By Nick Langley - November 9, 2008
At Wizard World Texas, we spoke with Max Brooks on the exhibit floor before the doors opened for attendees to pour in. Max’s experience includes writing for Saturday Night Live, but he is arguably best known for his book The Zombie Survival Guide, soon to be a major motion picture. A heck of a nice guy, he spoke with us about many things. During this portion of the conversation, we started talking about his education. I was about to participate on a convention panel about how college might or might not prepare creators for comics careers, and Max offered his thoughts for me to share during the panel.
Nick: You graduated from Pitzer?
Max Brooks: Pitzer College with one semester at the University of the Virgin Islands, graduate school, an internship in between schools. Internship at the BBC Documentaries, then American University for Film Production, graduate schools with a semester in Prague at the Film Academy.
Nick: What did you study while you were in college?
Max Brooks: History and political science.
Nick: Do you feel like it has helped you with your current career?
Max Brooks: Yeah. It didn’t help me get the job, but it certainly helped me write. It gave me the passion to write, gave me the passion to do what I do. My education was a real education, I mean I wanted to learn so I could learn and I was passionate about the subject. So that’s what I write about. Like, World War Z is all worldly based.
As far as I’m concerned, passion is everything. The one guy I know who is wildly successful in comics is Craig Kyle. He created the clone of Wolverine in X-Men. (Craig Kyle and collaborator Chris Yost created the character X-23, Wolverine’s clone.) We went to high school together. He was the kind of guy who had his comics in plastic. Remember the Spider-Man with the silver and gold version? He was into it. So he was clearly passionate and it took him places. I think if you aren’t into something, then well, get the f*** out of my way because I’m into it and stop wasting my time.
Nick: Actually, I wanted to ask you what you’re passionate about. You’ve done acting, voice acting, writing… Out of all of those things, what are you most passionate about? Writing?
Max Brooks: Writing but not just writing for writing’s sake, I have to say something. I don’t just sit down to write something just because I want to publish something. I have to say something, and I have to have a story to tell; otherwise, what’s the point? It’s like the biggest criticism of World War Z is when people say, ‘Why didn’t you write a traditional zombie story?’ You know, with the five or six characters and they all have to go through something. My short answer is because I didn’t want to, because it’s not what excited me. I wanted to write a global pandemic story. So that’s what I wrote. So yeah, I’m passionate about human history, I’m passionate about political history, science, the environment, military history, technology, and engineering. There are a lot of things I’m passionate about. Now, I’m not passionate about romantic comedies. So therefore, you will never see me do like a story where Adam Sandler and Debra Messing fall in love and it turns out that Adam Sandler is actually a vampire, that’s not gonna happen.
Nick: About World War Z: It supposed to be like a serious sort of book or is it just the ultimate deadpan joke?
Max Brooks: If anyone doesn’t get The Zombie Survival Guide, they’re overthinking it. There’s nothing to overthink. It is a book on how to fight zombies. I mean, why is that so complicated? I am bombarded by people who try to overthink it and don’t get it. My audience, they get it and they pick it up and they are like, ‘Yeah, yeah, oh he says flame throwers are bad, oh I totally get it, yeah.’
Well, the people who overthink it think I’m doing it because it’s comedy or a broader, deeper intellectual pursuit. They can’t actually believe that I would actually embarrass myself so thoroughly that I would write a book on how to fight zombies. ‘Well, clearly he’s not that much of loser; clearly, he’s doing this for a smarter and more cunning cheap kind of work.’ No, it’s on how to fight zombies. And the reason it’s in humor is because Mel Brooks is my dad, and I worked on Saturday Night Live and I won an Emmy on Saturday Night Live, so people thought, ‘Oh, comedy. Yes, well, that is how we are going to market it.’ Wrong.
Nick: The book is labeled in the humor section.
Max Brooks: Yeah, that’s just bad marketing, and that’s for people who are dumber and who are going to say they will sell a novelty to you. They thought they were going to be able to sell it as a novelty for about six months and people would go on with their life. If you go online now, you can see a bunch of these cutesy little novelty books, like How to Be a Pirate or How to Be a Superhero or whatever. And those are in with the people trying to see books for a chuckle, and you know you take a crap and wipe yourself and you leave it by the toilet. And that’s what they were trying to do. No, I sat down to write a real book on how to fight zombies. There is no tongue in cheek for me.
Nick: What do you feel that you are educating yourself with nowadays?
