A few months ago my wife, Sarah, did something that I’ve asked her not to do. She told someone I was an author. She’s smarter than me, by the way. The person she told was JD Tippey, author of The Waking Dream: Or The Tower of Vessels. He was visiting Charleston for the WV Book Fair back in October of last year.
I talked with him for a bit at the fair and decided to buy his book. I picked it up and flipped through a bit and was immediately pulled in by the graceful style and the depth of field coming through the prose. I was surprised to learn that this was a kind of “zombie” story. My experience with zombie-genre has been shallow and I’ve never taken to it well – but this was very different. It was epic. JD Tippey absolutely raises the zombie motif to a literary level.
I’m so thrilled that Mr. Tippey accepted my invitation to interview for my blog. Get yourself a copy of The Waking Dream. If you like Tolkien, Lewis, or zombies… get this book. Mr. Tippey has even allowed me to post the prelude to this great novel at the end of this interview. Please enjoy!
JK: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write ‘The Waking Dream’?
JTD: So the secret truth behind it all is that I’m actually not really a fan of most things zombie. I have a little more love for the post-apocalyptic setting, but even that’s not normally a genre at the very top of my favorites list. So writing about what the zombies are up to three hundred years into their post-apocalyptic world, some people might ask, what have I gotten myself into?
The key to that is the three hundred years part, which I’ll get back to in a minute. First I have to start in 2013. I went to see World War Z with a group of friends when it came out that summer, and something happened to me in the time between entering and exiting the theater. It wasn’t that I thought the film was a masterpiece (although I think I enjoyed it more than most of the critics), but I think it was just having zombies on the brain that took my mind where it ended up going, and in the specific case of World War Z, zombies that were portrayed in a slightly different thematic way than I had seen before.
I start any story with a picture in my head, generally with no idea what it means or where it fits into its own world, but not long after having seen World War Z, I suddenly had two images standing in front of me, both of which became the foundation of The Waking Dream. If you’ve read the book, you’ll immediately know when, where, and how these two images apply.
The first was of two military men, the captain, Ford Taylor, in his early forties, the corporal, James Bell, in his late twenties, both traveling together as the last survivors of a desperate mission, slowly making their way through an overgrown and perilous wilderness. The younger one had been bitten in the fight that took the lives of their five companions, and it was only by his captain’s quick thinking that James was able to endure in life a little longer. From then on, the small cut that Ford had made in his arm would have to provide a little bit of his living blood into James’s canteen, keeping him from the fullness of the turn into Condition Z, but at a growing consequence to the young corporal’s nightly dreams, which neither man could have expected.
The second image involved a young man and his father, but for the sake of spoilers, that’s all I’ll say.
Where were they? An American wilderness left to crumble after the living fortified the coastlines of all the major continents, leaving the dead to roam the Inland wilds. When were they? This was the big one. Three hundred years after the downfall of humanity. Now these pictures in my head had something to work with. For a generally non-zombie fan, this wasn’t about the death and destruction of a world falling to its knees. This was about the civilizations and philosophies that had grown up with questions of life and death pushed right in front of their face. Hope in their world was about more than just survival, it was about the war to rebuild what had been lost. The mission of Captain Taylor and Corporal Bell was all about the chance to redeem their human race, the living and the dead. Now there were compelling things to explore on this journey through the Inland.
JK: One of the things I like most about the book, is its epic, romantic, and elegant voice. Not a quality I think would be typical of the zombie-genre. Who and what are your influences for this book?
JDT:When it comes to fantasy and sci-fi, I live and breathe the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth century; J.R.R. Tolkien, George Macdonald, Pierre Boulle, Ray Bradbury, C.S. Lewis, and others who were as deeply interested in the humanity of a story as they were in the elves, spaceships, or time travel.
More than that, I think the term I’d use for all of these writers is “haunting”, and that’s what I wanted for the world of The Waking Dream. If you want zombies, you’ll get zombies, but you won’t exactly get The Walking Dead, more their ethereal cousins. As I was writing it, I joked that it was Tolkien’s The Silmarillion with zombies. Or with my background in the film and TV world, I also sometimes put it in Alfred Hitchcock terms. If most zombie stories are the violence and terror of Psycho, then The Waking Dream is the beautiful intrigue of Vertigo.
