Let Me Introduce You To…James Knapp

Like so many great finds, I happened upon tonight’s author completely by accident…as I so often do…by scanning the aisles of Barnes and Noble. As you no doubt know by now, I’m a huge fan of urban fantasy. So, my excursions into the realms of fiction often find me scouring the shelves in the fantasy section of my local bookstore. That’s where I was first introduced to James Knapp and his debut novel “State of Decay”, the first book in the “Revivors” series.

Basically, it’s all about zombies. As a genre device, I’m a huge fan of zombies…especially, the newer, sleeker, and more intelligent brain eaters out there today. But Knapp has done something different with the shufflers of legend…he’s taken them down a whole new, more insidious (if not disturbing) path.

I’m afraid I probably can’t do the overall plot of this intriguing books justice, so I’m going to pull it directly from Knapp’s own website (www.zombie0.com) and let him explain it to you:

Would you allow the military to reanimate your corpse, knowing it would commit atrocities, if it meant avoiding service in a brutal war during your lifetime?

What if your level of citizenship depended on your answer? To gain a chance at a better life, or feed your family, which would you choose then? Or would you choose neither, and accept a life of hardship and poverty?

What if you came face to face with your own death, and realized too late you had made the wrong decision?

Nico Wachalowski is a war veteran.  That makes him a first-tier citizen.  Formerly a police detective, he has reintegrated into civilian life as an agent in the FBI.  During his time in the war, he encountered the reanimated soldiers known as ‘revivors’ many times.  When they begin to turn up inside the city, he is tapped for his expertise in a field he’d rather leave behind.

Faye Dasalia is a police detective.  She and Nico worked together long ago, but while he decided to serve, she opted to be wired for reanimation.  That makes her a second-tier citizen.  In the course of investigating a string of murders, she stumbles on a situation that brings her face to face with the revivors she will one day become herself.

Calliope Flax refused to serve.  She also refused to be wired for reanimation.  That makes her a third-tier citizen.  As a result, she ekes a living in a housing project which has been mostly abandoned.  Highly taxed, and with few rights, she seems to be on a path of self-destruction until circumstance drops her in the middle of the biggest terrorist plot the country has ever known.

Zoe Ott is a third-tier citizen as well, but unlike Calliope, she was born with a gift.  Zoe can manipulate the thoughts of others.  This ability allows her to live above the poverty line, but just barely.  The gift also comes at a price; she is constantly assaulted with visions from both the past and future, with no way of knowing which is which.  In the depths of late-stage alcoholism, she has long since stopped trying to make sense of it all when a particularly persistent vision prompts her to contact Nico just as events begin to unfold.

The four are drawn together by circumstances which at first seem unrelated.  By the time they realize their fates are connected to a fifth, unseen enemy, that enemy has nearly gathered the power to strike a blow that has the potential to change everything, forever.

Sounds good? Right? That’s exactly what I thought and is the reason that I bought his book as soon as I saw it.

And if this gets you excited, the next book in the Revivor series is set to be (hopefully) released in October 2010 according to this website. Got to say…I can’t wait! Anyway, recently, I had a chance to ask James some questions about the Revivors, his writing, and anything I else I could think of. Here’s what he had to say!

1) In your own words, tell us a little about State of Decay? What makes it different from other books in the genre?

State of Decay is essentially a science-fiction thriller with a healthy dose of horror mixed in. It takes place in a near-future metropolis where social status has become stratified depending on military service; those who serve are given top tier status, those who donate their bodies after death to become reanimated soldiers are given tier two status, and those who refuse to do either end up at bottom tier. Reanimated foot soldiers (termed ‘revivors’ in the book) are processed out of view from society and shipped overseas. Outside of the military (such as the National Guard) it’s actually illegal for a revivor to be animate inside the country. The story follows four characters (one main character and three supporting) that cover the three social tiers. Nico Wachalowski (the main character) is an FBI agent investigating revivors that have been smuggled back into the country for sale in the underground sex and labor trade. During his investigation he stumbles on something much larger which throws him, and the other three characters, into a revivor-based conspiracy that suggests there may be much more to the reanimated soldiers than anyone thought.

What makes it different from other books in the genre (at least the zombie genre) is that while I play with some of the zombie tropes (they will, for instance, eat human flesh) they are not anything like ‘true’ Romeroesque zombies. Revivors may have their brains rewired to make them subservient and easy to control, but they retain their intelligence, motor skills and even their ability to speak and reason. Up close they are easy to spot (their synthetic blood is black, making veins show more prominently, and photoptic cells in their replacement eyes glow softly) but at a distance they can be mistaken for a living human. Rather than a surging, growing threat (their condition is engineered, not contagious) or even a product, they are actual characters.

2) Published authors always have the best stories to tell about the process of publishing. Do you have any interesting things that happened to you while trying to get State of Decay published? What was the process like in general?

I pitched State of Decay to a bunch of publishers before I decided I would be better served if I had an agent to represent me. I picked up a book of Agent listings, went through and highlighted all the ones that sounded like they represented the type of material I write, and then began making my way down the list. They all had different submission guidelines (1 page query only, 5 page synopsis plus query, 10 page synopsis no query, etc) so I actually needed a spreadsheet to keep track of it all. I wrote one of each type of synopsis the different agents wanted (I think there were five different ones), packaged sample pages in the number each preferred, and wrote queries to each one. Over the following months I sent them out one at a time (most required exclusivity, so I didn’t want to use the shotgun approach), and receive rejections, one at a time. I had literally one last query outstanding to the Sternig & Byrne Literary Agency when I finally got a bite; Jack Byrne requested I think a five page sample. I sent it to him, and some weeks later I received another request, this time for fifty pages. I sent them, and some time later Jack requested the entire manuscript. After a lot of pacing, finger-crossing and nail-biting, he contacted me to let me know he would take me on as a client.

