Exclusive Interview: Highway To Hell Author Max Brallier
One of the joys of being a kid who reads is tearing through one of those Chose Your Own Adventure books. But like with comics, cartoons, and video games, there’s no reason you have to put those books aside just because you’re not a kid any more. You just have to read ones made for adults. Ones like Max Brallier’s Highway To Hell (paperback, digital), the spiritual sequel to his similarly multiple choice tome Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse? Though in talking to Brallier about his new book, he admitted that no, it’s not about you trying to survive a zombie apocalypse because you have AC/DC tickets.
For those who didn’t read the previous book, Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse?, what is Highway To Hell?
It’s a pick-your-own-path adventure, so the reader assumes the role of the main character. It’s written in the second person. You make choices that determine the outcome of the plot. Decisions range from “Accept this mission or not?” to “Which weapon do you want to use?”
Highway To Hell is set in a world where the zombie apocalypse is in full swing. You are Jimmy El Camino, a sort of supreme badass, and your mission is to drive your heavily armed 1967 El Camino from New York City to San Francisco in order to save the world.
How does Highway To Hell connect, chronologically and narratively, to Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse?
They’re pretty separate. There’s no need to read one before the other or anything like that. They’re the same format, but the tone is totally different. Whether it’s the same zombie apocalypse, that’s left open. Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse? was written in 2011, when I was a single loser guy living in NYC, and so I wrote about a single loser guy in NYC during the zombie apocalypse. Highway To Hell was my attempt to take the pick-your-path format and make it feel more cinematic and write in a mean, pulpy voice.
As someone who knows for sure that no, I would not survive the zombie apocalypse, why should I read this book, I already know the ending: me, sautéed with onions, in the over for 65 minutes at 350 degrees, served on a bed of lettuce?
What did Ralph Waldo Emerson say? “Life is a journey, not a destination.” That’s this book. There are so many endings, so many different paths, that even if you don’t survive, you’ll have fun along the way.
Zombies have been depicted in many different ways. What kind of zombies do you have in Highway To Hell and why those?
They’re Romero zombies, for the most part. Slow and shambling, but up close they attack quickly, swarm, and tear you to pieces. It’s not a 28 Days Later thing.
How difficult is it to construct a Chose Your Own Adventure-style novel?
Difficult. Really, really difficult. Well, for me, anyway. I’m not the most organized, and this type of writing requires a lot of planning and structuring. I created a big OmniGraffle file where I chart out all the different paths, color-code it, all of that. That’s tough for me. There was also a big gap between when I wrote the first and second book. Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse? came out in 2011, this is coming out now, in 2016. So I had sort of forgot all the stuff I learned doing the first book. A Pick-Your-Own path book is the most fun to brainstorm and very fun to write but the least fun to put together and assemble.
Did you ever consider writing Highway To Hell as a regular novel?
This one actually started as a screenplay idea I was kicking around. And that screenplay idea ended up being one full path in the book. Though, of course, it changed a great deal from the screenplay idea.
Typically, Chose Your Own Adventure-style books are more for children. But Highway To Hell and Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse? are decidedly not for kids. When you first pitched the idea of doing this kind of book for adults, was that a hard sell or did people think it was a good idea right away.
The response was pretty good right off the bat. I think publishers saw that there was an audience who read books like this as kids, but were now grown up and ready for an R-Rated version of it.
So are you planning to do a third one of these? Or maybe something different, maybe something like Can YOU Survive The Trump Presidency?
Possibly. They are endlessly fun to think about, and I have endless ideas to throw into a third. If I did a third, I’d have the main character be a real tough-ass female: a little Red Sonja and a little Tulip O’Hare.
As for Can YOU Survive The Trump Presidency?, that could be fun. I imagine it would turn post-apocalyptic extremely quickly. One of the things I like about zombies is that they’re scary but they’re not evil and they’re cruel. They don’t know any better. They’re just trying to stay “alive.” Trump, on the other hand…
Going back to Highway To Hell, in the beginning of the book, you have quotes from the horror movies Day Of The Dead, Zombieland, and Army Of Darkness. But you also have a quote from the video game Twisted Metal: Black. Was that game an influence on Highway To Hell, and if so, in what ways?
Actually, Twisted Metal 2 more than anything. I fell in love with car combat action after I saw The Road Warrior as a kid, I was obsessed. And then Twisted Metal 2 came out. I bought a PlayStation after playing it at my friend’s house during Thanksgiving when I was 13. I will never tire of vehicles, loaded up with weapons, engaging in combat. That’s stamped on my brain thanks to a number of things I loved when I was a kid: The Road Warrior, G.I. Joe toys, Bond movies, Mario Kart, Transformers, M.A.S.K., Vigilante 8, Carmageddon, Death Race 2000. That all helped to shape this real love of vehicular combat.
