Æther Feature — How I Came to the End of the World

Every Thursday, the Archives will feature artists, musicians, and makers of all variety, entered for your approval here in the Archives. With so many talented individuals to choose from, we know it is a challenge to feature every clever creative worthy of note, but perhaps we might endeavour to introduce to you a new name in our community of steam and cog, or perhaps remind you of one artisan’s successful efforts to bring the past that never was to the here and now.

This week’s Æther Feature from Pete Woodworth for December 20th, 2012, is submitted for your pleasure:

I didn’t set out to end the world. I really didn’t.

If you had told me a few years ago that my first novel would be a post-apocalyptic story full of mutant zombies, crazy street gangs and ruined cityscapes, I probably would’ve thought you were crazy. Being a game writer and serial anthology contributor, I’m used to my career taking some odd bounces, but the path to this new novel – my first, as it happens – has been a strange one even by my standards.

For about a year I had been a player in the NJ chapter of Dystopia Rising, a fantastic LARP set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by the walking dead, when the game’s creator Michael Pucci approached me with a proposal. How would I like to write the first-ever fiction trilogy set in the Dystopia Rising game world? I was thrilled and jumped at the chance, even when it became clear that I would be writing all three of them back to back in just under a year. I’d written horror before, mostly games but a few stories here and there, and while it was something I was comfortable with, the scale of the project was still a little daunting

One of the things that immediately jumped out as challenge was remembering the realities of writing in a post-apocalyptic future. It was slightly easier than it might otherwise have been due to the fact that the society of Dystopia Rising has stabilized somewhat, even if only at a relatively primitive level – it’s not the rapidly-unraveling anarchy of, say, the Walking Dead. Still, keeping track of every bullet, every bite of food and every stitch of clothing added an extra layer of continuity to keep track of as the story went on. In a way, it was refreshing, as it allowed me to show off how determined the survivors have become at finding food and supplies.

When I was doing research, I stumbled across a survival manual that told you how to make a few gallons of safe drinking water with a couple drops of bleach, and I immediately thought “Yeah, that has to go in this story.” I don’t imagine anyone ever really gets used to that kind of chemical aftertaste, and that in turn says a lot about the attitude those survivors have about their city. When you swallow a little bit of poison in every drink of water, even if your body can handle it, it still does something to you.

Another unexpected angle was the landscape, the cartography. They already had quite a world built for Dystopia Rising, but writing fiction was a chance to really zoom in and see it close up. I also learned that it’s a hell of a lot of fun to break the world down and reassemble it in a way that people will find both familiar and alien. Some of my favorite scenes in post-apocalyptic movies are those where we see things we recognize that have been totally transformed in the wake of the collapse, because it inspires us to imagine what it would be like to see our world through completely different eyes. What would we think of the dead television sets found in the ruins of all those houses, after we forgot what they were used for? Would they be altars? What about landmarks – how do you make sense of impressive statues when you’ve got no history left? And when the dead walk, how do you look at cemeteries with anything but revulsion and dread?

Perhaps the most unexpected part of writing about a world overrun by the dead, though, was nerving myself up to write gore. Want to know a funny little secret? I’ve got a terribly weak stomach for gore. I’ve been writing and running horror games for years, I vacation in the zombie apocalypse one weekend a month at game, but I faint when I have blood drawn. I once passed out at a screening of Dracula: Dead and Loving It, and yet all of a sudden I needed to bring as much gritty reality to headshots and machete chops as I could if I was going to do the world justice. I had to learn how to write sequences on paper that I could never in a million years watch on film, but after a while I realized that was actually helpful in a way – the more uncomfortable it made me, the more likely it was going to strike a nerve with readers too. Though I still get odd looks when I tell people what I’m writing in a genre that I can’t really watch on film, but like I said, it’s been a strange trip so far.

I teach creative writing classes, and one of the things students always ask is how you actually go about writing a novel. Before my advice was a bit more general, focusing on the classics like outlining and revising – still good tips, by the way, if any students happen to be reading – but now? It’s all about the details. You’d think a story that crosses several hundred miles of apocalyptic territory and involves a few thousand souls, living and undead, would be a big picture sort of deal, but the more I wrote, the more I enjoyed the details. Because in the end, every zombie story always has a lot more to say about the living and the dead, and the most fascinating part of the living are their quirks.

Even if I wouldn’t be able to watch any of it on a big screen.

Peter Woodworth is a first -time novelist, whose book Dystopia Rising: Runner is the first in a post-apocalyptic zombie survival adventure trilogy. He also has short fiction in Gimme Shelter, a collection of zombie horror stories,and several other upcoming anthologies. He is also an award-winning game writer, having worked for White Wolf, Eschaton Media, Evil Hat and a number of other companies over the years. You can find Peter online at www.peterwoodworth.com.

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