Can't-miss Author interview with Dead City's James Ponti

Book One
by James Ponti
Available Now
ISBN-13: 978-1442441293
Publisher: Aladdin
Pages: 288
Find it on Amazon, B&N, Goodreads

Most kids have enough to deal with between school, homework, extracurricular activities, and friends, but Molly Bigelow has something else on her list: hunting zombies. By day, Molly attends MIST—the Metropolitan Institute of Science and Technology—but outside the classroom she’s busy dealing with the undead. Because not only do zombies exist, they’re everywhere, and it’s her job to help police them and keep the peace. Sure, she’d like to be a regular kid, but given that her mother was the most revered (or feared, depending on your perspective) zombie hunter in the history of New York City, “regular” just isn’t possible. Molly’s got some legendary footsteps to follow—and some undeadly consequences if she fails.

IB Teen's Review of Dead City:

Are you a science nerd? Did your parents have you do martial arts instead of ballet? Are you more comfortable hanging around a morgue than you are in a social setting?

Dead City is a wonderfully crafted gem of a novel, the beginning to a great series, and containing many a twists and turns that you never fully trust you'll know where it will take you. It leaves us with one hell-ova cliffhanger (although one I had anticipated, it was still awesome that the author delivered on that macabre detail!). Maybe you identify more with Carl Grimes when you watch Walking Dead, maybe you want a less snarky and more socially awkward version of Buffy. Dead City is so smart, and it's characters are so endearing, I hope everyone who reads it falls for this series as well.

It may be geared towards a slightly younger demographic, but I still think it's a worthy addition to the zombie genre, and people should read it without a middle grade prejudice. There are enough older and teenaged characters to land it comfortably in the YA realm.

IB Teen chats with author James Ponti:

IBT: How goes progress on a Dead City sequel? When can we look forward to it hitting shelves? 

JP: It’s called Blue Moon and I think it’s going really well. I just got an email today saying that the ARC’s have arrived at Simon and Schuster. (Hurray!) I think the book comes out in October. I have to admit I was a little worried when I started writing it. I didn’t have the story for Two worked out when I finished Book One and I was a bit nervous that it wouldn’t feel as full and complete but I like it even better than Dead City – which is kind of the goal when you’re writing. 

IBT: What are your ingredients to a good story? 

JP: When I make spaghetti sauce, I like to mix it with everything. (I’m Italian, so it’s relavent, just stay with it.) I use hamburger, sausage, chunks of pepperoni, onions, three types of pepper, and a variety of whatever I find in the vegetable drawer. I like it this way because I like how the crossover flavors enhance each other. If they cook together long enough they’re connected and there’s a continuity of taste, but you’re also liable to get a bite that is dominant in one taste over the other. It gives you a nice combination of meeting expectations but maintaining surprise. I think the same goes for a great story. You need a variety of things to pull out the best of each other. Plot exposes character, conflict drives tension, setting brings reality… That said, if you don’t have a great fully developed protagonist then you’re not going to have a satisfying story. Character always comes first. (I guess that makes it the tomato in the above analogy.) 

IBT: If you're facing the zombie apocalypse, who would you want at your side? None of your characters are applicable but you may choose someone that is not listed: Rick Grimes, Carl Grimes, Buffy Summers, Hermionie Granger, or my favorite choice Harry Dresden? 

JP: You’re forcing me to make a confession here, I’m not well versed on the genre. I came to zombies around back and through the window. They just kind of worked for the story. I think that tweens and teens really need to figure out which people in their life are real and which are fake. This just seemed like a much more fun way to have them do that. Is it fair to say that if we were facing the zombie apocalypse I’d like to have you by my side? After all, you (unlike me) are well-read in the genre and have great instincts and training. Furthermore, your experience dealing with library patrons – priceless skills during the ZA. 

IBT: What makes a good hero? 

JP: I think a good hero has to be real with real flaws who makes real mistakes that have real consequences. All throughout Dead City Molly makes mistakes but she does them mostly for the right reasons. Her intention is always to do good. I also think a good hero needs a central conflict that works like a motor driving the story. I’m much more interested in stories set in motion by protagonists who act and then deal with the repercussions of those actions than stories driven by plot in which characters react. Finally, I think it’s really good when the reader can see themselves in the main character. I try to write as little physical description of main characters because I want the readers to think that the characters look like them, think like them, make the same decisions that they would make. 

IBT: New York was like a character in the novel, we read about things and places I'd never even knew existed. Did you already know about the landmarks, or did you also discover them in your research? Marble Cemetery in NYC's Lower East Side, the tunnels under NYC, and top of the George Washington Bridge are some of the most notable examples from the book. 

