We don’t want to scare anyone, but V. M. Zito has been thinking about zombies for years. Apparently the the undead have kept pestering him for a novel until he finally wrote THE RETURN MAN to appease them.
THE RETURN MAN takes place four years after an apocalyptic event has
caused the dead to return to life as zombies. The U.S. is broken in two. The west
is abandoned, overrun by cannibal corpses. If you’re a survivor living in the east,
grieving over dead friends and family who are now zombies, you can hire Henry
Marco — a corpse tracker who finds your zombified loved ones in the west, then
mercifully re-kills them. Things get bad when the new totalitarian government
finds out what Marco is doing. They send him on a crazy suicide mission to find
the zombie of a mysterious doctor… but they won’t tell him why…
2. Where did the germ of the story come from? How did you first know you
were going to write this story?
I’ve been a zombie fan since I was a kid, so thirty years of daydreaming about
the living dead finally culminated in an idea for a book. I began with the basic
hypothetical, “What would it be like to survive the zombie apocalypse?” Then one
day another thought struck me: What if I survived but my wife didn’t? What if she
were a zombie, out there somewhere, shambling through the dead world? How
would I be able to bear that knowledge? Those were the first few story questions
that eventually led to THE RETURN MAN.
The concept interested me, but it wasn’t until I constructed the character Henry
Marco that I really got myself hooked on the idea. I had the premise of a corpse
tracker, but what made him interesting? Then I realized: “He’s great at tracking
corpses for other people, but for some reason he can’t find the one corpse that
matters to him — his dead wife, Danielle. And it drives him mad, because he
thought he knew her better than anybody else in the world, and he should know
all the places that her zombie might have wandered.” That’s when everything
seemed to come together, and I knew I wanted to write this book.
3. Did this book come to you easily, or did you have to wrestle it to the
ground once or twice? Did you ever give up on it?
THE RETURN MAN is my first novel, but not my first attempt. The other novels
crashed and burned pretty quickly, but I could tell early in the process that this
one felt different. I just felt a stronger sense of where I was going and what
needed to be written to make the story work. Another big difference was the
unorthodox route I took to getting published. THE RETURN MAN began as a
free, self-published, serialized online novel; I created a website and posted mini-
chapters every week, building an online readership over time.
By great fortune, an editor at a major publisher came across my site and enjoyed
the story. She contacted me and made an offer on the book, even though it was
only half-finished. From that point on, I had a dream and a deadline — finish
the book in six months to become a published novelist. It added tremendous
pressure, but in other ways, it set me free. I didn’t have time for much indecision
or agonizing; I had to write, full steam ahead, no excuses. I never thought about
giving up. I was more worried about failure, about the publisher not liking the
finished product, but my mind was set: I was going to make that deadline.
4. Do you have a writing process you could share with readers, a way
you like to proceed when you’re writing a book? (Some authors say they
write the first draft out in long-hand, on yellow legal pads, with a special,
sacred pen, after throwing salt over their shoulders and repeating an
incantation…while others say they write the first draft in a two-week-long
fever and then spend the next two years revising. Others don’t even begin
until they know the whole story).
The major essential element in my writing process is a large Dunkin’ Donuts
coffee with milk and two sugars. If that white Styrofoam cup is not on my desk in
front of me, I simply cannot create. One other important step that I try to always
incorporate is a real-life visit to any actual locations that I’m using as settings. I
hate feeling like I’m “making stuff up” about places that really exist, so I like to go
and get a firsthand look — picking up details that you wouldn’t necessarily see in
photos or from reading other peoples’ descriptions online.
5. What’s your favorite, and least favorite, part of the writing process? One
writer describes the “sticky phase,” when everything you see and hear
seems destined to slip into your novel somehow. Does that happen to you?
Do you love the first draft, or prefer the last revision?
My favorite part of writing is the satisfaction that comes with finishing a piece –
– finally getting the words right, knowing that (for better or worse) the story has
been told the way I wanted. Once it’s done, it exists, it’s something that I created
and will always own. My least favorite part of writing is my constant battle against
self-doubt, low self-esteem, negative thoughts, and the fear of sucking.
I’ve never quite encountered an all-out “sticky phase,” but I have noticed
moments of serendipity that gave me material for writing. For example, when I
was out in Arizona doing some final fact-checking for THE RETURN MAN (after
the first draft was written), I learned about a desert plant called the Resurrection
Plant — a plant that seemingly withers and dies in dry heat, then returns to
life in rain. It was so apt, since the plague in THE RETURN MAN is called the
Resurrection. Back home, I rewrote a scene in the final draft to include the plant.
As for first drafts versus final drafts… I hate first drafts. I’m a revision addict. My
greatest fear after I’ve completed a first draft is that I will die in a car accident
before I can fix all the badness, and my wife will find my rough, shitty first draft on
the computer and think, “Wow, my poor late husband was a terrible writer.”
