Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Accidental Zombie: An Interview with Mark Bessey

by Silver Webb


Mark is one of those writers who, to all appearances, is sitting quietly in the corner, writing code, when in reality he is unleashing a wry humor into stories, usually about zombies. His flash fiction "You Get Used to It" sent zombies stumbling into Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Because Mark has a great sense of humor, I veered into weird and unusual interview questions, and he rose to the occasion.

Silver: What is the appeal of zombies and why do you write about them?
Mark: Zombies have a fascinating history in American media. They are the go-to stand-in for whatever the general population is afraid of at the time. The 1950s zombie movies were about the Red Scare, and the early 2000s saw the rise of Jihadi stand-in zombies, and now... well, that’s interesting. We have a lot of different zombies now.
     One reason I started writing the zombie stories I’ve been working on is that I thought it would be interesting to explore some themes around a “zombie apocalypse” that happens in more of a slow-burn fashion over years (or decades), rather than in a week or a month, as has been the case in much of previous zombie stories. In a world concerned about Immigration policy, the failure of the Millennial generation to "leave the nest," and other generational issues, I thought it’d be an interesting area to explore.

Silver: In twenty years, what do you hope to have accomplished as a writer...novels? particular awards?
Mark: Mostly, I want to have my stories published, and to have people read them and (hopefully) laugh at my jokes. I don't have a novel in progress (well, technically, I do, but haven’t worked on it in a year), so for now, I’m focusing on short stories. I have a bunch of short story ideas set in the same “universe,” so maybe that’ll grow into a novel.

Silver: What are you working on now? 
Mark: Besides the zombie short stories, I have a project that I keep coming back to. It’s a trans-humanist interactive fiction project, exploring the question of what it means to be human, and the responsibilities that the next evolution of the human race has toward those of us left behind. It’s likely going to end up as a sort of visual novel, though I’m still experimenting with game-play ideas.

Silver: If you won the lottery, what would you do?
Mark: I’d probably be the most boring lottery winner ever. I’d take the one-time distribution, pay off my mortgage, and put the rest into mutual funds until I figured out what to do with it. Ultimately, I’d end up giving most of it away to charity. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my life, already. I don’t need more money to feel better about myself.

Silver: What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
Mark: Mostly, I think about work. That’s kind of a cop-out, since the vast majority of my time in the car is spent driving to and from work. When I’m on longer trips, I tend to think about what I’m seeing along the way. Sometimes those things make it into my writing, like the literal dust devil I saw that one time.

Silver: What’s your favorite 80s song and why?
Mark: Probably Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid.” He out-Devo’d DEVO at the height of their powers. It’s an amazing little time capsule of 80’s culture. And in retrospect, it’s a pretty damning indictment of the culture that lead to our current world.

Silver: If you could transform into any animal in the world, what animal would you be and why?
Mark: Probably a Brown Bear. I feel like bears are the animal I see having the most fun out in the wild. They get a lot of time to think about their poetry every winter, too.

Silver: What is your most embarrassing moment from high school?
Mark: I don’t really know. Possibly having to explain to my parents that the reason I was in danger of not graduating was because I *forgot* to serve a detention I got for an utterly stupid reason.

Silver: What is the oddest thing that has ever happened to you?
Mark: Funny thingI’m actually working on a book about the odd things that have happened to me. It’s really hard to pick out *one* oddest thing. In terms of truly unique experiences, it’s probably the time I took a Zeppelin ride down the California coast with Buzz Aldrin.

Silver: You’ve been given an anteater. You can’t give it away or sell it. What would you do with the anteater?
Mark: Is it an Echidna or a South American Anteater? That really makes a huge difference. The true anteaters of the southern Americas are much more cuddly, but also potentially much more destructive. We have a nice little courtyard in our house which could pretty easily be made anteater-appropriate. And the local Argentine Ant mega-colony would probably keep even a Giant Anteater well fed. We’ve got a local dog park which has a number of downed trees, so I think I’d probably end up spending more time at the park with both of the animals.

Silver: If you could be any superhero, who would it be?
Mark: James Robinson’s Starman (Jack Knight). I’ve always thought that the “reluctant superhero” was the only kind that made any sense. There are probably people out there who’d be all “I can shoot laser beams from my eyes? That’s AWESOME!” at the end of their origin story, but the more realistic reaction for most of us is probably along the lines of “Oh, great, now I have to deal with all this costumed hero crap, AND hold down a regular job?” Also, Jack has an obsession with old things, which definitely resonates with me. In a parallel universe, there’s a version of me who owns an antique shop. In my case, the antique shop is probably filled with music boxes, farm tools, and Victorian automata.