Jack got me sold in record time (I think it took him four months or so, but I got the sense that was not always the case)…he pitched me to an editor he knew at Ace, who was buried but who handed it off to another Ace/Roc editor named Jessica Wade. Jessica liked what she read, and took a chance on me, picking up State of Decay along with its two sequels.
3) State of Decay isn’t your typical “zombie” fiction. It seems like you’ve created a whole new breed of zombie for your book. What was the inspiration for this book and new kind of zombie?

Actually, the idea for the series came to me back in college and it had been kicking around my mind ever since…at the time (and even now) I never really thought of the ‘revivors’ as zombies even though technically they are. The inspiration for them came more from a spin on ‘replicant’ type creations and artificial intelligence – basically, if you had a human intelligence (a true human intelligence in this case) in its raw form without any of the brain chemistry to allow for much of what we think of as being human (love, anger, nurturing, shame, guilt, etc) then what would be left? Unlike replicants who always had emotion or artificial intelligence which never had it, revivors once had it (and all the established brain pathways that went with a life of having it) but then lost it. I tried to imagine a thing that could remember on an intellectual level what fear felt like, but could no longer feel it, and could no longer empathize with others who felt it, even when they themselves were the cause.
4) What are some of your greatest influences (both literary and popular movies/TV, etc) for your writing?

I grew up reading guys like Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert…I also read a lot of Nancy Kress and Octavia Butler. I haven’t read any Stephen King in a long time, but I read him a lot back in the day. Many others, but those stand out to me as the ones that really made me want to write. I liked (and still like) Asimov’s science (particularly his robots), Herbert’s trippiness, Kress’s social study, Butler’s raw human characterization and King’s dark imaginative fun.

Writing-wise what I mostly take from films are about structure; a good film can be a good lesson in story structure for books because they have a relatively short window in which to tell their story. Books can get much more in-depth than films, but like films the tighter they are the better they are. It’s not about length; some books have the luxury of being 1,000+ pages long which is great if the 1,000 pages are tight. If it starts to feel like 300 or so pages could have been cut, then it becomes a drag. Good films are a lesson in economy of story.

Along the same line, a good TV series is a lesson in story and character arcs. Films have short arcs that last the duration of a single story while a series gets to do something books also get to do, which is study characters in depth over longer periods of time. Series tend to develop fans that get seriously invested in their characters, so as a writer when I watch them I try to always understand what works and what doesn’t, and why.

5) What do you have lined up for the future? What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on the next two books in the series (which are already handed in but are still in the editing phase); The Silent Army will follow State of Decay on October 5, 2010. The third book is currently titled Element Zero and will release some time in 2011. After that, I have a standalone book I am working on, and after that will be what I hope will be a longer series.

6) Besides writing, what are your interests? What do you like to do for fun?

I like drawing (pen and ink mainly) and I have a real weakness for video game RPGs (especially turn-based JRPGs). I code for a living, but also do it recreationally sometimes.

7) Any advice you’d like to share for any aspiring writers out there trying to make their mark in the publishing world?

Have patience, and learn to take criticism. Everything in publishing takes a lot of time, so you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. To give an idea, the time between when my first novel was actually sold to the time it appeared on bookshelves was over a year.

Personally I recommend getting an Agent because they can open doors that would otherwise be closed to you, and a good one knows the business inside and out. Whichever route you choose to go, though, you have to stick to it and not give up. Take your time when you submit; find out the editor or agent’s name and adhere to whatever submission format they prefer (you can usually find that out online). They can all be different but they’re not just there as hoops for you to jump through, they’re there to make the editor/agent’s life easier. Make their life easier – it won’t guarantee success, but it will help your chances.

Taking criticism is easier said than done I think because a lot of times it can be hard to wade through the flotsam of what is unhelpful to get to what is (especially on a thing we like to call the internet) but we can all stand to improve, always. People criticize (especially online) for a lot of reasons, but not all of them are Bobafart69 ranting (however eloquently) that your writing resembles something he stepped in the other day – some really want to help. Find people you trust, and look for trends in what people say. If one person says your characterization was weak make a note of it, but if five people say it then go back and take a fresh look at what you’ve written. If it stings, work through the sting and know it gets easier until it feel less like an attack and more like getting good information that you need. Remember that your target, whether it’s an editor or an agent, has read piles and piles of manuscripts over the years and their tolerance for common mistakes has been worn down. A couple writers I’ve known were very resistant to any kind of criticism and I’ve never seen them make much traction because of it; don’t make that same mistake.
Thank you so much, James, for sharing with us about your books and career. We definitely look forward to hearing more from you in the future! And guys, if you want to pick up a copy of State of Decay, here’s a link to Amazon where you can get it: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0451463102/ref=s9_simh_gw_p14_i1?pf_rd_m=ATVPDKIKX0DER&pf_rd_s=center-4&pf_rd_r=0A03BWZ8XKTJRZED7P2V&pf_rd_t=101&pf_rd_p=470939031&pf_rd_i=507846

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