Max Brooks: Well, I think I should. I regret college. I regret not pushing myself. I’m very, very, very dyslexic and so it gave me the inferiority complex, so I went to a loser college that wouldn’t challenge me. And I shouldn’t have done that, I shouldn’t have. I got into better schools, and I should have gone to one of them and I should have struggled and I should have pushed myself. And I should have read the books I’m reading now. I should have taken the classes that I take now. I feel like I am constantly re-educating myself. There is a stack of books by my night table every night and I feel like I can’t stop learning and I should have done that when I didn’t have to worry about things like paying the bills, taking care of my son, and keeping a marriage together. I feel like I should have gone to a much more challenging school and really educated myself when it was time to be educated. So that’s my only big regret.
Nick: So what are you reading now?
Max Brooks: I’m re-reading Quotations from Mao Tse Tung. (Max pulls the book from his pocket.) It’s a fascinating, fascinating book because I believe that you cannot read a book outside of its historical context. For example, you can’t just read a book and leave it at that. Who wrote this book and what time did they write it? And what were the influences of that time that made them write the way they did, tell the stories the way they told them. What was it about Henry David Thoreau, who writes well, and when he writes well he initially talks about the slavery of the peasant who works in the farm, and the farmer who, you’re a slave to your inherited land and that’s the time he grew up in. As opposed to Thompson who writes about the horrible nightmare that was the baby boomer generation. And what it was like to have your dreams just shattered and basically give up? I think that every writer writes in their historical context. What’s great about his book is that you actually get to see the history of China and his quotations from the 1920’s and the 1960’s. So you actually get to see the history of the time period. And you actually get to see how China evolved the way it evolved. I mean you have to read a whole bunch of stuff around it, but yeah this is a book that I come back to constantly.
Nick: What’s the next big challenge for yourself?
Max Brooks: Well, I’ve got to finish this graphic novel. See what happened in the back of Zombie Survival Guide…
Nick: The historical attacks.
Max Brooks: Yeah. Well, I wanted to do a graphic novel of those historical attacks. It’s definitely underway. It’s taking a really long time because see, William [last name withheld in case anyone takes the quote out of context when Max was just kidding William, who was standing within hearing and shaking his head any time Max mentioned him] has a lot of problems, family problems, and relationship issues, love life problems, and he is not really sure if he’s gay or not, so there are a lot of personal things that get in the way of his career. So you know it’s taking a really long time. So you know, I’ll call him sometimes and I’ll be like, ‘William, so when is this chapter gonna get here?’ and he’ll be like, “Ohhhh, well, we’re gonna get this done, I’ve been talking to this guy…” So it should come out in the spring.
Nick: Is that a preview there? (point to graphic novel preview by Max’s elbow)
Max Brooks: Yeah, this is a sample chapter and this is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, easily the hardest writing project I’ve ever had because I’m working with an artist and I have to tell him exactly how I want it. And he’s a brilliant artist, by the way, he’s a genius. See check this out… I can’t even draw a stick figure. This guy is so damn good.
Nick: Who’s doing the artwork?
Max Brooks: His name is Ibraim Roberson. He lives in a mud hut in the Amazon. No, he lives in Brazil. Never met him.
There’s a really great book by Thomas O’Freedman called The World is Flat, and it’s all about how literally communication has made the world flat, in a sense that everything is now global. It’s leveled the playing field. People now do business in other countries without even meeting, and that’s the case. I mean literally, I write the script, it goes to William, Ibraim draws it and he sends it to me. Never met, but it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
Nick: After that, what is the next big thing you’d like to tackle?
Max Brooks: Another graphic novel, so we’ll see what happens with that one. And that’s not zombie related, that historical. But for me, graphic novels are much more difficult than writing conventional novels because you have to describe everything. You know, in a novel you can say as much as you want, or as you don’t want. You can say in a novel, ‘William gives the prostitute $50.’ But in a graphic novel, you have to say what angle we are looking at, where is our point of view, you have to say, ‘Exterior, Central Park, night, lower left hand corner. William dressed in suit, he is sweating, he gives the prostitute, who is dressed as a big burly bear, $50. He’s halfway reaching…’ I mean every little thing, I mean the shadows, how far along the action is, everything has to be described. So for me, it’s a lot of drudgery and I’m not used to that.
Nick: That covers me for questions. Oh yeah, what’d you have for breakfast?
Max Brooks: Actually, I got in a fight with the room service people because I was so tired and I kept saying that I just want 3 teas and they said three? I said yeah, because I would drink one bottle and bring the other two here. And they were like no we only have hot tea, and I was like, ‘No, you don’t, it says it right there!’ And then when he finally came up, I said, ‘Right there, on the menu,’ and he says, ‘Yeah we have them in tea bags.’ I said, ‘Oh, I’m an a******. Got it, sorry about that. Here’s an extra $10.’ Bacon and eggs and whole wheat toast.
Nick: Sounds wholesome.
Max Brooks: Well, I need it for today. Still missing that Snapple, but what are you gonna do?