The Walking Dead, Writing,

Ménage au Talk with New York Times bestseller, Jay Bonansinga, author of THE WALKING DEAD

Welcome to Ménage au Talk. We’ve invited Walking Dead author Jay Bonansinga to join us in a three-way discussion about writing, horror, and what inspires us.  First up, we talk about why we write and some of the things that influenced us in our earliest years – things that fascinated, frightened, and gave us the nightmares that brought us to where we are today. Whether you’re a reader, a writer, a Walking Dead fan, or all three, we hope you’ll enjoy our continuing chat.


What made you want to be a writer?

jay_bonansinga_lrg Jay Bonansinga:

Rod Serling and Cruella De Vil, basically.  I remember vividly being six years old and in the front seat of my grandpa’s ’56 Chevy, and I’m sandwiched between my grandma and grandpa, and innocently watching the original Disney film 101 Dalmations.  And then… and then… this limousine that’s like a block and a half long pulls on screen, and out steps this Freudian nightmare mother from hell with long, black talon-like fingernails, a white fright wig hairstyle, and a fur stole made of puppy skins!!!!!  I jumped into the back seat and covered my eyes, and somehow, even then, in my little childlike way, I kept saying to myself, “Never again.”  But I think I was really saying, “Never again will I put myself in this position.  I want to be the one who scares people.”  And when I first laid eyes on Rod Serling, I wanted to look like him, dress like him, BE him.  I wanted to dress in a black sharkskin jacket with thin lapels and smoke and have Kennedy-esque hair swept back, and introduce scary stories.

oB0EQQAu Tamara Thorne:

I remember that long black limo, too. Truly a scary moment. What I loved though, was sprawling on the living room floor to watch Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, and One Step BeyondBeyond was my favorite because the stories were supposed to be true. I loved those shows. Then, around first grade, I discovered Ray Bradbury. I was drawn into his words – his prose is poetry – and compelled to write my own, to practice creating spooky places like the ravine in Greentown, Illinois. His stories, The Lake and The Man Upstairs fascinated and repelled and compelled me. And gave me nightmares. A story titled The Thing in the Cellar by David H. Kellar, was what made me keep the lights burning. In its way that single story was as much an inspiration to write as Bradbury and Serling. My other influence was The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. I remember seeing it in the theater and being scared and laughing simultaneously. I spent my very early years singing The Beatles’ Paperback Writer. I don’t ever remember wanting to be anything else.

us Alistair Cross:

There were two main contributors for me. I too, was first introduced to horror through Disney when I went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the drive-in around six years old. The dwarves and Snow White herself made no real impression on me, but when the evil queen was on screen, I was rooted in place. I vividly remember the moment she drinks the potion and begins her transformation into the hag. I was riveted, watching in fascinated horror as the aging process took something beautiful and made it terrifying in a matter of seconds. That it happened against the backdrop of a storming sky and a shrill blast of frightening music only made it worse. That scene has never left me and even now, I see the echoes of it in my work. But I don’t remember thinking I wanted to write scary stories then.

The first I-want-to-be-a-writer moment I had was a couple of years later, when I was eight. It was around Halloween and my teacher gave us an assignment I was very excited about: to write a scary story, which she would read aloud in front of the class. I wrote about a serial killer who also happened to be a ghost (two of my favorite subjects) and I was very proud of it. But when the time came for my story to be read, my pride turned to humiliation. My teacher stumbled over the words, squinted at the page, did a lot of eye-rolling and heavy sighing, then announced that my story was “stupid” and made no sense before tossing it aside half-read and moving on to the next. Chuckling and snickering rippled through the classroom. I was humiliated and hurt, but I was also angry – and I’ve been writing ever since.

oB0EQQAu Tamara Thorne:

So those are the things that made us all want to become writers. Next question: We were all drawn to dark fantasy by these early influences. But was there something that was simply TOO scary for you as a child? Something traumatizing?

