Name: William Van Winkle
Book Title: The Followers
1. How long have you been writing for?
Since I could type words on scrap paper in my folks’ basement. I knew it was what I wanted to grow up to do when I was 10. I first got paid for it at 19, and I started doing it full-time (non-fiction) in 1998, when I was 27. Great question. Now my joints ache just thinking about it. Thanks.
2. What do you think sets your work apart from others in the genre?
That there’s so little of it?
When I became a full-time journalist, I stopped writing fiction. Fiction was difficult and full of rejection while non-fiction was a cinch. Almost literally, if you can punctuate, you can get paid in non-fiction. So having a family to support and all, I followed the easy money. It took a mid-life crisis to convince me that I probably should tend to my dreams before the zombie apocalypse arrives. Because I really have no other skills. After the apocalypse, society will favor those who can build or organize or shoot or wield a wicked roundhouse kick. I can write and make coffee. That’s it. So when the apocalypse comes, I’m totally screwed.
That’s a really evasive way of saying, “I don’t have enough work published in this genre yet to feel like I’m really that different.” See how I did that?
3. Do you have any tips for new writers?
You’ll hear it a million times, but it’s true: butt in chair and write until you make your daily quota. I know plenty of people who want to be writers, some of them with amazing skill. But here’s the big secret: you don’t have to be amazing to succeed in writing. Truth is, you don’t even have to be that good. The one thing you must be is persistent. Anyone can write, but real writers write – and finish. And then do it again the next day.
Do not buy the lies taught in your English classes. Rules and conventions must be learned and internalized, yes. But English teachers don’t know jack about writing commercially. When’s the last time you devoured a paperback and thought, “Oh, this author’s use of symbolism just blows my mind! And that lyrical prose style? I had an accident in my pants over that metaphor!”
Can that stuff help elevate your work from good to great? Sure. But that’s just gravy or frosting or whatever high-carb foofaraw you prefer. If you want to get paid, if you want to earn a living with your writing, you must master the art of getting shit done. Period. In the end, it’s the only essential skill.
4. What books do you read and do you have a recent recommendation?
Sad but true, over 80% of my reading now is either about how to write or it’s research for one of my current projects. What little recreational reading time I get is usually in audio form. I keep a Bluetooth earpiece in my pocket and stream audio from my phone whenever possible – getting the mail, washing dishes, driving to the store, whatever.
In this way, I chew through an insufficient but still significant number of books and, more recently, podcasts. In alphabetical order, I listen to Clarkesworld, Escape Pod, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Pseudopod, StarShip Sofa, and Writing Excuses. With just these names alone, I have far more content than I can keep up with. Yet I still try to have full-length books running on the side.
The best book I’ve read in years is Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Unbelievable. That man is the master. Hugh Howey’s Wool Omnibus actually kept me up until nearly 4:00 in the morning, which hasn’t happened since I was a teen. I keep meaning to delete Andy Weir’s The Martian off my Kindle, because it’s hard SF, which is outside of my normal genres, but it’s too damned interesting and funny to put away. I’m also a big fan of Ken Follett, Wilbur Smith, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and James Rollins. Every so often, when I need to piss myself laughing, I throw in some Christopher Moore.
5. Where can readers find you?
Starbucks. Or williamvw-at-gmail-dot-com. Or through my site at www.williamvanwinkle.com. But probably Starbucks.
Zombie Survival Questions
1. You see a hand gun, a bat and a knife. Which do you choose as your weapon for the apocalypse?
If I could only pick one? The hand gun is out. You’ve only got a few rounds and a lot of zombies. Bad long-term prospects there.
The bat? Possible. A bat would be especially useful if, like in The Walking Dead, zombies always have heads with the consistency of watermelons. Bring a poncho!
But no, the knife is the only sensible choice. Assuming you can get away from the initial attack, you’ve still got the problem of basic survival. Can you cut a rope with a bat? Slice up meat with a 9mm? No. Gotta be the knife.
2. Place of survival. Your own house, a shopping mall or The Winchester pub?
See, a writer more in touch with the masses would go for the pub, right? All hell is breaking loose! Throw back a few pints and enjoy it! But you said “survival,” and at the ripe age of 42, I know that drinking and survival aren’t always the bestest of friendsies. So no pub, sorry.
I was originally going to pick my house, but that’s out, too. There’s just too much stuff laying around to trip over. I don’t own a “gun room” or even a “gun rack.” I barely own one gun to put in a rack. Tactically, my house sucks as a survival milieu. I could hide in the attic crawlspace, but that’s not sexy, and all the fiberglass insulation up there itches like hell.
That leaves the shopping mall, which should win solely on the basis of being a lyrical metaphor about the effects of modern consumerism on society, and everybody knows that crap like that is what fine writing is all about. Really, though, the mall wins because there’s more room to run, more weapons, and more junk for making traps and hideaways. And coffee.
3. You see an underground parking centre. Do you go in?
Only if I have the keys to a car that’s down there. Duh. Or a way to siphon off some gasoline. That could be useful.
4. You see your boss is now a zombie but is no immediate threat to you. Do you still use your last bullet on him/her?
I’m self-employed, so the paradox of this question is giving me a headache. But if I think back to my last conventional boss, who was a psychologically abusive douchebag, I would—
No, I wouldn’t. I’d like to think that I would repaint the wall with his jellified brains, but the truth is that there just wouldn’t be much difference between the old and new versions of him. I didn’t kill him before (despite many temptations), so why start now?
5. What luxury item would you keep in the apocalypse?
Honestly, I can’t think of any. Maybe soap? I’m a very cold turkey kind of guy. When I make up my mind to change, I get obsessive about it. Luxury items will only slow me down and increase risk. When I’m not fighting for survival, then I’ll think about luxury items.
Of course, if that were entirely true, I wouldn’t have a house full of junk while struggling to pay my bills, now would I?
6. You're bitten. Do you
A) Shoot yourself before you turn?
B) Ask a friend to do?
C) Turn and enjoy the all you can eat human buffet?
The last option is tempting. That’s what made Invasion of the Body Snatchers so compelling to me. It’s about the all-consuming social pressure to eliminate one’s individuality in the face of powerful group forces. (I still get shivers every time I watch the final seconds of the Donald Sutherland version.) Body Snatchers is really a zombie flick, just with different cosmetic trappings.
So you’re asking: at the end, would I become a pod person? Would I crumble and conform? I hope not. I would try not to.
I wouldn’t ask a friend unless I owed that friend money. Fair is fair. Always pay your debts somehow.
That leaves the ol’ barrel in the mouth trick. I’m not a fan of the easy out, but at least with a big apocalypse going on, you don’t have to feel guilty about leaving a mess behind. It’s the in thing – everybody’s doing it.