Talk Nerdy With Us recently had the pleasure of chatting with The Walking Dead author Jay Bonansinga about his latest book, Lucid and about his new company Magnetik Ink. For more information on Lucid and Magentik Ink, follow them on Twitter at @jaybonansinga and @magnetikinkent.
Michele are you calling from Schenectady, New York?
I am. I’m calling from Schenectady.
Oh my God. I have to tell you. The reason I’m chuckling is because for years, Harlan Ellison had talked about getting asked the stupidest question ever as a writer over and over and over again. The question is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Harlan Ellison used to say, “I actually send away for them to Schenectady, New York. I get a six-pack of fresh ideas every week, it’s a subscription perk. (laughs).”
Guess I won’t be asking that question now! (laughs).
I get asked the question sometimes and I’m very gracious about it. I don’t make up a snarky answer. Not to get ahead of ourselves. I’m not really sure where I get my ideas. I mean, over the years I’ve kind of answered that question in a cliché answer. Usually I’ll say, “From my dreams” or “My nightmares”, “My phobias”, or something. It’s more vague than that. It’s really hard to pin down where you get your ideas. It’s a fascinating question, ironically.
I agree with that because they can come from anywhere. You can hear something and it’ll strike up an idea.
Exactly. Exactly. You’re not really sure, once you latch on to some idea, it doesn’t take long to be uncertain about where it came from. I remember an anecdote about Keith Richards. How he wrote maybe the greatest rock and roll song ever, Satisfaction and Keith Richards claims that he wasn’t … I’m sure there were a lot of drugs involved, whatever the truth to the story is. He claimed that he keeps a tape recorder by his bed. He went to sleep one night and he woke up the next morning and that classic guitar riff for “Satisfaction” was on the tape recorder. He had no memory of ever recording it.
Wow! So, tell me, how did you get involved in writing The Walking Dead novels that support the T.V. series?
I wish that I had a really charming Harlan Ellison-esque answer for that, but it’s really one of those typical Hollywood stories where my agent knew Robert Kirkman’s agent really well. They hung out together. They literally were having lunch one day and David Alpert, who is the executive producer of the T.V. show, The Walking Dead, said to my agent, “Robert’s looking for a novelist.” My agent, Andy Cohen, a wonderful guy who I owe this whole Walking Dead amazing gig to, goes, “Oh. Really? Are you working on something original?” He goes, “Well no, we’re going to explore ‘The Walking Dead’ in that format. We want to explore it. We’re going to have a T.V. show that’s going to come out next year,” this was in 2009, “We’re going to explore it in novels.” Andy said, “Oh my God, I have just the guy.” I kind of was just the guy. I had worked with George Romero. I totally had zombies in my blood. I was weaned on zombies as a kid. It was just a perfect fit.
That’s really cool! The Walking Dead novels support the show, but they also prequels of sorts. The whole governor series for example is one of them.
Exactly. I mean, Robert really sort of envisioned the novel as being adjunct to the comic book. Being really deep, granular explorations of characters and back stories that were only hinted at in the comic book. The comic book, which is still going strong and it’s an amazing comic book, it’s sort of the Rosetta Stone to the whole canon of The Walking Dead. To this day, the writers for the T.V. show they’re constantly going back to what is in the comic books. Drawing stuff from it.
We kind of started doing the same thing. We start with the governor because the governor was still a blank character in the comic book. He was sort of this badass over-the-top villain. He did have these fascinating, strange, and eerie little traits. He kept his poor daughter who was only ten years old when she died and turned into a zombie, he kept her and could not put her out of her misery. He kept her chained up in a room in the comic book.
There was this fascinating fascination among fans of this guy, the governor. It made sense. When we started working on these books, Robert would give me an outline and it would just be a very sketchy outline. Then he would leave me alone and I would go off and turn the outlines into a hundred thousand word novels. They really just started writing themselves. They were just pouring out of me because of the intensity of this world. This intense, dark, trippy journey that these people were on.
That’s kind of how the books started and it’s evolved into their own cannon. Now I’m working on number seven and they’ve really evolved over the years. It’s been almost five years.
Now you’re a part of such a huge phenomenon!
