If you’ve been following us for a while, you’ve probably noticed our mild obsession with the works of one Isaac Marion, a mysterious and sardonic Northwesterner who has independently published two novels and, on his website, many short stories – all horrifying, hilarious, and heartwarming in various measures. I first stumbled on his signature story – “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love” – by chance in the summer of 2008, fell in love, and shot the link to his website over to Kakaner. Both of us became avid followers of his work.
This fall, we were thrilled when Marion announced that his novel Warm Bodies, a story about love after the zombie apocalypse, and based on the original “I Am a Zombie Filled with Love,” had been sold to a major American publisher. Even more recently, he announced that it’s also been sold for publication in the UK, and in Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Korean. On top of all that, he’s planning to self-publish a collection of his short fiction – something Kakaner and I have hoped for for a long while.
This week, we had the honor of actually interviewing Isaac Marion. Below, he shares a little (actually, a lot) about his life and influences, and reflects on Mass Amateurism, the zombie trend, and more.
TBL: Isaac, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we try to write an author page for each author whose works we review. Could you give us a mini-biography of your life until now and anything else you think should be in an author bio of you?
I grew up in northwestern Washington and have lived in or near Seattle most of my adult life. My family was really poor while I was growing up; we lived in a lot of weird places, like tents and tow-trailers and my uncle’s mossy motorcycle garage in the woods, which was eventually condemned by the city and burned down. (I have a photo of it burning posted above my desk, as a reminder that things could be, and were, worse.) Even when we were living in real houses or at least mobile homes, we moved a lot; 27 times total before I set out on my own.
The year we spent in that motorcycle garage, which I dubbed “The Hovel”, was the year I started writing. I was 16, so of course I wrote a mind-blowingly overwrought thousand-page fantasy epic called “The Birth of Darkness”, which will never be read by anyone as long as I’m alive to prevent it. I always knew I didn’t want to do any kind of job that requires a degree so I skipped college and taught myself how to write by just reading and writing a lot, which I think was time better spent. Several years and a few dozen weird and unconnected jobs later, it paid off, and now I am apparently on course to living the dream. Exploding high-five.
TBL: Apart from that, what’s one Cool Thing your readers should know about you?
Gosh I don’t know. I’m left handed? I’m really tall? I’m incredibly good at sound effects? I guess that’s three things, but none of them are all that Cool, so…
TBL: When you were a kid, where did you think you would be at 26 years old?
Dead, or maybe Raptured. My family was really conservative Christian when I was a kid, so the concept that the world might be around for a while and maybe I should wake the fuck up and pay attention didn’t occur to me till my early twenties.
TBL: What kind of kid were you, anyway?
Ultra-Nerd. Star Trek, Final Fantasy, Anime (before it became marginally cool) the whole deal. Except I managed to walk the fence a little between the nerds and the popular kids, maybe because the schools I went to were so small and pathetic that the popular kids weren’t very cool either, and they had to take whatever recruits they could get.
TBL: How did you decide to take the self-publishing/Internet route? How do you feel about your readership and the reaction to your work online?
I don’t really think I “took” that “route”. My goal/plan was always to get legitimately published, I just put stuff up online as I went along because writing something while knowing it won’t be read by anyone for years if ever is extremely depressing, like when you peek into a movie theater and the movie is playing but there’s no one even in the theater, they’re just playing it anyway in case someone shows up late. Ugh.
As far as the reactions, I feel okay about them. When I post new stories I usually get a few nice comments, but sometimes none at all. People talk a lot about my online presence but in the big picture it really isn’t worth considering; I only get about 150 hits a day, so it’s more like a small, friendly test audience than a “readership”. It’s great that some people read my stuff online, and I really appreciate how supportive those people have been when I try to sell a book (which I don’t really consider Self-Publishing, more like printing a few demo copies) but my main concern is getting it out into the real world, outside the tiny internet bubble. Even though “publishing” online seems to have worked out well for me, I’m honestly not very excited about the “Mass Amateurism” phenomenon. I think the idea that all traditional media outlets should be bypassed and all barriers to entry should be torn down so that “everyone can have their voice heard” is ludicrous. I don’t want to hear everyone’s voices. That’s way too many voices; I have a hard enough time choosing my entertainment options as it is. Somebody who knows what they’re doing needs to pan the gold out of that stream for me. When people tell me that the book industry is dying and in a few years the big publishers will all be gone and replaced by iTunes and amateur blogs like my own, that doesn’t thrill me at all. That sounds like a dystopian future to me, like the extreme opposite of Orwell’s “1984”. Instead of being repressed and brainwashed and subjugated by Big Brother, everything becomes so free and instant and utterly uncontrolled that art and culture dissolves into a blurry, buzzing foam and everyone goes insane from the chaos.
WOW I went off there. I guess that’s my longwinded and ranty way of saying that “the internet route” was just a means to an end for me, and not something I’m really interested in.
