Tag Archive for Better Off Undead

Excerpt: BETTER OFF UNDEAD, Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”

I met a middle-school librarian recently who loved this 2017 “cli-fi” book — she thought it was my best book — and it prompted me to take another look at it.

And guess what? She’s right!

Ha, ho, heh.

Though this book received excellent reviews (and a star from Booklist), the sales never quite got there. A disappointment. And somehow, sadly, no matter how I initially felt about the book, it slowly became tinged in my mind with that stigma. A disappointment. Not good enough. 

So it was wonderful to fall in love with it all over again. Or to at least nod and think, Hey, not bad. To know that it’s good, and funny, and mysterious, and smart. 

Here’s an excerpt from the middle of the book, a point when the plot begins to thicken nicely. Adrian is a 7th-grade zombie; Talal is a classmate and a detective; Gia is a new girl with purple hair who seems to be able to see into the future. And that’s where this book is set, btw, the “not-so-distant” future. A book that references pandemics and face masks and super flus and water wars and climate change and a pair of evil corporate billionaires not too unlike the Koch brothers. 

Here, take a swig . . . 



Talal Clues Me In

I was still asleep when Dane knocked on my bedroom door. 

Key word: was.

Past tense.

“Go away,” I grumbled.

“Your friend is here,” Dane called through the door. 

I looked at my clock. It was 8:15 on a Saturday. I sat up, holding my head in my hands. It felt heavy, like a large pumpkin. “Who is it?”

Dane poked his nose into the room. “I don’t know. I never saw him before. He’s wearing a raincoat. And, um, he’s carrying two umbrellas.”

Umbrellas? The sun’s hazy glare streamed through my window. The sky was crisp blue, like an ironed shirt. For a moment, my mind still sputtering, I thought it could have been Zander. Then I remembered the coat. “His name is Talal,” I told Dane. “Tell him I’ll be right down.”

“In your boxers?” Dane asked.

“Just go,” I said.

When I arrived downstairs, I found Dane sprawled on the floor, working on an “Endangered Species” puzzle. Pieces were scattered everywhere. I asked, “Where is he?”

Dane pointed to the side door. 

“You didn’t invite him in?” 

“He wanted to wait outside,” Dane replied.

I went to the sink to swallow down a large glass of water. Still working on hydration, you know. Out the kitchen window I spied Talal standing near our big, sad rhododendron, its leaves turned yellow and brown. Although it was a picture-perfect morning, Talal held a large, black umbrella over his head. “I won’t be long,” I told Dane.

“Can I come?” he asked.

“Sorry, bud. Next time.”

Outside, I squinted in the sunlight. I said. “You woke me up, Tal. Come on inside while I make a shake.”

“I’d rather not do that,” Talal said. “The walls have ears and eyes. Here,” he opened an umbrella and handed it to me, “hold this.”


“I’m serious,” Talal said.

I studied his face. He wasn’t joking. 

“Let’s walk,” he said. ““It’s about that drone. Leave your phone.”

“My phone? I need it,” I said.

Talal shook his head. “No phone.”

“Okay, okay,” I said. I placed my cell on the patio table.

Talal walked toward the back gate. I caught up with him. Both of us an absurd sight, carrying open umbrellas on a sunny day.

“Do you know they can activate all the cameras that are inside our computers?” Talal asked. “You have a smart kitchen, right? Everything’s run by computers. We don’t have to remember to turn off the lights anymore. Cars drive themselves. Our machines automatically order kitty litter when we run low. Think about your phone. That spectacular piece of technology can record every word you say. It can locate exactly where you are. It knows what you ate for dinner and how many hours you sleep. Don’t you understand? They see what you see.”

“Whoa, ease up,” I said. “Who are they?” 

We walked along the street, close to the curb, not on the sidewalk. The roads were quiet. We had the sleepy town to ourselves. 

Talal stopped. He pulled out a tiny computer chip sealed in a plastic bag. “I took that drone apart piece by piece,” he said. “I talked to some people, geeks I trust who specialize in this kind of thing. We know who is spying on you.”

I didn’t know what to say. It was all kind of unreal. 

“There’s a tiny logo printed on this chip, invisible to the human eye,” Talal said. “But when put under a microscope magnified by the order of ten thousand, it’s as clear as day.”

He pulled a folded paper from his pocket. It was a print-out of an enlarged image. The K & K logo. 

“So,” I said.

“So?” Talal echoed. “This proves that the Bork brothers are interested in you. They own the richest, most powerful corporation on the planet. They practically run the country. Those guys live in a compound only forty-five miles away, up beyond a crest in the Catskills.”

“Oh, right,” I said, remembering. “I think I heard about them, maybe.”

“They don’t like the spotlight,” Talal explained. “They operate in the shadows. But they are very powerful –- real financial wizards, and ridiculously rich. They are the ones who sent the drone.” He glanced around, eyes scanning restlessly. “They are probably trying to listen to this conversation right now.”

“That’s why you brought the umbrellas,” I said. 

“Lip readers,” Talal said. “Their staff could videotape us without sound, then figure it out later. These guys will do anything to get the information they want.”

“What information?” I protested. “I mean, even if what you say is true –- that those Bork brothers are following me for some reason –- I don’t know anything! I’m just a kid. An average, run of the mill –-“

“—- zombie,” Talal interrupted. “Nothing average about you.”

I felt like he punched me in the gut.

