Z Lives

Gospel of ZI can’t remember if I wrote The Gospel of Z right before or right after The Least of My Scars. They were right next to each other, anyway. Oh, yeah: I wrote the first draft of Z before Scars, then the next draft after Scars. I’m pretty sure. And, it wasn’t the first zombie thing I’d written. My first zombie novel was It Came from Del Rio. Which I’m thinking was 05, maybe? -ish? I know I did Zombie Bake-Off in 07, anyway. And, coming into both of them, I knew nothing about zombies. I mean, I’d seen the zombie movies, of course, and read some of the stories, but I hadn’t thought about the zombie in any real way. This is probably why Dodd in Del Rio has a bunny head, and keeps a journal. And why the zombies in Zombie Bake-Off are molting into stage after stage: I was making it all up as I went.

It was the same with The Gospel of Z. With that first draft, anyway. Which was huge-long and twice and three different kinds of unwieldy. I’d given myself no page-cap, so just kept throwing down word-as-patches, as you do, and the story kept going and going and going. What I was doing, I realize now, was world-building: going down each blind alley of this post-apocalypse, then backing my way out, looking to map the next portion of the terrain. That doesn’t make for a tight, compelling story, though. Obviously. The people I gave that draft to either got back to me with that dreaded “Well, it sure is complicated . . .”-line or, if they were smart, they faked their own death and then surfaced a few states away, as somebody else, somebody I couldn’t mail manuscripts to.

Anyway, I got it: Z sucked. It broke my heart, as I’d somehow tricked myself into thinking page-count equalled quality, so I quit the novel altogether, wrote The Least of My Scars in a few weeks. But I kept coming back to Jory. Jory Gray. I’d named him that specifically to try to get used to that barbaric way of spelling ‘grey.’ I figured if I both called him by his full name every chance I got (I’d also done this with Pidgin in The Fast Red Road, and it was all kinds of fun (for me)) and spelled his last name the ugly way, then surely I could become ‘American,’ yes? No. At the end of Z, I still hated that A.

So, pretty sure it was going to fruitless, I ducked back into the mass of pages that was Z, with the intent of ferreting out some kind of dramatic throughline, some means of economy, some hint of directness. But, instead, the story insisted on opening up here and there and everywhere. The world kept expanding rather than contracting. The most brutal solution I could come up with (I had just done Scars . . . ) was to adapt the novel to a screenplay. And, a less than 110-page screenplay at that.

This took a cool ten months of daily, daily work. At the end of it I got a lot of help from a friend, a screenwriter, who hammered on the story from every angle, but, finally, and painfully, I think it became a workable movie-on-the-page, somewhat. Maybe.

It wasn’t to try to spec out, though. What I did then was take that script and use it as the skeleton for a novel. Over the next four months or so, I put the blood and muscle back onto the story, such that it could be fiction. What sucking Z into screenplay form had done was finally, thankfully make the dramatic line present itself, such that the story could move forward instead of in this nervous exploratory zig-zag.

So, thinking it was perfect, of course, thinking it was bulletproof, I shot it to my agent, who promptly shot it back, with not just some of the bigger story problems red-inked, but with one suggestion that, once I came around to understanding how elegant it was, made everything else fall into place so nicely, so neatly.

I was lucky, I mean. Lucky to have people who wouldn’t lie to me about the first draft. Lucky to have a friend to help me adapt it. Lucky to have an agent who’s a good reader.

And then  . . . I don’t remember. Maybe we submitted it around, got some rejections? Maybe not. I would have finished it late in 09, and in 10 I had two novels coming out, and more lining up, so, I don’t know. What I do know is that right around that time I started teaching a zombie course here at CU Boulder, and the world of zombies was opening up to me in a completely new way. It made it cool to look back into Z, and see that, just as with Del Rio and ZBO, as with “Lonegan’s Luck” and “Hell on the Homefront” (my two zombie stories at the time, I think), I was still just making it all up, not worrying about what people said the zombie could or couldn’t do. I knew I liked fast zombies. I knew the world was going to be a complicated place, trying to stitch itself back together. I asked people a lot of questions about menthol cigarettes (no way was I trying one). I remembered hanging out on Air Force bases with my dad, growing up. And I still miss a lot of stuff from the bulky first draft. There used to be pages devoted to photographs of how a zombie runs—whether all four feet are off the ground at once or not. The Kitten Man’s blog, it was so much longer, so much more complicated.

But, for me, all that stuff, it’s still hiding in there, too. It’s part of the world of The Gospel of Z. And, seriously, of all the characters I’ve written across nearly twenty books, now, this group of rejects in Z, these baby torches, I miss them most of all, now. I lived with them, I mean. I watched them die and I tried to write faster and better, so they wouldn’t have to die.

And, Jory, Jory Gray. Here’s to you, man. You and Linse both. I hope you live forever,

stephen graham jones, 12:58am / 1-7-2013, Boulder, CO

Author: SGJ