If you haven’t had a chance to read my review of “The Undertakers: Rise of The Corpses”, you can find it here. It’s a great new addition to the young adult genre – both because it’s an incredibly entertaining story, and because it’s about zombies. I had a chance to chat with the Ty Drago, the author of “The Undertakers” recently. We talked about everything from his inspiration for the novel, to the role his son played in helping him get the characters’ voices to ring true, to – of course – the (real) pending zombie apocalypse.
The Word Zombie: In my review, I said you took “a dash of “They Live”, stirred in a handful of zombie mythology from Brian Keene’s “The Rising”, and finished it off with the young adult appeal of “Percy Jackson” with “The Undertakers”. Where did you get your inspiration for the story?
Ty Drago: It’s a long story! You asked for it!
When I was a kid, I drew comic books – a LOT of comic books – that I shared with my friends in the neighborhood. These mostly centered on a group of child superheroes that I dubbed “The Kid Kidets”. I wish I could say the spelling was an early attempt at alliteration, but the sad truth is that, at ten years old, I didn’t know how to spell “cadets”.
The Kid Kidets had superpowers ranging from telekinesis to super strength to magic pocket knives, and they made their headquarters in a secret installation deep below the Antarctic ice. Whenever trouble brewed, the Kid Kidets’ HQ would rise up through the ice and the heroes within would burst forth to save the day, some using spaceships or Wonder Woman-esque invisible planes, others flying on their own power.
And the leader of the Undertakers was a brother and sister team named Tom and Sharyn Jefferson.
Well, despite all their victories, there was one enemy the Kid Kidets couldn’t defeat. I grew up. And, when I did, Tom, Sharyn and all the rest were relegated to a corner of my memory, where they stayed for a long time.
Decades later, as I was trying to revive a flagging writing career, my family recommended that write a story for a younger audience, something I’d never really done. And, as I was fishing around in my head for an idea that might appeal to middle grade/young adult readers, lo and behold the Kid Kidets came to mind.
I loved the notion of an army of children fighting a war that the adults knew nothing about. But what war? My first thought was vampires, but do we really need another vampire novel? I don’t think so. Then I considered werewolves, but I like werewolves more as heroes than villains.
Then I considered zombies. And it began …
The Word Zombie: There’s a fine line between talking down to young readers and really connecting with them. How did you balance your adult worldview while telling a story mainly through the eyes of children and young adults?
Ty Drago: I’ve always been in touch with my “inner child”. Just ask my wife! But to make the Undertakers work required a bit more than me just pretending to be twelve. After all, when I was twelve Richard Nixon was president!
So I turned to my son Andy. As I wrote the book I let him read it, almost chapter by chapter, and he became my guide through Will Ritter and the rest of the Undertakers’ modern teen and pre-teen world. He showed me what worked and what didn’t and what rang true and what fell flat. I honestly couldn’t have done it without him.
The Word Zombie: The Corpses in the story are not your traditional zombies. As I said before, they harken, in many ways, to the evil aliens in “They Live”. Why was it important to give them personality, emotion, and motivation, instead of them being the mindless force of nature you find in so many zombie tales?
Ty Drago: When I first settled on the idea of making zombies the bad guys that my kid army was fighting, I immediately ran into a problem: zombies are stupid. Sorry, but they are. They’re moaning, shuffling morons that more closely resemble a force of nature than a force of evil. If zombies get you, it isn’t personal. Like a hurricane or a flood, you were just in the way.
Besides – an invasion of zombies that the adult don’t know about? I doubt it!
But what if I made my zombies smart? And organized? And able to somehow disguise themselves so that most folks couldn’t see them for the rotting worm bags that they are? And what if they had an agenda, a plan for conquest and destruction? Now I had something scary.
Anyway, that’s how the Corpses came about. And, once I had the Corpses, it just seemed logical to name my kid’s army the Undertakers!
The Word Zombie: I found a powerful subtext in the book, looking at the Undertakers fight with the Corpses as a metaphor for the uncertainty and loneliness that many teens experience as they are maturing in to young adults. Was that intentional on your part?