TBL: What made you decide to expand “I Am a Zombie Filled of Love” into a full-length novel?
A couple of things. The response I got to that story totally floored me; for a while it was getting over 70,000 hits a month, which is huge by my standards. At the time I had no idea that “zombies are hot right now” and that there was a wave of zombie movies and books about to crash. I found this out much later and rued it, but it was too late to change course by then; I’d already started writing something I was really excited about. But beyond the fact that the short story struck a chord with people, I just thought it was a juicy premise ripe with metaphor and humor and sadness and I really wanted to explore it more. I had a sort of personal epiphany and dramatic change of worldview early on in the writing process, which took the story in directions I never thought of when I was writing the short. Opposite directions really, since “Zombie Filled With Love” sort of glorifies apathy and resignation, while Warm Bodies is all about fighting against that.
TBL: Emera commented in her review of The Inside that many of the novel’s details had an autobiographical feel. Is this close to the mark?
Yeah, The Inside is a pretty accurate snapshot of my early twenties living in Small Town, Washington. (Which is why I’m so reluctant to revisit that book any time soon, but we’ll see what my agent says about it.) The whole concept of “the Inside” and “Laura” came from an actual experience I had where this amazing girl who I didn’t recognize from real life kept showing up in my dreams and I started pining for her while I was awake. Of course things go much further in the book, but there’s definitely a grain of truth in there. Maybe a whole silo.
TBL: You’ve accomplished every closet nerd’s dream of attaining a publishing deal. What would your advice be to aspiring young writers? In hindsight, would you have done anything differently?
The thing I would have done differently is started writing Warm Bodies earlier, so that I wouldn’t have to be contending with the above mentioned wave of zombie media, which not only hurt the publishing deal I ended up with but also made it look like I jumped on a bandwagon, when in reality, most of the other “zombie books” out there have very little in common with Warm Bodies, thematically or aesthetically. But what can you do? It’s hard to outrun the zeitgeist.
As for advice, I really don’t have much. What happened to me isn’t reproducible-I just put my stuff out there, and got lucky enough that someone with the right connections took notice. I didn’t send query letters to agents or publishers, I didn’t follow any of the traditional routes, everything just sort of fell into place. So I guess my only advice would be just keep writing, keep getting better, make submissions the traditional way but also look for ways to innovate in your approach. Posting stuff on the internet is a great place to start; you never know who might be watching.
TBL: You are also a visual artist and a musician. To what extent do your different creative processes (if they are terribly different) affect each other?
I think it’s all the same skill set, basically. I couldn’t write song lyrics if I was no good with words, and having a musical ear helps with writing rhythmic prose. The visual side of my brain helps equally with painting pictures and writing imagery. It’s all pretty interconnected for me; it’s hard for me to understand how someone who’s a good songwriter couldn’t also be a good prose writer, and visa versa. I think the same aesthetic values apply to all artforms. My goal in everything I do is to be inventive and subvert the obvious, but still leave enough “pop” elements to make it relatable on a basic human level. I apply that concept to whatever medium I’m working in.
TBL: Are there any particular works by other artists and creators that have had a lasting impact on your writing?
I’m really bad at summarizing stuff like this…I don’t know if I could pick out individual works, but a few writers I think probably had an impact on my own writing are Dave Eggers, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland, Stephen King, Charlie Kauffmann, Thom York, Stanley Donwood, Jonathan Lethem, and Cormac McCarthy, but that list is constantly evolving. (And erasing itself as my memory fails.)
TBL: Any hints you can give us as to what’s in the works creatively? (filmcoughfilm) Any plans to release any more of your short stories in printed/illustrated form, à la Anna? Touring plans? Pyramid schemes and plots for world domination?
Ahem. Wow, that was a ridiculously long cough; hope I didn’t get any phlegm on you there.
Once I’m completely finished with the final draft of Warm Bodies I have an original screenplay I’ve been working on that I’d like to finish and see what my bigshot film agent can do to get it made. After that, well, I’ve got two more novels lined up waiting to be written.
I’m not planning any more full-on picture books like “Anna” at this point, but I’m going to self-publish a short story collection in the near future that will contain some artwork. One of the shorts will be very long I think, almost a novella, but I’m still writing it as we speak. (with my toes.)
TBL: Samuel L. Jackson wants to be in a movie of one of your books/stories. Who would you cast him as?
Eli Jones from “Eli Jones and Onion Clock” is the obvious choice. But actually, he’s too young for that role…So, maybe “Anna”?
TBL: A number of our favorite authors (namely, Neil Gaiman and Catherynne Valente) have been auctioning off lunch dates with themselves for charity. Isaac Marion, would you ever considering auctioning yourself off for a date?
I think that would be hilariously fun. But if I end up getting lucky at the end of a date I was paid for, does that make me a prostitute? Oh wait, it’s a lunch date, so that’s unlikely. But you never know…
TBL: And along those lines, the ladies need to know: Are you single?