Oh my God, I know. I mean, when I started, I thought that they were … I really thought that it was going to be just a quick down and dirty novelization work. They were going to give me a script and I was just going to put flesh on it and sort of turn it into a novel. A lot of the time, that’s what you end up doing with franchises. Star Wars, Star Trek. You do novels but they’re really just screenplays that you then flesh out.
I’ll never forget that phone call. That first phone call with Kirkman in 2009. “Are you going to send me a script?” I just figured that’s how we do this. I would take a script and I would turn it into a novel. A simple kind of tie in. There’s this long pause and he’s like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. That’s not what we’re doing.” I’m like, “Really?” (laughs). He goes, “Oh no, no, no. These are going to be serious, badass novels that exist as themselves.” I was just like, “Yes!” It was so cool, I was so stoked from that moment on. I’ve taken them very seriously over the years and they’ve done really well. I’m really proud of them.
I do have to ask you, what is your writing process like?
Well, it’s changed over the years. I’ve been doing this long enough now that I know exactly, almost down to the minute, how long it’s going to take me to write my minimum number of pages every day. It’s just a craft. I never really even looked at it as an art form, I looked at it as a craft. I’m a craftsmen.
I know exactly where I have to be and what music I have to have on my ear buds. How long it’s going to take me to write the five pages a day that I need to write.
It’s lovely because I’ve gotten to the point where every day I end my writing session with a cliff hanger. It’s a little trick of the trade. There’s so many cliff hangers in The Walking Dead as you can imagine. Every five pages I can come up with a cliff hanger.
Then the next day, I get up and go back to my computer and there’s that cliff hanger. Staring me in the face. I’m like, “Oh yeah! We were just about to fall into the pit that was filled with the dead.” It’s so cool and that’s how I’m able to write on deadline. Keep these things churning out. I’ve written close to seven novels within less than five years.
They’re hundreds of pages long, too. These are not just little mini novellas. These are long!
Yeah, there’s a minimum word count that a big commercial publisher requires. Who knows where it started or what it’s based on but it’s between eighty and a hundred thousand words. That translates to about four hundred pages of manuscript and around three hundred pages of finished book pages.
It’s like carpentry. It’s very exact within this precise framework and frame. Like a painting has a boundary, a border. Within that, I’m totally free to explore any side tripping, strange, unexpected disaster. Any character dying unexpectedly. I don’t even really have to … I’ve had a couple of characters die over the years but I’ve had to get permission.
Even that, that’s the brilliant genius of Kirkman and his methodology. I’m not saying that just to curry favor with my boss. (laughs). It’s really true. He has this genius for having different mediums that explore the same thing. The video games, the comic books, the television show, the novels. They’re all the same characters and the same timelines and they kind of take you through the same journey and arcs.
People die in different times and different ways. Whatever medium you’re in, if you’re watching the shower, or reading the book, or … You have no idea who’s going to die and when. It really makes it suspenseful for the fans.
Do you write every day?
No, I write five days a week. If I wrote every day, I would totally burn out. Within a couple of months, I would be in a mental hospital for deranged writers who (laughs) … I have to get away from it for a couple of days every week. I must have a weekend and clear my mind. Watch some stupid reality show. Have ice cream. Go to the petting zoo. Get away from dark, grim, horrific stuff. Then pick it back up on Monday, I’m like, “Okay. I’m rested, I’m cool.” Then I go back to the dark, grim world. That’s what works for me.
I know there’s a lot of writers who write every day. I have two teenage boys and a wife that I adore and love being with. I’m really lucky. I get to play in this world, this sandbox, for a living and then just lead a normal life. Relatively normal life.
You’ve also dabbled in film. Do you have a preference of one medium over the other?
That’s a good question. To be completely honest and just between you and me Michele, and the millions of people who are going to be reading this (laughs) … Well, writing is my sweet spot. It’s my happy place. Writing prose, writing novels. That’s it for me.
I mean, I am a film person. I came from film school and I’ve directed films. I directed a feature. It was an amazing experience and I’m going to do it again. Also, it probably informs my fiction writing. The eye of a filmmaker has probably influenced me. I think of books as brain movies.
When you’re writing a book, you’re the director and the actor, and the art director, and the composer, and the cinematographer. You’re doing everything. It’s an elaborate, epic film that you’re writing for the mind.
That’s pretty good. I just made that up!
I like that!
I just pulled that out of my ass.
(laughs) Tell everybody about your young adult novel, Lucid?
