The Walking Dead has enthralled people across the globe with the apocalyptic tale of man vs. zombie. Originally spawned from the comics of Robert Kirkman, Jay Bonansinga is the house novelist for the series, creating some of the most memorable moments, including “The Walking Dead: Rise of the Governor”, and “The Walking Dead: The Road to Woodbury”, among others with Kirkman. As a long time horror writer, Jay actually worked with zombie icon George Romero years ago on his first film, and has continued his own pieces with influence from his dear friend. At the latest Walker Stalker convention, Jay Bonansinga and I did a live interview, where he gave us at Scream Magazine the EXCLUSIVE sneak peek at what the future of The Walking Dead has in store next fall… and while we can’t say whom, fans will definitely be making tearful goodbyes to some favorite characters.
SCREAM: When you’re writing a new storyline for The Walking Dead, or any novel, do you already have an idea of where you want it to go?
JAY: I get in gigantic drunken brawls with people arguing over this very subject. For years, even early in my life as a grad student, I would hear these amazing writers who visited the campus, or read interviews with them, where they say ‘yeah I just sit down and start with an image’. Nothing against literary authors that do it this way, but when writers say that characters ‘tell’ them what they want them to do, I’m like you need medication! I need to know the beginning, middle and end, before I write a single word. I need to know where a story ends so that I know where to begin. Structure is everything in art – all art. Especially horror. Horror is a mechanism, a magic trick. It’s meant to get under your skin and pull out the rug. I’m not just talking jump scares – quiet horror – psychological horror – it’s all an elaborate magic trick that Houdini would do with a sealed box. As a horror writer, you need to know how to build that box.
Do you ever have any hesitation killing off characters?
Oh my god yes. It’s terrible. And because of the structure, I know almost to the day when a character is going to have to die. That makes it even harder. I wake up on a Monday morning and I go, ‘oh no, this character has to die around Thursday’. And then I’m dreading Thursday. I literally have made an idiot of myself in a coffee shop – I often work in coffee shops – crying, like literally crying when I’m killing the person. There is not one but TWO characters in the new Walking Dead (coming out October 2015 called Invasion) that die. Two characters that die unexpectedly. They’re major characters. And I remember the whole due diligence I had to go through before I even did it. Emotionally for myself, even calling Robert Kirkman and discussing it with him. I think their time is up and they have to go. The readers get complacent if the heroes narrowly escape their traps. Like ‘oh that zombie almost bit their ankle but they got away’. You can’t keep doing that. It’s like money in the bank, you can take out so much but eventually you need to put money back in – you have to kill somebody.”
It’s the apocalypse. Somebody’s gotta go.
Yes, you said it! I want that as our next Tee shirt. On the front ‘It’s the apocalypse’, on the back ‘Somebody’s gotta go’. That’d be such an awesome shirt for the show. You can have a share of the sales.
Credit’s good enough for me! Now, creating characters are a big thing. They have to have a definitive personality. Have their own way of dealing with things. How do you go about creating a person that someone believes and invests in?
I was just reading an excerpt from the next Walking Dead in which I created a new character. And I wanted this character – her name is Norma Sutters – I want her to be a major character. Kirkman has seen and oversees the process, and he’s comfortable with what I’m doing with her. She’s a huge character – major changes in the story. You can tell in the first half of the book that this woman has gravitas; she’s going to make things happen. In the second half, that comes into fruition. You really differentiate when you create a new character. You ask yourself in the Walking Dead universe has their been a Jamaican dude? Oh yeah, there was. Stay away from that. Go opposite. Was there a Norwegian meticulous, OCD type choirmaster? You have to be careful you don’t have six older white men with beards. There is only room for one Hershel.
When I was creating Lori Blaine, a character from the horror novel “Lucid”, which is about this super talented dreamer – she’s a prodigy; she has dreaming skills that she’s not even aware of. She has these disturbing nightmares, and she has had them throughout her childhood. In all of these dreams, there’s a door on the periphery … It may be locked, she’s not sure because she stays away from it, it scares her, it disturbs her. Until finally when she’s 18 she has to start seeing a therapist, and the therapist said you’re a lucid dreamer, you can go through that door, you can just go up to it and walk right through anytime you want to. So of course – bad idea! Things go horribly awry in ways that one could never second-guess or imagine. When I was creating her I was like she has to be really smart. High verbal. Off the charts IQ. But she can’t be nerdy. She has to be a hipster. She has to stand-alone. She’s like creating a superhero when creating the main character. Like Kirkman did in the first TWD comic with Rick Grimes. Robert had to consider how Rick Grimes would separate himself to immediately make an impact on readers mind in the comic, and later on TV.