For me it was Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte. I wasn’t even in school yet when I saw – and loved – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so I remember settling in my seat in the theater thinking this movie would be fun. And it was, right up until that cleaver came down on Bruce Dern’s wrist. I slammed my hands over my eyes, traumatized in a way no ghost could ever manage. And my father yanked them off, whispering that I was being a coward. I tried to stare at my knees. He pushed my chin up. I spent the next 90 minutes or so with my eyelids clamped shut. And the next five years sleeping with my head under the covers and having nightmares about severed hands. I could have used a therapist, but instead, I found relief through writing about it, turning to stories about girls being torn apart by bears while camping and killers climbing in windows. I’d never written anything bloody before Charlotte.

Pre-Charlotte, when I was four or five, I happily watched The Hands of Orlac on my grandmother’s TV, all alone in the dark. Crawling hands were supernatural – hence, more fun than scary. People chopping hands off – that was another matter. I’ve always loved and been titillated and scared in a fun way by supernatural horror. What scared me then, as now, is what real-life people can do to each other.

us Alistair Cross:

War and war movies. Real-life stuff. That’s what truly scared me. My dad was a fan of M*A*S*H and I was so terrified by the idea of war that even hearing the show’s opening music from the television sent me into the other room where I’d spend long moments trying not to think of war. I don’t know why. I have no memory of anything happening that traumatized me this way, but that was the only terror that was too much for me.

oB0EQQAu Tamara Thorne:

I’ve always had recurring dreams of crawling through battlefields full of torn-apart bodies, but oddly, they’ve never scared me even though the dismemberment in Charlotte did me in. Isn’t it odd how we’re all affected slightly differently by these things?

us Alistair Cross:

It is odd. I’ve also had war-dreams, especially when I was young, and they always terrified me.

jay_bonansinga_lrg Jay Bonansinga:  

You are so right, Alistair – for children of the seventies, Vietnam was the pinnacle of scary (and somehow also tedious and mundane).  But when I think about it… Good Lord, what didn’t scare me?  When I was a kid, everything scared me.  I was like Woody Allen as a kid in Annie Hall.  The expanding universe scared me.  Anything vast and inscrutable horrified me.  Deep space.  The stuff they used to teach us in Catholic Sunday school — hell is the heat of a lighted match multiplied by a million.  The ocean freaked me out.  Dark basements.  Air travel.  Ski lifts.  The police.  Police stations.  The Ice Capades.  Clowns.  Mimes.  Summer camp.  Suspension bridges.  Dead bodies.  I could go on.  Being a lapsed Catholic, though, I think the biggest influence that scared me as a kid was the original William Peter Blatty/Bill Friedkin EXORCIST.  For my money, it is still the grand champion of scare films.  I remember a few years ago my teenage sons challenged me to show them an old school horror film that was truly scary (and has aged well).  After a few embarrassing screenings, I showed them THE EXORCIST.  They were riveted and petrified.  And these are videogame-saturated kids.  I think for Catholics, the whole demonology corner of the the store remains terrifying.  Go figure.

You know, in a way, a person with my background — meaning basically agnostic but raised as a sort Cafeteria Catholic — is well suited to be a horror writer.  Especially supernatural horror.  I believe this because if you have only a casual relationship with the Catholic experience, it becomes less conscious and more subconscious.  In the light of day, you don’t really believe in all the saints and demons and angels and fire and brimstone, but way down in your unconscious lizard brain — especially after dark when the wind blows through the gutters — you totally feel their presence.  The Catholic church invented supernatural horror.  All the incense and chanting and dead languages and weird capes and gruesome Old Testament imagery has become the grist of modern horror.  I loved that part of Catholicism.  The ritual.  The talismanic part of Catholicism.  I missed it when my parents drifted away from the religion and became more agnostic.  When I stopped going to Sunday school, I think I started replacing the weekly ritual with made-up rituals and superstitions.  From there, it’s a short hop and a skip to writing horror.  It’s something we as human beings are compelled to do: explain the inexplicable with baroque, weird, fascinating Rube Goldberg explanations.  Bill Maher has always bemoaned the fact that we have to make up BS stories about what happens when we die, but in a way, death begs the question: Then what?  As science evolves and we learn more about the universe, we are learning that there is indeed a beginning and end to things.  Then what?  I’m just asking, guys… then what?  Tamara?  Alistair?  Your thoughts?