“Sorry, but that’s the deal,” Talal said. “As far as I know, you might be the only person who has died, and yet still lives. That makes you different. And maybe it makes you interesting.”

We turned down a block, then another. “Can we sit?” I suggested. “My ankle.”

“Sure,” Talal said. He led us to a stone bench in the back of a nearby churchyard. He pulled a sheaf of papers out of his deep coat pocket. “I put this packet together last night. Sorry it’s sloppy. I didn’t have much time.”

The pages were neatly folded and stapled along the left edge. There was nothing haphazard about the way Talal worked. The top page featured a black-and-white photograph of infant twins, swaddled under blankets, in a hospital setting. The twins are turned toward each other as if whispering a secret. 


I flipped the page. 

The next photo was of the twins again. But this time they were aged men, heads close together, unsmiling, staring directly out at the camera. Once again, a large blanket covered their bodies from their necks down. At their knees, four identical legs poked out, wearing matching black socks and leather shoes.

“They look . . .”

Talal turned to me. “They look . . . what?” 

“I don’t know. Just weird, I guess.”

Talal nodded, not saying anything.

I flipped through the rest of the pages. They were filled with numbers, charts, and newspaper clippings. 

“What do we do now?” I asked. 

“Nothing, yet,” Talal said. “At least nothing right now. Let me see what I can dig up on these guys. In the meantime, get used to sometimes going without a cell phone. Let’s not make it any easier for their people to spy on you.”

We headed back to my house. I had to check on Dane, he’d be worried. Talal stopped two blocks away. “We’ll part here,” he said. “I have a family thing.”

“Sure,” I said. “And, um . . . thanks, Tal.”

Maybe he saw something in my face. He said, “Hey, Adrian. It’ll be okay.”

“Sure, sure,” I repeated. And after a pause, I said, “You know, sometimes I have this crazy thought, but I’ve never told anyone.”

Talal just watched me, unmoving, waiting. 

I gestured to the trees and houses. “I sometimes wonder if all of this is just a giant sim game run by a computer program for the amusement of super-beings. Do you ever think that?”

Talal actually laughed. “All the time,” he replied with a grin.

I limped home, my stomach oddly rumbling. Looking up, I noticed a wake of red-headed turkey vultures, at least twenty of them circling in a vortex high above me, holding steady without flapping their wings. I’d never seen that many at once before. They spiraled hypnotically round and round, riding pockets of warm air. Maybe they saw me with their keen eyes and sense of smell. Perhaps they were as puzzled by it all as I was. 

I didn’t have an answer for them. 

“Sorry, birds,” I murmured. “I haven’t got a clue.”

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I snapped on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and moving van pull into huge home, a tear-stained grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: Logo on the side of a huge, glass-sided building for K & K Brothers Corp.

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words, as he spoke them, scrolled across the screen in block letters. They read:









In smaller print, it read: “This has been a paid advertisement by K & K Brothers Corp.”

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “No, nothing, I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –-“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said, while slicing into a giant-sized, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically-engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry. 

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.

I went up to room and sprawled across the bed. I felt a strong urge to find Gia. She had an eerie knack of knowing what was about to happen. It was time we had a talk. My cell dinged. It was a message waiting from Gia: 

7:30 tonight. Lookout Hill. Go to the bench that faces the tracks. We need to talk.

Once again, she was two moves ahead of me.




“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 . . . . In a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — 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, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up.Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books.

“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.

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.



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.

Fan Mail Wednesday #276: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”


I’ll transcribe this letter from Annabel in Massachusetts. The original was lightly written in pencil and my scanner wasn’t up to the task:

Dear James Preller,

My name is Annabel. I read The Courage Test. William is awesome.

One of the things I like is the adventure. The bear and the water rapids parts have a lot of adventure. In the book it said, “If she is making this display to terrify me, it’s working.” It shows William is scared and has encountered something dangerous. There will be a lot of action in that part of the story that’s interesting to read.

How long have you been an author and what’s your favorite type of book?




I replied:


Dear Annabel,

I’m so happy to receive a letter from a reader of The Courage Test. With a new book, I’m never sure if anyone will find it. So: yes, thank you and hooray.

I like the exciting parts, too. It’s those moments when you can almost feel, as a writer, the reader leaning in. One of these days I should try to write a book composed entirely of exciting parts, like those movies that are two-hour car chases. Actually, the thought of that exhausts me.

Ideally, I think we want our stories to have shape and pace, quiet moments, important conversations, laughter, insightful description –- and, sure, somebody almost drowning in the rapids. I think when my writing is at its best, all those elements are woven together.

Yesterday I wrote a dramatic scene for an upcoming book, Blood Mountain, that centers on a brother and sister who are lost in the wilderness for six suspenseful days. A lot happens in this book, so if you like exciting parts, you’ll have to check it out. In the scene I wrote yesterday, the boy, Carter, is alone, exhausted, near hypothermia, desperately hiking through a bog. Oscar Wilde has a great quote: “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last.”

And also, it’s helpful to try to come up with characters that readers care about –- and then do awful things to them. That’s an idea put forth by author Kurt Vonnegut in his famous “8 Rules for Writers.” You might like my newest book, Better Off Undead. It’s about a 7th-grade zombie, Adrian, who meets a girl who can see into the future, along with a beekeeper and a detective, and there’s evil billionaires, and, I promise you, exciting parts.

I published my first book in 1986. The last time the New York Mets made the World Series. And truthfully, I like all kinds of books –- even some of mine!

My best,

James Preller

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?



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.