Make characters strong, yet endearing…
That’s exactly it! Making the fans care about this person. Norma Sutters in The Walking Dead… I wanted her to be this person that at first appears to be cliché. A heavyset, African American woman, who’s the choir mistress of her church. It seems cliché until you start peeling the veneer of her surface off and underneath is this brilliant polymath renaissance woman who is a total survivor – and will probably lead the group eventually. You will find that out, I can’t give it away. She is cowering with a .38 pistol in a stall in a ladies room when we first meet her. The professional way to do it is to start a character at the opposite end of the spectrum they are going to end up at. Exaggerate the cliché. People may say that’s not subtle but the thing is nobody realizes the transformation is not subtle – it’s the apocalypse, people cower. It’s not an over the top coward. I did the same thing with Brian Blake in “Walking Dead’s Rise of the Governor”, who became an enormous character. When we first meet him, he is literally crouched hunkering in a coat closet waiting for his brother to kill all the zombies in the house. Cowering with Penny his brothers’ daughter. So that is the opposite spectrum of what he becomes. That’s the key.
For decades, the zombie theme is something that horror fans flock to. The Walking Dead, however, became an actual staple in media worldwide. Yes, it’s horror and zombie, but what do you think is that extra something that made The Walking Dead what it is today?
At the risk of sounding cheesy, it’s family. Romero’s films have influenced The Walking Dead; they’re the biggest influence. I’ve worked with Romero and consider him a friend. His films are about a certain kind of family – different races and genders. In most Romero movies you end up being in a tight space with maybe half a dozen people, all kinds of people, and they become a family by the end of the movie. Not related, but family. Robert took it even simpler with The Walking Dead, down to the Freudian part of humanity – a father, a child, a mother, a couple, grandparents. Those are the constellation of characters thrust into this Romeroesque apocalypse.
Even looking around this convention, you see families. That’s what resonates the most. You ask yourself why – why now – why zombies – what’s different? People may say ‘oh this has been done’ or whatever… no, not really. My analogy is like a great chef – Kirkman may have used the same ingredients that other horror writers used, but this restaurant, The Walking Dead restaurant (that’s scary) – but the ratio he uses, his mystery ingredient, it’s how chefs create an amazing dish. Maybe cumin, when no one has used cumin before. But a different ratio of these ingredients, it’s like ‘that’s genius’. I can’t put my finger on it, same ingredients that everyone has access to, but the way this is done is genius. You see countless zombie novels now, and not picking on anyone, but they’re not The Walking Dead. Robert struck on a recipe where heart balances with gore. It’s never been done before, even with Romero. From page 6 of the first comic book when Rick Grimes awakens and realizes something is wrong with the world, and finds a horse and gets on it to find his family – a mission that is filled with love … and I vividly remember reading it thinking ‘this is different. This is a different zombie story’.
Often in The Walking Dead, it comes down to how do you react in this since it is family. Thinking way back to the scene of when Carl has to make the choice to ‘kill’ his mother. It’s a scene that stuck with fans, and really took Carl from boy to young man for making the hard, albeit right choice. When it comes down to these moments, how do you make a character do the unthinkable?
That’s a great question. Wow. Wow. I’ve never been asked this. You know… I think when you’re writing fiction you use your imagination for everything. My method over the years is to of course research, but also – and I learned this from Stephen King – use name brands and products enough in the scene so that it becomes real. You suspend disbelief. Your brain sees name brand and it feels real, like a world you are familiar with, so the unbelievable becomes believable in the mind. When it comes to a horrendous act, you draw on your imagination and from parts of your life that stayed with you because of the disturbing nature. It helps if you’re a parent. I hate to say that. It’s not that a person without kids can’t write. Many of our writers on The Walking Dead are brilliant and don’t have kids, but it does help to have kids because you think back to the time a doctor set your child’s broken ankle. I did that in the next Walking Dead series. A character has to amputate a foot that’s been bitten by a zombie, and I drew on the moment in my life where I was in the room when the doctor had to reset my sons broken ankle – it’s the sound, that snap, that bone on bone, you never forget that sound. You take stuff from your life and morph it into your purposes.
Before The Walking Dead, you had been a short story writer. When did you make the transition to horror novels and concepts for small screen?