oB0EQQAu  Tamara: 

I’ve never had a clue what happens next. I was born without the faith gene – Sunday school didn’t take with me, nor did Santa or the Easter bunny. My mother said I poo-pooed everything from the time I could talk. I remember being sent to Sunday school in primary grades and an idiot teacher put a man and a bunch of animals on one of those felt boards and then took the animals off, saying they couldn’t go to heaven because they lacked souls. That was when my disinterest turned to abhorrence; now religion wasn’t just nonsense to me, it was hateful nonsense.  That rebellion grew until high school when I ran across John Lennon’s provocative comment, “We are all God.” That made sense to me and released the hate. So I guess I’m more Buddhist at heart. To this day, I won’t use the word “God” for fear of being perceived as a Christian. I say Tao. (To me, the Tao looks like the Borg, but that’s another story.) I like the idea of reincarnation – it makes the most sense. So I lean that way – it’s something to hang my hat on, but I don’t technically believe in it. I don’t believe in anything. I’m content to wait and see.

This attitude doesn’t hurt my love of horror at all, but it changes it a bit. I enjoy checking out reported ghosts and other anomalies and have experienced some things I can’t explain. Religious people have often told me some of these things are demonic. That’s fine, though I don’t believe in demons, so my experience is very different from a believer’s. My brain goes to everything from geologic and psychiatric anomalies to things that are simply inexplicable at this time. I love these mysteries.

That said, I do enjoy the Catholic spin on things and can get totally caught up in religious horror. But for me, spirituality – a concept not rooted in religion – is to hike into the woods and sit against a tree with my feet in a stream, or hiking in Joshua Tree National Monument or walking an empty beach at sunset. Nature is what fills me with joy and wonder, not religion. It restores me. Nature can be scary, too, and because I love it, writing about green men and other elementals is probably my version of angels and demons. No matter how you find magic in the world – through western religion or eastern philosophy or anything else – it’s good, fun, and ready to put to use in horror.

I do love the idea of people of various beliefs – and lack thereof – working together instead of arguing. The first time I did that was in Moonfall. A Catholic priest, an atheist, and a witch join forces to overcome some very evil nuns (who weren’t Catholic, by the way). I’ve done it regularly ever since. Understanding and acceptance – and trees – are what I admire and stand by!

us  Alistair: 

All I know is I better not be forced to play a harp on a cloud somewhere. I can’t play the harp and I’m afraid of heights. This is why I live such a “questionable” lifestyle. I don’t want to risk ending up in heaven … just in case. But seriously … I have long since given up trying to envision an existence beyond this one. I think back to, say, 1963 (I wasn’t born until the 70s) and sometimes imagine it will be like that: I simply won’t exist. Other times, I think maybe there’s something more, some form of previous existence I’m not meant to recall. Though I can’t get into the idea of angels and demons and heaven and hell and such, I do believe there is some kind of “cosmic order,” though I’d be hard-pressed to explain what it is and what it means. I simply don’t know.

And I just can’t get into religion. I have tried and tried, and I always walk away feeling discontent and uncomfortable. This is usually because religion so often focuses more on “the devil” than on anything positive. I’m not interested in “the devil.” I don’t think about “the devil,” and I don’t want to. I refuse to spend my days worrying that some evil entity is sitting around trying to tempt me into dark activity. I don’t want to live a life that centers on fear – least of all, fear of that. So, often times, when it comes to religion, all I hear is, “The devil this, the devil that …” and it doesn’t make sense to me. It’s simply not a life I want to live.