I’m really excited about it and proud of it. Lucid’s been five years in the making while I’ve been working on The Walking Dead. That’s been gestating in my imagination and I’m obsessed with dreams. I have been for years. For many years I’ve been obsessed with lucid dreaming. It’s not that I can do it. I wish I could. I’ve never been able to do it. I’ve always been fascinated with the whole idea that there are about ten percent of the people who are walking around the earth that can actually recognize they’re dreaming while they’re in a dream. Many of them have learned how to manipulate their dream while they’re dreaming.
I’ve been thinking about this and experimenting with it for years. I finally came up with this story of this super talented badass eighteen year old girl who is this incredibly gifted lucid dreamer. That’s the only reason why it became a young adult novel, incidentally. It’s just as scary and it’s just as intense as any of my work, including The Walking Dead. Since it was this eighteen year old girl who’s the central figure, I thought I’d … I’ll remove maybe point one percent of the profanity or the intense gore, the sex, to keep it just as terrifying and then you have a young adult novel. That’s “Lucid”.
There’s a painting at the Art Institute of Chicago of a door and it is the most creepy, haunting door that you have ever seen. That’s where the story started. I guess that’s where I got my idea. Not Schenectady, but the Art Institute. (laughs) There’s this door there, it’s actually called The Door by Ivan Albright. I had this idea that there was this girl who dreamt … Wherever she dreamt, there was a door. A latched, closed-door on the periphery. It haunted her and it terrified her. Finally a therapist said to her, “The only way you’re going to get rid of this door in your dreams is to go through it, find out what’s on the other side.” That’s where all hell breaks loose in the story. That’s where everything goes awry. Where it all goes to hell.
Since you’ve done YA, do you have another genre that you would like to tackle and haven’t yet?
That’s an excellent question. Yeah, I’m always trying to stretch the envelope. I have a new original book coming out next year called Self Storage. I’m kind of stretching the envelope of horror in this book. It’s about a heroin addict and it’s super realistic. This heroin addict is a forty something father of a six-year-old little boy. He has his little boy with him and he’s running errands during the holiday season and he has to go to his self storage unit and pick up some stuff that he has stored. He and his son accidentally get locked in this self storage unit. They can’t get out and it’s the holidays and they’re in a remote facility. The guy goes through heroin withdrawals with his little boy in this tight, enclosed cell of all his forgotten belongings over the years. Then, the second half of the book, you start to ask yourself, “Is this really happening or is this dope, sick, hallucinatory world in this guy’s mind?” I guess you call the next genre I’m tackling is inner-space. Psychological horror. Realism.
Blurring the lines between what’s real and what’s not.
When is that coming out?
Great! That leads me to Magnetik Ink. Tell everyone how Magnetik Ink came about.
Thank you for asking. Ironically, what a great segue . The book Self Storage will be this new company’s first flagship original offering available in hardcover and paperback. First edition available only on the website, magnetikink.com. It’s the kind of company I’ve wanted to start for many years now because I write … I sort of write in this style and tone, in a certain route, and I’ve honed it over the years. I always envisioned having a company that nurtures other writers as well as publishes my own stuff, but nurtures other writers that sort of have similar tonal aspirations and sensibilities.
Making a McSweeney’s for horror.
That’s what Magnetik Ink is going to be. A home for people and artists with similar sensibilities. We want to do all kinds of stuff including books. Books are what we’re starting but we want to develop stuff for film and television and basically explore the different mediums. To have this brand that I’ve been honing almost inadvertently over the years.
I have been working in this field for twenty years. I’ve worked with George Romero and written horror. I sort of built this brand without me being aware of it. When The Walking Dead came along and I joined forces with Kirkman, I felt like I had been an apprentice to do this all my life. This is sort of what I’ve been working up to do. I confess it’s really wonderful, it’s really cool to find this niche.
People ask me, “Do you long for the days you can go back and write your own stuff?” I’m like, “No.” “Are you bummed out that you might be pigeonholed as the zombie guy?” I’m like, “Dude, bring it on! Pigeonhole me. Please!”
I love it. I’m not being disingenuous. It’s wonderful to be pigeonholed with anybody and anything. It’s basically being on the radar.
You still get the freedom to create within that world. It’s not like you’re not creating something.