“Black Mariah” was my first horror novel. George Romero was involved with that. We co-adapted the screenplay adaptation of it. It was about these cross-country truckers, late at night. A Jewish woman and an African American man. They love each other but because of the racial baggage back then, they haven’t acted on it. Late at night, on a dark country road in the south, they stumble upon this ancient curse that they are infected with. It’s like a “Mad Max” way they are infected. It prevents them from coming to a stop, if they slow down, they get violently ill and if they stay motionless they burst into flames. So it’s this chase like structure through the whole book. It launched my career. There was a bidding war on it between Putnam, Time Warner and Berkley. Time Warner was the highest bidder. I couldn’t believe it; up to that I’d just been a short story writer in small magazines and stuff. George Romero signed on to direct the movie. The curse is passed through a ‘hand of glory’ – witchcraft. Its supposed to be the severed hand of a felon, but there are positive hands of glory that wiccans and those from the light side use. My first ink is a hand of glory as a tribute. I was at Romero’s house and the phone rings and his producer picks it up and we hear him say ‘no, never heard of that. Where, Paramount? Nope. Is it in pre-production? Never heard of it. I’ll ask if they’ve heard of it.’ He hangs up and looks at us and says ‘has anyone ever heard of a movie in pre-production called Speed?’ I got a sinking feeling. Just the word speed. He says it’s about this bus that can’t slow down or stop. My heart sinks into stomach. “Black Mariah” went into turn around because an unstoppable vehicle was such an obscure idea that it was shut down. We had a green light, spent millions on that movie. It’s what got me into the union. Romero to this day calls it “the project that got away”.
You mentioned “Lucid” earlier, and while it’s different from The Walking Dead, it has a lot of those psychological fear concepts. What was the inspiration for this new horror venture?
I came up with the idea way back in the Stone Age of college. Its been brewing in my mind for so many years. The first spark of the idea I read about a device called The Dream Machine, they don’t make them anymore but they did at one time. I read about it in “Omni Magazine”, it’s no longer published but at the time it was a popular science magazine – like mechanics on acid. Future science, paranormal science, etc. It was a little machine the size of a cell phone and you put it on the table at night and the instructions said to look at the screen and on the little display it would blinked the phrase ‘this is a dream, this is a dream’ at an optimum rhythm that coincides with a beta wave in your brain. While you look at it you connect a terminal to your fingertip that reads your galvanic skin response and sends a small current in rhythm with that sign. Then you go to sleep with the thing on your finger. The device reads from your galvanic skin response when you’ve reached REM, and you’ve started to dream, and when that happens it sends that signal into your fingertip and in your dream a sign pops down ‘this is a dream this is a dream’. I became obsessed with lucid dreaming. After ‘Inception’ released, I thought now is the time… we as a culture are understanding the brain more, neuro psychology, neuro chemicals. Dreams are terrifying. My business partner Jeff and I are starting a new creative development company. Things that are dark and really push today’s boundaries of horror. We are working with an artist for the website, (REMspace), and the look when you go to the landing page, the texture of it alone is scary … For any Walking Dead fan – or horror fans in general – if you enter your email now in the early stages, we’ll be doing free glimpses at things pre-release.
What do you consider the most horrifying scene you’ve written yet?
I recently finished what I consider to be the most terrifying piece I’ve ever written, more so than The Walking Dead. It’s titled “Self Storage” and is absolutely brutal, even for me. We have a collector’s edition of Self Storage coming out from Cemetery Dance, great publisher … it’s very simple, but it spirals in the most horrific thing I’ve ever written. It’s about a forty something, divorced professional who is also a heroin addict. He has a six-year-old son. This guy is what I call a functional heroin addict; I did a lot of research to make this a horrifying reality. He has joint custody with his ex wife, gets his boy on Christmas Eve and they go out to run a few errands before heading to the grandmothers house to have a boring family Christmas. He has to pick up something at his self-storage unit, and takes his son into the unit with him. It’s a grungy area of Chicago, where the mob may or may not be dumping bodies. The boy leans on the wrong metal railing, and the door slams down. The spring-loaded lock engages from the outside, and they get trapped inside the unit. The main character proceeds to go through withdrawals over the week, with the little boy in there. They are trapped for days. It’s linear. No flashbacks. No B stories. It’s here and now, and what ensues the longer the father and son are stuck inside is really brutal. It’s super scary. It’s a cross between “The Shining” and “The Vanishing”. It’s like being prematurely buried, but worse.
And for my diehard Walking Dead fans and followers – you’re going to lose those you don’t see coming!
Thanks for talking to SCREAM, Jay.
You are so welcome, Bree. And, thank you SCREAM MAGAZINE.
Words: Brianne Marie