Silver: A penguin walks through that door right now wearing leiderhosen. What does he say and why is he here?
Mark: “Guten Tag”maybe it’s that they’re always wearing a suit, but I have always taken Penguins to be very serious and formal. If I saw a penguin walk through my door, I’d assume they were lost, and try to direct them to the beach, using Google-translated German.

Silver: What would the name of your debut album be?
Mark: “A Series of Unlikely Events”

Silver: If you were a Microsoft Office program, which one would you be?
Mark: Microsoft Project. Everybody thinks they recognize me from somewhere, but they can’t quite remember where from.

Silver: What is your favorite food?
Mark: Pizza is, as far as I’m concerned, the best evidence we have for the existence of a benevolent creator. It’s an entire food pyramid, in conveniently-transportable form. And it’s delicious.

Silver: What was your best McGuyver moment?
Mark: Probably the time my Jeep overheated in the middle of nowhere, and I rappelled down into a ravine using a bunch of random rope-like objects we had with us (cargo ties, maybe a belt and some bungee cords), to get water out of a mountain stream so we could limp back out to the highway.

Silver: What is the last book you read?
Mark: John Scalzi’s Head On. He’s probably the writer I want to be “when I grow up.” Consistently funny, and hugely productive.

Silver: If aliens landed in front of you and, in exchange for anything you desire, offered you any position on their planet, what would you want?
Mark: Artist-In-Residence. I lack any kind of confidence in my ability to RUN anything in an alien society, but my nu-metal cover of ”Mary Had a Little Lamb” is, I guarantee, like nothing they’ve ever heard before.

Silver: If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would play the lead role?
Mark: Probably Michael Cera or Tom Holland, depending on when they get filming, and what period of my life they decide to focus on. I feel they both are pretty good playing at the wide-eyed innocence that has been my stock-in-trade for essentially all of my life.

Silver: What would drive a person to put nutmeg in literally every dish they make?
Mark: As my lovely wife can attest, I’m very easily influenced in my shopping habits by the end-cap displays in stores. I happened to be at the local market when they were having a promotion on bulk spices. I ended up buying half a pound of nutmeg. Now, nutmeg is a pretty strong spice. After you’ve made it out of eggnog season, 8 ounces of nutmeg starts looking like a lifetime supply. So, I’ve been experimenting with expanding my use of the wacky evergreen spice. In a hearty stew, it blends right in. Sprinkled over vanilla ice cream? Not so much.

Silver: Name the three greatest dangers of living in the Midwest.
Mark: Weather, weather, and weather. When I moved to California, a couple of my relatives asked me “Aren’t you worried about earthquakes?” and I just had to laugh. My cousin’s house was nearly destroyed by a tornado (it got the doghouse out of their yard!),  I know several people who lost parts of their fingers to frostbite, people drowned every year on the great lakes in bad weather...and everybody’s worried about me getting hurt in a once-in-a generation event?

Silver: How often do you write and what inspires you to do it?
Mark: As I suspect is true for many writers, the answer is “not as often as I should.” I have always been a bit jealous of writers who say that they’re compelled to write. For me, writing has always been *hard* work, and I feel like I have to wrestle with myself to get anything written down most of the time. But sometime, sometimes...an idea does take hold, and I can sit down and write for a couple of hours, and it feels totally natural. I’ve been setting aside time to write every Monday, which has been somewhat more successful in getting some writing done every week.
     A lot of my writing starts as a little vignette, or a scrap of dialog (dialog is the one thing I actually find “easy” in writing). I usually write a scene, and the story comes from figuring out how these people got here, and where they’re going.

Care to see Mark's work in print? You can purchase Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal here.

Thanks to a successful career in tech, Mark escaped the hustle and bustle of the strip mall infested Silicon Valley for greener pastures in Santa Barbara. When he’s not writing about the impending zombie apocalypse, he enjoys zeppelin rides, using too much nutmeg in everything he cooks, and hunting for ghosts in abandoned mining towns. You can read his thoughts on technology issues on his blog, www.codemines.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter at @mbessey.