Exactly. I think a lot of the cast members feel that way as well. People are so devoted to bringing their best and bringing their A-games, bringing it for this show and this world. Even the people who work in the video games feel that way. It’s really amazing.
I have worked on video games. I’m going to work on another one soon. That’s the same thing. People in the video game world are super proud and take this really seriously, this Walking Dead mythology. It’s very simple. The recipe is super simple. It’s zombie apocalypse which everyone is familiar with. It’s told in a very specific way. It’s told in that … The realism is unique. What if this happens to your family? What would you do? How far would you go to protect your child? Would you do evil in order to survive or protect your family? It’s really amazing how it’s resonated for people over the years.
Great! If you’re looking for a new artist or an author for Magnetik Ink, tell me and let our audience know, what types of things are you looking for when you’re picking somebody for Magnetik Ink?
That’s a great question. It’s really hard to answer on one level because it seems like you know it when you see it. It’s really intensely complex on one level to describe, to pitch, on what I’m looking for. It involves having literary cojones. Really being gutsy. Going somewhere that you should. Really pushing the envelope and being an agent provocateur and all this stuff.
You can’t really put a want ad out for that. You really have to take a look at stuff and give people a chance to show you their best work. Then you just see how it washes over you and it’s really a gut feeling. I’ve encountered artists in my life that have blown me away from Clive Barker to Poppy Brite to Peter Straub who have pushed the envelope of horror and fantasy. I believe the next generation of Clive Barker’s and Peter Straub’s out there. That’s what I’m looking for.
You have a story on Wattpad. (Note: Jay’s 4 part Walking Dead story entitled, ” A Fork in the Road” can be found here! )
Yeah! That is really cool! I have to plead ignorance about Wattpad when I first got involved in it. I didn’t really know what it was. It was really fun to get involved in this. I was working with a game company called Scopely, which is this cool game publisher in L.A. I had worked with them on a mobile game in The Walking Dead universe called the Road to Survival.
It is a really cool game. It’s free, it’s the number one best-selling mobile game a couple of weeks after it was released. It’s really done well.
They asked me if I would write an original four-part story for Wattpad to kick off release of the upgrade to this game. I was like, “Oh my God, what a great exchange. I’d love to do this!” I was told this story that takes place in The Walking Dead universe. It’s not like iconic characters. It’s characters that are new and created for this story in particular. Then I was like, “Okay, I have to walk the walk. I have to push myself.”
I’m really going to tell you how the sausage is made for a second. I’ve been wanting to write a story in second person and I could go on, and on, and on, and on about this. Years ago, I read this book by Jay McInerney called Bright Lights, Big City. It was written in second person. I thought it was genius. It was in the back of my mind, I always wanted to experiment with that format. I’ve never really come up with a story that would work with it. Until this Wattpad opportunity came along.
The reason that I worked in second person on this story is because of the game and the game world. You are the player. You, the reader, are the player if you’re playing a game. It’s you. You’re making the choices. You’re pressing the buttons. Physically and figuratively. I thought, “Oh my God, what a perfect marriage of game technology and prose. Tell a story in second person.” I know it sounds simple, like moronically simple, but, it’s not.
It was a fascinating experiment. I tried to create this character that is us. It’s all of us. It’s you. It was really interesting. I was sort of inspired by an old, old, old, old, old, old Gothic psychological suspense story written in the nineteenth century called An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I got inspired by that in a way to tell the story in second person.
I’m kind of in the weeds right now describing it. Hopefully it works. I’ve been getting feedback and people seem to like it. It was a great, great experience. The final section just came out. The fourth chapter, the final chapter of this novella just came out last week. Your timing is perfect. It’s almost as if you knew that the timing would be right. Cool.
This is coming from a girl from Schenectady!
Oh my God, touche. Touche.
(laughs) What advice would you give to a new writer?
Here’s what served me well. I’ve told young writers this in the past and I get nods, and I get twinkle in the eye, like they know what I’m talking about. I would advise an up and coming writer to write the story that they would wanna read but they can’t find and would buy at Barnes and Noble or online that they can’t find on the shelf. Write a story for themselves.
That to me is the greatest motivation to write a story, to tell yourself a story. Don’t write for the market. Don’t write a zombie story because you think it’ll sell right now because zombies are hot. Write the story that you would actually shell out your own money to buy because you can’t find … It doesn’t exist because you haven’t written it yet.