As someone who started their career in film and TV before transitioning to books, movies were incredibly influential growing up. There were three in particular that shaped my general passion for storytelling, seeing Disney’s Fantasia at age four, the original Star Wars trilogy at age seven, and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring at eleven.
In 2002, my dad and I left the movie theater on a cold January afternoon, and I told him that I would spend the rest of my life creating for others what I had just experienced on the big screen. That same intention crosses over into my books. I want to give readers a very “cinematic”, all-consuming experience. If I’ve done my job right, then the readers will lose themselves to the page just as I lost myself to the screen at eleven years old.
JK: You’ve travelled and lived in different areas of the US, how much does your own travel color your writing and your perspective?
JTD: From a very early age, travel has absolutely colored everything I’ve been drawn to read or write. My dad’s job as an aeronautical engineer took us from one air force town to the next, and for a kid, especially one spending ages six through nine in the harshly beautiful deserts and mountains of New Mexico, that question of “What’s waiting out on the horizon” gets sewn into your bones. I think every great myth asks that question, and travel connected me to those kinds of stories.
Myth, with everything that word encapsulates, is the inspiration for the story of Ford and James. Travel asks more than just “what’s out there”, but more importantly, “who do we become as we set out to find it”.
JK: What project are you currently working on?
JTD: I’ve recently begun public speaking on the writing and filmmaking process, and I’ve been really enjoying that. Getting to meet people face to face is why I’ve loved doing book signings this past year, and public speaking is along the same lines.
When I’m not on the road, I’m finishing the last few chapters of The Waking Dream’s sequel, Heart of the Inland. The title is a reference to the final sentence of The Waking Dream’s first chapter, but given the setting and story of the sequel, also might evoke the idea of the American heartland, which features prominently, as well as the idea of heading up river into the Heart of Darkness, but again for spoilers’ sake, I’ll leave it at that.
Here is the YouTube link to the recently released teaser for Heart of the Inland.
Also, the incredibly gifted Yolanda Mott and I are finalizing the release of our original song that plays at the end of The Waking Dream’s audiobook. I wrote the lyrics to “How Silver Shone the Sea” and Yolanda was its composer and singer.
JK: What would you say is challenging about writing a novel that is different from screenwriting?
JTD: It’s interesting that you bring that up because my second novel, A Reflection, was released this past Christmas and it originally started life as a screenplay.
The differences in format aside, the only extra challenge with a novel is that you can’t hide behind a stage direction. In a screenplay it can be tempting to write your dialogue and then simply say “Johnny leaves the room”. Even for a script, I think that’s sometimes the lazier choice, but you certainly have the option to do it.
As for why exactly Johnny left the room in that moment or what was going through his head, a screenwriter can sometimes just leave certain nuances for the director to figure out on set. In writing a novel, you don’t have that excuse. You certainly don’t want to beat people over the head with clunky dialogue or purely expositional narrating, but at the same time, you don’t have the follow up of visuals to lean on. In a novel, if it’s not on the page in some way, shape or form, then it doesn’t exist.
JK: Tell us about your process – how do you go about weaving the plot and characters together for such a big book with a long timeline? How do you keep continuity?
JTD: I’ve had to do more backstory outlines the further I’ve gone into the sequel, but I don’t like to start out that way. For me, starting with an outline kills the joy of creating. So with The Waking Dream, I had a good sense of the mythology behind what was going on in this world, but I didn’t let that guide how the characters would react to it as they continued on down their road.
That’s not to say that I don’t take enough notes to fill several books of their own, but notes are just ideas I can go back to at some point in the review process, and I don’t consider notes to be anywhere near the rigidness of what an outline can often end up being.
JK: What are you reading right now?
JTD: Apart from your own mysterious The Witch at Sparrow Creek, I’m currently making my way through C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image. Like Lewis, I’m a fan of medieval literary study, and this is one of the best explorations of it that I’ve ever read.
JK: Name one or two of your favorite authors and tell us why you like their writings.
