Walter Greatshell is the author of two of the most original takes on zombies ever written: Xombies: Apocalypse Blues(originally titled just Xombies), and its highly entertaining and page-turning sequel, Xombies: Apocalypticon. His latest novel is Mad Skills, and is not a zombie or Xombie novel, but is a SF/Thriller about a young woman, Maddy Grant, who has a serious accident, falls into a coma for fourteen months, and while in a coma, is transformed. She goes from a typical teen to a paraplegic to a supergenius, and her outlooks on life and what’s in mankind’s best interests change because of her transformation. Is she better off as a supergenius, or worse? Has she become more like a superintelligent tool for those who caused her transformation to use as a killing machine?
Douglas R. Cobb: Walter, it’s great to talk to you again! Mad Skills is somewhat of a departure for you, but it’s another excellently-written novel that helps showcase your range of writing talent. In previous interviews with you, I’ve asked you who influenced you, but that was related to the horror genre and zombie
literature and movies. With Mad Skills, which authors/books, if any, would you say influenced you?
Walter Greatshell: Thanks, Doug, always a pleasure. Well, Mad Skills is my homage to the kind of paranoia thrillers I loved in the ‘70s, things like Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives and The Boys From Brazil, Coma by Robin Cook, or Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man. Then there were movies like The Manchurian Candidate, Marathon Man, The Parallax View, and the brilliant TV show The Prisoner. All this stuff was really powerful to me as a teenager, and when I was searching for book ideas it all seemed to coalesce as Mad Skills.
The young woman-turned blue-skinned Xombie, Lulu
Pangloss, is the heroine of your Xombies series, and with Mad Skills, the main protagonist, Maddy Grant, is also female. You do a great job writing from a female perspective, but did you find it difficult to do? How are these two protagonists similar/different?
In a way I suppose both those characters are tributes to the character Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’s Western novel True Grit, which is one of my favorite books. And I just always thought it was an essential challenge as a writer to explore points of view different from my own, especially in a book like Xombies, which is all about gender issues. As to how the characters differ, Lulu Pangloss is a prodigy who’s smug in her superiority over most people and gradually learns the limits of cold reason, whereas Maddy starts out as an ordinary, pop-culture-worshipping teenybopper who is suddenly awakened to the horrifying realization that everyone and everything she thought she loved is either a brainwashed puppet or murderously corrupt – including her!
They kind of have opposite character arcs.
I really enjoyed reading the pop and cultural references
you have in your novels, Walter, especially ones related to the Beatles. I was influenced by this myself, in my Ebooks Lily, Unleashed, and Lily and PAWS: The Ghosts of Summer, and I include tons of references in both, like a chapter in the latter called
“Through A Glass Onion” (referring to the song “Glass Onion,” by the
I could tell you had a lot of fun writing these novels. Which of the four took you the longest time to write? Which would you say was the most fun for you to write, or which gave you the most difficulties?
Walter Greatshell: First of all, let me congratulate you on your Lily
books and recommend that folks check them out. Second, I would have to say that both Mad Skills and the original Xombies were fairly easy to write because they were each powered by an intense burst of inspiration; they arrived fully formed in my head. The two Xombies sequels were a bit tougher, because I didn’t want them to be merely knock-offs of the first book, but substantially different in tone and ambition. That created a lot of complications, especially with the third book, Apocalypso, which has elements of Python-esque slapstick comedy. As Steve Martin said, “Comedy is not pretty.” I’m very happy with the end result, but the price of getting it right was months and months of revisions. The trouble is, every book has to try something new or I get bored, and if I’m bored I can’t
write. This is bad for me commercially, because the mass-market loves
repetition, but I just can’t write those cookie-cutter serial novels, any more than I can read them. I’m screwed that way.
Did you write Mad Skills to take a break from the Xombies
series, and do you plan on writing more Xombie-related novels in the future; or, have you decided to branch out to different subjects now?
I’m actually in the early planning stages of a fourth Xombies book, but that’s likely to take awhile. I don’t want to rush it. I also have a number of other book ideas in the pipeline, but right now most
of my attention is on doing a proper sequel to Mad Skills.
For anyone who hasn’t yet read Mad Skills, Walter, could
you tell my readers what the “mad skills” are that Maddy develops, and how? What’s the Braintree Institute? Maddy’d like to use them to benefit mankind, but…
The title Mad Skills refers to Maddy’s enhanced
intelligence after she’s implanted with an experimental computer device by the Braintree Institute. This is after she’s been severely brain-damaged in an accident, so at first it seems like a miracle. But Maddy soon realizes there is a disturbing agenda driving the technology, and that she is a prototype for a whole new society. Her inner conflict eventually explodes into outward rebellion against the corporate machine that wants to exploit her.
Maddy is ingenious at escaping, like McGyver, from
situations that seem impossible to escape from. Would you please give the readers of What’s New In Book Reviews a couple of examples of how she does this and makes her getaway?
Well, in the opening chapter she’s cornered in a bathroom and turns a blowdryer into a shotgun. Then later in the book she converts a motorcycle’s muffler into an EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse) weapon.
I’ve read that some readers of Mad Skills have compared
it to Flowers for Algernon. There are many differences and Mad Skills is full of pulse-pounding, page-turning action; but, taking into account the similarities, would you agree with this comparison?
Oh, absolutely. I love that story, and it was definitely an inspiration.
The state of Rhode Island, where you live, has a perhaps
inordinate number of very talented authors who live there, including yourself. There’s David Morrell, for instance; and H.P. Lovecraft’s house is located there, as well. Do you have any theory about this?
I appreciate being included in such high company, thanks. I would also mention W.G. Marshall, who just wrote an astounding
book called Enormity. So yeah, this place has an interesting literary history, which I think may have something to do with its long history of independent thought, starting with Roger Williams in the 1600s. Also it’s cheap.
What’s your writing regimen like? Do you write every day,
and if so, do you have a set limit of words/pages you like to aim for?
I do try to write every day, starting before dawn in the morning and going until mid-afternoon. Unless I’m on a tight deadline, I don’t really have a set number of words per day, but if I don’t write at
least a page I feel like a bum. It’s gotten a bit harder lately because I’m more prone to migraines than I used to be, and there are days I can’t get as much writing done as I’d like. Or even reading. All you can do is lie in a dark room and vegetate. It’s bothersome, but I figure I’ll probably be dead soon and my suffering will be over.
Finally, Walter, are you currently working on any new
writing projects? If so, can you tell us a little about what it/they are about? Also, if you’d like to give us one or more links where we can read/learn more about you, please do so.
Well, aside from the sequels to Mad Skills and Xombies that I mentioned, I’m working on a World War II story loosely based on my own family history, which is full of thrills but of course very different from most of my other work. It’s an interesting change of pace. That’s about it, Doug! And to everyone out there, check out my website, here.
Thanks for doing this interview with me, Walter! It’s been truly a pleasure, as always, talking with you! Whether one loves to read novels that fall into the Horror genre, or the SF one, Walter Greatshell’s novels are ones that you ought to check out, if you haven’t already.