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Christopher Webster [Film Festival 03.01.08] post apocalyptic book

Already into its second printing, John Joseph Adams' Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is officially a bona fide hit with readers and PA fans worldwide. Of course we loved it, so it was a real pleasure to be able to e-chat with the man behind the book and discuss everything from Stephen King to Doomsday. We even probed for more details about his next book; an exhaustive anthology of Zombie Fiction called No More Room in Hell. Full details after the jump!

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When you first started your research, were you surprised to find that an authoritative anthology of Post Apocalyptic fiction really wasn't out on the market? Have you formulated any opinions on why that is?

I wasn't surprised that there wasn't such an anthology--because there was one--but I was surprised that there was only one. The one I'm talking about is a book called Beyond Armageddon, edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg. But it came out around 1985, and it was the only anthology of its kind (not counting other similar anthologies, such as Armageddons, which is focused on apocalyptic rather than post-apocalyptic fiction).

Wastelands was put together as a kind of spiritual successor to Beyond Armageddon. I basically picked up where that left off. I purposely avoided duplicating anything that had already been reprinted in that book, and chose most of the stories from Wastelands from the time period following publication of Beyond Armageddon (though there are a few stories that pre-date it).

QE: Did you run into any publishing confusion in terms of what Wastelands was trying to achieve? I mean, most people just think of apocalyptic fiction as being a sub-genre of sci-fi or at worst "alternative reality fiction" don't they?

JJA: Well, I consider post-apocalyptic fiction to be a sub-genre of science fiction, but I don't think that's a bad thing. However, post-apocalyptic fiction has always been a sub-genre that has been able to escape genre boundaries. Many of the sub-genre's classics-- such as Earth Abides, Alas, Babylon, and On the Beach for example--were published as "literature" rather than "science fiction."

The publisher of Wastelands--Night Shade Books--is an independent SF/fantasy specialty press, so there was no confusion with them. We knew that it was a science fiction book (and were fine with that), and we knew that there would be people who not see it as a science fiction book (and were fine with that as well). The fact that some people wouldn't see it as SF was actually a bonus--because we knew it would be likely to get some non-genre readers, who otherwise wouldn't necessarily read something labeled as science fiction.

If there was anyone in the publishing process that didn't get what the book was trying to achieve, I haven't heard about it. There's a lot of people involved in publishing, though, so it could be that someone along the line didn't get it. There's at least one reviewer who didn't seem to get it. But thankfully most people have gotten it, and have liked it quite a lot. It's already gone into a second printing, and there were enough backorders to almost sell out the second printing before it was even finished, so that's good.

QE: Of course the genre has become very popular with film audiences. Do you think popular cinema has helped or hindered the more literary aspirations of the genre?

JJA: I think that popularity in film always helps out the popularity of literary treatments of the same genre, and authors are rare to find anything from the realm of film to hinder their efforts at telling good stories. If anything, it probably helps, because oftentimes films--especially SF films--explore interesting concepts, but often fail to capture what's truly great about them (or don't think them through all the way); this results in a lot of writers writing sort of "rebuttal" stories to things they've seen on film.

As for post-apocalyptic film in particular, I'm not sure how big an impact it's had on the literature. A lot of people have asked me what my favorite post-apocalyptic films are, and I've had a hard time coming up with a list of things I honestly think are great. There are the iconic progenitors of the sub-genre like The Road Warrior, but is it a great movie? There's great stuff about it, sure, but it's very flawed. And that's true about almost all post-apocalyptic movies I can think of.

There are probably more films that employ post-apocalyptic elements or imagery, but are not primarily post-apocalyptic--what I think of (and describe in my "for further reading" appendix in Wastelands) as being of "associational" relevance to the sub-genre. I'm thinking here of films like 12 Monkeys--one of my favorite SF films of all time--which is perhaps the best portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world on film

There's a new film coming out (or may be out by the time this interview is published) called Doomsday. When I saw the trailer, about halfway through it, I was thinking that it had a real shot at being the best post-apocalyptic movie ever. But then the cliché post-apocalyptic punks showed up and my expectations took a serious nose-dive. I think that's a large part of what's wrong with post-apocalyptic cinema--too much of it doesn't try to do anything original, and is just copying what they liked about The Road Warrior.

QE: Was there a reason behind starting the collection off with Stephen King's "The End of the Whole Mess?"

