The work of Jane Austen has proved to be rather fertile soil from which to raise the dead. With Pride and Prejudice and Zombies author Seth Grahame-Smith moving on from Plain Jane to Honest Abe, Quirk Books drafted Steve Hockensmith to pen the prequel to their unexpected mash-up hit, Dawn of the Dreadfuls. We spoke with Hockensmith about Austen, zombies, and why those two great tastes taste so great together.
Had you read the original before you got the job to write the prequel?
I had not, but I knew of it well. I am an Entertainment Weekly subscriber so I had been seeing mention of it coming down the pipe for quite some time. It was actually pretty funny because the day when I got the call from someone in my agent’s office to ask, “Have you heard of this thing call Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?” and I said of course, and she threw out that there might be an opportunity to write the prequel, I had to run out and buy a copy immediately, because I didn’t want to start talking about this until I had read it. Although the two books are very different, of course, I hasten to add. I ran to the local Borders, and they were sold out. So I ran up the street to the little independent corner bookstore that was a little further on. I go in and there was a lady behind the counter, a nice little grey-haired bookstore employee type, and I say to her I’m looking for this book called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And she just rolls her eyes and says, “Oh…that,” and she proceeds, rather begrudgingly, to lead me to this table where there is only a single copy left. So I bought the last remaining copy of the book in the county, and ran right home with it and read it all in one night and loved it.
Do you think there are a lot of people like that bookstore lady who have that same reaction of “poor Jane Austen?”
Oh, I can tell you they exist. Because what does one do when one is checking up on the background of something one might get involved in? You Google it. You Google it and you see this and you see that; you see the lovahs and you see the hatahs. And yeah, there were definitely some haters out there, and I’m sure they’re still there. It’s something that I can totally understand, it’s not something I look askance at, at all. Somebody having a cynical reaction when they find out that something that really means a lot to them, their beloved ex, is about to be lovingly satirized. I can understand how people can be a little defensive about things that they feel are near and dear to their hearts, but I would say, having thrown all that out there, that I think a lot of those people were actually won over when they read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Not all of them. I would hope, actually, that some of the folks that weren’t won over, would actually respond better to my book, because it isn’t a mash-up. And if anybody had an issue with that aspect of it, they would not find it to be the case with mine and they would in fact find that even though I poke some gentle fun, there’s a lot of love and affection there that I hope comes across. And the dedication of the book is “To Jane—we kid because we love.” It’s true! We do love her! So hopefully, even the people who were at first a little bit wary of the whole thing, I think a lot of those people could still be won over.
Going in were you a bigger fan of zombies or Jane Austen?
Jane Austen for sure. I like zombies, I like them fine. But I don’t have a long list of zombie movies or books that are among my favorite things in the world. But there are some on there, like Shaun of the Dead. I loved Shaun of the Dead and I had already seen it multiple times by the time this thing came along. And I’m also a big fan of the original Dawn of the Dead, the Romero version. But Austen, and I can’t claim that I’d read Austen super-widely before, but in the early ‘00s, I, somewhat against my will, was talked into watching with my wife the BBC Pride and Prejudice mini-series and I will say, to show the effect it had, I probably watched it six times since then.
That’s a lot of hours.
It is. But I love that thing to death, and that, to me, really opened my eyes to the wonders of Jane Austen because when I had read her as a young person way back in my college days, the thing that didn’t come across, and I think it was partially because I was a young American guy, and also because I had to read everything very quickly, what did not sink in, and none of my professors bothered to point this out, was that Jane Austen is funny. And when you see the BBC adaptation, I think that really comes across. There’s so much wonderful humor in the interactions of those great characters. Just droll and witty, and the stuff that, on the page, had not leapt out at me with the laughs, I could see then that it was actually funny so when I went back and read it again, it was all there. I just had missed it. So all that to say that I probably leaned more towards Austen going in over zombies, but the good thing is I didn’t have to choose either one for this book because they’re both there.
And you sort of had that chocolate and peanut butter thing going for your last series…
Yes, it’s so perfect. Two great tastes that go great together. And yeah, I think that’s one of the reasons why Quirk thought I might be the guy for the gig because I had taken two very different things and I had jammed them and hopefully in the case of my mystery series the two great tastes did taste great together. And I can only hope that people will find Dawn of the Dreadfuls yummy as well.
Why do you think literary mash-ups are so popular?
I have not come up with a satisfactory answer for that. I don’t know if it just has something to do with the sort of media-overload age that we live in, where we’re used to flipping around channels so now what’s happening is the channels are starting to blend and it just seems so much more natural. And also, there’s the thing that the technology is there for people to do their own mash-ups, to make things and throw them up on YouTube. So the idea of taking things, chopping them up, figuring out what they are, their essence, and then mixing them back up in a different order, that’s just something people do now. It’s sort of been democratized; anyone can do it and throw it out there for people to look at. This is kind of a scattershot answer, but it might have to do with all that. It’s hard to say. It’s going to be really interesting to see whether this is just how it is now, this is how people view art and this is going to become part of the culture, that there’s a much more fluid line between one piece of art and another, and people are going to get more used to slicing and dicing, or if this is just the moment, 2009, 2010, 2011, and then in 2020 people will be looking back and scratching their heads.
These things seem to come in waves: There’s vampires, then zombies, and then maybe werewolves…
I will boldly predict that it’s not going to spread to mummies. It’s not that somebody won’t write a wonderful werewolf romance and have that go through the roof, but it’s hard for me to imagine it turning into a phenomenon. But then again if you had said to me ten years ago that zombies were going to be huge, “Buy zombie stock now!” or “I have one word for you my friend, zombies,” I don’t think I would have seen it, so what do I know. But I do think that if you do look at vampires and zombies, it makes sense. There’s something about them, don’t ask me to write a thesis explaining it all, but it just feels right, whatever buttons they push for people. I can’t think of another monster that has something like that, something very visceral, like zombies or vampires. Maybe werewolves come close. With zombies, they’re people, it addresses that fear of death, that we’re all just rotting meat, and sort of puts it in our faces. And then there’s very sensual thing that’s become a very big part of the vampire mythos. See I don’t think you’re going to find that with, um…
Black Lagoon creatures?
Exactly, I don’t think anyone’s going to get all hot and bothered about the gill-man that shows up at the high school. All the girls are mooning over him and want to know his secret.