hundred times. Probably more. It’s an idea that comes up a lot, perfectly illustrated in that one revealing scene.

Oh yes, for me, there’s no question: The Wizard of Oz is clearly the most influential movie of my life.

Lastly, okay, I admit the list is pretty ridiculous and not an accurate measurement of a film’s “influence” on popular culture. Metropolis over Jaws? The Birth of a Nation more influential than The Godfather?

Oh well. As long as The Wizard of Oz comes out on top, I’m good with it.

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.