Today I am here to welcome the great Jeff Norton to the blog for a guest post on the inspirations behind the funny Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie.
Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
Goonies, Fourth Grade Nothings, and Ginger Beer Inspirations behind Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie by Jeff Norton
It’s just a few weeks to go before ‘Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie’ publishes, and I couldn’t be more excited.
It’s something new and totally different (than MetaWars) for me. It’s a middle-grade comedy about a twelve-year-old boy with OCD called Adam Meltzer who climbs out of the grave to solve his own murder.
This book has been a long time in coming. I’ve been writing it for few years, but it’s inspirations run much deeper. Now, since it’s a zombie book, you might expect me to cite George Romero or The Walking Dead as inspirations. But, at its heart, it’s a coming of age tale about learning to be comfortable in your own skin…even if it’s decomposing.
I actually rejected the zombie genre in this story and hopefully turned it on its head.
The inspirations may not what you’d expect: ‘The Goonies’, Judy Blume’s ‘Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing’ and Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five.’
I’m a child of the eighties and spent a lot of time watching movies. I came quite late to reading, so my seminal childhood entertainment experiences were in the cinema. And The Goonies, directed by Richard Donner (Superman The Movie!) and written by Spielberg (story by credit) and Chris Columbus (who went on to do Home Alone and the first two Potter films), about a group kids who seek a pirate treasure to save their homes, blew me away. I watched it again recently and it holds up pretty well for a film that’s nearly 30 years old.
I could write an entire essay about the brilliance of The Goonies, but instead I’ll focus on one aspect: peril.
The Goonies face real, life or death peril. Donner doesn’t pull any punches; he puts these children into dangerous, life threatening situations that could end with a nation in mourning. He doesn’t treat the kids like children, he treats like actors on their own stage, making big, risky decisions for something that’s important to them. But at the same time, they’re still kids facing tween issues like parents, first crushes, bullying siblings, and the despair of moving away.
There have been a lot of attempts to recapture the magic of The Goonies (this summer’s Earth to Echo appears to be the latest, and looks to be diabetes-inducing too sweet). I remember seeing The Goonies for the first time and not knowing which, if any, kid was going to live through that movie. It respects the audience, doesn’t take them for granted, and delivers real thrills and chills that stay with you for thirty years.
In Neurotic Zombie, I very much wanted to put my characters in peril. Even thought Adam comes with a built-in immunity to death (he’s already dead!), some pretty awful things happen to him (no spoilers here) and his best friends, Corina the vegan vampire and Ernesto the reluctant chupacabra, go to some pretty dark places.
Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume.
Either by luck or design, I read this book when I was in fourth grade, and also had a destructive toddler in the house (my now very tall, accomplished brother David), so it resonated with me on many, many levels.
I haven’t reread it since (hough I did read the sequel, SuperFudge) but the lingering memories of this book have inspired Neurotic Zombie. The first is that the book is about family life, and both parents are around (unlike in most kids books where one or both are killed off, shipped off, or generally absent) and I wanted to explore and celebrate the family dynamic, treating the adults as real people (in Blume’s book, the father loses a client and it’s a big deal for him).
The other aspect that I sought to divine from the genius of Judy Blume is the self-centered nature of being a tweenager. The world literally does revolve around you because it’s your story and everyone else is in it. Peter, the Fourth Grade Nothing, can’t fathom the unfairness of his situation. When you’re young, it feels like things are happening to you, and Judy Blume captures that sense of unfairness and outrage like no other author I can think of.
My main character, Adam Meltzer, spends most of his first week as a zombie in a constant state of uproar – he can’t believe what’s happened to him and the unfairness of it all. Slowly, over the week, he stops playing the victim and becomes the hero. In just one week of being undead, he does a lot of growing up.
The Famous Five books by Enid Blyton.
This may come as a shock to UK readers of this blog, but these books did not feature in my childhood.
I’d literally never heard of Enid (except for the hit Barenaked Ladies song that launched their debut studio album) until I was offered a job to manage her literary estate. It was my first gig in the UK and I read a ton of Blyton books to prep for the role. Beyond my observation that kids in Britain drank a lot of something called ginger beer (which I later learned was not alcoholic) and had a lot of picnics, what I enjoyed about the Famous Five was how tightly knit they were a as a group. There’s something reassuringly comforting about knowing that your friends are loyal and have got your back.
In ‘Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie’ I wanted to give Adam Meltzer a taste of that comfort. His whole world has fallen apart – he’s lost his life, his skin is decomposing, and his sister has stolen his room – but he gains two great friends who see him through the worst of his after-life.
It’s funny; I didn’t think consciously about these three influences when I was writing the book, but after finishing it, I did some reflecting and realized that they were there, in my subconscious, in my memory, informing my storytelling. Now that I’ve finished the book (and am writing the second of three books…and yes, before you ask, the sequel is very much my Empire Strikes Back!) it’s a joy to relish in the stories that have shaped my own storytelling.
‘Memoirs of a Neurotic Zombie’ publishes 7th of August from Faber Children’s.