JTD: I grew up on Lewis, and then would go on to discover Tolkien and the ancients in middle school: Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, Elias Lönnrot, Beowulf, the Pearl Poet, and others like them.
Along with the authors I mentioned in the question about influences, what I love about them is their ability to weave substance with a deep-rooted sense of atmosphere. Normally you seem to get either one or the other, a dry allegory or a rich feast of style and mood with little to find underneath.
JK: You have audio clips and a nice trailer on your site for your novel. What do you think the future holds for the printed book?
JTD: When it comes to holding something in your hands, I’m a print guy all the way. With lots of travel for work, I’ve come to love audiobooks too, but I can’t get into e-readers. I think those kinds of digital mediums will continue to be popular, but I can’t see print taking a backseat any time soon.
There are a handful of readers I’ve heard from who wouldn’t have picked up a copy of The Waking Dream if they hadn’t first seen the trailer, so I think that for those who will continue to support print formats, the approach going forward is not going to be about pitting print against digital, but about how we use things like clips and trailers to grab someone’s initial attention and lead them on from there.
JK: How do you see story-telling changing with the digital-mediums available?
JTD: However people find a story, I think that what has always mattered and what will always continue to matter is whether they can find their story. We talk about escapism in storytelling, but I think that’s only half the journey. We don’t ultimately want to escape away from our lives and our world; we want to travel deep enough into that other place to find the mirror that looks back at ourselves and shows us something we hadn’t seen before.
This is partially why I approached award-winning actress Irene Bedard to read The Waking Dream’s audiobook. Apart from being a Golden Globe nominee, she’s also known for voicing Pocahontas in the 90’s Disney movie. What she brought to the reading was not only a powerful narration or a diverse variety of voices for every character, but it was also her reputation as a distinguished performer. With every book signing since the audiobook’s release in October, that piece of advertising has done wonders for getting a second look from people who would have kept walking at hearing the word “zombie”.
It probably helps to already have as much of a passion for other storytelling mediums, but the way I see it, however people come to take the journey with Ford, James, Miyako, Jon, Ava, and the rest, as long as that source has as much artistic dignity as I hope can be found in the pages of the original, then these characters that I love are able to connect with others, and for that, I can’t complain.
JK: Any advice for aspiring writers?
JTD: If you want to write, then write, the only thing holding you back is you. If you want make a career out of writing, then the same advice applies, just throw in some planning ahead. My day job was working full time in the film industry before I’d saved up enough money to take a few months off. Then because I’d had to earn that time off through a lot of hard work, it was a lot more valuable to me, and I made sure to write in every waking moment that I had. So practice your craft, manage your time, and you’re off the races.
Thank you so much for this opportunity to talk books and hopefully inspire other current or future writers out there! It’s been a pleasure!
And for any of your readers that have managed to soldier on through all of my ramblings, here is the full prologue to The Waking Dream.
– PROLOGUE –
The open hills of the American South rose high on their journey to find the sun amidst neighboring leaf-topped crowns, for those summits of stone upon the heights were glimpsed only few and far between in the life of a year, wholly a myth in deep summer when the land was wild and in its power. In that time, both stone and traveler alike were hidden from the yellow eye above, cloaked by shrouds of green.
From this passage of the shaded vales came two out of the South who entered the grasses of Old Virginia as men who might have seemed as ghosts out of the past to any that met them. But their path kept them far from the Coast, and in this age of Inland terrors, few were left who did not make their home by the reassuring sounds of the Sea.
They were captain and corporal after the order of the ranking of warriors that had survived through the Dark Years and beyond into the years called Pale. But they were not at war, not in the way it had been deemed when those titles were last held in more than faded ceremony. The Dark Years had soaked up war into the earth like a cloth upon a red wound until the taste of it hung in the air down generations. The armies of man had crumbled to dust against an enemy that could take life and not easily lose it, an enemy that had little left of true life to give.