JP: Setting is always very important to me and trying to create a realistic place that comes to life is a main goal. With Dead City I had an added problem. I was trying to get the reader to accept a story with a very unreal element – the thought that the undead roam the streets of Manhattan. To make that work I thought that I had to make everything else as realistic as possible. With the exception of MIST – their school – everything mentioned in the books is an actual place, even the palatial abandoned subway station. I really love New York and knew some of the places from when I used to produce shows for the History Channel (I interviewed someone in the exact place I describe on the top of the George Washington Bridge. Although technically I did the interview on the tower on the New Jersey side of the bridge.) When I used to write the Mystery Files of Shelby Woo for Nickelodeon, I’d go up to New York to meet with the other writers (one of whom was Suzanne Collins by the way) and after our writing sessions they’d all go home and I’d just wander around the city. I also did a lot of research on line and sometimes I’d go back and research by walking around the city. I shot video on my phone of my son lying dead on Roosevelt Island where the three zombies are found and one time I got lost and took the wrong subway. When I went out to the street I was at J. Hood Wright Park and when I saw the giant Manhattan schist I thought, this is perfect! 

IBT: Your zombie mythology came fully loaded with a caste system; the rambling rabble, the mid-level workers, and the high functioning leaders. Did you create them this way to make them more formidable, as well as more sympathetic, and therefore harder to kill? 

JP: As I said earlier, I’m not very familiar with the genre, so I decided just to make my own mythology. I thought it would be more interesting if they looked like regular people – in book 2 you find out some are lawyers, newscasters, etc… But I also thought readers would want some classic zombies doing the “wail and flail” which is a term Molly coins in book to describe the classic locked-limb moaning walk that movie zombies traditionally do. So I tried to just logic out what different zombies were and why they were. In the end I came up with the 3 levels. Level 1 – look and act like regular humans. Level 2 – look like regular humans but have no soul or moral compass. Level 3 – Classic zombies. Book 2 spends a fair amount of time explaining more intricate differences and more importantly how and why they become the way they are. 

IBT: What makes a good villain? 

JP: Many of the same things that make a good hero. The most important being, to a certain degree the reader has to identify with the villain too. A villain can’t just do something because he’s crazy and the plot needs it. He has to follow reason and logic. These are often twisted by his specific condition or situation but they still have to make sense to him. Also, a good villain should be really smart and potentially charming. That’s what drives Molly crazy when she meets Marek. If she didn’t know what she does know, she’d think he was awesome. I think this ties in big time to what I was saying about the ability to identify real and fake, good and bad people. If the villain has a top hat, cape and Snidely Whiplash moustache, there’s not a lot that goes into identifying him. You want someone who makes the protagonist use all of his or her skills to defeat. 

IBT: Will book two- whenever it comes out (hopefully soon) include a bit of romance? With a team member and not a zombie- although there was one zombie who didn't seems so bad on one of Molly's ill conceived solo missions....

JP: I don’t see romance coming any time soon. Certainly not in Book 2. (I know this because I’ve already written it.) That’s because the story’s told through Molly’s eyes and that’s not where she is right now. She’s just made her first real friendships, she’s trying to come to terms with what happened to her mother, she’s found out that she’s the ultimate zombie hunter. That’s a lot. I think we might hint toward it, but it’s not a major storyline. (Funny because the other books I wrote were all romantic comedies that were about the romance first. I like the change of pace.) 

IBT: How did you survive your teen years? 

JP: I believe all writing, at least all of my writing, has a lot of autobiography in it. So, there’s a lot of me spread across the four Omegas – more so on the Molly/Grayson side of the equation. I didn’t care so much for Middle School and really enjoyed High School most of the time – although there were definitely ups and downs in both. The key was that somewhere along the line I came to peace with the person I was – a somewhat dorky, somewhat smart kid who got by with humor. That’s why high school was more fun because I’d accepted who and what I was and worried less about what others thought. (For the most part, I mean I was still a teenager.) That’s the same thing I want for Molly, although she’s not totally comfortable with herself yet. There’s a funny story though, when I was working at Nickelodeon there was a moment when two producers, a director and I were all hanging out on a soundstage after we’d finished shooting. Somehow during the conversation it came out that for each of us at one point during middle school times we’d said something funny and got a laugh. And each had decided, “Hey, that’s what I can do. I can make people laugh.” And what was great about it was that we had grown up in California, New York and Florida, Catholic and Jewish, male and female, gay and straight. We represented so many different groups – but we were connected by this one common thing and it had led each of us onto the soundstage to make that show. 

IBT: In this “Golden Age” of zombie storytelling, how difficult is it to stand outside of the crowd? 

JP: It’s hard. I can’t complain because I knew it going it. I knew it when I picked the topic. The hardest part is getting people to read it. I think once they do, it feels very different. But that’s because I don’t think of it as a zombie story. I’ve always loved genre writing, but I like to mix up the genres. To me, the zombies aren’t that different from the cheerleaders I went to high school with – fake, heartless and soulless. (Just kidding if any cheerleaders read this. Well, kidding a little.) 

Keep an eye out for Dead City book two, BLUE MOON....

Dead City, Book Two
Coming 10/01/13
Publisher: Aladdin
Find it on Amazon, Goodreads
Synopsis coming soon....

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