Lessons memoir writers can learn from Zombies

By Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

Brad Pitt recently bought the movie rights to “World War Z,” a thriller by Max Brooks. Once Pitts star-powered name became attached to the project, everyone wanted to write books or shoot movies about creatures who looked human but have no soul. Thriller writer Jonathan Maberry jumped in with “Zombie CSU: The Forensics of the Living Dead.” To research the book, he interviewed over 250 experts, including the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control, and his local police rapid response team. He even interviewed me, asking for a therapist’s point of view about the fear and mass trauma that might result from a Zombie outbreak.

Even though I have no interest in writing about Zombies, I regularly take writing classes from Maberry, finding his instruction helpful in unpredictable ways. In this lesson he was making the point that fiction writers can use research to create a more compelling world. I pondered how to apply the principle to memoirs. As I look through my bookshelf, I discover many examples in which factual reporting adds clarity and depth to a memoir writer’s story.

David Sheff’s “Beautiful Boy” reports the background of his son’s addiction to Crystal Meth. Doreen Orion’s first memoir, “I know you really love me,” recounts her experience of being stalked by a patient. During this extended intrusion, she became an expert in the psychological as well as the legal problems of stalking.

When Linda Joy Myers wrote her memoir “Don’t Call Me Mother” she visited the wheat fields and train stations that played such an important role in her childhood in the Great Plains. She rode the trains to awaken vivid memories. And she studied the history of Iowa and Oklahoma, and visited cemeteries and courthouses to track down records of her genealogy.

Kate Braestrup’s memoir “Here If You Need Me” describes exquisite details of the natural habitat of Maine. Foster Winans went to the library to find out the weather in New York on key days in his memoir, “Trading Secrets.” (His advice: “weather ought to be considered another character.”)

Memoir writers even toss in facts for entertainment. For example, in Doreen Orion’s second memoir, “Queen of the Road,” she was at a club listening to a local country music band, when a little girl got up on stage and did a clog dance. Just for fun, Orion inserted a brief explanation of the history of clog dancing.

When I dig back into my own past, many facts seem hazy. Research helps fill them in. For example, to help me remember the riot in 1967 that changed my life, I found two documentary movies, “The War at Home” and “Two Days in October” both covering the Dow Chemical protest riot in Madison Wisconsin. In one of them, an interview with a young man reminded me how much we truly believed that protests could eradicate injustice and create world peace. We even threw poverty into the mix of problems we were going to solve. To help organize my memories about high school, I signed up for Classmates.com and have corresponded with a couple of guys I have not seen in decades.

My goal is remarkably similar to Jonathan Maberry’s. We both want to tell a good story. So I keep listening and keep learning lessons about the relationship between life and story. For example, in a previous discussion he told me that flaws in real people prepare him to write deeper characterization in his novels, a discussion I reported in another essay.

I wonder what else I can learn from Jonathan’s lesson about Zombie folklore. Their current popularity is simply the latest chapter in a centuries-old fascination. In the middle ages, there was the Golem, a Jewish myth about a person who had no soul. In the nineteenth century Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was created from inanimate body parts. And  in the Wizard of Oz, the Tin Man and Scarecrow wanted to inject human qualities into their inanimate bodies. Looking at my own life through the metaphor, I see the lesson I was looking for.

When I was a young man, I was fascinated by math and science, and bent my entire will into interpreting the universe as a sort of machine. I became obsessed with finding all the physical rules, and the longer I followed this path, the more depressed I became. By the time I was 23, I had lost my will to live.

Finally, from sheer desperation I dipped into the spiritual ideas that were permeating the culture in 1970. Those ideas restored my hope. Ever since, I have invested at least part of my attention to finding the spirit in every day life. Until recently, I thought this interior journey was a private one that couldn’t possibly concern readers. But now that Jonathan has pointed out the vast numbers of people who want to know more about Zombies, I wonder if their curiosity would extend to the true story of a guy who spent his life trying not to be one. It looks like the Zombie wave could add more spirit to my life story than I first realized.

Writing Prompt
List some research that can contribute to your story. For example, list specific examples of people you could interview, points in history you could learn more about, or health and medical details that would help explain what you were going through.

Writing Prompt
What puts the soul or deeper humanity in your story? List specific instances of some of the more sublime aspects of your life, such as spirituality, service to others, creativity, and desire to see others succeed?

Note – Turning Nonfiction into Fiction
Maberry’s research was creating a modern folklore to help him understand what makes Zombies tick and what the rest of the world thinks about it. He’s already used this technique. Author of one of the most successful and authoritative books about Vampire Folklore, Maberry wrote a thriller trilogy, starting with Ghost Road Blues, based on that creature. Now he’s doing it again.

Maberry’s extensive research into Zombie lore is turning into a novel. “While researching plagues and epidemics ZOMBIE CSU, I began speculating on how this info could form the backbone of a novel.  The concept blossomed from there: a plague that reduces people to a state that simulates death while creating uncontrollably violent behavior.  That idea became PATIENT ZERO, which will be my first mainstream thriller, set for release in March by St. Martins Press.”

Many fiction writers start with facts. For example, Jason Goodwin studied the Ottoman Empire as an historian. Later he turned his knowledge into a setting for fiction, having recently published the murder mystery, “The Snake Stone,” set in the city Istanbul that he had come to know so well.

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