That enemy bore the virus, the affliction, the curse, the name that would change as legacies which were lost to time and tradition bore on remembrance through the ever-widening chasm of myth: Condition Z, as they first labeled it. It was a terror of the mind that took its prey without prejudice. The good, the decent, the wicked, all came to the same end under its hold losing will and sapience over long weeks of slow torment, but as the plague grew in power, these instruments of the mind were claimed only in days and then minutes. In time, flesh began to rot and stink and eyes fade so that those windows to the soul were forever stained with mist.
What then lay within the clouded glass, none could know, though a few hoped that something more than the bloodthirst, something of their old humanity, had survived in the dead that lived, and these that believed it stood in defense of the afflicted against the might of the many until families, cities, and nations broke beneath the War of Redemption. And in the end, no answer was found, and none of the plagued were redeemed, though many were cut down, falling alongside their defenders, some whom the dead themselves had slain and ravaged, leaving little for crows.
Two generations were consumed by the war that broke the world, and the third came into life with the dawning of the Pale Years when the threat of the Enemy had finally driven the two sides together, and those who would still hope for a cure had at last given in to back the final campaigns against the growing horde that fell only by grievous wounds and claimed new hosts among the living by clawing teeth.
The wilds were lost in the first years of war, and when it ended, when the living retreated from last assaults, they fled to the Sea to surround themselves with the high walls and tall towers that had been raised up in the earliest days of the fight. There they would linger on and renew the remains of humankind if peace could be left to them.
Ports breathed life into trade, and the world outside a man’s walls was not as small as it might have been. Sailors and traders spoke of islands still untouched by the Enemy, and some journeyed there to start anew. That deepest human desire for dominion let contentment find its foothold, and three hundred years found themselves passed into history while life continued on the shores, where the dead would not come.
With time standing between that ancient age of horrors and the lives of sons and daughters who had never known the shadow of the Inland, the living would find the heart to venture again into the bones of their old countries, far from the safe calls of the seabirds. Scouts were sent to spy near lands, companies and units that had lasted into peacetime among the scattered city-states when standing armies had long fallen out of need.
Over many months, word began to spread as rangers returned with news of a menace that had not been seen for some twelve generations. The Enemy had not vanished forever from the earth, but they were not as the stories had told either. Like wild beasts, they now often ran in packs, sometimes numbering four or five, sometimes more than twenty, though others could be found in lone wanderings. When clothing had decayed, the wrappings of pale flesh had seared under the sun forging plates of caked armor, a hide that weathered the ages. Perhaps, it was thought, this was why they grew dormant in the light of day unless provoked, for only the cool winds of night drew out their furious daring, though they feared fire, and travelers far from home learned to fan the flames of their camp till dawn.
When greater courage was mustered, wider expanses were covered, and the long-empty spires of concrete and steel that had once held life above their faded pavement were lifted out of the mind’s eye and into the sight of those few who made the journey, discovering not only the barren remains of their old world, but also the world that had survived in its own way amongst the scattered wild woodsmen of the Inland. Tales and relics returned out of lands drowned in legend, and history stepped out of myth, rallying greater bravery and intrigue in the hearts of those nestled so long behind sheltering walls.
Under the unceasing eye of many perils, they plundered the cities of what might find value in the trade, and rangers raised outposts and forts some ten or twenty miles beyond the gates of their cities. But the Enemy was unforgiving to strangers and demanded the living pay the price of blood to secure a hold again on the paths inland.
Those paths had led Captain Ford Taylor and Corporal James Bell out of the summer heats of the Carolinas and onto the borders of the North. In forty-three years, Ford had never made so far a trek from their Texas home, nor had James in his twenty-seven ever seen one hundred and fifty miles inland.
The sun had deepened Ford’s black skin, though James’s own had not bronzed out of its olive hue but sickened to the greening pallor of the illness he carried. Only the dark waves of his hair seemed to have some life still as they grazed his shoulders. The length of his beard had grown into short tangles set against the elder’s bare face, which was revived often through the journey by knife and wild waters. No more alike in color than in stature, the younger staggered on each day beneath the looming height of his captain.
They had known no other world than this, no other way than that given down the line of fathers and grandfathers where death and life were bound together by the blood of men. For as many to which the long night brought rest, there were the hordes that walked the waking sleep.