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Tooth And Nail: Interview With Craig DiLouie

I know some Zombiephile purists might argue that Craig DiLouie’s novel, Tooth And Nail, is not a zombie book, but if you think 28 Days Later can be counted as a zombie movie, then it’s all good. Obviously, I am talking about the living infected in a story about an Army unit trying to navigate through New York City.

Hong Kong Lyssa is an airborne virus that kills most of the people who contract it, although some do recover. Unfortunately, it seems that some of the infected mutate into violent maniacs called Mad Dogs. Where Lyssa had an incubation period, Mad Dogs spread the infection through bites that change the victims almost immediately…that is, if the victim can survive the savage attacks by the hordes of Mad Dogs. This is happening all over the globe, but there might be a cure in a lab in New York City.

Lieutenant Todd Bowman needs to lead his men to the research facility to secure the only chance the human race has against possible extinction. After the horrors in Iraq, his men just want to return to their homes, and make sure their families are alive and well. They are all torn between survival and the reality of having to gun down their fellow Americans – infected or not.

Tooth and Nail tells an apocalypse story from the soldiers’ perspectives; instead of just being the guys who make things difficult for the survivors in other books, DiLouie’s soldiers are the ones trying to fight their way out of a hell of epic proportions. We learn about their personal struggles with following orders they do not think are right, and maintaining their platoon long enough to complete the mission. The story is not told from any one character’s POV (I imagined the story being voiced to me by Rod Sterling from Twilight Zone), which adds to the suspense – the readers doesn’t know anything more than the soldiers…who knows what lies around the next city block?

Craig DiLouie answered some questions that I had about his new novel:

Q: I have to ask…did 28 Days Later play any part in your decision to write this novel?

A: I had written a psychological thriller about conspiracy theories (Paranoia, 2001) and a science fiction novel (The Great Planet Robbery, 2008), but had always loved the post-apocalyptic genre, particularly the zombie kind. As a reader, I was disappointed by the meager offerings in the horror section in every bookstore I visited, which was usually dominated by vampires. I felt like the big publishers were really missing the boat on post-apocalyptic fiction in general and zombie fiction in particular. Then I discovered David Moody, Permuted Press and the efforts of a growing list of authors writing for small presses, and the genre opened up to me both as a reader and a writer.

During this time, I was reading a novel about the last Roman legion on the Rhine holding back the German tribes, which in turn are being pushed by the Huns. The Roman soldiers fight to the last against impossible odds to protect the Empire, and when the standard falls, you get the Romantic sense that the Empire has already fallen with it. The idea of a military unit fighting against the odds to save a dying nation is stirring to the spirit as well as the intellect because there is a sense of higher purpose than simply survival for a few. They could try to save themselves (and are in the best position to do so), but they don’t, they continue to obey orders and fight for their country. So the idea of Tooth and Nail was conceived … I wanted to write a novel about how the U.S. military would actually respond during the zombie apocalypse. 28 Days Later did not directly inspire the novel, but did establish “viral apocalypse” and “infected” as a legitimate and exciting part of zombie lore (which is evolving whether some like it or not). To me, the idea of a rabieslike virus was more realistic and therefore frightening than shambling undead, so I went into that territory.

Q: I come from a military family, married millitary, so I appreciated the accuracy and detail of Tooth and Nail. How is it that you live in Canda, but you know so much about the inner workings of the U.S. Army?

A: I was born in the United States and I’m now a citizen of both countries. I learned the inner workings of the U.S. Army through meticulous research. I read dozens of actual military manuals and other publications to learn the basics of small unit tactics, hand signals, radio protocols, equipment, slang, weapons, formations, chain of command, etc. It was extremely vital that I present the military and every other aspect of the story realistically for several reasons.
The most important is that the more realistic I could make the novel, the more willing the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and the more they would enjoy it. The more realistic I could make the setting, the more frightening the monsters would be that inhabit it. Not only did I want to present the Army realistically as a character unto itself, I wanted to present realistic things happening in realistic ways: In real life, soldiers get PTSD, vomit at the site of extreme gore, panic, refuse to shoot civilians, etc. Rifles jam, smoke obscures visibility, people communicate by radio, operations are planned, choices in decision-making create ethical dilemmas, etc. This realism flavors the novel and makes it even more gritty, dark, disturbing.

Another reason is that I had made a commitment to present the military perspective in a realistic way, and I knew members of the military would be reading the novel, so I really wanted to get it right out of basic respect. I researched everything and asked a friend who had served in the 101 Airborne to vet it for accuracy. I have been told by servicemen that the novel is accurate right down to the barracks banter, and many assumed I was in the military myself, which was probably the most gratifying feedback I’ve received on the novel out of all of its positive reviews.

Q: I think what I loved best about this novel is that the story is told from the perspective of the soldiers; usually, the military are portrayed as “out of control” in most zombie novels. Was there a particular reason you chose to give them their own voice?

A: I wanted to present a different side of the zombie apocalypse to differentiate it from the rest of zombie lore and tell a story I had always wanted to read—the military point of view. Many zombie novels deal with a ragtag band of survivors shooting their way through a post-apocalyptic landscape filled with zombies. My question is always: How can these people survive after the apocalypse when the world’s most effective military failed during it? What happened to the Army? The classic story usually presents renegade soldiers who go AWOL at the first opportunity and start raping and pillaging. I wanted to show what the military would really be doing—they would be doing their jobs. Sure, some soldiers would go AWOL out of fear or opportunity, some units would dissolve if they were not supplied or lost their chain of command, and some units might refuse orders if they felt that following them was suicide. But most would do their jobs as they had been trained and sworn an oath to do. The result is a unique take on the zombie apocalypse that provides constant tension and plenty of action.