And I run screaming from any philosophy that tells me I will one day be a god. That degree of arrogance offends me and, quite frankly, scares the hell out of me. And I wouldn’t want to be a god, anyway. Of any kind. Ever. That would seriously be a living nightmare for me. I can’t imagine anything worse than being in charge of a whole planet full of independent beings with freedom of agency. I barely care what my cats are up to, so you can just imagine what kind of god I’d be. Three words: “Out to lunch.”

Regarding spirituality, I do believe there’s something there. I don’t find it in church, nor do I find it in nature as so many people seem to do. I am a city person through and through and I’m about as comfortable on a rock in the woods as I am in a stifling hot church on hard wooden bench. Spirituality, for me, is a matter of communication with something higher – call it God if you want, I’m comfortable with the term – but whatever it is, it’s something greater than me. So, through meditation, prayer, or whatever one wants to call it … that is where I find my spiritual connection. And rather than being in a church or on a mountain, I find peace in the car – driving aimlessly on freeway somewhere. That’s my “Zen.”

As for death, I can only hope I don’t come back as a flesh-eating zombie. I’m not looking forward to the act of dying, but I’m not afraid of being dead, even if that means I cease to exist.


oB0EQQAu  Tamara: 

Same here. I figure if there’s nothing after death, I won’t care. But zombies … At first, I didn’t care for them but now that I’ve been infected by shows like The Walking Dead, I love them. What do you think, Alistair?

us  Alistair: 

Since I wasn’t stressed out about not existing back in 1963 when I didn’t exist, I figure I’ll have the same reaction to my situation in the year 2099 when I end up back there again. In a way, that’s probably the ultimate peace. Regarding zombies, I honestly had no interest in them until I began The Walking Dead. I heard so much about it, that I figured I had to at least try to get into it. At first, it was about what I expected, and I wasn’t sure I would even continue. Then, I started to realize that this is way more than a zombie story. The Walking Dead is about the human experience – at the deepest level. It peels back the layers of humanity and reveals the real nature of human beings. I think it’s brilliant, and soon found myself devouring the show, the books, and all things Walking Dead.

Jay, when we had you on Haunted Nights LIVE! the first time, you gave us an amazing answer to the question, “What makes zombies so popular? What is it about them that makes people respond so powerfully?” I’m going to turn it back over to you, Jay, because I think readers would love to hear that answer again.


jay_bonansinga_lrg  Jay Bonansinga: 

When I first saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD at the War Memorial Drive-in in Peoria, Illinois, in 1970 (I was the ripe old age of 11), it not only rocked my world but it also made me feel something I had never felt before.  I’m not sure I could have put it into words back then, but what I was feeling was “subtext” — in other words, a message or meaning underneath the superficial surface of a story.  In the case of Romero’s film, the subtext was multi-faceted.  It spoke of the police state, the brutality of war, oppression, and much more.  And I remember the desolate yet galvanized feeling I got at the very end of the movie when the hero, an African American man, was randomly shot — mistaken for a “ghoul” by the overzealous sheriff — and that was that.  But the subtext that probably embedded itself deeper in my subconscious was the meaning of the Romero zombie as a horror archetype.  I say “Romero zombie” because George virtually invented the modern slow-moving, drooling, shambling version of the zombie.  And for me, this is the best version.  It’s the version that spoke to Americans in the 1960s during the Vietnam war.  It conjures feelings of dream-like hopelessness.  You can easily out-run a single zombie.  You can drive a crow-bar through its skull — easy peasy — and the thing folds like a sack of laundry.  But they keep coming off that cosmic conveyor belt.  And if they swarm up on you, you’re toast.  Not only did this resonate for Americans in the 60s, but it resonates today more than ever.  People accustomed to terrorism, global warming, and financial melt-downs are all too familiar with the vague, blurry, distant threat somewhere “out there.”  The slow-moving zombie is like your mortgage being under water — you can pay it off this month, sure, but it keeps coming at you.  This, in my opinion, is the reason why The Walking Dead is so popular.  Viewers feel as though they are facing and solving the same kind of problems in their real world as Rick Grimes and company are facing every week on the show.

(To be continued ...)