Ty Drago: The Undertakers, as stories do over the course of their writing, evolved. I’ve already talked about my son’s contribution. My wife Helene (after whom the Helene Boettcher in the book in named) is my first-read, and we talked a lot about each of the kids and the various places that the story would take them. From the beginning, I didn’t want the Undertakers to be a “club”. None of these boys and girls is in Haven because they want to be. None of them is having “fun”.
They’re doing what they have to do for themselves, their families and the world. But they’re still kids. Adolescent lives are often difficult, and these teens have it worse than most. They struggle with insecurities, bullying, crushes and the complexities of relationships – all above and beyond fighting the walking dead.
But we’ll see more of that in coming books!
The Word Zombie: It was clear to me that “The Undertakers” was merely the set-up for a much larger story – it has distinct franchise potential. What’s next for Will and his fellow Undertakers?
Ty Drago: I’m writing Book Two right now. It’s tentatively dubbed “Queen of the Dead”. It introduces a new “head” Corpse – Lilith Cavanaugh, and she’s a nasty piece of work!
I’m not going to give away the plot, but I’ll tell you this much. We’re going to find out a lot more about the Corpses, what they are and how they get here. And the Undertakers are going to make a surprising new ally!
Basically, this is a war that’s only just begun.
The Word Zombie: Like so many writers, you hold down a full-time day job to pay the bills. What advice do you have for those, like you, who write as a passion and work for a living?
Ty Drago: I’m a business analyst. I know – sounds boring. Basically, I help corporations identify and fix broken processes. It’s much more complicated than that, but I don’t want to put you to sleep. However, with a kid heading for college in the fall, a steady job is pretty important.
My advice to other writers? Chase your dreams, but keep your day job. Getting published these days isn’t easy. It takes patience, determination and, above all, persistence. Whenever I hear people say: “I wish I wasn’t too busy to get back to that novel,” I inwardly sigh. To make it as a modern writer, you really have to want it! And if you do have that kind of drive, they you find the time to write. Period.
But that doesn’t mean you should starve!
The Word Zombie: In addition to writing novels, you also publish an online e-zine called “Allegory”(you can find it here). Can you tell us a little about it?
Ty Drago: Allegory has been around for twelve years. We’ve just released our 42nd volume. Three times a year we publish SF, fantasy and horror short fiction from around the world and have, to date, launched more than few careers – including my own!
I started the e-zine as a self-promotion tool and, for a long time, each issue featured one of my own stories. I don’t do that anymore, but I keep up with the publication because (a) it’s fun, (b) in 2010 we reached almost a half-million hits, and (c) because every so often I get an email from a writer I’ve just accepted, telling me I’ve had his or her dreams come true.
I keep doing it because, once upon a time, somebody did it for me.
The Word Zombie: Stephen King once said – “If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” What do you like to read in your spare time and what do you have on your “to read” pile at the moment?
Right now, I’m about halfway through Mockingjay, the last book in Suzanne Collins’ fantastic Hunger Games series. I’m also reading The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson.
The Word Zombie: What’s the one terribly insightful and hard hitting question I should have asked you, but didn’t?
Ty Drago: I think you covered it. This was a solid interview!
The Word Zombie: One last question. Once the zombie apocalypse occurs (and I think we can all agree it’s a matter of when, not if) – will you be going it alone, or looking to join up with a ragtag group of survivors? Also, do you prefer long-range weapons (guns, flamethrowers) or melee weapons (classic baseball bat) when dealing with a zombie uprising?
Ty Drago: I collect swords. I have a nice katana all picked out – long and sharp as a razor – so that I’ll be ready when the walking dead come a’callin’. My son has selected a Kwang fighting knife. That’s a type of pole arm. Together, he and I are gonna kick some serious zombie butt!
My wife? She just kind of rolls her eyes!
My thanks for Ty for taking time to chat with us. If you want to learn more about him, you can find him online at – http://www.tydrago.com, and on Facebook at – http://www.facebook.com/ty.drago. If you would like to follow him on Twitter, he can be found at – http://twitter.com/#!/tydrago.
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