Q: Were you trying to include commentary about our politics and government, or was that just the result of writing about soldiers trying to survive what they think might be the end of the world?

A: I always resent it when authors such as John Ringo inject their politics into their novels; I have very strong personal political views but I’m not interested in propagandizing. Any commentary on politics and government that is included in Tooth and Nail are the opinions of the characters, not me, even if I may agree with some of the opinions. In my next novel, The Infection, one person praises the NRA because there are so many guns around for people to use against to protect themselves against the Infected. Another, a soldier, feels the mission to avenge 9/11 was betrayed by greed and corruption. Another says the apocalypse was the result of the homosexual agenda. Another makes a case that dramatic economic intervention by the Federal government will quickly restore the U.S. after it wins the war against the Infected. The reader can safely assume that none of these views are necessarily mine. They belong to the people in my fictional world. Which is what you would expect: Talk to five Americans, and you’ll get six opinions on anything. The apocalypse would bring out extreme views of all stripes, some we might agree with, others we would find offensive.

Q: What do think is more frightening, the Mad Dogs themselves or how quickly everything falls apart as the result of illness?

A: I often wonder what is more appealing to me as a reader and writer: the zombies/infected themselves, or the apocalypse? For example, suppose a zombie outbreak occurs on a cruise ship and does not affect the rest of the world. I don’t think I would get as involved as a reader. Plus I don’t think cannibalism and gore are necessary, while they are staples in what is normally considered good zombie fiction. So I think that makes me more of an apocalyptic fiction fan than a zombie fiction fan. For me, zombies are simply The Threat, forcing ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances, with enormous stakes (the end of the wrold). That Threat could be infected, zombies, vampires (yes, even vampires, think Daybreakers, Stake Land, The Passage), werewolves, aliens, an asteroid, anything. Infected/zombies are a unique type of threat that to me are simply the most interesting and frightening. The genre crosses so many others—horror, apocalyptic fiction, survival horror, science fiction and, in the case of Tooth and Nail, military fiction as well.

So again, I believe the apocalyptic aspect of the novel is more frightening to me than the infected themselves. My wife is a survivor of the World Trade Center attack in 2001. We lived in New York City when it was attacked and she was in the North Tower when the South Tower collapsed. Coming out of the building, which was a harrowing experience unto itself, she saw the devastation and said the scariest thing she saw at first glance was the crushed police cars and first responders walking around in a daze. We look to people like soldiers and first responders to provide us with security in an emergency and when they break it’s terrifying. It means there is no more law and order. It means collapse, zero security, isolation, you’re on your own, there’s no help. Emotionally, that’s a big step off a very high diving board without knowing what’s underneath you. So I think one of the most terrifying aspects of Tooth and Nail is the increasing isolation of the soldiers and their growing impotence to protect civilians and even themselves.

Q: One of the things that disturbed me is how many of the soldiers were concerned with being damned for what they had to do in order to complete their mission, but none of them really struck me as religious or spiritual. Is this just the result of the horror of their reality, or were you trying to avoid preachy characters?

A: Some of the soldiers are like most people in that they are generally concerned about an afterlife, but none are overtly religious. They are more concerned about being “damned” in that what you do makes you what you are and will follow you the rest of your life. These are people with a conscience. They are soldiers and understand that actions in war have consequences, and are sensitive to those consequences, particularly those consequences that affect themselves. They are basically afraid of destroying what makes them who they are, what makes them human. This is alluded to in the quote from Nietzsche at the start of the novel, paraphrasing: Beware of battling with monsters because fighting monsters might turn you into one, too.

Q: I’m always hoping the great zombie stories I read will make it to the big screen, and your novel is no exception…mainly because I don’t think Hollywood has a clue about zombies. Do you think Tooth and Nail would adapt well to a movie? If so, who would you like to see playing Bowman?

A: I’d love to see Tooth and Nail adapted to film. It has constant tension, tons of action, dramatic themes and a virtually unique take on the apocalypse. As for actors, assuming they’re good at what they do, I’d like to see all unknowns or relatively little known actors. The book has a cinema verite, almost documentary feel to it, and I would love to see that transplanted into film; having big name actors would ruin that effect. Think Generation Kill with zombies. That’s what I’d love to see.

Q: Will your next horror novel be living infected again, or will you try your hand at the undead?

Craig DiLouie is a freelance marketing consultant and technical writer living in Calgary, Alberta.

A: I enjoy reading novels about the undead but for me a virus that compels its victims to spread itself through violence is simply more frightening and realistic while providing relatively uncharted territory for fiction. So while at some point I may visit the undead in a future novel, for now I’m enjoying exploring this territory and seeing where it takes me. My next novel, The Infection, is about five survivors of a viral apocalypse and the things they must do to survive. It is much more of a character study than Tooth and Nail. While Tooth and Nail reads like a war novel, with the military being the main character of sorts and offering tons of action and fighting, The Infection is much more of a character study, focusing on the emotional price of survival during such an event, while delivering the same gritty realism, horror and hardcore violence.

Thank you for the opportunity to talk to your readers about Tooth and Nail. I hope they will enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

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