Today’s guest post is from Sarah Lotz, one half of mother+daughter writing team Lily Herne, on what inspired Cape Town zombie novel Deadlands.
Ten years after Cape Town was destroyed in the War with the living dead, zombies ramble free in Cape Town’s suburbs (known as the Deadlands), and the remaining living are either in fenced in on farms or in urban shantytowns.
The living are watched over by the mysteriously robed Guardians, a race of humanoid figures who appeared at the end of the War and who keep the living dead at bay, albeit for a steep price. Every year the Guardians stage a human Lottery and select five aspiring teenagers to be whisked out of the enclave for a secret purpose. To be one of the chosen five is a highly sought after and prestigious accolade.
No one (yet) knows why it is that the Guardians prize teenage bodies so highly, how they control the zombies or what they look like under the robes that cover their bodies…
Deadlands is a fun zombiepocalypse romp, that manages to be both grim and witty at the same time, a poke at pop-culture and politics that fizzes along irreverently, rather like Sarah Lotz herself.
I became a zombiephile at age ten after my brother and I managed to convince the bloke who ran our neighbourhood video store to let us rent Lucio Fulci’s X-rated gore extravaganza, Zombie Flesh Eaters (one of the original ‘video nasties’). We’d sneaked out of the house during the school holidays while our parents were at work (we did this often), and when they came home they found two traumatised kids sitting frozen with horror in front of the telly. It’s a bloody terrible movie, but it scared the crap out of me, gave me nightmares for weeks and made an indelible impression on my brain. Even now, thirty years later, I still find zombies fascinating (I even have a just-in-case zombie apocalypse plan in place – clearly I need to grow up.) Of course, unlike my ten-year-old self, I now know for sure why I find zombies so terrifying: they’re the walking embodiment of how we’re all going to end up, and even though they look like people (well, they are people, and there’s nothing scarier than people) they can’t be reasoned with or stopped.
And, you know, maggots.
So when Penguin SA suggested that I write a paranormal-inspired YA novel for their list, I knew it had to feature the walking dead. My co-writer on the Deadlands novels – my daughter Savannah – isn’t as enamoured with the shambolic brain-scoffers as I am, but she let me have my way. But it’s all very well deciding to write a zombie series set in South Africa, we needed a strong storyline (and hopefully one that hadn’t been done to death).
We started by batting around ‘What if?’ storyline ideas, and some of our initial thoughts -zombie scarecrows! what if the book is narrated by a zombie? lesbian ninja zombies! etc -were rubbish and fraught with plotholes. It was George R Romero’s masterpiece and fine commentary on brainless consumer culture, Dawn of the Dead, that gave us our first spark of inspiration. Anyone who knows even the slightest thing about the Hollywood-style zombie knows that where there’s a mall, there’s bound to be a crowd of walking dead shoppers. So, we thought, what if we completely destroy Cape Town’s infrastructure, shove our survivors in a shanty-town enclave, and leave just one building intact – the massive Canal Walk mall? What could be more horrific than that? And what if it’s still fully stocked and only a select group of teenagers are able to avoid the zombies milling around it and shop to their heart’s desire?
The rest of the plot flowed from this idea. It was a no-brainer coming up with Lele, our protagonist. We knew for sure we had to have a strong female narrator who could drive the action rather than sit back and let stuff happen to her (the last thing we wanted to do was write an insipid Bella Swann type heroine). And as our apocalypse occurred during the 2010 World Cup we were able to include a colourful cast of characters who were stranded in SA when it all kicked off. As soon as our characters were locked down, we were off – the characters drive the action in the novels – and Sav and I have learned to sit back and let them get on with it.
But what we really loved creating was the political set-up. In the first novel, we had to build a society from scratch, the slate wiped clean. Human nature being what it is, we knew that even a fledgling society would be fraught with power-struggles, corruption and those with the biggest mouths and propensity for greed would rise to the top. Inspired by the rise of the horrendous Tea Party movement in the US, we decided that the dominant power in the enclave would be right-wing, implacable, corrupt and fuelled by fundamentalist religious fervour. We’re currently working on the third in the series, The Army of the Left which is set in Joburg, and this one has been inspired by events closer to home. We’ve considered Jozi’s mall culture (in this novel, it’s the survivors who live in the malls), the volte-face attitudes of many of our politicians, and the staggering rich-poor divide, and it’s been fascinating creating a post-apocalyptic set-up that’s such a contrast to what we built in the first novel.
Bizarrely, while the initial inspiration for the Deadlands books was most definitely the walking dead, it turns out that zombies are the least of the problems our characters have to face. In fact, when we finished the second in the series – Death of A Saint – we realised that while the lurching stars of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dawn of the Dead, and World War Z may have sparked off an initial idea, they pale in comparison to the real monsters we’re writing about: ordinary people and the lengths they’re prepared to go to control others.