6. Do you procrastinate? What’s your favorite mode of procrastination
when you’re supposed to be writing?
I typically begin writing sessions by wasting 15 minutes on YouTube. I watch 80s
music videos, old cartoons, great scenes from my favorite movies, dogs doing
cute tricks, whatever I can find. But it’s not all bad; eventually I’ve had my fill,
and then I usually watch a motivational video or two to remind me that I’d better
work hard to reach my goals. My current favorite: this motivational mash-up
called “Powerful Beyond Measure.” Go ahead, watch this and tell me you don’t
feel like kicking some ass and achieving everything you want: http://vimeo.com/
41167200 (The best stuff starts at 1:08, a great speech from “Rocky Balboa.”)
7. What do you tell people who want to be writers, too?
The best honest advice isn’t really deep or mysterious: Just keep writing. On the
days when you feel negative about your writing, remember that you’re not as
bad as you think. On the days when you feel good, remember that there’s still
much room to improve. Compare your writing to good books, and slowly work
to eliminate the differences. Read a really shitty book now and then, just so you
can think, “Wow, this book sucks and it’s published. I can do this!” (I hope THE
RETURN MAN does not comfort you in such a way.) For serious aspiring writers,
workshops are great, but remember NOT to take every bit of advice. Figure out
whose opinion really matters (second only to yours) — and I hate to say this, but
that person doesn’t always have to be the instructor.
8. Readers tend to think that everything authors write is autobiographical.
How do you handle those sorts of questions—people assuming that
everything in your book really happened to you?
I think that’s fun, actually, part of the friendly game played between writer and
reader. What is real, and what isn’t? I don’t mind fessing up, either to the truth
or the lies in anything I write. Many of the little human touches that comprise
the character Henry Marco really do reflect me; I am afraid of leeches in lakes,
I hate cell phones, I did cry during football practice when I was ten. But I was
never bitten in the ear by a dog or studied medicine. And I never killed a zombie.
(Hopefully that last one doesn’t surprise anybody.)
9. Have you ever written a character who’s close to someone you know,
and have you worried that that person will be furious with you?
The closest I’ve come to that is with the character Danielle in THE RETURN
MAN — Marco’s lost wife. She is loosely modeled on my own wife. Retired
actress, New Age vibe, the spiritual being. In the book, Danielle’s beliefs are not
always portrayed flatteringly, since Marco is an agnostic who scoffs at “mystical
bullshit.” I wrote those parts very, very carefully to avoid antagonizing my wife.
And to further protect myself, I made it clear that Danielle is very beautiful.
10. Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night to write a scene that
simply will not let you rest?
To tell the truth, no. For me, sleep is the reset button for frustration. When a
scene or description isn’t working, I escape by slipping into an exhausted coma. I
feel better going back at it the next day, refreshed and hopeful.
11. Are you a “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants, discovering the
story as you go along), or do you have the entire plot outlined before you
begin? Or something in between?
I consider myself more of a plotter than a pantser. I make the comparison that
writing a novel is like a long road trip. Before I begin, I unfold the map and plan
out my major stops along the way — all the important plot points and decisions
awaiting the characters. But what happens between Points A, B and C isn’t
really predetermined, so that’s where the “pantsing” occurs. I try to just let those
smaller moments, like character thoughts and reactions, occur organically.
Unexpected ideas do pop up like hitchhikers, and sometimes I pull over to pick
them up. Or at least slow down for a closer look before I speed away terrified.
12. How do you get yourself to write when you don’t feel inspired? Is there
anything that can bring that mood, or voice, back to you?
I think the number one rule is: Put your ass in the chair and write, whether you
feel ready or not. I rarely feel inspired before the writing session; I never dance
up to my office, thinking, “Wow, I can’t wait to get this idea down on paper. It’s
going to be a productive writing night!” If I waited for that inspiration, I’d never
write. For me, the inspiration builds as I work. Some nights it happens quickly,
and everything seems to click. Other nights it’s a struggle, and I just keep going,
cranking out dull sentences as if I were rubbing two worn sticks together; nothing
happens for a long, long, frustrating time, and then at last the friction builds
enough to spark a fire. I don’t have a particular catalyst for making it happen. The
trick is to just outlast the hopeless feeling and not give up.
13. If you weren’t a writer, what job would you like to do?
I’m not a full-time writer yet… I have a day job that claims me from 9 to 5, so
I’m still wishful that writing was my career! I’m working on my next novel now;
hopefully I can establish myself further and carve out a bigger section for my
name on the bookstore shelves. (Look for me under “Z.”) For now, I hope
everyone enjoys THE RETURN MAN, and thank you for the opportunity to
introduce myself! For anyone who’d like to learn more about the book, visit
http://www.TheReturnMan.com or find me at http://www.Facebook.com/TheReturnMan.