I have a middle grade zombie series called The Last Kids On Earth that’s published by Viking Children’s, and that one even has post-apocalyptic vehicles. The first book has a big post-apocalyptic pick-up truck, and the third — which I’m writing now — has some supped-up go-kart action. So even doing kids books I can’t stay away.
What other books, movies, and games were the biggest influences on your depiction of the undead?
Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead was the biggest influence, and The Walking Dead comics to a lesser extent. It’s funny, as zombies became more and more popular, and I began to write about them, I pulled away from consuming zombie fiction. I think it was a combination of not wanting to be too influenced by other writers and creators and a personal sort of exhaustion on the subject.
But back to the Romero Dawn Of The Dead thing. There are two sequences that have influenced me more than anything else zombie-wise. The first is the scene with the Western PA, Monroeville folks hanging out, listening to music, drinking Iron City, and having a blast picking off zombies like it’s the first day of deer hunting season or something. That made such an impression on me; the idea that the zombie apocalypse would be brutally fun for some folks. The second is the sequence in the mall where funny, light music plays while the survivors try on expensive watches, take money, dress in mink coats. Again, there was that idea that you could just do whatever you wanted after the world ended. It’s simple and obvious but I love that.
What about AC/DC, how did they influence the book, and what was a bigger influence, the album Highway To Hell or the song “Highway To Hell“?
Ha! In title only, and even then, not as much as you might think. The phrase “Highway To Hell” came into my brain before I ever heard the song. There’s a 1992 movie called Highway To Hell, and I remember seeing it on the shelf at the local video store when I was 9 or 10, and desperately wanting to rent it…and my dad totally putting the kibosh on that. So I knew that phrase ” Highway To Hell” before I ever heard the AC/DC song. I’m not a huge AC/DC guy, but I do love Back In Black and I really, really, really like Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Also, Angus Young’s hat game is out of control incredible.
Going back to games for a second, along with your book, you’ve also worked on three different Poptropica games, including Poptropica Adventures for the DS and the iOS game Poptropica: Forgotten Islands. Do you think Highway To Hell and Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse? could be made into video games?
The longest plot thread of Highway To Hell shares some similarities to the plot of The Last Of Us. I picked the game up about a year after it came out, not knowing much about it, and then I started playing it and I had this big, “Aww, crap!” moment when I realized there were similarities. So I actually ended up adjusting pieces of my plot because the similarities, though unintentional, made me feel icky. I put the game down, not wanting to be unduly influenced, and didn’t pick it up again until after I delivered the final manuscript. That was actually part of the fun of finishing the book, I was like, “I can finally play The Last Of Us!”
I think a third person survival horror game with a load of vehicular combat would be a blast. Especially with an online vehicular combat arena. I enjoyed the last Twisted Metal, but I’d like to see a game where you customize and build your own car from the ground up. How fun would that be? MechWarrior for SNES is one of my favorite games ever, and I’d love to see that sort of format applied to vehicular combat.
What about a movie or TV show, do you think that would work?
Definitely a movie. As I was saying, the idea first took form as a screenplay. I’m also kicking around a TV show pitch that’s slightly similar, so I don’t want to spill the brains. I mean beans.
Has there been any interesting in turning either Highway To Hell or Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse? into a movie, TV show, or video game?
Movie, yes. The first book has been optioned and its moving forward. But going from book to movie is always such a long shot with this stuff that I try to never get my hopes up. Highway To Hell is making the rounds now, so we’ll see if there’s any interest.
Finally, I know you said that you’ve been pulling away from zombie fiction, but what zombie novel of someone else’s would you suggest someone read before reading Highway To Hell and Can YOU Survive The Zombie Apocalypse?, and what zombie novel would you suggest someone read if they’ve already read yours a couple times and are looking for something new to read?
Oh man, tough. You can never go wrong with Jonathan Maberry or David Wellington. I’m still catching up on the Marvel Zombies stuff.
There’s a great ’80s zombie short story collection — the first ever, I believe — called Book Of The Dead. Tons of great stories and great writers contributed. It’s out of print, but you can get the mass market cheap online and it’s got a great ’80s cover.
Oh and I’ll plug myself. If you’re an adult who loves this stuff, but you don’t think your kid is ready for The Walking Dead or something, my Last Kids On Earth series is pretty fun. It has zombies and giant, Kaiju-style monsters. I’m able to unleash my inner twelve-year-old.