JJA: One of the things anthologists tend to do when deciding on the table of contents order is to lead off with a story by a big name contributor, one that’s uncommonly good and packs a strong emotional punch, or one that will set the tone for the rest of the book--and that story is all three. I'm a huge fan of Stephen King's work, so I considered it a great honor and privilege to publish him in the book--and I was particularly honored to include this story, as it's one of my favorites of his.

But also, I liked the idea of starting with that story because it took place in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse--some of the other stories take place very soon after, but I think that one is the most immediate. The rest of the anthology isn't organized with that in mind--probably the farthest future story in the book is Paolo Bacigalupi's "The People of Sand and Slag," and that appears fairly early on--but I liked the idea of beginning with such a story.

And finally, the other reason I led with that story is that it amused me to start off a book with a story that has "The End" in the title.

QE: Prior to publication, did you engage in any discussions with the authors in the book? What insights were you able to discover about their fascination with the genre?

JJA: I asked most of the contributors a series of questions, which I used to write up some story notes based on their responses. One of the things I asked them is to tell me what their favorite examples of post-apocalyptic fiction were, and also to explain what they thought the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction was. The results, incidentally, are up on the anthology's website,

I think writing post-apocalyptic stories is appealing to writers for a variety of reasons. For one thing, I imagine it's kind of fun--in a perverse sort of way--to destroy the world. But also, it serves as an outlet for our fears and anxieties, and allows writers to deal with some weighty issues, which in any other setting might come across as a bit heavy-handed.

QE: Why do you think, as readers, we're drawn to apocalyptic tales?

JJA: I'll defer to John Varley, who said:

"We all love after-the-bomb stories. If we didn’t, why would there be so many of them? There’s something attractive about all those people being gone, about wandering in a depopulated world, scrounging cans of Campbell’s pork and beans, defending one’s family from marauders. Sure it’s horrible, sure we weep for all those dead people. But some secret part of us thinks it would be good to survive, to start over. Secretly, we know we’ll survive. All those other folks will die. That’s what after-the-bomb stories are all about."

I think that's the start of it, anyway. But also, many of us have a strong attraction to things that scare us (there wouldn't be a horror genre, if not). I think that post-apocalyptic fiction is in many ways the scariest kind of fiction there is. And the more plausible it is, the scarier it is. Stories about demons and supernatural monsters can be entertaining, but deep down I don't find them particularly scary, because I'm certain those things don't--and never will--exist. The end of the world, however? That could happen.

QE: You're currently working on a new anthology called No More Room in Hell I understand. Something a little different, which I assume is related to Zombie fiction. What can you tell us about it? And why choose this subject matter?

JJA: Yes, speaking of supernatural monsters that don't and never will exist--that brings us to my next project quite nicely! You're right, of course, in that it deals with zombies, though to make that even more clear from the title, we're leaning toward going with the more obvious The Living Dead.

With The Living Dead I'm aspiring to put together the definitive zombie anthology. There have been many zombie anthologies over the years, but I haven't been able to find one that focuses strictly on reprints and aims to collect the best of the best in one volume. (The closest to what I'm describing is The Mammoth Book of Zombies edited by Stephen Jones, but that one's about half reprints, half originals.)

The Living Dead will be a huge book, around 230,000 words (Wastelands, by contrast, was 150,000 words). I haven't completely finalized the table of contents yet, but I can tell you that it will contain stories by Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Laurell K. Hamilton, Clive Barker, Harlan Ellison & Robert Silverberg, Poppy Z. Brite, Kelly Link, and Joe Hill, among others.

As for why zombies...well, the boys over at Night Shade, after seeing the final product of Wastelands, told me that they were quite pleased with how it turned out, and that they wanted me to do another anthology for them. The first subject we discussed was zombies, and all of us loved zombies, so we went with that.

Also, it seems like kind of a nice thematic successor to Wastelands. Back when I was calling the anthology No More Room in Hell, I joked that it only made sense to do zombies next. After all, in Wastelands, we killed off most of the population of the world, a good portion of which would've ended up in Hell, so it was only a matter of time before it filled up. And as we all know, when there's no more room in hell...

QE: Thanks John, and again kudos on the success of Wastelands. I'm sincerely stoked about getting my mitts on your next book!

Order the book from Amazon

Also check out our review of Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

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