I’m always interested in how stories begin, and this is an especially weird one (I mean that in the best possible way), so I’m extra curious: what was the genesis of this story? How did you start writing it, and did it shoot off in a surprising direction, or is this pretty much what you thought was going to happen?
If somebody wanted, like Pierre Menard, to re-create the story then I’d recommend they catch a heavy cold, pile on the melodrama like a dying Dickensian orphan and spend the morning off work watching news of the London riots. Then they should fall asleep on the sofa in a really awkward position. That was what I did and when I woke up I had the beginnings of the story in my head, or at least a mood out of which the story grew.
The characters knew their own minds from the start so I did that thing I never believed in until I started writing—I let them do what they wanted and just sketched in the scenery around them. I didn’t know where they were going until they got there, but now it seems to me that it couldn’t have turned out any other way.
I love the sensory details in this story. Especially the smells. It’s a very smelly story, in a really wonderful way. One character has a, well, let’s call it a Thing, where words evoke smells for him. I read an article last night that said Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead had this with music—certain notes presented themselves as color in his mind. Where did that part of the story come from?
I have this thing myself whereby certain sequences of words (numbers, days of the week, months etc.) always evoke particular colours. It’s not the most exciting mental quirk and I didn’t realise it was unusual until I saw a documentary which also showed some more extreme examples like the strong involuntary association of words and tastes. I decided on something similar for Jonathan because it seemed to fit his “zombie” nature. His wires are crossed so that he makes sense of the world through a different set of connections, from a slightly different angle. Smells seemed especially apt because they are such raw experiences. You like them, you dislike them, they remind you of something. They are very personal and direct and are largely resistant to analysis. It’s not advisable to try discussing them with other people in the way you might discuss art or music.
It’s a very apt quirk for Jonathan, I think. I love so much of the writing here. The thing that stuck with me about this story is the way it conveys a sense of isolation and insanity, but does it in so little space, and with a sense of humor. There’s also an admirable restraint to the writing here, I think—you never quite tell us exactly what’s happening, and I love that about the piece. Is this something like your usual work, or was this one a departure for you?
I’m thrilled by that assessment because it’s a pretty exact description of what I aim for in my writing. I can’t honestly say that my usual work is like that but I think my best work is. I certainly try for those sort of qualities.
When did you write this? I was wondering if what’s happening politically in Europe and across the world played into this at all—that idea of marauders (imaginary or otherwise) at the gates, a sense of lawlessness in the streets.
I don’t have any sort of political agenda when I write but this story was definitely influenced by current events. The London riots were very much in my mind when I wrote it (as I mentioned, it was a dream I had at that time which inspired it) and all the associated fears and anxieties fed into the story. That sense of marauders at the gates is also a wider preoccupation of mine and, I think, of our age in general.
What are you working on now? Anywhere else we can read your work online?
I’m collaborating on a couple of things at the moment that I’m very excited about. I could dress them up nicely and say I’m experimenting with new forms in interactive storytelling and exploring the possibilities for reader-driven fiction. Or, I could be honest and say I’m writing a couple of videogames! However I phrase it, I’m enjoying the experience more than is decent.
I blog very occasionally at williamslee.blogspot.co.uk(I find it extremely hard to write in my own voice) and there are lots of links to my other stories there.
Who would win in a battle between a zombie and a ninja, anyway?
That’s a tough one. There are a lot of factors you’d have to take into account. If the ninja was armed and had a bit of space to move about in then they should be able to take down a whole gaggle of zombies. On the other hand, it could be a very different ball-game in a confined space. If, for example, the ninja was surprised in the shower then they would struggle regardless of their training. Also, what kind of zombie is it? Ninjas are notoriously clannish so it doesn’t seem unlikely that the zombie might itself be a reanimated ninja. In that case, would it still retain any ninja skills? There is much to ponder here and I’m not sure that we will ever arrive at a clear answer.