V.M. Zito is the author of The Return Man:
The outbreak tore the US in two. The east remains a safe haven. The west has become a ravaged wilderness, known by survivors as the Evacuated States. It is here that Henry Marco makes his living. Hired by grieving relatives, he tracks down the dead and delivers peace.
Now Homeland Security wants Marco for a mission unlike any other. He must return to California, where the apocalypse began. Where a secret is hidden. And where his own tragic past waits to punish him again.
But in the wastelands of America, you never know who – or what – is watching you.
Questions for V.M. Zito:
Last man standing in a zombie apocalypse…fortified house…widower…scientist…I’m getting a real Robert Neville vibe here. How much of an influence was Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend?
I Am Legend was without question a massive influence on all post-apocalyptic horror, and I saluted Richard Matheson’s awesomeness in the acknowledgements of The Return Man. But to be perfectly honest, I was so engaged in telling the story of The Return Man, which goes in such a different direction, that I didn’t even notice those similarities until I was done with the manuscript. Luckily, I think the likeness ends there, and The Return Man takes readers on a fresh odyssey through zombie-ridden America.
It seems reasonable that people would want the kind of closure Marco offers, but it’s an angle on the zombie story that no one has explored before. What gave you the idea?
I think the basic idea started with just idle daydreaming, wondering what it would be like to survive a zombie apocalypse — but then it occurred to me, what if my family didn’t? How would I feel, knowing that my wife or daughter was out there somewhere in the world, suffering as a zombie? How could I live with that? I thought this “survivor’s anguish” was a cool emotional twist that I hadn’t seen addressed before, so I kicked the daydreaming up a notch and started to build a story around it. The character Marco made perfect sense as a solution, offering zombie euthanasia as a service. But I think what makes Marco uniquely interesting is that he himself has lost his wife, and he can’t find her zombie. Helping other survivors is his way of achieving closure that he can’t obtain for himself.
Pairing up Marco and Chinese operative Wu and sending them on a road trip is like something you’d see in the buddy movie from hell…or a buddy movie in hell! Have you ever had any difficult road trips? What was the worst one you can remember?
I really enjoyed the Marco/Wu pairing, and the ironic tension created by sending two “enemies” after a shared objective while one character schemes to kill the other. In real life, I came close to experiencing this myself during an 8-hour car ride from Connecticut to Niagara Falls with my wife. She is a notoriously cranky traveler; long drives turn this beautiful woman into a feral she-creature. Hour after hour, motoring across the boring highways of upstate New York, I’m quite certain she plotted my murder in all sorts of gruesome ways.
Unless you’re an avid outdoorsman, shooting enthusiast and part-time neurologist, I suspect you’ve done a fair bit of research to prepare for this book. What was the hardest part?
I researched all sorts of odds and ends for The Return Man — guns and vehicles, Arizona animal and plant life, neurology journals, brain biology, Chinese history, Southwestern road maps, and prison floor plans. I also drove (in a single day) the entire 16-hour route that Marco and Wu travel in the book, getting a feel for the land and jotting down notes. Believe it or not, the most stressful amount of fact-finding took place when I was researching the Sunset Limited train. I wanted to get the details right, the colors, the car descriptions, the internal layout. It wasn’t easy. I dug around train aficionado websites and forums. I even took a video tutorial on how to drive a locomotive.
What’s the zombie movie that scared you the most?
Dawn of the Dead is still my favorite in terms of emotional horror — just a sick, creepy, dreadful feeling that, in my opinion, pervades the best zombie movies. From a sheer terror standpoint, however, watching Return of the Living Dead as a twelve-year-old boy scared me shitless for months. It still stands as my personal high watermark of zombie-induced fear. But another movie moment recently came close: during the first ten minutes of 28 Weeks Later, when Robert Carlyle’s character escapes the house and sees rage-infected “zombies” sprinting down the hill at him, I froze solid in my movie theater seat and thought, “THIS. This is my nightmare!”
Were the zombie apocalypse to actually occur and you to fall victim, would you want someone to hire a return man to put you to rest, or would you prefer to see how the other half lives?
I assume that being a zombie would be a miserable experience. Rot, maggots, constant hunger, a gnawing sense of anger and frustration. Unable to enjoy Dunkin Donuts, go trail-running or watch the New York Giants. Yeah, put a bullet in me and send my wife the bill.