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Brains on the side
UCA professor finds success with zombie novel.
CONWAY Sipping a raspberry Italian soda, whip cream on top, Conway’s Robin Becker shows real enthusiasm for talking about her favorite part of writing her new book.
“It was writing all the gory scenes; the cannibalism I like,” she says. “I like the torture porn, like Saw or Hostel, finding fun and funny ways for the characters to eat people.”
She takes another sip of soda.
It's here that I should mention that Becker’s book is called Brains. It is the memoir of a zombie. In the grand tradition of George Romero meets John Gardner, whose Grendel tells of the epic struggle of Beowulf from the monster’s point of view, Becker gives intelligence to a zombie-bitten man named Jack Barnes and sends him on a self-imposed quest to be the Moses of zombie kind, a thinking messiah to plead the zombie case for survival to humankind. You know, “let my people go” and all that.
“I always loved zombie movies and the horror genre in general,” says Becker. “I thought there was room for the zombie to be humanized.”
The work is inspired in part by a scene in Romero’s 2005 Land of the Dead in which a zombie is looking out across some water, and it's said he “is just looking for a home like the rest of us,” Becker explains.
It's not so out there, she argues, and she has a good point. What good is a virus that doesn’t mutate, that kills off all its hosts? In a “real” zombie epidemic, the brain-melting virus behind it would surely adapt to different immune systems, and who’s to say the process wouldn’t leave consciousness unmolested in some people?
That is Becker’s Barnes. He retains his identity and cognition, his ability to reason and write, so the novel is told through his perspective. Unfortunately, he is classic zombie in his ability to speak and walk, so all he does is moan and shuffle and think before he begins to find others like him.
Oh, and he eats people.
The novel is the first published work of Becker, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas originally from New Jersey. Though she started writing in second grade with Jamie’s Mother: The Problem, an assuredly non-autobiographical work about a child with an alcoholic mother, all of two double-spaced pages and illustrated to boot, her writing career didn’t begin in earnest until much later in life.
“I wrote bad poetry in high school,” she laughs, recalling its latent horror of impending nuclear war as a teenager at the end of the Cold War. “But I didn’t start writing seriously until I turned 30, when I went back to graduate school. I realized if I really wanted to do this, I couldn't just write when the mood struck me.”
That was after a life well lived. Late to college, Becker spent her youth after high school traveling. She lived in London for a time, working off the books at a pizza parlor with other illegals. Once back in the states, she went on an east-to-west tour of the country in a Volkswagen bus.
“I got off the bus and became a Texan to go to UT [for undergrad work in Austin],” she says, adding that she was 21 when she started. “It was a roundabout way to go to college.”
Later, while living in San Francisco and working in a bookstore (and again writing poetry), she decided on the grad-school route. Teaching came with graduate work, and she discovered that she liked it — and wasn't too bad at it, either.
“[When I was younger] I wanted to have experiences, to live in the moment, to be a crazy kid,” she says. “It was great. I built up a lot of stories.”
She also built of a vast knowledge of pop culture, a knowledge that infuses Brains largely by way of narrator Barnes. Like her, he's a connoisseur, except that, after figuratively consuming culture he, well, consumes culture literally.
He's also a college professor — or was in life — like the author.
“That was a no brainer,” she says, with the spunk to add “No pun intended.”
I believe the pun was very much intended, especially when she goes on to say she tried desperately to work the line into the book, but it just didn't fit. Neither did a Three's Company reference, another lamented omission on her part.
But unlike Becker, Barnes is kind of a jerk. He’s one of those guys who has to one up everyone in conversation. He has to make that subtle allusion, generally not expecting no one to catch it. He has to be the smartest guy in the room — and prove it — even when the room is full of mindless zombies.
“I've met people like that,” Becker says.
It's about now that I realize I’m talking to the author of a zombie book and it just so happens to be Friday the 13th. I didn't realize the coincidence going into the interview, and kind of lose my professionalism getting giddy. I ask if Jason Voorhees, who gets more than one mention in Brains, is a zombie.
Not really, Becker says without pause. Undead, yes, but he didn't eat people. He only killed them and occasionally chopped them up. He's more boogeyman than zombie.
Another sip of soda.
Sorry, guys, she's taken. Her husband, also a professor at UCA, is a writer, too.
“He writes about fish.”
But she writes about zombies, a topic that's gotten a lot of love recently in movies like Zombieland and video games like Left 4 Dead 2, but the literary trend seems to be vampires. Why is that, I ask.
Well, Becker says, they’re sexier. They’re 300 years old, with bank accounts that accrue interest. They have castles and all that.
Which would win in a steel cage (un)death-match, zombie or vampire?
“I'd have to say zombies, even though I am a fan of True Blood. Not so much Twilight.”
That awesome dose of truth sets me back on track. This is, after all, a story about a dream fulfilled. So what’s it like being a published author? Is it what you expected? What's the biggest surprise?
“The biggest surprise is that people actually read it,” Becker laughs. “They send me e-mails, send me books and want me to sign them. The book has found an audience, and I guess that makes me surprised — and humbled.”